Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The past is a grotesque animal

I went looking through old sketchbooks tonight. From a brief review, this appears to be the second group drawing I ever did. I didn't date my sketchbooks at this stage, but from the class notes it appears to be from early 2007. What you see was by far the best stuff in that book. It's shocking to think this was less than two years ago. I've come a looooooong way.

Looking through that book was fascinating. This sketchbook is where the characters really started to form. I had them in my head by then, but this is when their looks became standardized. Max aside, what you see here are the characters as they exist today.... just drawn in a very, very primitive way. Even though I had almost no control over the form, I was getting competent enough to start planning the strip. Here is where rough sketches of some of the parents began to appear, as well early layouts of the Sapphire Lake neighborhood and Bud's clubhouse. I was so ambitious!

The reason I dove into my old sketchbook pile is because I wanted to find a good visual of how damn raw I was at that point. I had a rambling ready to go, and I figured a visual was needed.

Tonight I went back and read all the Precocious archives. You know what... It's not that bad. Strips I was *so* embarrassed of just two days ago don't look as weak with a bit of objective detachment. Even the drawing style has turned from "inept and incompetent" to "adorably rough." For now, at least. I may change my mind tomorrow.

There are loads of mistakes, of course. Two strips accidentally omit periods in dialog, with Jacob the victim each time. Tiffany remains the character most likely to cause a mistake, as two strips result in her body parts disappearing after they pass behind something in the foreground. Lots of strips fall short layout-wise, but I've already covered that. (I'm still upset at myself for choking on strip 24.) There's also a lot of places where I know I made mistakes, but chose to keep going rather than lose my mind over details I wasn't skilled enough to handle anyway. Stray lines, poor lettering, bad proportions, ineffective gestures... whatever. Rookie mistakes. Forgiveness is divine?

But do all those mistakes add up to a reader (or worse, a syndicate) losing faith in my potential? Ever since I put it online, I was certain my early work would doom me. Tonight... maybe not?

My first art was well-crafted, even if it was clunky at points. I introduced all main characters (as well as the parents most likely to appear) and gave them face time in proportion to their importance. I touch on some themes I want to handle in the strip - which is where I am at my worst, unfortunately - and I certainly do my best to make the tone of the strip apparent.

The first strip does its job. The clubhouse is featured, giving the setting. Bud speaks while Tiffany sits in the background, indicating Bud is the more central character. Autumn's story about sneaking out shows she is both new *and* a strong characters. Bud telling her she fit in, as she threatens violence over beverage selection, tells the reader what to expect with tone and humor. Not bad. It also nicely contrasts with Jacob's introduction in the next strip.

On the character front, I really like how I handled things. The goal was to simplify the kids a bit in order to make their personalities easier to identify for a new reader. Autumn is overly aggressive. Jacob is the sweet pushover who is constantly injured or manipulated. Tiffany is aggressively spacey, to the point of narcolepsy. All of that, for the most part, works.

Then there's Bud. He's the hardest to nail down, as his role is to be the central character. Bud is best defined in how he interacts with each character. With Autumn, he asserts himself as a central character with a leadership role. Bud contrasts with Autumn in that he takes a more playful approach than she does. With Jacob, he becomes the clear leader to Jacob's naive henchman. Here we see Bud at his manipulative best, down to the callous dismissal when Jacob indicates they are "best" friends. With Tiffany, he is able to interact with her casually without her drifting away. Their interaction is limited in this storyline, but it will be made cleared when the parents arc appears. With Dionne, Bud meets his foil. As long as Dionne is around to make Bud look foolish, the reader is shown that Bud is just a good kid who can talk a big game. In the end, I am not sure how much of that really comes across, but I am hopeful his personality is defined enough. The parents arc is when a lot of Bud's idiosyncrasies appear, so I am not too worried if he's not fully defined yet. It's coming.

What does make Bud shine is not in how others define him, but how he defines the others. When Bud says something, the reader is meant to take it as fact. While Autumn gets lots of face time because the story is based around he being the new girl, Bud is clearly the central figure. Bud is the one who tells us Autumn's hater attitude fits right in. He's the one who implies that Jacob's whole family is wholesome and innocent. He redefines Autumn's narrow villain definition, and later explains to Jacob the difference between a regular villain and a SUPERvillain. He initiates the gender war and explains why Autumn is so aggressive, indicating acceptance and forgiveness for a character that might seem too mean otherwise. He repeats how there is no one to recruit, hinting at the group being so insular that they ignore non-genius kids. He lets the reader know that Max being a normal, nice kid is extremely atypical for the Poppinstock bunch. He is the one who sets the rules for the war. He is the one who explains why the kids seem to enjoy arguing semantics and setting rules rather than just hitting each other with water balloons as normal people would. If there's any doubt as to who is the strip's central character, Bud defeats Autumn in the end. The arc begins with Bud in the clubhouse, and it goes out with all other characters leaving (or being banished from) HIS clubhouse.

I do enjoy the early arcs because I get to show Autumn adjusting to a setting where she is no longer the clearly dominant figure, but rather an equal who fits in perfectly. Unfortunately for her, this means she eats a lot of humble pie. Autumn tries to recruit normal kids, only to be thwarted by them being horribly normal. The more strategy Autumn plans, the quicker it is undone by teammates who clearly have no interest in being loyal followers. In the end, the established kids defeat her and Autumn settles in as one of the group. I do worry Autumn isn't likable enough, but I tried to show over and over that this behavior is just what the kids do. Autumn just has to take her licks in the first few arcs as she learns the game.

While the two main characters are dominant from beginning to end, the rest are all given their time in the sun and then shuffled out of the way for the final confrontation. This is what I love most about the arc.

Max, being useless in a war story, only gets three strip appearances. We learn he's the biggest and strongest, but his gentle and caring nature could never work with a evil story like this! We know he's there. His personality is clearly defined. He is tossed aside, having done his part.

Suzette enters as the incendiary figure that spurs the rising action. She's a fun character because she's always contentious, but she's not as complex as the rest. Suzette is self-righteous, often in a hypocritical manner. Suzette is aggressive. Suzette is always marginalized, which just fuels her fire. She burns hot, but she burns fast. Once her flame is doused, she's gone from the story.

Dionne is vital to the arc, as she is the face of TRUE evil. Without Dionne reducing both Autumn and Bud to a weakly pointing at her as she dismisses them with a "tah," the war could look far more mean-spirited than it is. As Dionne has no soul, that means everyone else does. The kids are just having fun, and they are not prepared for when the real gamer appears. Dionne is mean to be Bud's foil, which may seem odd considering she aids him in the end. Just remember: Dionne had Bud dead to rights after joining the girls squad. After that, she turned her focus to thwarting everyone else! Dionne is a dangerous character because she takes over whenever she appears, but I felt she was vital for the first arc. Any extra bit to show my strip is not pure evil and unlikable is a good thing.

While Jacob and Tiffany are clearly main characters, the first arc made it clear their roles are secondary. Most of the time, they served as sidekicks to Bud and Autumn, but they did get their time to shine. I loved the part where Jacob went off on his own, because I could show how carried away gets in these situations. Jacob's attempt to be a badass is easily disarmed by Tiffany wanted to play her own game. Tiffany always sat back to toss in some spacey line to silly up a conversation or knock a character off-balance, but she shows her competence when facing off against Jacob. In the end, the sidekicks take each other out so the story can return to where it began: Bud verses Autumn.

If you're still reading at this point, good job! I'm almost done!

In the end, no one can say the first arc of Precocious wasn't conceptually brilliant. I knew what I wanted and I did a darn good job of putting that plan in motion. The execution might not have been great at times, but the idea was solid. I'm proud of what I've done and, I had to brag about it. Isn't a long, happy and enthusiastic post WAY better than me beating myself up over and over?

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