THRILLBENT 101: The Eighth Seal (Part 1 of 2)

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Hey, everyone, I’m Jeremy Rock, the illustrator/co-creator of The Eighth Seal, and I’m going take some time to explain my approach to digital storytelling. My hope is that this information will help those who are interested in creating comics in the style that Thrillbent uses. While I’m explaining this stuff, please remember that this is basically me saying “consider this” and not “do this.” Nothing is written in stone here. Also, if you haven’t read The Eighth Seal, please go read it now. It will make everything I’m about to explain easier to understand.

Let’s start with the basics. Digital comics are primarily read on computers, smart phones or tablet devices. I mainly have touchscreen tablet devices in mind when I’m creating a digital comic. I also prefer the landscape format for digital comics instead of the traditional portrait format that print comics use. Every Thrillbent comic uses the landscape format, but not all of them use the same aspect ratio, so if you want to create a comic in the same style as The Eighth Seal, the first thing you’ll need to do is figure out the aspect ratio of your comic.

Aspect Ratio: The aspect ratio describes the proportional relationship between the width and height of an image. Most Thrillbent titles use the 4:3 aspect ratio because that’s what the first Thrillbent comic, Luther, used. But I was interested in experimenting with a wider screen format for The Eighth Seal, so I decided to try out the 5:3 aspect ratio. Take a look at the example image below to see the differences between the two. On the right side of the example, you’ll see 11×17 comic art boards with little boxes measured out on them. Those show the sizes that I found most comfortable to draw my original art at for each aspect ratio.

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An aspect ratio of 5:3 can offer a little more breathing room for the art and lettering depending on your composition. 4:3 is a little more squarish but translates better to print, by stacking two screens to create a printed page, if you ever want to convert your digital comic into a traditional print comic. Honestly, I never think about print when I’m working on The Eighth Seal. In my mind, it’s purely a digital comic. I didn’t think that way when I worked on Luther, and it caused me to hold back on some unique digital storytelling techniques because they didn’t translate well to print. The focus with Luther was to explore a digital format that could later be converted to print. I didn’t like that I had to hold back the digital storytelling so that maybe one day the comic could have a print run. This approach just seemed to take something away from both formats. So now my personal opinion is that it’s best to give each its own spotlight and treat print and digital as completely separate formats. Allow each the freedom to show off their unique traits instead of forcing one to be more like the other.

Art Tools: The next thing to consider is the art tools that you want to use. You can use traditional art tools or create all of the art on a computer. Completely up to you. Artist Peter Krause uses the program Manga Studio to create all his art for Insufferable straight on the computer. I draw all of my original art with traditional tools (pencil, paper, ink, etc.) and scan the art into my computer to be manipulated in Photoshop.

Storyboards and Swipe Effects: When creating a chapter for The Eighth Seal, the team basically uses a five-step process of script, storyboards, line art, coloring, and lettering. Those are essentially the key steps to creating the final images for the comic. Take a look at the example image below to get a better idea about what I mean.

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When I start work on a chapter of The Eighth Seal, the first thing I do is read the script and create the storyboards. This is the same process as creating layouts for a page in a print comic, but I just got in the habit of calling them storyboards because of how they look and read on a screen. Call them whatever you want. A lot of the stuff that I’m going to explain is still so new that it doesn’t even have a name yet. I just make up names to help keep things organized, but feel free to use your own terms if you find them more comfortable.

Before I jump into my storyboarding process, I’m going to explain one of my most-used terms, “Swipe Effect”, which is just a play on the terms “special effect” or “sound effect.” It refers to a moment when the reader swipes on a touchscreen device and something changes in an unconventional way when compared to traditional comic book storytelling.

Some Thrillbent writers use the term “on the swipe” in their scripts when they want the artist to create a swipe effect (i.e., “on the swipe, she changes into a monster”). This style of storytelling can make something appear, disappear or create the illusion of movement. I usually just run on instinct when it comes to swipe effects, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain my approach, but when I started analyzing my techniques I realized that there was a lot more structure to my process than I had originally thought. So I’ve broken down my techniques and labeled parts to better explain why I do what I do. I’ve also created visual examples to help explain this stuff. These are just some of the basics to start with. There are still many ways to experiment with digital storytelling outside of the examples that I give below.

Action Swipes: These seem to be a favorite among readers. This style of swipe creates the illusion of movement by layering two or more screens that have slight changes to the position of characters or objects. It’s probably the closest I get to something like animation. This technique is a great way to make the reader focus on a specific character or object. It’s also useful for adding a surprise reveal and can even slow down the pace of a scene. Check out the example image below to get a better idea about how these work.

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Traditional Swipes: These really aren’t typical swipe effects, but they are a type of swipe that occurs often. Basically, Traditional Swipes are just screens with traditional comic panel-to-panel storytelling, nothing appearing, disappearing or changing. Just good, old-fashioned sequential art. Mixing in a decent number of these types of screens helps to keep the reading experience balanced and allows the reader a chance to sit and just read without having to constantly swipe.

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Full Screen Swipes: Much like Traditional Swipes, these really aren’t typical swipe effects, but they are a very useful swipe technique. A Full Screen Swipe is an image that takes up the entire screen. Think of it as the “splash page” of the digital comic format. It’s a great way to highlight a dramatic moment. The image can have a border to create a sense of confinement or be borderless to make the image feel boundless and open. It can even be entirely black, which creates an empty space in time if placed between two story screens. You can also place a word balloon over an entirely black screen to create a quieter opening or ending to a scene. I try to not use more than three Full Screen Swipes in a row so that the reader doesn’t start to feel like they are just swiping through an image gallery instead of a comic. But sometimes I break that rule if I feel the extra screens will add a strong kick to the overall sequence.

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Alternating Swipes: This is probably my most-used swipe effect. It’s useful for revealing a surprise to the reader. This type of swipe causes storytelling changes that jump back and forth between different sides of the screen. It can go left to right, up and down, diagonal, whatever way you want. You can get pretty complex with this technique. The trick is making sure it carries a rhythm to it that doesn’t confuse the reader. This is also a great swipe effect for slowing down the pace of a scene because it requires the reader to swipe for small bits of the story.

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Isolation Swipes: I use this swipe effect to put extra emphasis on a panel or image by isolating a single shot on the screen. On the example image below, with example number 4 you’ll see that I used four back-to-back screens with Isolation Swipes. I did this to show a more dramatic progression of time and allow each shot to feel more prominent. When combined with Alternating Swipes, Isolation Swipes can help to slow down the pace of a scene and offer space to reveal a surprise element of the story.

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Inset Swipes: This is another swipe effect that I tend to use a lot. Inset Swipes are similar to inset panels used in traditional comic book storytelling. They are smaller images or panels that appear, disappear, or change while inside, or overlapping, a larger image or panel. Inset Swipes can offer opportunities to reveal a surprise or slow down time.

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Letter Swipes: These can be a fun way to reveal surprise dialogue. This swipe technique makes it so that lettering can appear, disappear or change. Pretty easy to understand, but tricky to master. Sometimes when new lettering appears, the old lettering is removed so it will not confuse the reader about what to read next. It really just depends on where you want the reader to focus after a swipe occurs.

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Combining Swipes: This example isn’t about a single swipe effect, it’s about what happens when you combine multiple swipe effects. Take a look at the example image below, you’ll see that most of the time I use multiple swipe effects in a scene. Let’s examine this a bit further. With example number 3, I isolate the shot of Amelia to put emphasis on her feeling alone. I felt it was important that this be the very first image we see in The Eighth Seal because Amelia feels alone in her fight against her mental instability. On the swipe, we see Dr. West appear on the left, talking to her about her problem. After another swipe, we see a Lettering Swipe get rid of Dr. West’s word balloon, and a close-up of Amelia explaining her situation appears on the right. By using Alternating Swipes along with the other swipe effects, I created a back and forth feeling to their conversation. When we swipe again, the close-up of Amelia on the right is turned into an inset image with new lettering, and is overlapping, and within, a new full screen image of a school. Amelia is telling a story about an event that occurred in the past, and I felt this was a fun way to slowly transition to that memory she is about to share. On the final swipe, we see Amelia disappear as her memory takes over the screen, the colors of the environment become more vibrant, and new captions appear. The swipes I combined to create this sequence were Isolation, Alternating, Letter, Inset and Full Screen.

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So now that we have some of the basics down, next week we’ll look at how we create and assemble the actual digital comic.

Nov 26, 2013 In: Comics, Thrillbent 101

Digital – The Time is Now

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I’ve missed out on a lot in comics.

I missed out on the ‘all genres for all people’ pulp period of the forties and early fifties. Then I missed the ‘needs more antihero’ excess of the nineties. Heck, I even missed the explosion of ‘webcomics for gamers by gamers who can’t game anymore (because drawing).’

I missed all of these great times to be a comic creator because I was either non-existent, was repetitively drawing vases in art class, or repetitively playing Diablo. But that’s ok, because I think now is the best time to be a new creator in comics and I’m going to tell you why.

Disclaimer: while some of us can buy comic book shops to calm the digital/print seas I have neither the capital nor the guts to do the same. So while I’m going to assign today’s excitement to the ‘digital revolution,’ I’m just going to say that I want Moth City to be printed. The thing is I love books. Plus you know, trees, yuck – the way they just stand there making you feel short and horribly reliant on their life-giving oxygen. Bullies.

In fact I hate trees so much that I make vertical, print-ready versions of every single Moth City page I do. Its arduous work, a true commitment to climate change, and you can see examples below:

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So now that I’ve calmed the people who printed this post out before reading it, let’s talk digital.

Just the fact that I can talk to you about comics at all is a reflection of what digital comics can give us. I’m in New Zealand, the place that TV shows use to stand in for ‘incomprehensibly faraway.’ If someone in a spy drama is digging too deep into their own division’s shadowy ops, they’re probably gonna be sent here. (KIWI FACT: spy castaways made up over 10% of our population at last census).

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So yeah, I’m far enough away from most places that I break out in sweat every time I have to pronounce aluminium/ aluminum, and if I was making Moth City ten years ago you never would have seen it, weird spelling notwithstanding.

Mark would never have seen it either, and I certainly wouldn’t have had the chance to introduce so many people to my favourite bigot, Governor McCaw or (more this season) my favourite hired killer, Jun.

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It doesn’t sound sexy, but distribution is everything now. The ability to disperse comics to waiting readers all over the world for effectively no cost has the power to change the way we tell stories. I’m not talking about our fancy Thrillbent swipes and doo-dads, I’m talking about risk-taking.

Everything I’m doing with Moth City is ill-advised. Period piece? Marketing will hate it. Wait, what the heck is the Chinese Civil War? Nah, no way. Who’s the protagonist? You don’t have one? Well at least tell me that you stick with one genre… oh, a crime/horror/thriller/alt-history/Kung Fu action? We’re not printing that… The first scene is a business meeting?! Get outta here kid.

(Note to self: Imaginary Editors are probably right about starting a comic with a business meeting, even if the characters are discussing Bio Weapons and one of the workers has a knife just begging to be used.)

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Would Moth City have more mass-appeal if I didn’t make these decisions? Of course, but no one else was going to write it like I wanted, were they? While today’s ‘Creator Owned’ print tag means the best of experience, in digital it reflects a largely indie crowd that naively avoids Marketing 101. Just look at the stuff coming out on Comixology Submit and on Thrillbent – what a diverse little eco-system.

Will our ideas always come off? Of course not. But we get critical feedback quickly, we get analytics by the minute and download numbers instantaneously. We can learn fast. Cost to creator? Sweat. Benefit to readers? More creators from all over the world, working in more genres and taking more risks.

You’re ignoring the vast diversity of Webcomics you say, sure – but I consider Thrillbent a webcomic collective. A rare place where you can read long-form webcomics in a format that works. And the stories plug into lovely PDF or Comixology chunks to be absorbed in blocks while blobbing out on the couch, or (according to Comixology) on the toilet.

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I’ve said it before, digital can be the new pulp – risk-taking content, by professionals and noobs alike, dispersed widely for affordable prices. And we could all do with some more pulp in our lives. With Moth City I’m offering up a genre mash that shows you characters that make mistakes, damaged people you’ll grow to love, antiheroes you’ll grow to hate, and a setting you’ve never seen before.

The new season just launched, you should check it out.

Nov 15, 2013 In: Comics, Site News

Moth City and Thrillbent’s Commitment to Free

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First things first: rest assured that THE DAMNATION OF CHARLIE WORMWOOD will return in a few short weeks with Volume Two. The creators haven’t taken a break; on the contrary, they’re working ahead so we don’t lose any time come the holidays. We’ll announce the return date very shortly.

But we still want you back here every Friday, and to prove it, we’re giving something special away for free.

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Among the debts I owe Alex DeCampi is a big one for turning me on to MOTH CITY, a digital comic by an all-in-one talent from New Zealand named Tim Gibson. I visited Tim’s site at Alex’s recommendation and was immediately taken with how Tim was using the tools of digital to unspool his story. It was immediately apparent that, philosophically, we were of the same mind: pace it however you like, use techniques and layouts made for digital that aren’t effective in print, but always allow the reader to set the rhythm at which s/he reads. Here are some examples of where I thought Tim was getting digital storytelling massively, massively right.

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MOTH CITY goes through genres like Governor McCaw goes through indentured factory workers. Season One of Tim’s four-season story laid out the turbulent 1930s Oriental setting and set up the multiple factions vying for power. Season Two looks to resolve some of the early mysteries while diving deeper into the rabbit hole, about which more shortly. More action, strange alliances, new and violent horror elements and further insight into the cast of characters.

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Tim originally released MOTH CITY on his site a page or two at a time. I asked if he’d be cool with us serializing it on Thrillbent in larger chunks comparable to how we do our other ongoings (ten to twenty pages/screens per week), and the editor in me put in some time suggesting where I thought the most effective chapter breaks might be. My memory is that we went back and forth on only a couple, and of course they were only suggestions, but Tim remained gracious and enthusiastic all the way.

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I’ll be perfectly candid and offer another reason why I wanted MOTH CITY on this site: because it’s (a) not at all a story I would ever think to write and (b) totally beyond my predicted level of interest if you were to tell me what it was about rather than show me. In other words, it wasn’t the story which drew me in initially, but rather the way in which it was told. (I have since wised up.) Regardless, I really like how unique it looks on Thrillbent, and once I relaxed into Tim’s methods, it gripped me.

Tim wrapped the first volume (first season, he calls it) on Thrillbent a few weeks back with a terrific, gripping ending. If you followed it weekly, you know what I’m referring to. If not, we (thanks to Tim) have an offer for you. Today and through the weekend, right-click HERE for a FREE PDF download of the high-definition, DRM-free Volume One with some bonus material to help you catch up on this smart, smart comic. Normally, we sell this material on our storefront for a small fee; while we want to push digital sales to support creators, we’ve always balanced that with a for-free outreach philosophy to increase digital comic readership as well.

If you’re keen on what you’ve been reading here at Thrillbent in general, if we’re on your radar, then I know you’ll find MOTH CITY compelling. Read Volume One now, then come back next Friday for the debut of MOTH CITY Volume Two.

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What are the effects of McCaw’s bio-weapons and who took them?

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Why was McCaw’s chief scientist murdered and who was behind it?

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Just how will the world’s largest military, and their hardline representative Major Hong, respond as things on the island spin out of control?

And what if early bio-weapons were introduced to one of the world’s most devastating conflicts, the Chinese Civil War?

Find out starting next Friday.

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Nov 08, 2013 In: Comics, Site News