Beautiful Canvas is a comic from Sami Kivela, Triona Farrell, Ryan Ferrier, Dan Hill, and myself through Black Mask Studios.
We launched on Wednesday the 28th of June to some great reviews and responses.
Below are my annotations. An inside look into my brain as I reflect on our making of this issue, and a chance for me to unpack what I’m seeing in the work now, and how I feel it connects on a broader spectrum. I hope you dig, and find something that’ll help your mind think/make comics in the future.
If you want – you can also listen to these views on SoundCloud on The Crystal Plumage, my podcast about this comic :]
THE COVER – SAMI KIVELA
I love Sami’s covers. The guy is always on fire, every book feels different, and even every cover has a very specific flavour. I could look at Sami’s covers forever. But when we talk specifically about this one, you have to think about how it launches the book. It presents the isolated character, which is so very important to this story. She’s alone. And she’s holding that gun, but not in any power pose. She’s a woman with violence in her world, and she hasn’t let go of it, but she’s feeling a little defeated, a little reflective.
Juxtapose that with the white pregnant silhouette, surrounded by a city aflame, which wraps up a lot of Lon’s fears. She’s bringing a child into a world on fire, and it’s in turmoil because of her actions at times. She fears for her child because it might grow up to run across someone just like her.
It takes that parental doubt and mixes it with self-loathing all at first glance. I know you won’t get all of those things, but they’re there, they’re waiting for you.
And let’s give it up for Ryan Ferrier’s logo. The boxing ropes building that angle for the words to read on. The fact there are two types of canvas onto which you can create your beautiful images. There’s paint on the easel in your workshop, and there’s blood on the mat in the boxing ring. Both are beautiful, in their own way, and that concept of brutal beauty runs through this book. Ferrier nailed it on this one, especially with such a bold logo that can read with any colour, against any background. Something we do take advantage of.
THE COVER – CHRISTIAN WARD
I mean, what do you say?
Christian Ward did a variant cover for our comic. And it’s bloody gorgeous. I first saw it on my phone, I was between teaching classes, and I just stopped. I mean, how do you process something like this? Dude is a beast, and this cover is sublime.
Cut forward then a month or more and I find out on twitter, while chatting with Christian and someone else, that the blue skin he’s done is actually a sonogram. I mean, I’m an idiot for not noticing, but watch my head explode on hearing this. The cover is so simple, and elegant, and I’m still in utter love with it months later.
I also LOVE her eyes and the blood splatter on her.
I’ve already written a lot about this page, our opening contract.
I love this page, it’s a beautiful melding of character and tone and story and I think it’s the best opening page I’ve ever been a part of. I actually think it’s sold the book just as well as our covers have.
And we instantly change the scenery, where we find a very different Lon. Kicking back, relaxed. Or maybe just switched off. Maybe this is her with her shields up, not like the first page which is very much shields down.
You’ll also notice there is no caption to guide you through space/time. I want you to pay attention, this is important. Don’t assume anything, don’t be lazy. It’s on you to keep up.
This page drops all the exposition the first doesn’t. It sets up Lon through how Milla sees her. It sets up Milla through her actions, and her words, and her tone. And it sets up their interaction, their job roles, and what Milla wants Lon to do.
I had a blast writing this dialogue. Milla’s voice came quickly and easily to me, and was a blast to bash out every single time she’s on the page.
Then I pull a Remender and start the dialogue here…
…and end the line here.
I know, I know, Remender didn’t make this up, it’s just a trick I learnt consciously from his work, UNCANNY X-FORCE was doing it and I dug it.
So here we have Lon on the job, this is the main problem she’s been thrust into that propels the narrative forward. On Page Three. Because I didn’t wanna mess around, there’s little point waiting, let’s get this party started.
Milla wants someone in this house dead and so we show you the house with the most deplorable person yammering away. I want you to think she’s the target. Her house is a mess, she’s a mess, and you know there’s a kid there, so I want your protective gears turning.
Then we just ratchet it up with the coke on the carrot – which is something a mate of mine gave me a note on [that no one would snort coke off a carrot], but it was just too fine a visual to pass up. Plus, it keeps the carrot in her hand for the next page.
I could write an ode about this page. This here is pure distillation of what collaboration over years becomes.
When Sami and I started working together, on the pitch for what would become CHUM, I guess it was pretty straight forward. The pages were standard, not too many panels, and with room for Sami to stretch.
Then, before we made CHUM, he and I made DEER EDITOR, and it was through creating 144 tablet pages together that I came to truly understand the beast Sami is. I knew what he was good at, I knew where I could push him. I knew where I could tease him, and leave him open, and he’d create mayhem and beauty. There’s a page deeper into the first issue of CHUM where Sami took a fight scene and created a mural of violence. It’s gorgeous.
So, by the time we’re making BEAUTIFUL CANVAS, I like to think we’ve become a great and complementary machine. The fact this page came out in the pitch pages proves that to me [because, boy, do we go even further as the book progresses]. I set this page up as a page of fury and calm, a page of stupidity and precision. It’s Sami and I together completely.
The slow intro, the mum snorting and then looking up, it gives way to a crescendo of humanity across three panels. And Sami imbues those three panels with amazing timing and body language. Lon stands, ready, a coiled spring – she shoots, precise, one shot, all energy coming out her hand and gun, nowhere else – and then she holsters, not even looking anymore, she’s not lascivious, there is no doubt. This is a hit.
Playing that against the mother, coked to the gills, throwing a carrot like it’s her weapon, when the knife is clearly there, and having her huddled, and then full body aggressive, and then thrown straight back. It’s some glorious motion.
But it’s Sami that makes it flow, like a river of blood through a diagram of humanity. He put these inset panels in, he decided to draw focus, and slow us down even further, so we’d feel the hit, and so we’d have to see Lon. It’s a beautiful page and I managed to not need to overwrite it at all.
I am growing.
The first page we see Alex Ellroy, and I’m completely selling you on where he is at the very start of this narrative. He’s small, quiet, withdrawn, 2 pages back we could see he plays board games with his dolls. He’s just this little kid, and then we see his reaction to his dead mother – because Sami draws faces better than anyone – and we get that hug as he says “Thank you.” and we can only imagine his origin story.
Poor little bastard.
Which is why I don’t waste time on the moment. Get in late, and definitely leave early. Cut to the car, show Lon’s decision in action, not even her making the decision, just show the reasons for the decision, build to that moment, then let the reader know it’s been made.
This is what we call a ‘lock in’ for the protagonist. They are making a choice to veer off, they are funking up their own story. It’s always the best way for things to go the shape of a pear, rather than just shoving providence into their face and giving them no agency.
It’s one thing to write a dead girl. It’s another to have Sami and Tree bring it to life. Jeeeez, it’s heartbreaking.
This sequence was the lynch pin for me and the mission statement of this book. Lon might be locked in, but it’s uncertain, it’s all reaction, she’s flying by the seat of her pants. So we have the boy press her on it and she just doesn’t know. She’s in a crisis of faith, and so when in doubt she doesn’t – but just not killing the boy does not tell her what comes next.
It’s also all kinda seed for Alex’s journey. He’s in for a wild ride, and he needs to discover this truth as well.
Intercutting this with the flashback, and never telling you what’s when and where, was my way of hoping the audience is really with us. This page is the test. It’s layered, tough to read, and I hope that slows you down. Soak in that dialogue from the flashback, think about what Lon is going through.
Lon doesn’t know. This is where she’s lead herself. She doesn’t know if she’s good. She doesn’t know if things with Asia are good. She just flat out doesn’t know.
And yet she drives on.
I love how Sami draws Lon’s face up close. She’s a beautiful character, and yet you should be so sucked into her emotion that you don’t quite register it. The story should elevate her beyond eye candy completely.
Then that last panel – now you can really tell we were ending our pitch pages, can’t you? I wanted the pitch pages to be this whole opening scene, and here we close it. Lon drives off with Alex, towards the city, and the colours are sublime.
I dropped that ‘movie title’ in here because the book doesn’t have captions, and I mostly dig that, but sometimes I use my words as punctuation, so this really threw me not having those beats to end scenes on. So I invented a work around. I didn’t want to just write captions when I *really* felt like it, so I didn’t get that lazy, instead I invented these movie titles to drop into the story at strategic moments to unpack the characters, and maybe a little of their lives or world around them. I chose THE HITWOMAN WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE because it’s a beautiful phrase, and it’s also a shout out to Dario Argento. This was my way of sending up a flair to my people, and those who dig Argento should now know we are connected through this story. We’re going to be on the same page, and I hope you’ll sit down a while and listen to the story with me. I hope we get some time to enjoy this together.
I love the bold scene-opening panel of this sequence. A huge vertical panel, all Sami, which is interesting because there’s also a lot of talking on this page, but he still spends all this real estate on setting the scene. I dig it hugely, because Tree coloured the ever-loving hell out of it, and because Sami drew in that clown head up in the foreground and it’s creepy and awesome and speaks volume to the tone of the scene.
We then meet Eric and Agent Keely. The gist of things is that Eric screwed up his life and ended up sentenced to this weird purgatory gaol of an abandoned fair on a boardwalk somewhere.
Why? Well, like Keely says, it’s to do with Milla Albuquerque. From there, I don’t spell too much out. I’m not interested in having these two characters, who clearly know each other deeply, conveniently lay out their cards on the table as if the other person doesn’t know. I want oblique references, I want the bare minimum. I know that might not be great for all readers, but it gives this scene what I wanted – familiarity between the two men. I want the reader to finish this page and know how these guys interact, and what their overall beef is. Eric screwed up, he’s his own problem, and Keely has to come check up on him.
I also gave them takeaway coffees for two reasons. One, it keeps them busy. They can sip, or brood over the steam, or spill their coffee, or throw it away over the side. This is action through which we can continue to tell the story. When Kelly spills his coffee making a point in Eric’s face, you feel it.
And, two, these coffees mean Keely stopped on his way there to get 2 coffees. That’s a stand up move, and deserves a little respect.
Here we drop that bomb that Eric’s isolated here for some kind of protection, and protection FOR others. It’s a bizarro witness protection program. I think I had recently read Darwyn Cooke’s SLAYGROUND adaptation from the Richard Stark novel and the fairground as crime scene idea was juicing in my brain.
I think I would have scripted this two page interaction about two dozen times. Never able to make the Jenga fit into place, never quite happy with it. But where we got it to, I am happy with it. This was given a final script after the colours came in. I was tweaking this whole sequence right down to the wire. Because you always know when it’s second best [or for a while, it was maybe fifth best], and in indie comics there is no excuse to not take the time, get it right, and then happily move on.
The moment of Eric working out how to break free is also obliquely set up and explained. Eric has this little ball, like a geotag, where they were tracking him. He’s found it, removed it [with a knife, I guess], and now he’s unfettered, and with a mission. Which I want you all to connect/assume involves Milla :]
Then we cut to the final 3 panels and Sami absolutely nails these. The ease with which he shows flow. The inset panel of Keely dead, and that gorgeous sky from Tree. This is a 2 page talking heads scene, and yet Tree and Sami make it feel like so much more.
But do you know the science of what’s going on – how’s that tag work, what happened to Keely specifically? Well, maybe wait and see…
This page, and sequence, slowly came around to become something I dearly love. Lon laying her heart out on the line, a truthful and honest moment. She’s on an old ass phone because anachronisms please me. And she’s eating noodles because that’s what Rick Deckard would do. Truly.
This is just Lon talking, but hopefully you’re also gleaning some information – the time frame, Lon’s feelings. I dig the pacing of the flashback, and that final panel with the restaurant finally established is my way of finally pulling back from Lon. We’ve been up close [and personal] with Lon, so it was time to see the world around her a little bit again.
And I only use the L word when I mean it, and I write Lon like she’s the same.
That loaded pause leads to one of my favourite bits of this comic. I can remember coming up with the idea that Lon was rehearsing on an empty phone line. I was stoked to have a little more business on the phone that wasn’t just Lon and Asia actually talking. It gave it more of a cycle.
Lon’s views of love are her own and in no way represent the company to which she is contracted.
I was glad I built all that white space in the middle, a gap in which our two leads find a quiet space to talk. So I built that gap in the middle into things. And then I kept redrafting as I went along, always refining. I find I constantly was refining and redrafting dialogue in this book to give enough information away, but never at the expense of character. Who they are, and why they are, matters more to me than actually what they do. So you sub one for the other whenever you can – or both at the same time if you are good enough, and I so rarely am.
I couldn’t figure out how to cut to after their conversation – I wanted to give them privacy. Sometimes, you get more power from not hearing the specifics, I think. The caption came to me and it feels helpful in an odd way – because a 5 minute and 8 second conversation is a long one in my books. Certainly long enough for Lon. And I like how it reads on the page.
Then we get this layered scene that is my meagre attempt at what I like to call “JAWS scripting.” It’s where conversations occur in the foreground and background and you don’t need to hear all of both of them, you just need the general idea of both. So we get this lovely back and forth between Lon and Alex, because they’re bonding, and I want them to become tight. This means whatever I do to them later on will hold some gravity.
And against this, we have the waitress, who seemed so damn nice, reporting back to…someone.
Vague, or annoying – you decide.
Yes, truly meet Milla Albuquerque.
That pot plant with the ‘Believe’ written on it is totally stolen from my office. I have the exact same thing. But Tree coloured this one green, so it looks better than what I’ve got.
Then we cut to Milla and I dig the stance Sami gave her, and the triangle framing, but mostly I just love that skyline. That’s Sami and Tree just being electric gods together. And I think it’s enough to maybe distract from the blood on that watering can, maybe.
This page is quite simply a thesis on how Milla operates, and how she views the world, and what Lon is working against. Milla lumps gardening in with revenge and love and every emotion and action is just an ingredient for her – just a colour on her palette. If you marry this mindset against Milla hiring Lon to kill Alex, and most likely having hired her to kill plenty of other people, then you get a fairly decent insight into Milla. I don’t connect all those dots here for you, but I guess some readers will, and I thank them for it. I also hope they enjoyed the work, and the results they get.
Then we get that hand in the pot. That was a visual that came to me instantly when wanting to really reveal and introduce Milla. I may have been missing HANNIBAL from our screens. You know, that show about beautiful mayhem and blood? Yeah, it’s informed Milla in quirky little ways.
Panel Two is the stronghold here. Milla divulges exactly what Lon was sent to kill Alex for. It was a test.
A test for what, you ask?
Well, maybe by the end of #1, and certainly by the start of #2, you’ll have enough to piece together what was supposed to happen.
And as for Moore, he gets hinted at, and then Milla pretty straight up explains his connection into this story. Because I can’t always hide everything from view.
The final panel of Milla saying “People just want to die for their craft” is my best attempt at a BKV page ender, albeit incredibly subtly. Y’see, she’s talking about Moore’s tenacity, but she’s also hinting at the fact the guy hung up in front of her has voluntarily put himself into this position. He’s down with being a part of Milla’s beautiful canvas.
See, I told you it was subtle.
I absolutely love all of these weird fuckers.
Why are they here? Well, because I want this world to be weird. Not by having every single element and thing weird, but by showing that weird resides in it. They also exist as a subtle hint to the fact this world has started experimenting on people. There are ways to make people more than human. This opens up the story for the final page of this issue, and the crux of the problem at the heart of the story, and we make this a lot more concrete in the back matter page of The Truth.
You can also blame this scene on PREDATOR. I love that intro scene of the ensemble, so I did my best to poorly ape it here. Writing these freaks was a lot of fun, and a chance to try out a few voices I would never use to headline a comic, but that intrigue me nonetheless. The bird guy’s sqwarks are my favourite, by far.
Plus, that bottom panel with the moon and the cloud and the kick ass car. A hell of a thing to behold.
I love ELO. I think Dan Hill secretly loves Ello. Blame him for the joke, it was his idea [at which I LOL’ed and put it straight into the script]. It’s also yet another nod to this reality being different. Ello became the titan in this story.
I love Sami’s design for this car, and you see how it works in action here and it’s just glorious. Then I cut this moment with a panel of Asia talking to Lon on the phone in the past because I want you to feel the stakes of this moment for Lon. I want to ensure we are all on the same page – perhaps this is one of my few times of overtly handing across information in this book. Even though I’m still not giving much away.
Poor Lon. Getting her ass kicked like a good pulp lead. These freaks giving her a good ol’ tenderising, and I need them to be good at it because I need her knocked out.
That panel at the bottom where she’s landing on her head/neck, man, that body language from Sami is dynamite. Those legs are all over the place.
Also note the fine as silk SFX from Ryan Ferrier.
This guy sucks.
Which is why I intro him in such a predatory manner. The guy’s just filth. As he talks to himself, you should get a feel for who he is.
I dig the little moment of the assistant handing the phone across to Milla and she’s over it, and over Moore. Her flippant line sets up their relationship in totality. She kinda hates him, totally needs him, will be vitriolic towards him, but she’ll keep him around, and obviously for a reason. He’s good at his job.
Oh, also, the 6 panel grid on these pages. I love the 6 panel grid, but have never really written for it. Sami nails it for this sequence, proving once again he’s smarter and more useful than me.
This is the needle scratch moment for Milla. She was assuming Moore would check in with footage of Lon attacked by Alex after the hit occurred. Or, maybe as a test to see if Lon could still do it. Instead, she’s told neither option occurred, and the plot has swerved away from her. This scene serves a purpose, to make everything clear to Milla, but it also allows us this character interaction, which in itself unpacks these characters more.
Then you see that elephant chair and you realise Dan Hill is really one hell of an editor for suggesting it. Whereas the business with Moore and the pizza is all me. Because he’s just that callous – eating her old food, and stepping over her dead body. Like I said, he’s pure filth. But even filth is art if presented right, right?
Look at Off-Brand Killer Croc with his Liefeld pouches going to use housing his mobile phone.
Lon gets a little GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS on the phone, and we don’t know to whom she is speaking. That’s on purpose, because maybe you just can’t trust anyone moving forward. Maybe it’s Milla doing a funny voice, maybe it’s her flunky, maybe it’s Asia, maybe it’s Alex…?
You’ll have to wait and see.
Sami with the inset panels of character deaths. Absolutely dynamite. And man did I have to work hard to figure out how each one died, and if one could maybe be alive for later as an Act IV come back. But, no, they are all dead here.
PAGE TWENTY ONE AND TWENTY TWO
And again we fracture the structure and take you back to that first scene, that fateful phone call Lon had with Asia. I hope readers are keeping up by this stage. Because that opening page, now, it should hold even more weight. It’s the moment Lon finds out she’s going to be a parent and she’s just killed this other kid and she’s just mentally crumbling, and so this moment has ghosted over the entire issue. This is her dilemma, this is her fear.
That concept of just breaking a shitty burner phone in half will always take me back to Mike in BREAKING BAD. Such a boss move.
So Lon runs off to find Alex, and when she does, he’s this dangerous little creature. He’s got them iron fists glowing, there’s something wrong with him, and there’s something wrong with Lon. It’s a dangerous moment to pause on.
I want you guessing about what comes next. I want you interested, and worried, and intrigued. I want you invested in what happens in the next moments. Because from what you know of Lon, she’s unhinged, and dangerous, but she’s also clinical and rocked by enough death this week.
Can I also say, that image of Alex with the flame hands, and the red mist beyond the trees, man, it’s killed me to not share that image online because I’m so in love with it. Also kinda proud of that Movie Title panel I dropped in there.
And that’s the first issue. I hope it sells the next 3, right?
Truth, Beauty, Erudition – choose one
Coming up with Back matter Essay titles is hard to do, but damn if it isn’t fun. HEADSPACE had ‘Brain Waves’ and CHUM had ‘Get In the Fucking Sea’ [which always made me smile]. And this has the above, which I am still happy with – which is the main test to pass.
These pages will just be me being truthful, unpacking my head a little, and connecting with you personally [I hope]. This one was fun to write.
But then you get to turn the page and see Sami Kivela draw Philip K Dick and you know all is right in the world. This pin up is so gorgeous, I’d already preordered it from Sami before he even drew it. It’s my favourite author, and my favourite artist, jamming together, in a book that’s my best thing so far. I needed this in my life, and it’s already proudly on my office wall. I’d told him about the essay series we were thinking of doing, and hit him up to do a spot illo for it, Sean Phillips style, and he just dominated it.
The fact it’s followed by a Jam Session between me and longtime top mate Dan Hill is just pure candy in my pocket. I love chatting to Dan about stuff, he always makes me smarter, and I love doing these, so the whole back matter selection just fills me with gleeful joy.
Then there’s THE TRUTH page, which was a dumb idea I had, that Sami didn’t have time to execute – and then we did it anyway :]
I’ve made this page completely non-essential to the narrative, but gee it slips a lot of little hints in there you might like to further enjoy this world we’ve built. These newspapers are ‘in world’ items showcased here for us all to look at and enjoy, but also to study. Each story is picked for a specific reason, and they’ve been crazy fun to write.
And that’s the comic. If you picked it up, thank you. If you enjoyed it, well, thank you muchly. If you’ve told your mates, shared the good word, lent it out to a mate – that’s the good work from on high you deliver, praise be.
This comic is a work of passion, and it exists because the creative team is committed to making comics. We love that you wanna read comics, and read about comics, too. Thanks, and we’ll see you in 4 weeks for #2 – the opening pages are just dynamite.