Play Devil’s Advocate (and the Art of Compromise)

Categories Comics, Discussion
Play Devil's Advocate artwork

Play Devil’s Advocate is an experimental gag comic with an art style very different from anything else I’ve done. After completing one chapter, I put the story on hiatus indefinitely.

This comic represents the early stages of STIMULUS. I was looking for something that I could produce on a monthly basis, so I went with an expressionistic art style that is almost entirely stream of consciousness (I still used a storyboard though). The idea was that I would sketch out a loose, visceral page without worrying about sloppy mistakes. The style would lend itself to the story while saving me a lot of time — I would then use that time to write more chapters! Theoretically, I could churn out one page every two days and become a GOD OF PROLIFICACY. But, this wasn’t the balance I was looking for because I wasn’t satisfied with the artwork.

Let’s talk about this balance and the best use of TIME.

A full-time mangaka (Japanese comic creator) can write and illustrate 20 pages a week, 1000 pages a year. I’ll admit that most of these massive serializations have teams supporting the mangaka, and the stories are often disposable deus ex machina cop-out stories for kids. Even so, that prolificacy is staggering. For reference, my favorite manga series is AKIRA, a 2000+ page epic written and illustrated by Otomo Katsuhiro in under eight years (oh, and he directed the groundbreaking AKIRA movie during that time period as well). Every page is gorgeous. I would love to create something similar one day. But, when you consider the fact that I have a full time job and limited draftsmanship skills, I can’t set such ambitious goals. With my limited bandwidth it’s that much more crucial to find a sweet spot between planning, writing, illustrating, and editing in order to create a fully realized story.

Let’s look at examples of comics created with limited bandwidth.

Another of my favorite comics is Nonplayer by Nate Simpson. I say it’s a favorite, but I don’t even know what the comic is about because there are only two issues released at the time I write this. The first issue is perhaps the best looking thing I’ve ever seen. The problem is that it sets up a sprawling story and the 2nd issue wasn’t released until four years later. Even the second issue introduces more story elements that won’t be answered any time soon. I consider this to be a poor reading experience and so I believe the artwork should’ve been “worse” so that more of the story could’ve been told in the last 5 years. I think Nate could’ve compromised (although I hesitate to criticize Nonplayer because it’s one of my personal inspirations, but man, it’s still so frustrating to have to wait YEARS for a few pages).

On the subject of cutting corners though, here’s the extreme example — Hunter X Hunter. This is a weird manga I really like, written by Yoshihiro Togashi (another amazingly prolific dude who has single-handedly created a lot of great stuff). Unfortunately, toward the end of Hunter X Hunter, health issues (probably caused by a life of overworking) prevented him from completing weekly issues. In order to keep the series going, the publisher printed his rough storyboard drafts. The result was an ongoing story that was practically unreadable. Similarly, One Punch Man was produced as a very rough, poorly drawn comic. The difference being that One Punch Man is an ironic web comic that isn’t meant to be taken seriously (later it was redrawn by another artist and published with high production values).

Nonplayer by Nate Simpson
Hunter X Hunter comic
Hunter X Hunter
One Punch Man comic bad drawing
One Punch Man

Going back to my original point, a lone creator must make concessions in order to strike a balance and have the comic work as a whole. In my opinion, the rough draft version of Hunter X Hunter fails because visual details were what made it immersive in the first place. The story is about a wacky fantasy world — fully rendered backgrounds pull me into that world. Similarly, Nonplayer is about a crazy detailed virtual space. If Nate started cutting corners as I recommended, perhaps Nonplayer would be less effective as an overall story as well. One Punch Man is a total cop out, but the hasty artwork is consistent with the thematic tone of the story so it technically “works.” According to this logic, the poorly drawn, poorly written One Punch Man is a stronger series than Nonplayer! That’s not something I’m comfortable with because I value illustration so highly, but even stick figures can tell a compelling story — Don Hertzfeldt creates award winning films with crude drawings. Even with the limited drawings, his work probably surpasses any of the aforementioned comics (in my humble opinion and in terms of collective acclaim of his body of work).

What’s the best approach in terms of balance for me? (or for you?)

My current opinion is this: I can create several stories a year if the artwork is minimalistic and time-saving. These stories will “work” overall if the thematic tone matches the minimalistic artwork — in other words, my existentially bleak stories should “feel right” when rendered in this style. Enter STIMULUS, the minimalistic comic.

The remaining question is, what would happen if I recreated Play Devil’s Advocate in the current STIMULUS format? Without the vibrant, ever changing colors, the story would probably be DRY. I imagine the attempts at humor would be an even more jarring tonal shift, similar to what I did in The Spacetronaut. I honestly don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad thing until I see it. And, if I were to publish a fully colored version of The Spacetronaut, would the story not work anymore?

I guess we’ll find out when we get there. For now let’s just keep drawing. Prolifically.

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