Panel: tangents

As I mentioned, I’ve been looking through the old Famous Artists Cartoon Course. Lesson 11 is all about panels and has a lot of solid advice. One thing that is mentioned in that lesson is what they call “contact points,” but what I’m calling “tangents.”

Basically, since most comics drawing is contour drawing, you need to make sure that your contours are legible. Clarity comes with clearly defined forms. If the lines that define the forms meet tangentially, then things can get confusing. As the FACC mentions above, it can also make the sense of space muddy. This is why it is so important to either separate your forms or overlap them.

I read a similar idea years ago in The Complete Book of Cartooning by John Adkins Richardson (though given the publication dates, Richardson was probably inspired by the FACC, if anything). Richardson, however, expands the terminology and creates three categories: “ambiguous alignments, tenuous contacts, and distracting parallels.”

In comics, since the panel is also a shape, this problem of tangents can apply to the panel border itself. If a form meets tangentially with the panel border, it can feel like it’s stuck there. And, again, it makes the sense of space unclear.

For me, not only is the panel on the right easier to read, it has a greater sense of depth. Unintentional tangents inhibit clarity and flatten space.

20th Anniversary of Kit Kaleidoscope Goes to the Masked Ball

I was looking through some old files and realized that the mini of Kit Kaleidoscope Goes to the Masked Ball came out in 2000, twenty years ago. So I thought I’d do a few things in honor of this anniversary.

Because I am a compulsive archivist of my own history, I also decided to trace the origins of the character of Kit Kaleidoscope. So if you want to humor my self indulgence, you can read on…

A History of Kit Kaleidoscope Goes to the Masked Ball

I often refer to Kit Kaleidoscope Goes to the Masked Ball as the first Kit Kaleidoscope story. This may be true in an ideological sense, but it’s not entirely accurate.

Kit first appeared as “Kid” in 1996 and had a masculine appearance.

The next appearance was in 1997 and you can see aspects of their final look taking shape.

This initial version of the character appeared in the third issue of my title, Litmus Test, which came out in August of 1997.

At the time, I was a big fan of Angela Carter and Italo Calvino, and both authors pointed to fairy tales as inspiration and both also edited collections of these types of stories. So I was reading a lot of fairy tales and this story that “Kid” appeared in was based heavily on a Brothers Grimm tale.

So “Kid” Kaleidoscope spoke in word balloons and existed in a fairy tale world that was supposed to be funny and, at moments, satirical. Still, I was discovering who this character was.

As you can see, the “Kaleidoscope” of Kit’s name was literal. Though it may be hard to believe, I wasn’t thinking of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” when I gave “Kid” these eyes.

This fairy tale version of the character appeared one more time in Litmus Test issue 9, August 1999. As you can see, the name changed from “Kid” to “Kit.” I thought “Kid” was too patronizing and I liked “Kit” as a name.

I sent this mini to Dan Clowes and he actually wrote me back and told me that he liked how this gag worked (what a nice guy).

I started drawing Kit Kaleidoscope Goes to the Masked Ball in September of 1999, immediately after the story above came out. So what accounts for the change?

It’s twenty years later, but I recall that my fairy tale phase quickly came to an end. As I said, my initial interest was inspired by Angela Carter and Italo Calvino, so I wanted to do stories more like theirs. I also read a brief story in the August 1999 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “The Masked Ball” by Klaus Mann.

I had also just discovered Jim Woodring’s Frank. It was this work that convinced me to try a wordless story.

The film Eyes Wide Shut came out the same year I started working on this, 1999, but I didn’t see it until years later. So while there may be some surface similarities, there is no direct influence.

Keep in mind that I had no idea how to create print-ready art work and had no idea about things like “live area.” Also, the final intended form of Kit Kaleidoscope Goes to the Masked Ball was a photocopied mini. So I needed original artwork that would fit easily onto a photocopier. So I would buy 11 x 14 bristol board and cut it in half. All the pages above are on 7 x 11″ pieces.

The mini was printed on 8.5 x 11″ pieces of paper– standard photocopy paper– that were cut in half. So 4.25 x 5.5.” The image for the cover came from a vintage edition of The Night Before Christmas that a friend gave me.

And that’s how the character who would later appear in Carnivale came to be. Twenty years ago, they made their silent debut.

Inking Advice

Recently, I’ve been going through the old Famous Artists Course handbooks. If you don’t know, this was an art course first devised in 1948 and it involved teachings by artists like Norman Rockwell, Austin Briggs, and Robert Fawcett. There was also a course designed specifically for cartoonists (you can get pdfs of that course here). I just recently started reading the lessons for this course, and the other day I got to part three, the section on inking, and I encountered the following picture:

It reminded me of my old post about how to hold a dip pen. As you can see, these cartoonists– Al Capp, Milton Caniff, and Rube Goldberg– all hold their pens at a comfortable distance from the nib.

Lesson 3 has a lot of other little pieces of advice about inking and I thought I’d share some of what the lesson says, along with my own insights. Much of what I have learned is from trial-and-error and hopefully I can save you some of the frustration.

One thing I have learned to do is to not ink my nibs too much. Lately, I barely dip the point of my nib into the ink well. I just get enough ink to make a good line or two. In the past what I’ve done, as you can see above, is to run the bottom of the nib against the ink well before I start drawing. This removes excess ink. Why do this? Well, too much ink and you will have ink drops on your paper. Also, an over-inked nib produces a heavier line. And lastly, less ink on the nib helps the longevity of your nibs.

As the Famous Artists Cartoon Course points out, you have to be careful about the surface you are drawing on. Even if your hands are clean, oils from your hands can get onto the page and resist the ink. This is one reason many animators wear gloves. Another idea, and one that I often use, is to have a piece of scratch paper beneath your drawing hand. You have to be careful when you lift up your hand though, or you can send the scratch paper skidding off through your wet ink lines.

As the course also mentions above, it is better to let the ink dry before you draw through it. If it is wet, the the crossing lines will drag some of the wet ink with them, making for dark spots where the lines intersect.

Along the same line (pun intended), you have to ink in a direction that doesn’t take your drawing hand through wet ink. So right-handed artists need to ink left to right. Left-handers, right to left. And if you have pencil lines that you want to erase, make sure the ink is completely dry before you do so. And I use a kneaded eraser when I erase, because, as the course says, it takes away the pencil and not the ink.

Last but not least, it is extremely important to clean your nibs when you are done. I find that water by itself isn’t effective and you always need to be careful with water and metal, since it can lead to rust. So I have a cloth that I use to wipe my nibs with.

Good habits make for a less frustrating drawing experience. If you have any frustration at all, it should come from not being able to make what you are imagining a reality and not from having to fight your tools. Also, good habits will make those tools perform better and last longer. And, as always, this is advice that is intended to help you create. Use what does that and disregard the rest.

new Carnivale pages 175-179

Yes, you read that right.

Back in April, I had an idea for how the sequence starting on page 175 of Carnivale should be revised. I had always felt that the original sequence was too small and short. But back in 2013 I was eager to finish the story, so I didn’t revise it. Well, seven years later I finally did.

Here it is…

What struck me as I went to do this was how much my pencilling has changed in seven years. Not only do I use colored pencils in the process, the drawing overall has gotten tighter.

Old 175 pencils versus new 175 pencils.

“The Betrayal of the Mouse” mini

I recently finished a little semi-autobiographical story about unrequited love for Mickey Mouse. I’ve printed up the story into a single-sheet mini, cut down into fourths. So, eight pages. It’s printed on linen paper and held together with a singe staple. If you would like one, send me a buck and I’ll drop one in an envelope (link below or see the books page).

Give me the mini!

A Serious Consideration of a Comic Definition

Comics has always had a problem with language. Just take the grammar of the name. Is it singular or plural? I would think that if we use comics as a collective noun then it would have to be singular the same way “economics,” “linguistics,” or “rabies” are. But I’ve seen people insist on using a plural verb even when they use “comics” to mean the art form as a whole and not just a pile of individual issues

Then there’s the old albatros of the title’s connotation. Yes, comics originally derived from humorous strips, but it’s unfortunate that the name stuck, especially for those of us who love to see the medium explore new and different realms.

Then, of course, there’s the question of a definition. What do we mean when we call something comics? This is an old debate, but I was thinking about it again because I just read Thierry Groensteen’s essay “Definitions” in The French Comics Theory Reader. Groensteen presents an expansive overview of the historical struggle to name and define this medium that we all love. Appropriately enough, Groensteen himself symbolizes the problem and changing ideas about how to define comics. In his 1986 essay “The Elusive Specificity,” he states that he knows of “no example of a comic that does not produce something that can be classed as a story” (63). In other words, for something to be classified as “comics” it has to be narrative. Yet in 2012’s “Definitions,” he amends his previous statement and says that a comic does not require a narrative (109). So what changed his mind? Specific works. Artists who explored the form and function of the medium. A thing must exist to be named and in the case of any art, the artists then push the edges that conscribe the art, challenging what the rest of us thought to be true. You can’t keep defining a shape as a square if someone changed the angles or added an extra side.

For me, as a person who creates comics, the element that sets comics apart (and here I agree with Scott McCloud) is juxtaposition. Yes, when I create a comic I think about drawing. I think about composition. I think about dialogue. I think about diction. But fundamentally what I do, which I don’t do when I write an essay or draw a single image, is consider how to convey a concept through a juxtaposition of static elements. To me, that is the heart of the medium. Drawing and writing just help me express that heart.

I want to emphasize that I am using the term “elements” intentionally, versus McCloud’s use of the term “images” (8). Yes, comics is largely visual, but I want to be more inclusive. I want a definition that can encompass text and format (inspired by David Gedin), as well as image.

I think the other thing that we should also keep in mind is how comics is evaluated aesthetically. We can borrow from literature and look at story, character, and the rest. So literary aesthetics apply (at least with narrative comics). But visual aesthetics is always a part. We judge how well an artist draws, or how a page is laid out, or the placement of a word balloon. So fine art theory often applies. Likewise, elements of film theory crossover. But so do the concepts of graphic design. In fact, I think comics is more akin to graphic design than it is to literature, fine art, or film.


Comics is a medium that derives its meaning from a comparison of elements in static sequence, and is evaluated by literary and visual aesthetics.

In the end though, whatever language we use to pin down the art form, an artist will wriggle out our pin and toss it in our smug faces. As it should be. An art form belongs to the artists, not the critics.

So get to work.

Some works mentioned

Gedin, David. “Format Codings in Comics–The Elusive Art of Punctuation.” Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, Volume 3, Issue 3.  Ohio State University Press, Fall 2019. 298-314.

Groensteen, Thierry. “Definitions.” The French Comics Theory Reader. Edited by Ann Miller and Bart Beaty. Leuven University Press, 2014. 93-114.

—. “The Elusive Specificity.”The French Comics Theory Reader. Edited by Ann Miller and Bart Beaty. Leuven University Press, 2014. 63-73.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

original Carnivale beginning

I started thumbnailing Carnivale: a Kit Kaleidoscope Story in March of 2004. I got to work on the first finished page in August of 2005. Yet that original beginning didn’t feel right. I was trying too hard to force a Toulouse-LauTrec biography on Kit, having them use sex workers as art models. Upon reflection, I felt that it didn’t seem true to their character and the scene itself felt forced. So I re-thumbnailed the beginning in February of 2008 and started the finished pages that March. That meant that I had fifteen pages that I was throwing out. Some of those pages got reintegrated into the finished story, but the ten-page intro didn’t.

I was thinking about those original ten pages recently. While I still don’t think they work story-wise, I like some of the art in them. So here they are.

Colored pencils for pencilling

Something that I’ve been doing for awhile now is pencilling my comics with colored pencils (I was inspired after seeing some sketches by Marian Churchland on Instagram). What I like about doing this is that they let me build a drawing without having to erase too much. I can start with an orange, and then when I want to nail down a line, I can switch to a purple or blue.

I do this on the finished page, also. I find it really helps with distinguishing, back-, middle-, and foreground.

I also find that the colors are so light that they drop out when I play with the levels after I scan a page. That means less erasing and less of a chance of the pencils muddying the clarity of the inks, which can happen with graphite.

Colored pencils can have their drawbacks. It’s hard to keep them as fine as graphite. And sometimes they are so light that I have trouble seeing them. Also, if I go too crazy, there can be a waxy build-up on the page which can impede ink flow. Though the easy fix for that is to finish my pencils fully on another piece of paper and start a new one for final inks.

Still, for me the benefits outweigh the potential negatives. And sometimes the pencils just come out looking really cool.