9q9a

I thought I’d try something new out. Here it is. Let me introduce 9 Questions, 9 Answers! or 9Q9A!, my bid to interact with the webcomic community on a larger scale. Something I’ve always enjoyed are bite-size, targeted interviews. There are so many great creators out there that I have so many questions for, and instead of pestering them over and over with innumerable emails, I thought it might be more effective to craft a handy little questionnaire and send it to those gals and guys that I think are fighting the hard fight to make good work and put it out there for you wonderful readers.

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Naturally the first creators I contacted were the great duo that are responsible for the fantastic Alpha-Flag webcomic, Jon Cairns and Renee Keyes. So, without further ado, the inimitable Jon Cairns will crack the inaugural 9Q9A! egg (and what a crack, he really went above and beyond with these answers.):

Q1] What are you working on right now, art-wise?

A1] Alpha Flag, my slow-to-update webcomic with Renee Keyes is nearing the end of its third issue, and the story is finally starting to get pretty meaty! Alpha Flag is a story about a man who is missing various aspects of his mind, and is working with a man who claims to be his confidence to try to put himself back together. It’s slow, meditative, and involves a lot of bad things happening to things that don’t deserve it. I think the most frequent caveat it receives when being recommended is that it’s hard to explain.

I’m also drawing a second webcomic called Pax Romana which is written by Jakob Free for his Centroversal Publishing. Pax is currently running weekly. It’s hard to explain what genre that one is since it kind of bounces around between all sorts. It’s Superhero, Romance, Crime and kind of none of those. I’ve been drawing that one on bigger paper and that’s definitely been a learning experience.

They’re great comics to work on side-by-side because they present wildly different challenges for me as an artist.

Whenever I can steal some downtime, I’ve been drawing the next installment of my Untitled SF series, too. I’m almost done with SF3, which is almost as long as the other two combined. It’s about a bunch of really smart people who live on a freshly terraformed Mars in a post-scarcity socialist utopia. It’s a series of slice of life shorts that oscillate between real science, science fiction, and LGBT content.

Q2] What is your workflow like?

A2] What’s my workflow like? Buckle up. This is going to be a long one if I can’t contain it. I’ll try.

These days, when I write something, I generally take a handful of sheets of copier paper and write down a constellation of vague ideas. When you can write on them physically, anywhere on any sheet, you can get all sorts of interesting interactions and relationships between the ideas going. Writing linear in a word processor just doesn’t cut it at that point. I’d definitely type a finished script in SimpleText (I guess they call it TextEdit now), but anything before that needs to be more freeform so you can refer to, rearrange, and doodle ideas as needed.

When it comes to drawing and inking, I’ll start with a list of tools:

For drawing…

• 5mm HB mechanical pencil (a really unsatisfying Staedtler one I picked up years ago when my main pencil suddenly died on me. I don’t find the pencil to be too crucial as long as it fits those initial parameters)

• Various white nylon erasers

• Rulers of various sizes, at least one being a 2″x18″ C-thru grid ruler

• A good t-square (still looking for a good one…)

• The smoothest, platest bristol you can find (the company I use changes with mood)

For inking…

• Copic/Micron fine liners of various widths

• Saji nibs (for the manga artist in me)

Rosemary & Co.-made #2, series 33 Pure Kolinsky Sable Pointed brush (this here matters a lot. They produce the brushes in house so you get them wholesale instead of paying $15 per brush for a Winsor & Newton)

• Speedball Super Black India Ink

My workflow is pretty basic. Compose the page as a small thumbnail sketch, draw out the panel borders, rough the panels out across the whole page, go back in and tighten up the pencils, ink on top of the pencils, erase, scan at 600 DPI, clean up and letter in Photoshop, repeat!

Something that my fancy art school painting classes taught me is that working on the entire page/painting/format at once ensures that the final composition will be a lot better, and way more even than it would’ve been had you just worked from top left to bottom right. No matter what step I’m doing, I (this is the keyword here) try to work the whole thing at once. Lately, with inking, I’ve been doing passes over the entire page with different tools in succession (fineliners, then nibs, then finally brush). It’s really helped to force me to work on the entire page a single entity, rather than taking every panel as a different illustration.

In the past, I used to use a ruler when inking fineliner lines, but nothing for when I was using a brush pen (waaay back in the day! Before the Age of the Brush Proper). It gave my work a really uneven look. I took that as a challenge to get the various lines to mesh better by abandoning the ruler when inking. It has helped, even though it is frequently frustrating.

I could talk about this stuff all day, though.

Q3] Who are your top three influences (any medium)?  

A3] Well, as a writer, my three biggest influences are probably Kurt Vonnegut, Grant Morrison and Stephin Merritt. They all celebrate the strange, the fringe and the “low” in their work. The first two with optimism, and Merritt with poetic tragedy. Those are all things I admire a lot and really want to nurture in my own work.

As an artist, my influences have shifted a lot more frequently as my work has matured. These days, I pray to the altar of Frank Quitely and the lineage of one point perspective gods (Moebius, Winsor McCay) that he is currently the Draftsman Supreme for. I guess he’s the avatar of composition. My avatar of inking is Becky Cloonan, at the moment. I’ve loved her work for ages (a few friends and I even co-own one of her pages. It shifts homes every year or two. It’s currently in my possession, residing above my drawing desk). I think what impresses me most about good inkers is the bravery inherent in their work–the willingness to take greater risks. My ligne claire-esque lineart could do with more bravery. Becky embodies that idea. The third art influence slot goes to a rotating array of manga artists. If you’d asked me a month ago when I was reading Sakamichi no Apollon it would’ve been Yuki Kodama, but for me it always comes back to Hirohiko Araki. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure has been a rock of an inspiration for at least a decade now. It’s been an ongoing project to collect every single tankōbon of the series. He just keeps making more, though. I think I have about 80 of them right now.

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Q4] What is the one piece of indispensable advice you would give a comics creator for getting their work out there?

A4] The most important thing to do is make lots and lots and lots of work. When you’ve got one super precious idea that you love, and you know everyone will love, too, it’s hard to make anyone invest in it. Publishers aren’t interested in untested creators with great story ideas, and audiences don’t particularly care either! Unless you’re building the idea solely for your own benefit (and want to lock it away in some vault like Prince does with half of his albums), you’re going to want to have work to show to people. Well, you’re going to want to have a lot of work to show to people. Give me an author with a stack of mini comics and a longer series or two and I can promise by the end of an archive dive I’ll have a greater understanding of that person as, well, as a person, and as a creator. That’s the kind of connection you need to cultivate with your audience, because audience equals success. Treat them right, and they will take you to really unexpected and rewarding places! Seriously, make so much work. As constantly as you can.

Q5] What do you think your duty is to the reader (if any)?

A5] The biggest duty you have to your readers is one that you have to yourself, first and foremost. That’s to make work with integrity. Meaning, the work has to represent you honestly. If you’re afraid of some specific genre or subject matter, yet you keep coming back to it, it’s probably because you actually want to talk about it in your work. Chasing that desire produces far more interesting work that resonates better with the audience you, yourself resonate better with, down the line. It makes your interactions with your fans really cool, too, ’cause they come up to you with questions about things you’re deeply interested in, that they, too, are deeply interested in. They might not even have known they were interested in the thing you had in your work, either.

Don’t chase trends, don’t (always) chase the money, don’t chase what’s expected of you. It’s a slower road to success, but it’s a lot less hollow and I like to hope it’ll last longer.

Q6] If you could do one thing better, in regards to graphic storytelling, what would it be? 

A6] I’d be a spot black master, if I could do one thing better. It’s a major weakness at the moment. I always look at the Paolo Riveras, Chris Samnees, Mike Mignolas and Becky Cloonans of the world and wonder why I’m not taking black more seriously in my inking. Get it together, Jon!

Q7] What, if anything, do you prefer to listen to while you work?

A7] I listen to the most pop-heavy music I can drag out of iTunes when I draw. Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton, Shania Twain, ABBA, Carpenters, Madonna, Willam, Ke$ha, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Adele, Aqua… and so on. When I’m drawing, the only thing I’m really focused on (besides the work) is melody, and no genre does melody in its most primal form than contemporary or not-so-contemporary pop (oh Karen Carpenter, how I miss you!). I find a really simple I-IV-V-I chord progression really reliable as background noise–at least better than the lower key indie rock stuff I prefer to listen to when not working.

When I write? Gotta be silence. Maybe close to silence. The sound of my aquarium machinery is okay. Gotta be silence, except also be in the presence of fish.

Q8] What is the one comic story that has stuck with you throughout the years?

A8] You know, I really don’t have any one idea that really lingers. I have a little orange book that I used to write all of my comic ideas in. I could pick it up and happily draw most of them today, but I don’t really spend much time actively thinking about them. These days I have stacks of fancy little Japanese notebooks (which they call notes–I love how they recontextualize English words into what we’d recognize as absurd nonsense) for each new future project. I fill them up with sketches and notes about characters, plots, themes and what have you.

That said, I do return to specific themes and moods a lot. Those stick with me. Isolation, both physical and social, solitude, optimism, teamwork, questions of agency–loss of, rediscovering, and discovering for the first time. Those are my jams.

Granted, I’ve been known to scavenge ideas from the orange book when a current work just needs something that I’ve already thought of before.

Q9] What do you consider to be the greatest power of graphic storytelling?

A9] The greatest power of graphic storytelling (at least in the context of comics) is its position halfway between the written word and television (or film, I guess. TV’s a better medium, though. Yes, I will fight you about it). You can rely on the tricks of both media to convey your story in novel ways that are unique to comics, and on the other side of the coin you’re restricted in really specific ways that are present in both forms of media. It’s just the right balance between can and cannot do to be interesting. I don’t think I could do Alpha Flag in any other medium than comics because of how the coloring and narration work. Which isn’t to say that adaptations wouldn’t be interesting in their own ways.

How’s that for a cop out answer? “It is good because of how it is.” Well, it makes sense to me.

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So there you have it, friends. If you’re not already on the Alpha-Flag train, then you should be. A fantastic webcomic to add to your reading repertoire and a great short-ish interview full of insights into one of the minds behind it! I myself resonate with a a whole helluva lot of what Jon says. He’s my new unofficial spirit-animal, and I was glad he was able to find some time to be a part of 9Q9A!

(Alpha-Flag images © Jon Cairns and Renee Keyes 2013)