Creators: Alex Woolfson and Winona Nelson
Dates: March 2011-Today
Latest Page Count: 86
Updates: Saturdays (with bonus updates on Wednesdays)
Software: Photoshop CS3
For thousands of years people have asked “what is it to be human?” Well this month’s Comic of the Month, Artifice, adds a new layer to the discussion. Artifice is the story of the android Deacon, who is part of a group sent to kill a colony of people, but instead finds love. When his fellow androids and ship are destroyed Deacon believes himself to be all alone, until he discovers Jeff. Jeff is a young man who was ostracized from the colony because of his “gay genes”. He is forced to help Deacon till a rescue ship comes and it is during this time that they fall in love. Yet what will happen when the retrieval ship comes and see that a colonist survived? Will Deacon’s loyalty as a shoulder overpower his new found love? Or will he betray his creators for the man he loves?
With a simple realistic style and witty dialogue Artifice is both a pleasure to see and read. Alex Woolfson, writer of Artifice, wanted to creator a story with strong male characters, which were also gay. Well Deacon certainly is physically strong but it is Jeff who possesses strength of spirit and personality. It is Jeff’s funny, sincere, kooky personality that forces Deacon to view him as more than a part of his mission. Meanwhile Jeff must learn to look past the mechanical outside and to the vulnerable soul within.
Perhaps what I love most about Artifice is Deacon’s emotional journey. He starts off as one of seven identical units following orders but soon is alone, with no communication from command. This leaves Deacon free to make his own decisions, form his own opinions, and think about what he wants. He must weigh what he knows he is supposed to do with what he wants to do. In many ways Artifice is a coming-of-age story, except with an evil corporation instead of parents. I can think of a half dozen instances where Deacon’s naivety is shown, whereas Jeff has the opposite problem. Life has been hard on him and he has to overcome how he was treated in the past in order to let his guard down for Deacon.
Of course, no review of Artifice would be complete without discussing the good Dr. Marven. Artifice is told primarily in flashbacks by Deacon during his debriefing with Dr. Marven, the face of Noneco Coroporation in the comic. To Deacon she is all powerful for she not only knows his master code but is the person who will decide Deacon’s future. She is at time sympatric and understanding, than demanding and antagonistic. She is hard to shock and easy to hate.
Artifice holds a special place in my heart because it is the first comic I have followed from the beginning. I have watched the number of fans grow from a small group to an impressive horde. I’ve never missed an update and I look forward to following this comic till the end. All along I have encouraged people to read this comic and it is part of the reason I started this group. Alex is a great writer who manages to tell a story that captivates people no matter their gender or sexuality. Winona’s art gives the comic a gritty, yet futuristic feeling that reminds me of the movie Alien. The clothes are plain and the backgrounds sparse, but she also manages to fit in a great amount of detail. A favorite of mine is one a page in Dr. Marven’s office. Through a window you can see a helicopter and than in another panel you see it again but this time is in a slightly different spot. So, while the characters on the page are sitting still there is still a sense of movement. Also, she is wonderful at facial expression. Jeff has a very expressive face and is sometimes comical in the face he makes. Whereas Deacon have very subtle expressions but they are just as powerful as Jeff’s. I encourage everyone to give this comic a try.
Q. How did you come up with the concept for Artifice?
Alex: Developing the concept for Artifice was something that happened over many months of thinking and day-dreaming. But the very first germ of the idea came while I was watching Cameron's Aliens (one of my favorite action movies and one that heavily influenced my ideas about good genre writing when I was a kid.)
There's a scene early on where someone calls the android Bishop a "synthetic". Bishop corrects that person, letting him know that he prefers to be called an "artificial person." Clearly, Cameron was riffing off the media attention that was being given to various groups—such as African-Americans and people with disabilities—who were asking to be referred to by names of their own choosing instead of by labels outsiders thrust on them.
About the same time I saw Aliens, I was just beginning to come out and there was a movement in the gay community to "reclaim hurtful words" and, in particular, to use the word "queer" as a way to self-identify. As someone who had always found the word "gay" a little wimpy-sounding, the more aggressive reclaiming of the word "queer" resonated with me.
So, when seeing this scene, my mind immediately started speculating what the next step of political evolution for the androids would be—what would they call themselves if they were no longer begging to be liked by the majority but, rather, decided they would prefer to be respected and maybe even feared instead?
I soon came up with an image in my head of an android responding to some abusive guards with the quip: "Actually, I prefer the term... inhuman." And from that scene, the rest of Artifice was born.
Winona: I didn't. Alex, the writer, has the sole credit for that. He even described the characters, so while I drew them, their looks were already decided before I joined the project
Q. What is the basic process for a typical page?
Alex: My writing process involves a lot of daydreaming and fantasy. I'll often have a small moment between two characters in mind that gives me some juice—such as that one line of dialogue above—and then I start asking myself questions: "What led the android to say that?" "What does he really want?" "What do the other people in the room want?" And I try out different possibilities with daydreams until one plays out in my head that feels both believable and compelling. (That, for me, is key: for a scene to flow each character *must* have what I think are believable, compelling motivations coupled with interesting tactics they can use to fight to get their way.) When I'm able to fantasize a scene I would actually want to watch (or, in the case of comics, read), I sit myself down and start to put it to paper in outline form.
In terms of how Winona and I worked on Artifice: Before we got started, I sent her the complete script for the entire story in full script format (so for each page I listed how many panels it should have, what's essential that we should see in each panel and what everyone says in each panel). She then sent me thumbnail sketches of what she saw on each page, filling in the blanks of what I left out (brilliantly, I might add) and determining the layout of the panels on the page. We then went through two rounds of revision where I sent her notes and she uploaded new thumbnails to my FTP site. Then, once every page in the entire script was thumbed out, there was a pencils stage (which was the most fun for me because now everything comes to life and I got to be wowed over and over again by the "acting" Winona gives to each character—it was very exciting.) Then there was an inking stage and finally the coloring stage (which was still in progress along with some additional inking when I launched the webcomic). And in between each stage there were up to two more rounds of revision for each page, if necessary. And throughout it all Winona was a total dream to work with.
When the art for a page is completely approved, Winona sends me the final colored file in TIFF format and I get busy with lettering each page I receive in Adobe Illustrator. (That is, I add the word balloons and sound effects.) I then marry the lettering and art together in Adobe InDesign, export each page to Photoshop to be watermarked and sized for the webcomic to ultimately be uploaded to the site. The final step is me coming up with the notes for readers to read below each page.
Winona: Going from Alex's script, I draw a 1-inch thumbnail in the margins right on the script to figure out the panel layout. Then I do a larger layout sketch, about 4 inches tall, with the figures, camera angles, and word balloons roughed in. I scan the sketch, blow it up, and do tighter pencils digitally. For many of the backgrounds, I used Sketchup to build the set in 3d, and used the model for reference. When the pencils are done, I print it out large and tape it to the back of a smooth paper made for inking, and use a lightbox to do the inks with technical pens. Then I scan that and do the colors digitally. Alex has posted a more detailed write-up of my process on his blog HERE.
Q. What artists have inspired or influenced your work?
Winona: This list would be too long. Among comic artists, I love the work of Katsuhiro Otomo, Josh Middleton, Leinil Yu, Moebius, George Pratt, Jamie Hewlett, Adam Hughes, and many others. I'm also a huge fan of John Singer Sargent, John Williams Waterhouse, Jean-Leon Gerome, J. C. Leyendecker, N. C. Wyeth, and many other painters and illustrators.
Q. What computer program(s) do you use?
Winona: Photoshop CS3 and Google Sketchup.
Q. What kind of tablet do you use?
Winona: Wacom Intuos4.
Q. Mac or PC?
Q. About how long does the average page take to make?
Winona: I don't know. A long time. 5 days maybe, but because I work as an illustrator and concept artist and have to break up my work a lot to get everything done, I haven't really timed it.
Q. How has the comic helped you grow as an artist/writer?
Alex: Artifice is the first long-form story I've written that I feel isn't a complete failure. So, it felt like it opened the door for me to tell longer stories, including the next webcomic I'll be posting up, The Young Protectors.
Winona: I learned to draw much more subtle facial expressions and body language, and consistency in the characters' likenesses.
Q. What are some things you have learned since starting the comic?
Alex: I learned a very important lesson about writing while working on the script. In the first pass, I wanted the protagonist Deacon to outsmart the antagonist Dr. Maven. In fact, I really wanted that. But I had set things up so Maven had the resources of this powerful corporation at her disposal as well as Deacon's "master control codes"—that made her pretty tough to beat! So, in order to ensure the result I wanted, I made Maven... well... a little stupid. Not *very* stupid, mind you—she was supposed to be a smart character, after all—but she just *overlooked* some things that a really smart person wouldn't overlook.
It's something I see in genre stories all the time, so I thought it would be OK. Because of course, not everyone in the world notices *everything*, right? Not everyone is smart *all* the time, right?
All true, of course. But that doesn't mean it's not cheating or lazy writing. And it killed the story.
So I rewrote Artifice, from scratch, with this new rule: Maven had to always be *at least* as smart as I would be if I were facing off against Deacon—and if that means Deacon "loses" then so be it. I wouldn't impose an ending; I'd let the characters duke it out using their best tactics and, no matter what, would follow that struggle to its logical, organic conclusion.
And by following that rule, the story felt one thousand times more compelling and believable to me. It's something that I'll always remember and it will always inform my writing of genre fiction.
And then in working with an artist of Winona's outstanding caliber, I learned a ton about what good art is and how to be a competent art director. Working with her was like auditing one of the best art schools in the world. It was a great opportunity and honor.
Winona: A webcomic is very different from a print comic. I learned it's essential to have a cushion of finished pages to keep the update schedule reliable, and that when people can read only one page at a time, they spend a lot of time on each page, which can affect the timing, making each page seem to contain much more elapsed time.
Q. What is your favorite phase in the comic making process?
Alex: I have a few favorite phases:
- When the daydreams in my head "click" into something good. I get very giddy when that happens.
- When I finally have finished a script and get to show it to my friends. More giddiness.
- When I get the first pass pencils from Winona for the reasons I mentioned above.
- And when I read the comments from our awesome readers. It's cliché to say it, but it really does make all the hard work worth it to have someone thoughtfully respond to what you're putting out there. Very, very gratifying.
Winona: It's tied between the pencils and inks.
Q. Do you have the story completely planned out or outlined?
Alex: Yes. I don't leave the outline for a story and start working on the script until I'm confident I have a compelling ending for the entire story arc. And I don't ask artists to start work until the full script for the whole comic (in the case of Artifice) or at least the individual chapter (in the case of Tough and The Young Protectors) is completely finished.
Winona: Yes, we do.
Q. About how far along is the comic?
Alex: We are in the last scene of Artifice. It's been an amazing, tremendously gratifying experience for me.
Winona: Just about done.
Q. Do you have a page buffer (pages created ahead of time)? If yes, how many pages?
Alex: We started out with a 50 page buffer but thanks to the amazingly generous response of our awesome readers to the donation bar (which triggers "bonus pages"), we've eaten through most of that.
Winona: Yes. Or at least, we used to. At the beginning we had dozens of pages ready, but now I'm riding the edge, finishing colors just before they have to go up. We hadn't planned on uploading two pages a week, as we've been doing with the bonus pages. Those were a reader suggestion.
Q. How do you deal with negative feedback and trolls?
Alex: My policy is that the reader is always right. I see every story I create as a learning experience, I have no illusions that my work is flawless and I know what I write won't be for everyone. If someone posts negative feedback, if it's something I can find useful, I'll take that note for my future stories. And if it's something that doesn't resonate with me, then I let it go, aware that the reader is fully entitled to their experience and I might be fooling myself.
Also, we have been very, very lucky not to have really any trolling in the comments section of Artifice. Perhaps some of that comes from my iron-fist comment policy (I don't allow ad hominem attacks on my site). And I do my best to set a tone of tolerance and respectful, thoughtful engagement of differing viewpoints in my own responses. But I think most of it comes from the quality of our readership. People seem to come to Artifice to talk about the big ideas, not to get other readers riled up. So maybe the trolls just find Artifice too boring to bother with.
But, to answer your question, my standard policy is not to respond to comments talking down my writing or Winona's art. As I said, every reader is entitled to their own experience and most of the time anything I might say would either come off as defensive or so bland as to be pointless.
There are a few exceptions to this:
- If in that "negative comment", the reader asks a sincere and specific question, such as "It makes no sense that a company would build an android soldier with emotions. Why would they do that?!" AND that question is something I would enjoy chatting with a fellow geek over, I might respond with some possible answers if I thought it would add to the discussion and not spoil the plot.
- In the case of Artifice, if it is a specific criticism of the way the evil corporation does things (as in the above question), I might also choose to respond as an executive of the Noneco Corporation PR department if I think it would be amusing for everyone for me to do so. I've done that a few times.
- If there is a clear and honest misunderstanding of my motivations or process, I'll probably respond. In the last update, a reader was concerned that I was adding "filler pages" to get more donations. I wrote back explaining that since the script was completely written before we started posting, that the donations (while super-helpful to me) actually have no influence on the story or the page count. And that, since every page is very costly both in terms of time and money, I actually worked very, very hard to make sure there were no "filler pages" at all.
- Finally, if a reader engaged in or seems just about to engage in an ad hominem attack on another reader or Winona, I would step in and remind them of my comment moderation policy. For the entire comic, I've only had to do that once and never had any trouble
Winona: There hasn't been much of that, thankfully When we do have negative comments they're usually trying to be constructive. We try to be diplomatic and polite in our response, and try to learn from the poster's points.
Q. Do you have projects planned for after the comic is finished?
Alex: Yes. As Artifice wraps up, I'm going to be starting my next webcomic, a multi-chapter story about a team of teen superheroes called The Young Protectors. It starts off quite a bit lighter than Artifice did (and a bit more yaoi-ish) and it's much, much longer, but it's still me writing it, so it certainly goes to some dark and serious places as well.
Winona: Yes. I'm working on writing and drawing a comic of my own, called Cassiopeia.
Q. What is some advice you would give to aspiring comic makers?
Alex: Strongly consider releasing your work as a webcomic—out of all the ways I've distributed my work, it's been the most successful and gratifying in terms of building a readership, monetization and connecting with my readers.
And write the kind of story you would love to read yourself—that is both a key to successful writing and will ultimately make you much happier about the work you create (than, say, trying to guess what *others* would want to read.)
Winona: Don't wait for anyone or anything. Make your comic whether you have a plan to publish it or not. Don't wait for perfection either, it's impossible to achieve. Better to make a flawed work than never create anything at all.
Q. What caused you to want to write your own comics?
Alex: There were stories I desperately wanted to see both as a kid and as an adult, that I couldn't find out there. In particular, straight-forward action stories with gay heroes. So I figured if I really wanted to see those stories, I should learn how to create them myself.
And why comics? Some writers are in love with the written word. I see my stories visually. For a long time that meant I wrote film scripts. But after spending tens of thousands of dollars I didn't have on a couple short films and coming to the understanding that no Hollywood exec was ever going to bankroll my gay feature-length action film, I was forced to rethink things. Luckily for me, I was also a huge comic geek and so once I realized I had the solution to my problems literally in the palms of my hands, the answer was easy.
Comics allow you to tell feature-length stories for short film prices with an unlimited special effects budget. For a genre-loving visual story-teller like myself, the fit was perfect.
Winona: Alex and I both wanted to create comics that we wished existed for us to read.
Q. Will Artifice ever be available to purchase (I would love a copy)?
Alex: I sure hope so! In fact, I'll be launch(ed) a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a print run. Folks who back my Kickstarter project will be first in line to receive books (with free shipping in the U.S.!) if that project is a success.
Winona:Yes, we have a Kickstarter project going on right now HERE .
Q. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Alex: Artifice has been wonderfully successful so far. We have a fantastic community of fans and I'm so happy that people enjoy what we're doing. The comments are great entertainment on their own!
Winona:Artifice has been wonderfully successful so far. We have a fantastic community of fans and I'm so happy that people enjoy what we're doing. The comments are great entertainment on their own!
Q. Please take a look at our comic list and pick 1-3 comics you like.
Alex: Gosh, there's a lot I like there! OK, just 3? (And I notice you don't have The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ & Amal over there, which would definitely make my list. That comic has some of the most compelling writing and art in all of gay comics, hell, any comics. If you aren't reading it, you should be.)
OK - I read Teahouse, which has very compelling art and a fun story. Emirain really knows how to connect with fans like myself and I've personally found them to be stunningly generous with their time in answering my questions about how to make comics and navigate the business aspects. And they are just awesome, quality people. I'd say similar things about Hamlet Machine and her Starfighter comic.
14 Nights is another one I think everyone should be reading. I've gotten a bit behind with that one (Artifice has taken over my life), but I found the characterization really amazing and its theme is one that hasn't been explored nearly enough.
Also, I've only read one story from KhaosKomix—"Steve's Story"—but I remember really enjoying it very much. When my life settles a bit more, I'm definitely going to go on a KhaosKomix binge...
Winona: I love The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal. Starfighter is great too.
Alex’s Site: YAOI911
Alex’s Comic: The Young Protectors
Artifice Facebook Page
Winona’s Comic: Cassiopeia
Artifice Kictstarter Drive
If you like Artifice, than you should check out Junkyard Angels , Grayscale, Space Jinx.
Thanks for reading,