sequential daze

Friday, November 07, 2008

Bad Karma – cartoonist’s commentary

When I first devised the Bad Karma storyline I figured I could get it wrapped in about 100 pages, so that was the first thing I underestimated about this particular 300 page epic. In reality, Bad Karma is a number of shorter stories strung together under a broader plot narrative leading up to the battle against a couple of powerful villains from the future. Were I to re-write the entire chapter I think I could bring it in under 200 pages as I would cut out a few sequences and characters, and tighten up a lot of scenes. So I’m undertaking this process as a kind of creative review. Three hundred pages is a lot to get one’s brain around and I think that there were a lot of rather awesome moments in Bad Karma, but a number of other things that either misfired or could have been done a lot better.

For those not familiar with my webcomic production process, I worked mainly from page to page – sometimes writing up to 10-15 pages ahead of myself and occasionally outlining broader story structure in anticipation of where I wanted everything to finish. In other words I didn’t have all 300 pages of Bad Karma written (let alone drawn) before I started serialising it on-line. Had I waited until all 300 pages were finished before uploading them chances are it never would have seen light of day – for some dumb reason it’s the pressure of the update deadline that motivates me to pump out the pages. No update deadline equals no update! Also, I often can’t see how the next part of the story unfolds until I’m in the thick things. Anyway, bottom line is that Bad Karma is a first draft effort.

The process of working on a lengthy serialised webcomic presents a number of pitfalls – here are some I discovered while working on Bad Karma:

  • the big picture v details: knowing the overall plot of a story is one thing, knowing how all the pieces fit together and making them credible and easily understood is another matter altogether. For example, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I didn’t develop the full details of the astral planet Equis until a few weeks before page 166 when it was explained. Some characters were designed the day their page appeared - ditto their powers! It was story writing on the run and very easy to write myself into a corner!
  • complexity: The initial concept was simple enough but adding other sequences (the attempt on Freya’s life, the Robomat training sequence, Kaycee’s struggle with her hallucinations, the dragon/avatar attack) all expanded the size and scope of the story. In the end there were numerous threads in play – very complex and potentially very confusing. I did try to make it easier to navigate by including some explanation and links back to earlier threads (sometimes from months previous) - had I not done that I probably would have lost a lot of readers.
  • cast of thousands: I really wanted to flesh out the Magellan universe and include a number of characters, only problem is – if you want that character to be only a shade over two dimensional they need at least a page or more to help flesh them out. Had I really spent as much time developing characters as I would have liked to, the chapter would have been closer to 400 pages in length! Additionally, character overload can make it hard for the reader to identify individual characters let alone sympathise with them. For some reason any attempts at constructing a comprehensive cast page defeated me, but I did try to keep readers informed of who was who through comments and links below updates they appeared in. Having characters who are distinctive and visually different helps in this regard.
  • fatigue: both the reader and cartoonist can suffer from this. In the case of the reader they have to decide how much longer they can invest their life in an ongoing story (“are we there yet?”) - three years is a long time and I'm in awe of those who had the patience to stick it out for that long. In the case of the cartoonist it’s the risk of burnout from the many, many hours required to turn out each page and trying to balance that within real life demands.
  • momentum: it’s not easy to maintain suspense when putting out a page every few days. It can be hard enough to maintain that suspense in a comic book where someone is reading from page to page. Add to that the occasional missed day or even week and it slows things down even more. For a few months I managed three updates a week leading up to and during the dragon attack, no doubt helping to kick things along. I tried to end each page with a bit of a cliff-hanger moment or something to pique further interest.

Anyway, enough of the problems - although if you want to discuss further in the comments, please do. The next entry will look at the first 15 pages of Bad Karma