Sophie Goldstein

Sophie Goldstein and Dan Berry get together to talk about baby steps & big leaps forward, ways of talking and being a Slytherin at the Hogwarts for cartoonists.

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Dan Berry: This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. I’m Dan Berry. Sophie Goldstein and I sat down to talk about baby steps and big leaps forward, ways of talking and being a Slytherin at the Hogwarts for cartoonists. This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. Hi, Sophie Goldstein. Hi, how are you doing?

SG: Good, hi! I’m doing well, thank you.

DB: Excellent! So, you are a cartoonist.

SG: Allegedly, yes.

DB: Why do you say allegedly?

SG: You know, it’s a murky profession. Usually mixed in with a part-time job.

DB: So what’s your comic mixer then? What do you mix this with?

SG: Actually at this moment it would probably be… cartoonist is the most accurate it’s ever been, because I don’t have a part-time job at the moment, and I’m a full-time freelancer. But I don’t think I’ve reached a permaculture state yet, of begin able to support this ad nauseam. Eventually I know I’ll have to go back to a part-time job.

DB: Yeah, but for the time being, you are 100% comics.

SG: Yes.

DB: Neat! Were you always into comics then?

SG: No. When I was in high school I found the comic section in the high school library, and that was my first introduction to indie comics. So I read Watchmen and Maus, the usual suspects for your first encounter with indie comics. Then shortly after that I found Dan Clowes, and he was the first indie cartoonist that I got really into. Even going back before that, I used to read Archie, like, obsessively, when I was a kid, but that just petered out. I didn’t have any friends that read comics. I’m a girl, you know, I think boys usually have more friends that read comics, but for me I didn’t, like, nobody else was really into that until I got to college. Then I was on a floor where I met some people who had comics collections of Vertigo, you know, adult stuff!

DB: Right!

SG: So I read, Preacher and Transmetropolitan were the two series that I was like, ‘Oh my god, comics! So cool!’ Shortly after that I went back into reading more indie comics and just getting further and further into that, and further and further away from something that most of my friends could relate too.

DB: (Laughs). You disappeared down a rabbit hole.

SG: Yes, down an esoteric rabbit hole.

DB: So what made you want to start drawing comics yourself then?

SG: Well, after I graduated college I was working for – I went to New York University and I had gotten a job as an administrative assistant at NYU, and it was pretty well paid compared to what I had been used to before, but it was a day job where I was sitting in front of a computer eight hours a day, and I just was like, feeling that existential emptiness. So I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll take a cartooning class at the School of Visual Arts,’ which is right there in Manhattan. The first class I took was with Tom Hart, who now has his own university. So I took a class with him and then the next semester, or year, I honestly don’t remember, I took a class with Matt Madden, who was also teaching there. It’s like hitting the bullseye twice, because they’re both really amazing teachers. I did some short comics with them, and then I ended up doing, like, I don’t know, 20 pages of comics, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I think I’m ready to do a webcomic!’ My friend Jenn Jordan and I came up with the concept of Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, which is this webcomic that we did for four and a half years, for 360 pages and then did a Kickstarter for. It’s just like, baby steps, baby steps, I’m going to jump off this cliff.

DB: (Laughs). Wow! So, getting in pretty deep, pretty quickly then.

SG: Yeah. I think relatively quickly. More of a big leap jumper than a ‘let’s take this step-by-step into gradually’, but on the other hand, I don’t think anyone knows how hard doing a long comic is until you start doing it. Sometimes I try to think back and enter into the mind-set that I had, when I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll start publishing a webcomic twice a week, with no end date in mind.’ I don’t know who that person is anymore!

DB: Did you have this idea of how the whole story was going to work, and this is how it was going to craft from beginning to end, or were you setting up a series of characters and then seeing where they go?

SG: At first we had an arc that we had talked about, but then when we started doing it, we were like, ‘This is fun, so the arc is just going to be much bigger, or we’ll just explore the world that we set up.’ Happily, the world of Darwin Carmichael had a lot of facets that you can go into. As its final graphic novel, it’s incredibly meandering, which is something that every single reviewer has made an effort to mention, at some point! (Laughs). I just want to be like, ‘It’s a webcomic! That is the format!’ Eventually, when we decided that we were going to wrap it up at some point, we talked about the ending, and that was probably a year and a half out from when it actually ended.

DB: Were you working on other things at the same time?

SG: Well about two years into doing the webcomic, I went to The Center for Cartoon Studies.

DB: In White River… I’ve forgotten the name of it. White River Junction?

SG: White River Junction, yeah, Vermont.

DB: Yay, nailed it! I’ll edit that out so people know how knowledgeable I am.

SG: White River Junction, Vermont.

DB: So how did you get on to that in Vermont then?

SG: Vermont is much more isolated, or White River Junction, I should say, is much more isolated than other places that I’ve lived, so at CCS we jokingly referred to it as Hogwarts for Cartoonists.

DB: (Laughs).

SG: Which I think is pretty accurate! We even had many conversations where we sorted each other into houses, and we’re all incredible giant nerds, so there’s a lot of that. I’m in Slytherin.

DB: Clearly, the best comics house. (Laughs). They get stuff done!

SG: We’re ruthless and clever and efficient, that’s how we like it.

DB: I think I might be a Slytherin, you know?

SG: Okay, so I’m just going to get into this for a second.

DB: Come on, let’s do this.

SG: I think that Slytherin is really misrepresented in the world of Harry Potter. To have an entire house devoted to evil is just such an absurd concept. No entire group is wholly evil, it’s just that I think, for the purposes of the book, she really had to focus on the particular evil aspects of it.

DB: Yeah, but there were Hufflepuffs that kicked dogs!

SG: Yeah, I mean, come on! Well, they’re lame. Their whole house is lame. But Slytherin…

DB: They probably got someone else to kick a dog for them.

SG: They wish they could kick dogs! Slytherins are ambitious, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being ambitious.

DB: Sure.

SG: Actually, when we talk amongst, me and my Slytherin cohort, about the characteristics that we share, it’s usually – ambition is the main thing that we have in common, because it’s not wanting to take over the world, because if so, we wouldn’t be cartoonists!

DB: (Laughs). You’d be animators!

SG: Oh yeah! Or dictators.

DB: Oh sure, I mean, throw it all the way out, I suppose. So you’re in Vermont, you’re a Slytherin, you’re kicking dogs, keep going.

SG: For two years, The Center for Cartoon Studies is very intense. The first year is, kind of, they call it comics boot camp, and you have a lot of assignments. The due dates are really close, and you’re in a very small school. There is maximum 24 students per year, and there’s two years, so it’s a very, very small community. Everyone is focussed on comics, which is bizarre, and sleeping and breathing and eating comics. That metaphor got really mixed, but comics all the time! Then you do that, and then your second year you’re doing your thesis, and then you graduate and you’re like, ‘Uhhh. Now there is the rest of my life,’ which is actually how I felt when I graduated college.

DB: Did you study art at college then?

SG: No, I was an English major.

DB: English, okay, but that’s useful still.

SG: Yes. Well, I mean, for comics, not for making money or anything.

DB: Well, clearly what else is there, I guess. Sorry, I derailed you halfway through then. So you’ve just graduated, what happens next then?

SG: So I was working for CCS as a librarian at the Schulz Library, and then after that I got hired on as an administrative assistant, and then as the student services coordinator, so I had a job. I decided it would be best just to stay there for a year and work on my art, and I had this secure income and I had the comics community there. What a lot of people do, is they graduate CCS and then they flee, as fast as they can from White River Junction back to the metropolises from which they came, and then you immediately get pulled into having to make money and pay your rent and you have all these other social ties and obligations and things like that. You know, the stuff that makes up a rich and full life. I didn’t want any of that! (Laughs).

DB: Why would you? It sounds rubbish! (Laughs).

SG: No, it would really detract from my laser focus on comics. So I stayed in White River Junction and I focussed on making art, and that was good for about a year, and then I was so stir crazy.

DB: And then you ran off back to that metropolis that you came from!

SG: Well, I went to a different one. I went to Pittsburgh, because New York is so expensive that there’s just… I didn’t want to go back to working a full time job and working on comics at night, like I had done for years. Pittsburgh is cheap and it’s a city, you know, not like New York, but…

DB: It’s the same classification, different league.

SG: Yes, this is the minors!

DB: (Laughs). So what did you do once you’re in Pittsburgh then? Is this when you started being more of a full-time cartoonist then, I guess?

SG: Yeah, once we moved here I went into being a full-time cartoonist. I already had some freelance things lined up, and I haven’t been as proactive about seeking out freelance work as probably would be best, but I’m giving myself a year. I have some savings and then once that year is out, and those savings run out, then I’ll have to really re-examine what I want. My expenses are low and I think it would be possible to be a full-time freelancer, but that would also mean doing comics that aren’t really in my wheelhouse all the time. You know, non-fiction comics are super hot right now, so all those infographics, or articles in the form of comics, and things like that. I just did one, that was my first attempt at it, for The Nib.

DB: Yes, I read it.

SG: Oh, great! So, that was the first time that I tried something like that, and there’s stuff about it that I really enjoyed. I mean, doing the research was interesting. Writing it, I mean, it was kind of, it’s so unnatural to me to write a non-fiction comic, so I did have to struggle a lot with that, but I am a feminist and the subject matter was really interesting to me.

DB: This was the tone of voice…

SG: Yes, it was on vocal fry and uptalk and how those are represented in the media.

DB: It was fascinating.

SG: Oh, thanks!

DB: It made me super self-conscious about my voice though.

SG: It also had that effect on me!

DB: (Laughs). Are you thinking about it right now?

SG: I am, yeah.

DB: So, explain and demonstrate very, very briefly what this is then.

SG: Well, uptalk is when you end your sentences with an upward lilt.

DB: So when you end your sentences by saying something like ‘this’?

SG: Yeah. It is something that a lot of… it’s very age oriented. Younger people tend to engage in uptalk more. One of the things I talked about is that younger men as well as women uptalk, but women are the ones who get called out for it the most. But if you think of Clueless, that valley girl speak is the epitome of what uptalk is supposed to be.

DB: That’s uptalk through a big lens.

SG: Yeah, like a prism.

DB: No, I’ve got a better analogy, like a big microphone, not a big lens. That’s more like it! Shut up Dan! Carry on Sophie, carry on please.

SG: Then vocal fry is the opposite of that. It’s when the vocal range drops to create a gravelly tone. It usually happens at the end of sentences and I will try to demonstrate it. It’s when the tone drops ‘like this’.

DB: Oh right, so something ‘like this’.

SG: It’s very laconic, gravelly.

DB: Oh, kind of deflated.

SG: Yeah, but there’s a lot of – like, I use the example of Zooey Deschanel, and if you listen to her you can hear it all the time, but it doesn’t sound… I’m imitating it. I’m sure I do it naturally too, but one of the things that I found so obnoxious about the media coverage of this, is you’d have these articles or these newscasters and they would be imitating uptalk and vocal fry, but of course it would sound horrible when they were doing it, because they were mocking it. When I talk to women I don’t even hear it really, it’s just a natural part of the way they speak. The fact that when you talk about it, makes people notice it. You would see all these comments of being like, ‘Oh, I never noticed this, but now it drives me nuts.’

DB: (Laughs). I don’t think I notice it so much in others, but I certainly catch myself doing it.

SG: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of interesting psychological speculation about why people engage in uptalk and vocal fry. I think it’s impossible to definitively know.

DB: Sure, yeah. That’s a pretty big survey to find out for sure, isn’t it?

SG: Yeah, well especially when you’re talking about deep psychological motivations, but for women, lower their voice to sound more authoritative, that’s one of the theories about why women do vocal fry, but then according to the studies, which are kind of questionable in themselves, it has the opposite effect. Then there are other studies, which I didn’t even get to talk about, where listeners to women who had vocal fry, thought the women sounded more urbane and sophisticated, but also younger. So it was a mix. I think the media just focuses on what they want to focus on, which is that young women particularly, need to change the way they speak in order to be taken seriously, and that concept was what I found so problematic.

DB: Yeah. So you’ve got this theme then, you’ve got this topic is largely auditory based. How do you turn that into a comic, which is largely not traditionally having this audio element?

SG: So my editor , Eleri Harris, who’s also a CCS graduate…

DB: And a lovely, wonderful person also.

SG: Yes, and has journalism experience even predating her experience with comics, so she suggested having… there’s a program called ThingLink, and you can embed audio clips and they pop up these little buttons, and then you press them and it plays audio clips. Since I am… I mean, I have the basic technical skills to be a cartoonist, but not an audio editor, so I pointed her at the clips and, it’s like, ‘Go get ‘em!’

DB: (Laughs).

SG: She took them and embedded them…

DB: She took ‘em, and got ‘em, yeah!

SG: Yeah, it was great! I wish more things worked that way.

DB: It just works!

SG: Yes, brilliant! Editors, who knew? So that way there were actual clips that demonstrated the vocals, because when you describe it, I think uptalk, most people can conceptualise what that sounds like, but vocal fry is a relatively – it’s not a new concept in linguistics, but it’s new in pop culture.

DB: I see, okay. So no one really had… well, I say no one. Fewer people had context for what it sounded like and what it was.

SG: Yeah. So that needed an actual demonstration, so the comic is a scroll, and then the audio clips are just embedded in these empty word balloons that I had as a visual motif in the comic.

DB: What I’m interested in about The Nib specifically, it’s one of these sites that I go to very, very regularly and I follow them on Twitter, and every time something comes up I devour it, immediately. I like it, I like it a lot. Do you get much feedback from the readership on something like this?

SG: Well this was my first experience with The Nib, and there was a much greater degree of feedback than I was used to from anything else, you know. I think one of the things that’s great about non-fiction comics is that they draw in a… when you’re doing a fiction comic, your audience is people that read comics, but when you’re doing a non-fiction comic, your audience is people who read comics, and then anyone else that has the vaguest interest in the topic you’re covering, or people who just like that kind of news consumption, so it can have a much greater reach than – you know, I do indie sci-fi comics! My audience is microscopic! It blew up on Twitter and all these people Retweeted it, and then some people actually commented on the article itself, so I got to see a lot more of a response than I’m used to, but it wasn’t, like, ‘That panel was drawn terribly,’ it was just people wrestling with the whole concept of vocal fry.

DB: Yeah, it provoked a bit of debate.

SG: Yeah. I think most of the audience was people… we’re all on the same team, so it was mostly people being like, ‘Yeah, this!’ dash, dash, that arrow thing, and you know.

DB: (Laughs). Oh, emoticons, like teenagers use!

SG: Yeah. Then there were a couple people who were like, ‘Oh, this is really annoying and young women, blah, blah, blah,’ so there was a little bit of that.

DB: Jerks? On the internet?

SG: Yeah, I know! I actually got my first troll that I’ve ever had. I have to say for a troll he was fairly polite, but I was like, ‘I’ve never been trolled before!’ I totally engaged. I was responding to his defence of why women shouldn’t talk this way, and dah, dah, dah. I had the last word, so I assume that means I win.

DB: I guess!

SG: I don’t know. I’m new to this whole thing!

DB: (Laughs). Oh dear. So you said that you do, by and large, indie sci-fi comics, and that’s been your main readership. So how did you get into doing indie sci-fi specifically then?

SG: I think for people who do genre fiction, or have a single genre interest, I don’t think it’s a choice. I think that people are drawn to that genre for reasons. People who work mainly in fantasy, or people who do mysteries, that sort of thing is that genre has always had a pull for them, so they end up being drawn into that genre. Not that they’re like, looking at a shelf of, ‘Hmm, horror, or science fiction, or romance? I could do any of these!’ It’s like, no, this is what my mind draws me to. I have always been a huge science fiction reader in terms of print books, and then when I was in college I took two creative writing classes, and I wrote science fiction in those. So when it came time, when I went to CCS and I was doing comics on my own, I just ended up naturally coming back there. Darwin Carmichael is fantasy more than that, so I wasn’t going back to… that was the time I really went back to science fiction. When I was doing Tom Hart and Matt Madden’s classes I was doing auto-bio, because every indie cartoonist has to go through that.

DB: Sure, because every indie cartoonist’s life is so interesting.

SG: I know mine was dead fascinating! I did an entire comic that was about hot sauce. I mean, everybody needed to read that.

DB: I’m interested now actually, now you say it like that! I’m in. So you’re also an award winner.

SG: Yeah, I won an Ignatz Award last year.

DB: A brick!

SG: Yes, it is literally a brick.

DB: Cool! Did that change anything for you then?

SG: I guess having that kind of recognition is nice, you know. I don’t know if it has. Like, when I got into Best American Comics, I think that that had a visible – well not a visible, but an impact, a discernable impact on my life. People read that comic, and then they reached out to me, and I got some freelance stuff through it. It was weird because people are like, ‘I want something that’s like that comic that’s in Best American,’ and that comic is very raw. I was kind of uncomfortable, because it’s also very different from the other work that I do, so that was a blessing and a curse. With the Ignatz, I don’t know. It’s a big reward, but it’s still within the small community of indie comics. It would be great, because it was for House of Women, it would have great if someone had been like, ‘Oh, this is an award winning comic. Well I’m a publishing house, let me publish this for you,’ but that’s not happened yet. I’m waiting!

DB: (Laughs). But you are being published now as well.

SG: Yeah, my comic The Oven comes out in April from AdHouse, and that’s an indie science fiction relationship comic, post-apocalyptic type thing.

DB: So this is out in April. Do you have a date for this?

SG: A specific date?

DB: Is it just April?

SG: The first appearance it makes is at MoCCA in New York, which is April 12th and 13th I believe. So that’s the first convention that we’re going to have the book at, and then it will be wherever I am, or wherever Chris is. I have a bunch of conventions that I’m going to this year, more than I’ve ever done before.

DB: Yeah? So you’re going on the road a great deal this year then?

SG: Yeah. Well one of the reasons I moved to Pittsburgh is it’s central to a lot of the convention circuit that I like to do, or hope to do. Since we self-publish Darwin Carmichael, I have all the books.

DB: (Laughs). You have a room!

SG: There’s so many books.

DB: The Darwin Carmichael wing.

SG: Yeah. I was joking at one point with my boyfriend about how we were going to get rid of our couch and just make all of our furniture out of Darwin Carmichael books, and I guess I wasn’t hitting the right tone, because he just was looking at me with this expression of total horror!

DB: (Laughs).

SG: He was just like, he really thought for a minute that I was going to replace all our furniture with boxes of books.

DB: I mean, who needs a table! Who needs to put their legs under a table, more specifically.

SG: Yeah, that’s totally overrated. Just put some books down, throw a tarp over it, let’s call it a day.

DB: There we go, that sounds ideal. (Laughs). So you’re in Pittsburgh so that you can shoot off in all directions and be equidistant from a lot of the shows you like to go to.

SG: Yeah. The only shows that really… I mean, going to MeCAF in Maine, which I’ve done a couple times, I actually don’t really like that show, so whatever, but that’s a 9 or 10 hour drive, and that’s doable, but getting pretty far. MICE in Boston, which I’ve done for a number of years, is also getting a little far, but I’ll probably go, because I’ve historically done pretty well at that show, and I have a cousin in Boston I can stay with. Anyplace that I can go and not have to rent a room, it’s just like…

DB: Yeah, that helps, doesn’t it? That helps significantly.

SG: Yeah, having friends.

DB: I’ve been thinking a lot about festivals and conventions a lot this year as well. I think I did quite a lot the last few years, and this year I want to do less, because I feel like the more conventions I do, the less time I have to actually make anything. I feel like I’m not getting enough time to do the stuff that I want to do. It’s a difficult thing, because I always come back from these shows all fired up and energised, but then without the time to actually spend that energy, I think.

SG: Yeah. James Sturm, the co-founder of CCS, or I forget what his technical position name is.

DB: He’s the Dumbledore.

SG: Yes, he’s the Dumbledore. He would always talk about winter being the cartooning season, and I do think that there is something to that, because most conventions tend to be clustered around the warmer months. So if you can get into an ebb and a flow of cartooning where there’s times when you’re cartooning more, and times when you’re more focussed on the other aspects that you need, because in this contemporary world where we’re all doing our own publishing and our own promotion and all that sort of stuff, you can’t just be an artist. You have to spend time promoting, or being present in the world, and putting yourself out there. Also, you know, moving to Pittsburgh, I have all these friends who are cartoonists who don’t live in Pittsburgh, and going to conventions is when I see them.

DB: That’s true.

SG: I get to go to New York and Chicago and this year I’m going to go to Columbus Ohio, which I’ve never been to, but I hear Columbus is great, and Richmond for HeroesCon, and I’ve never been there. It’s like, this is my vacation man! I don’t take any others!

DB: (Laughs).

SG: I also do not have kids, so that’s a huge difference. I’m just up here, living my bohemian freedom. I’m going to stay up ‘til 2:00 in the morning and let’s sleep in ‘til 10:00.

DB: ‘It sounds great,’ he says through gritted teeth. No, it sounds great. You enjoy your childless life.

SG: (Laughs). I do, thank you. Yeah.

DB: Oh dear!

SG: You enjoy having a legacy.

DB: Oh okay, yeah. Now you put it that way, yes I will. Thank you very much. (Laughs). I mean, you talked about actually doing it then, so what do you create art with these days? What’s your process and what are your tools?

SG: Well, I draw my comics by hand. You know, I thumbnail beforehand, and I’ve taken – my new technique for thumbnailing is that I have little note cards, index cards, and I do my thumbnail pages on the index cards, and then I can put them up on my tack board. That way I can move them around to change the page order, and stuff like that. A, I think it’s super cool, but B, it’s kind of useful, instead of having them in a notebook where I’m constantly flipping back and forth. So I do that, and then I draw the comic at size in pencil, and then I scan that, and I usually size it up a bit, and print blue lines onto Bristol, then I ink that with either my Faber-Castell pens, or Faber-‘Castille’? Faber-‘Castle’?

DB: Castell.

SG: My PITT Artist Pens, or if I am feeling especially devoted, I’ll ink them with a brush. I’m making a comic right now with a brush. (Sighs). It’s so time consuming.

DB: But you love it, right?

SG: I love the result.

DB: There we go. I mean, that’s good enough, isn’t it?

SG: Yeah. I mean, I think for the right comic it’s absolutely the thing to use, but it doesn’t just double, it triples or quadruples the amount of time it takes to ink a page.

DB: Why is that?

SG: With the pens, I mean, they’re mechanical pens, and I think that’s very accurate. You always get the same kind of line, they’re very predictable. So I can just zip through a page, and my drawing style is very, very simple. One might even say simplistic, so it’s not like – I’m not hatching.

DB: I’m going to say refined.

SG: Oh thank you! That’s generous. Yes, my refined style is very quick, so I can really whip through inking a page, and I usually have a lot of empty spaces in my comics, which is a trick that I picked up from looking at a lot of Japanese art that employs a lot of… and manga too, picked up the same thing. Then I took that visual motif and I used it to my great advantage, but with a brush, you know, you would have ink, brushes. Everyday I feel like my brush – I don’t know how it’s going to act.

DB: Oh, they have moods.

SG: Yeah, it’s like a tiny, irate animal, and some days it’ll do exactly what I want it to do, and other days it has a little piece that will kick off to the side and it’s just very tedious, although it does mean that I can stream stuff on Netflix for many, many hours at a time.

DB: You get through a lot of seasons of a show.

SG: Yeah. I’m working through season three of House of Cards right now.

DB: Pretty good.

SG: Pretty dark!

DB: I’ve not seen it yet.

SG: Oh, well it’s based on Richard III.

DB: Okay, of course.

SG: So the character played by Kevin Spacey is essentially doing a Richard III, ruling over people and his rise to evil power, although in this case it’s the US Presidency.

DB: He’s a Slytherin!

SG: He is absolutely a Slytherin, but like, the worst kind. The kind that makes us all look bad.

DB: A real dog kicker.

SG: Yeah, actually.

DB: (Laughs). So, you’ve got a page of inked comics. What happens to it then?

SG: Then I scan it, and I clean it up in Photoshop, and if it’s coloured, I will colour it in Photoshop, or do greytone, or whatever, and then send it to the printer or the publisher or whoever.

DB: Squeeze it down a cable to somewhere else.

SG: Yes!

DB: Do you have any special, sort of, tricks, I guess? Magic tricks for making the artwork look good in the computer then? I often think, like, one of the things I’ve noticed with everyone is, I think everyone’s kind of convinced that they’re colouring stuff wrong in Photoshop.

SG: I don’t know, I think I have my colouring technique down pretty well. The one tip that I like to share with people is I use BPelt. Are you familiar with this?

DB: Yeah, the plug-in.

SG: Yeah, so I use BPelt, and it’s a plug-in that you can install in Photoshop. My style of comics, I have a lot of completed shapes, so my line work closes up, and that’s something that I developed on purpose because of this program, this existed, and then I started using it. So BPelt will automatically fill those spaces with colours, and then it will create an image that’s… god, it’s actually really hard to describe. So then you stick it under the art, and it makes it really easy to select areas to fill with colour, or greytones if you’re doing that. I use that pretty religiously, and it makes my life immeasurably easier. Looking at your comics, you use watercolours but it seems like in some comics that there are clearly digital elements.

DB: Yes.

SG: So how do you do your watercolours?

DB: I’ve got two ways of doing it, because sometimes people ask me, ‘How’d you get that watercolour technique in your comics,’ and I say, ‘Watercolours,’ and they go, ‘Oh!’ They’ve been convinced that I’ve been using the computer to do watercolours, and I’ve tried and I don’t think you can get effective looking watercolours through the computer, and if you can, watercolours are quicker I find. One of the things I do sometimes is I’ll use the watercolour to put tones down on the page. I did it for a while, I used a grey wash on top of the line work, and then scanned that in, and then painted underneath it with flat colour, so then you’ve got the texture on top of the flat colour. That worked out quite nicely, but I’ve been playing with a way of doing the artwork with one tone of colour, so if I’ve got black lines, I’ll do a green wash for everything. I’ll get varying levels of tone with that, and then using some trickery in Photoshop, using the channels and what have you, and some of the selective colour stuff to separate out the green layer from the black layer. So then locking the transparent pixels on the green layer, so I can paint in on top of the wash. So, colour the wash, and then I can paint underneath it with flat colour as well, and then I can colour the lines as well if I want to. It’s a bit of a laborious long way around it, but I think it looks pretty good. I set it up in an action, so the first time I did it, it took I don’t know how many clicks to actually get everything together, and I recorded it in an action, so now I just press ‘Shift F2’ or something, and it just does it for me.

SG: So you do your watercolour on your actual inks?

DB: Yeah.

SG: Then you’re able to separate the two, so you have the crisp black line art?

DB: Yeah.

SG: Wow, that sounds amazing. You should do a tutorial!

DB: I think there’s a version of it on my website.

SG: Oh really? Okay, I’ll have to check it out.

DB: It’s kind of a laborious and long way around, and if I’m honest, it’s kind of a work in progress, but I’m finding out that you can use the channel mixer to separate out entirely one colour. So if I do all of my wash in, say, green, if you go to the channel mixer, so Image – Adjustments – Channel Mixer, you have a bunch of pre-sets from the drop down, so you can say ‘black and white with a green filter’, and it’ll leave your image black and white, but it will get rid of all the green. You’ve got to play with the settings a little bit, and then you can separate out the black line work from what was existing, and lay that on top of a selection made from – or the tone from the green layer, and put that onto a new layer as well.

SG: Doesn’t that create ghosting between the black line art and the wash layer?

DB: Not really, because the wash layer also has the black line on it as part of it as well, so it’s not the absence of it, it just sits on top, duplicated as a colour.

SG: Oh, that’s really handy.

DB: It’s alright, yeah. I don’t know, it’s something I’ve been playing with. I don’t feel like it’s perfected yet, but I think it’s super useful, because I know that then I can drop in areas of colour really, really quickly. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got way more control with a brush than I do a stylus. Like, an actual real brush, you know. The last book I did, I achieved ‘Paint Zen’ at one point, so I knew from the weight of the brush how much pigment there was on there, and where the tip of the brush was, and also the underside of the brush, so I could swoop it through and just fill out this guy’s fingers effortlessly. It was great, and I’ve not really achieved that since, but I’m much, much better with a brush than I am a stylus, but I’m quite good with Photoshop I suppose.

SG: I have a Wacom tablet and a stylus that I use for colouring, and I cannot draw with it at all. It’s terrible. I think, especially doing this comic for The Nib, I saw why the Cintiq is so hot, because it’s like, since you’re producing something so quickly, if you can just get to that stage where you’re just – because you’re basically just doing finished art as your first pass. That would have made the whole process immeasurably faster, and ultimately have been better, because the final product was on the web anyway. I feel like that would make the difference between, like – because yeah, the stylus is terrible. I don’t know, I’ve never used a Cintiq, I don’t know what I’m talking about.

DB: No, it’s pretty good. It is pretty good. I have a Cintiq and I use it for colour sometimes, but I still… I don’t know, this is just me and I guess my own prejudices, but I still find it easier to draw with that tactile ink on paper. But the Cintiq’s great, it’s an excellent tool, but it is just a tool. I tell people it’s a different kind of paintbrush. It’s a really good paintbrush, but it doesn’t replace any thinking or anything.

SG: No, I would imagine not. Probably the benefit of using actual, physical materials is not having an ‘undo’ button.

DB: Oh yeah, definitely. For me, having to work straight in ink or whatever I’m doing, it means you’ve got to own your mistakes as you go along, and I think a lot of my style has emerged from having to fix a drawing rather than abandon it.

SG: Yeah, I feel like with a brush I have way more good mistakes that happen, because mistakes are inevitable when you’re using a brush. It doesn’t always behave the way you want it to, and then you have to incorporate that, and when it’s with a brush, often I’ll be able to make that into something interesting that I wouldn’t have predicted from the beginning, but when I’m using mechanical pen and I make a mistake, it is like, that’s it. It’s just a mistake!

DB: This goes back to your idea of the mechanical pen giving you the mechanical line, and the organic brush giving you an organic line. Do you think that an organic line lends itself to looking more spontaneous?

SG: Oh yeah, absolutely. Sometimes I feel like it’s almost cheating. When I draw a page and I use the same pencils, the same basic level of drawing skill that I have, and then in one case I’ll ink it with a pen, and in the other case I’ll ink it with a brush, and people look at the brush inked page and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s great! I love it! You should do more work like this!’ I’m like, that’s just cheating! I just used a brush, it’s not like they’ve gotten better!

DB: I’ve tricked you into thinking I’m better than I am!

SG: I’ve tricked you with these big spot blacks! You fools!

DB: Maybe I’ll edit all this out, so people don’t get too good a look behind the magician’s cloth here, but I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes people look at the original pages of mine, and I’ve had people say, ‘Wow, but you haven’t made any mistakes,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, no I’ve made loads of mistakes, but I’ve hidden them. I’ve hidden them well enough.’ I always think that if I try and correct my mistakes, if I go and Photoshop it or redraw something and stick it on top, or whatever it is, I think my mistake always becomes way more obvious.

SG: I think I’m too lazy at a basic level to engage in too much redrawing.

DB: There’s that as well!

SG: It’s just like, you’ve got to keep moving forward. I think that’s the basic rule of cartooning or being an artist is like, you can’t stall, you’ve just got to keep moving forward, and that’s the only way that you’re going to make any progress, because you’re never going to get to the end of a page and be like, ‘Yes, this page!’

DB: I always think, you know, I tell myself, ‘Make the next one the good one.’ This one has to be good enough, the next one will be better. Constantly trying to make that next one slightly better. I’m interested in small increments at the moment, rather than sweeping everything off the table and starting again. I want to get it down over being right at the moment, I think.

SG: Yeah, I mean, if it’s not done, who’s going to see it anyway?

DB: Heck yeah!

SG: You’ve got to get it done. There are so many cartoonists out there, or people who draw comics who just don’t finish.

DB: How many 200-page books do you think are out there, that got finished on page three?

SG: Oh my god, innumerable.

DB: (Laughs).

SG: There’s especially this thing with younger cartoonists, that people have these huge epics. Especially with young, I mean early 20s or teens, that they have all these characters and these worlds, and these huge epics that they want to do, and it’s just like, how many of those get done? Not many, I would guess. Short stories, short stories are great. If you are starting out, just start small. Just finish things.

DB: Yeah! Baby steps, baby steps, jump off a cliff.

SG: Yeah! Baby steps, baby steps, Jaime Hernandez.

DB: Exactly! I mean, this is the way you build up to it. No, I completely agree. I think that’s solid advice.

SG: Yeah, I try.

DB: Cool. So you’re going to have a book out in April with AdHouse called The Oven, and people can come buy it off you at MoCCA.

SG: Yeah, at MoCCA.

DB: MoCCA. Sorry, my British accent, ‘MoCCA’. ‘Ello mate! Where is that?

SG: That’s in New York City.

DB: I am super aware of my accent now. So people can come buy this book off you. If they wanted to follow you online, buy some books from your website, whereabouts can they go?

SG: My website is redinkradio.com.

DB: Great, and if they want to buy books, they can get to it from there?

SG: Yeah, I have a link to my store from there.

DB: Excellent. Sophie, thanks ever so much for speaking to me.

SG: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me on your show.

 

Read Transcript by Renée Goulet

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