What's the Sweets smell of success? Ask Kody Chamberlain.
A one-man band of comics creation, Chamberlain had a mountain to climb when he put together his Image Comics project, currently in Previews through the end of June. After raising funds on Kickstarter to finance the project, he tackled every job he could think of, including writing, drawing, coloring, even lettering the final project.
So what does it take to come up with a true New Orleans crime story? Newsarama caught up with Chamberlain for a very special Writer's Workshop/Artist's Alley team-up, to discuss his influences, how he approaches both scripting and illustration, and the challenges of promoting a book that you've built from the ground up.
Newsarama: Kody, just to start off with — how did you decide that comics were what you wanted to do professionally? I understand that you got started on the art side of the equation — what were some of the big hurdles that you had to overcome before you felt that your work was ready to hit the professional level?
Kody Chamberlain: I started out with a very limited history of the industry, and that lack of history was probably my biggest hurdle to becoming a professional. I never read comics as a kid, so there was a steep learning curve to learning what works and what doesn't. That's something I'm still learning. It wasn't that I avoided comics as a kid, we just didn't have a comic shop in the area and the drug store selection was limited to Archie, Donald Duck, or an occasional Spider-Man book, and those just didn't interest me very much. I did buy an occasional Mad magazine, but my exposure to comics was extremely limited. But in some ways, discovering comics later in life could be used to my advantage. I'm fully aware of the difficulty a complex page layout can have on a new reader so I stay away from confusing layouts, and I have very fresh memories of what it's like to enter a comic shop for the first time and scan the shelf, looking for an entry point. Time will tell.
Since comics weren't around, my early entertainment interests as a young kid revolved around Encyclopedia Brown paperbacks and watching Scooby-Doo reruns. As I got older I fell in love with cop shows like Columbo, Starsky and Hutch, Kojak, and all of the twisted anthology series' like Tales from the Darkside and Twilight Zone. At some point in my teens I started reading crime novels. Like every kid, I was into all sorts of stuff, but the crime and horror fiction was always my favorite.
I started writing long before I started drawing, but it took a while for those two skills to merge and get to a professional level. I remember being ten or twelve years old and jotting down silly story ideas about detectives and ninjas in my notebooks. Me and my friends would act out these little stories about detectives solving crimes and these ninjas that were always in the fighting in the forest. I wish I still had some of those old notebooks, I'd love to see exactly what was going on, but I know for sure they weren't well-developed scripts or prose-style stories. They were just little character or action ideas I scribbled down so I could remember them. I do have photos of me and my friend Donny dressed as ninjas acting out those scenes in the living room and in the woods behind our neighborhood. If I could afford a video camera I'm sure I would have been making little home movies back then. As for drawing, I'm sure I doodled a bit as a kid, but it wasn't till much later, my senior year in high school, that I really started drawing. That was also around the time I started reading comics.
My introduction to comics came from my cousin Peter. I was hanging out at his house one day and he pulled out some comic books he had picked up and we were checking out a lot of different artists. I don't remember what he had, but I was amazed at how good some of the artwork was. I wasn't reading anything yet, I was just looking at the artwork. He mentioned a comic shop about 20 minutes away and he invited me along for a road trip. From that point on we were making the trip once a week and I started picking up random issues of all sorts of things. It took me a while before I settled into a few favorites.
My memory is a little fuzzy on what was new and what I pulled from the back issue bins, but I know the first comic I ever bought was the Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special by Giffen, Grant, and Bisley, and that was in 1991. I had no knowledge of what everyone else considered good or important because there was no Internet, and the retailer didn't care much to offer an opinion, I was just buying what caught my eye or seemed like a good entry point. I remember picking up most of the early Image Comics stuff, and a few superhero books like Nomad (1991) because they were all just starting out on issue #1. I remember the comic shop had a back-issue pack of Wolverine books on sale starting with issue #1, so I went in the bins and pulled out the remaining issues and I was able to start at the beginning on that one. The bulk of the ongoing superhero stuff didn't interest me very much, or if they did, they often had high numbers on them and catching up just seemed too expensive and a big pain in the ass, so I just never picked those up. I really enjoyed Dark Horse Presents and Sin City was an early favorite, but I also started digging through back issues and buying up anything I could afford.
I started drawing late in high school and got serious about it my third year in college, but by then, I was already taking creative writing classes and cranking out one act plays and short stories and having a lot of fun doing it. I was absolutely horrible at drawing, but I enjoyed it so I kept taking elective classes to try and get better. I still hadn't chosen a degree yet, I was sampling lots of different college classes the first few years trying to figure it out. There was a moment in my second year of college, probably around 1993, where I decided I wanted to become a professional artist and I recall doing some research on careers in art. I looked into things like storyboarding, commercial illustration, sculpture, animation, special effects, caricature, etc., but since I was also a writer, comic books seemed like the best fit for what I enjoyed. It seems like the obvious decision now, but back then I remember making that connection for the first time and the classic light bulb going off in my head, "Drawing + Writing = Comics."
I sent out my first embarrassing art samples to Wildstorm shortly after, probably around 1994. The samples were based on a miniseries I had outlined with the Gen 13 characters and that's where I earned my first rejection letter. I kept sending out new pages about once a year to every publisher I could afford. My first published story in Digital Webbing Presents #13 was actually a one issue comic I had written, and I asked a writer friend named Troy Wall to help me condense it down to fit into a short anthology story because my story was 22 pages and the anthology was accepting stories of 8 pages or less. So my first published work was based on an original story idea I had written several years earlier. Around 2004 I got my first paid work on 30 Days of Night: Bloodsucker Tales at IDW. So it took me about ten years of nonstop work to get to a level where I could actually produce a readable comic as an artist.
Nrama: Let's talk influences for a second, and the lessons that they taught you. Were there any teachers, artists or other media that you consumed that you feel really helped inform your visual style? Were there any big lessons that kind of were an "a-ha" moment?
Chamberlain: There were a few of those, but not in the beginning. When I first got serious about drawing comics, quality info about the process was very hard to find. The internet was in its infancy and there weren't many books out about making comics besides Stan Lee and John Buscema's "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" and Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art." So I just carried around those two books, Jack Hamm's figure drawing book, and a handful of my favorite comics. I pulled those out like a dictionary to help solve problems and reference a specific thing I was having trouble with. I worked for years without seeing any real improvement in my art, but sometime around 2000 I did make a breakthrough. Looking back, I can see a big improvement from one year to the next around that time. It wasn't any particular external influence or artist, it was just a cumulative effect of putting so much time into it. There are always artists I learn from and study, but at that point I don't recall ever having an "a-ha" moment where a big jump was made. It's been a long process of inching forward one step at a time.
I majored in Design and Advertising in college and eventually earned a B.F.A. My main design instructor was a guy named Dutch Kepler. He was my strongest creative influence early on because he always had very high standards and made us focus on ideas and concepts, then we built out from there. Focusing on ideas seems like a simple concept, but actually understanding how to do it and the techniques involved are tougher than you might think. But through my two years under his instruction, I learned the basics of creative thinking and I learned all the skills I needed to execute those ideas. That had a big impact on me.
After getting my feet wet and doing a few comics, I made my way to a Wizard World Chicago, I believe this was 2005, and I ended up sitting beside Bill Sienkiewicz in Artists Alley. He was already one of my favorite artists, so that alone was a great experience. He always had a huge autograph line and I had absolutely no one at my table the entire weekend, I spent my time trying to do the hard sell to the people waiting in his line. So I would often leave the table and get coffee, lunch, etc. and I'd offer to pick up whatever he needed. We met up in the hotel restaurant later that first night and we talked about the process of making comics for hours. He really took time to answer questions and we talked about art, life, influences, tools, etc. It was an amazing night. I was changing styles a lot on different projects, I had just finished the first issue of Punks, and that was sitting on my table beside 30 Days of Night and he picked up on the style swapping and encouraged me to keep doing it. His opinion was that it would help me grow in new directions as an artist and it would also allow me to continue working as styles come in and out of fashion. His opinion was that being able to adapt to the specific tone or mood of any given story was a real asset as an artist. He also talked a lot about his experience on Stray Toasters and the challenges of doing a solo book, and I had mentioned to him about a crime story idea I had and was considering doing the same thing. That one night really opened some doors for me and it was also a nice push to get me started on what would eventually become Sweets.
A few years ago in Boston, I was setting up for the show and I passed by Bill Sienkiewicz's table to pass him a copy of my black-and-white Sweets ashcan preview which contained the first full issue of Sweets and the second issue of script. My goal was to try and get a cover quote from him to help promote Sweets. Bill happened to be sitting next to Jim Starlin whom I hadn't met before, but since I had a few extras I passed one over to him and he mentioned that he'd give it a read. The show went great and I had an amazing weekend. On the last day of the show I got there a few hours early to set up so I could finish some work and Jim approached my table. He said he had read the ashcan and part of the script and he really enjoyed it. I thanked him for taking the time and I figured he'd be on his way. But then he asked if I'd like to sit down and talk about it. So he pulled up a chair and he went through the whole book with me, offering opinions on dialogue, storytelling, panel design, etc. He answered every question I threw his way and it was an amazing learning experience for me. The fact that he took the time to do something like that for a guy he had never met before really meant a lot to me. I hold that moment as one of my absolute favorites.
This last year at San Diego Comic-Con, I met Sean Phillips and Duncan Fegredo. They very were busy signing at the Splashpage Art table when I dropped by, so when they had a break they walked over to my table to chat. They happened to have the original Moleskine sketchbook that they passed around to produce the printed Intersections sketchbook and they let me look through it. I dug as deep as I could into their creative processes and they were both very open to talking about tools, techniques, and philosophy. That chance encounter was a real eye opener because I love their work and it was amazing to be able to talk with them very specifically about some of the books they had done. Fegredo's Enigma, Girl, and Hellboy and Phillips' Sleeper and Criminal are still some of my all-time favorites. That look behind the curtain was something I'll always remember.
The other chance encounter that changed the way I work in a big way was meeting Michael Lark at a convention while he was busy doing art commissions and I was watching him slap the ink around with a Pentel Colorbrush and I started asking a few questions. At that point, I was still mostly using pens and a few felt tip pens, I hadn't really done much with a brush. Out of the blue, he offered to give me a brush-inking lesson if I had the time, so I MADE time by skipping out on a Vertigo panel I really wanted to watch. That inking lesson really made me rethink my approach to line and shadows. He's one of the best at high contrast work and I still apply all of those lessons to my work. He also demanded I buy the Famous Artists Course binder set, and that's easily one of the best purchases I've ever made. It's the bound collection of the correspondence course created by Albert Dorne and Norman Rockwell and is probably the single best source for any illustrator looking to study the craft.
Kepler, Sienkiewicz, Starlin, Phillips, Fegredo, and Lark all went above and beyond and inspired me in a lot of different ways. Those moments held a lot of weight for me and I'll always remember them as major landmarks of inspiration.
I already mentioned the Lee/Buscema and Eisner books, but there were also a few other books that I think were essential for me, and I still reference most of these on a regular basis:
Bridgman's Complete Guide to Drawing From Life, George Bridgeman
Figure Drawing for All It's Worth, Andrew Loomis
Drawing the Head and Figure, Jack Hamm
Wizard Magazine's Krash Course, Greg Capullo
And on the writing end:
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Lawrence Block
On Writing, Stephen King
Save the Cat, Blake Snyder
Write Screenplays That Sell, Hal Ackerman
Crafty Screenwriting, Alex Epstein
The Coffee Break Screenwriter, Pilar Alessandra
Nrama: Just to get into the nitty-gritty for a second, can you talk to us about which tools you use when you're putting a page together? What made you choose these tools?
Chamberlain: PENCILING: I draw with a cheap .5mm led pencil, the same kind you can pick up at any office supply store for two bucks. I prefer HB led and I use custom printed Bristol made from Mohawk 130lb cover stock. It's probably on par with the high-end Blueline Bristol many artists use, but I find the Mohawk holds heavy ink a little better and it's a whole lot cheaper since I print about 500 at a time.
MASKING: The first step of my inking process is masking the paper. The white lines and spatter you see on the Sweets pages are created by using latex masking fluid. You can normally find that in the watercolor section in any good art supply store. I prefer the Windsor & Newton brand over the others. I dip quills and cheap brushes into the masking fluid and use it like ink. I draw lines with the masking fluid anywhere I need a white line or a white spatter, then, once the whole page is inked, I can peel off the latex revealing the white paper underneath. Since there's no white paint or whiteout required, the final art is just ink and paper. And without having whiteout on the page, it's far more archival. But please don't use natural hair brushes with the masking fluid, stick with the cheap plastic brushes. Latex masking fluid will ruin any natural hair brush instantly.
INKING: Once all the masking fluid is dry, I ink with all sorts of tools but mostly I stick with brushes and quills. There's a Nikko pen quill I love called the "KK" model and they last forever. I've been using the same quill for almost three years, and I have 4 or 5 more laying in my box just in case. They're hard to find online, but there's a pen shop in New Orleans I visit now and then, and I buy them there. The Nikko "G" is also very nice and those are available online at a lot of different art stores. As for brushes, I mostly stick with the Winsor & Newton Series 7 brushes, I have a few different sizes and I grab different ones depending on the line I'm trying to get. But I do keep a lot of old, cheap brushes around to create the rough ink tones and jagged edges. There's nothing like an old brush to give you a unique texture or dry-brush look you just can't create any other way. My favorite India ink is the Holbein Special Black. It's a little more expensive but it's a rich black and it flows great with pens and brushes. I find it's a little too thick for Rapidiographs, but I don't use those much so it's not a problem for me.
COLORING: I color digitally with Photoshop CS3 on my 13.3" Axiotron Modbook using a variety of textures that I paint separately with acrylic or ink wash on scrap paper. Those get scanned into Photoshop and dropped in on layers above the standard flat coloring process that most people are already familiar with. I also drop in halftones I created based on these old Time and Life magazines from the 40's. At some point I put those up on my website and my blog and they've started to pop up in a lot of different comics. It's always cool to crack open a comic and spot those old halftones in print. Once all the flat colors and tones are done, I then go back and paint in highlights and shadows, and clarify anything that needs clarifying. Coloring is a fairly quick process for me since most of the form is created with the inks.
Nrama: Now, because Sweets is in Previews through the end of the June, I wanted to ask about how the process for that book — which ends up being kind of a one-man band — differs from some of your other work. As far as Sweets was concerned, you had a blank page — could you walk us through where you'd go from there? Did you go script-first, or just go straight to the page and start drawing?
Chamberlain: Comics are a storytelling medium, so I always start with the story first. I did a detailed outline and full scripts for all 5 issues before anything was drawn. I'm actually doing that right now for a few different projects. Full scripts with no artwork yet. It's much easier for me to rewrite a paragraph than to redraw a page, so I try my best to work out everything in the script. So here's the basic process I use:
STORY: I usually email myself early story ideas. I use email because I have multiple backups of that and it's one of the safest places to send those ideas that can sometimes get lost. It might just a short scene idea, a chunk of dialogue, a character description, or just some image that I think might look good in a comic. These are just random puzzle pieces without any real purpose. I'll eventually get around to compiling all those into a text file and print it out for my notebook. Those ideas cook for a while in my head and they start to become something bigger until they eventually merge into a story. The nucleus is usually some high concept or unique character idea that everything else sort of revolves around. All this is an organic process, it chances often and different ideas come in different ways. I just do my best to get it all written down somehow and preserve it until a partial idea becomes a bigger idea.
OUTLINE: Once I have what I consider a good story idea, the next step is to pull out all of the relevant ideas and scribble them onto blank 3" x 5" index cards, which I start organizing into different stacks. I sometimes carry those around in my bag or I'll pin them to my giant cork wall in the studio. I'm a visual person, so having all the cards in view makes it easier to see the big picture. I always have trouble writing my outline in a word processor or script writing program, I just find it flows better if I do it visually by pinning all the cards to my wall, moving whole scenes around, combining or replacing characters, until it all starts to come together in front of me. I spend a lot of time filling in the blanks and removing all of the things that don't belong, pushing those aside. Hopefully they'll connect with some other project down the road. I pay particular attention to the story structure and character development. Those drive the direction of the outline and everything else is born from that. The breaks for each issue sort of reveal themselves as the structure moves forward, and if a particular image comes to mind I'll sketch those on the back of the note card so I won't forget, but it's mostly just written words at this point. This is the process I call "Making Clay." The note cards are my raw material that I'll sculpt into something better in the next step.
CLEANING UP THE MESS: Once the note cards are in a manageable condition and there's some form to the story, I type those note cards into a digital note card app called SuperNotecard. Most screenwriting apps have a similar note card feature, they mostly all work the same. This is where I start editing, spell checking, and sorting through all the chaos. I beat the hell out of the story in this stage and really try to get into shape. I clarify the single issues and start ballparking page numbers, sometimes that means I need to cut stuff or move something down the road a little into a future issue. Eventually, each of the note cards becomes a panel description and I'm able to start figuring out where the pages and panels break up. Once it's all in pretty good shape, I export that out and open it in a scriptwriting program and start adding dialogue. The process is a little random at first, but it starts to become more specific and deliberate as I get closer to the finished outline.
SCRIPT: I write my scripts in what most people would consider screenplay format, although I don't use sluglines, camera direction, etc. My scripts are pretty simple, just action and dialogue. I started using that format in college for creative writing class because we were mostly writing one act plays and short films. My goal was to write comics, but before the Internet boomed there was no place to find actual comic book scripts. I mostly learned the format by reading screenplays and books on scriptwriting because that's really all I could find on the subject. I didn't find out till later that comics didn't normally use screenplay format, it's usually a lot simpler than that, but I was already used screenplay software so I just kept using it for my own stuff, and I still use it today. I originally started with an old AppleWorks screenplay template I made, and then eventually started using the pre-built template system in Final Draft. I later moved to Mariner's Montage and now I'm doing a bit with Celtx. the bulk of Sweets was written with Mariner's Montage. I even write a little on my iPhone with an app called Screenplay. It's handy if I'm away from my computer sitting in a hotel lobby or on a plane headed to a convention. Whatever works.
THUMBNAILS: I included thumbnails here because it does tend to fall more on the writing side than the drawing side. This is the final revision stage of my script. Problems, ideas, and solutions will occur in the thumbnail stage that actually change the script. I think this is the key stage where a single writer/artist has an advantage, so I do my best to embrace that and use it to my advantage. I've also seen Alan Moore do thumbnails for various artists to help communicate the storyline in a visual way. It's one of the most enjoyable steps of the comic-making process, and I'm surprised more writers don't embrace it.
Nrama: And when you're working on a script that isn't yours, for you, what are the sorts of things that you're looking for in order to really latch onto and find an evocative image? What are you looking for to just get your bearings?
Chamberlain: Unlike my own scripts that develop over time, working with a different writer means that idea is already developed. So for me, first impression on the first read is very important. I make a point to scribble down sketches in the margins of the scripts that first time through. Those first impressions are usually the strongest images, and even after I dig deeper into the story, those first impressions often end up being the best idea for a panel or a scene.
Nrama: Hitting rewind for a second, just as far as when you're conceptualizing an idea for a story — for you, what's your first step? I know some people say they need their high concept first, others say they need theme, and others still say character first. For you, what's the most important thing to set your foundation on, and how does that help you construct the rest of the story after that?
Chamberlain: Character and story concept usually occur at the same time for me. If I have an interesting character in mind, that character is interesting because they're tied to a conflict or plot idea. And anytime I get a plot idea, it usually has character ideas involved. They're hard to separate. However, sometimes I have to rethink it and challenge myself to push far beyond those early ideas to get to something even better. What type of character would be best for this particular conflict? What type of conflict would have the biggest impact on this particular character? There's often a better solution than the one I started with. For Sweets, the finale of issue five with this detective came before anything else and the story sort of evolved from that. I don't really focus much on theme, I find that predictable stories are often because the writer embraced a particular theme and that theme is applied throughout the story. If a theme comes naturally through my writing process, I'll leave it in, but I make sure it's not something that gets forced onto the characters or their story. The end result is normally a vague theme like 'redemption' or 'sacrifice' rather than something more defined like 'absolute power corrupts absolutely,' those types of themes make a story very predictable.
Nrama: As far as building up characters is concerned, you've actually hit this from both angles: Characterization and character design. For you, how do you approach these two things? What are the sorts of things you feel are important to know to get inside your character's head, and how do you end up showing these qualities — heck, even picking which ones to make overt — and showing them visually?
Chamberlain: For this particular project I didn't really want to design anything too unusual. I knew going into it that I was mostly an unknown artist and an unproven writer trying to launch a book filled with characters no one has ever heard of. No matter how you slice it, it's a tough sell. So I wanted to introduce characters in a way that the reader might be able to connect with a little quicker, develop a clear entry point for new readers. From there, I'll do my thing and tell my story in a unique way, but I wanted to start out with something you might connect with. I'm not sure if that idea even registered with people, and I'm not sure it even worked for the story, but it's something I was thinking about when I fleshed out these characters. Detective Curt Delatte needs to be a bit of an everyman detective, and I did my best to make all the characters seem appropriate for the world they're living in and they're good at their jobs. A comic like Punks is much different thanSweets, the Punks characters are VERY unusual and each one of them is an instant icon, you can picture those guys on a t-shirt right from the start. But forSweets, I didn't want these characters to be larger than life, I wanted them to seem real.
Nrama: On the other side of the equation, I think sometimes there's a tough balance for creators between decompressing a story within an inch of its life, to trying to pack too much on a page. For you, do you have any sort of set limits for yourself as far as how much you can fit on one page, or in one issue?
Chamberlain: I thought about this a lot as I worked on the script. I absolutely hate reading five issues of a comic that could have easily been compressed down to a single issue, or a full issue that should have just been one scene. That doesn't mean I don't enjoy decompressed stories, because I do. However, a decompressed story needs to have enough substance to make it worth buying. If you're not giving me plot, you better be giving me character development or some other point of interest. If I finish reading an issue of a comic and nothing important happens in that issue, why did I buy it? Why did they create it? It just seems pointless, and it happens more often than I'd like. I know some comic fans are perfectly happy with pretty pictures, but this is a storytelling medium, and I want a good story. With that in mind, every issue ofSweets is important, every PAGE is important even if you don't think it is on the first read. But if you re-read the 5 issues at once, you'll get a much better picture of how it all comes together and the little things mean a lot. The casual conversations end up being very important in the end.
Nrama: People talk a lot about "visual storytelling," but sometimes I think that's kind of a catchall phrase. Could you tell us a bit about what your definition of visual storytelling is, and how you put it into practice with your work?
Chamberlain: Visual storytelling is tricky in comics because we don't have actors, and subtle things don't often work. For that reason, many artists favor over-the-top action like the massive punch, the splash-page kiss, or the heroic stance with dramatic lighting. That stuff works, but the subtle stuff is a little harder to pull off. Sometimes, it's because the artist didn't follow the writer's direction, or sometimes it's because the idea just doesn't work. I did try some subtle stuff in Sweets to see if it would work, and based on the reactions I've received, more of it worked than I thought it would. Here's an example: In the very first issue of Sweets, Curt is sitting alone at his daughter's grave when his partner approaches. Curt drops his newspaper over his gun to hide it from his partner. He later distracts his partner so he can recover the gun and re-holster it without being seen. That's visual storytelling. Why was his gun out when he's alone in a cemetery mourning his daughter's death? The visual storytelling implication is that he might be suicidal, maybe he was thinking of killing himself. There is no exposition in that scene and I made no effort to explain the 'suicide' idea to the readers, my goal was to have the artwork tell that story, and the dialogue is telling a different story. I got a ton of comments about that moment and people really enjoyed it. I had several comic creators approach me at Comic-Con about that particular scene, they loved it. So subtle stuff can actually work in comics, but it's up to the reader to slow down and experience it. Sometimes that doesn't happen and things get lost. It's a gamble.
Nrama: It's interesting, looking at your work, because you employ a lot of different tricks to really play up mood — you've got paint splatters, you've got colors, lighting, distortions of perspective and anatomy — I guess my overarching question is, how do you work to try to get the right image to convey the right mood? Or do you try to figure out the right mood and then go to the image from there?
Chamberlain: I enjoy experimenting with the visuals. I think visual style is one of those concepts that works better in comics than in any other storytelling medium. Comic readers enjoy seeing the artists hand at work, they love the imperfections and the distortions, and after doing Sweets, many people have told me how much they enjoyed the dramatic style and color shifts. I think we should all take advantage of that and use it to our benefit. Most of the style tricks I used in Sweets were intentional and meant to suggest certain things. Example, the texture in the work, the spatter and gritty line work was meant to suggest the atmosphere of New Orleans and south Louisiana. The humidity, the mosquitoes, etc. We're pounded by harsh weather and high humidity, that takes a toll on the landscape. The colors fade and something that was once vivid, is now faded. The sepia and dull green palette was meant to reflect that decay. The cartoon style change for the flashback sequence was meant to imply a more childlike state of mind, and I did my best to reflect that with the line work and the coloring. I roughed up my cartoon work in a way I hoped would imply it was drawn as a child would draw it. Even the grayscale scenes are meant to reflect the state of mind of the killer. When he's in 'kill mode', all the color drops out and the world is scratchy and distorted, hallucinations merge with reality and only the blood is red.
Nrama: Can you talk with us a little bit about your approach to color? I may have heard this wrong, but I had heard that you were working with some very deliberate choices as far as your color scheme was concerned for Sweets…
Chamberlain: In addition to the ideas I mentioned above, the origin of the limited color palette in Sweets was based on my love for black-and-white crime comics. black-and-white comics work very well visually because of the strong sense of unity. Color is most often used for separation, but limited color has a unifying effect. With a few exceptions, every color in Sweets is based on either a tint of a shade of two color swatches. So I tried to find a way to take advantage of the unity I love so much in black-and-white comics, yet keep the readers happy with color work. Conceptually, it played a big part in the context of the story, so coloring the pages ended up being a major part of the storytelling.
Nrama: Something I think a lot of people overlook is lettering — and since you've been kind of a one-man band with Sweets, I couldn't not ask you about it. For you, what's your approach towards keeping your story and information as clear as possible? Do you have an upper limit for "this is as much as I feel comfortable putting in a particular panel"?
Chamberlain: Everyone in comics tries to achieve a synergy between the story and the artwork, and the lettering is the point where those two collide. It's part of the artwork, but it's also written words on paper. When a comic really works, it's usually because all of those elements come together in a way that none of them could separately. There's a synergy that happens, and it's wonderful. I think that's what we're all trying to achieve. I'm not sure I achieved that with Sweets, but it was certainly one of my goals. One of the things I did to try and achieve that was to letter my thumbnails. By doing that, I was able to quickly spot balloon problems and resolve all those placement conflicts. I had to letter the comic anyway, might as well do it early in the process to solve problems. I also ended up doing a bit of rewriting at this stage to help the story flow a little better. Every step of the comic-making process is a chance to make improvements, and lettering my thumbnails ended up being one of the most important.
Nrama: As far as your career is concerned, what do you think is the smartest move you've ever made, and what do you think has been your biggest mistake?
Chamberlain: Smartest, teaming up with Josh Fialkov on Punks, one of the most rewarding collaborations I've ever had, but the nature of that project makes it fertile ground for experimentation and I learn more doing an issue of Punks than anything else I've ever done. The level of creative problem solving required for Punks is insane, but it's also a whole lot of fun.
My biggest mistake was the lack of promotion for the original Punks launch. Josh and I didn't have much money to invest in promo and we were both swamped with other gigs, so the marketing on that book sort of fell flat. Looking back, I think there were some things we could have done without much cash to get the word out on that book. I regret that we never found an audience big enough to make it an ongoing. I'll always regret not pushing harder on that one. But now that we've signed on with MTV Geek, we've got a second chance to re-launch the book to a potential audience that includes the entire MTV fan base as well as comic readers worldwide, so we're working on some things behind the scenes to try and maximize the exposure right from the start. I learned a lot from that Punks launch, and those lessons went a long way to helping promote Sweets. Promo could always be improved, but I think I'm finally on the right track.
These first few years in comics have been a big learning experience for me, I've made a ton of mistakes along the way and if I could go back in time, I see a million ways I could have drawn a panel better or redesigned a character, etc. Regret isn't the right word because I always did the best job I could, I just know more about the process now than I did back then, so I would have a different approach.
Nrama: For those who are trying to break into the industry as artists, writers, you name it, what do you think that they need to know about this industry that they just don't?
Chamberlain: I talk with a lot of up and coming creators at conventions. Anytime I see an artist walking around with a portfolio, I sometimes ask to have a look. Mostly because I have a ton of writer friends in the industry that are always on the hunt for artists, but also because I enjoy seeing new stuff and I remember how absolutely frightening it could be to show your work to someone at a convention. Most of them are looking for that one thing that will get them into the industry, that one phrase to say to an editor, or that one piece of insight that will open a door. But it doesn't exist. My advice to artists is this: There is no secret trick to breaking in, so stop looking. Just make a good comic and make sure the right people see it. If you still don't get work, your comic isn't very good, or you've shown it to the wrong people, so revisit step 1. I also tell people to stop showing portfolios and start showing comics. If you're a musician, you don't hand a record label your lyrics, you hand them a song.
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