Diversity in Isle of Elsi

Fri 2/27/2015

I've been drawing comics now for about fifteen years. In that time, the comics community has become a lot more diverse, thanks mostly, I would say, to webcomics. These days pretty much anyone can draw a comic and put it online. If it's good, it has the possibility of finding a gigantic, worldwide audience. It's no longer up to gatekeepers like editors and publishers to decide what gets read by the public. This is a good thing.

Even just in the last seven years of teaching at The Center for Cartoon Studies, I have seen the ratio of students shift from a male to a female majority. And through teaching at CCS and CCA I have seen students create work about their experiences with LGBT and gender issues, disability, sexism, racism, and wide variety of other diverse topics.

Lately, articles such as Unpacking White Privilege and How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour If You Are White have been making the rounds within the comics community. Reading these articles and others like them really got me thinking about diversity (or the lack thereof!) in my own comics.

When I think about the 1,500 pages of comics that I have drawn thus far, the lack of diversity is pretty depressing; no main characters are people of color. Also, I haven't actually gone back and checked, but I'm pretty sure there is not a single issue of Phase 7 that passes the Bechdel Test. That really bums me out. You could argue that the vast majority of my work is autobiographical, and thus you'd be hard-pressed to find a single panel of Phase 7 that I am not in, and since I'm a straight, cisgender, white guy, that could skew the results. But even to me, that sounds like a lame excuse...

I can't do much about the past, but I can learn from my mistakes and make improvements moving forward!

Next year, I will be launching my second comics project, a fantasy webcomic for kids (aka "All Ages") called Isle of Elsi, which I am very excited about. I have been working on it in relative secrecy for years, though I let my students at CCS read an early draft of it a few years back, to give me some feedback. This only seemed fair, as it was my job to constantly critique their work.

I received feedback from one of my students, Donna Almendrala, that I could make the village in the story much more diverse. At first, I was reluctant to this idea, not because I was against diversity, but because I wanted diversity to be introduced gradually as the story developed.

The main character of the story is a stand-in for me, and I wanted his life experiences to mirror my own. I grew up in an extremely homogeneous, mostly white, environment in the suburbs of Seattle. I left home at eighteen to attend Oberlin College, which has a student body that is roughly 35% LGBT - I had never met an openly gay person in my life at that point. Within two years of leaving Oberlin I moved to Los Angeles, then Sydney, Austalia and eventually to New York City. With each new city I was exposed to a more and more diverse range of people, from a wide variety of different socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It really opened my eyes to the wonderful diversity that exists in the world, and I thought it would be cool for my main character, and thus the reader, to have this same experience.

Over time however, as the size of the project came into focus (I hope to be working on Isle of Elsi for many, many years) this seemed like a really bad idea. The first Isle of Elsi story is about 100 pages and if I post one or two pages a week, it could take a year or two for readers to get through it. That feels like way too much time for my readers to spend in a homogenous environment. As time passed and I thought about this more, I hated the thought that kids from different backgrounds would have a harder time associating with the characters, or might get turned off from the project as a whole.

So, I decided to do a 180 and take Donna's excellent advice. I recently began coloring the first batch of IOE pages and I've been trying to figure out the color palette that I am going to use. I wanted to create a custom palette for this project so that it would look different from my other work, and so that it feels bright and colorful for my intended audience.

I did some searching online for a good Photoshop palette that had a wide variety of skin tones, but I was not really satisfied with anything I found, so I decided to build my own. During my research, I came across the amazing Humanae Tumblr. For this Tumblr, the Brazillian photographer Angélica Dass takes a portrait of someone and then tries to determine the exact Pantone color of their skin tone. She then sets that as a background to the portrait. There are thousands of them on her website, and the cumulative effect is pretty incredible! Here is a small sampling:

The only downside is that, as a cartoonist, I have only used Pantone colors once or twice in the last fifteen years, on the occasional rare project that involves a spot color (usually on T-Shirts, screenprints or posters). The other 99.99% of my color work is done using CMYK process colors. So using the Humanae Tumblr as my source material, I imported about 250 skin tones and manually converted them to CMYK (with no values in the K channel), and then quickly arranged them so I could identify and delete duplicates. I ended up with 68 skin tones over a very wide range. It looks approximately like the .jpg posted below (which is in the RGB color space - do not use it to import these hues!)

You can download this palette for free. That link takes you to a Dropbox page where you can grab a .zip file which expands into two files: 1) a Photoshop .aco file which you can add to your swatches and 2) a flattened CMYK .tif file with all the hues, so that you can grab them with your color picker. I hope this helps other cartoonists to diversify their comics as well!

Using these skin tones on the wide range of characters in Isle of Elsi has already improved the comic immensely, and I think I will still be able to have my character experience a greater sense of diversity in other ways as he begins to explore more of the world around him, so it's win-win.

The other big improvement came when I was writing the second long Isle of Elsi story. I was having a hard time getting the plot to settle in, until I realized that a little girl who I previously thought of as a side-character was actually the main character of this story. Once I made that decision everything fell into place. That story passes the Bechdel Test on page one! Having two main characters for the series - a boy and a girl - will hopefully make the comic more enjoyable for all of my potential readers.

It still might take a while to get Isle of Elsi where I really want it to be in terms of diversity, but at least I feel like I’m now pointed in the right direction.

300 Panels

Fri 2/20/2015

Earlier this week I returned home from my trip to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee where I drew my fifteenth 24-Hour Comic along with members from the UWM Bam! Pow! Comic Book Club.

We started on February 14th at 1:00pm and originally my idea was to draw a blank comic in which each page has the same number of panels as its page number. Also, each page's panels are equal in size.

As you can see above, this sets up all kinds of interesting relationships and patterns between the numbers of panels, and tiers and columns. It took me about five hours to do all layout work and the associated math to draw these panels.

While I was working however, I was talking with the organizer, Guy Thomas, who mentioned that Bam! Pow! would also be putting together a printed anthology of the comics drawn during this event. I kept trying to picture my blank panels in there, and it made me feel like a jerk ("We flew this cartoonist out to Milwaukee, and he didn't draw anything!").

So after I was done with the blank panels, I decided to fill them in with a story. As if this wasn't already a foolish decision, I also decided to try shading the comic with pencil lead, in the style of Bill Peet's great autobiography. It looked cool but was very time-consuming. It ended up taking me until 10:00am the next day to finish the story. It is now up in the comics section of my website, if you would like to read it. The story ended up being pretty weird, but very meaningful to me.

Anyway, I'm still excited about the idea of this panel layout, so I decided to make a PDF of it that others can print out and use to tell their own story in the same 300 panels. If you would like to give it a try, you can download it for free (or with a small donation if you'd like!) over on Gumroad.com

I had a great trip to Wisconsin and it was a lot of fun visiting old friends on my last day. Thanks to Guy for organizing everything and thanks to everyone else who drew comics with me or came to one of my lectures!

Wisconsin, Here I Come!

Wed 2/11/2015

On Friday I'm flying out to Milwaukee to give a few lectures and to help run a 24-Hour Comic event with Bam! Pow! the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee's comic book club.

I'm not sure if these events are open to the public, but if you are currently a student or faculty member at UWM, swing on by! I'll be giving a brief introduction to the 24-Hour Comic challenge and doling out some pro tips on Saturday the 14th, starting at Noon in the UWM Student Union Fireside Lounge. Then whoever wants to can join me in drawing a 24-Hour Comic until Noon on Sunday!

Then, on Monday the 16th, from 1-3pm, I'll be giving my self-publishing lecture, Your Comics Will Love You Back! I'm not sure where that one is happening, but if you're on campus, ask around, or hopefully there are some flyers up!

On Monday night I'm going to zip over to Madison to see some old college friends, which is going to be a lot of fun. This is one of only a handful of trips away from home this year so I'm looking forward to it. It'll be my only taste of "real" winter this season!

Archives for 2015