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Designing comic characters—interview with John Garrett

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John Garrett

John Garrett writes and draws at Hypertransitory.com

It’s been one year since we started interviewing talented people form the 3D industry. Each one revealed a unique connection between their work and Blender. The moment has come to find out where does Blender stand in relation to comics.

John Garrett has been drawing comics since he was five. Today, he speaks about the things he learned along the way. If you read carefully, there’s a lot to learn about character making and how serious making science fiction stories really is.

Marius Iatan: When I was a kid, ‘comics’ meant a paper issue filled with great heroes and villains. Today we have a lot more different media choices, and most of them are digital. How does this influence the comics landscape and variety?

John Garrett: For the consumer it means a lot more choices and convenience with regard to getting ahold of your favorite comics, or even trying news ones. Since physical comic shops and bookstores only have so much shelf space, you could either miss out on a comic you wanted to buy, or else the retailer could make that choice for you and not even order a comic you might be interested in. With digital services like Comixology (now owned by Amazon) you’ll never miss your favorites because the digital supply is infinite, plus the space is theoretically infinite as well. This means the digital retailer doesn’t have to worry about how much shelf space they have when ordering comics, they can just provide them all.

On the other hand, specialty comic shops will understandably take a hit because of the convenience of digital. For example, I live a good 45 minutes away from the closest comic shop. The trip is a bit of an annoyance, but I prefer to read my comics the old fashioned way, so I have them hold the comics I want to buy, and make the trip every couple weeks to buy those. If it’s something I just can’t wait for, I’ll buy it off Comixology and read it, but I’ll still go to the comic shop and buy the paper copy. I do this because I want to keep those order numbers up for comics I feel are worth it and “vote with my dollar”.

You can imagine that a lot of business is lost from people who won’t drive out of their way to do this. This isn’t wrong—after all the consumer is always going to make the best choice for them, but the brick and mortar retailers have got to be feeling a negative impact from this.

Niva and Dux characters

Niva and Dux characters from TITANS | DIVINITY

Marius: How do you see the future of the comics industry? Where is this all going?

John: Right now it looks to me like the big two (Marvel and DC) are more concerned with movies than with the actual comics these movies are derived from. The comics themselves are made not to be a distinct artwork unto themselves, but to be springboards or launching pads for movie properties. With Marvel being bought by Disney, and the ensuing editorial mandates that came down, the effects of these corporate decisions on the art and creative process itself has never been more transparent.

At this moment DC has begun a huge event called Convergence which many feel is nothing but a cover or stalling tactic to ride out the next few months as they move their entire operation from New York to Los Angeles. Why? Because the movie business is too lucrative to ignore and Marvel has been killing them at the movies.

This leaves Image Comics and other smaller publishers to pick up the slack of allowing truly creative works to be published without the weight of Disney or Warner Bros. leaning down on them to force them in line with the company vision.

A video posted by John Garrett (@johngarrettx) on

Marius: In the past few years we’ve seen quite a lot of Marvel characters coming to life on the big screen—both as movies and as cartoons. Is this a good thing or a bad thing for the comics culture?

John: I think it’s great, personally. Now that a lot of these characters are out in the mainstream, it’s kind of “Geek Chic” to be into comics now. It definitely wasn’t back in the day. When I was coming up in the 80’s and early 90’s reading comics was NOT something you necessarily wanted the other kids to know about. Unfortunately I couldn’t hide it because I was constantly and obsessively drawing Spider-Man or the X-Men on something (notebooks, textbooks, lockers, etc.), so everyone knew I was into it.

Since people are more accepting of it now, I really hope younger kids coming up don’t have to endure the kind of ridicule I did. So that’s great to me.

Plus, to be a little calculating, people can now see that comics are viable as a way to earn a living. Not everyone can work for Marvel or DC (Disney or Warner Bros.), but there’s a lot of talented artists bringing these characters to life out there and getting paid for it, either through commissions or being hired as in-house character artists or effects guys.

Marius: How did you decide to make the move from cartoon lover to cartoon creator?

John: I don’t remember ever actually deciding to do it. My mom bought me 4 comics from a garage sale when I was maybe 5 years old. After that I kept trying to draw the characters, and eventually started making my own stories.

I was always drawing some kind of comic story, usually with a ballpoint pen, and it took me picking up The Marvel Tryout Book back in the 80’s for me to figure out that I was going to have to learn a bit more in order to make comics the way they did.

Marius: What is the process of creating a new character? How do you decide what place will each of them take in the world?

John: Normally, I start with the basic story, and I’ll have the broad strokes of the whole thing. Then I’ll start fine-tuning and think “Ok, someone has to want to do ‘X’, while someone else wants to stop that first person”. From there I’ll start adding more characters who align with the first ones and figuring out their motivations.

So I’ll have these characters written up, and at that point I’ll start figuring out their look, although usually that kind of happens automatically. The hard part in 3D is trying to make the models and scenes match what you came up with in your head.

Ipzo, the only Titan that isn't 100% Human.

Ipzo, the only Titan that isn’t 100% Human.

Marius: Onuss, Dux, Niva, Ipzo—your characters have awesome names. Is there a real-life story behind them? Where do you get your inspiration from?

John: Lol, I usually just make up those names as “cool sounding gibberish”. Sometimes I’ll be sitting in my living room speaking potential names out loud and likely sounding like a complete imbecile but it gets the job done!

I get inspiration from a lot of those older comics from the 70’s through the early 90’s. This kind of dovetails with my interest in real-life science. I’m not a scientist by any means, but I’ve always been intrigued with physics and how the world works.

Many times I’d be reading a comic and someone would say “that could never happen”! Well, I’d go to the encyclopedia and try to look it up. I used to love it when real scientists would comment on how (or if) superpowers could work. A “famous” one was called Superman And Sex: Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex written by sci-fi author Larry Niven. I was astonished (and horrified) by the biological and physical realities he described. Still freaks me out to this day. I can’t get it out of my head every time Lois and Superman kiss on screen (no matter what movie/tv series it is). Thanks, Larry!

Also, I love a lot of the “harder” sci-fi that’s not really character driven. If you look at something like the movie Interstellar, they had to really work to ground that movie into a personal story, but the real problem is one of physics and relativity.

Another one is The Cold Equations. A sci-fi short story by Tom Godwin. Again, there is a simple problem of physics which suddenly has deadly consequences. Not driven by the people at all, but by cold hard physics that can’t be changed.

Just an aside, but to help with my sci-fi stories, I’ve been taking online courses at World Science U (http://www.worldscienceu.com). This is a free online university featuring courses from many of the top scientific minds in the world. You can’t beat that! I think a lot of artists who use Blender have to have a little bit of that wonder at physics. We try so hard to simulate it, I thought it would be great to really understand it as well.

The Kyrrhi alien race from the Titans|Divinity novel

The Kyrrhi alien race from the Titans|Divinity novel

Marius: For each episode of Titans-Divinity you post a short ‘making of’ involving Blender and Daz 3D. Are you sharing your technique to attract more people to the comics creation world?

John: Definitely. I like to post those making of parts so in case anyone comes along who might have though of trying it out realizes “Hey, he’s doing it, there’s no reason I can’t do it!”.

The Blender (and Daz) community really only work if people share the info they have, because many times the documentation doesn’t quite give you what you need. This is not a denunciation, but it’s the reality, since Blender is really developed by volunteers who have a finite amount of time. I’d rather have them work on the features and just let me play around with it, than have perfect documentation of far less features and a far less capable program.

Marius: What is the most challenging part of creating the graphics for a comics?

John: Easily the most difficult part of doing this in 3D is making the characters unique. There’s always a trade-off. If you start with the same character mesh or model you save time, but the characters look really similar. If you create something new for each character it’s going to cost you big in time spent.

The second most challenging part is to make the models more lively. 3D comics characters can look stiff if you don’t put a lot of work into their poses. I don’t always succeed as well as I’d like to in this regard.

Steel Comics

DC Comics Steel from the 1990’s Reign of the Supermen era.

Marius: How does Blender help?

John: When I first decided to start doing comics in 3D, I used a book called Introducing Character Animation with Blender, by Tony Mullen. I learned how to make characters from scratch. I also took a few courses from Blender Cookie (an awesome resource) on character modeling. After all this, I realized that it would still take me too much time to do it completely in Blender.

Then I moved over into Daz Studio, a free Poser clone which focuses much more on posing and characters. This seems like Blender was abandoned, but not in the slightest.

I still use Blender to make objects (buildings, weapons, clothing, etc) for the comics that I don’t want to pay for in the Daz store. This is where learning to model comes in really handy. If not for Blender, I would be completely broke buying all that stuff from Daz.

A video posted by John Garrett (@johngarrettx) on

Also, in service of making my characters unique, I can export the base model of the characters from Daz, then import them into Blender, tweak them and import the obj back into Daz as a character “morph” which changes the shape of the character.

Another trick along these lines is to export the character and the clothing from Daz, then run a cloth or other physics simulation on the clothing to make it rest or drape better on the figure, then import it back into Daz.

In addition, Blender is great for crowd scenes, because I can quickly use a particle system to generate a bunch of low poly figures that I have “decimated” to make it easier on my computer. I couldn’t do it without Blender. Duplicating all those figures in Daz would quickly kill my computer.

Nightwing

Marius: What would be the one thing that would be immensely helpful for comics authors if added in Blender?

John: I think Freestyle rendering has to be really reigned in and worked on for efficiency. It’s much better than it was, but it’s still slow. Since for a comic you’re going to be doing many, many panels those things have to render QUICKLY. Right now I can crank out a flat, toon style rendering in Daz fairly quickly, but Freestyle renders are bit pokey in comparison. That time adds up, especially when doing several test renders per panel to check poses and such.

Marius: Do you have any plans of working on a cartoon as well?

John: I’d love to do a cartoon, but don’t know if I could really devote the resources to it now. It takes a lot for me to even get a comic out there. I’d love to do something like Deadstar one day.

I did do a very short “animated comic” using Blender for one of my Titans/Divinity comics. I’m definitely going to do more of those.

Marius: If superheroes were real, would you be one of them? Did you think of a name for your character?

John: I’d have to have the right power to give me a distinct advantage. Maybe one of those “Let’s get the hell out of here!” type powers like phasing (Kitty Pride) or teleporting (Nightcrawler).

As for a name, I’m not sure if I’d stick around the fight long enough to get a name…too busy teleportin’ the heck out of there!

Otto Octavius as The Superior Spider-Man overlooking New York.

Otto Octavius as The Superior Spider-Man overlooking New York.

You can see more of John Garrett’s work at Hypertransitory.com.

Marius

Passionate about technology and constantly working on making a difference, Marius is RenderStreet’s CEO.