Pixeling in the Retrosphere

Creating a Comic Book on 1980s Hardware

Pixel Art Comic Project by Marin Balabanov

IV. Drawing before Pixeling

Planning the Story and Designing the Visuals

Now that all the hardware and software are set up and in place, I can start with the actual comic. I went through a couple of drafts for the story. At first, I wanted to write an original story and draw that, but then, I decided that this would take too much focus away from the actual task at hand: drawing the story.

Script outline

Figure 26: The very first original outline for this project from 2018
(Source: Marin Balabanov)

The Story

There is a decade old joke in many totalitarian states about a competition between three intelligence or security services from different countries. The joke comes in many permutations, but usually it is about an American intelligence service, an Israeli or British service, and the local intelligence service from the totalitarian country the joke comes from. The first time I heard the joke, it was about the Soviet-Union, then I heard a variant from Syria. When researching the joke for this project, I found that there are versions from Eastern Germany and North Korea as well.

The original joke goes something like this:

Three intelligence services have a competition to determine who is the best. The referee releases a mouse in a forest and then sends in a contender from the first service to find the mouse. After a day they return with the mouse. They are successful, but the time they needed was rather long. Another mouse is released into the forest and a member from the next service goes in to find it. They return with the mouse in a ridiculously short time. They are not only successful, but they are really fast.

Finally, the referee releases another mouse and a member of the last intelligence service goes in to find the mouse. Now please keep in mind that this is the local service from the totalitarian state like the Soviet Union or the German Democratic Republic. The last contender is not seen for hours, then days pass, and after a week they return. They bring back an elephant.

The referee is shocked. They protest that the animal the intelligence person brought back is not a mouse! Then the elephant says: "Yes! Yes, I am! I confess to everything. I am a mouse."

The main message of the joke is that the local intelligence service of the totalitarian state is quite incompetent, but they get results at any costs. In this case, they tortured an elephant until it confesses to be a mouse.

As a project for a university course with the focus on the media aspects, I definitely did not want to get into any slippery political territory and use countries that actually exist. This would detract from the objective and perhaps be the cause for unnecessary discussions. So instead, I decided to use alien characters with superpowers on a different planet. Though to be fair, I did make sure that they are human-looking and perhaps even have a bit of the characteristics of the contenders in the original joke.

The Synopsis and the Breakdowns

Once I had decided which story to use, I drafted up a synopsis of the story. I split the rough synopsis into an approximate page count, attempting to keep to around four pages, as originally planned. The result was a synopsis of five pages with five to eight panels each, because I needed more room for the story. The synopsis also enabled me to note how many characters appear in the story, which settings will be needed, and the props required.

Then I drew the so-called thumbnail breakdowns, i.e. tiny layouts of each page. As a result of the thumbnails I realized that there are a couple of key panels missing, and I adjusted the story accordingly.

Based on the character list, I sketched the figure with a technical pencil working my way from basic shapes to a tight pencil sketch. Then I cleaned up the contours with a technical pen. I erased the pencil lines and with a black marker or brush pen, I then re-enforced some of the lines and fill in the blacks where they were needed.

This particular story needed four character, two backgrounds (mostly consisting of trees), a mouse and an elephant. The story was set outdoors in front of a forest.

Drawing initial sketches

More views of drawing initial sketches

A different view of drawing initial sketches

Final view of drawing sketches

Figure 27: Creating the thumbnail layouts (top left), sketching the one of the characters (top right), drawing the backgrounds (bottom left), finishing the mouse character (bottom right)
(Source: Marin Balabanov)

The story borken down into pages and panels

Figure 28: The breakdown of the plot of the comic (Source: Marin Balabanov)

First inked sketch

Figure 29: Some of the designs for the backgrounds (Source: Marin Balabanov)

Second inked sketch

Figure 30: Some of the character designs (Source: Marin Balabanov)

Third inked sketch

Figure 31: Designs of components that will be composited together on the Atari STE (Source: Marin Balabanov)

Now that I drew the individual figures and the components of the backgrounds I scanned them using a flatbed scanner attached to my modern day MacBook Pro. This might seem contradictory to the original plan to use only original hardware, but I could have also done the scanning process on the Atari ST if I had managed to find and purchase a hand scanner. I could not find a suitable model. I then decided to scan the designs on the Mac and transfer them to the Atari ST to color them and manually render out each detail. This would give me flexibility to combine the panels any way I liked, and it saved time because I would reuse the same figure on multiple panels with only slight variations. The same is true for the backgrounds. I could repeat the backgrounds and overlay the relevant characters.

Hand scanner

Figure 32: An ad for the MiGraph hand scanner in Start Magazine 4/1988

I scanned them on my Mac and then converted them into an old graphics format called IFF that first used on the Commodore Amiga. I saved the converted image files onto an SD card and then transferred them onto the Atari ST using the UltraSatan. Now, it is only a matter of converting them into the format of the paint application I want to use for the finished pixel art.

I was not sure how well I would be able to draw on the Atari Mega STE. So, before starting with the comic, I wanted to try my hand at a “proof-of-concept.” I want to be mindful of the limitations of the Atari Mega STE.

Drawing board and sketches

Figure 33: Layouts and character designs
(Source: Marin Balabanov)

Proof of Concept

The process of pixeling every single detail is quite time consuming and tedious. That being said, it did put me in a trance-like state of complete focus. I worked my way through to a finished proof-of-concept of the elephant using different techniques to overcome the limitations. I used dithering for areas of color transitions and I manually anti-aliased the pixels that made up curves to offset the low resolution.

The elephant that I drew is a pivotal character in the story. I mainly focused on getting the colors right and making sure that the lines are cleaned up. The background will most likely be different in the final comic than it is in the proof of concept.

Proof of concept successfully created

Figure 34: The pen and paper design of the elephant used
as the basis for the proof-of-concept (Source: Marin Balabanov)

Steps in creating the elephabnt

Steps in creating the elephabnt

Steps in creating the elephabnt

Steps in creating the elephabnt

Proof of concept successfully created

Figure 35: The steps in creating the proof of concept for the pixel art comic in NEOChrome.
For the final comic I redrew the elephant. (Source: Marin Balabanov)