TCR Talks with Keithan Jones and Amber Tillman
BY: A.M. Larks AND A.E. Santana
While many may think of comics as superhero-kid stuff, the comic book business is an immense global industry—reaching a huge and diverse audience. In 2017, North American sales totaled over $1 billion. Whether it’s a classic comic book or a graphic novel, the combination of words and images need to work in perfect harmony to tell a story.
What is the process of a harmonic collaboration between author and artist? TCR contributors A. E. Santana and A. M. Larks talk to both sides of this equation: creator and artist of “The Power Knights” and owner and founder of Kid Comics, Keithan Jones, and Amber Tillman, author and creator of Medicine Cabinet, about developing comics as either the artist or writer, and just how this harmony is achieved.
The Coachella Review: Do artists have one style or a variety? If each artist has myriad styles they can depict, what makes an artist choose one style or another?
Keithan Jones: I believe every artist has his or her natural style and then a bunch experimental variations of that style. Young artists are usually seduced by the “popular” style and mimic that. It’s fool’s gold. The moment the artist relaxes and just lets his/her natural style emanate is when he or she truly becomes a real artist. Accepting yourself can be very challenging for anyone. I still deal with it.
Amber Tillman: When it comes to having one style or a variety of styles, I would have to say that an artist tends to have a style that they are the most comfortable with but can adapt and work in other styles. For example, in my comic the main style is an anime-inspired one, but it can change styles in an instant depending on the scene. Depending on what the mood is, the artist can base their style on that.
TCR: Can you talk about the collaboration process between artists and writers?
KJ: It can be amazing or very contentious. Artists by nature tend to be very sensitive. So I think if you make it clear from the beginning what is required from the individuals collaborating and the nature of that relationship, it makes things flow a lot easier. If it’s your project, make that clear by being decisive in what you want the hired help to do. Being vague leads to nothing but trouble.
AT: I found my artist (Dave Davey) on YouTube, of all places, and reached out when I found out that they were doing commissions. When working with my artist, I reach out through email, write out the different scenes, and provide rough drafts and examples of what I want the characters/scenes to look like. Then I will go back and forth until the comic strip is finished.
TCR: Do you feel there is a line at how much an author can instruct an artist? How much liberty do you think an artist can take with a writer’s description or scene?
KJ: It’s best to trust the artist you hired by letting them interpret your script in their “style” as long as they keep the integrity and purpose of the scene intact. Especially veterans. It’s a bit disrespectful to “instruct” them on how to draw a scene.
AT: This is an interesting question because, as stated before, my main role is being the author, and I hire an artist to help my dream come to life . . . so, with that being said, I think there should be a balance between what the author wants and what the artist wants, but at the same time someone has to take the lead, and in the case of a commission that someone has paid for . . . it is likely the artist will have less free will to do what they want.
TCR: Is there any advice that you could give to budding writers about writing for comics? How do you think the writing varies from traditional writing formats?
KJ: Just liberate your thoughts and put them to paper or computer. Don’t be afraid of saying what you want with your art. Speak from personal experience to get the best results. If it comes from a real place, people will pick up on that and relate to what you’re writing a lot easier. Even if it’s fiction.
AT: When it comes to advice for writers, I would suggest carrying a small notebook around so you can always write down any ideas that come to mind . . . I suppose a phone could work as well, but I always feel more motivated when I physically write something down. When I have the time I will go through my notebook and see which ideas I can actually use.
TCR: Comics use visual images to convey invisible ideas, like mood and emotions. How are emotions conveyed on the page? Why is it important to convey emotions using visual images rather than words? What are the most complicated emotions to draw?
KJ: Personally I just feel it through my pencil. Hard to explain. It’s just something as an artist I can do. I guess you could just find a photo and copy what you see but that tends to end up being very stiff-looking art.
AT: Emotions can be a very difficult thing to display, but when it comes to my series, my characters often wear their emotions on their sleeves, so it can be obvious to tell if the scene is a serious one or a funny one. However, if a scene calls for more attention, then, for example, you can showcase sadness and loneliness by drawing the character in a darkened area by themselves with their face hidden . . . this scene alone, without words, can speak volumes and convey many emotions. It is important to be able to convey emotions without words because unlike a novel, comics mainly consist of images, and if an artist cannot convey emotions, then the readers will not be able to connect to the story and the characters. When it comes to the most complicated emotion to draw . . . I would have to say a character’s being “unsure” or feeling a mix of multiple emotions at once.
TCR: Artists have a number of tools at their disposal to convey meaning: type and style of the background, the line, the word bubble, the font, and even the type and style of the panel size and directionality of the read. How do you weigh and balance all of these elements?
KJ: Again it’s a natural gift the artist has. But looking at it technically, try to consider the silhouette value of your compositions. Meaning, if you filled in an object in a scene all black, would you still know what it is in relationship to all the other elements in the scene. Filling in a scene with tons of details may satisfy the artist on personal accomplishment level but drown out the important elements that should stand out in the scene. Thus you’ve failed as a storyteller.
AT: Balancing all of these items can be a task, but I tend to stick with similar styles when it comes to word bubbles and font style. The main thing that often changes is the panel size, and that changes a lot due to the importance of the scene or if a lot more detail needs to be placed in to compare to others.
TCR: How, as an artist, do you address the reader’s sensory experience: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch? What aspects are crucial to have a vibrant and complete world on the page?
KJ: I try to define the world the story takes place in by showing establishing shots every time you cut to another scene. Color tones help as well to set the emotional atmosphere.
AT: Addressing the reader’s sensory experience is something that I work on with my artist. In my series, we tend to use a lot of vibrant colors to draw the readers in, but, on the other end, when we get to the scenes with the alley cats who live near the dumpster, the colors tend to dim down and the trash is literally everywhere . . . you can tell just by looking at the panel that this is an area that isn’t nose friendly. When it comes to what aspects are crucial, I would have to say coloring and details . . . if something is meant to be noticed, make sure it is.
TCR: In comics, time is utilized differently than in any other form. It can be expanded and fast-forwarded or lengthened and slowed down. What makes you choose how to deal with time? How do you choose which moments to expand and which to contract? How do you depict this?
KJ: A simple trick of just adding more panels to depict a movement or camera pan slows the eye down when reading a particular page. The opposite is true to speed up a scene.
AT: The timeline in a comic series can be a very complicated thing . . . I will create a rough draft and put all the comic blocks together and go back to edit it down. I will choose what blocks are the most important and edit them to flow into each other. If a climax is building up, I will spend more time on those blocks than on one that has a quick gag/joke. For example, there is a scene that ends the first part of my series on a dramatic note. I have multiple story blocks building up to this moment and one large block with the climax. Through using rough drafts, I have been able to utilize the time in my series.
TCR: Can you talk about the use of color: when, where, and why do you use color? How are color comics crafted differently than black and white?
KJ: Color is a HUGE advantage in storytelling. It adds emphasis to the line art and sets the “mood” by depicting visually what time of day or night it is or if, for instance, the sky is filled with the smoke of war. However it is not necessary to tell a great story.
AT: This is a slightly difficult question being that I am the author for my series, but when going over the style of the series with my artist we decided that bright colors should be used in the more humorous scenes and black and darker tones are used for the more serious scenes. For example, in one of the final scenes in the first part of my comic (that I referred to before) . . . the scene is darkened and uses more dull colors, but for the character who is being focused on, they have a brighter scheme, which makes them stand out. When it comes to the use of black and white . . . I found online comic strips that were black and white only and really enjoyed them, but when it comes to most comic series, I feel that color is simply just too important . . . it helps convey style and emotion, and without it I feel like I wouldn’t have much of a series.
Images provided by Amber Tillman. Artistic work done by Dave Davey.
A.M. Larks writes fiction and nonfiction. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She contributes reviews and interviews to, and is a reader for, The Coachella Review. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and is currently pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California–Riverside Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She lives in Northern California.
A.E. Santana is a Southern California native who writes horror, fantasy, and science fiction. She received her bachelor’s degree in mass communications and minor in script writing from California State University, San Bernardino. She taught fine art, theater, and writing at the middle school level. A. E. Santana is part of the theater group East Valley Rep in Indio, CA, as one of their founding playwrights. She is currently a managing editor and writes media content for a nonprofit organization. She has quite an affinity for cats. A. E. Santana can be found at www.aesantana.com, facebook.com/authoraesantana, and on Instagram and Twitter @foxflur.