Backstage

A glimpse behind the scenes of My So-Called Secret Identity.

Will Brooker

“I wanted MSCSI to provoke discussion, make people think a little and suggest another way of doing things. It achieved that almost before it had even launched, so everything else has been a bonus.

For me, the measure of its success has really been in the response from individuals who have connected with Cat and her story, and told us how much it means to them, to the extent that it's even inspired them, changed their approach to life and given them more confidence. I have been consistently surprised by how much MSCSI seems to touch people, but obviously I'm delighted.”

“My desk is a curious combination of digital and old-school. I often work between desktop computer, iPad and iPhone, sending notes to myself, but I also write a lot of things down on paper, using a pencil. I printed out the entirety of my last book, Hunting the Dark Knight, to proofread it, and now I am using the back of every page for scrap paper, working through it steadily.

Often I find I get my best ideas when I am walking around or on a bus or train, so I frequently text myself or send myself brief shorthand messages from my phone, then paste them into a master document when I get home. I do most of my actual writing and emailing at a desktop, and most of my more casual browsing and social media on an iPad.

Will's script for Issue 1, page 1

“I tend to visualise the pages in my head, and then break them down into panels, working out how many frames, of what size and in what arrangement we would need to tell the story in terms of clarity, rhythm, layout and so on.

I do not see the pages as script -- I see them as finished pages. So the script is my attempt to convey what I'm seeing in my head to the artists.

On a broader scale, I also juggle the mental sense of the pages visually in my head, so I can envisage how the reader will go from, for instance, a page with a number of small panels to a big, bold splash; or how many pages will work for a quieter scene of dialogue so it doesn't feel too rushed or too drawn-out; or what scene would make a good cliffhanger for the end of an issue.

On an even bigger scale, I have a sense of where scenes, plot-lines, character trajectories and so on fit within the whole, right up to the level of the three-volume trilogy.

The best way I can describe it is through the way Microsoft Word operates -- you can zoom in on a particular page or even part of a page, but you can also pull back to see 10 pages at once, or 100, and at different magnitudes you are seeing, and working on, different aspects, from micro patterns to macro patterns.

You could also compare it to, for instance, zooming in tight on a detail to refine it in Photoshop, but also pulling back to check the composition of the whole image, within which that detail might be very tiny.”

Will’s wooden shelves hold deep drawers full of trade paperbacks and graphic novels.

“The early-to-mid-90s Vertigo titles were some of my favourite comics, and no doubt I am very much informed and influenced by the work of Grant Morrison on Doom Patrol, Animal Man and Kid Eternity, Peter Milligan on Shade and Enigma, Gaiman on Black Orchid and, prior to that, Gaiman's Violent Cases, Moore's Watchmen, Miracleman and Swamp Thing, Morrison's Zenith.

That is the explicit feeling and aesthetic I was most trying to capture in MSCSI; superhero adventures that were woven with popular culture references -- alternative bands, cool fashions, little nods to news stories -- and had a sense of emotional resonance, a real weight and power to the characterisation and the dialogue. I am still haunted by moments in Doom Patrol -- I can still remember individual frames from Black Orchid and Enigma vividly. They are part of my personal history, like diaries, letters or favourite songs.

Those stories, for me, were very moving and inspiring, while never rubbishing or forgetting the genre they belonged to. They were still superhero stories, written out of love for costumes, continuity, icons and secret identities -- they were just very good superhero stories. Sandman is part of the DC Universe, and all the richer for it.”

A selection of the academic books in Will’s study.

“I think what appeals to me most about MSCSI is seeing my prose is translated into a visual form. It is like magic. When you write fiction, obviously you have a visual in your head, and you have to try to put that across to the reader through words, essentially describing what you see and trying to get them to see it too.

If you write film scripts, actors, cinematography and editing do the job of translation from words into a concrete visual form. 

Comics are a similar process, in that they work through angles, lighting, performance and rhythm of shots, but you can achieve that final result much more quickly. It would take weeks, huge expense, a team of professionals and a great deal of organisation to film and edit the simple scene from issue 2 where Cat talks to Enrique in a coffee shop. 

Of course, it takes Suze and Sarah time and a lot of talent to draw and colour that scene, but I can see the end result far more quickly and easily than if we were working in TV or cinema. So the process of getting it from my head to a visual form is relatively fast, and extremely rewarding.

Another interesting aspect is that, inevitably, the finished page doesn't look exactly as I originally imagined it, but by the time we're at that stage, I can never quite remember what I originally imagined.”

Read more Q&A with Will Brooker on the MSCSI boards, here.

Sarah Zaidan

“When I graduated from art school in 2003, I was convinced there was no way I’d be able to break into comics (my reasoning at the time was that I was too young, too female and not talented enough), so I kept my artwork to myself and only shared it with close friends. Don’t do this! Getting your work out there can be initially scary, but all those clichés about hiding your light under a bushel are true!”

Sarah’s workspace, with sketchbook and tablet.

“When I’m working, I need to have access to my drawing tablet, my keyboard, and if I’m drawing as well, my sketchbook. I tend to have a pile of reference material stacked on the floor next to my desk at any given time, up to a dozen tabs of reference material open in my browser, and a folder on my hard drive named “Reference” open in a minimized window! I’m liable to jump up and look in the mirror at any time as well, for—you guessed it—reference! If it’s a week day, I’ll start working at 9am and keep going until I head out to teach in the early afternoon, and I’ll pick up where I left off once I get home. If it’s the weekend, I’ll work solidly over a ten-or-twelve hour period, but it’s more like seven or eight hours of work with lots of little breaks.”

The evolution of issue 1’s mindmap.

“Whenever I have a deadline, there's always an element of seeing it as work involved. The mindmap stopped being fun right up at the end, because I was working with so many layers and having a hard time keeping track of where the layer I needed to make changes to was. Going through over 80 layers and turning each one off to see what was on it was not fun! As long as budget for plenty of time when I have a challenging page to do, though, I love it.”

Rough cover art for Issue 1

“For me, a mix is where it's at! I never thumbnail digitally--five years of working with a drawing tablet and I still prefer to have the boundaries of physical page in front of me when I work out a composition. During my Master's, I doctored up a screen print in Photoshop and realized that I could paint with textures and apply them in ways I couldn't push as far when working in an analogue capacity. Nine times out of ten, I'll ink by hand, though.

My process is really involved! I start off with a sketch, based on Will's script, then I start collecting materials. My source materials are pulled from all over the place; Dover clipart books, free online textures, things I have lying around the house, and my stock of sewing supplies (I make dolls and their outfits, and tend to hoard interesting fabrics, trims and charms). I also hoard interestingly-textured papers from all over the world.

The pointing finger charms on the cover are an example of this, and the fabric I used for Cat's blue dress swatch on the mindmap is actually scanned from a Marks & Spencer skirt of mine! I do all kinds of alterations to the source materials in terms of levels, saturation, color balance, etc, until I get the right feel.”

Pencils and colours for the bar scene in Issue 1.

“Lighting has always fascinated me since I first saw shading on characters in animated films. I wanted to do it and do it well. Of course, this meant I would spend ages on lighting assignments in college--one in particular stands out, the infamous King Tiger page. King Tiger was wearing a karate gi, standing on a red Cadillac as it drove toward a sunset, and the brief was to make sure the car looked reflective, and King Tiger's clothes appeared white but affected by the tones in the sunset. I spent two weeks on King Tiger. I tried testing out similar textures and surfaces in my dorm room, to make sure the results were as accurate as possible. Ten years later, I still bring that level of involvement to lighting, but I look up references online when I don't test them out on my own.”

Read more Q&A with Sarah Zaidan on the MSCSI boards, here.

Suze Shore

“I'm a pretty messy worker, so it's less a matter of organizing a single space and more figuring out what I need at that moment then shuffling things. For thumbnails I stay near my computer, as it's faster for me to work in photoshop and I often need to reference things on the internet. Then when it's time for the clean page, I move over to my drawing desk so I have space to rule out panels and do everything in pencil. For issue one I followed this with inking each page by hand, but ended up fixing a lot digitally afterwards. This time around I may take it straight to the computer for inks using my tablet.”

“MSCSI has been amazing for making me work outside my comfort zones. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't occasionally cursing at the screen (the nightclub interior) I'm also excited by the challenges I'm presented with and proud of the results... I'm not sure I'd stretch my artistic muscles as often if I were self-directed as I have a tendency to go easy on myself. The collaborative aspect is another benefit; when I'm unsure of a creative direction, there are several other people who also know the characters/story and can help me keep on track.”

“'When I started working with Will I could never have foreseen the wonderful ways in which the team and project would grow. I am constantly impressed by everyone's hard work and dedication, and the warm reception we've had online. My new aspiration is to finish drawing the first volume and eventually hold a printed version in my hands.”

The evolution of Catherine Daniels, in Suze’s first sketch of the character.

“Generally I know from the start what kind of space I want to create, then use reference to fill in the gaps and make that space more real. For Gloria downtown for example, I had an idea of what kind of view would work for the page and from there looked at a bunch of city downtown images on the internet. I did a layout design class in college and one of my main take-aways from it was that the real-ness of a location is in the details, so I try and include a lot of details. Things like flags on buildings, bus stops, trash on the ground, etc. are natural parts of cities, but I forget about them until seeing them in photos. I also use reference a lot for things that I know I'm just not good at drawing. I think I can draw about two or three kinds of cars from memory, and they aren't believable at all.”

“My career path is a little wobbly and still ongoing. I've never been able to envision having a job that wasn't somehow creative, but it took me a while to narrow it down to wanting a job with both structure and creativity, as opposed to being a self-employed artist as many people from my university fine arts program went on to do. I'm still not quite at my goal of doing freelance illustration full-time, though I am lucky enough to have a day job around creative people as a background colourist at an animation studio. MSCSI is the first time I feel like there's an opportunity to do what I love to do, but professionally.”

Suze’s thumbnail sketches for Issue 1.

“I don't have any formal education in sequential art, but have tried to pick up tips from the internet and reading comics. Something I've been trying to do more often is to think about the scene in a cinematic way, then translate that to the page. You shouldn't let an undeveloped skill set stop you though. The reason my personal comics are almost exclusively based on daily events is that I am in no way a writer. And this probably helped, since when I want to tell people about events it's more instinctive for me to draw it out rather than write it down. Though writing is a weak point for me I would like to work on it, as the only way to get better at something is to do it and improve as you go.

In the immortal words of Jake from Adventure Time, ‘Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something!’”

Read more Q&A with Suze Shore on the MSCSI boards, here.

Lindsay Searles

“I was initially approached by Suze Shore, who is also a personal friend, to create a website for a ‘comic project [she'd] been working on’. She was really modest about the whole thing with me, and it wasn't until she introduced me to Will that I really understood the impact that this comic could have on people, and how big it could become. After that I was sold on the whole thing, and it's been one of the most fun, most exciting projects I've had the opportunity to work on.

As the web designer, it was important to me that the website wasn't stuck in the past. There are a lot of great things about the 90s, but in my mind web design isn't one of those. By keeping the website clean, simple, and modern, we allow the comic itself to really be the throw back to the 90s.”

An initial mock-up of the comic pages.
An early mock-up of the ‘billboard’ front page.

“For the MSCSI website, Will and I did a lot of talking back and forth about how we wanted to build the website. Will was very keen that the site be designed keeping in mind that we were hoping to attract girls and women who'd be new to the comic genre. We decided to try and keep the design and layout clean and fresh, and used a myriad of fashion websites as our inspiration. I was particularly inspired by Lou Lou Magazine on the fashion side and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong on the comics side. One of the other things that we took from the fashion industry was the idea of a fashion lookbook. We already knew that we wanted a section on the website that displayed some bonus material - sketches and drafts that were used in the making of Issue 1. And I think that we really got that section dead on when we made it.”

An early mock-up of the logo and menu bar

“When I started university, I started my degree as a BA in Psychology. I thought I'd get my minor in Fine Arts or Illustration, but after my first year I determined that I wasn't cut out for the Fine Arts field. In the meantime, I had been taking Computer Science courses to help fill credits. By the end of my second year, I had determined that Psychology wasn't my passion any more, and that I had a knack and passion for Computer Science. It was too late for me to switch my degree from Psychology to CS (I didn't have enough money to add on the additional year I would require to get the proper credits to do that), so I ended up graduating with a BSc in Psychology, and a minor in CS.

Since I kind of fell into the field, I spent a lot of time learning on the go. But it also means that I've gotten into a habit of always trying to keep on top of new trends and ideas in website development. Web development is now a passion for me. I'm a stay at home mom, with my 1.5 yr old son, but as soon as I was able to make time in my schedule I was back taking contract work. I'm always at my happiest when I have a website project going on the side!”

Read more Q&A with Lindsay Searles and the social media team Riven Alyx Buckley, Lucy Bennett, Karra Shimabukuro and Bethan Jones on the MSCSI boards, here.