Engineering and Comic Books or: The Zen of Comic Book Making, Part 2
In my last post, I tried to describe how drawing comics taught me about applying discipline and the understanding of process to my engineering work – and actually to my life as well. Period.
The sad truth is, I learned these lessons because I saw talented people NOT ACHIEVE their goals over and over again. They weren’t lazy, they weren’t dumb, but they somehow lacked understanding of their own creative process and how it fit into the overall scheme of the comic book world. And what a shame. I am sure most of you know people whom you admire, but that you feel may never reach their potential. Working in comics highlighted that for me early on, and I tried to understand what I could do to maximize my chances of succeeding, especially since I felt that I didn’t have half the talent that these other creators had. The only way for me to succeed – I knew I needed to have an edge!
So I started with discipline and understanding of the process, but let me tell you, comics is a tough business (there are volumes written about that)! You need more than that to succeed, so I started working on developing a few more skills.
Drawing comics, I learned that every picture is a problem waiting to be solved.
It is true that some artists can sit down and paint a masterpiece in a few minutes. However, most artists I know and that I have read about, get an idea they want to express to their audience and then they sketch and sketch and sketch trying to figure out the best way to communicate that idea. They read books, go out on location, take photo references, and again sketch, and sketch, and sketch, and THEN they start drawing for real. Most of the time, it doesn’t turn out like they hoped and they are back to (you guessed it) sketching.
Drawing is about solving a number of problems: composition, stylistic approach, appropriate perspective, color scheme, but all of that is done in order to COMMUNICATE something to your audience.
Do you know how to tell a good comic book from a bad comic book? Open any comic book at some random page and look at it. Don’t read the captions, or the dialogue, just look at it. Can you tell what’s going on? Can you tell what the setting is? Are the characters at a circus? At a mall? In a regular house? In a grand palace? On a boat? Is it clear what they are doing? Is it clear what panel follows the first panel? Is the page laid out such that there is a clear start, middle, and end to the actions that the characters are performing?
In a good comic book, there is no confusion on the part of the reader about what’s going on. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s not. So many artists (including myself) are either so absorbed by the story they are drawing, they skip some essential steps in the storytelling (after all, if it’s clear to ME, of course everyone else will get it!), or they are so excited to get to the action scene that they don’t pay enough attention to anything else. Regretfully, even though action scenes are fun to draw, you can’t build a story just on action scenes – well, you can, but it really won’t be a story, it will be something forgetful, that might be beautifully done, but has no soul. Or, use the example of a recent action movie that you saw with great special effects, fantastic fight scenes, great soundtrack, that you have nothing to say about.
All of this has taught me that even though I might see a path forward very clearly, others might not understand what I am trying to do, unless I solve the problem of communicating with them and bringing everyone onto the same page with me.
Do the Best Job You Can Under the Circumstances
Duh. Well, of course you’ve got to do the best job you can, right? Yes, of course, but let’s be honest, our everyday existence is influenced by our mood swings, by insecurities, jealousies, inspiration, positive and negative feedback, and sometimes by bad coffee, amongst other things.
There was a time when I was going through a tough time with my art. I kept comparing myself to other, much better artists, and I was not achieving the results I wanted, so I was getting really frustrated and not finishing much work.
At that point, I was working as an apprentice to a wonderful artist, Frank Cirocco, who took me aside and said, “a long time ago, I stopped worrying about all that stuff. I just wake up every day, and when it’s time to go to work, I just try to do the best job I can for that day. Period. At the end of the day, I know I did honest work and I did my best, what else can I do?”
If you really accept that, it is very liberating. Frank is a very innovative artist, he always looks for new techniques, and always continued growing as an artist. He has never stopped trying to become a better artist, and all of that was done in the framework of continuing to work everyday and doing the best that he could at that time.
Just Do It: Perfection vs. Done
In comics, there are writers and artist who want to produce a perfect comic book. You have likely never heard the names of many of these creators because they have been working on their masterpieces for the past two decades and, regretfully, they will most likely never finish. Perfection is something that should be aspired to, but it is foolish to believe it can ever be achieved.
Nothing is ever really perfect and if we can accept that and move on with our lives we can be happy and productive human beings.
Being able to complete projects and see them all the way through print and on the newsstands has been a tremendous experience. Once they are out, I can see the shortcomings (that were not apparent while I was in the midst of working on them) that I can learn from. This was powerful stuff for me: apply discipline to your work, understand what problems need to be solved, figure out how your actions affects other, push yourself to do the best job you can, AND bring your projects to a conclusion.
FIGURE OUT WHEN YOU ARE DONE, SO YOU CAN MOVE ON
I feel that if you want to make comics, there is no better way to learn than to make comics. If you want to program, there is no better way to learn than creating software code and releasing it into the world and getting user feedback on how to make it better. It is important to look for opportunities that allow you to complete projects, so you continue to get better and better in your field.
Working in comics, I learned a lot, more than just the few things that I listed, but I am not here to bore you. I am here to try to show how experiences in different industries might influence our behavior, productivity, and lives.
Of course, I know what you really want to know…
Going back to the very beginning, was my father right about not choosing comics as a career? Do I feel regret and resentment toward my father?
Well, he certainly proved correct in that the freedom of having a steady income gave me the ability to accept or reject assignments. I never felt I compromised my integrity as an artist/storyteller by having to accept a job that I didn’t want to do. However, my father never mentioned how a hobby can grow into a second job, and how to manage my time when I ended-up with two full time jobs – but that is another story for another time ;)
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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:
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