Any Other Universe: Conceptual and Stylistic Development of a Made-for-the-Web Comic by Reid Peterson (My Senior Paper)

The following senior project is about the conceptual and stylistic development of a web comic called Any Other Universe. Visuals heavily emphasize the development process of the comic, speculating on the direction of to-be-published installments. These works are intended to introduce the main characters, the central storyline, the setting, and basic premise of the web comic. This project works in tandem with a fellow senior project: the AOU Website, created by Darren Sorrels.

PROJECT STATEMENT

The goal of this project was to define the conceptual and stylistic development of a comic called Any Other Universe, which would ultimately be published online. The entirety of this style—the visual aesthetic—would apply to both the narrative content as well as secondary/promotional media. The conceptual development addressed these aspects as well as the unique motivation behind the purpose of AOU.

Brief interjection: It should be clarified that AOU, in its solidarity as an intellectual creative concept, was by no means conceived from naught for this project directly. The comic was first proposed, and later developed by the AOU team, which consisted of myself—Reid Peterson—and my colleagues Jonathan Witt, Darren Sorrels, Chelsea Boen. From the earliest stages, AOU was intended to be a web comic, but was first featured in The Oracle, the student-run newspaper at Oral Roberts University (Plate 1). The comic acquired readers via this medium from Spring 2011 until Spring 2012, and was further promoted on Facebook; after which, the team decided to focus on formally setting the comic to the web. From said motivation, Reid Peterson and Darren Sorrels chose to elaborate on AOU for the Fall 2012 Senior Show.

Any Other Universe, as a proposal that fulfilled the perimeters of this specific project, was tasked with addressing two problems. First, there was the issue of ability. There is an unfortunate trend in artwork and design created by Christians, at large, of falling far behind the industries’ standards of excellence. For whatever reason, these works are just bad: often, sacrificing the tangible for the abstract—that is, drawing on some seemingly spiritual theme while falling short in its application. This can be witnessed in the oversized inventory of lesser crafts and memorabilia, with an apparent lack in the finer arts. Works explicitly created by Christians then, even if outstanding, develop a connotation of being as terrible as their contemporaries. Second, there is the issue of intention. The medium of web comics has exploded with the expansion and propagation of the Internet. Whether found on any number of blogs or hosting sites, web comics are incredibly numerous and varied in their genre, style, audience, etc.

Yet, with any large body of created works there is always diversity among the quality; there are many well-crafted comics (in both the story and artwork) online these days, plenty that are mediocre, and so many more that are ruinous. Might they be skillful, many are also morally decrepit and hollow. They are characterized by crude, defaming humor, and inappropriate or even explicit content. The sheer number of these works reflects the ease to which it is to produce unrefined and ignoble comic stories. That said, AOU in the purest and noblest of purposes is to successfully navigate these two issues: in short, to achieve an excellence in both ability and intention—to be professional, profound and virtuous.

In order to accomplish the objective, as mentioned above, the comic had to first come into a physical, visual existence. At the most basic level, this existence is defined by the artistic style that would be applied to the narrative. These elements, such as characters and settings, are the primary focus of my project—to define the formal visual elements of AOU: the concept design.

Concept design was to consist of establishing a formal drawing style and creating “character design spreads” that would define a standard for the visual interpretations of the  story’s characters. This standard consisted of artistic style, color swatches, as well as studies in facial expression and anatomy. Among these characters, detailing the (as-of-yet) complete cast of AOU will be three main characters and an assortment of minor characters. The conceptual development was then be implemented into a series of comic installments, which would introduce the reader to the basic premise and mood of the story, introduce character relationships, and so forth. In relation to the soon-to-be-addressed narrative, these installments were set to be non-sequential—separate episodes that still maintain coherence. This series of installments would be in either of two formats: standard comic book dimensions of 6.62 x 10.25 in (17 x 26 cm) or comic strip dimensions of approximately 14 x 4.5 in (35.56 x 11.43 cm). (It should be mentioned that these formatting decisions, though standardized for this project, are subject to change as the finished works are introduced to the requirements of the web.)

Also to be included in the concept design will be a range of process and promotional materials featuring an underlying visual/thematic congruency. These works will consist of early installments, digital sketches, various illustrations, and website banner advertisements (templates of various dimensions).

This project set out to resolve a number of problems connected to the conceptual/stylistic development of the web comic Any Other Universe:

  • Establish a consistent and relevant artistic style
  • Create a coherent narrative, encompassing an origin story (later revised)
  • To compile a formal styles guideline for all things AOU: fonts, color palette, layouts & grids, spacing, etc.
  • Illustrate an origin story installment (3pgs) and two side stories (strips)
  • Consider and create appropriate promotional materials, making use of the aforementioned criteria

Note: the preceding list of criteria stands as was first established. The revised list will be addressed, at length, under the Project Description section. The remainder of this section, then, sets up the primary problems, or solution concepts that were to be addressed in regard to this project.

Solution Concept #1

Nearly any body of creative work requires a unifying element, something that ties everything together seamlessly. In a series of artwork—or installments, as be the case of a comic—this unifying element is most embodied in the visual style, or more specifically, the character design. Questions to consider: for whom is AOU created—who is the audience? Do the characters and general artistic style reflect this target audience, and the philosophical intentions behind the comic? One of the tasks of the conceptual development process would be the creation of aforementioned “character design spreads,” which detail the final stylistic choices.

In addition to the “what” of my project concept, there is still the matter of the “how.” By example, which is better software for drawing the comic, Photoshop or Illustrator—pixels versus vectors? Also, what else can I add or change to my existing workflow or the later production process to create the “look” that AOU needs?

Beyond the stylistic unity of the project’s contents, the entire body of works requires a similar accord in visual design for the final presentation. This visual unity also extends to the branding of the actual comic, or at least so far as a working logo. A full branding package, however, was not the intention of this project.

Solution Concept #2

One of the primary issues to be resolved was creating a plausible and coherent narrative, which would establish an origin story and successive plot points. This process required a thorough consideration of what AOU is about: setting, purpose, characters and their motivations, as well as any theme or dynamically reoccurring elements. In preparation for this project, the AOU team discussed the narrative formatting of the comic and decided that an origin story would be ideal. Thus, that was the concept coming into the final development period (the academic year).

Solution Concept #3

The third issue to address in regard in this project is the proliferation of Any Other Universe, post-show. Once the Fall 2012 Senior Show comes and goes, what will there be left to do? The ideal outcome and lasting function of this project is to serve as a springboard for later works and future launch of the comic. With this in mind, what can I do to set up AOU for the next phase in its existence? Foremost, I wanted to create a proper narrative, character list, and artistic style (which will be addressed in Solution Process #2). In this undertaking I also hoped to expand my skill in helpful techniques, story development, and efficient in certain production software. Another goal, as a part of this concept, involved the creation a design standards manual that formally account for all branding, formatting, and promotional works.

There are several future works or projects that I have considered in following the results of my senior project. Most evident is the perpetuation of the AOU story; with installments to follow the comics I have already created. The ideal result of these installments would be the full body of AOU, for as long as the web comic is active. This in part includes further development of the website, the script, definitive and in-depth story chapters, as well as social and promotional applications (networking, advertisements, publicity events, giveaways, etc.)

Note: The AOU website was, in fact, created in tandem with this project, by my colleague Darren Sorrels, and showcased in the same senior show: Fall 2012.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

As a preface, I wanted to get a jumpstart on my senior project, as to avoid any extra stress come deadline, and for this decision I am most thankful. Over the summer I set apart time to solidify the goals of my project, hammering out trouble spots, and creating rudimentary versions of later works. This time of preparation and collaboration (approximately twenty hours) gave me a sufficient starting point for the paper and subsequent works. Yet even still, there were many obstacles to overcome in the time to follow. For, the final concept of my project was simultaneously developed along side the actual work; while the various components were created and tweaked, the direction of the project was also remodeled.

My general process first involved outlining the project goals and considering the technicalities involved. Next, I began creating templates for the various components. This included the “character design spreads,” web banner advertisements, and the early drafts of the design standards manual. Then I worked extensively on a variety of thumbnails, digital sketches, process works, and the like. This part was perhaps the most frustrating as I struggled for a suitable origin story, and what exactly I could produce given my time restraints. Subsequently, I attempted both personal and group critiques to solve the project’s problems—from both my peers and instructors. Furthermore, the construction of this paper, a bit of experimentation, and reflection upon mid-term critique helped significantly. Much of this project was like stepping into a fog, where I couldn’t entirely know where I was going. Only after several dozen hours of diligent work did the project start taking shape; and with it, I gained satisfaction and encouragement to continue. Elements of visual unity, once decided and applied, further helped me to see what the project yet required.

Solution Process #1

To solve the need for a consistent art style, I underwent an extensive exploration of anatomical variances, line weight, expression and anatomical studies (Fig. 2). During this process I learned a great deal about the workflow necessary for eventual publication and web adaptation.

To begin, I decided upon a drawing style that merged the personality from earlier works with newly discovered nuances in technique and form. This style can be seen in the character design spreads (Fig. 3-7). Largely, this drawing style came about during the development of the “character design spreads,” which were initially based on a very simple template. This style was further developed via experimentation with color and shading techniques, textures, dimensions, and layout. As part of the inking process I expanded the ink stokes (Object > Expand…) and then, with the strokes selected, used the Pathfinder tool (Pathfinder > Shape Mode > Unite). This helps reduce the layer/object clutter in subsequent steps.

Furthermore, I weighed the value of digital “penciling” and “inking” in both Adobe Photoshop versus Illustrator: the former being most valuable in experimental sketching and layout, with the latter proving to be more proficient and responsive—ideal for inking and later production. During the digital sketch and inking stages I made use of my Wacom drawing tablet. To aid my workflow in Illustrator I created a color swatch library—organized into groups—and a specific brush to create the line-weight and variance I was looking for (Fig 2). The following description references the brush preset I created for my project. With the Brush tool selected, I opened the brush choice drop-menu, and then selected the New Brush icon. I chose to create a Calligraphy brush type, and then adjusted the settings: a diameter of 3 points with a variance of 3 points. I then saved this preset as “Inking-Brush”. In application, where necessary, I adjusted the stroke anywhere from 1 to 0.2 points.

As to the need for a stylistic unity among the project’s contents, significant time was devoted to creating a standard design (colors, textures, and placement, as applied to a background, title block shape, typeface, and a comic logo). This design was then applied to each of the final, presented spreads and the web banner advertisement templates (Fig. 8). The banner dimensions were based on standards from an online resource; applied to fifteen appropriately sized art boards, and formatted using the Art Board Tool (shortcut: Shift + O) in Adobe Illustrator. As described in the Project Statement, these standards (banners included) were going to be organized into a formal, yet incomplete, design standards manual to all things AOU. Although germane to the propagation of the comic—for future artists and collaborators—and based on criteria in Solution Concept #3, the guide as a distinctive work proved largely unnecessary. Elements were then re-distributed, as seen in Fig. 2, 8, 9.

The comic then, as per the need for visual unity, required an official Any Other Universe logo. Colors were based on previously decided schemes, but also had to reflect the personality of the comic, playing off the nature of the protagonist. The primary element was based on the abstracted form of a swirling galaxy, but also draws similarity to a speech bubble. The typeface HVD Comic Serif Pro, the established title text for AOU, was used in the logo—modified in regard to stroke weight, letter spacing, and rotation transformation. First developed in a series of thumbnail sketches, the final logo was created in Illustrator—amidst continued experimentation. The final logo can be seen in the design-oriented ‘Conceptual Development Spread’ (Fig. 2).

Solution Process #2

To remedy the lack of coherent narrative I met with the AOU team every week for a period of several months. These discussions, along side thumbnail sketches, digital mockups, the writing of plot-points and the script, slowly brought about the final theme. The motivations behind AOU were also reviewed. From this the primary narrative was established, and side-stories were considered. The origin story was to be the primary narrative, and with this in mind, the concept underwent multiple revisions; however, in the end the origin became too large for the project’s time restraints. Thus, the project’s narrative was re-conceived as several distinctive, yet relatively succinct comic installments. Each of these installments focuses on miscellaneous plot-points that emphasize character relationships and the overall theme of AOU. Yet, even then, because of the experimental nature of the project these installments gradually became far more transitional then originally intended. By project completion, this area was more or less reduced to a template standard, along with rough, concept installment samples (Fig. 10-11).

As the semester progressed, and as my body of work grew, I began to realize that my project was taking on its own direction. I was hoping to focus on creating the first few installments of the actual comic; however, with assistance from my advisor and peers, I came to see that my project was to be more of a conceptual playground for what would eventually come later. My created works would really only hint toward what AOU is meant to be. This realization freed me from frustration in the face of uncertainty. If anything, it helped me to embrace the process as an experience showcased instead of a final, rigid work.

In the process of brainstorming I worked with the AOU team to create a plan for how the story of the comic would play forth once officially launched. As was to be reflected in the samples for my project, AOU would work in two concurrent modes: 1.) A primary, “real life” plot with a basis in more serious themes; and 2.) coinciding stories that consist of random, weird, or fantasy-like elements.

Now, regardless of the complications of the narrative process, much of the comic’s premise, setting, and characters (as originally conceived) did not change from the beginning to the end of the project. The focus, however, did change. These elements will here after be explored in the remainder of this section.

The derived synopsis of the comic, upon thoughtful, collaborative consideration, is as follows: Any Other Universe is all about finding direction in the chaotic quest for self-discovery. The story follows a college student named Jon who is struggling against himself and all the distractions of life: school, friends, videogames, and his overactive imagination. Along with his friends Dan and Emery, Jon is on a journey to recognize who he is and what he’s capable of, including his potential as a graphic designer.

One of the major developments of my project was the setting of the comic, that is, the university in which the characters attend. I finally settled on the name “Antioch Octavius University,” which plays off the initials of the comic (A.O.U.), and is intended to be a parody of Oral Roberts University. Worthy of note: my choice to make parody and draw inspiration from ORU is non-malicious. If at all, the humor of the parody is to be drawn from the more general archetype of the modern, private Christian university. Now, once I had established a name I began to research examples of university emblems and eventually came out with a suitable concept: a circular banner about a logo-element and other symbols (Fig. 9). In addition to the name and emblem, I also formulated the school colors and a mascot character called “Simon the Salamander” (Fig. 9). This process was largely constructed in Illustrator. As to the setting: the actual campus, specifically the architecture, was to be very distinctive—almost exotic—but with no fixed, consistent form: neither in concept nor in drawn style. This parallels a plot element unique to AOU that blends the “real world” of the fictional campus with the daydreaming of the main character, Jon. The reader, then, can never be entirely sure on whether a fantastic encounter is just Jon’s imagination, or something truly bizarre born of that reality. Note: this concept is not visually represented in the project’s printed works; however, it does remains relevant in the development process of the comic’s setting. The content of the University Branding was probably my favorite to work on, the most rewarding and the spread I was most pleased with.

The characters of Any Other Universe are very diverse, consisting of three primary characters and a wide swath of minor characters.

The primary characters of AOU are Jon, Dan, and Emery. The following are short biographies of said characters. Jon is an undergrad graphic design major with a remarkable imagination and artistic talent. He loves doing anything creative, which often leads into many outrageous situations. Like most college students his age, Jon is still trying to figure out his identity as well as the balance and responsibilities of adulthood. Dan is Jon’s roommate: a junior business major, whose entire day outside of school consists of playing videogames. Dan is perhaps the one person who most understands Jon, is always there for him, and knows what to say. Emery is a sophomore with an obscure major, whose many activities and interests elude Jon and Dan for a long time. She works for campus publications, which she likes to gripe about. She is also a closet nerd and collector of certain memorabilia.

The full list of secondary (or minor) characters in AOU, with short biographies, is as follows. Dwight is the Resident Advisor for Jon and Dan’s floor. He is a stickler for the rules, and is very studious. Adam is a sage, but peculiar, super senior on Jon and Dan’s floor. He likes to lift weights, sleep, and eat. He also likes to flirt with Emery, much to her chagrin. Erin is Emery’s annoying freshman roommate. She is naïve, obtrusive, and ignorant of many things, but still looks up to Emery. She is also Jon’s stalker. Ryan is the Chaplain for Jon and Dan’s floor. He is friendly, fun loving, and is the one to talk to when anyone on the floor has a problem. Lorelei is a studio art major that is in several of Jon’s classes. She has a quiet and calm personality, and his Jon’s primary love interest. Rusty is a graphic design major who is in most of Jon’s classes. He likes spray-painting, rap music, and plays the drums. Addison is the Academic Peer Advisor for Jon and Dan’s floor. He is quite intelligent but also opinionated. “Hipster Woman” is the unnamed representation of Dan’s dislike for all things hipster; and yet, for whom he has an undeniable attraction to. Prof. Noth is a mysterious art professor at Antioch Octavius and a mentor of Jon’s. Sandy (Not Pictured) is a member of the student association on campus, “everyone’s friend,” and is very involved in all school events. She can also be something of a klutz.

In meeting with the AOU team, it was decided that the story could use a pet-like mascotcharacter. Concept was wide and varied, but we ultimately settled on a “cute creature” version, a mix between the Swamp Thing and Frankenstein’s monster (Fig 7). I then considered introducing this creature (concept credit to my colleague Chelsea Boen) through one of the comic installment samples of my project; however, this plan did not pan out. The pet was refined in both Photoshop (rough sketch) and Illustrator (inking and coloring).

Solution Process #3

The most significant aspect of this third issue, which I did accomplish, was in my personal growth as an artist. I had hoped to expand my skill in helpful techniques, story development, and efficiency in certain production software—which I did, and much more. Beyond this, I also created a full body of works that are sure to benefit or aid the creation of later works in Any Other Universe.

I created excerpts for a yet-incomplete AOU design standard manual, which set guidelines for branding, formatting, and promotional works. The formal concept of the manual was not a goal of my project in of itself, but more so a limited series of guide worksheets to be later compiled in said manual. The initial textual frame was created over the summer, in collaboration with other members of the AOU team. As mentioned before, the related content was reformatted for the revised presentation of this project.

In review, there were many things I hoped to accomplish thought this project, and much more that I wasn’t expecting but learned valuable lessons from. Over all I was very pleased with all that learned in the exercise of this project. The production process, though lined with difficulties and frustration, is very rewarding in the end.

Methods of production include:

  • MacBook Pro 15”
  • Wacom tablet and pen
  • Adobe Photoshop CS4
  • Adobe Illustrator CS4
  • Adobe Kuler
  • Drawing paper
  • Medium: traditional and digital
  • Collaboration of ideas via Google Docs and Dropbox.
  • Online resources (tutorials and samples – various)

Fonts used in this project (all of which are free for personal and commercial use) are listed below and can also be found in Figure 2:

  • HVD Comic Serif Pro, by Hannes von Döhren (from FontSquirrel.com) – title font
  • Claire Hand, by Team Scope (from dafont.com) – subtitle/title 2 font
  • Universal Fruitcake, by Jakob Fischer (FontSquirrel.com) – basic text font
  • Goudy Old Style, by Frederic W. Goudy – university logo primary font
  • Merit, by Scott Simpson (dafont.com) – university logo secondary font

In conclusion, I would like to attribute thanks to several of my colleagues and professors, without whom, I would have been far less accomplished and far more frustrated. First, and extensively, to the AOU team of Darren Sorrels, Chelsea Boen, and Jonathan Witt for all their brainstorming and suggestions; to story collaborator David Frasier; to professors Nathan Opp, Jiwon Kim, and my adviser Jason Howell—who helped me to see the issues requiring attention. And foremost, I’d like to give thanks and praise to the source of all my artistic skill and inspiration, God Almighty, from whom my drive to create is founded.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kat, Neville. Designing Style Guidelines for Brands and Websites. Smashing Magazine, accessed September 13, 2012. http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/07/21/designing-style-guidelines-for-brands-and-websites/.

Butler, Tracy J. Creating a Comic. FAQ. Gallery. Lackadaisy, accessed September 13, 2012. http://lackadaisycats.com/index.php/.

Design Resources: Banners. Designer’s Toolbox, accessed September 13, 2012. http://designerstoolbox.com/designresources/banners/.

Kibuishi, Kazu. Process. Bolt City Productions: Copper, accessed October 3, 2012.http://www.boltcity.com/workshop/copper_tutorial/.


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