Concluding Canada Week here, today we ramble on with Gibson Twist, the creator of one of my favorite webcomics, PICTURES OF YOU. POI is part coming-of-age story, part relationship drama, part college comedy, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Gibson Twist claims to be a fictional entity. In reality, he writes several other webcomics in addition to PICTURES OF YOU, and yet somehow manages to find time for his wife and his cat.
ANTHONY: Welcome to Rambling On, Gibson. How’s things?
GIBSON: Things are ridiculously good. It’s a bit shocking how good. I know it’s de rigueur for people to be unappreciated as they roll a rock uphill, but honestly, I’m riding one of those life-highs lately, and I’m not so much of a selfish asshole not to appreciate that. People love and support what I do, solid home life with someone who challenges and excites me. If it were cool to be happy, I’d be the Fonz over here.
ANTHONY: So tell me a little bit about the genesis of PICTURES OF YOU. Why this story, and these characters?
GIBSON: The first inklings of what would become Pictures of You began during a hangover. It was an earned hangover, I’ll say that. It came after a couple days spent with some old friends, most of us hadn’t seen or spent any time together in years, and we hadn’t all parted on the greatest terms, but all the water was under the bridge and we were enjoying each other and remembering good times, remembering why we liked each other in the first place. Someone tried to climb over the table and ended up in someone’s lap, then we were asked to leave. It was that kind of night.
While I was nursing my hangover with wine, white zinfandel to be exact, I started writing down a bunch of the more memorable times I’d spent with that group, and the others who couldn’t make it. It turned into sort of a project, to document it all. The more I wrote down, the more I realized how much I couldn’t remember, why people had done certain things, who was where when what was destroyed. There were also things that, out of context, made some of us look like bigger assholes than we were, and things where the context took too much time to explain.
I still wanted to tell the story, so I decided to fictionalize the whole thing, from the ground up. I threw everyone into a blender and started building characters, and shaped those characters to the story that began emerging, and as I grew to understand the characters, the story changed as well. They are compossible, as any good story/character realization should be, I suppose.
No one character is a depiction of a real person, but of the collection of them is meant to depict the spirit of the group of people that inspired the story. The story too is just a reflection of what happened in those years, fictionalized to make for a good soap opera.
ANTHONY: I get so caught up in the story that I occasionally forget you started this with a framing device, Peter looking back on the past. So do you have a planned end-point, and an idea of when you’re going to get to that point? Or is the series more open-ended?
GIBSON: The series has a definite end-point, and it’s where everything is going. I spent years drafting the plot, and despite a few variations here and there, the storyline is fairly well set. At the risk of a spoiler, the scene in the Prologue does get reached and even surpassed in the regular story.
ANTHONY: PICTURES is clearly your baby — you write it and you draw the majority of it. What’s your creative process like? Do you fully script before you start the art?
GIBSON: I like to have stories plotted quite deeply before I begin crafting the final product, but the length of Pictures of You didn’t really allow that as much as I’d like. The basic skeleton of the story is there, and I plot more deeply on each book before I sit down to script.
I script each book in full before I begin, with the exception of Book Three for which I’d done a large amount of art before scripting the entire volume. Oh, and Book Four’s final chapter is unfinished, but I know how it wraps up. I do rewrite a lot as I go, most chapters get at least a quick retouch before I begin penciling. Sometimes I’m revising pages as I’m drawing them, and it’s not uncommon for me to rework dialogue during the lettering process. If I have a process, and I might not, it’s to start with the big picture and refine details on an increasingly smaller level as I come to them.
I’m already working on the script to Book Five in my head.
ANTHONY: Once you start a page, what is that process like, from drafting through final art?
GIBSON: Well, the first thing I do when I start a page is to ignore it. I’m no good with blank pages, they are my enemy. Almost invariably, the next step is draw a lot of terrible things that I erase. That is followed by me putting on some music or video for background, and I pencil in probably finer detail than most. This is largely due to the fact that I’m not strong as an artist, and it’s still a struggle for me to produce lines I like. And of course the inks, which are strangely my favourite part of the art.
The pencils and finishes are done on actual paper with actual pencils and actual ink, which seems to be a dying process, especially among webcomickers. I will say I notice people of a certain age are more likely to use paper and ink while people under that certain age are more likely to use pixels. I’ll be honest, while I enjoy paper, I don’t work digitally because computers scare me, and I can’t figure out how make smooth lines with them.
I do colour and letter digitally, which is a fairly painless process, and I’m able to clean up ink blunders there as well, much more easily than with correction fluid or the like. More recently, I’ve been able to go back digitally and clean up let’s just call it bad art from earlier pages, and make them look nicer.
I think the only really interesting or unique thing that I do is that I flip the page around in circles as I draw, to get angles and curves and so on. And I only know this is unique because my wife looks at me weird whenever she sees me do it, and then she pretends it’s not weird. And what I’ve noticed since then is that I flip it clockwise. I couldn’t even begin to tell you why, and I’m pretty sure it’s better for me not to know.
ANTHONY: What tools do you favor for drawing, coloring, etc.?
GIBSON: I draw on large board, specifically Strathmore 11×17 Comic Pages and I scream myself blue in the face begging people more talented than I to do the same. It allows me to draw bigger, with more space to work, and then reduce later. I have yet to meet the artist whose work doesn’t look better reduced. It pulls all the lines together and makes a lot of mistakes disappear. But yes, 11×17 paper.
I work with non-photo blue pencil leads. Currently, I’m using Uniball’s new “soft blue” mechanical 0.5 leads, which are a dream even if they break more easily and I go through them faster. Before that, I used Pentel’s blue leads, which worked but were not technically non-photo, and I had to scan lighter, which did no favours for the line quality. Before that, for years, I used Prismacolor Col-Erase NPB pencils. I got a great line from them, but was forever sharpening, sharpening, sharpening.
My inking has been done since day one with Koh-i-nor rapidographs and Black India ink (which is not india ink) for paper and film, which I adore. I’ve never been able to ink particularly well with anything else. Before Pictures of You, I tried working with disposable pens, which dried out too quickly or just didn’t give a nice line. I’m useless with brushes or brush pens.
Colours and letters are all done with GiMP, which is a free imaging program. I just can’t afford the big stuff, and I won’t use pirated software.
Would it be strange to admit I’m picky about my rulers? I use the clear plastic ones with the beveled edge. They let me see the page while I use them, and the bevel lets me ink straight lines. I hope someone out there finds that information useful because I feel like an amazing nerd talking about it.
ANTHONY: When PICTURES started out, it was black and white. What brought on the shift to full color, and how did that change your creative process if at all?
GIBSON: Colour came about after doing a little thank you/incentive thing, and I found I was a little better at it than I thought, and I was happy with how it turned out, so I tried colouring some older pages just for kicks, and I was pretty happy with that too. I knew comics with colour did better at drawing audiences, too, so there was also a bit of marketing involved in the decision.
My inking has become cleaner since switching to colour, which is a result of having to colour in all sorts of sloppy hatch marks and broken lines, and I think that’s also moved me into refining the lines that I make, and grow the quality of my pencils as well.
Truthfully, colour made me like the visuals of Pictures of You a lot more. I thought, and still think, it brought a new kind of life to it. I got a lot of static from people, purists, I guess, when I switched to colour, but the simple fact is that my numbers tripled within a few months after. So what are you gonna do about that?
ANTHONY: Between books you run “Snapshot” segments with other artists. How does that process work?
GIBSON: Pretty simply, I ask friends of mine who are fans of the comic, whose work I enjoy, if they want to do some pages for fun. I ask them what characters they’d like to draw and if they have any preference for subject or theme, then I write them a script based on that. I try to find a range of styles, from cartoony to manga, and in one case a photo comic from one of the few people I’ve seen do photo comics really well. It was serendipitous that he bore a striking resemblance to the main character.
It’s fun for me, because I really enjoy working with other artists and don’t get to do it enough. I hope they have fun too. It seems like they do, most of them. Maybe they’re too polite to tell me I’m horrible to work with.
We’re reducing the number of guest strips for next time to three or maybe four shorter pieces. Two artists have already signed on and I’m in love with both of their work. Number three is still a toss-up, mostly on whomever is first to say yes.
ANTHONY: PICTURES is divided into books, with the books divided into smaller arcs. Have you ever started an arc, or a book, and realized it was going someplace different from where you intended? I guess what I’m asking is the classic “have the characters ever taken over and moved the story in a different direction?”
GIBSON: This happened a number of times in Book Three, which might have been inevitable considering its length. Everything ends up more or less the way I intended. The important things, at least, but things happened in different orders, some things had to be scrapped. The relationship between Peter and Kara, for one, was supposed to play out differently, in different chronology, but as I wrote other things and other characters’ storylines, it made more sense to happen the way it has. There was supposed to be more with Devon and Melanie as well, but had to be truncated, and the Devon storyline was changed as a result.
I wouldn’t say it’s ever happened that a character speaks to me, but sometimes the plotted story doesn’t mesh with a character’s personality, and the writing changes to be more true to them. I’m not someone who believes characters speak, but act and react the way they should to what’s happening, and that’s not always the way I planned it. It’s the balance of telling the story you want to tell and representing fully realized characters in their own realistic fashion.
ANTHONY: Peter is clearly the narrator and focal point of the series. Other than him, I think my favorite characters are Andy, Melanie and Wylie (who I wish would get a “front burner” storyline, honestly). Overall, which characters have garnered the biggest response from readers? Who gets the most “fan mail?”
GIBSON: Michelle is clearly the fan favourite. She seems to resonate with both the female readers for being strong yet vulnerable, and with male readers for being good looking and kicking ass. Kara gets a lot of love too, far more so now than in the first couple books when no one seemed to like her much. The most curious and divided reaction is to Mulligan, of course. Lots of hate, a fair amount of love, no one seems to be luke warm about him.
Patrick and Wiley are also up there, at least for the cooing that happens in the comments section. Wiley definitely comes to the forefront in the upcoming books. I get a lot of messages asking what happens to Wiley, there seems to be a consensus that something bad happens to him, but I try to tell people, something bad happens to all of them. Well, except one, but I’m not telling who.
I suspect reactions will change as the books go forward and different characters are brought to the front of the story. Sam and Lauren, for instance, will certainly be given more of their due in the next few books.
ANTHONY: PICTURES isn’t your only webcomic. Tell us about some of the other projects you’ve got going on.
GIBSON: Well, there’s Our Time in Eden with artist Ben Steeves that we’ve been working on for years. I started writing the novel on which it’s based in 1996, I adapted the comic script in 2004, and we started working on the art for the comic in 2006. It’s been incredibly rewarding working with Ben on it, he’s brought a vision to it I never could.
The only other project that’s in development with an artist attached at the moment is Little Earthquakes with Rori making the pictures. This is one we’ve been working on for a while as well, the first version of the plot hit paper in late 2008. I can’t say a lot about it, but it’s going to rival, perhaps surpass Our Time in Eden for darkness. We don’t have any kind of release date for this, as we’re going to shop it around before we post it as a webcomic.
I have a wide range of projects sitting on my Future Projects list, and I’ve been itching to do some more prose work in the near future. It’s hard to say which ones will get worked on first, depends on what artists want to work with me and take a shine to which projects.
There’ve been a couple false starts in the last couple years, projects I began working on with artists who, for one reason or another, had to bail. Which is cool. Finding a collaborator is never easy. They have other priorities, they lose interest in the story, they find other stories, life steps up and demands time. I keep at it, though, there are too many artists with whom I want to work to stop, and too many stories untold.
ANTHONY: And my usual final question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
GIBSON: Favourite book of all time? Comic or prose?
Prose, I’d have to say High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Fantastic read, no one shouldn’t read this. It’s the purest insight I’ve read into the mind of men of a certain age, which is good for men because it’s a mirror into which they can nod, and for women because we’re not as simple as sitcoms would have you believe. The movie was very well done and I watch it often, but the book goes deeper and tells more story than a movie ever could. The irony is that every time I’m asked what my favourite book/comic/movie/album is, I reenact a scene from this book.
Comic, that’s a tough one. If I can include a whole series, Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets would win the prize. Hugely influential on my work, and just enjoyable no matter how many times I read it. If I have to pick a single volume, though, I’d probably go with Jeff Smith’s Bone. It’s hard to choose, since there are so many fantastic books out there that don’t get enough time in the spotlight. Joe Sacco, Evan Dorkin, Eddie Campbell, Chris Thompson, Marjane Satrapi…they all make brilliant comics that I love every time I read them.
You can find Gibson on Twitter as @GibsonTwist. In addition to PICTURES OF YOU, you can also find OUR TIME IN EDENon the net. Gibson also has a Kickstarter running at the moment to get PICTURES into print form finally. Take a look at it, and consider helping bring one of my favorite webcomics to bookstores.