Sleight of Hand

The process of writing and thumbnailing Houdini: The Handcuff King was very rewarding for me. My favorite stage of making comics — the part I think I might actually be good at — is the breaking down and staging of a story. I derive a lot of satisfaction out of completing a page of finished art, but getting there is usually an arduous, time-consuming process; the excitement and fun of creation really happens for me at the scripting stage, which means when I’m drawing my tiny little 1″-high thumbnails.

What made this book especially enjoyable was handing off the art duties to Nick Bertozzi, who worked from my thumbnails to create the finished pages. Collaboration in comics can be a tricky proposition for those of us who have very particular ideas about how the medium works, which makes it all the more satisfying when you luck into a fruitful creative alliance. While keeping within the basic panel structure I laid out, Nick made lots of changes, and every single one of them was for the better.

The above sequence shows pages 38-41 in the thumbnail form that I turned over to Nick, and here are his final renditions:

If you compare the two versions of this scene, you’ll notice a host of changes great and small, and I think every last one of them improves the overall feel of what’s being shown. The main thing I appreciate about here, and throughout the book, is how Nick breaks away from my relatively conservative staging and mixes things up a bit, injecting the story with much-needed life; a kind of visual hubbub.

At the same time, he employs a tried-and-true cartoonists’ shortcut — the obscuring foreground object — to excellent effect. Crowd scenes make a great visual impression, so you need to get a wide shot or two in, but they can be a real chore to draw over several pages. By framing some panels at eye level from within the crowd, Nick manages to immerse the reader in the environment while avoiding having to draw that sea of people. Similarly, the rooftop onlookers which helpfully block out half a street’s worth of the mob below add another level (so to speak) to the content of the scene itself.

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