Story & Art by Carl Tsui

The End of the Golden Age

Zatanna 19th CenturyMay you have a smashing 2012 before the great calamity predicted by the Mayan calendar or supermarket tabloids befalls us!

Almost one year ago when I first created this blog I had an idea that both the software and the content here would serve to as a foundation of my comics work. There was a vague notion that with my extra time off (8 months freelance user experience design consulting only) I'd have a crazy amount of time to devote to art and comics which would result in this being the year I get my personal art projects off the ground and completed.

After a decade of dedicated accumulation of wage and monies through salary work had reached an unsatisfactory conclusion and I wanted nothing to do with it on a full time basis. I took time to do what I wanted. Fly, drive, draw, game, basically piss away time and money while the Great Recession lingered. If you have the means it's a highly recommended thing to do in your life. Done purposefully it can re-energize and provide a much needed reflection on just what we're after to warrant running around in the hamster wheel of life. Around my house I had termed this miracle time as The Golden Age.

Like the ever optimistic predictions of the Year of the Linux Desktop it didn't quite work out that way as far as the creative pursuits went. At left is one of the last pieces I worked on in 2011. It was an attempt at doing an ImagineFx monthly forum challenge where you redesigned a character. I tried for a Victorian styled Zatanna.

It's incomplete. Interrupted. Stymied about what I wanted to do next. Simultaneously straddling multiple creative urges. Promising steps taken in growth exploration juxtaposed between the safety and satisfaction of completion. 2011 was a frustrating tension between progress and missed opportunities.

Missed Opportunities

The biggest miss was a complete failure to finish any comic stories. I produced about 20 pages of comics (about 10 finished; the others in various stages of pencils or thumbnails). A record count, but in each I lacked the ability to finalize the writing to bring the project to completion. About 2 weeks ago I had to admit that I was not drawing fast enough to be able to write on the fly effectively and not able to draw effectively because it depended on what I wanted the story to be. I call this blog Story & Art and I really face planted on the story aspect in 2011.

To be totally honest, it's been a challenge to bring medium length stories through to conclusion for a few years. I thought I could out draw the problem because I do get a lot of inspiration from what comes off the images, but you can not out draw a few fundamentals such as, oh, what you want the characters to actually say. How they should then say it and what that means for the story down the line. I've got what I think are decent macro ideas, but have had trouble merging characters, dialog, and art together at the micro level (where the work is) to fulfill that big picture. This is very frustrating especially since I've always had the opposite problem – fairly complete stories hampered by my art skills. There's more that I want to write about this. Including a possible solution to my problem that revealed itself in the last week or so. Suffice to say for now that realizing your problem is the first step to getting better. Smile


The software that's powering this blog is the single most maintenance free piece of code that I've written in my 12-year career as a software professional. I need to sit down and think of why that is for future reference. This is a low traffic place and I'm skirting a lot of functionality. Mainly comments and user facing controls to adjust the user interface, but then again I don't need those things so less is more. No fancy JavaScript. 100% server-side processing and 100% off-loading of the writing user interface functionality to Windows Live Writer 2011 (which, by the way, is a great general purpose blogging tool compatible with a lot of popular blog engines like wordpress, blogger, etc.). The latter turned out to be a genius move since it is much more full featured than any Javascript rich text editing component and aside from the semi-painful process of doing the XML RPC integration (mainly due to lack of detailed documentation and examples for custom integration into WLW 2011 requiring significant trial & error) it's worked very well. Being a good software engineer I think is more than just being able to write good code. It's being able to write the right amount of code. That's really difficult to do when you work for others so I'm glad that I got this right on my own project.

The Specter of Painting


I love the idea of being able to work fully in colour. It's my first way of making digital pictures ever in the 1980s, but it's always been a mighty struggle to arrive at results I like. Still working.

Above is a rough of a splash for a possible painted comic I was tossing around the last few weeks. Colouring Rocket Angels and other pieces have moved me forward significantly this year, but I'm ultimately maybe still a year back from doing decent painting work. I don't yet have a strategy for arriving at a finished painted piece. It's a bit of a catch-22. I get discouraged thinking that I'll not be able to take a piece to satisfactory completion yet you learn (not to mention finish) without starting. However, my dabblings throughout the year have moved me closer so it may just be a matter of finding the right subject and challenge level.

Drawing, Inking, Composition

I'm happy with the progress made on this front this year. Some switches in my head have finally flipped for dealing with lighting and values. The link between lighting values and how that might be represented in ink strokes also was a major puzzle piece that always eluded me. There's still a gulf of techniques I need to acquire, but prior to this year I could not see intuitively what need to be done so all the technique books in the world were essentially useless. This was probably the most satisfying win. Being stronger with understanding values is beginning to strengthen and overhaul my work immensely. As a predominantly line based art form, looking at comics to better your art (as I've done for years) is very much a red herring. The line is the easy thing to see and replicate. It may be the only thing that you end up leaving on the screen or paper, but is that a conscious decision having considered the form as a whole and the values and strokes you could use or is it the only thing that you know how to do because you're not seeing the rest?

A strengthening understanding of figure drawing thanks to studying the Andrew Loomis books has made the 2011 the strongest year yet for overall drawing. I also know what I need work on now. Those hands in that painting are one thing! Also I realized that I don't really understand the mouth at all. There's a Scott McCloudism here somewhere, but I now realize that for years I've been unconsciously substituting learned shortcut icons of eyes, mouth, etc. for the actual thing. Other people's styles. Things comics taught me badly.

I need to make more space for the damn words in the comics, but I'm optimistic that the problem solves itself if I can solve my own writing issues. More on that in a future post.

Conclusion or "Hmmmmm…"

It's 2012. I have a new boy. A newish job and less time. Despite the incompleteness of 2011 it's still a milestone in my artistic journey. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to learn what I did and learn what I still need to learn. The big take away being that I'm just realizing that I've fallen into almost every mistake in making comics that I could have despite reading many many dissertations by comics veterans over the years warning about precisely these mistakes. Perhaps consciously realizing my failures and mistakes it's possible that only now can I proceed towards success.

Monday, January 2, 2012 - 6:14 PM (Eastern Standard Time)