Developing a Comic Strip- A Series
by John Lotshaw
Way back at the Boston meeting, I approached newly installed NCS President Tom Richmond and told him that I wanted to do something with the Society at the national level. “Put me to work,” I believe were the exact words I used. His response: “Oh, don’t say that. I’ll do it.”
Over time, we’ve been talking about a regular series of articles on the Reuben.org site, but I was at a loss for what I could bring to that party. What could I possibly impart that would be of value to NCS members and young cartoonists, as well as the world at large? This question delayed things for almost another eighteen months.
Before I answer my own question, let me impart a little background, which should put this in perspective.
A little background
Currently, I do a comic entitled Accidental Centaurs, which has been running in one form or another since 2002 at www.accidentalcentaurs.com. It is a fantasy-adenvture with humorous (or at least it’s supposed be humorous) aspects. Accidental Centaurs, ironically enough, was only going to be a six-month experiment. The plan was to do the Centaurs for about six to twelve months and learn the ins and outs of this newfangled webcomic medium. In the meantime, I’d be developing the real comic, which would launch me to fame and fortune sometime in 2004.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to fame and fortune…
While the events of the last 11 years have thrown a monkey wrench (along with a few monkeys) into the works, it has been an interesting trip, and one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Well, except maybe that “fame and fortune” thing. While I many not be driving a Ferrari or dining at Spago every night, Accidental Centaurs has introduced me to new friends, qualified me for membership in the NCS, and put me on a first-name basis with living legends of cartooning. It’s not a bad trade-off, actually.
I would like to get back to my original plan, and expand upon it. There are stories I want to tell that I can’t do within the format of Accidental Centaurs. I still want to continue to do Centaurs—I love the characters and story far too much let them go (I tried to do that once… It didn’t work). Plus, a rising tide lifts all boats, so hopefully a successful new comic will boost readership for Centaurs.
Where I’m coming from
I was introduced to cartoons as a very young child with the airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I remember crying whenever a Peanuts special ended, so imagine my delight at discovering more adventures of Charlie Brown and Snoopy in the newspaper (the Charlotte Observer, for those of you keeping score at home). I still remember taking paper and crayon in hand and copying the day’s strip out of the paper. This would have been about 1971.
From there, I progressed to drawing my own strips with the Peanuts characters. When I showed them to my father, he gently explained to me that I couldn’t do that because (and I still remember this conversation) there was “this man in California named Charles Schulz, and he’s the only one who can draw new Charlie Brown strips”. (Hey, you try explaining copyright and intellectual property law to a five year old!) After that, he suggested that try creating my own comic strip, which produced “The Bow-wows”, about a family of anthropomorphic dogs, including one named “Shortstop”.
From there, I continued drawing cartoons, eventually doing a strip during college that ran in an entertainment paper in two cities: Athens, Georgia and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I studied film in college and worked in video production and animation, but never got the cartooning bug out of my system. I produced a series of animated safety videos for children staring a talking computer-animated kangaroo, which set the stage for my transition from amateur to professional cartoonist.
I’ve been a science fiction fan almost as long as I’ve been interested in drawing cartoons. I still remember how I got hooked on SF… My gateway drug was (shudder) Lost in Space, which ran at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on WJCL-TV out of Savannah, Georgia. About four or five months into that, they replaced the adventures of the Robinson family with another space show, something called (yup, here it comes) Star Trek.
That was in 1974, and it’s been all downhill since then.See that picture over on the right? Doesn’t that kid just look like he’d rather be at a Dungeons & Dragons game than having his picture taken? You can just tell he’s gonna either grow up to be a software entrepreneur gazillionaire, a serial killer or a cartoonist. That’s what I mean by “downhill”.
Of course, becoming a Trekker (not a “trekkie”, thankyouverymuch) at such an early age, and at the point in time, positioned me perfectly for the explosion of science fiction and fantasy in American culture that was precipitated by the release of Star Wars in 1977. With science fiction having been such a huge part of my life, you’d think that it would have been a natural for me to try to do a comic with a SF theme, right?
Since I wouldn’t have rhetorically posed that question if the answer was “yes”, then the correct response should be obvious. I’ve been drawing cartoons and comic strips my whole frakkin’ life, I’ve gone through six Star Wars movies (two of them good), eleven Star Trek movies, five Trek television series (six, if you count the animated series), seven Doctors on Doctor Who, two Battlestar Galactica series (and I won’t count Galactica 1980), five years of Babylon 5 and countless movies and television shows in-between these franchises. It never occurred to me to combine comics and science fiction.
Now, fast forward to 2009. I had just gotten an email from Dave Coverly telling me I’d been accepted into the National Cartoonists Society and that I was invited to the Reuben Weekend in Hollywood, which, by the way, was in three weeks. I scrambled to make travel arrangements and went to the most incredible weekend of my life.
As I was packing and prepping for the trip to Los Angeles, I had begun to realize that I needed to develop another property, preferably a comic. I had put Accidental Centaurs on permanent hiatus in order to concentrate on publishing and other ventures (such as doing animation and motion graphics for video), and I felt that reviving Centaurs would be an further exercise in futility. While I enjoyed doing work for other people (especially if I was paid for it), work-for-hire never satisfied that creative urge that was the reason I got into cartooning in the first place.
What was needed was a new concept. In going through my sketchbook, looking for ideas, I stumbled upon a drawing I had done back around 1997 of a Shatner-esque space hero standing over a dead alien, oblivious to the fact that his hairpiece had slipped. The caption read “Captain Chromedome in BLAZIN’ PHASERS”. That became the germ of an idea.
While at the Reubens, I sketched some ideas, hoping inspiration would strike. However, I was a bit naive in thinking that I could actually get work done at the Reubens. I was way too busy being dumbfounded at being in the presence of cartooning giants to accomplish anything.
Eventually, I set aside the idea of a SF comic and jumped back into Accidental Centaurs. However, the desire to launch a new comic never left me, and I’ve been collecting bits and pieces ever since, hoping that something would be the acorn from which a mighty oak would grow. A lot of the bits and pieces are good, but not enough to carry a whole comic. I was looking for was a keystone that could lock all the elements into place. I knew it would come to me. That was my experience with Accidental Centaurs, which had been sitting in my sketchbook in various forms since I was in college, but didn’t gel until I came up with the character of Lenny.
As my favorite TV chef is fond of saying, “your patience will be rewarded”. Time was needed ingredient, and it finally provided the missing piece. But as the aforementioned chef would also say, “but that’s another show…”
Where we’re going
All that biography was presented front and center because I think it’s important for understanding the background for what this series will be discussing. If we’re going to take a creative journey together, it would behoove me to tell you how I got to this point and where my creative choices are coming from. That will be the last big, doughy chunk of exposition that I will present. Promise!
Now, on to the goodies. Here’s what I’m going to do with this series of posts on the NCS blog…
Over the course of the next few months, I will be developing a new comic, entitled Ray Blaster in Blazin’ Phazers. My starting point for this concept was the idea of “Thimble Theater in space” (but more on that later). I’ll regularly post about everything that’s going on behind-the-scenes as I develop and mold the comic in preparation for launch. The articles will be about everything from character design to story development to marketing and promotion. I’ll cover configuring a WordPress site to make it into a webcomic engine. I’ll write about the building of a writer’s bible and model sheets to create the consistency of the comic. I’ll cover promoting the comic and the building of an audience. I’ll also delve into, when the time comes, monetization and commercialization.
Of course, I invite your comments. I want this to be a learning experience for you, either as a seasoned veteran of the NCS or a young up-and-coming talent dipping their toes into the water for the first time. I also want it to be a learning experience for me. I’m not too proud to say I’m still evolving in this comics biz out and always will be.
Let’s take this journey together. Allons-y!