I just put the entirety of Cutie Steel Lijin, the 24-page oneshot comic I did last year, online.
This comic was inspired by a particularly fruitful round of Channel A, a game in which you pitch the plot of an anime fitting the genres of the round and with a name using one or more title cards in your hand. The required genres were “steampunk” and “comic artist” and I had some pretty great title cards. The finished comic debuted at Emerald City Comic Con last year, and I figured a year sitting on it was enough, so now it’s all online, though you can still pick up a physical copy in my store.
My original pitch was something along the lines of “comic artist steals supplies from army and gets drafted as punishment, but she sucks at fighting, so they stick her in the propaganda department where she continues to draw comics”… or something. I didn’t really have a set idea on how the story would play out or conclude.
The title cards I used were “Cutie,” “Steel,” and “Miku.” Using “steel” was an obvious choice given the “steampunk” genre. “Cutie” is one of those words that just makes the title seem extra anime-like, and “Miku” was a good, strong name for obvious reasons. I love using name cards in Channel A because they make a series title seem legitimate like nothing else does, haha.
I was really attached to the idea from the get-go, in part because I think it was my best pitch for the entire game up to that point. (I won that round!) So I started doodling pretty much immediately. The initial character design was, of course, very inspired by Hatsune Miku, but I ended up making her fatter because I’m very aware that most of my female characters have the same body type.
I played around with name options because “cutie” and “steel” are both 5-letter words, and I figured it’d be nice if the name were five letters too. I went through a number of 5-letter Japanese names before it occurred to me that I didn’t need to stick with Japanese names. The game gave me anime-inspired title cards, but I wasn’t playing the game anymore. So I started playing around with Chinese names instead.
It’s weird sometimes doing a lot of very obviously anime/Japanese-inspired stuff because while I am Chinese, I’ve never been exposed to Chinese media or pop culture in the same way I’ve been exposed to Japanese media and pop culture. If it feels pretentious and awkward to do Japanese-inspired stuff as a non-Japanese person, it actually feels more pretentious and awkward to do Chinese-inspired stuff because I don’t feel like I know enough about it to be able to do it justice.
The obvious solution is to learn more about my own damn culture, but it’s hard? Japanese media continues to be way more accessible (and appealing and familiar) to me, and I only have so much time and energy. It’s something I think about a lot, but I’ve not been really great about acting on it.
Regardless though, Chinese-inspired steampunk sounded like a fantastic idea to me.
I was honestly really impressed with myself for the small bits of wordplay I managed, haha, and the fact that Lijin is pronounced similarly to “legion.”
I thought about the story and how it would conclude a lot while I finalised the character designs and names, so I was able to jump right into thumbnails afterwards. I never script separately and iterate through various changes in paneling and dialogue as I do thumbnails. Hell, for many projects, story details emerge as I thumbnail because I basically think of and finalise ideas through doing thumbnails — I don’t think about how to do a thing until it’s time to put it on the page. It’s efficient?
As with The Z Train, I figured 24 was a perfect number of pages: long enough to tell the story, short enough that I hopefully won’t be bored of the whole thing before I’m finished. A majority of the comics I’ve done are 24 pages.
For better or worse, I don’t usually go through a lot of changes in my thumbnails. For Cutie Steel Lijin, I ended up being short a page, so I went back to figure out where I could insert another page without it being too poorly paced, but I otherwise make a lot of changes to my paneling.
A lot of my comic process is the way it is because I’m extremely impatient.
I figure out the story as I thumbnail because it’s repetitive and takes too long otherwise. My pencils are always rough and loose because it takes too long otherwise. I ink traditionally because it takes too long otherwise. I hand-letter because it takes too long otherwise. I have to finish the project before I get completely bored because the hard part is already over.
Having the idea, fleshing out the concepts, finishing the writing, even if the writing is just thumbnails and dialogue — that’s the hard part. After that, the story in the comic is finished, and the act of actually drawing the comic is all just… grunt work. By the time I’m doing pencils, I’ve already drawn the story once in thumbnails. Inks is drawing it again. Toning is going through the pages again.
It’s infuriatingly tedious to me to have to re-experience a comic slowly and intimately, four or more times before it’s done, and that’s precisely why I don’t draw more comics than I do.
It took me little over a week to pencil and ink CSL between the other things I was working on at the time. It took me another week to tone it and format it for printing. Altogether, not counting the gap of time between initial concept and thumbnails, it was probably about three weeks total production time, which I think is considered a pretty breakneck pace? But hey, the comic I’m still most proud of is a 24-hour comic, so.
A year later, I’m still reasonably happy with CSL.
The idea was cute. My lettering work was extremely subpar and sloppy in it, but the rest of it wasn’t bad. There are backgrounds and perspective and stuff. I got to do some fun calligraphy. And even though I’m not sure about all the details and think I could’ve done a lot better, there’s still a Chinese flavour to the comic I’m sort of proud of.
I haven’t played Channel A since the game that inspired this, but it would be nice to do that. I should draw another comic this year.