Practice makes adequate: the writer sketch
I still recall a singularly discouraging moment I suffered during San Diego Comic-Con 2007. It was around the time I had first started mulling over the idea of scripting a comic for Dawn to draw, but was still in the process of figuring out just how I might do that effectively.
It also happened to be the 25th anniversay of Groo the Wanderer, which happened to be the first comic I ever bought at any convention, in a dingy basement at the Shrine Auditorium which my dad had agreed to escort my young self to. So I was in line to have Sergio Aragones sign a collection as a return gift to my dad, and just happened to be passing by the table of a couple of the artists who were currently working on the Fables series.
Well, we got into a brief conversation about how much I was enjoying Fables, and then, seeing as I had the ear of a couple of pros, I asked what sort of techniques Bill Willingham used as a writer to communicate with his artists. Well, apparently Bill Willingham is an artist in his own right, so the answer I got was nothing more than a clipped “learn to draw” before they proceeded to ignore me.
I’ve seen a Willingham script since then and it wasn’t a bunch of drawings. I don’t know, maybe they were just pissed at me for being part of the Aragones line that was temporarily blocking their table, but it was crushingly dismissive at the time. “Learn to draw” — easy enough, I’ll get right on that! Should only take several years and possibly end up being a talent I don’t even possess. Thanks, guys!
Well, if nothing else that conversation is what’s made it so that now that I sit on the other side of the table, I try to always answer people helpfully when they ask me the same sorts of things.
Or at least I try to answer thoroughly. You see, four years later I’m at the point where I can distance myself from the disappointment and reflect that “learn to draw” probably does qualify as good advice, if it’s explained a little better. I don’t know if my thoughts now are what they actually meant, but I like to imagine it is since it makes them a little less mean-spirited.
The idea would be that “learn to draw” doesn’t mean you have to, as a writer, be capable of producing the kind of whizzbang, knock-their-socks-off effort that professionals who went to school and have been drawing constantly since they were ten can whip out. A better phrase might be “learn to storyboard”. Learn how to tell a story visually, even if your characters might look like burn victims with anatomical proportions unknown to mortal men. Your artist can fix that, so long as you can inject a sense of expression and environment for them to work from.
I just recently watched the biopic American Splendor, which is about the life and times of comics writer Harvey Pekar. He was never a great artist. In fact, he’s shown doing exactly what he did for all his years of scripting… laying out panels with stick figures. That’s all he ever did for his whole career, and it worked, and I wished I’d known about this a long time ago.
There it is, two seated people silently staring at each other over a table — and the artists he worked with loved it. I don’t know if every artist is the same way, but Dawn has told me before that even a stick figure layout can communicate to her more about what I want than several paragraphs of instructional text. It’s a visual thing.
Looking at things from the Pekar perspective is a lot less intimidating, isn’t it? I still believe I can’t draw, but I feel like I can at least draw better than Harvey (may he rest in peace), and if he could be the writer of several internationally acclaimed comics, then there’s hope that I, too, can “learn to draw”.
So anyhow, in accordance with that, what started as a bit of a joke has become more. One common feature of conventions is people browsing artist’s alley with their sketchbooks in hand, asking if they can get a drawing from the man (or woman) behind the table. But sometimes Dawn wasn’t at the table, and so they’d be asking me, and I’d wave them off frantically by stating I wasn’t the artist they were looking for. Then at last year’s LBCC a little girl was insistent – ”Pleeease?” she begged, not knowing the amateur horror she was calling to be unleashed. So I drew her one of the stick zombies I’d been doodling, signed the page and — well, if she hated it, she was at least polite enough to wait until she was out of sight before tearing it out of her once-pristine journal and jumping up and down on it.
That same stick zombie (with a few variations) is now gracing several sketchbooks, even though I kept warning people they were making a mistake. Finally, when we exhibited for the first time at San Diego Comic-Con this year, I decided to just stop protesting and offer free “Writer Sketches” upon request. The customer could name any commission they wanted, but the results were, naturally, At Their Own Risk.
I ended up having a lot of fun, and people were appreciative of their sketches in the way only someone with completely rock bottom expectations can be. So now if someone at a convention asks me to draw, I give them fair warning, but I’ll do it. The thing is, not only is it fun, it’s actually good practice. I can’t draw photorealistic people, so instead I just try to make them recognizable. What (more or less) are they wearing? What are they doing? Let me play with a really simple representation of a face and see if I can capture a grimace of “worried anger”. I mean, if you’ve ever watched old videos of people like Charles Schulz drawing, you realize how just a few simple lines can come together to create something unquestionably Snoopy.
Forget about making the head and chin look pretty… let’s concentrate on making the face look happy or sad. Forget if the legs don’t come out the right length, let’s see if I can express the essence of someone tip-toeing stealthily. Those are the storytelling bits. Those are the kinds of elements that I feel are really going to matter when I’m trying to show Dawn what I want for the next page. I’ve even started experimenting without someone asking me to sully their sketchbook, during those lulls when no one’s about. Just trying to put some approximation of the image in my head on paper. I figure practice may not make me perfect, but it might at least make me adequate.