Thursday, November 05, 2009

Hotspot #21: Deconstructing Comic Collaborations and Crossovers

I have a confession to make.

I like collaborations and crossovers. Sometimes. In fact, I have a positive hankering to find ones which are done well.

The problem is that they rarely are. Which is perfectly understandable. After all the more people you add to a project, the more ridiculously obfuscated and difficult to manage it gets.

At the present, my mental backburner can't seem to stop thinking about collaborative efforts on the web. You see, I really really want to make one.

However, having taken part in a collaborative efforts before, I KNOW how difficult they are. And I've been thinking about how to make one and how to make it better. And so far I've identified the main problems with them are:

A. Focus - This is part and parcel of the whole collaborative schtick, apparently. When you have 5 different people with different styles of writing, you cannot expect them all to be heading in the same direction without a plan. Or a script. For some, part of the charm of collaboration lies in the lack of planning and spontaneity of it all. So... is there a way to maintain this and yet overcome this obstacle? More on this later.

B. Overall consistency and the lack of it - This is the main problem with having N different artists with different art styles taking turns working alternating pages. The overall effect? Reader keeps having to adjust to different styles and learning to recognize character A when drawn by artist B and character A when drawn by artist C. This is still acceptable if you're only switching styles say, every chapter or story, but when it's done page to page with vastly different art styles and formats... It can be really distracting.

C. Maintaining creator enthusiasm, or having a means of continuing after it has waned - When these collaborative projects start out, usually it's all RAH RAH from the get go. After the first few weeks, the enthusiasm dies and more often then not, so does the comic.

D. Scheduling- Some creators have lives. Some have VERY busy lives. The problem is usually when Creator A is free, it's Creator B's turn and Creator B is Busy. So Creator A has to wait for Creator B to be free, but when that time comics around... NOW Creator A is busy. Oh dear. In programming there is a whole field dedicated to solving this problem. That's how much of a pain scheduling is.

E. The fear of editing someone else's work in a collaborative project. I always yak and yak about HOW I write this blog to learn about making better comics. I have come to terms with one truth, especially with the recent look at a few comics. If there's any story involved, you need to plan ahead. And edit and proofread your planned plots. No getting around that. Period.

F. No finishing line. This is indirectly tied to the first point. With no finishing line, there is no focus in the project. And with no end in sight, creators can lose enthusiasm quickly, because frankly, as fun as a collab is, no one wants to do it forever.

So looking at the above observations, what I can I gather from this?

1. Goal. What do I want out of the project? Is it a fun exercise only? Is it an experiment? Or a serious effort? I need to decide on what I want, and take the steps I need to ensure it gets there, everything else be damned.

2. Finish Line. I need to start with an end point in sight. It doesn't have to be set in stone, but I need to know the scale of the project, how long it will probably take and how it will end. All this needs to be decided before I even start.

3. Inertia. Keep it quick and keep it moving. If it takes a year to finish a story, that's too long. If it takes too long in-between turns, that's BAD. People WILL lose interest in that time and it will be nothing but another famous abandoned project. So there needs to be a scheduling system that allows for busy people to pass their turns to people who have time, all the while maintaining a fair amount of balance in the amount of work people end up doing.

4. Robustness. The attrition rate for collabs is high. I need to plan for this and make sure that when people do drop out, the structure of the project is such that it is robust enough to survive with a replacement. Short and modular stories is the way to go.

5. Map. Plan the story first. It doesn't have to scripting all the way, but we need to come out with a preview of sorts first and THEN commit to a final version. Perhaps a round-robin, spontaneous storyboard version where the different artists get to do their fun stuff, then when that is done, we do the edits and corrections so it all makes sense, and come out with the real thing?

6. Roles. Division of tasks. This might not sit well with some. I will have to think hard about this. Instead of doing the normal one page a person way, for the sake of keeping a consistent style, I can think of two solutions to this so far:

a. One creator does rough 'pencils', one creator does linework, one creator does colours, one creator does text and editing etc etc. Might cause problems since everyone wants to be the penciller, although it might be possible to avoid that if the stories are kept short (~10 pages each) and the roles are rotated every story so everyone gets a chance to do each job.

b. Each creator focuses on a particular section and character. For example if there were 3 characters A, B and C. Creator Z draws all instances of Character A. Creator Y draws all instances of character B. Creator X draws all instances of character C. This is similar to what they did for the Disney feature Pocahontas, but it could get messy. On the other hand, consistency is maintained throughout the series, but then creators might get bored of just drawing the same over and over.

Wow that was a LOT of text...

With all this in mind, it looks like I'm going to spend more brain backburner time thinking about what's needed in planning and executing a collaborative project and maybe try a real example with what I've thought of.

You're all free to poke holes in what I've thought of so far. ;)

ps: Why yes that is a new banner image...


  1. Ive never thought about doing collab comics before, sounds interesting from what you described. the only collab comics Ive read have unfortunately been a bit of a mess. Although they seem fun for the artists to make, they are very confusing to read :( If I wasnt in my final year of Uni Id love to take part...maybe in future projects ;D
    I think the last two solutions you suggested would work really well, it could come out with quite a depthful/story and character driven collab comic, with artistically interesting results too. Id look forward to seeing what you come up with when you go ahead with it! Good luck! ^^

  2. I think the key quality I'd like to see from a collab comic is its ability to stand alone without having to rely on the parent comic factor to work.

    I do have something planned, but like I mentioned, it needs some fine tuning first.

  3. Great article, Ping. I might just comment on my collaboration with Al Schroeder in which we teamed up to produce a Mindmistress/Magellan crossover.

    We decided to split the tasks down the middle, the story and script were mostly Al's work although I tossed in a number of suggestions to fine tune the Magellan characters and fix a few small plot problems here and there. Then I drew and coloured the story. Originally Al was going to do the colouring but since the whole thing was set in the Magellan-verse we quickly realised it would work better for me to do that too since I instinctively knew which colours to use for the characters and costumes etc.

    There were quite a lot of breaks in the collaborative and creative process - most of which was due to me being too focused on the epic Magellan storyline I was trying to finish, although Al had plenty on his plate as well. For a 24 page story it took almost a year from inception to completion. Neither of us wanted to start putting it online until it was finished to avoid any unnecessary hiatuses - I uploaded three pages a week so it took about 6 weeks to run the whole story.

    It seems to me that our crossover followed a few of the suggestions you put forward above - a short project (short, at least in terms of page numbers), small number of collaborators and a clear delineation of tasks. We both worked on it as we could, knowing that we were both equally committed to seeing it completed but that it would be "completed when it was completed". As such the crossover/collaboration worked very well for me as I believe it did for Al.

    I'd agree with your comments about the changing art style in other collaborations being somewhat disorienting for readers - perhaps a way around this is to have one artist produce 10 or so pages, then another artist does the next 10, then another the next 10, etc... that would work a lot better than a single page per artist.

    Looking forward to whatever project you come up with, Ping!

  4. Thanks for that input, Xmung! I remember that particular crossover as being pretty good an example, although it does require knowledge of Mindmistress for it all to make sense.

    I worked with Al Schroeder before, doing a series of guest comic for Jamie Robertson's Clan of the Cats, and I have to say when it comes to collaboration, Al is an outstanding person to work with.

    Basically he did the writing and concept, I provided feedback on it, and we both had input on the storyboarding. I did the art. He did offer to colour but as at that time I was more comfortable with doing the colour myself I didn't take up the offer. I think we were both pleased with the end product and so was Jamie.

    I really like your idea of splitting the whole story into segments to be worked on by different authors.

    Hm perhaps the round robin approach to creating the script/storyboard, then we go back and edit and tidy up, then we split the pages into even sections and everyone simultaneously works on their own portion? It would definitely speed things up!

    I do have an idea for a collaboration project, but like I said, I will take a bit of time to plan the whole thing first.