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The Cotton library fire comic

2015 January 17

Time I posted a few notes about this, my most recent comics work.

As regards inspiration, the original idea to create a promotional comic of some sort resulted from a specific opportunity (I thought) to get a little free exposure. That did not pan out, in fact. But I think it was a great idea because I had much fun making it.

Once I began thinking “what if I made a comic,” I had plenty of ideas. The story of the Cotton library is, I (obviously) think, full of entertaining if often tragicomic episodes. Cotton “picking” his collection from any source that wasn’t nailed down… the intrigues of the rival librarians… the frequently exasperated Sir Frederic Madden… but fairly quickly, I settled on the 1731 fire as the best place to begin.

It just seemed to offer both the best “hook” as a promotion—hey, did you know all these amazing documents are part of one collection and that 300 years ago it was nearly incinerated despite being formally entrusted to Parliament by that point?—and multiple opportunities for jokes amid the greater narrative.

Essentially none of which are made up, either. Dr. Bentley attempting to move the shelves outside… tossing volumes out a window when that first idea wasted too much time… and, yes, even Bentley’s bizarre suggestion that the fire was ghostly punishment for the library’s neglect. All drawn from historic accounts. The literal appearance of Cotton’s ghost is invented, obviously, but it felt like he deserved an opportunity for rebuttal. So, voila artistic license…

Other examples of artistic license… I really had no idea what any of the people in these scenes looked like, besides Bentley and Cotton. I’m not sure Bentley would have had on a wig and a nightcap, however—but I found it an amusing image. Everyone else’s appearance I pretty much just made up. Bentley’s son probably would have appeared older, and been wearing some sort of nightshirt also; in order to differentiate father from son, however, I drew him this way. I made an attempt to find out what a London firefighter would have been wearing in 1731, but couldn’t find a lot; what I did find suggested that the iconic fireman’s helmet might have been around at the time so I just went with it, again mostly for purposes of easy identification.

The photo of Ashburnham House and the crest on one of the books’ spines are based on real sources, though.

As regards technique, I’m pretty happy with this because—while still amateurish—I think I made some progress. I’m especially pleased with the results of my daring to challenge “wet” materials. Unlike another small foray into comics a few years ago, when I stuck with safe pencils, I summoned up my courage and got out markers this time. Markers are, probably, still a bit “safer” and more predictable then pen, brush and ink… but it was a small step out of my comfort zone.

As was the use of gray tones, which I also created using markers. I thought about adding these in Photoshop (and I did for the first panel), but the line drawing went well enough that (otherwise) I decided to go crazy. I did scan the finished line drawings first, just in case, but I found that using markers for shading and smoke worked nicely. I also discovered that many of my (very old) markers had dried out, so the “gray” tones are actually brown on the original art. I think I just scanned the art in as grayscale, though, so boom, done.

Last but by no means least, I would be remiss in not thanking Kate Beaton, whose Hark a Vagrant comics provided more than one important pointer. Her cartoons’ incorporation of gray tones was a helpful example of their possibilities. Her entire gig, generally, was likewise an inspiration. The epic of the Cotton library seems like a perfect match for Beaton’s ever-delightful satirical walks through history; my poor man’s version shall have to do for now, but anyone out there who enjoys it should waste no time in visiting

After visiting first. 🙂

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