So this morning I finished up the 37th page of “Digger” and uploaded it to Graphic Smash, thereby getting my buffer extended out to November. And that’s not bad. Monday we launch, and I’ll be updating daily for two weeks to clear through the fairly extensive backlog (otherwise, it’d be Christmas before any new strips appeared, and my readers would probably get a trifle irate with me.) Readers wishing to skip this backlog could wait to join until the end of the month–I don’t want anyone joining right away, and then being disappointed!–but it’s worth noting that if you buy a year’s subscription the first month, it’s $20 instead of $30, so it’s a good buy.

This got me thinking about “Digger” and how it differs from the other comics I’ve mucked about with. And I thought about writing about it, because writing helps me get it packaged in my own brain, and then I thought “Talking about your own creations at length seems self-indulgent and practially masturbatory and likely to bore the hell out’ve people, not to mention terribly conceited. They’ve been encouraging and wonderful and supportive–haven’t they done enough?”

And then I thought “It’s your damn Livejournal, and exists mostly for the sake of self-indulgence, you almost never post quiz results or talk at length about your RPG characters, and anyway, these are people who have listened faithfully to your saga of getting urine samples from your cat, on multiple occasions. And NOW you worry about boring them?”

So heck with it. I’m talking about my comic experiences for a bit, damnit. Okay, a long damn time. Don’t feel obligated to read–this is as much for me as anything else.

A year and some change ago, when I first started doin’ this stuff, I had no idea what I was doing. Now, of course, I still don’t know, but I can at least do it faster.

“Conspiracy of Mammals” was flawed from the outset in a lot of ways–I had this setup, and nowhere to go with it. I’d never done a comic before, I certainly didn’t expect anyone to READ the damn thing, and I did practically everything possible wrong with the story in my head. I didn’t (and still don’t!) know how long the story needed to be, or what needed to happen. And, of course, it took forever to draw. To bring everything to resolution would have taken so long that I choked, so it sits in permanent hiatus on my site. Maybe someday I’ll figure something out. I dunno. But I did learn a great deal from it, mostly technical, about layouts and flow and action lines and so forth.

“Irrational Fears” was a much better concept, because it was a series of relatively self-contained vignettes–the “Monsters Under the Bed” arc ran longer than I expected, but it was still, fundamentally, a short story. It felt like a short story. It ran 32 pages, but therein lay the entire tale. I learned a lot about story-telling that I hadn’t known, and I’m still proud of that second story arc. And, because of the format, someday I can pick up again and tell about my fear of aliens and Mothman. (And I will, too, damnit.) I also learned about plot paralysis, which is when you lay everything out in advance, and write all the dialogue, and do all the little thumbnails, and then suddenly the next six pages are boring, because you know what’s going to happen, so it’s a chore to actually draw them. And that was a huuuuuge lesson for me to learn. I’ve had a few (very few!) people talk to me about comics, and I think that’s a real common thing that hits beginners–you go over the story in your head so many times that it becomes something already done and then there’s no joy in the discovery. That was what I did wrong with “Irrational Fears.” Fortunately, because of the format, I can go back and do further stories that I don’t make that mistake on. And I’m glad I did make it, at least once, because I learned my lesson from it.

I also learned about leaving yourself outs, which I really internalized from reading “Sandman Companion” by Neil Gaiman, where he said that since comics are so committed a medium–once it’s out, you can’t go back and add a gun to the first issue because you need it in the third–he’d put in characters and objects without knowing if they’d prove important, just so that he had something he could drag in if need be. And that made sense. I started throwing things completely at random into the story, both verbal and visual, without the faintest idea where they’d lead, just so that I had something to follow out if I wound up needing it later, like some kind of creative trail of breadcrumbs. At one point, for example, Dusty mentions “the Peacock” who’s some kind of dustbunny god. Do I know anything about the Peacock? Not a damn thing. Didn’t need to. But I might’ve needed it. I had no idea what the dreams did until I’d already got the things in, and they proved critical. So obviously as a method it works, and I’m reeeally glad to have learned it. There’s nothing more annoying than the Mercedes Lackey method whereby the means to defeat the monster is only introduced three pages prior to the monster’s defeat.

“Digger” started more or less like I started “Conspiracy of Mammals”–with no damned idea what I was doing. It was a stylistic experiment in black and white. A page of “Irrational Fears” took me between eight and ten hours to make, and that got pretty damn gruelling, believe me–I could have done it if that was my full-time job, maybe, but for a hobby, it was just brutal. “Digger” on t’other hand, because of the mega-scribble thing, takes from two to three hours a page–I can start one at nine and be done by the time I go to bed. (And if/when I start up “Irrational Fears” again, I’m doing it this way–adding color will take maybe another hour, tops.)

So I went a little crazy to avoid the plot paralysis with “Digger” and just did one page after another without much of a script. And what I thought I knew by the second or third page was proved largely wrong by five or six pages in–I originally thought her warren had gotten attacked by freaky something-or-others out to enslave wombatkind, if you can believe that. (I got over that pretty quickly.) But I also realized somewhere in the Temple of Ganesh that this wasn’t a short story, and I wasn’t gonna wrap it up in thirty pages–it looked like a novel and smelled like a novel, and somewhere in the back of my hindbrain I was getting vague stirrings of plot that wouldn’t come in to play for a long time down the road. When the cave hyena’s story (he does get a name, by the way!) came to me late one night as I was trying to sleep, I knew immediately that this wasn’t the time to tell it–it was too personal and too painful a thing to share with someone you just met, or with readers you’d just hooked, and it was gonna have to wait. (And when someone sent me an e-mail saying “Is this gonna be a redemption story?” I about sprayed coffee on the keyboard…) So now it’s filed away, and I try to avoid thinking about it, because if I hash his story through too many times in my head, I’ll get bored with it.

This sounds like a stupid way to write, and it may be, but since I don’t have any other inane rituals associated with creativity, I suppose this is as good as any.

When I wrote up the outline for Digger, in one frantic weekend to get the proposal sent off, it ran longer than I expected–it was definitely a novel–and it solidified a lot of where the plot should go, but I left a lot of big gray holes in it. And I have no idea what goes in those holes yet, and furthermore, I don’t want to know yet. So I keep scattering my trail of breadcrumbs, which includes things like that pesky ammonite, and the lefthand names of God, and Ganesh muttering to himself, and cave paintings, and the hyena’s necklace, and eating names, and herbs that make your, uh, byproducts, smell funny, and later on, the nature of water sapphires and statements made by the Oracular Slug, and the dead bird with white feathers, and…well, anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Some of them already go somewhere–I know exactly what that ammonite is for–and some of ’em may never go anywhere, and probably nobody will even notice that they don’t.

So far, there’s 37 pages. That’s rather longer than the completed “Irrational Fears” and I’ve barely introduced the first few characters. Assuming that I update twice a week, that’s 104 comics a year, and I’ve gone a third of that without even doing more than lay the very first foundations for the plot. Of course, that’s also equivalent to a single issue of a print comic, so I probably shouldn’t be too concerned. And the pacing feels right, so far–I can see where conversation has dragged a bit, and try to kick it along a little faster, but it’s a much more leisurely story than “Fears” and I’m not getting the move-it-along itch. I suppose I could always do two-page updates here and there, if my buffer gets really solid and I want to hurry it along.

“Digger” could, easily enough, take years to finish. And that’s kind’ve a scary thought. I’ve abandoned a lot of projects in my time, and I have all the usual fears that people have–that they can’t see a project through, that they’re a lazy slackwad, etc, etc. On t’other hand–I did finish my Obligatory Fantasy Novel, even if it took three or four years. And I did teach myself to paint, and that took–well, I’m still working on it, but it was essentially a project, as an adult, that I took up. So despite my nagging doubts, I know I’m capable of seeing a long-term project through, if it’s important to me. And the nice thing about being on a site like Graphic Smash is A) I have a contract (and a contract for art is a sacred thing to the Ursula) and B) I can work in my usual psychotic spurts of enthusiasm followed by periods of ennui, and it’ll be okay, because the stuff doesn’t go live for quite a while afterwards. And that is a very good thing.

And that’s probably waaaaay too much outta me.

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