The Making of "Raindrop Tales: GPM Meets Mizu-Chan"
You may have recently read our new educational manga comic "Raindrop Tales: GPM Meets Mizu-chan". But have you ever wondered how this sensational science story got its start?
It Started With a Challenge...
In the Spring of 2013 the GPM education and outreach team launched the "GPM Anime Challenge" - an invitation for artists of all ages from around the world to develop an anime character to help demonstrate GPM educational science themes of the water cycle, weather and climate, and technology. Anime, short for animation, is a Japanese style of art that has filled shows and comics that are popular around the world. After receiving over 40 submissions, a panel of NASA scientists and outreach specialists selected two grand prize winners and two runners-up from three different age categories.
The grand prize winners were "GPM" by Yuki Kiriga and "Mizu-chan" by Sabrynne Buchholz. Yuki is a comics writer and illustrator who works for various Japanese publishing companies and enjoys drawing satellite illustrations. Her winning character is a personification of the Earth-observing satellite, GPM, for which the anime character is named. Sabrynne, then 14, was the president of her school's art club and hopes to pursue a career in animation. Her winning character for the contest was Mizu-chan (Mizu means water in Japanese) who personifies water and precipitation.
Penning a Script
Once the leading characters were selected, the GPM team went to work crafting a story worthy of these incredible character designs. GPM education specialist Kristen Weaver took the lead, with assistance from science writer Ellen Gray, penning a space-borne tale to introduce GPM and Mizu-Chan to the world. One of Kristen’s passions is trying to find creative and engaging ways to teach kids about science, and she found that the anime characters and the stories they could tell were an excellent way to do that. In introducing the characters and the GPM mission to kids around the world, Kristen made sure that there was a story arc in addition to the science and engineering content so that kids would want to read through to the end to find out what happens, while also learning something in the process.
Once a first draft of the script was written it was passed around the GPM science and outreach teams for several rounds of edits and revisions. Many people had input on the final script - the scientists ensured everything was accurate and that the important engineering and Earth science topics were properly covered, and the education and outreach teams helped ensure that the script was exciting for students and easy to understand. In addition to being interesting and educational, the text also had to be concise enough to fit within the pages of a relatively short comic book.
It was no small feat to balance all these goals, and the team made sure they had adequate time to get things 100% right before proceeding to the next steps in the process. Any changes to the script down the line would mean costly and time-consuming edits to the artwork.
Onward with the Art!
While working on the script, the GPM team began searching for an artist to bring the tale to life. That’s when they came across the blog of illustrator Aja Moore. They really liked her anime-influenced style and attention to detail, particularly her strong skills in perspective and technical drawing – so they reached out to see if she’d be interested. Aja agreed to take on the project, and development of the comic began!
The first stage of the process was thumbnails, which are quick rough drawings that help lay out the comic panels and the action and positioning of characters in the story. Kristen had already come up with some rough ideas of how the pages would be laid out, so Aja took those initial ideas and developed them into a fleshed out series of storyboard thumbnails the covered the full arc of the script.
Aja describes some of her process here:
"When making comic pages, it’s incredibly important to start with a plan, so your storytelling will make cohesive sense– while they aren’t always fun to do, thumbnails are crucial. You can see that I like to keep everything rough and flowing as much as I can. This is because I have a tendency to draw stiff figures, lacking any dynamism. If I start with things having lots of energy, my hope is to keep that energy going into the final version of the page. Also important, although I don’t have it pictured here, I thumbnail my pages in groups of four at a time, so I can check to make sure I’m keeping my layouts varied, and also helps give me an idea of what the pages will look like side by side.
From the very beginning I’m thinking about word balloon placement, and how it the reader’s eye would move from one thing to another– because having to cover up a character’s head up with a word balloon due to the fact that you have no place else to put it is a very bad thing.
While I don’t get into hyper details for the figures or faces, keeping them mostly stick figures with easy to read expressions, I will build off of that to create the final drawing in pencils. After the thumbnails are done, I scan them in, and print them at my rough draft size in light blue ink (1/2 the size I ink at, and the size the comic will be printed at)."
After reviewing the thumbnails with the GPM team and making necessary edits based off of their vision of the script, Aja moved on to the pencilling stage. This is where the initial rough thumbnails are fleshed out into more detailed and final depictions of the art. Its at this stage where you can start to see the final artwork of the comics start to really take shape.
"Building off of the print out I did of the thumbnails, I start to draw the figures in using blue and/or red pencil, depending on what I am working on. As you can see on this page, I’ll put the basic word-balloon/text-box in red for future reference. Once the pencils are finished, I scan the page in again, this time super large so it can be doubled in size when printed out for inking. With the pencil drawing on the computer, I will digitally adjust anything that needs adjusting (sizes of heads that got away with me, different placement of characters, etc), and then blue the lines and print it out on 11 x 17 400 grade bristol paper."
After another round of review and revisions, Aja began the process of inking the pages, where the sketchy pencil lines are refined and finalized by drawing over them with ink.
"Inking, I suppose is pretty self explanatory– although it is harder than it seems. When you are inking, you have to think about the line weight you are creating and how that relates to where it is in the foreground, etc etc. You also have to think about what to leave white, what to color in. Since this was intended for color, I left mostly everything empty to be colored in during the coloring stage.”
Once the inked pages were given final approval Aja moved on to the final stage of coloring. The art was once again scanned into the computer, then colors and effects were digitally painted on in layers using Adobe Photoshop. As you can see, the vibrant colors really help bring the characters to life!
“Coloring is a complicated and slow process sometimes. After scanning in my final inks and cleaning up any problems (like whiteout, ink blotches, etc), I separate the line art from the white background and create for the line art, its own layer in Photoshop. Then underneath that layer, I will fill in every inch of the page with a color, starting with the background color of the panels and moving all the way to the foreground, each color getting its own layer. I don’t do shadowing or highlights at this point, so everything looks very flat, but each color can be selected using tools in Photoshop. This is one way to do what we call “flatting” in the comics industry, because once everything is colored in this “flat” way, you can easily start to add shadows and highlights by selecting the color you want to highlight and/or put into shadow.”
While the comic itself does a great job explaining the GPM mission and its goals, the team felt that some additional materials would provide students with a deeper understanding of the topics. So while Aja was hard at work drawing and painting the comic pages, the GPM education team got busy putting together the educational materials that accompany the comic. Kristen spearheaded the operation by putting together several documents in MS Word that teach about the various aspects of GPM - an overview of the GPM mission, a description of the satellite and its instruments, examples of the data it collects, descriptions of some of the constellation partners, and a glossary of the science terms used in the comic. A section was also added to describe how the characters were initially created by artists the GPM Anime Challenge. Once these documents were reviewed by the team, web developer Jacob Reed took over and created graphic layouts for each page using Photoshop and images from the GPM website. Some of the background images used were photographs that were submitted by fans in the "Extreme Weather", "Signs of Spring", and other GPM photo contests.
With the GPM comic and educational materials completed, all that remained was getting the comic into the hands of the public. High resolution files were sent to the NASA media team for printing and binding into physical comics, while Jacob worked on creating a webpage to host the digital version of the comic. Multiple PDF versions of the comic were also created to allow people to view and download the comic in a variety of printer friendly formats - from black-and white pages to full color high-resolution images suitable for professional printing.
Creating a comic book is a complex process that involves hard work and collaboration by a dedicated team with a broad range of specialties. However the final result is well worth it - a fun and beautiful teaching tool that will get students excited and wanting to learn more about Earth science and STEM careers!