SPREY Log #029 – Notes on Worldbuilding #002

I’ve talked to a different storyteller since my last note. I have realized, I couldn’t trick or convince myself of what isn’t there in SPREY. Wasn’t I talking about a romance with hidden fleshy bits under the coat? I should take that thought serious and cut some fat, a lot of fat, from SPREY.

Let’s think in a new and bold direction, right after Literature Note #005 has smacked my brain moments ago Instead of trying to be a city, instead of trying to be a theme, instead of trying to be a whole cast I should go and be Rich and Willard. Why don’t I let their relationship dictate SPREY? Instead of looking into various things superficially, let’s make this one thing right and find some good words for it.

What’s the conflict here? Rich and Willard are madly in love with each other and it’s a bad idea, even without any cannibal horror rockers or other external threats around. Rich is a convicted cybercriminal and Willard is an ambitious and idealistic cop, who doesn’t know this detail about his partner yet. It also doesn’t help that Rich has a lot of past trauma bottled up he never dealt with and is so scared of being hurt that he keeps making decisions that hurt him more.

Now what is the worst thing that could happen to them?

Imagine one day they’re making out in a back alley during Willard’s break. A new wanted poster comes in and it’s Rich. Now Rich has a lot of explaining to do, Willard’s world collapses faster than he can say, do or feel anything, but they have zero time to discuss it out. Willard has to make a decision really quickly…and decides to help Rich escape the city.

But then… and this then could be anything, it wouldn’t necessarily require the slashers even.

Stepping away from this text for a bit I realized that Willard can only be convinced to do anything that goes against his ideals if someone literally holds a gun to Rich’s head. And then whatever happens doesn’t come from Willard. At least at first. I have a lot of new food for thought. You can be sure, I will soon be back and try to solve this riddle again.

SPREY Log #0028 – Notes on Worldbuilding #001

Notes like these hopefully help me to flesh SPREY out more and get it to a story structure that works – to arrive at a comic that works. SPREY had a huge problem in it’s structure from the start, but only now do I have the toolkit as a storyteller to actually see it and find remedies.

General

SPREY takes place in a dark, dirty, urban dog eat dog world. The technology level is high and deeply informed and inspired by the 70ies and 80ies of the 20th century, but the technology is not equally accessible to everyone. We are also not in a full-out cyberpunk dystopia. First, I do not wish to compete with or copy the many great works that exist in the core of this genre already. Second, I do not wish to feast on the stereotypes and clichées that come with the popularity of cyberpunk. It seems bad enough that one of my protagonists is a hacker. Third, I am writing a romance that just takes on a fancy coat and has some fleshy bits on chains dangling from it, with a chilling grace hidden deep under that garment. My romance does not deal with all the questions cyberpunk is asking, nor has it sci-fi at it’s core. I rather need modernity to contrast the primal „evil“ that we are going to encounter. I need the uncaring mass society, the logistics of a failing metropolis, the promised future that never was and another generation waking up to the promise being empty…to let my characters realize that was not the worst thing that could happen to them, not at all. But they are not condemned to just sit and suffer from what they got either.

My lovers find meaning in each other in a meaningless world. Do I say, love conquers all? I don’t think so. Striving and fighting for a love relationship just seems equally primal to hunting, gathering and coping with death, enthropy and the shadow every human has. So everything has it’s place under the coat of SPREY for a mythical story.

But my work is not done here. To truly get the core of SPREY right we must dive deeper into what „evil“ actually is. So far, on the outer layers of the world, ignorance and apathy seem to rule, which is not the same as evil.

SPREY Log #23 – New Horizons

I’m treating this day as a harbinger of things to come.

Yesterday I took the time to thin out some of my social media. I left Twitter and Mastodon outright, Instagram got on the chopping block for a massive content reduction and almost got deleted, too. I swear, there must have been two or more occassions where I thought about deleting Insta before and I honestly can’t tell you why I didn’t. It’s probably the network effect in action. It feels like a far bigger loss than it actually would be. I will keep my Twitch to watch and comment on other people’s streams, but I do not plan on streaming myself anytime soon.

Why am I doing this?

I want to reduce the background noise in my mind. Every platform I’m on requires care and content updates from time to time, actually. In a true Pressfield sense I will not tolerate the urge to update my social media as overshadowing my urge to sit down and actually create things. That is…distraction. Also I noticed a mismatch between my mental image of my social media usage and reality.

Social media is not evil and not a bad idea. It’s actually a great idea to have tools and platforms where you can promote your independent creations outside of the classical gatekeepers of your respective industry. It’s also a fantastic idea to have open places on the web where you can converse with people and learn about more perspectives and ideas and keep up with people you otherwise would lose touch with like relatives that live far far away. But as usual the execution is the part that pulls the experience down.

I feel, in order for anything to make sense, I must also touch on something else that is uncomfortable to think about. Humans are hackable. People can manipulate your mood and behavior, people can manipulate your tastes, people can and will manipulate how and what you think. Movies and advertisement are pretty good at it. Any junkfood that is bad for you but tastes better than it has any business to taste does it. Casinos do it. And social media do it, too. You will be influenced by something, anything, almost all the time, while you think you are the ruler over your own mind.

Now bringing it together: so you have these idealistic ideas about social media and join a platform. It is free to use but must make money to sustain itself. If it cannot make money from subscription fees or other direct payments by it’s users, what to do? Well, then it must take something from people that even someone with zero money can give. Time. Attention. Making people watch advertisement that someone else paid for. If a social media platform would openly advertise itself to waste your time, nobody would use it. Nobody sets out to waste hours of their day to scroll random information. Instead you hear about empowerment, networks and networking and how you MUST use it so that other people can discover you and your art.

So there’s pressure to join and use, the fear of missing out. But what happens then, is even more unsettling. You are in a system of loops. The users, as inmates of the prison that don’t know they are in a prison, happily engage with each other, feed the platform with content to discover for others and reward each other by liking, commenting or otherwise approving of what they are offered. This is another case where technology has far outpaced human evolution. You are wired to seek social approval. That was the only way to survive in the past. And your brain cannot distinguish the quality of that approval. You get a dopamine kick whether a random stranger on the net agrees with you or your spouse sitting on the other end of the breakfast table. This is another fascinating as well as terrifying case where your brain cannot distinguish between reality and illusion. It just fires the chemical reaction. The social media company doesn’t have to do anything, people entertain themselves, hunting for more dopamine, both by being validated or just being thrilled by random new and interesting information and pictures they can find. And the platforms do want to make it easy for you to spend a lot of time doing that. In come the algorithms, machine code to ensure content that is interacted with a lot is seen by even more people. It must be either especially good or more often especially outrageous. The algorithm doesn’t judge. It just promotes what seems to be popular to more people. Also, in the case of platforms like Instagram, algorithms also ensure you toe the line as a „creator“ and don’t let your audience down. If you dare to post without buying ads to promote your works, then post daily or perish, be not shown to anyone. Nothing is left to chance in this system of loops. Also don’t think if you give in and do buy an ad you’ll have an easier time. You have fed the beast and now you’re marked. It knows it can extract money from you so you’ll get hit with invisibility double as hard once your ad runs out so that you buy more. And by that point you are probably so far in that the dopamine kicks you don’t get feel like actual punishment and pain to the brain.

And now for me, my situation.

I’m making art and at least for some time, I have been creating things to share almost religiously. But I do not make outrageously good or outrageous art and do not have outrageous takes, so of course it doesn’t stick. I burned out several times, but always stood up and came back, trying again. I just didn’t know any better. While I’m doing everything to improve the quality of my art, I finally realized I cannot „beat“ the algorithm. Not by definition and also not by trying to morph myself into something it might like more. I would betray myself and drift even further away from SPREY or anything else waiting in my drawer. No one is asking for SPREY or any original creation actually, but still, I have to do it. I also cannot create „more“ for the sake of pleasing the algorithm. It is not sustainable.

I even wisened up and understood, while you show up for work every time, you are not entitled to have something finished or ‚shareable’ every day. Especially for long term projects it will be natural and to be expected to have streaks where you create and scrap multiple days or weeks of work because it just doesn‘t come together immediately. It is normal. Sometimes you even have to make several drafts. That’s when things take years to make, but they still get done in the end. I have tricked myself into thinking that this should be otherwise though, that it’s bad to let people down and make them not hear from you at least once a week, even if you have nothing to say and nothing to show. Documenting the journey excessively gives the illusion of actually travelling even if you actually didn’t move. I was actually stressed out by failing to feed the platforms repeatedly. With the context of the things I talked about earlier it was a lot of fuzz about nothing though. Other people who aren’t artists seem to be able to look through this easier, how they don’t care whether you create daily, they can lose interest in you anytime.

As my knowledge about creating art expands, I’m seeing that there are parts to the process that are ‚invisible‘ such as studies, research, writing scripts and drawing thumbnails and storyboards (not the braggard ones, the actual chicken scratch ones) and therefore not that great for sharing online. You don’t see them much and people don’t understand them. Beginners who don’t necessarily know about them are incentivised to skip them entirely in favor of better shareable pieces of work. I realized, the types of content that I want to make, aren’t very daily share friendly and long term.

That is not things that are encouraged or very visible.

I was worried I’d be wasting my time writing all of this instead of just drawing or doing anything for SPREY. I’m actually pretty scared of the pain of returning to it. But after thinking through all of this what I have written down…I’m even more adamant that a social media break is good for me. I don’t have to worry about it right now. I should first focus on creating something that is actually worthwhile, then I can worry about making people aware of it. Trying to document it in a way pleasing to algorithms does not work. I finally have accepted that. And I finally have accepted how my reality as the creator of my works looks like. I must live with long periods of no validation, but compared to never finishing anything that is a price I am willing to pay.

See you next blogpost!

SPREY Log #18 – Anatomy of a Failure

My friends! It’s rare that something happens, that is so big, that it changes the course of your life or at least strongly affects your future decionmaking. Today I’m sharing with you, how a humble anatomy study taught me who I am and how I work and gave me a clearer perspective on what to do with my webcomic. Especially ambitious and impatient artists and storytellers, listen up, this one is for you. Hopefully sharing this experience saves you some time on your own journey or makes you want to pick it up again.

Failing at an anatomy study…

Yesterday, after a long time of abstinence, I sat down to do a study of the skeleton and muscles of the upper body and then do a painted study of the reference on top. I haven’t done such a study ever before. I was aware you can dissect a reference image like that, but I haven’t ever done it. I managed to study easier things around that but never go in that deep. And I’m not experienced at painting at all. I always liked anatomy though. It’s that good, quiet friend who’s always looking out for you, but never saying anything when you neglect them. So with a good dose of confidence and an ‘if it gets tough I’ll just keep fighting’ mindset I started translating my reference image into skeleton. So far so good, with the help of a lot of references I understood things enough to make it work. I congratulated myself that I didn’t try to do a full body and only stayed with this scope. But I had a sophisticated hand pose in stock for myself, I don’t want to study anything, I want to study the best and most aesthetic things. My luck ended with the muscle layer though. If you have several layers of them, don’t have rock solid knowledge of their functions, looks and origins and the anatomy references do not differentiate what is an “important” muscle and what is not …this gets overwhelming. I somehow made it through the chest and rectus abdominus, I surely left a whole group of muscles out on the side, but I couldn’t imagine them in 3D and on my model. But with the arms, it absolutely ended for me. Too much information, too confusing, muscles look absolutely different bent and from an angle than on the flat diagrams of the anatomy book. And not only that, the overload was so real I stopped drawing for the day and just went away to do some chores. I wasn’t in pain or anything, I just was exhausted mentally and did something else for the rest of the evening. Later I sat down to sort my thoughts through writing. Then it struck me that I know this feeling of overwhelm and this specific pattern of struggling.

…and finding the experience mirrored in the SPREY experience

Wasn’t SPREY the same experience on a larger scale?
I haven’t done a comic of this kind ever before, actually, there are so so many firsts in there for me, like sci-fi cars and various kinds of combat, even combat on motorcycles. When I started out I didn’t even have the capacity to draw a whole page with several panels. Also something like a character turnaround was three chapters away. And of course, I couldn’t paint. I couldn’t and can’t even write long scripts. I was lacking more on the color and light front than today, making any rendering a game of luck. From today’s perspective, my style was never the problem, my lack of knowledge and inexperience was.
I always liked the subject matters I wanted to tackle in SPREY though. Who doesn’t like cool action scenes? Which synthwave fan wouldn’t enjoy an 80ies inspired, retrofuturistic and extremely eyepleasing slasher romance?
So with a good dose of I need to draw this or my life makes no sense and an “if it gets tough I’ll just keep fighting” mindset I started making SPREY, one panel a day. That worked for two chapters. And with a ton of sweat, research and effort I made it through two chapters. I congratulated myself that SPREY is not a twelve volume tale, but only a one-shot. But of course, SPREY is an extremely ambitious project with new and ever more complex things waiting around the corner for me to draw. I don’t want to spend my time with creating anything, I want to create the things that are important to me and that look most aesthetic pleasing and stunning to me. My luck ended with the third chapter though, when things became more real and panels became pages. I got good enough to tackle more difficult environments, I started to design and draw vehicles, perspective and light got more complex. But I still had no clue about so many things, I was constantly overwhelmed. Other than with the anatomy study I didn’t have one day where I just exhausted myself, it happened a lot of times. I had an art block and life crisis after every chapter, later in chapter three I wanted to escape my torment after quite some of the complex pages. But I kept fighting until even I ran out of energy and sent SPREY into hiatus. Then I wasn’t in pain at all, I could just go about my day and do anything else. And then indeed I started looking for what was wrong. First I looked into books like Invisible Ink to find out about invisible armatures behind things, then my search for answers lead me far away from SPREY…and it lead me here, where the circle closes.

Conclusions

What I learn from it, I’m a stubborn and hard worker and I must have an incredible pain tolerance. This can absolutely play out against me when I keep going too deep into something. On the other hand I can cultivate this like a superpower when catching up again. And it did pay off to keep fighting, I did improve over time and gained some experience with SPREY, that no one can take away from me again. But a very real crisis after every chapter or now in the middle of a chapter? That is just not a way to live. And it is unnecessary. Why? I think I can deduce what to do with SPREY from the smaller scale anatomy study. The failed anatomy study didn’t worry me at all. If it doesn’t work today, you come back tomorrow, do a series of smaller anatomy studies to build up the knowledge and competence to tackle the more complex one. Don’t get yourself into a loop where you are just training, just preparing all the time but never advancing with the stuff you actually want to do. And that’s it. Also, what if I choose to make a smaller anatomy study but it’s still too big for me? Well, I’ll know when I’ll fail. Then I’ll make the scope even smaller and work my way up from there. There is no ambiguity or guesswork. So that would mean for SPREY – whatever I wanted to do right now will not work like this and I can’t save it. For now. I can now break it down and tell a smaller slice of the story or even the backstory, or whatnot. Really a small story unit. Or I can do a different story. And I will know whether it is still too much for me when it doesn’t work out. So there is a potential for a cascade of failing until I get to the point where I’m really at and can work up from there as efficiently and without crisis as possible, cleaning up all the mess I caused on the way there. I don’t know about you, but that sounds great to me. And SPREY is absolutely getting done, but apparently that takes a bit longer than I anticipated. But I’m as eager to get there as always.

Turning Pro

Also- this can be applied to many other things too. Want to make a portfolio but are paralyzed on the spot? How about starting with something smaller than a whole portfolio. Want to design the coolest character of all time but having trouble drawing clothes or figures in perspective at all? Well guess what you will do first before tackling that big character design. Enjoy your cascade of failing, the rise out of it makes it even sweeter. And actually, this realization ends the original ark of this blog. I am a pro now because I have realized how to bring together my ambitions and my actual limitations. I have to respect my limitations while trying to push them. This is what I was looking for. I have turned pro in my mindset, now my skills have to follow.

SPREY Log #16 – Back to Execution again

One constant fact of life seems to be change, and having to adapt to it. For the moment it seems I have read enough about theme to put the book aside or only read 10 pages a day and write write write until I’ve written myself against the next roadblock.

By now, the new SPREY script has a climax, a resolution and an ending. Now I will work my way back, writing session for session until I have the full script.

Other than that, a couple of depictions of the Executioner are on the visual menu for this week as well as working on a commission. I don’t like how I had to sacrifice some time lately that would otherwise have gone into drawing, but my focus is not unlimited. Wishing myself and you the best for the week. It might well be that the next blog entry is in a week. Enjoy and use your time well.

See you next blogpost!