A new milieu for an old art form: Erik Niells and a spellbinding (kid-friendly) “Hex Libris”
Who is the creature lurking in the library in Erik’s Webcomic? I think I know, and I’ve entered Erik’s contest, but I can’t share my guess with anyone. But I will say this much — it’s a character from a book we know. After all, the strip is Hex Libris, in which Kirby, the main character is charged with taking care of a ginormous enchanted library.
Ever read a novel that just comes to life before your eyes? Well, Hex Libris seizes that theme and runs down the field in an unexpected direction with it. The webcomic by designer- writer Erik Kuntz of Austin, Texas began as a New Year’s resolution. So did his illustration blog A Dog a Day Project that features Erik’s unstop able canine imagery — with doggy bites of daily commentary. But that’s a subject for a future post.
Erik was thinking of the classic Nancy Drew stories of the 1950s, mulling how they compared to and contrasted with the Nancy Drew graphic novels being created for today’s teens.
“I wondered, ‘What if there was a place where characters could wander out of their books?’ ” Erik says. “‘And what would happen if the real Nancy Drew ran into the punky Manga-style Nancy Drew?'”
Our hero Kirby meets them both as a result of his new archival responsibilities. And so it is inevitable that the trio and who knows who else (stay tuned…) join forces to solve a mystery or two.
Kirby’s story unfolds in semi-weekly panels that move us cleanly, easily — even sweetly — through space and time. We care about Kirby and Amy (a girl who likes him) and teen girl detective Connie Carter ( the “original” Nancy Drew) and even the little old lady (or is she a witch?) who leases Kirby the uptown apartment that, somehow, magically contains a Library of Congress-like basilica within its tiny walls.
Erik hatched the idea at last year’s Summer Arts Workshop at California State University. He studied comics and animation in the summer program. He knows and adores comics. He’s studied under Scott McCloud, the author of Understanding Comics, Re-inventing Comics and other titles all about the ‘language’ of an art form that goes back to well, let’s just say paintings on cave walls.
One of the teachers at the summer workshop, comic book writer-illustrator Trina Robbins encouraged Kuntz to see it through — his Hex Libris storyline.
“I’ve done so much study over the last few years as to what makes a comic a comic as opposed to an illustrated story,” Erik says. “It’s a constant struggle between what needs to be put in the picture and what needs to be said ‘out loud’ in words.” For inspiration, he looks to the late “father of Manga” Osamu Tezuka and the late E.C. Segar, the creator of Popeye and Thimble Theatre.
“Kimba the White Lion was my favorite show as a kid,” Kuntz says. “It was cartoony without being overly simple.”
“I like the older style of newspaper comics, where the adventure strips had a more realistic look.”
As much as he enjoys comic books, Erik says, “it’s the comic pages in the Sunday paper that I most enjoy and try to emulate here — their sequential nature and the art style and sense of humor — especially from the 1940s to the 1950s, where they could work bigger and there was more possibility.”
Alas, the gorgeous graphics of Prince Valiant (Gary Gianni carries on with the storybook imagery first created by Hal Foster in 1937) and For Better or for Worse (Lynn Johnston) have been scrunched to near-insignificance as newspapers continue to shrink their content.
Newspapers themselves seem to be folding (no pun intended) as a mainstream media and the ultimate cartoon delivery vehicle. But perhaps the World Wide Web can do for the old newspaper “funny pages” what Manga has done for comic book and graphic novel publishing.
“I think every artist who does children’s or cartoony stuff would do well to look at the web as an opportunity,” Kuntz says. “There is a huge number of people publishing strips. Often the content is poor. You won’t ‘get’ it if you weren’t out drinking with the cartoonist and his friends the night before. Other web strips cater to extremely specific readers, such as Penny-Arcade.com. “If you don’t know anything about video games, you’ll be mystified by the strip,” he says.
“There is a stunning amount of good work out there. There are quite a few brilliant child-friendly comics. More kids are reading comics on the Web. Half of them are newspaper strips in syndication — the traditional old newspaper strips like Calvin and Hobbes, which is being run again and again on the Web. That’s where kids go now to read Calvin and Hobbes. My browser opens all the comics I want to read each day in tabs. I don’t read them in the newspaper anymore.
“I decided some while back that the Web would be an ideal way for me to do an old fashioned serial strip. It’s an inexpensive way to put work out there and a much easier way to get in front of somebody. With the Web and the 2.0 social networking, everyone’s sharing things, pointing their discoveries out to each other. It’s a new milieu. It’s an old art form, but a different way of delivering it.
Some cartoonists endeavor to make an income from their sites. “The business model is web advertising, or accepting donations or sale of merchandise, such as T-shirts, mugs, or print versions of their work. Others are willing to do it for free, for the artistic expression or to have an online portfolio or as just another way of posting,” Erik says. “It’s an interesting way to get people to your site. ”
He begins by writing a synopsis of what’s going to happen in the chapter, without the dialogue.
“With a serial strip, just like in the Sunday funny papers, you kind of need to have a stop every day. You want each page of the comic to be a beat Each one has to be a sort of mini cliff hanger. And each chapter must have its own arc. That’s the other thing I work with to get right.”
Then he sketches in the panel and the individual frames. Once upon a time it was pencil on paper. “But now I’m working directly on the computer, starting with rough sketches in Corel Painter using my Wacom Cintiq tablet monitor,” he says. “To be more precise, I use Painter’s Mechanical Pencil brush set to a light blue color.”
“They look a lot like my traditional sketches look since I use a col-erase blue to do my roughs on paper,” he says. “I’m most of the way done with this roughing, I have some poses to adjust, some faces to finish and I’ve got to fix the perspective on the backgrounds, which are currently just scribbled in. Oh, and I need a background in the final panel. Painter has a perspective grid, which is useful for a simple 2-point perspective, so I’ll be using that to get the kitchen sorted properly.”
Erik’s ‘pencil rough’ for the March 13 panel of “Hex Libris”, except he’s done it digitally, using the “mechanical pencil” brush (set to blue) in Corel Painter.
“I stay with Painter through the inking process. Then I bring the whole thing into Illustrator to do the lettering. Once in a while when I’m out and about with my sketchbook, I capture a pose I want to use and scan that in and mix it in with my computer sketches.
“When I ink, I use a variety of Painter’s Ink Pen brushes — mostly the Smooth Round Pen one. For the next one, I’m going to experiment with the tools that more closely imitate traditional comics inking brushes. It’ll be looser and I am not certain whether I’ll like it. I’ll know in a day or two when I get to the inking.”
Erik incorporates a slight shading – a barely perceptible yellow layer — behind his “inked” panels. The off-white tinge “warms up” the strip and maybe subconsciously evokes the nostalgia of newsprint, Erik believes. “That kind of pulls it together for me,” he says.
He imbeds his URL on the bottom left and his copyright information on the bottom right.
Erik and his wife, writer-actress-comedian Maggie Gallant own 2 Bad Mice Design in Austin, Texas. He teaches classes (for children and adults) in animation, digital art, and digital cartooning at the Austin Museum of Art Art School. The “Hex Libris” webcomic can be found at http://hexlibriscomic.com/
Mark Mitchell writes for How to be a Children’s Book Illustrator and The Admiral’s Blog An award-winning author-illustrator, he also teaches classes (for adults) in children’s book illustration at the Austin Museum of Art Art School.