The Process of Top Cow's TRACKER
SDCC 09: Top Cow & HEROES & VILLAINS
Conceiving a world is no easy task -- but imagine bringing that world to life.
How does one take that sort of vision, and distill it onto the page? Tsai sat down with Newsarama to discuss his influences, his process, and his thoughts on his circituous becoming a comics artist.
Newsarama: Francis, for those who don't know about your background, could you tell us of your experience with architecture and design art? How does that impact your take on Tracker?
Francis Tsai: Well, my formal education is in architecture. Actually, I have an undergraduate degree in physical chemistry, but I rarely use that education these days. I received a masters degree from the University of Texas School of Architecture, and worked in Austin and San Diego for a few years before switching to video game design. There was fortunately quite an overlap between architecture and video game design, mainly in terms of design process. In both cases you’re looking at a set of conditions and figuring out a specific problem to solve. In video games of course you also work on characters and props, whereas in architecture it’s pretty much entirely environmental design.
Nrama: In terms of your mindset, does the architecture and design help? Or are there parts of it you sort of have to "forget" to make your characters work?
Nrama: In terms of artistic influences, who are the types of artists you feel inform your work? In terms of continuing to feed your artistic "diet," where do you turn?
Tsai: Man, there are a lot. I’d say the earliest major influence on me drawing-wise is John Byrne, followed closely by Shirow Masamune. I like different artists for different things – I love looking at guys like Simon Bisley, Jim Murray and Dave Wilkins for the raw, over the top energy in their character work; Travis Charest, John Buscema, Adam Hughes, Kenneth Rocafort, John Byrne for the draftsmanship; there are some other 20th century commercial illustrator types who I often go back and look at – J.C Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, Bob Peak… I’ve got this big book on Orientalist painters that is just awe inspiring. These questions are always difficult to answer, there are just too many artists that inspire me! In terms of feeding an artistic diet, really anything can inspire in some way.
Nrama: Every craftsman uses a different tool, a different touch, to get different results. I know you use both standard pen and paper as well as digital tools -- could you tell us specifically what kinds of tools or programs you used for Tracker, and why?
Nrama: Walk us through your process a little bit -- how do you start off with each of these characters? How do you get from Point A to Point B? Do you go in marathon sessions, or is this an incremental thing?
Tsai: I’ll usually read through the script as soon as I receive it, and maybe sketch out some really rudimentary thumbnails right on the page. That’s mainly to figure out how many panels are on a page and how they should stack up. After that I typically lay out the whole issue digitally in thumbnail form, black and white sketches with some gray tone work, and send those in to Top Cow. There’s usually some feedback at that point, so I adjust the thumbnails as necessary and work on finalizing the art. When it gets to maybe 95% done, I send in another batch of jpgs again to make sure everything’s going on track. Sometimes there are more revisions to be made, and I usually cross my fingers that they aren’t too extensive. I’m finding that as I work on it I’m developing a rhythm and it’s getting easier to crank out the pages. To answer your question, I would say it’s more of an incremental thing. I have a short attention span, so I tend to work on a page to a certain level and then move on to the next page, so that the pages all sort of develop at the same pace. That allows me to go back and edit if necessary as well.
Tsai: You know I think the hardest part has been to learn a new visual language, which is this narrative aspect of drawing comics. I’ve done some storyboard work in the past, which is similar, but I’m finding that this job requires a whole set of skills that I haven’t had to develop much in the past. I have to say that so far I love doing the work; telling a story across multiple panels and pages offers a ton of opportunities that you don’t get with just a few (or even a single) image, like in conceptual design.
Tsai: I wouldn’t recommend taking the path I’ve taken – it was a really long, roundabout trip to get to where I am now. I spent a lot of time working on things I wasn’t necessarily all that interested in. I did learn some things along the way, but if art is what you want to do for a living, there are more efficient ways to get there than what I’ve done. One thing that seems to have become a constant in my career is change. I have never spent more than three years in any job – it was probably inevitable that I would eventually go freelance, and basically have a new job every few weeks or months.