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M2: Harmony Retrospective

 

Finished Mother 2: Harmony? Want to learn more about the Mother series? In this lengthy article, learn about the reasons and ideas behind the popular Mother/Earthbound comic, the process, and what might be coming in the future. Loaded with witty commentary, trivia, and answers to some mysteries and background story tidbits, the retrospective is the perfect way to top off your Harmony experience and get you ready for the epic follow up story.

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In the Beginning

The year is 1989. Nintendo’s NES (Famicon Disk System in Japan) is coming to the conclusion of its run, bringing with it such franchises as Mario, Zelda, and Metroid. But in this late year of the system’s life springs forth another game. It’s a role playing game where you play as a young intrepid hero who has to leave home, meet friends, defeat an evil force, and of course, level grind the day away. But this game does something different. Instead of fighting with swords in castles, you’re using baseball bats, frying pans, and ray guns in a modern America. Your task? Journey across towns while dealing with everyday problems like attacking zombies, haunted mansions, the local street gang, and an alien invasion.

Mother is a lot of things. It’s both a satire of nearly every RPG made, while also out to create its own personal whimsical world, heartfelt moments, sense of humor, and offbeat characters and places. Battle hippies, save a zoo whose animals are being mind controlled by aliens, fly a plane across a desert, bash your room’s lamp to death, save your sister from a possessed doll, and get owned by a giant robot all while learning about the mysterious psycho-kinetic powers you’ve inherited from your family line. Mother somehow manages to both be serious about itself, but also not take itself too seriously.

There’s quite a bit of backstory about the title of the series, but one of the more well known explanations given by creator Shigisato Itoi is that it’s meant to be the mother of all video games. Not as in the best, most epic one, but rather, that kind, warm adult you look up to in times of need, who tucks you in at night, bakes you cookies, and tells you that you’re her special little boy or girl. And certainly, the mother of each of the game’s protagonists becomes a pivotal character, or at least one that will always be there for you with a warm bed, juice, or a steak when the rest of the world seems so mean and cold.

Ninten sets out on Kenisu’s adaptation of Mother.

Unfortunately, the timing of the release might’ve all but doomed the title’s potential for success in the States. The game was actually translated—and the development cart eventually sold and dumped into a ROM years later, but it was never officially released in America, primarily because Nintendo didn’t see it making money with the snazzy new SNES coming out soon. So for us kids not in Japan, we’d have to wait to guide hero Ninten and his friends Ana, Loid, and Teddy through their adventures. Of course, until we played the sequel, known as Earthbound over here, most of us probably never even heard of Mother.

See what is so far the most complete retelling of Mother in comic form here

Then, in 1995, Earthbound hit the SNES stateside. And what a game it was. I was ten years old at the time, but I don’t think I had my first taste of the game until a year later or so. But it remains one of my favorite games of all time. Sadly overshadowed by the other great RPGs of the time (and Nintendo’s infamous “this game stinks” ad campaign didn’t help much, either), the sequel to Mother at least worked out pretty well for us, since the story works completely on its own with seemingly barely any connection to its predecessor. The main villain, Giygas, even has a different name than before, and is a swirling vortex of pure evil that scared the crap out of us, but pretty much looked nothing like his alien form in the first story.

In fact, Earthbound’s story so closely resembles Mother’s and its characters are so similar, some dismiss this sequel as a remake instead of a follow up. And while it does share quite a few similarities, it is still its own adventure and does conclude the story of the alien bad guy from the first. And the thing is, if you play Mother first, Giygas’s defeat suddenly seems more profound and maybe even a little sad.

Earthbound became one of the most memorable games ever for many of those who played through it. It follows small town hero and PSI adept Ness, who later rescues kidnapped girl Paula and gains more friends when scientific genius Jeff and Prince Poo, of a small Asian-themed country, join him. To fix yourself up, you visit hospitals, stay at hotels, eat pizza, calorie sticks, and hamburgers. You can take a bus to several towns. You’ll fly in a UFO, visit a seaside resort, meet the strange Mr. Saturn and Tendas, roam a vast underground world filled with dinosaurs, and collect eight melodies that will allow you to explore your own mind and defeat the darkness within, greatly empowering the hero and propelling him to the rank of a chosen one.

Only to throw you in a loop at the end and rely on keeping the girl alive while she prays and asks many of the people you’ve met on your journey to help defeat the ultimate evil—even asking you, the player, to deal the finishing blow to Giygas, stopping his invasion in the distant past and long before it even begins.

But Earthbound is about more than just stopping an evil force. Despite its grand, globetrotting scale, there’s a very human element to it, as well. Which is ironic considering Ness never talks, and the other three don’t have much to say, either. Rather, it’s through their actions, the people they meet, and one deranged next door neighbor do we see just how close to home some of the game’s themes can hit.

 

Darrow’s The Chosen Four, so far the most successful fan comic attempt at retelling the entire Mother 2/Earthbound story.

When Ness isn’t learning how to teleport from a clan of cave dwelling monkeys, he’s dealing with his obnoxious, selfish, pig-nosed neighbor who he once considered maybe something remotely resembling a friend. The child’s name is Porky (or Pokey in the translation), and he comes from the worst family in your hometown of Onett. Although his younger brother Picky doesn’t seem so bad. After Porky comes with you the night a meteor falls near your house and you receive a prophecy about three boys and a girl who will save the world from a time traveling robotic bee, Ness and Porky’s paths split into two very different ways, eventually converging once again at the end of the game, where your humble roots are a distant memory, your mind is inside of a robot’s millions of years in the past, and you’re finally doing battle with the boy who has been one step ahead of you the entire time. Only now, he’s become a puppet for Giygas, bending to his will—while at the same time, keeping to his own motives.

Yet, after all this time you’ve spent with a growing hatred of Porky, you feel just a little sorry for him as he disappears into a different time, stuck with his greedy loneliness, leaving his family behind forever as you return to yours with the new friends you’ve made and plenty of photos and memories to share.

Earthbound is the prequel to Harmony, and many of its story elements are important to the comic (although it can be enjoyed by itself, as I write about later). But that’s all I want to say about this great little game here. To experience if for yourself, find a way to play it, or check out Darrow’s extensive adaptation that shows no signs of stopping until all of Earthbound is translated to comic form by clicking here

Meedee says: I’m too young to have played Earthbound when it first came into my brother’s hands, as I was three when it came out. Though I didn’t actually play the game myself until middle school, it’s been a blip in the background of my life for a long time. I remember most clearly the fun of flipping through the player’s guide and drawing different Earthbound characters on the paper tablecloth at a local Italian restaurant with my brother. I knew what it was about without having ever played it and never even seeing a full play through. My fondest memories of the game had nothing to do with playing it when I was younger.

I forgot about the game for awhile, and it remained something I could recognize if it was brought up, but I didn’t think about in any way otherwise. But a few years ago, when I was in middle school, I finally played it myself for the first time. The desert and the mole caves were the most annoying part. I enjoyed playing the game, and it was again on my mind occasionally. I finally forgot about it again until around May 2009 (I have a terribly forgetful and distracted mind). I was with Gekko and he asks me if I remembered Earthbound. Of course, it came back to me then. He ultimately wanted to know if I was interested in making a fan comic about Ness’ younger sister and her friend Picky, taking place when they were all older. I was doubtful and skeptical at first, as I was already making a comic and the world of fan fiction was something I really wanted to avoid. But I eventually relented anyway, figuring it’d be short and interesting at least.

In June, after seeing Mother 3 for the first time (or even realizing there were three games), the script for part one was written up, some character designs were thrown together in one night, and the first page was up a couple days later. It was all rather haphazardly unplanned on my part, but was still guided and with purpose. With a good public response at the start, I felt like I couldn’t give up and had to see it through to the end, and as quickly as possible so I could move on. But it wasn’t long before I fell in love with Harmony and the games myself, and I was once again thrown into the world of Mother, and now it’s had a bigger impact on my life than ever and I can’t forget it again.

The Long Awaited Sequel

By the time the Nintendo 64 era rolled around, Earthbound had a bit of a solidified cult following, and we were ready for the follow up to the story, one presumably with Porky, still traveling around in time, as the enemy. And it looked like that Earthbound 64 would be making it stateside. But then it turned out that the game wasn’t going to come out anywhere. Cancelled. Several years of painful limbo later, Itoi comes out and tells us that Mother 3 would be coming out for the Gameboy Advance in a style reminiscent of its predecessors—beautiful sprite work instead of polygons, keeping the series style similar throughout, which in this case, was probably exactly what most of us fans wanted.

Mother 3 came out in Japan in 2006, complete with Mr. Saturns and the tale of a boy who sets out from home. And wouldn’t you know it, this game suffered possibly the same curse that Earthbound did; it came out near the end of the GBA’s lifespan. Earthbound‘s poor sales in the states didn’t help much either in getting it translated, despite all of the attempts of the fans to bring it over here. Fortunately, a few fans of the series were dedicated enough to bring it over themselves in an arduous translation project that took years to complete. And we were grateful. Finally, in 2009, the trilogy was complete for everyone outside of Japan. By this point, a lot of us had seen YouTube videos of the game in action, watching entire play-throughs, or at least the ending, and spoiled ourselves. But that hardly mattered. Mother 3 still made our eyes water when we played it, from tears of joy and sorrow.



Mother 3’s story is darker, serious, and especially heartrending compared to the other two games in the series. But it’s definitely a Mother game, and it concludes the trilogy in a shocking way no one saw coming. (Artwork by shiroandfubuki).
Mother 3 is quite unlike the experience you have playing the first two games. It still has its share of hilarity, but it’s a much deeper, richer story than what we experienced before in the series. It’s a much smaller world, with essentially only one town. But unlike Onett, which aside from you returning to to save it from an alien invasion, the viillage of Tazmilly changes around you as the chapters go by and years pass. The people who live here all look different and have their own names, making you care about them, always wondering where they’ll show up next or how their own families are doing. And while the world is much smaller, the story is perhaps even larger at the end, and you’ll be left breathless at how far little Lucas has come, what he’s about to sacrifice and bring about, and how distant the morning you woke up and ate your mother’s omelets has become in your mind. You’ll be emotionally drained by the time the credits roll, but you’ll be left with a story and experience you’ll never forget.

Donning the series trademark striped shirt, Lucas sets out with brother Claus to play with the native and tame dragos while visiting his grandfather’s house at the beginning of the game. The air is fresh and the sun is bright. He lives in an innocent world free of evil, money, crime, and sadness. But all of that comes crashing down the night Porky’s Pigmask army shows up, starts experimenting on the local wildlife, and brainwashes your fellow villagers into believing in his ideals. At the same time, a mysterious stranger from outside of town peddles his wares and brings into your world money, and with it, greed. As Lucas watches helplessly as his peaceful village life and everyone he knows changes around him, he’ll have to overcome his fears to make everything right again.

Oh, and his mother dies about a half hour into the game.

Obviously, first time players will be shocked at this turn of events. Nothing near this dark had happened in the entire series. We aren’t quite sure how to react, but we know we want to see this story through. After Claus goes missing while trying to avenge his mother and Lucas’s dad seems to pull away and stop being there altogether, Lucas sets out with his last loyal companion, his dog Boney. Joining the team is smart-mouthed tough girl Kumatora and the soft spoken, somewhat odd character Duster (Lucas is the only child in the group this time around). Lucas goes around Nowhere Island to pull the seven needles that seal in the mysterious dragon, a being whose power is said to be able to destroy the world. At the same time, he’s sneaking into Pigmask bases and doing battle with Porky’s personal army. Lucas doesn’t say much, but it’s easy to see how he grows up while doing all of this, and his encounters with the Masked Man, a new commander in the Pigmask army, keep him seeking the truth behind what has torn his family apart.

Mother 3 has its share of whacky moments and oddball characters, like a mushroom induced acid trip where you mistake a garbage dump for a hot spring, or when you encounter another one of the island’s seven magypsies. They’re magical creatures who protect the needles until they’re ready to be pulled, and they aren’t quite man or woman. You’ll also infiltrate the chimera lab where the native animals are being combined with machinery, outrun one of these creations that is all teeth, rescue the Saturn village from an invasion force utilizing scary tale-telling fright bots, drive across a highway in a Pigmask vehicle, ride an octopus and a flying bird cage, and then finally end up on Porky’s personal paradise—New Pork City, where he reigns over his playground from the top of a massive skyscraper. It is in this fake city, lined with cardboard cutouts, a fast food place, an arcade, and not much more, where you’ll rejoin your fellow villagers. By this point, some of them have finally woken up and want to fight against Porky. But most of them are still clueless as to what all is going on in their world.

One of the most heartfelt moments in the game is when you return to your village and have just two needles left to pull. You arrive to find the village nearly empty, all of your villagers tired of the old place and seeking out a new life in the big city. All while some of the most depressing music in any game plays in the background, reminding you that the place you grew up in is now gone, a shadow of its former self. It acts as a microcosm for our own world, where everyone you know has forgotten about the good, simple things in their lives and have gone on to one filled with faceless vanity and materialism. But Lucas fails to see what the rest have fallen for. He only wants his mother and brother back and to eat omelets at his grandfather’s house up in the mountains. Only, he’ll never have the chance to again, all because of one deranged and selfish individual.

As the game reaches its finale, Lucas learns about the truth of his world from the once silent retainer of memories, Leder, who has been locked up under the city’s surface. Imagine being told that your entire world is a fabrication, that the memories of your parents aren’t real and were created by a device (specifically, one called a hummingbird egg), and that they came from a world that had been destroyed by the humans. Many years ago, the villagers took a white ship to the Nowhere Islands, the last refuge for humanity. They gave themselves new stories and lived a life of bliss and innocence. Until the day Porky showed up after all the other time periods rejected him, leaving the world of the islands as the last place he could go. Here, bored out of his mind, he toys with living things in a giant sandbox. But he bores of that as well, and now the only thing that would excite him is seeing the destruction of the world, or the world turning into nothingness by awakening the sleeping dragon deep under the surface with someone who has an empty heart. But Lucas, still filled with compassion for his remaining friends and family, will never let that happen.

At the end, Lucas finally sees his father again, who is still obsessed with finding Claus. Together, you go down into the depths of your world, a place so close to the sleeping dragon that its power seeps through from under you. The last needle is nearby, as is Lucas’s destiny. After he defeats Porky, who locks himself away for all eternity in an absolutely safe capsule where he’ll only have his own company—perhaps what he wanted all along, Lucas finally confronts the Masked Man, having to do battle with him all by himself. But knowing that it’s Claus, or what’s left of him, he can’t bring himself to fight. He can attack after he sees his father nearly killed by Claus’s powerful PSI, but then the spirit of his mother asks him to stop.

Like in Mother where you sang to defeat the final boss, and Mother 2 where you prayed, Mother 3’s final fight is also unconventional. All you have to do is keep Lucas alive long enough for Claus, with his mother’s help, to realize that part of him still lives somewhere in that mechanical shell. He ends up sacrificing himself so that Lucas can pull the final needle, finally rejoining his mother. Lucas’s family has been torn apart, but he knows that love still exists between himself, his mother and father, and his brother, no matter what boundaries separate them. With newfound courage, Lucas pulls the last needle, ending the world he grew up in, but bringing about a new one in the process. And while you never get to see this new world, we get assurances from the villagers and the other cast at the very end of the game that they’re all okay, and that Lucas’s efforts were far from being in vain.

And if that isn’t an emotional roller coaster ride story that goes beyond being just a game and transcends to something more, then I don’t know what is.

Mother 3 Comics: So far, no one has gotten very far into translating this story to a comic. There are, however, several work in progress standouts.

shiroandfubuki’s Sunflower and Blade, telling Claus’s side of the story.
Officer Jordan and Aangie’s M3: Awakening, worked on by two artists who are retelling the story with two unique art styles.
Matilda Caboose’s Symmetry, at the moment of this writing, the most complete retelling (though still just barely scratching the story’s surface).

There are many other comics, of course, but I’ve featured the ones that are currently still being updated, if at least once in a while.

Meedee comments:
Like I mentioned before, I didn’t know there were two other games relating to Earthbound before Summer 2009 when Gekko showed me Mother 3. I was very surprised and instantly curious. Over the course of several nights I watched the story unfold as Lucas set out on his adventures. Not a lot of things move me, but Mother 3 was so profound to me. Even when I finally played it for myself, it felt more like a whole new experience, and not just a game. Something between a book and a movie and a game, where you control where the character moves and what he does and you share his feelings. So I always cry at the end of Mother 3.

After Mother 3, I was ready to start Harmony, hoping I could give the series justice.

Bridging the Gap

A few months after my second play through of Mother 3, where Meedee watched me play, a thought came to me. Had anyone tried to create a story that connected the events of Mother 2 & 3 together yet? Or had anyone made a story about Tracy and Picky, the younger siblings of Ness and Porky? Actually, I already knew the answer: they hadn’t. At least not in comic form yet. I knew this because I had been lurking on Starmen.net for years by this point, and had read every one of their fan comics. Sadly, few of them were ever completed, which was a real shame because many of them had potential. The more successful ones seemed to be those that emulated the Mother style the best; those that stayed true to the series’ kind of story telling, dialogue, humorous but down to earth characters, and themes.

I’m a writer at heart. When I had first had the idea to create a story that would bridge the two games, my first novel, Valice, was already out and I was working on completing Sky People. I had also written a lengthy comic for my sister Meedee, Hearth (currently on a long hiatus and likely to reboot in the distant future). When we started talking about this story, we knew we wanted something satisfying, but not overly long. Both Mother fans ourselves, we became devoted to delivering a story by fans of the series, for fans of the series, that would not violate anything canon and could fit snug in between Mother 2 & 3 perfectly. Fortunately, with the connections already quite small between the games, we had a lot of creative elbow room to make a story that was both ours and could serve the series fan base a delicious meal at the same time. Thus, Harmony came into being.

The name comes from the idea that the story would bring a certain harmony and connection between the latter two games of the series, answering many of the questions, setting up a workable story that bridges the two games together, and letting some existing characters get a chance in the spotlight. We also wanted to keep the story under a hundred pages. As I’ve said before, the idea was that Harmony was essentially a sort of original video animation for the series. If it was an 85 minute movie, it would be fast, do its job, and not overstay its welcome. That, and we wanted something manageable where that last page didn’t seem too far away.

In June 2009, Meedee and I joined Starmen.net and put our first few pages up for all to see. When it was first posted, the site had few active comics—pretty much just The Chosen Four still had frequent updates. But Harmony ended up riding the wave of a new resurgence in fan comics. Many ended prematurely, but we weren’t going to let that happen to us. We were dedicated to finishing our story, and we proved that dedication by sticking to a schedule of a bare minimum of two pages a week, with myself always willing to tweak the script, and with Meedee filling her off hours with making sketches of the story’s characters and events.

Being siblings, Meedee and I have made a pretty good team. While we’re both influenced by and work in the artistic field, I have a degree in photography while she’ll no doubt be seeking one in illustration once she gets into college. Meedee was already drawing at a level way beyond my own by the time we started Harmony, which is something I’ve never quite had the patience for. Instead, I put my talents into taking a good picture and writing stories, which Meedee feels less confident in. Luckily, by working together, we cover one another’s flaws. And being a team comes with the added bonus that we there are two voices and minds to work with. I make suggestions about her artwork and what to add, change, or remove, and she does the same for my writing. The script doesn’t always quite translate to the comic perfectly either, so some lines have to be dropped or given to someone else. But we can always reach a compromise and find something that works. Whatever gets the story told.

 

Mother 2: Harmony started in June 2009. Not knowing what
to expect on the outset, most people were probably just excited
to see Tracy and Picky in their own adventure.

When the story begins, we get a brief recap of the fight against Giygas, and then meet our two heroes. It’s twelve years after the events of Mother 2, and Tracy and Picky, the younger sister of Ness and the younger brother of Porky, are touring the university city of Fiveton, an original town made for the story. Accompanying them is Tracy’s mother, who later takes her food making prowess to the cafeteria and would feed the kids whenever they wanted if the story ever turned into a game. Everything seems normal at first, with the events of the past long behind them. Tracy is a charming, intelligent young lady whose best friend Picky is still a little unsure of himself, and is very distant from his parents, who only seem to care for themselves—and if they cared about their kids at all, it’s only seen through their minimal efforts to find Porky. Picky has been shoved to the corner and forgotten, and only Tracy and her family seem to pay the poor lad any mind at all. After meeting Jeff, now a professor at the university, the gang stops in for some ice cream at the local creamery. The only problem is, a time tear comes into existence at this point, eating the creamery and spitting out a time traveling girl named Lydia, who was in the company of her father, now missing. It seems that she was attacked by a robotic spider of some kind in the chronosphere—the world of time, where time machines navigate to get to different points in history. Her future is a horrible place, which is why her people frequently travel around through the chronosphere to briefly escape it.

This all sets in a chain of events that leads to a seeming invasion of Fiveton by a force seeping through the time tear. This force starts to turn inanimate objects to life and affect the minds of animals, and eventually people as well. Tracy realizes that she can use PSI just as well as her older brother if the situation calls for it, while the oddball character of Picky simply tries his hardest throughout the story—eventually getting his own bazooka from Jeff’s old weapons stash. After Prince Poo’s young hotshot son Kang joins the three, they become the only ones who can stop what’s going on and protect Lydia. After they fight back against invading dimensional creatures led by a frightening and tough one-headed cerberus, they think it’s over. But it turns out that the invasion was being led by Porky all along, who wants to learn Lydia’s method of time travel so that it might give him a chance to freely time travel again without being rejected by space-time itself. Since he’s gone to the far future and visited alien worlds, he possesses a machine of advanced technology that not only keeps his frail, ancient body alive, but fights for him, as well. Tracy and the gang manage to destroy Porky’s proto-armor, but get beaten by his new spider mech. Luckily, Ness shows up on scene at the last moment to go up against his nemesis one last time before becoming a dad; Paula is home pregnant with Melody for now.

Ness remembers how Porky was when the two were younger. The two only had something that only looked like a friendship if you squinted, but still, Ness is pained to see what his opposite has become. Porky probably teased Ness a lot, always saw him in his shadow, and maybe constantly “borrowed” lunch money from him. But at the same time, he’d defend Ness from bullies, and be there for him—whether he liked it or not. Picky also manages to find the courage to finally let go of his older brother and fight against him to protect the one person that truly mattered to him—Tracy. Once he realizes just how much Tracy means to him, Picky knows that he would never leave her to join Porky’s mighty army. And together, they stop Porky. Afterwards, the final era that Porky could visit rejects him, sending him back into the chronosphere. But not before he tries desperately one last time to grab Lydia—an attempt averted by Jeff’s dad, Dr. Andonuts, who lets himself get grabbed instead and thus ensures his appearance in Mother 3 and completing the continuity between the game; the events that happen after Harmony, and the comic itself.

Harmony also does a few things for Porky’s character that buffers his backstory a bit in Mother 3, and will become important in another way later on: we see that a part of Giygas has survived in him, and although Porky isn’t aware of it himself, the influence of the being that wanted to destroy all existence still affects his mind and grows inside. All this combined with Porky’s ancient, nearly immortal body that no longer has a true age and acts as the shell for the mind of a playful and selfish child makes Porky one of the most twisted and “damaged” villains of all time. And in Mother 2, we get to see his humble origins, while in Harmony, we get to see the effect this all has on the younger brother, Picky, and Porky’s only “friend” in the entire world, Ness.

After the events of the day settle and a new one comes, Lydia’s rescued father, realizing that they’re stuck in this time, goes ahead and reveals the truth about their future, and the project that he was a part of. This happens to be the mysterious Project Harmony, which involved, you guessed it (maybe), building the white ship mentioned earlier in the Mother 3 segment, bringing everything between the two games in full circle. Afterwards, everyone heads home, with Tracy and Picky reaffirming their friendship, knowing that together, they can overcome any trial. And now a parent, Ness could use some of that assurance too.

With Harmony, we wanted to bridge this gap between the games, stay true to the characters while also greatly expanding on them and giving them true personalities that they somewhat lacked in Mother 2, but were at least hinted at. We also wanted a story that the fans could accept would work into the series’ universe, and a simple, obvious way to do this was to not violate any canon, and make the story memorable enough that fans could say, “Yes, this happened, and I loved it.” And to that end, I think Harmony succeeded. In my eye, it’s a kind of tribute to the series and a gift to its fans that I had always wanted to be a part of. And this game series was a great choice for this kind of fan work, since the connections between the games are small, and leave a lot to your imagination. This means that Harmony is no more right or wrong than any other story that attempts to do what our comic did.

Ness versus Porky part deux at the climax of Harmony, a reunion
battle that would excite any Earthbound fan.

Meedee adds: I’ve been learning abput and being taught art throughout my whole life, but comics were never something I grew up with. I’ve been reading webcomics and graphic novels for a few years now and only started making them myself in Fall 2008. So prior to starting Harmony, I only had a little comic experience, none of it involving color, and some knowhow on how they are made through a few books about making them. So when we finally did start working on Harmony, I had only some idea of what I was doing. But it’s true that the best way to learn is to experience something yourself and practice everyday. Harmony was just the project that did that for me. Over most of the summer, there’d be at least four or five pages a week once the comic got settled into my life. I improved rapidly and over the course of the 100+ pages I’ve made so far relating to Harmony, I’ve learned and enhanced my skills a whole lot.

Of course, I still can’t be satisfied with my own work, so I will keep working harder and keep trying to improve. That is kind of satisfaction in itself. Harmony helped me push myself and move forward.

The Process

With a comic, you can have mediocre art, and still save it with good writing, characters, and an enjoyable story. But the most important thing is to keep at it. It’s okay to be busy and barely have time to finish a page a week, but it’s another to have free time and not work on your comic because you “don’t feel like it right now.” If you think like that once, you’ll let yourself think like that all of the time. Your comic has to become your baby. Don’t start a separate project. Don’t start talking about all the exciting pages you can’t wait to do that are far ahead in the story. Work on it page by page, put effort into it, and don’t give up. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and realize that you’re in over your head. And that can happen to any comic artist. But if you’re devoted to seeing your story through, you will succeed no matter what your skill level.

As the writer and thus something akin to a producer, I spent the development of the first few pages practically right by Meedee to watch every step. As the pages rolled by, I trusted Meedee enough to reduce my direct interaction to a few look-overs per page. I would see which lines were being altered or removed, help make adjustments, and spell check every page. If a bubble was too big, or if text was off center or touching the side of a bubble, then I’d make her fix it. But as far as artwork goes, other than a few ideas for effects I might sometimes have, I leave it all to Meedee and give her all the freedom she wants. Sometimes the script can ask a lot of her for certain scenes, but I leave it up to her how much effort she wants to put forth, and how much out of her comfort zone she’s willing to go. And I’m easily satisfied, so Meedee never lets me down with her work. Seeing the page’s sketches for the first time are pretty much the most exciting part, because I get to see what’s going to happen, and how everyone will react. I also update the website and submit pages to Starmen.net for the week.

When A Winters Tale started, we switched to a slightly different process that involved a new step—making a tone layer. With the ability to blend layers in Photoshop, this gave us the ability to quickly change the tone, and thus the lighting on each color without having to go back and do it color per color. This was a time saver, and led to greater consistence. It also gave me an occasional moment to make the base tones for a page, which only involves coloring inside the lines while Meedee works on another part of the page. This might shave off about 20 minutes or so. Of course, this is really more of Meedee’s segment, so I’m going give her the majority of its space, and leave it to her to talk about the steps that are also talked about in this tutorial.

Meedee rants: As we make mistakes and try new things, our process of doing something changes. My process of making comics has seen many changes since I began with making Hearth to the final pages of The White Ship, and will continue to change with whatever comes next. I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes, so I share them to others in hopes I can teach them something. Right now, here is my process of an average White Ship page (I work with Photoshop CS3):

I start by reading Gekko’s terrible script. I mean, Gekko’s amazing scripts. I think I can be a good writer, but I have a hard time making complete stories, or at least have no confidence in it. Aside from little fixes and spontaneous jokes I make when actually applying the the script into comic from, Gekko is the great writer here. I highly suggest anyway making a comic that’s presented as a connected story to have a full script. One needs to be prepared for the designs and know what the characters and environments need to do and be used for, etc.

I usually get a good vision in my head of what I want to do with certain characters. But others I have no idea. But that’s okay, as I think it’s more interesting when you have no ideas in your head, because then the design can really go anywhere. For these ones I try all sorts of things until I get something that gives me a good impression of the character as per their personality. I try to make everyone look unique, and I’m not always successful. There are certain things, like color scheme and shape, that should be kept in balance, as character design is a varied art form. In my designs I like to keep a certain theme in my mind for a certain character or even all of them. My themes are usually based off historical costumes, just because I adore them, but depending on the work or character the theme can change.

 

Making comics is more than just slapping some images together. To keep things flowing and consistent, more steps have to be taken.

Once I have the script and the most immediate and important characters and settings designed, I go through the script again to start to thumbnail panels. I admit, I could use some work in this area, but I want to get as much as I can in one page to keep the story from progressing too slowly and making the audience lose interest, which is very important in web-based comics. Since thumbnails can be done in so many different ways, I’m not going to go into it too much. Just be sure your flow is consistent and keep in mind the point of view or “camera angle” of your shot.

When starting a page, I suggest working big. I think I’m still working at too a small a size and plan to work bigger in the future. When you work big, the quality is much much better when you shrink your file later to post. I make my panels on one layer, then do the sketches in another layer under it. I use a combination of the tiny sketches in my thumbnails for and new ideas for this. Once sketches are done, I add the dialogue to make sure everything fits.

My sketches are very loose and fast and are just used to get the layout, poses, and expressions in the panel. I go back over them in a new layer with red later as I do lines so I can clean them up. I didn’t start doing this all the time until a little bit into the White Ship. It’s easier to do lines with a clearer guide, even if the redlines aren’t right all the time either. Panel by panel, I redline the sketch, fade that layer, and get to work on the lines on a new layer. Lines are the long painful part of the process and are the reason I complain about hand pain.

Once the lines are done I make a new layer for the background. Like characters, settings have a sort of personality too, so if is certain environment is important I usually design it some beforehand. Coloring backgrounds is pretty basic for me, but can be time-consuming depending on how many elements there are and their details. For coloring I just paint a dark shade and highlight it with a lighter one, much like my old process in the first Harmony comic. Midway through White Ship I also started coloring the lines in the background to help create a stronger sense of distance. Most important, a background should express the mood of the story. Arriving on Nowhere Islands wouldn’t seem as bright and hopeful if the world the passengers left wasn’t dark, dirty, and depressing. (Incidentally, this is one of the things that makes the fate of the Nowhere Islands’ environment in the hands of the Pig King more tragic.)

Once the background is done, I make a new layer for the new step Gekko mentioned. I used this first in A Harmony Halloween and in A Winters Tale and have been using it in The White Ship. I call it toning. Basically, I choose a fairly neutral tones that best fits the lighting of the scene and color in all my lines. I call this my base tone. Afterwards, I use another color, usually something very light, and paint highlights according to the light source. Once this is done, I make a new layer on “Clipping Mask” on top of the tones layer, turn it on multiply, and just color in the flat colors. This process requires a lot of experimenting with the colors and values of the tones you use, but it keeps everything very consistent as far as colors, and can still show the effects of scene. As for special effects and pretty glowy things, I also do these during this step. Effects are a lot of experimenting and trying out the different filters and layer effects photoshop has to offer.

Once coloring and toning are done, I make my speech bubbles, which is explained in the tutorial. Gekko and I spellcheck, I shrink the page, then I add the sprite and page number and shortly after the page is posted on the Harmony forum. By the time I’m done I have about eight or more layers. An average page can take between 8-12 hours, but I break often, because if I’m broken that means no comics can be made; worse than a page taking a little longer.

That’s been the process for making The White Ship. It’s varied a little bit since it was started, but it has changed a lot since Harmony began and will keep changing for future projects.

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