Photographer Becomes Professional Cartoonist

Courtesy: Emily Horne and Joey Comeau

Photographers, especially photojournalists, are often told that their pictures should tell a story. A number of photographers though, are using their pictures to create entire storylines, as well as jokes and books, adding text and speech bubbles to turn their images into comic strips. Posted online, these webcomics are attracting large fan bases, and for some photographers even the kind of living that creative types dream about.

Photography-based comics, known as fumetti, aren’t new but it was largely with the rise of webcomics — strips posted online — that they began to take off in the United States. Dedicated webcomic hosting services have now made publishing almost as simple as photo-sharing, allowing creators to put the strips together, place words over their characters’ mouths, and build an audience. Most importantly, it’s also enabled people who want to create cartoons but can’t draw to still be able to turn their ideas into working publications.

“I’d long wanted to make comics of my own,” explained David Morgan-Mar, a physicist and creator of Irregular Webcomic. “I know my drawing isn’t brilliant, so that held me back. Until I got a webcam, and could take cheap digital photos. Suddenly I had everything I needed to make comics for the Web.”

David now produces a new strip every day, using Lego figures and role-playing game miniatures to create the scenes for his multiple storylines. The writing is done on the train during his half-hour commute to work, and the week’s scenes are photographed in one batch at the weekend.

“This is the most labor-intensive part of the process, as it involves setting up sets and character figures,” he says.

A Labor of Love

The sets are lit with a bright desk lamp, diffused to eliminate harsh shadows, and shot with the lens about five to ten centimeters from the figures. David will then add the backgrounds in Photoshop, using his photos of cities or landscapes, or mining public domain and creative commons images online if he doesn’t have a suitable picture of his own. The process takes about half an hour for each strip.

Courtesy: David Morgan-Mar

For David, Irregular Webcomic is a labor of love. All his strips are published under creative commons licenses, he asks that fans who want to donate contribute to charity instead, and he doesn’t provide any way for people to buy his strips. In part, that’s due to concerns about licensing issues — Lego is known for its willingness to sue — but it’s also because the comics are only created at screen resolution and would be “pixellated and ugly” if they were printed in book form, he says. Publishing his strips offline would mean re-creating more than 2,000 scenes. It’s a choice about which David insists he has only “minor” regrets.

“I never had expectations of getting fame or money out of it, and that’s the way I still treat it.”

It’s not a problem however faced by Emily Horne, co-creator with Joey Comeau of A Softer World. For more than five years following the creation of the strip in an all-night photocopy shop in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2003, Emily created the images for the comic in her spare time while working in the heritage field and in museums. For the last year and a half though, she’s been one of a small group of webcomic publishers able to earn a living from what used to be a hobby.

There’s No Link Between the Photo and the Text

While David Morgan-Mar poses toys to create his strips, Emily’s images often contain real people and none are posed. The viewer feels that they’ve caught the subject in the middle of something, she explains, a feeling enhanced by the strip’s grainy look — created by shooting largely on film — which has also become one of its hallmarks.

Emily and Joey’s working methods have changed over the years as the pair have moved around. When they were living in different cities, collaboration took place over online chat, a practice they continued even when they were both in Halifax again. For most of the strips, Emily would shoot a series of images, divide them into three frames and crop or enlarge them to create drama. Joey would then add the text. Recently, they’ve switched places: Joey will send Emily the text and she’ll find suitable pictures that suggest action or thought, before the two of them fine-tune the writing and the photo choice.

“Often though, there is no literal link between the photo and the text,” Emily says. “Instead Joey and I try to match them up by mood.”

It’s a system that works. A Softer World’s Facebook page, which is used in part to promote new merchandise now has more than 9,000 fans. The strip was picked up for a while by The Guardian, a UK national daily newspaper, and Emily and Joey are able to sell t-shirts, prints and books based on the strip’s popularity. Some of those sales are made through TopatoCo, a company that specializes in artistic merchandise, but comics conventions are also great places to release new merchandise, Emily says.

Creating comic strips has become a lot easier over the last few years. Strips such as David Morgan-Mar’s have shown that it’s possible to produce them without models, without costumes and without any cartooning skills. Emily Horne and Joey Comeau have proved that it’s even possible to make a living combining images with text.

But to be that successful they have to be good. Emily puts the success of A Softer World down to the uniqueness of  its dark sensibility, something they’ve tried to maintain while avoiding stagnation — perhaps the biggest danger of creating a photocomic that’s capable of building a fan base and even generating revenue. The writing is difficult and it’s even harder to keep it going.

“I want to keep the strip fresh, with new and unexpected storylines and jokes, but honestly that just seems to get harder as time goes by,” says David Morgan-Mar. “It makes you realize that turning out a daily gag is really hard work, and the people who do it well for a long time deserve credit for it.”

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