In this new interview series, I speak with other comic creators to learn how they create their work! Here, I speak with Daniel Bethel. He’s recently launched his comic, Long John, that has been years in the making.
Travis Blair: Hey there, D. Bethel! Thanks for agreeing to speak with me. I would like to ask you about the creation process behind your new comic, Long John. Was it a linear concept thought up recently since the conclusion of Eben 07, or something that’s been in the back of your mind for some time?
Daniel Bethel: Like Eben07, the character (and a lot of story elements as well) of Long John had been around for a long time. Since 2002, to be exact. The development since then was slow but pretty organic. I nailed down some story elements along the way, but it wasn’t until I put down Eben07 for the time being that I really hammered at the characters and story to not only make it align with my current storytelling goals but to see what I have to say with them. That’s why it’s been almost a year since my last Eben07 comic to the first Long John page; a lot of development has been going on for a very, very old idea.
Travis: So the story had developed when you picked it up from an initial point years back. What about the art style? Do you have conceptual work from years back, from which the comic is based? What developed in the way you wanted you wanted to present Long John visually?
Daniel: The aesthetic was probably the aspect of the comic developed the most in the last few years. The original drawings of Long John and some of his characters were done in the style that became more associated with Eben07–clean thick-to-thin lines, very simplified and exaggerated.
In the modern development of Long John, I consciously wanted to challenge myself artistically and to flex a stylistic muscle that Eben07 didn’t really provide. I wouldn’t say that Long John is “realistic,” but it is a more detailed world than the “animated” style with which I drew Eben07.
This is because place is a very important aspect of Long John and represents his arc and actions as much as anything he does in the story.
But, with regard to the visual development, I was much more influenced by a clean, “animated” style when developing Eben07, especially the likes of Bruce Timm and assorted Disney styles like Atlantis: The Lost Empire. By the time I had gotten around to seriously developing Long John, I had steeped myself in the works of some European comic creators––specifically, people like Francois Boucq and Enki Bilal. I don’t think their influence was as strong, however, as the work of Canadian artist Simon Roy (whose 2009 independent release, Jan’s Atomic Heart, really got me thinking about about art in new ways) and Greek-American artist Giannis Milonogiannis (whose webcomic, Old City Blues, intrigued me but I never got around to reading until it went into print).
These artists––and their collaborative work on Image Comics’ book, Prophet––really helped define what I wanted to do with Long John: allowing for imprecise linework, playing with textures and hand-written special effects in the art itself, relying less on digital support and augmentation. With Eben07, I hand-drew pages to a point, but I knew that I could draw a background in Photoshop or use color to imply shape, and fix/redraw panels digitally; with Long John, I want as much on the actual, physical page as possible so that, when I scan it in, all I need to do is add my tri-tones and dialogue. It’s still a learning process and much development and honing will be seen along the way.
Luckily, with such a focus on changing the way I draw––to be perfectly honest, it’s mostly under the auspice of wanting to get pages done faster––people still see my style underneath, that it still looks like “me,” and that’s good.
Travis: Let’s talk about what you use to create. You mentioned Photoshop, as well as scanning in physical pages, as steps involved in creating comics. What are the tools in your belt that you reach for when creating Long John, at any stage? Do you carry a notebook for jotting down lines or doodling? What computer software and hardware do you use?
Daniel: The sort of “pre-writing” stage (if you’ll allow me to borrow nomenclature from my day job) consists mostly of a large unlined Moleskine notebook. Though it’s full of writing, I do like the unlined paper so that if I can work in occasional doodles I can and not have it look like a 9th grader’s math notes. That’s where I jot down ideas or quotes from notes from any research. It’s not a Long John-specific notebook, but––perhaps unsurprisingly––Long John does take up many of its pages.
For the actual writing or “drafting” phase, I do what I call “layouts.” I created a template that fits on a normal 8.5″x11″ piece of printer paper and it’s full of to-scale miniature comic pages. They’re arranged in pairs so I can keep in mind page turns and what will be revealed when for a reader of a print edition. Before I draw anything, I jot down notes beneath each page––the main beats that need to happen on this page. Once I like the page-by-page pacing, I begin to sketch in panel layouts and character blockings in these small rectangles, making occasional notes about dialogue or poses around them. This part of the process, to me, is the actual writing of the comic.
Once happy with the layouts (I tend to actually draw layouts for between 4 and six pages at a time), I go to the computer and script out the pages. It’s a method I saw being used by the creative team at the aforementioned Prophet book and it was one of those moments of, “Why didn’t I think of that?” We started to do something similar toward the end of Eben07. Once a script is tentatively completed, I go to paper.
I use Strathmore’s pre-lined comic book paper and use blue lead to pencil (blue lead doesn’t scan for some reason; so, I don’t have to erase the pencils after I ink). For Eben07, I mainly relied on dip pens or nib pens––the type where you have a quill or holder that has a slot at the end to change out nibs and you dip the nibs into the ink, old timey-style––mostly because it neatly echoed the style of line I was getting digitally before switching to physical inking. For Long John, I have mostly abandoned nib pens in favor of technical pens––mainly Sakura Pigma Microns (using sizes between 03-08). I have also been using a long of brushes for filling in blacks and adding texture. I’m not adept at brushes yet, so I use crappy and old watercolor brushes I’ve had forever, but I use the same ink that I used for Eben07––a deep black Sumi ink by Yasutomo (it comes in a cool-looking green bottle). The blacks are deep and the ink is thick which really makes the linework tangible because you can feel the lines when you run your hand over the page. I think you’re supposed to water it down first, but I don’t. I first heard of it when I saw graphic novelist (and Earthworm Jim creator) Doug Tennapel use it in a video he made to show his inking process.
That’s pretty much it for the physical side of things. I then scan it directly into Photoshop CS3––that’s the only program I use for the comic (aside from CeltX for scripting)––using an 11″x17″ Brother scanner. I color and letter in Photoshop, honing the dialogue to fit my more developed sense of the page (by that point, I’ve spent a lot of time with it and have a better grasp on what it’s trying to do), and consider the lettering the formal “writing” phase when it comes to actual words and such.
I have a small sketchbook, too, but I actually don’t doodle that much. If I do anything in there it’s to hammer out character designs, but I don’t use it to journal or actually come up with ideas, those (for me) always start with words rather than images.
Aside from a few other, non-essential tools (rulers and such), that’s pretty much it in terms of tools and process.
The overall thing about this process is that the page isn’t “written” until I export the png to post to the site. The writing is always happening through layouts through scripting through pencilling and inking to coloring and lettering; it’s all in the service of creating a final page and things can change or alter (to a degree) as the process moves forward.
The best way to describe the construction of a page is not that it’s built from completed pieces; it’s more that it’s slowly revealed with the more time spent with it. Only by the end is it crystal clear, though I do, admittedly, have a very strong sense of where I’m going. Nothing created through the process is sacred, only the finished page: lines, colors, and letters as one.
Travis: Knowing the process involved to make the finished product makes me appreciate your work even more. Daniel, thanks for speaking with me! Long John is on my list of comics to follow.
Daniel: Excellent! Thanks for the great questions!