Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Who is Rocket Johnson?: Trick or Treat (part two)

And here's the conclusion to my story from our group comic book "Who is Rocket Johnson?".

From this part you can see where people might have felt that there was more dialogue than they wanted to tackle but I'll explain why I felt it was necessary to do it that way below. Anyway, read the comic first and then, if you want, check out some of the analysis below.

I always like to hear people talk about their process so I will talk a bit about mine. Hopefully it won't come off as self-serving navel-gazing, but if so, feel free to stop reading at any point...

If you never saw the published version and this is the first time you've seen it, you're probably experiencing it in a way that's closer to how I meant for it to be seen.

One of the things that I learned while doing it on the computer is that, obviously, the computer screen is backlit so as you're drawing it you're seeing it in a more brightly lit fashion than it's going to appear when it's printed on paper. While I was coloring my story I kept wondering if it was going to be too dark once it was printed. It turned out a bit too dark on the printed version and some of the background detail dropped out. It didn't hurt the story at all but it did make me wish I hadn't put so much detail into it. The other problem that I failed to grasp up front is, realistically, how small it was going to be printed. The small size it was finally printed (9 by 6 inches) made much of the detail in each drawing irrelevant.

Overall I do wish that I'd drawn the backgrounds simpler and spent a lot less time fussing over them. Maybe next time.

Another consideration that struck me right away was: how big to make the text? As I mentioned before, when laying out a comic book for the first time, how do you know how big to make the word balloons? I had a script that I'd written but I wasn't sure how to figure out exactly how much space the text would take up. So I typed some of the dialogue up and printed it out on my comic layouts, and I was surprised to discover how small you could go with the font and have it still be readable. In fact when the text font was too big it overwhelmed the drawings and made the story look more like a children's book or something.

When I said in the last post that people thought I had maybe used too much dialogue, I suppose it was this ending part they were talking about.

It was sort of necessitated by the structure of the thing, though: my idea was to use curiosity to keep the reader interested enough to read the whole thing. So I created several questions up front: why doesn't this guy decorate his house for Halloween?, why is this guy called "Rocket Johnson?", and why does he have a prosthetic arm that's too small for him?

So at some point you have to answer all of those questions and satisfy the reader's curiosity. I wish I could have had a way for the audience to find out all of these things without Rocket Johnson just telling us all this exposition, but with only eight pages to work with I couldn't do anything too fancy (like having the girl figure all of it out by herself) and I had to do it this way. The saving grace, I hoped, was that instead of ending the story right after Rocket barfed out all this information, I had the extra part where the bully kids get a bit of a comeuppance. Hopefully, the audience was surprised by that part and satisfied enough by it to make up for having to read all that exposition right before.

With all that exposition at the end I was running the risk of being heavy-handed, like I was forcing this heavy "theme" that I wanted them to get about not letting bullies ruin your life. Honestly that was not my intention at all. That's why it was important to me that she cuts him off by shutting the door and she doesn't react to or even acknowledge his story. I really wanted it to feel like his whole speech had no effect on her, at least not in the moment. If his story had actually impacted her it would have felt totally false. We all know what it's like to be picked on and no speech ever really makes us feel better (like it always seems to in bad movies). Also using the device of him saying "I missed out on a lot of Sugar Mamas" was an attempt to ground his whole speech, to make it specific and hopefully a bit funny. If he says "I missed out on my life", that's meaningless and feels like it's trying too hard, but hopefully saying you missed out on a lot of free Halloween candy feels more real and closer to something a real person might actually say.

In my mind the speech is more of a catharsis for him than anything, a chance to express himself to someone when he probably hasn't connected with anyone in a very long time.

Like I said it was never meant to be about the heavy-handed message of "don't let bullies get you down", because that's just a boring and obvious statement and therefore uninteresting. We all know that already and we don't need to hear that again. My biggest goal with the thing was to be entertaining and try to create distinct personalities within the limited format. If there was any underlying message it was more about the experience of becoming a father. Before I had kids I had a very small relatively comfortable world and didn't need to go outside of that comfortable zone too much (just like Rocket hiding out in his house). Once I had kids I was constantly forced to have experiences that were way, way outside my comfort zone but that made me a better person overall. Obviously not everyone needs to have kids to develop as a human being but I sure did.

Anyway I was lucky enough to have the idea for this story just sort of occur to me out of the blue, fully formed. It needed some trimming down - and lost some of it's meaning and impact by being shortened, I think - but I didn't have to wrestle with the idea much. The drawing was pretty easy too. Not all experiences are like that but this one was relatively pain-free. If you ever get to do your own thing my best advice would be to at least pick characters and subject matter that you will enjoy drawing!

Obviously I knew that comic books are usually about superheroes and I knew a lot of my compatriots in the book would choose to do great versions of superhero stories. So I made a conscious decision to avoid that, and also to pick a story that was a little quirkier in order to not duplicate what one of my co-workers might be doing for the book. I wanted a story where the staging would be very simple and not very dramatic to be the opposite of what you usually see in a comic book. But in a way I wanted to give a nod to the whole superhero idea so I made Rocket a bit of a superhero in his own right...after all, what's more difficult than leaving the house after years of staying inside and ultimately standing up for yourself and your friends? So I used the last panel to make his sheet look a bit like a cape in order to cast him in a subtle way as a bit of a superhero.

Anyway I really hope everyone enjoyed the story and I sincerely hope that reading about the process was interesting. I have roughs and alternate panels for some of these pages and maybe I will show those and talk more about the process next time.


stevem said...

These pages are splendid Mark. I love how the "McGuffin" is established early, and how each frame urges the audience onwards to the next. The real treat, however, is seeing you apply all the lessons you've been teaching us for nearly three years now. It's one thing to read about avoiding twins, adding tilts for interest, dividing the composition into three, etc - and quite another to see how adeptly you use these principles in your own work. Thanks for sharing!

David Cousens said...

I love the pacing where they both look at the candy, great stuff Mark!

P. Alvarado said...

Love your drawings and style. Awesome blog too, with all the info you post. Was lucky enough to have a friend bring me back a copy of Rocket, but I had to pack it with all my other stuff in storage in the States, thanks for posting the art.

Mike Moloney said...

When my roommates showed me this story I'll admit, I didn't read it because of all the words. Especially flipping through and seeing the ending scared me away. All the art work is appealing and charming, but I still wasn't drawn in because I knew i would have to invest some time to this story.

I just read it and really enjoyed it. To fit this story in such few pages was really impressive, but I still wish it was longer so you wouldn't have to explain the characters past so frankly. I especially liked how you explained your thought process and the choices you made.

Thanks for your candor and sharing your experience on this project. I'm glad to have finally read it!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely brilliant work, congrats and many thanks for posting this!
- Chris

Jay Brushett said...

Thanks for posting that Mark... excellent stuff! I love reading your site. Talk about process all you want -- it's great to get insight into how and why people make creative decisions.

Anonymous said...

This made me cry.

Because it's THAT good.

Thank you for making this.

Anonymous said...


these pages are GREAT. lovely and loose, fantastic colors, all that.

can i ask if you drew it on a tablet ? thats what im guessing. something about the line, something i recognize from my own work.

if people avoid reading this because of all the words theyre missing something - most of the stuff out of the girls mouth are just blabble. shes a little motor mouth - im fine with it. what i dont like is writers trying to show me they went to college, you know ? and then the characters stop talking like real people.

can i say something though ? i got a little confused at the end. the pus he was talking about - that was the candy thing he was showing them ? like he pretended the candy was pus. maybe we needed to see that, ropes of it stretching from his armpit or something... that would have created a problem though, with him eating it after.

anyway i really admire your work here. great job.


dfernetti said...

Great characters, even if the story goes a bit sour at the end. Somehow I was expecting "Rocket" to be some supernatural being or something (funny how strange ways one's mind can take ahead before the story has ended) I feel a bit sad for the guy whose shell-shaped soaps got used and his towel fell in the potty.
That, man, was harsh.
Great work!

Mike said...

read your story and yes I read all the words. I liked it but I did not like the ending. It was fine until you didn't bring the little girl back I thin the story would've ended better if the bullies made him feel bad anyway and the little girl came back out and stood up to them and together they thwarted the bullies. It seemed the whole idea was pointing in that direction. How ever you did it I think you needed to bring back the girl in the end again. Ah well what do I know? Beautiful art though and I know exactly what you mean about the art turning darker once it's printed.

Kevin Barber said...

I really enjoyed this one. I liked the design and characterization of the girl and the use of the color pallette.Good stuff Looking forward to next years collaboration.(it was nice meeting you at comic con by the way.I am Nathan's friend who drove around in circles with you guys on Thursday night.)Congrats on the great work for Bolt.

BEN said...

It's so rare to find persons like you that share their experiences, the "secrets" and the progression of their work, so thanks!
thanks for this touching story and thanks for you kindness and for the support that you give at everyone,
I love your blog, everytime I go here to read your post I feel that something has grown in me,
so thank you,
really thank,
(and excuse me for the english, I hope you had understand what I say..:D)

mark kennedy said...

stevem- thanks, I am glad that you liked the pages. Thanks for taking the time to let me know that you enjoyed them!

david - thanks, I was trying to get a funny rhythm there. Glad it played well for you.

p - Thanks so much. Glad to hear you got a copy of RJ. A lot of great artists in there.

mike - I'm glad you finally read it. You are right- the forced brevity of the story makes some difficult choices necessary and it's definitely hard to tell a story with any subtlety when you have to fit it into 8 pages. Next time I will try to tell a simpler story.

Chris - thanks a ton!

jay - great, I'm glad you liked hearing about it!

anon - there's no higher compliment. I am glad you enjoyed it, thanks for taking the time to post.

dany - yes, I drew the roughs on paper and cleaned them up on the Cintiq.
The pus is supposed to be real we just don't see it because that would be disgusting. I get the impression you thought he was faking the pus...but the candy and pus were supposed to be two separate ideas.

dfernetti - by "sour" do you mean it got a little too gross? That's funny that you felt sorry for the guy with the clogged toilet, I haven't heard that before! Thanks for reading it and thanks for the comment.

mike - Well, that would have been another way to go with it. This may sound strange but I was trying to make it seem "real", and I was trying to be surprising in the way I wrapped it up. I definitely wanted a bittersweet ending that seemed true to life (as true to life as you can be in a cartoony comic book). I didn't want it to feel like the bullies were really that defeated or that the girl's problems with them was really solved because usually in life we never really defeat our demons that easily, if ever, but we can make the choice to soldier on anyway, which is what RJ is trying to tell her...anyway that was my intent.
Thanks for the comment!

kevin - yep, that was a good time and it was great meeting you. Hope to see you next year!

ben - thanks so much for the kind, kind words. I am really glad you appreciate the blog. It makes it worthwhile when I hear that it means something to people, and helps me keep going!

Alina Chau said...

Great pages!!

mark kennedy said...

alina - Thanks!!!

colin said...

I only just read it, but it's wonderful. You're right that the speech influencing the kid would have made it false. Instead, Rocket Johnson discovers for himself a new (I sense) kind of confidence through his interaction with her, and that makes the story very satisfying without being heavy handed. Well done!

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