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A* Episode 17 
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A few days back I mentioned a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket having taken the first American robot commercial cargo module to the International Space Station, and that during launch one of its 9 engines failed, but the other 8 compensated.

Well, it got the cargo module to the ISS all right, but it turns out that it had a secondary mission not mentioned earlier. See, after launch it got itself to its target 202 mile-high orbit, then it spent the next two days going up another 48 miles to meet the ISS and deliver the cargo module. That went fine, it seems. But after that, it had an Orbcomm "experimental communications satellite" to deliver to a 466 mile-high orbit--only, the engine malfunction during launch had forced it to burn a little more of its kerosene and oxygen fuel than planned, so it was calculated to have only a 95% chance of successfully reaching the higher orbit--sounds like pretty darn good odds, but since a 99% chance had been stipulated in SpaceX's agreement with NASA before such an operation would be allowed to take place, they were not given the go-ahead for that, and the satellite had to be allowed to fall back to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere. Hm!

~~~~~~

Exoplanet "news" is pretty much all wildly speculative. How wild? Welllll....there is for instance a new article about a planet that's supposed to have been found around a star 40 light years away, weighing in about twice as massive as Earth, and that some scientists apparently think is about a third diamond. Yeah, diamond. The thing is, "exoplanet" stuff is all based on extremely small wobbles in little points of light or whatnot, and the claims built up on calculations made on those wobbles--which I think have a pretty high degree of error--get pretty wacky. But here's the article in case you want to check out the hype and see the silly cutaway drawing of the "diamond planet."


Sat Oct 13, 2012 8:47 am
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Particularly since entering this latest phase of experimenting with pure black and white in the comic, I've kind of been obsessively scrutinizing it, and I couldn't help noticing that the colorful, flashing ads beneath it were making that more difficult than it should be. So I've removed them, and since that constituted one of the main features of A*'s subscription service, I've gone ahead and made the other main subscription feature--large, 1080p HD-sized versions of the comics--free to everyone as well; you can switch to the king-sized version of the comic, and back again, with the link beneath the comic's lower-right-hand corner.

Making that stuff free made the subscription service pretty much obsolete, so I've ended it and refunded the lovely readers who'd subscribed. Incidentally, I also realized that the browser cookie that saves your preferred comic size setting wasn't lasting through browser restarts, which is embarrassing since that was a feature I'd mentioned as a selling point of the subscriptions on several occasions--and could have sworn I'd tested successfully multiple times! Dah. Anyway that's fixed in this free-for-everyone version, so if you set the comic size to the large size, close the browser, then start it up and come back to the site at some point, it'll come right up in your preferred viewing size, like it was always *supposed* to for subscribers.

There's still one horizontal ad at the bottom of the comic and news archive pages. The social networking bar that used to be under the ads that were under the comic--with links to A*'s Twitter, deviantART, Facebook, G+, Tumblr, etc--has moved to the "about" page, which has also been reorganized and tidied up a bit.

I hope everyone's happy with the changes (and that you'll let me know if you aren't!!). I feel like this brings the comic back to its original design intent, which was that of being a very intense, focused, cinema-format experience without colorful distractions, where you could really concentrate, if you wanted, on each panel. I think it will make new visitors much more inclined to stick around and actually read through it--but I guess we'll see!


Tue Oct 16, 2012 8:20 am
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Here is an interesting article about a super-strong, potentially super-cheap cardboard bike created by an Israeli inventor. Looks a little uncomfortable, maybe, but hey whaddaya want in a disposable bike? :P

~~~~~~~

Detail from the pencils for today's A* page:

Image

It interesting (to me :P) to compare this with yesterday's page, since I used fairly similar approaches with regard to the black and white treatment of Selenis and of the background; but although the drawing for today's page is more intricate and precise, I think yesterday's was more successful, because I figured out the distribution of white and black areas pretty well before starting in with ink--unusually well for me, in fact. Today's was more like usual, where I haven't quite figured out exactly which parts will be black and which will be white, and kind of feel it out as I go; this tends to end up with areas shaded in multiple stroke directions and types, which is a bit messy looking, more white ink corrections, which is time consuming, fewer smooth white/black outline transitions, and a less cohesive, less organic feel to the piece overall. So I should probably try to figure out the black and white mapping more clearly before starting the pages, eh, self? Yes.

Although admittedly, even with yesterday's page, I hadn't decided quite how much black to use for Selenis' suit until I got into doing it. So it's also nice to have a little luck where your first try happens to work out!

~~~~~~~

Speaking of figuring out what you're going to do before you start, I wanted to do a nice big black and white ink piece of some kind over the weekend, and I sat myself down and tried sketching something out...and tried and tried and came up with nothing that worked. First time that's happened, I think! And I think maybe the problem was again an issue of not having figured out what I'd be drawing--in this case not even having a subject in mind! So I found my pencil just trying to draw more or less random faces and figures, not having in mind anything in particular, but wanting this unspecified subject to be somehow dramatic, and in a neat, detailed way...and apparently that just doesn't work. I had to admit defeat.

In retrospect, I probably should have just drawn one of the two characters in our current A* scene--that probably would have given me enough to build from. But I was also kind of tired I guess and that didn't occur to me until later. But I didn't want to go to bed not having managed to draw anything on an evening where I'd planned to get something drawn, so eventually I grabbed a big marker and just did a doodle--which is the art form probably best suited to drawing when you don't have anything particularly in mind! Here's what came out:

Image

Now...as near as I can figure, that's sort of a hybrid of Marvel Comics' versions of Thor and Loki? Thoroki? I dunno. I think the only thing that had gone through my head when the marker started making marks was this video I watched months ago of Walt Simonson sketching a Thor head with a big marker in his usual lively linear style, and specifically of how he just whipped out those big helmet wing things.

Oh say that's the same marker I was using, now that I look at it again--a Faber-Castell PITT "artist pen big brush." I bought a ton of these things back in that marker phase I had last episode, when I got to thinking I'd be doing the whole comic in markers. So right now I just have boxes of them taking up a good chunk of a shelf in my art supply cupboard of shame. Might as well doodle more with them, I guess! They're definitely quicker and easier to play with than a brush, at any rate, even if they can't make the same variety of marks and their ink can't get as dark.


Wed Oct 17, 2012 9:59 am
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Why yes, I have been re-reading Frank crazypants Miller's Sin City comics lately. He does that big-black-and-white-areas-defining-form-dramatically thing so well, you know. I hadn't started out today's page intending to do something so close to that style; it was going more regular with line work and all, but parts were frustrating me--as usual--and I was trying to fix them and it was just making things worse, and finally I thought I'd better just set it aside and start over from scratch. But as often happens, while trying to start a new sketch I couldn't get the first one out of my head, and I kept looking back at it, and getting nowhere with the new sketch, and eventually there seemed to be no choice but to take the first try back up. So I started covering up a lot of things in it with white ink, and bringing black areas together into larger black areas with black ink to tidy things up, and eventually I just went kind of full bore with that approach and this is what happens, apparently--the main ingredients being: 1) frustration 2) time 3) buckets of white ink. But it's kind of nice because it really does boil things down to the core essentials, without those distracting line things all over.

It was so much easier to get that effect back when I was working digitally with the lasso tool. :P As I've been reading through the various collected Sin City volumes, I've been continuing to scratch my head as I've tried to figure out what tools Miller was using to get the look he got; I haven't been able to find anyone talking about it online. I don't think it's just brush work, because when he works all brush, for instance in this promotional sketch, it definitely looks a lot brushier--it's really hard to get hard, hard lines with a brush, at least as consistently as he seems to in most of the Sin City stuff.

For a while I was thinking he was using markers / tech pens, which a lot of artists use these days--Mike Mignola may be the most well-known example of a pure marker artist. Markers could account for the single-width "dead" lines he uses sometimes, like here around his magical ninja girl.

BUT! If you look closely into the black areas in scans/photos of his original art, like you can here, you notice that the swirls and patterns inside his big black areas definitely don't look like the even, regular streaky lines of a marker--they definitely look like they were filled in with a brush. So does he do just the edges with a marker, then fill them in with a brush? Well, I don't think so, because you'd most likely see a difference right around the edge between the marker ink and the brush ink--or at least an indication of where the two inks overlapped, and I can't see anything like that in these images of his originals; you do see slight variations at some of the edges, but it looks more like the variation you get in brush work between an area painted earlier and an area painted later. The blacks look very smooth from edge to edge, like here, and sometimes, like here, up close the thin lines look quite a bit more irregular than you'd expect from a marker.

And there are more arguments against his having used markers in Sin City. For one, this promotional sketch he did on the road, definitely in marker--which is a common tool used by comic artists for executing sketches on the road or at cons, because they're nice and quick and portable--looks way different from his actual Sin City comic page work. And secondly, he would have learned a lot about inking from the long partnership he had with veteran inker Klaus Janson--it was Janson who inked Miller's pencils in Daredevil and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns--and Janson, if the inking book I have that he wrote is any indication, is very much a devotee of the old school when it comes to inking, which means dip pens and brushes rather than markers for inking.

And if you look very closely at those "dead" lines of Miller's, say here, you can find ones that *do* have some width variation, like you'd get with a dip pen. And my final point I'll just toss in there is that in all of these you can see that he used a lot of white ink, which would almost certainly have to be applied with a brush.

And then tonight it occurred to me that with computer processing you can get brushy lines to look harder. The typical processing done to scanned ink lines, for instance, is to Threshold them, which is a Photoshop operation that converts them from the scanned grayscale range to pure black and white--that gets rid of little smudges and differences in black inks and all that, and sharpens up the edges of everything. Here's a version of today's A* page processed with a Threshold operation (before being scaled down from its 1200 dpi scan size), for instance:

Image

You'll notice that it looks "harder" than the official version of the page: the Threshold has converted the little grayish bits here and there in the scan--like the zone on her left check where I let the black and white ink merge a bit, or the very light gray under her right eyebrow where the paper dimpled slightly between wetted areas, lifting just fractionally off the scan glass and thus receiving less light and coming out marginally darker--into either pure black or pure white. It's much quicker to use Threshold rather than what I'm using now, which is to make sure the areas I want white and black in the scanned version area actually as white and black in ink as I can make them, then--after scanning--using a Level adjustment to shift dark grays to pure black, and cleaning up scanned ink ridges, dust, and other impurities in the white areas by hand. Threshold is quicker than that, but the result is harsher and less organic than I prefer for my work, and you lose the subtleties and shadings of those little grays.

So why am I talking about it? Oh yes, because it finally occurred to me that a lot of the lines and shapes in Sin City that had been puzzling me probably *were* done with brush, but Threshold or similar processing ended up giving them the harder look seen on the printed page. And besides that, I think he did do a lot of work with a dip pen with a stiff nib, which would let you do dead-ish lines if you wanted--and besides all that, I think he just did a lot of really, really careful brush work. The result *looks* simple but it's actually achieved by pretty painstaking work, both conceptually and in its execution (I mean, when it's done right, not my flailing :P).

Oh, one last comment about Miller's Sin City work. I hadn't noticed this when I originally read them some decades ago, but he varies his approach to the art slightly from volume to volume, even though they're all (primarily) black and white. In the first four, for instance, he goes through various stages of experimenting with different line widths, detail levels, and black/white balance. The fifth, Family Values, which I don't think I read before (I guess I went off to college or something after the fourth volume came out back in the day--my brother had been the one collecting them, so I'd been reading his copies) and which I just finished, is the most radical departure so far: he starts going nuts with crosshatching and white ink spatters. Crosshatching definitely isn't his strength at this point so it will be interesting to see what he does in that regard in the last two volumes.


Thu Oct 18, 2012 9:10 am
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I know I'm posting too much about boring art stuff, but each week I promise and then fail to keep myself to a schedule that would give me time to both sleep AND post about something I'd actually have to research a bit. Sooo some more art excitement!

I broke a brush today! Perhaps I was discombobulated by the following dilemma: which pencil layout to ink for today's page?

Image

Yeah I'd waffled and ended up doing two pencil layouts: in the first I made the somewhat mistake of second-guessing my initial idea, thinking Selenis seen directly from behind lounging in the chair would be a boring or even indecipherable silhouette, so I turned her a bit to the side; that in fact ended up seeming rather boring, so then I did another sketch, sticking to my initial directly-behind idea--after a few redraws to try to get it halfway right--and that did I think end up being a bit more direct and memorable somehow. So after much wibbling and wobbling I sat down to ink that one.

I inked up my big Japanese sumi-e "Haboku" brush to lay down some of the larger black areas, moved it over my paper--and promptly dropped it. Eep! It somehow managed to avoid hitting the page directly, bounced off the back of my hand--mm, inky--and my drawing table, painted a streak down the side of my bookshelf, kicked off my hand-mirror, knocked a ruler over, and finally came to rest among the eraser shavings on my ancient brown shag carpet.

After a bit of a rinse-off--and clean up of various parts of my room--the brush seemed fine, but when I was all done and went to clean it up, I noticed the brush head sort of shifted a bit--the whole head was loose, and didn't take much coaxing to detach entirely:

Image

That's one ex-Haboku-X! This was the longest I'd used one, since I don't need them for precision work now that I'm using sable brushes for that, so I used it well past the time its tip ceased to hold a point--which isn't very long with these things. I'd kind of been wondering how long it would last--watching it shed a hair every day or two--and now I guess I know. As you can see in that photo, the head has only a few millimeters of blunt end with which to seat itself in the hollow bamboo handle; there was some kind of glue tasked with doing most of the holding, but I guess it just wore out after use, repeated washings, and maybe tonight's eventful drop. Not too surprising given the rapidity with which these things lose their point and bristles, I suppose. But they're pretty cheap, so I guess it works out. Good thing I thought to stock up with two or three spares!

Oh yeah while the brush head itself didn't hit the page, some ink spatter did--you can see it mostly around Val's left hand. That wasn't too bad, in fact I kind of liked it, but later I thought it looked a little lonely, and besides I could use a way to sort of break up the white/black area to her lower left a bit, so I thought I'd accompany the accidental black spatter with some white spatter. That worked pretty well I think, except I forgot how messy little white ink spatters on white paper make when it comes to trying to get a clean scan--they leave shadows. I should have masked off most of the page when going to do the spatter, but I thought I wanted a kind of rough and wild look anyway--and then had a lot of white-on-white spatter shadows to tidy up after scanning. Mmmaybe I'll mask some areas off next time.


Fri Oct 19, 2012 8:41 am
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NASA's been showing off their new "X1" exoskeleton, which they say could be useful for helping those with disabilities to walk, as well as potentially helping astronauts in heavy tasks and long-term space missions. Currently the exoskeleton is just for the legs. There's a video of it in action here, and here are a couple members of the NASA engineering team modelling it:

Image
image by Robert Markowitz for NASA (source)

Image
image by Robert Markowitz for NASA (source)

If the gold color of the metal parts looks familiar, that's because it was developed from Robonaut technology! Still waiting for that thing to go all rampage on the International Space Station.

~~~~~

Oh goodness, I need some kind of automatic ink spattering machine. My black ink is thinner than my white ink which made spattering it all over the background take a long time. A long messy time

Image

Broke three nibs in the process, too! Still though it is kind of a way to get a Zip-A-Tone-like effect--and one with a lot more flexibility--while keeping it all in the original single piece of paper and one type of ink, which is handy. Hm. Well maybe if I do this again I'll give the ol' toothbrush method a try, that might be faster.


Sat Oct 20, 2012 10:17 am
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Powered Exoskeletons! COOL!

But now, a side question...

http://princess.smbhax.com/cgi-bin/n.pl ... 8_Page_136

Is the Princess & Giant series over, and did the handsome prince take our heroine to bed? :)


Sun Oct 21, 2012 6:59 am
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Yeah I ended The Princess and the Giant---that was the end of the first story arc; I'd planned to start on a second one right after that one ended, but finally realized it was too much to keep up alongside A*.

The idea for that particular strip was that the Prince was bidding her good night...although it certainly *looks* like he's leading her into his bedchamber. I'm not sure I realized when I did it just how strongly it did look like that interpretation! Technically though she goes to bed by herself; on the next page we see her falling asleep, which more or less ends that reality and begins a completely confusing short string of random fantasy drawings under the excuse of being her "dreams."


Sun Oct 21, 2012 3:37 pm
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If I recall correctly, there have been some attempts to detect "gravity waves"--waves of gravitational force emitted by pulsars, black holes, colliding galaxies, or other massive bodies--but apparently they haven't been too successful, supposedly because the gravitational waves are too weak for their influence to be detected by traditional means. NASA is working on a scheme for a new kind of detector, one that would take advantage of one of those wacky quirks of quantum mechanics, according to this article:
Quote:
The U.S. space agency has funded the possible solution, called atom interferometry, so that it might someday enable a mission consisting of three identical spacecraft flying in a triangle formation between 310 miles (500 kilometers) and 3,107 miles (5,000 kilometers). If a gravitational wave swept through the area, the spacecraft interferometers would sense the tiny disturbances.

[...] Researchers would first fire a laser to slow and cool the atoms down to a frigid temperature near absolute zero (minus 273.15 degrees Celsius), so that the atoms behave like waves rather than particles. Then they would fire more laser pulses that put the atoms into a "superposition of states," which allows them to exist in multiple states simultaneously.

The superposition means a single atom can split into different states that exist independently and go flying off on different trajectories like separate particles, before they recombine at a detector. If an atom's path is altered even a bit by a passing gravitational wave, the atom interferometer can detect the difference.

Aside from being able to detect stuff like black holes, which of course is cool but not immediately practical, perhaps, there's the potential for such technology to make super-sensitive sensors usable in airplanes or submarines.

~~~~~~~~~~

A Tennessee family's generations-old doorstop--a funny rock found by the current mother's grandfather in a cow pasture near Tazwell, Tenn.--turned out to be a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite--just about as old as the Earth itself! They were tipped off that there was something particularly special about the primordial stone when it set of a metal detector something fierce. It's thought to be part of a group of meteorites first found near Tazwell in 1853; this one is 33 pounds, which makes it the second largest of the bunch found--the largest weighing in at 100 pounds. So there you go, a surviving chunk of the early solar system could be sitting right there on your doorstep.

~~~~~~~~~

As part of my ongoing quest to show you webcomics that are much nicer-looking than mine, there's Space Mullet, a sci-fi adventure with aliens, trippy dream sequences, some pretty gory fight scenes, and a very nice black and white brushy art style, digitally shaded with a tasteful blue. Some nice dry brush technique in there, too.

~~~~~~~

Oh and pencils for today's page--a bit different this time around as I wanted to make sure I got Selenis' disembodied leg in about the right place, so I put a second piece of paper below the actual page, and continued the layout sketch there so I could get a rough idea of where her leg should go relative to her torso:

Image

And then inking her face went way different than I'd planned, but eh probably came out more interesting for all that.


Tue Oct 23, 2012 6:05 am
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Here's an interesting article about the asteroid the Deep Impact spacecraft was supposed to go after in 2007, instead of comet Hartley 2; the original plan was to go after the 11-year short-period comet Boethin, which had been discovered in 1975 and was seen again in 1986 as its elliptical orbit brought it back around toward the Sun. But Boethin...was never seen again.
Quote:
Whether because of the gravitational pull of a nearby planet, the pressure of pent-up gas from sublimating ice or some other mechanism, comet breakups are rather common. One study had estimated that short-period comets such as Boethin each have a better than 3 percent chance of falling apart in any given century.

~~~~~~~~~

The person or people behind the quietly lovely, side-scrolling sci-fi webcomic Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life is/are back with a new webcomic, Opplopolis. It's early yet and I'm not sure if it's going to be science fictiony, but there's some kind of mystery, and words, and oh the colors, children!

(^ That tip, incidentally, came from the author of the silent, fantastic, black and white, and sometimes macabrily (okay that isn't really a word) gory webcomic Stupid Snake.)


Wed Oct 24, 2012 5:03 am
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