WolverDoug and the Uncanny X-Them

This is a Christmas gift for my Minnesota brother-in-law, Doug Nelson. Which I delivered, just a little over a year and a month late, this past week.

In 2017 I promised to make Christmas Loteria cards for both of my brothers-in-law. That November, I had driven my possessions + studio stuff—disorganized by a series of pull-outs and put-backs over two years in storage—from the Bay Area to Seattle, and had just begun setting up a living space with a housemate who was severely unhappy with the volume of my stuff. Before I could begin managing that volume, I had to build out a storage area, in order to move my art work and supplies out of the studio space where they were stacked.

So by the time I picked up the iPad in mid-December to start making the cards, literally the day after two friends and I finished building the storage loft, it was as much for the meditation on art and loved ones, as it was a reminder to my stressed, disoriented self that this move was about prioritizing art. So make some.

I created the traditional cards for each of my three sobrinos, followed by one for my new housemate, and then two more for my Montana brother-in-law, rancher Erik Kalsta. And then I ran out of steam. The need to get on with inventing a new life in a new place was calling, and I didn’t have a solid idea on how to progress with Doug’s gift anyway. So I put it on a back burner, and turned my attention to practical move-in matters.

The brew that was simmering had to do with the fact that Doug is a big comic book fan. My sisters and I grew up on every kind of reading material we could get our hands on, including comics, and I was always fascinated by the look of them and curious to know the process. I had done a very rudimentary comic page a couple of years back for my nephew Lars, when his imagination was just too big and specific for an 8 x 5.5-inch Loteria card. So I was leaning towards a comic book page for Doug as well. But I wanted to kick it up a notch.

I honestly can’t remember if I had to ask my sister which comic book character Doug should be, or if I already knew that the X-Men, and specifically Wolverine, were his favorites. Even when I followed comics, I never followed the X-Men—or the movies—so I started researching. Somewhere along the line, I decided that, since comics tell stories, and stories thrive on interaction, the comic should incorporate my sister and their daughter. So I asked my sister, Maureen, who they would be. She knew without thinking: she was Jean Grey (camo-gear Jean Grey, not costume-painted-on-hyper-athletic-Barbie-body Jean Grey), and their daughter, Echo, was Jubilee.

So I started looking into those three. Ho. Ly. Crap. Infor-f*king-mation Overload!

Did you know there are whole YouTube channels—many of them—and extensive Wikis, devoted to the X-Men, the Marvel Universe, the specific characters, and their various overlapping arcs? Some of them, I believe, involving alternate timelines? There’s even a vampire X-Men storyline? And a cyborg X-Men storyline??!

I fell down too many comic-nerd rabbit holes to count: holes describing various iterations of Wolverine‘s paternal relationship with Jubilee—she saved his life from the Reavers in one “universe” (I want to know if they came up with that storyline before or after Firefly/Serenity)—and about Wolverine and Jean Grey’s will-they/won’t-they deal, and Jean Grey’s transformation into Dark Phoenix (evil Jean Grey vs. good Jean Grey), and on and on…

I was looking for common threads to interweave the personal stories of my sister’s family and the X-Men trio. With the Loteria cards, I try to reflect my nieces’/nephew’s interests, their loves, comforts, habits, activities, totems of that period. My sisters had told me Doug loves really good whiskey, good coffee, and always likes to have a special pen. (Not that you can really see it, but I did eventually give him a Diabolo de Cartier pen in his breast pocket.) Besides being a comic book collector, he collects and builds model tanks, and knows a lot about each model’s history and use. Weave that into an action hero narrative. It doesn’t sound that hard, does it?? I can’t even tell you why it eluded me, but it eluded me.

Before this final iteration that you see above, I counted something like four versions that I started, worked fairly seriously, and abandoned. I watched X-Men movies—there are so bloody many!!—and came away with absolutely zero inspiration. Less than zero. I was drawn deeper into the complexity of the stories, but that just confused the question of how to tie them to the lives of two doctors and their dancer daughter.

Along the way, I was confronted again and again by the fact that my nascent digital design skills were overmatched. I picked the project up and put it back down repeatedly.

In August, I went to an Artist Trust event held at a design firm on Capitol Hill, and there just happened to be a whole circular rack stuffed full of comic books in the conference room. I rifled through, snapping pics of full comic book pages…and realized that maybe I was getting stuck on the idea of a cover. Maybe a page, or a spread, with multiple windows comprising a scene, would loosen up a narrative…

So I started over. I searched for new images on the internet with elements of my idea zygote—something about strength in numbers, the comfort and confidence of a team/family—and dumped them into a new photo file. I thumbed through it from time to time, bounced back to the original file, to my photos from the Artist Trust cache…but my idea still wasn’t picking up steam.

Then it was time to do the Loterias again. And this time, I actually had a workspace set up, so I wasn’t confined to the iPad.

But, strangely enough, I was feeling a bit stuck on those as well. I realized that, much as I was grateful to the iPad/Procreate for having allowed me to keep arting, in that home-/studio-less stretch, I was rebelling against the confinement of that small, cold, slick, mechanism, even for the design phase. So I pulled out a 14” x 17” sketch pad, put it on an easel, and sketched. I played with the design of each card in a way that actually involved some movement and perspective, and it broke the lock.

Once this year’s cards were done, I did the same with Doug’s comic. I came up with an anchor image, and a 3-panel narrative inset, and I dove in. Having solidified the idea, I thought I might actually have it done by Christmas. But I was, once again, overestimating my ability.

The good news is that I began to move. Though things kept changing as I progressed, the family concept stayed largely the same. The visual elements and script I used to tell it shifted a lot. I cut a couple of panels, added a couple of characters. I reversed the spacial hierarchy of the “Action” and “Family” groups, as the more accurate renderings of the people they represented changed. I kept going.

I made sooo many mistakes—which I will share—but the good part is that I am finally figuring out how to build up the work w/out losing anything, how to break out complex parts into affiliated layers and/or canvases, where I can work the problem, and then import it back into the main canvas. This project was complex enough that the logic of that way of working could really assert itself.

I learned a hard lesson about setting up canvases in Procreate with adequate layers to do the work. I had researched the dimensions of comic book templates, and set up several. But it was in an earlier version of Procreate that did not automatically assign the maximum number of layers available to a canvas for the input dimensions (the latest update now does so). I found myself with a main canvas that only permitted a maximum of 30-some layers…and I needed many more, even working with imported compilations from other canvases. So I had to create new canvases and pull all the work over layer by layer—and learned that, unless the size specifications are exactly the same, layers/images do not import at the same (visual) size, thus lots of re-design of the space. Which was, as ever, not a bad thing in the end.

Then, as I was nearing the finish line, I looked at the central canvas, and suddenly saw that it was the wrong dimensions. This is one of the downsides of working digitally—you don’t get a sense of the relative size of the physical object your image will become. And don’t even ask me how I got it wrong, which turn at which corner led me there. The good news is that, in having to add length to the piece, I opened up space for a title plate. And that provided for inclusion of some fun details.

The Edition number, ∃!,  is the mathematical symbol for “there is one and only one”. The piece really turned out to be an amalgam of a cover and a page, and most definitely a one-off.
I decided to title it X-Them, rather than using X-Men, in this era when not only the “universal masculine” is being called into question, but also the gendering of pronouns. It marks a clear moment in linguistic history. And language influences thought, so: a gender-neutral title for the group.

The cover format also gave me the chance to sign the piece, in the traditional comic book credit format. I don’t know what roles are reflected in the various names included, but since I did all the work, I figured it was fair enough to use both my family and professional signatures. And of course, the series logo is modeled from Marvel, but adapted to Murdoch.

Note: Oh my god! In looking on the internet to find the proper names for the comic book anatomy I’m describing, I’m finding a feature that never even occurred to me: there are comic book templates all over the place! Free comic book vector art. 2-9-panel layouts. Free and premium templates. Whole websites devoted to the form. Several. Many! Man. I do not even know how to feel about that. But probably best to’ve just stumbled ahead as I did, fueled only by my own comics history and a story idea. I suspect it would’ve added to the information overload I was already experiencing. (But I could seriously get lost in comicbookgraphicdesign.com. It’s amazing!!)

I digress. Back to the learning curve.

In October, I ran out of tricks to extend a Photoshop subscription I could no longer afford. So for the text, I went to dafont.com, an online site for free downloadable fonts, and found fonts for my captions, titles, and word-/thought- and floating text. I typed out the text in the sample field for each font, a word or two at a time, screen shot it, cropped out the extraneous bits in iPhoto, then imported the photo of text into Procreate and edited it further—cut it out, pasted the words and phrases together, re-colored the text, the background—whatever I needed to do to make the image work. (For the uninitiated, in Photoshop, it’s a matter of typing out the text, applying any adaptations you want with a click or two, turning off the background, and sending it to Procreate. Minutes, as opposed to hours. There’s also a big loss in sharpness, as you’re using a low-resolution photo of a sample of an object, as opposed to the object itself.)

Meanwhile, I was regularly texting Maureen for family phrases, story clues, and Wolverine intel (which she was also providing for her and Echo’s Loteria cards). When looking for adversaries for the heroes, I remembered stumbling across the Reavers storyline in one of those YouTube/Wiki threads, so I grabbed a couple of those characters from an internet search—Bone Breaker and Skull Crusher. Then I grabbed a random action figure with a gun from some completely unrelated comic for Villain Number Three. Then I decided I should turn the silhouetted villain down right into a recognizable Reaver, and a web search turned up Cylla.

And I think it was around that point that I realized that I wasn’t going to draft this whole thing from scratch. It didn’t make sense to. I didn’t have the command of the tools or the language yet, even after a year of picking it up and putting it down, over and over again. I stopped trying to invent it out of whole cloth, and began to rely on using what was already there.

Up until then, I had been working on line/ink drawings from photos of live people—the movie versions of Wolverine, Jean Grey and Jubilee, melded with my family members—to “comic” them. Which is a great exercise. But you quickly note the important effect of both strong, high-contrast lighting and exaggerated anatomy. My results were uneven; I could do some interesting stuff with faces, even with the limited photos I had to work from, but I just didn’t have enough skill with human anatomy to render full action figures without models.

So this is the point at which I want to state clearly: for all the time I’ve spent on this, I can’t even say that this piece is my work. It’s more my project. For the Action figures, I started working entirely from imported images of other people’s work to adapt to my story line—WolverDoug and Jean-Maureen came from their analogous Marvel characters, and JubilEcho from one of the figures gathered from my Artist Trust treasure trove. The Reaver figures I used as-is, with only superficial shifts. Thus, my contribution is, mostly, in the alteration and the narrative.

For WolverDoug and Jean-Maureen, I literally imported images, dropped the opacity, and traced over the original artist’s strokes, line by line. The original artwork is really impressive—and, I’m guessing, from the strength and definitiveness of the mark-making, they were not done on a tiny computer screen, but on something larger, with some tooth, allowing for movement of the arm and friction with the paper. Nevertheless, even on my slick little iPad screen, it was amazing to follow. Like dancing in a master’s footsteps. The knowledge of anatomy in this work is insane, the beautiful handling of light and shadows, the emotionality of gesture…it’s impressive stuff.

I wish I could give credit where credit is due, but sadly, as is the way of the internet—and even of my own unthinking photo grabs—the artists’ names were long separated from their images. Actually, I’m pretty sure they work in teams, handling different parts of the process. So suffice it to say, this piece is indebted to a wide range of comic professionals, to whom I say: Thank you. I learned so much from you. I emerged not even a novice, but still, much better than I started. Namaste.

So. Following the stop-making-it-all-up-yourself revelation, which took me through the main open panel of the piece containing the Action figures, I focused on applying what I had learned, via imitation, to the rendering of the Family group. It’s easy to see the difference. I do ok with form—I was able to find close-enough models on the web for the WolverDoug figure, and I had a figma she archetype to use for the female figures. I am probably most comfortable with the airbrushing of color, as that’s the skill that’s most intuitive to me, most like physical painting. But my line work, my modeling, are not even in the same ballpark as the action figures. I got good likenesses of Doug and Echo (and it was fun turning my brother-in-law into a super-hero hunk), but I stayed in my comfort zone and modeled the figures using color.

I learned that there is an advantage to working from internet images. You can blow them up enough to really get a look at details—not just the line-work, but the subtleties of color shifts, and specific textures used. I discovered a couple of great pens I would never have thought to look for, in studying the background work of a couple of the original pieces. I used the Elements/Cloud pen for my sky background on the Family panel, which did the work unbelievably fast. I used the Organic/Clay pen for texture in the landscape, and the Organic/Hessian pen for an effective and quick cross-hatching effect in both the sky and ground.

For the line drawings, I mostly used the Inking/Studio Pen; occasionally, if I wanted a rougher/more broken line, I would use the Ink Bleed pen. For coloring, I almost exclusively used the Airbrushing/Soft Brush pen, though occasionally I also used the Inking/Ink Bleed pen, for a stronger, more immediate, or more defined color application, particularly in the Action figures.

And for the first time, I really embraced color dropping, especially for re-coloring text and backgrounds. I got much of my palette by ink-dropping/color-picking from many of the original sources. I found the coloring on the two Marvel action figures most interesting, especially the method of graduating colors—and, while the color picking didn’t always seem accurate, it was easy to shift in the Color tool in Procreate. I also made adjustments to whole layers or groups of color, particularly on the JubilEcho figures, using the Hue, Saturation, Brightness tool, to bring them into harmony with the other artwork. Coloring and painting the background was the simplest, most intuitive part—the only place I didn’t have to look elsewhere for guidance.

For the Action figures (except the Reavers), I recreated work that I could more easily have just imported. But I was learning as much as producing, so I wanted to imitate the building of the highlights and shadows, and the coloring, the way the original artists had. In the larger-scale Family group, I used the same color palettes, but I didn’t even attempt the cross-hatch modeling. Well, that’s actually not true—I tried. And sucked.

Overall, if you look closely, it’s easy to see where things work well and where they work less well—it’s always better where I’m copying the masters.

I finally sent it off last week. A year and a month, from beginning to end.

I know that no one and nothing compels a person to read a blog, so bless you for coming this far, and I hope you’ve found something useful here. I believe in sharing the experience, and the path of knowledge, from wherever I am on the art-making spectrum. There is important information in the underpinnings.

My thanks to RichmondWORKS for supporting my brief but intense introduction to graphic and web design at the Bay Area Video Coalition. And to the awesome Pani Page for essential advise and assistance in buying my iPad Pro. And to Procreate for being so damned much more affordable and intuitive than Photoshop

To my delight, my brother-in-law loves it. It feels good to deliver on promises.

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