Monday, December 1, 2014

Game Informer Sacred Cow Barbecue illustrations by Zander!

I've done the April Fool's Game Infarcer "cover" gags for 10 years now, but the other illustration that I frequently do for Game Informer is the Sacred Cow Barbecue. Video game players are fanatical, I've come to understand, and over the years, certain games will gain such a reputation for perfection that they become immune to criticism. Well, the editors at GI don't play that game, so the Sacred Cow Barbecue that they do in the magazine, so often seeks to correct the imbalance. Harshing the buzz of millions of gamers the world over seems slightly mean-spirited, so naturally, I'm the man for the job.

Matt Helgeson has long been the writer of this feature, and thus the lightning rod for furious, impassioned defenses of Goldeneye and Final Fantasy VII, but he passed the baton this year to Jeff Marchiafava, who of course knocked it out of the park.

Since I've drawn this basic illustration (2 page spread, characters being cooked/killed/mistreated) three other times so far, I wanted to change the setting. For the first two, an actual barbecue was the obvious choice, but since there was no one actually AT the barbecue, it seemed somewhat empty. The third year, I did all the characters half-submerged in a lake of fire, which was a) a lot of fun to draw, b) a good color scheme, and c) demanded the presence of a cow dressed as the devil, a staple of all good illustration. And since the following pages were going to continue the background of the fiery pit, it was easy enough to add heads of characters being consumed by flames to fill out the rest of the space.

This time around, the illustration hit me on a weird week. For whatever reason, I thought that a torture chamber would be the best idea. With a torturer cow. Solid! Easy to place the characters, a variety of ways they can be made uncomfortable, and an appealingly sadistic tone to apply to my cute-ish cartooning style. Not to mention: blood everywhere.

Jeff gave me the list beforehand, which is really nice, since I never have time to play all the games, so it at least gave me a way to come up with some gags and find out what I don't know, so I can ask for help or some extra gags. Anyway, what was nice about that is that I could come into the meeting with a basic layout already in place, with characters or character types placed around the room and narrow the focus of our brainstorming.


This is actually the first Game Informer piece that I did without even touching a piece of paper. I never thought I would do all of my work digitally, and I genuinely like to work on paper. But when deadlines howl, it's really nice to be able to approach the drawing from a couple different fronts at once. The first thing I did was rough out where everything was with what passes for a pencil in my digital environment. I use a pencil tool that responds to pressure for opacity and width, which allows me to use the same type of drawing method as a real pencil, despite having it really look nothing like a pencil drawing.


Next, and this is one of those things that digital art makes easy, is a painted rough. Since all of these characters have established color schemes, plopping them down as rough blobs really helps figure out how I'll distribute the color around the image as well as adjust everything to the warm lighting. Because I wanted the room to have a warm but stony feel, I dropped in a neutral brownish-orange as the background, then built up grays and browns over it, using the fire at the center as the primary light source.

At this point, Jeff suggested that I swap out Dark Souls' Asylum Demon in the lower left for a better-known character, suggesting Wrex from Mass Effect 2. Much as I thought that stupid Asylum Demon deserved punishment for that stupid first level in stupid Dark Souls, I agreed. The finished color rough ended up looking like this:

The nice thing about having this image is that just in case you're an artist who's not great with budgeting your time -- and although I've gotten way better, I could definitely stand to improve -- this rough provides a great deal to the people who have to deal with the final image: the layout department. Once they have this in their hand and can reasonably assume that the image is not going to change too much, they can start doing things like placing their own text (the paragraph I put in was just for placement), choosing fonts, and making sure any additional elements have good color balance as well. Basically, it means that there's something useful filling that big spot until the final art comes in. That lowers the stress of the people on the other end, and that's always a good feeling for them to associate with your name.


At this point I saved a copy of the illustration and then doubled the resolution. I wanted to keep a low-resolution version for my files, since it's kind of fun to see the various directions I tried, or the imagery I played with (you know, for blog posts!), but I also wanted to slim down the layers in the final. In my high-res file, I only brought in the 'pencil' layer and the rough color layer, which I kept in two layers: 1) the background and 2) the figures. I did this because the painterly style and smudgy shadows on the floor and walls appealed to me, and frankly, I just didn't want to do it again. We'll get to that in a minute.

First, I went through and, using the rough pencils and the rough colors as a guide, did the final 'pencils'. This doesn't look like much, but what it did was get me ready for the specific details in the characters, as well as things like line weight, which needs to balance well across the whole picture, but that you only look at a few square inches at a time. Part of me thinks that I could jump into the 'inks', that is, final line art, right away (since you can erase it just as well as the 'pencils'), but I'm afraid there's some old-fashioned cartoonist left in me yet.


Next, I inked it, using an adjusted version of a Photoshop brush created by Ray Frenden. This brush is fuzzy on the edges (I usually like to have my line work be crisp), but it makes the smoothest lines that I can do in Photoshop. This helped get a sense for how everything connects to each other, and greatly helps with the specifics of things like Wrex's scars and Sora's (the kid under the grate) hair. Another nice thing about having done such a specific color rough was that in areas that were really going to be defined by color (the darkness under the rack, behind the cow, or in the iron maiden), I could not worry about detail, knowing that it would be painted in a way to push it to the background.


I have a time-saving trick that I like to do with my colors, and it really helps me when I'm flatting the image. Flatting is the step in which you select all the areas of the drawing and fill them with flat colors. Sometimes flat colors are all you need, like if you are working with big black areas, bold lines, and crosshatching. When I'm working in this style, however -- thinner lines, no rendering, very few black shadows -- I like to have the colors be more painterly and define the shapes more than the lines do. So each section of color is going to have to have several degrees of value to define the volume of the object. In order to do that, I create an adjustment layer over the flats that darkens and saturates the colors. Then I cover it with a layer mask. All this is to say that I set it up that I can paint an effect onto the flat colors, and that if I change that color, the darker version changes as well.

I kept the wall, floor, and stairs background painting from the rough colors, touching it up and fixing holes, then (using the trick I mentioned above) rendered all of the characters and objects in regards to the central lighting element. This serves to make the objects and characters look as if they belong in this space, but still looks very drab.

Now it's time to add certain effects, each on their own layers. First of all are the flames. Those are kind of pointless to do in line art. It is very difficult to draw a credible flame with black lines, and in a painterly illustration like this one, I felt like it was just better to render it out in color and drop out lines around it.

Next, I added a layer where I used a low-opacity brush to add an orange cast to objects around the image, giving a sense of the warm light that was hitting them. On areas that would get a stronger rimlight, I went over it several times, making the light harsher and brighter. Also notice: I added the effect (since it was pretty straightforward) of the white-hot Keyblade leaning against the fire pit, and the lighting effect of the torch on the back of the cow's hood.

And finally, I added a yellow and white layer in which I rendered the very center of those hot rimlights. This pops out all the objects that would be hit by the firelight.

Over in the corner, there's a gag in which Altair from Assassin's Creed I is tomahawked to death (presumably by the guy from Assassin's Creed III), and I wanted to show that as he's dying, he's desynchronizing from the virtual reality simulation or whatever that game has. I copied a section of the scientific-y looking chemistry symbols from the game (and likely made a nonsensical chemical in the process), drew them in white, then copied that layer, placed it underneath, changed it to blue, and blurred it. Together, then, it looks like very hot floating blue symbols, as in the game.

Also, because I like gags, I threw in a few little gags in the background. Here's Clementine from The Walking Dead, with a bite on her leg showing she's not long for the world, as well as a Minecraft torch, and Steve being stretched until he's the proportions of an Enderman. That's a little shout-out to the 6-year-old Minecraft fan in our house.

As well as some weapons reappropriated as torture devices: the Assassin's blade and the diamond sword from Minecraft. And poor Isaac Clarke's head from Dead Space.

And a barrel full of Disney parts.



I thought the final came out really well. Having done the color beforehand really allowed me to think about how the overall drawing was going to look and kept me from a) putting too much time into inking things that were going to be obscured by color, and b) agonizing over color choices late in the game.

One disadvantage was that I usually put in more details than this. When I start with a pencil drawing on a large sheet of paper, I compulsively start putting in gags and jokes and other stuff to fill all the real estate. Working so small, with such "soft" tools, made me less aware of how much room I had, and so there are some empty places in this drawing that I might otherwise have filled with (undoubtedly hilarious) gags.


Since this illustration was kicking off a lengthy article, I also did some spot illustrations to wrap text around. Like the above gags, I intentionally meant them to be pretty obscure. Like in a lot of things I've done that center around rich subcultures or works, such as Top Ten (superhero comics), Heck (Dante's Inferno), or my upcoming comic KAIJUMAX (monster movies), I like to place certain obscure images in them to act as little nods or winks to people who love the subject as much as I do. Here I did the drawings on no background so that the layout people could place them on top of whatever they had for the background color for the rest of the article.

The first one is pretty obvious, although the scar is meant to be from the Keyblade, the weapon/artifact used in Kingdom Hearts.

This is a pretty obscure one. There is a character in Mass Effect named Joker who has a condition that gives him extremely brittle bones.

And in Dark Souls, you can leave notes for other people who play the game, so every time you get to a cliff, there's always a note from some wise ass that says "Try jumping!".

If you look closely, the red guts left inside the Creeper's body is a block of TNT.

And then Nathan Drake, who's gone through four Uncharted games with his shirt half-tucked in. Choose a side, Nathan!

As always, the most fun thing I draw all year. Thanks, GI!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learned from STAR WARS

The original Star Wars trilogy is the primary cultural touchstone for an entire generation. Like a billion other people my age, I've seen them enough that I pretty much know every frame of all three movies. Because of its familiarity, its simplicity, and its specific brilliance, Star Wars has excellent lessons to teach those of us who like to write and draw stories.

Lesson 1: Update a Classic to Suit your Era

Star Wars is said to have many influences, from Joseph Campbell to Akira Kurosawa, but the one I'd like to focus on is Flash Gordon. Alex Raymond's space fantasy comic strip and the movie serials based on it from the 1930s and 40s were one of the first to capture that vibe of "using science like magic" that Star Wars brought to the forefront.

But by the 1970s, Flash Gordon as a hero was becoming something of an anachronism. He was designed like a lot of old depression- or war-era heroes like Doc Savage in that he was a shining paragon of humanity and essentially had no flaws (other than, perhaps, that he cared too much). Despite the fact that Star Wars was meant from the outset to be a throwback to that simpler time, audiences that were used to more serious, adult films would probably have rejected a hero that uncomplicated. So rather than trick out a Flash Gordon-like hero with conflicting emotions, the movie splits that one character into three heroes, each embodying one of the three main traits that Flash had. I call them: The Strategist, The Moral Compass, and The Instrument of Justice.

In the old Flash Gordon comic strips, Flash not only knew what to do and how to do it, he knew why, and what's more, he was the one to go out and get it done. In Star Wars, we see that it's Princess Leia (The Moral Compass) who knows what must be done and why, Han Solo (The Strategist) who can figure out how, and Luke (The Instrument of Justice) who goes out and does it. Because of that division of roles, the world of Star Wars can appear to be slightly more emotionally realistic and nuanced than that of Flash Gordon to movie audiences in the 1970s.

Other Flash Gordon cast members appear in Star Wars, of course. The wise Dr. Zarkov becomes Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ming the Merciless becomes Darth Vader, and the beautiful but helpless Dale Arden becomes Princess Leia again, because Princess Leia still gets captured all the time--she just has more to say about it. 

R2-D2 and C-3PO are versions of characters from a different story -- Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, in this case -- and they serve as a way to ease the audience into this new style. But they themselves are an update of a very old type of character. Like Rosencranz and Guildenstern from Hamlet, they are largely observers and commenters, and their viewpoint and interplay allow us to jump into the middle of a great war, knowing that they will keep us up-to-date.

Lesson 2: Make the Fantastic Familiar

One of the things that Star Wars did that was new to viewers was that it presented fantastical ships and wondrous places and then had its characters move about and around them as if they were completely ordinary. Luke Skywalker's landspeeder, a fast, sleek hovercraft that anyone even now -- much less in the 70s -- would drool over, is sold, presumably for scrap metal, without a second thought. The Millenium Falcon, one of coolest, most iconic spaceships in all pop culture, when revealed for the first time, gets the following comment (say it with me now): "What a piece of junk!" To the characters, a landspeeder is a pickup truck, the Falcon is a rusty old 18-wheeler, and a city of robots, monsters, clone soldiers, and weirdos is no more than "a wretched hive of scum and villainy."
Beyond that sort of atmospheric dressing, what made Star Wars stand out was that these situations that the characters found themselves in, as fantastic as they were, are familiar to us. Even here, on Earth, we can sympathize with the boy on the moisture farm who has to stay another season instead of do something interesting like join the rebellion. We can recognize the type of cocksure wise guy who spends all his time fixing up his old ride, hanging out with a hirsute buddy, and thinking he's smarter than everyone else. The things we find familiar in these alien worlds allow us to think that the events that we're seeing are more than just thrilling and strange, they're important. They impact us, because they're disrupting something that we understand. We have a stake in this story.

Lesson 3: Make the Characters Distinctive, Both by Color and Shape

Perhaps no other movie in history did this as well as Star Wars. Every single important character in the Star Wars trilogy is instantly recognizable both in silhouette and in color. 

Recognize these people?

How about these?

Even the spaceships, as complicated as they are, with thousands of panels, vents, turrets, and engines, can be drawn from memory by a 5-year-old (or a 39-year-old). 

That kind of elegant simplicity meant that the characters, ships, and locations can be used in scenes in many different ways, and the story finds it very easy to keep viewers up-to-date. When something is iconic, we remember it. When we remember it, we remember what it does. When we remember what it does, we know what significance it has when it shows up. There is never one moment of confusing one character -- or one ship -- for another. We know that it seems risky for Luke to travel by himself to another system in an X-wing fighter because we know that that ship is usually used for short-range dogfights. We believe that the Millennium Falcon can hide in a bunch of space garbage because it’s constantly breaking and being repaired. We can see at a distance that it’s Chewbacca emerging from a scout walker rather than an Imperial Soldier because he’s so darn hairy. And we jump with the characters when the doors open on Cloud City to reveal Darth Vader: huge, black, iconic, and evil. We don’t even have to cut to a close-up; Han Solo can pull his gun and blast him right away because we’ve already gotten all the information we need in one second.

Much of Star Wars was filmed as if it were a silent movie; visuals do a great deal of the heavy lifting in terms of relating relationships (the Blockade Runner fleeing the Star Destroyer), character types (C-3PO’s posture and walk says as much about his personality as his words), and mood (the swamp planet in the Dagobah system is the perfect place to find out some mysterious secrets). A film or comics storyteller could learn a great deal from that.

Lesson 4: String Together Great Scenes, Each with a Definable Goal, in a 3-Act Structure

I think I was actually an adult before I really looked at the logical progression of events in the Star Wars movies, as in: who wanted what, in what order did things happen, and why. Part of it was because I had seen it as a child and didn’t care about that kind of stuff then, but the other part was that Star Wars never delivers a scene just to move the story along. There is always a definable goal that the characters have to accomplish: escape, find runaway droid, hire a pilot, rescue the princess, turn off the tractor beam, blow up the Death Star, etc. Each scene is entertaining, each scene has a sub-goal that serves the greater purpose of the plot, and each scene makes sure you know everything you need to know to enjoy it. When Luke, et al. get to the Death Star, we’re not wondering about what the rest of the rebellion is doing. We’re not worried about anything other than finding out what’s on this station and rescuing the princess. 

Similarly, the trilogy itself is a helpful reminder about 3-act structure in the broadest sense.

A New Hope

A more-or-less self-contained story that introduces the time and place, as well as all of the main characters, and gives them all an opportunity to show what they can do.

Empire Strikes Back

More of a downer, in which the heroes, despite finding some secrets to help them achieve their ultimate goal, encounter strong obstacles that put them in their darkest place, defeated and licking their wounds.

Return of the Jedi

The heroes bounce back and defeat the villains after re-strategizing.

Keeping the Star Wars trilogy in mind allows us to understand what the 3-act structure means and why it works to keep us interested. When it becomes hard to remember how a story should run, having the Star Wars movies memorized, like many of us do, helps keep it all organized. 

An analysis of A New Hope shows us the perfect way to end each act. 

  • Act 1 ends when the Millennium Falcon departs the Mos Eisley spaceport, just ahead of the Stormtroopers. By that time, we have introduced all heroes and villains and their goals, introduced all important locations, and set the protagonist on a path from which he can’t turn back.
  • Act 2 ends with the escape from the Death Star. By this time, we have accomplished several of the sub-goals, but also killed off the protagonist’s mentor, and now have the trio of heroes at loose ends, set to break up.
  • Act 3 ends with the destruction of the Death Star. There is essentially only one long scene, in which the final goal is accomplished. No new information is introduced except for Han Solo’s sudden return right at the climax of the story. The third act is all resolution; simple, straightforward, and satisfying.

Because Star Wars takes hardly any risks whatsoever with its structure, it comes across as a very familiar story to us, despite the fact that what we remember are the brand-new, never-before-seen effects, aliens, and worlds. The familiarity means that we can more easily enjoy what is new.


In school I was frustrated by the fact that I was continually referred to very old, very complex classic novels as having the lessons necessary to make me a good writer. Aside from the fact that I wanted to be a cartoonist and therefore incorporate visuals into my story, these novels were long, complicated, old-fashioned, and frequently not very fun to read. Generally the lessons I absorbed from this line of study was to make my stories as arcane and difficult to parse as possible. This seems a shame since at the same time, I was absorbing stories via movies and comic books at a prodigious rate. If I had turned a more critical eye toward their structure, I might have found ways to understand story and story-telling all the more quickly. 

As mentioned above, Star Wars’ ubiquity gives the lessons held within it a resonance that is seldom felt in analyses of other works. Because most aspiring comic book writers (not to stereotype, but prove me wrong if you can) know the Star Wars stories backwards and forwards, pointing out their structure allows them -- us -- to very quickly internalize it. Knowing the rhythm of a story is the key to keeping it on track, and so a structure around an example is always the best way keep it all in mind.
Star Wars is by no means the best movie that has ever been made. It is derivative, simplistic, and even clunky in places. But it is enjoyable throughout, it is very efficient in its storytelling, and everyone on Earth remembers every single thing about it: the very mark of a perfect story template.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Double Barrel Issue No. 11 Sneak Peek

Yes, that's right, today marks the publication of the PENULTIMATE issue of Double Barrel, which our lawyers tell us means that it's the second-to-last issue.

A lot of you have been asking if Double Barrel will be closing shop after Issue #12, and the answer is no, we'll only be battening the hatches for a period of time while we work on new content. But in the meantime, you've still got this month's issue to enjoy, as well as the upcoming Issue #12, which will be our biggest and most explosive issue yet!

Zander and Kevin hit the road in this month's intro comic, and reflect on some of the regrets they've had over the past year:

Zander delivers a chunk of Heck so large you'll need to pause midway through just to catch your breath!

The lies and sneaking-around get thicker in Kevin's Crater XV, and a decision by one of CASA's astronauts threatens to sabotage the entire moon mission.

And prepare to give your eyeballs an optical massage with the third installment of Tim Sievert's D&D-inspired THE CLANDESTINAUTS.

Jin is as adorable as ever in this month's TALES OF JIN:

Finally, Zander offers sage advice for all you artists out there in this issue's HOW TO section.

And you can still order special SIGNED & NUMBERED copies of CRATER XV and HECK! These editions are jam-packed with a handful of extra goodies for only ten bucks more!

Here's a look at just a few of the goodies you'll receive with an order of the special edition books. Both Crater XV and Heck have their own signed & numbered bookplates (each bookplate is also individually winked at by its respective author) as well as fun-for-minutes 2-D cut-out action figures!

Thanks everyone!

Friday, June 14, 2013

July 13 Book Signing at Mead Hall Games

Celebrate the release of HECK and CRATER XV by joining us for a book signing at Mead Hall Games & Comics on July 13 in downtown Minneapolis! Swing by any time between 1-3 pm to get one or more books signed by Mr. Cannon or his studiomate Mr. Cannon.

Click for a larger image!

We'll see you there!

Under the Radar Reviews Crater XV

Thanks to Jeremy Nisen at Under the Radar magazine for this great Crater XV review!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Cannon Bros. Interviewed by LA Times

Zander and I recently sat down with Noel Murray from the Los Angeles Times to discuss our upcoming books, our influences, and how this whole "Double Barrel" thing came about.

Read the full article!

Thanks, Noel!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Double Barrel Issue No. 10 Sneak Peek

We can't believe we're already at Issue 10 -- so much so that we forgot to post this sneak preview back when the issue came out in MAY! But if you still haven't downloaded it, or if you did but you're really into reading sneak previews of stuff you've already read, then have we got a treat for you!

First, however, we want to let you know that we, the Cannon Bros., will be signing the HARD COPIES of Crater XV and Heck at Mead Hall Games & Comics in Minneapolis. The date for the signing is currently set at Saturday, July 13, from 1-3pm, but that date is subject to change due to some shipping woes we've been having, so keep watching this space for a firm announcement (or better yet, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for the latest news). Okay, on to the show:

The issue starts off with some typical office shenanigans, thanks to an albeit belated celebration of April Fool's Day:

Zander's Heck follows both Amy and Heck as they find what they're looking for—or do they?

Kevin's Crater XV is very revealing this month, showing off the rocket that Bendrix has built to fly the lost CASA astronauts to the moon, as well as dipping deep into Shanks' and Pravda's past, explaining how their friendship was ripped apart by RCAN at a very young age.

And prepare to dive deeper into Tim Sievert's D&D-inspired universe with Part Two of THE CLANDESTINAUTS:

You wanted more flashbacks, eh? Then dip back in time with PENNY FROM THE FRONT and discover how a plucky teenager from Halifax became a grizzled WWI reporter in the muddy trenches of the Canadian front line.

Jin is as adorable as ever in this month's TALES OF JIN:

Finally, for all of you budding designers out there, Kevin uses the latest HOW TO section to describe some basic design principles that he wished someone had taught him right out of college, including "RGB vs CMYK", "bitmap vs vector", color theory, and a lot more!

And don't forget to pre-order your copies of CRATER XV and HECK! You can order just the books themselves OR a jam-packed special edition, packed with a handful of extra goodies for only ten bucks more!

Here's a look at just a few of the goodies you'll receive with an order of the special edition books. Both Crater XV and Heck have their own signed & numbered bookplates (each bookplate is also individually winked at by its respective author) as well as fun-for-minutes 2-D cut-out action figures!

Thanks everyone!