How Unicorn Jelly Is Created


  If you have ever wondered exactly how I draw the comic you read, here you will find the answer!

Every week day, when I get back from lunch, roughly about 3:00 (I live on a mostly nocturnal schedule, up at noon or so, to bed at 4 or 5 AM....while I am not a Goth, I suppose I am a 'Creature Of The Night' !), I begin work on Unicorn Jelly. The process takes, on average, about three hours. Obviously, some strips may only take an hour, and others, with animation in them, may take as long as five (or more!) hours to do. This time is also dependent on whether or not I have an Alternate Universe in me that I need to get out.

The first thing I do is run my ancient -but very powerful- DOS based paint program, "DPaint2" and load up my blank comic template. Here is my template....not truly blank here, because I have added some documentation to it thusly:


Because the story is somehow already written for me inside my head by my 'Muse', right to the end, I do not need to think about what I am drawing. Indeed the whole thing works best if I just trust my Muse and just jump in without any thought....I just get drawing, and trust that the story will take care of itself. This is as unusual as it sounds, and I realize that...but it works, so I do things this way. It's actually pretty fun, because it is like some kind of 'automatic cartooning'...I get to enjoy the story as it is revealed too!

After the panels are composed, the linework finished, and the shading completed, it's time for the text. This is when I find out what the heck I have been drawing. The words just come. Sometimes I have to change the words if the don't fit the space the panels provide. I just do the best I can. The most common change is to prune down the words that come in my head to simple, direct language. Chou, for instance, in a lot more pedantic and wordy than she comes across in the comic (if you can believe it!) and Lupiko tends to ramble on and on in a kind of comedic way...but there isn't enough room to do that properly. So I cut down the 'actual' dialogue 'given me' to manageable form. Yasui has a lot of wise ass side comments for his panels that you very seldom ever see because putting them in would take up a lot of space, and detract from the story. I have to dump them. He is actually much more of a sarcastic fellow than comes across in my efforts to transcribe my Muse's work. Millian is more comforting to people in the original inside my head than I show, too, because that too would take up a lot of panels and room.

I know that I am not doing proper justice to the source material, wherever it comes from, but I really am doing the best I can. I only have so much energy, and time, and I have to balance doing the story justice, versus keeping my ironclad 'Unicorn Promise' to completely finish the whole tale, and not, say, crap out halfway. I may not be the perfect artist to tell this story, but I am dependable. Perhaps that mattered most to my Muse.

After the word balloons are done, I pick them up as DPaint 'brushes', and place them where they belong. Sometimes I really have to fight to get the words in without destroying all of the art...but in the end, if it is a choice between telling the story correctly, and preserving all the effort of my drawing...the story always wins. Quite a bit of really great scenery, or composition is just lost because a word balloon needed to be there.

Now career cartoonists commonly consider it a professional rule to design a comic panel around the word balloons right from the start. I can see their point, but I have to disagree for my own work...since my words are given to me only after I do the art (usually, anyway, it sometimes works the other way, but mostly...), I pretty much have no choice but to do things the way I do them.

In doing the pseudo-zipatone ('Zipatone' is just one brand name for a type of transparent, rub-on decal of dot patterns that most paper-based cartoonists use to provide shading. It is how most manga gets its 'look', in point of fact) dot-pattern shading, I flood-fill in colors to various regions in my drawing, then lock out all the colors except one. This creates a mask or stencil. Then I pick up one of my dot patterns using a grid tool set to 8x8 squares, and paint with that image....I draw with the mouse, and it only shows up inside the stenciled area. I also use the 'spray-paint' tool a bit, for highlights, or for special effects. Often I combine my dot patterns as overlays for additional effects. Every once in a while I invent a new pattern, and add it to my blank template.

Having a cartoon template like this really makes my job easier than it would be otherwise. It organizes the things I use most, and I don't have to worry too much about the panels...I just get to work within them. The panel tool shown above makes the creation of unique panels easy too. Getting an organized system down really, really helps make the work less tedious and gives me more energy to improve my drawing I think.

After a mangastrip is completed, I save it off as a .LBM file, which is the format that DPaint2 saves in (that or .PCX). Then I exit the paint program, and run Paint Shop Pro. In Paint Shop, I convert the .LBM file to a .GIF file, and save it off.

Next, I get into a program called 'WebExpress', a really nice WYSIWYG website creation tool. One of my spouses, Stephen, set it up for me, and so I can just do my paging point-and-click, type and link style, really easily. I do not write HTML code, so I need such an easy editor. I set up all of the pages for the current comic, load in the art, try desperately to get all of the links correct. I always sweat the short term memory is very poor because of the anti-panic medication I have to take....and I have a really hard time remembering what I just did. I am always like "Did I just link that button correctly? Gaaah!". When I think I have everything correct, I upload my work to our server. Then I go online, and check the result. I check all the links and make sure everything is right. If it isn't, I switch back to WebExpress and fix it. Eventually it works out.

In doing Unicorn Jelly I have used up three mice so far! I guess I am pretty hard on mice. The mouse I like is a Microsoft Intellipoint, which is a light-based mouse: no moving parts. It's a very accurate and clean mouse that doesn't have a rollerball to get dirty and gummed up. It should last forever. Golly, I must be hard on mice!

Sometimes I listen to music while I draw, ( videogame and anime soundtracks ) but mostly I don't. I just draw. Music can often be so distracting that I cannot 'hear' (if that is the correct metaphor) my Muse, and then nothing can happen. So I will listen to music only if the comic requires little or no text, and lots of actual drawing other words, less direct input from my Muse. I 'get' flashes of what I am supposed to draw very easily and clearly (I am very visual) but the words of the characters require attention on my part for me to 'get' them. If I have become too distracted to 'hear' my Muse, I will step away and clear my mind as best I can. My mind is really busy, so that is a difficult task, but I try. In a few moments I have a 'flash' of whatever I am supposed to type, or whatever, and then I am back on track.

So what is working with this 'Muse' thing like? Well, I don't 'hear voices' or anything like that, and She never 'speaks to me' or that sort of thing. I just kind of feel a 'presence'...kind of like someone in the room with me, only there isn't. A couple of times it has made me turn around to look, in fact, which can make me feel silly for needing to do that. The presence is feminine-ish, kind of stern, very serious feeling, and determined. It doesn't seem unkind or anything, indeed, I think She has come to more or less appreciate my dedication to finishing Unicorn Jelly, it's just that this Muse does not seem particularly chummy either. She's here to see work get done, and wants it done as well as possible. There is almost a hint of desperation to Her.

When I start to draw, an image will flash quickly across my mind. It might be of a single panel (could be any one panel, even the last, and once it was a whole set of panels that -after I finished- turned out to be from the NEXT strip after that days strip, so I had to rush and churn out Another  strip so I could have the proper strip for that day!) or all the panels for the day at once. The image I get is akin to black-and-white ink on paper (I think), drawn in a style a LOT better than what I can do, and always seems to be part of a bigger sheet that I am only seeing part of. The image I see does not use dot patterns, but has really fine lines for how money images are engraved, or crosshatching done with a hair-fine brush or pen. The lines are....perfect. I wish I could draw like the images I see when I do Unicorn Jelly. I've never seen art like that. Damn. I can never make out any word balloons...I am not even sure there are any in the images I 'see'. Yet somehow I know that the pictures in that flash of whatever have words associated, I just don't know how. Then it is up to me to somehow represent this really amazing thing I have glimpsed on a computer with fat pixels, and me with a talent one-hundredth that of what I see in my mind. It used to get me down, but now I just accept that I must have some value or I would not get to see 'the original' at all. I just do my best.

What is this 'flash' like? It's like a strong memory that just bubbles up, or a sudden insight, or like an image strongly conjured while reading a book. It is in my mind, and it fades quickly, but I remember enough to get the job done.

Something kind of different happens when it comes time for the text part. Then I just feel the words and type them as quickly as I...'get' them. It's not like I imagine hearing the characters talking or anything...rather it's like just having finished reading dialogue from a book, only there is no book around. It's like suddenly having the memory of having read some printed dialogue just be there, without having to read anything. It fades pretty quickly too, so I cannot mess around if I want to do my job correctly. On the times I have screwed up, or was too slow, or wasn't paying attention, it kind of feels like my Muse is impatiently disappointed in me. It's like letting down a friend, or at least a favorite teacher or something. There is no anger, just the knowledge that I could have done better, and really should have. That is what it is like for me, and why I talk about having a 'Muse'. I don't know what else to call this peculiar phenomena that has been happening every week day for over a year now. Be it my imagination or something else, this is what it feels like, and is like, as best as I can describe it. At first I was a bit weirded out by it, but now I kind of dread the day Unicorn Jelly ends. It is overall an unusual experience, and I have come to enjoy it. I worry that my Muse might go away when the work is done...and doing comics would feel so empty now without Her. I guess I will have to see what happens. Sometimes doing Unicorn Jelly is kind of drudgery, I admit, but overall I do see it as a privilege and a gift to be allowed to be a part of it.

So that is how I do Unicorn Jelly, the methods, tools, and feeling of it. I hope you may have found it interesting!

Jennifer Diane Reitz, 2002


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