Engineering and Comic Books or: Something Happened On My Way to the Comic Shop, Part 1
My family immigrated to United States from the Soviet Union in 1978 when I was just 11 years old. I don’t know if my experiences are defined by being a first generation immigrant, or by the fact that we were immigrants from the Soviet Union, or maybe by all of that and the fact that I grew up in the 1980s.
Whatever the reason, I don’t ever remember my father having a conversation with me about what I thought I might “love” to do for a profession. I do remember my father having a conversation with me, when I started 11th grade, about what I WAS going to do for a profession. I don’t remember “passion” or “curiosity” for something ever entering into that discussion. My father was an engineer and he earned enough to feed us, so I was going to be an engineer (and presumably be able to feed myself).
It was not a very emotional or confrontational conversation, but I do remember feeling a bit let down, because what I really wanted to do was – wait for it – draw comics.
Yep, you read that right.
I learned English from reading comic books, and unlike others who left comics behind when they entered high school, I just continued to CONSUME comics. Not only was I going weekly to the comic shop to buy new comics, I started buying back issues to fill in my knowledge of the various storylines. Warlock, Daredevil, (The New) Teen Titans (yes, there is a difference), Fantastic Four, Batman…I was crazy for all of the titles.
What I really found fascinating was the artwork. The way the pages were laid out and the panels broken-up to lead the reader’s eye panel-by-panel across the page. The shape and the size of the panels established the rhythm. Quite moments led to big action splashes, and the action sequences, they made my heart race. This was storytelling at its best. And every artist had a signature style, not only of storytelling, but also of rendering. I started studying each individual artist and I started practicing, learning how to draw, developing a signature style, and becoming a good storyteller.
I mentioned some of this to my father during our “talk.” Without skipping a beat, he told me that if I was really serious about comic book art, I should become an engineer to secure a steady income, and do comics as a hobby. That way I would never have to compromise my art in order to make ends meet. Iron clad logic, couldn’t argue with that.
As it turned out I enjoyed math and I enjoyed building things.
I thought math was beautiful because it allowed me a language to describe the world around me. I now know that our math models don’t describe the universe as well as we wish they did, but to a teenager who just discovered that the same math concepts tie up his Physics, Calculus, Mechanical Engineering, and Electric AC Circuits classes all together, it was truly a revelation.
And because I enjoyed building tools that did things, I had a good time applying what I learned in the school labs.
But at night, when all was done, to relax, I would draw comics.
In my second year of college, I went “pro” and got my first comic book published. “Moonstruck” was a story of a futuristic assassin (check), with a heart of gold (check), who happened to be insane (double check). I supported myself through college with drawing assignments, until I got enough classes under my belt to get an engineering internship.
Things got busy for a while, but I would still manage to get something published every few months. Either a story that I would develop myself, or illustrate someone else’s script, or contribute illustrations to sci-fi magazines or role-playing games.
And these comic book experiences were solid gold for me. They taught me a number of things:
There is an artistic component to drawing, which for a lack of better words involves inspiration and talent. But inspiration and talent are NOTHING without discipline.
The sad truth is that talent gets wasted every day, because of a lack of discipline to execute, to problem solve, to bring something to completion. There are very talented artists with very unique ways of looking at reality, and we would all benefit from seeing their vision, but we will never see their perspective on life because they can’t motivate themselves to finish a single piece (and here I am talking about ALL artists: musicians, dancers, actors, writers, painters and, of course, comic book creators).
Seeing this really made me, early on in my engineering career, develop an approach that required a little bit of pre-planning to establish a framework of schedules and milestones that could be used to gage the progress of any project I was working on. I wanted to make sure if I started something, I was going to finish it.
Comics are a collaborative process. This is mostly due to the fact that comics are a monthly product and it would be too much for one person to write, draw, letter, color, proofread, correct, and then print and distribute a comic book every month. So folks specialize. Writers produce a script, pencilers break down the script into visual storytelling, calligraphers letter the pages, inkers refine the drawings using reproducible India ink, colorists paint the pages, editors proofread everything and correct any mistakes found, production creates files for reproduction, printers print, and a distribution company gets it out to the comic shops and newsstands (when comics still used to be available at newsstands). As technologies change, this process gets adjusted, but the basic interconnection between all the activities remains the same. Which means if the writer is late with the script, everyone will be scrambling to get the work done because the time slot at the printers is reserved to make sure the book comes out monthly.
I found the process of making comics just as interesting as actually making comics, and this interest developed into a fascination with processes at whatever job I was doing. I understood early on that any big enterprise is a collaborative effort and for any team to be successful, individual team members have to understand their role in the process and be able to work together to achieve the end result. I always wanted to understand where I fit into the chain of events, and how my actions affected other groups down the road.
To those of you who are Ayn Rand followers and uphold the principles of individualism, please understand: I believe that working in teams is essential in a modern society because of the scope of projects AND the creative juice that the bouncing of ideas and areas of specialization contribute. Think of some of the better-known team-ups: Hewlett and Packard, Jobs and Wozniak (who by the way is now running Silicon Valley Comic Con in San Jose where I call home), Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
And a note to my Objectivism friends: even Howard Roark had to hire a construction crew to build all of his buildings!
So is having discipline and understanding of processes all that I learned while making “funny books”? Not quite – just keep reading to see where it led me!
End of PART I
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About the author: (Alex Sheikman)
I work at Ames Research Center, which is a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) facility located at Moffett Field, California. Currently I am serving as a Project Manager for the development of Tiltrotor Test Rig (TTR), a test bed that will provide the Department of Defense and NASA with a new national test capability to conduct technology development, test and evaluation of new large-scale proprotors. Rotors up to 26-ft diameter will be tested up to 300 knots. More information and pictures of the TTR are available at the Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology (RVLT) web site at: https://www.nasa.gov/ames/feature/unique-tiltrotor-test-rig-to-begin-operational-runs-at-nasa-ames I have also contributed stories and art to "Robotika: For a Few Rubbles More" (Archaia), "Legends of Mouse Guard" (Archaia), "Dark Crystal: Creation Myths" (BOOM!), and self published "Kristo."
All posts by Alex Sheikman