Craig Phillips on creating comics

A fascinating insight as Craig Phillips – creator of the glorious children’s comic collection of myths and legends from around the world, Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts – talks us through his creative process.

Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts is a work very dear to my heart. I have always been inspired by old fairy tales, by turn of the century children’s book illustrators, by myth and magic. In this book I was able to explore all these things and more.

The very first step in any retelling of old stories is to sift through the mountain of wonderful old fairy tales out there in the public domain, and find the stories that not only appeal most to me, but are also suitable candidates for adaptation.

I look first and foremost for narrative that excites me and gives me wondrous passages to draw. I also look for tales that have a clear structure – a beginning, middle and ending.

Once I have selected my stories, I trace them as far back to their original source as possible in order to avoid accidentally working off a retelling that is still in copyright. The earlier back they go, the better. Many of the tales in this book were retold from texts published circa 1900.

And then the real fun begins – visual research! I compile images from old illustrations, archival photographs, environmental reference and clothing reference. The visual reference is very important as it gives me a foundation and head start on making the actual art. Visual research is also gathered to ignite the imagination. It is a very important stage in any piece of work.

The first stage of production is the script. I keep it as economical as possible knowing that, being in comic form, the pictures themselves will tell a lot of the story. I work on the script, honing and editing until I feel it is working as well as possible and ready to be presented to an editor for further checking and refining.

I then work off the script to rough the art out in two-inch-tall page layouts known as thumbnail roughs. This is a very important stage. It allows me to focus solely on layout, composition and storytelling, without my mind being cluttered by detail.

I make sure each page is well balanced with contrasting shapes and has a mix of long shots and close-ups in order to keep each page visually interesting.

Once the thumbnails read well and tell the story as effectively as possible, then the final pages will be guaranteed to work! And so next come the detailed roughs…

I blow up the thumbnails and either trace a more detailed drawing off those, or I simply use them as a reference. Either way, I stick to them very closely!

I generally rough out the entire story. The roughs are for establishing anatomy, details, expression and background work. The roughs are an exciting phase of production.

Once roughs are established, I tape them to a light box and trace them cleanly onto art paper. My pencils are very detailed and ready for inking in pen and ink. I like to take a clear approach to inking, with definite lines and little to no texture or crosshatching. My inking is largely inspired by artists such as Jeff Smith and Sheila Beckett.

The art is scanned at 400 dpi at about 150% of print size. I colour in Photoshop and then add in just a little bit of pre-scanned watercolour texture to give it a more natural feel. I like my colours to be bright and saturated, inspired by old cartoons and books like Asterix and Tintin.

The last step is adding word balloons and lettering. It is always important to allow ample space for these right from the thumbnail stage, as it will keep the art from looking too crowded. And, just like for any printed page, they must flow left to right and top to bottom.

When finally all the elements come together to make a harmonious page of storytelling, it is an incredibly rewarding experience for the comic book creator!

Comics are my favourite format to work in. I have been making them since I was a little boy, and the magical feeling I get from the work hasn’t changed a bit all these years!

I hope you enjoy Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts: Ten Tales from the Deep, Dark Woods!

Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts was recently shortlisted for both the Ledger Awards and the NZ Children’s Book Awards. It was also a CBCA Picture Book of the Year Notable Book, and was shortlisted in the Aurealis Awards. Bravo, Craig – we’re proud as punch!

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