This is Part Two of an interview with Chris Watkins, who has been publishing Odori Park since 2009. On his comic’s “About” page, he assures readers that “Odori Park is total fiction, and in no way autobiographical. Except for the part about being married to a Japanese woman, and having multi-racial children. And having taught English in Japan. And running a small business. And at least half the gags. Other than that, really, it's woven out of whole cloth.” Recently, Watkins deliberately went through a series of “artsperiments” with his webcomic to see how he could improve the strip, and I caught up with him to talk about those changes, how he got to making them and what he came away from them with.
Geek: Your art style seems to have had a more obvious evolutionary process. Even before your recent "artsperimentation", your early months in the strip seem to show something of a streamlining process. How conscious and deliberate was that? Were you actively looking to find your visual voice, or was that something that came about more organically?
Watkins: Very conscious, and at times, very deliberate. The earlier strips show an organic evolution that was the natural result of drawing these characters constantly, day after day. At various points since then, though, I've engaged in experiments, explorations, and challenges to leap ahead toward a faster, more energized, and better looking end product. At one point, for example, I made a concerted effort to streamline the look of the main characters. I wanted to make them faster to draw, and easier to draw consistently from panel to panel. I have tons of sketches just of head shapes and eye shapes. At another point, I publicly challenged myself to draw a strip a day for a month. It wasn't sustainable (you know, I like being married to my wife), but it taught me a lot.
Geek: More recently, you've been making some deliberate artsperiments due to a computer upgrade. Can you explain a bit about what precisely you're trying to do and why?
Watkins: The real impetus wasn't actually the computer upgrade. That just complicated things in a big way. The real motivation was time.
Since I moved from NY state to Massachusetts for a new day job, and with my two little boys getting bigger and more active, my free time has withered to a fraction of what was already a fraction to begin with. I needed to find a way to accelerate my creation process, because I was starting to post comics very late, and to drop updates completely here and there. It was having a visible impact on my traffic. The whole thing was a huge drag on my energy level, too. Then I got a comment from a reader about how the Website header promises updates Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but that I must not mean "every Friday." Yeesh! That actually woke me up from the spiral a bit.
My wife was the other inspiration. She saw the strain I was under, and suggested I just skip some steps and post pencil sketches, like I've done on a couple summer vacations to keep up with updates. Altogether, that inspired me to run through a bunch of different experiments I'd been wanting to try, with different media and drawing styles.
In the end, I realized what I was really looking for wasn't just efficiency. I was looking for a way to bring some energy and passion back. Passion and productivity are really tied at the hip.
Back to the computer, though: I used to draw the strip in Photoshop. I only had this for Windows, though, so when I bought a Mac at the start of the year, I was looking at either having to shell out the bank for a new copy, or trying something new. I'm a skinflint, so I went the latter route. Plus it gave me a good excuse to really put MangaStudio through its paces.
I should mention, by the way, I've experimented with all kinds of software for drawing the comic over time. Always looking for the best line quality, the fastest workflow. InkScape, ArtRage, Sketchbook Pro. The Gimp. Brrr.
Geek: Hmm. Your more formalized artsperiments were throughout November, but if you bought your new computer early in the year, what were you doing in the interim?
Watkins: Floundering, mostly. Or maybe that's just how it felt. Equipment-wise, I found a workable system of pencilling on paper, inking and lettering in MangaStudio, and exporting for the Web in the Gimp. Creatively, though, I felt like the quality of the art, and especially the writing, not to mention my update schedule, were suffering. That's why reconnecting to my passion was so important. I'm not out of the woods, but I'm feeling better about it.
Geek: I saw that some of your artsperiments were with actual pens and brushes, as opposed to your usual digital inking. But I seem to recall reading somewhere that you were also cognizant that by drawing digitally, you were unable to sell originals. I'm curious how much of that was in your mind while you were actively experimenting. That is, were you trying harder with a brush for example than using InkScape because of non-artistic factors?
Watkins: I love the look of a well-drawn brush image, and I've played with brush pens for a while now, but not much for actual strip making. So that was about scratching an artistic itch. I'm aware of the lack of a salable artifact, but not overly concerned. It's more important to me to have the work done to a quality level and schedule I like, than to have the physical artifact. For now, at least.
Geek: Ultimately, it looks like you've gone back to Photoshop. I think it's often considered The program just because of Adobe's marketing muscle behind it, but it sounds like you've proved (for your own purposes, at least) that it's a superior program. Can you talk a bit about exactly why you broke down and bought a new copy instead of trying to skate by more cheaply using something else?
Watkins: You're close; I'm still using MangaStudio for the inks and letters because I love the line quality, but Photoshop for finishes (and for other projects, like the cover of the next book, when I get around to putting it together).
I was wasting way too much time, for a time-strapped guy, monkeying around with tools that would require me to learn whole new ways of doing basic things, or that made doing those basic things unwieldy and awkward. I just finally passed that time vs. money threshold where the time I'd save was worth more than the dollars.
Geek: Your artsperiments also looked at your drawing style. Changing the level of detail or cartooniness of the characters. By your summary, though, it sounds like you wound up pretty much right back where you were artistically. If I read things right, it sounds like your two biggest revelations were 1) enjoy working on the strip and 2) don't screw around online. Does that sound like a fair assessment and, if so, could you elaborate a bit on how you got to those (seemingly self-evident) conclusions.
Watkins: Every time I experiment with style like this, I tend to pick up a handful of new methods that might not be obvious to every reader, but that make a difference to me. Take a look, for example, at the current flexibility, versus prior rigidity, of the characters' limbs, or the way I'm drawing their thumbs.
But, yeah, the biggest learning was that I was suffering from more passion drain than I realized, or at least, that it was responsible for more of my trouble than I'd thought. It's so easy to lose the forest for the trees, when you can't seem to find your way out of those trees.
And yeah, I'm terminally distraction prone. Knowing you need to focus is a lot different from making yourself do it. Some people, like my wife, have what to me seems like a magical power to laser focus for hours on any task. They don't always understand why my breed can't. Passion helps. Hope helps. Being just hungry enough helps. I'm getting some coaching on focus and productivity. That's helping, too.
Geek: It makes sense that you would start a webcomic out of a passion, and that would be a large part of what you'd need to keep it going. But if you were having trouble generating that passion for an extended period, how and why did you continue working on the strip?
Watkins: My experience with any long term creative project is that you ride the passion like a roller coaster. It naturally waxes and wanes. Every project has a natural ending point, when you've done what you wanted to do with it, and your passion is consistently at that "time to get off the ride" point. I don't't feel like I'm there with Odori Park, and I don't necessarily feel like my readers are, either. In this case, the dip came because I wasn't sure where the ride was going, and how many other folks I could find who'd want to go along with me on it. I think when the passion dips, that's your creative brain telling you it's time to shake things up and do something different, not that you have to disembark altogether. I just needed to do something to shake off a little funk.
Geek: Thanks very much, Chris! This has been great. And keep up the great work on Odori Park -- since it's based (loosely) around your real life, I'm particularly looking forward to the inevitable holiday themed strips!