Sunrise: Three Years!

Well, it’s been another year. Sunrise officially began on February 12th, 2008, when this horrible-looking page was posted to the then-very-rough website I’d set up at the time. (The cover of Issue 1 appears to have been posted the day before, but was actually posted somewhat later, with the date adjusted to ensure correct position in the archive.) Now, some 230 pages later, it seems like a good time to look back and see what I’ve learned from this little experiment.

The Zeppelin Bros.

As I may or may not have mentioned once before, the origins of Sunrise lie with a short run of comics I did for a Vacation Bible School in summer 2007.   It was called The Zeppelin Brothers and Their Cousin Clara, and followed the titular characters as they flew around the world in their nameless airship, reinforcing the daily scripture lessons. (Depicted: Wednesday.)

For some reason this comic maintained a certain intrigue for me, or at least the idea of a comic set on an airship did. Late that year, around December or so, I began work on a new comic. My central idea was to take the formatting of Star Trek and set it in the past (ironic since the original Star Trek concept was a frontier show set in the future), and place the characters on an airship.

In preparation for writing this essay I went through my old Sunrise design documents. I can’t actually remember what the first thing I did for Sunrise was, but these are at least fairly close. This is the sheet where I wrote down the basic core concept of the series (in addition to some concepts for the captain’s uniform), and on the back was a list of brief character sketches:

Early concepts, frontEarly concepts, back

As you can see, the whole concept was still based around the premise of the ship being so incredibly controversial that no one wanted to work on it. That idea faded away pretty quickly. It was hard to come up with something controversial enough and Astor’s antagonism became a better reason for the undesirable crew. (Admittedly the undesirable crew aspect has faded away a lot at this point, too.)

While we’re on the subject of the characters, let’s look at that early character sheet. We have “Captain” (Robinson), “Financer” (Kindler), “Pilot/Helmsman” (Neil), “Airship Designer” (Blanchard), and “Poet” (Lila). Wait, Lila was supposed to be a poet? I didn’t even remember that. And she was the most intelligent of the cast? Huh, usually she just seems to be the most easily-angered. It’s tough having an unappreciated superhuman intellect I guess. I find it odd that Lila at the time seemed more important than, say, a chief engineer, but I was really just stumbling around in the dark at that point. In any case, you can see here the character designs that would still be pretty prevalent throughout Issue 1 (after which they took on a different flavor than that implied here).

Regarding Issue 1 I don’t have all that much to say, as I have no real recollection of how it was conceived. I wrote down a paragraph of exposition detailing its events and just winged it from there.

Let’s take a look at the original art:

Sunrise, first page roughs

(Compare to inked version)

At the time I started work on Sunrise I hadn’t yet taken any figure drawing classes, and boy does it ever show. Jeez but these people are weird-looking. Other aspects of the craft were also wanting, for example the fact that I wasn’t using any rulers, which sometimes  caused problems when drawing the panel boundaries in later.

Let’s just ignore the deficiencies of the early art for now. I’ve complained about that a million times before. Instead let’s take a quick look at the history of the artwork in Sunrise:

  • Issue 1: Digital inking with crosshatching, some simulated with tiling patterns and some really laboriously drawn by hand. Digital crosshatching was a really stupid idea, so I abandoned it at the end of the issue.
  • Issue 2: Originally shaded with gray tones, but I thought these looked too futuristic for my historical premise, so I replaced them with halftone patterns after that style solidified. (I can’t easily fix Issue 1 because of bad work methods I used at the time.)
  • Issue 3: The first issue to use the halftone patterns. They were kind of messy at first but got nice later on.

After Issue 3 the art stayed pretty much the  same for a while. Due to my fascination with Jeff Smith’s complete lack of shading, I tried to reduce the amount of grays until there were none left in Issue 7 (which was also the first issue I attempted to ink non-digitally, although that only lasted a few pages). As it turned out I’m not Jeff Smith and the unshaded pages look pretty flat. ( Der-Shing Helmer convinced me to go back to shading after I asked her for criticism.)

This brings us back to Issue 8, which is the first issue which I’ve inked and lettered in real life. I’ve been using some really terrible paper (cardstock from Staples) for no better reason than because it’s cheaper than bristol board.  Despite that foolishness, the art is overall better than previous digitally-inked issues, and for the first time I can look back without cringing (most of the time).

As far as writing goes, I think it’s gotten stronger too, with the exception of the dismal Issue 7. The even-numbered issues have typically been better than the odd-numbered ones so far (just like the Star Trek movies!). A quick run-down:

  • Issue 1 was the “pilot,” basically. A lot of rustiness is to be expected. The characters all behave kind of stiffly and the script doesn’t know what to do with itself. It’s really a lot like the first episode of a TV show, with confused actors muddling their way through a weak story.
  • Issue 2 sees the comic coming more  into its own, with a relatively intriguing story and better “performances” from the characters.
  • Issue 3 is somewhat weaker, with odd pacing and Lila Astor, who always ruins everything. No issue can be based on Neil and Lila and still be successful, because they are the weakest characters in the entire cast. Neil is just an archetypal adventuresome young man and Lila is just a grouchy person who plays a cello sometimes.
  • Issue 4 is still a favorite of mine. It’s told in two parts, the first of which is the mystery about the drifting airship and the second of which is about the dilemma of the spies. The ending is perhaps a bit rushed, but I think altogether the whole thing worked out pretty well.
  • Issue 5 has two plots, one of which is about the movie and one of which is about the exploding things. While they do meet in the middle, the point at which they meet is also the point at which the explosive plot ends, so the integration is not really very good.
  • Issue 6, or “the music theory issue” as I tend to think of it, is fairly strong, about equal to Issue 4. Its main weakness is the plot point  “Neil Needs Confidence in His Musicianship,” which was completely unnecessary. The issue probably would have been stronger without it. I do like the way Ashbroch’s plan for posthumous mischief is portrayed though, especially as Haeckel introduces an unpredictable element which Ashbroch surely would have appreciated.
  • I’ve already talked about Issue 7 and why it was a disaster.
  • So that brings us back to Issue 8. I think this is the strongest issue so far, with well-developed guest characters and a well-paced plot that runs far longer than any previous issue has.

Sunrise is, first and foremost, a learning experience for me. Attempting to list everything I’ve learned from it would be futile, but let’s see if I can’t hit at least a few good points:

  • Use drafting tools. It will save you lots of trouble in the end.
  • Inking digitally is probably not worth it. I’ve saved lots of time since I went back to traditional inking, and it actually looks better. Don’t bother trying to do digital inking unless you have a Cintiq or something, and even then it’s probably a mistake.
  • Letter by hand too. It looks better.
  • Plan out the story as much as you can before starting to draw. For Issue 8, I have a full written script, a page-by-page breakdown, and thumbnail drawings of each page, complete with full dialogue. I also rewrote parts of the script even after the issue had started to run.
  • Don’t move ahead with a story you’re uncomfortable with. This mistake was central to the problems of Issue 7.
  • Try to find a style that looks good and is within your skill range. Don’t try to do something more complicated than you’re capable of.
  • Remember to keep the drawings interesting for yourself and your readers. Don’t just draw talking heads over and over again.
  • Don’t give up. This is a problem-solving process, and all  snags are just problems with solutions. Find them.

That’s all for now, everyone. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading Sunrise these past few years, and look forward to seeing you around for future issues and whatever new things may come.

Posted on February 12th, 2011. Filed under Artwork, Comics, Fiction, Process, Sunrise, Writing. Tagged as: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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