Happy Accidents: Drawing as Improvisation

A couple posts back, I shared my process behind a pinup illustration for a #SupportYourLCS social media campaign, and I commented how it reminded me that drawing is like excavation. I was again reminded of that as I continued the revival of my old indie comic Boondoggle (as discussed a few posts back as well). 

Happy Accidents

The late Bob Ross, the impressionist painter with the “happy little trees” on PBS, once famously said that artists don’t make mistakes; rather, we have “happy accidents.” On that recent #SupportYourLCS piece, I definitely felt that to be true. The entire process was essentially one big series of happy accidents. I started sketching with only the vaguest of ideas in mind—Plastic Man reading a comic, maybe Will Eisner’s Spirit, but that was definitely up for debate—and wound up with a cavalcade of Marvel/DC/indie characters in a mashup that revealed itself as I went. 


And to be honest, that’s largely how a lot of sketches go for me; rather than start with a fully-formed image in my head, I start with an inkling of an idea and see where the pencil takes me. There’s a lot of trial-and-error in that, but there’s also a fair bit of creative spontaneity as well—and that spontaneity can bring a spark of life to an otherwise static image.

Improv Storytelling

I also realized that I apply that same improvisational approach to my editorial cartoons. Again, that seems to make a good bit of sense, given their topical nature and immediacy—they comment on the week’s newscycle and are done under a quick deadline as a result. That spontaneity and off-the-cuff creativity is almost a requirement to keep the comic current and relevant.


But what then, about longer form sequential comic art? After all, there are whole teams of people behind a comic page, from the writer and editor to the penciller and inker, as well as the letterer and colorist. But what about when it’s more creator-driven, when that team—or at least the lion’s share of it—is just one person? What I realized while working on the latest page of Boondoggle was that “Happy Accidents” pretty much describes my modus operandi in general.


Back in the day, the storytelling in Boondoggle was often directly impacted by the whims of current events, not so unlike my editorial cartoons. It helped that part of the series’ chemistry was social commentary, so it made sense that pop culture references and opinions about trends would make appearances. But often the latest headlines or entertainment news would weave their way into the book; for example, one issue featured the cancellation of The Jon Stewart Show as a plot point. That spontaneity and improvisational storytelling definitely kept things interesting for me, and often—like when a best friend passed away in a tragic traffic accident—enabled me to work through thoughts and emotions in real-time. As a result, those raw feelings were something felt by the audience, and I often heard from readers how they appreciated the timeliness and relevance of the comic’s humor.  


So it shouldn’t be a surprise that in revisiting the characters 25 years later, their dialogue would become largely dictated by the current headlines. (Of course, a global pandemic is a little hard to ignore.)

Good Company

To be honest, I started to feel a little unsure about this realization. After all, there’s a ton of literature out there about creating comics “the Marvel Way”, guidance from established and prolific creators about the need to write up detailed scripts before putting pencil to bristol or stylus to tablet. And here I am, essentially making everything—from a simple pinup to a comic strip or page—up as I go along. 


So imagine my relief when Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen tweeted how he recently had the same realization:


“It occurs to me that I make comics the same way I did when I was nine years old… [D]rawing page one with no written plot or script of anything. I have a vague idea of the points I want to hit and that’s enough… And this has allowed me to be very nimble, to make decisions on a whim. If I don’t feel like drawing something or a pandemic materializes[,] I can switch gears in an instant.”


In short, find the method that works best for you and your creativity, especially if you’re a DIY creator or wearing the writer/artist hat. If you find your method of creating comics is something more akin to “winging it” than anything Brian Michael Bendis or the late Stan Lee teach, don’t feel guilty. You’re not making comics the Marvel way… you’re making them your way.


Which method works best for you? Share your experience on the forums!

Steve Stegelin

Editor, Artist, Letterer, Colorist Steve is the long-running cartoonist at the Charleston, SC alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, where he skewers politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) alike with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every issue. Steve was best known his indie comic book (and subsequent webcomic)  BOONDOGGLE