Watching creations grow

Jeph Jacques, creator of the Questionable Content web comic, was on the most recent Writing Excuses podcast. Writing Excuses (which I’ll abbreviate to WE, because it’s sooo loooong to type) is my favourite podcast, and Questionable Content (QC, same reason) my favourite web comic right now. Listening to them talk got me thinking about how much I enjoy seeing someone creative grow into their creations.

I discovered QC last year. At the time, I was in the depths of some pretty serious depression, and my brain couldn’t cope with anything too challenging in structure or content. Web comics, with their short daily format, their humour and their often soap opera-esque plots, were the perfect entertainment for me. And among the ones I tried, QC stood out as something special. I went back to the beginning and read about two thousand strips in hours-long binges. It was sharply written and increasingly well drawn, funny in a barbed yet gentle sort of way, with characters who were rounded and interesting.

One of the best things was watching Jeph’s skills grow. This is really noticeable in the art, which has been through a huge evolution in terms of style and technique. The first few hundred strips show a dramatic improvement, while later ones show shifts in style that, as a non-artist, I find hard to describe, but which are interesting to watch. I wasn’t just enjoying the comics, I was enjoying watching an artist learn and improve on the screen in front of me.

The writing has also grown as QC’s gone along. There’s an incredible diversity of characters, all of whom develop into fully rounded people as soon as they’re given attention. Jeph’s got better at both dialogue and plotting, and discussed the latter on WE. One thing he talked about was going back to little details that weren’t significant at the time – in his case isolated comic strips – and using them in later plots, making it look like you’ve set things up well in advance. It’s a good idea, and one I suspect we often see on TV, even when the creators claim they had a plan (I’m looking at you Lost).

To a lesser extent, you can also hear an improvement in the episodes of WE. The group of writers who talk on the show have got better at working with their format, delivering their points more eloquently and succinctly, adding features like writing prompts. It’s less dramatic than watching QC’s development, but it’s still interesting, as is the content of the shows – if you write any sci-fi or fantasy, you really should listen to WE.

I also get this experience with my friend Matt, who’s a talented artist of odd little things. He recently started working on a comic, and included me in the group of people who see his work in progress. While I’m terrible at giving feedback, it’s been really interesting for me to see an artist develop in detail and to read his comments on what he’s trying to do. You can see his work, much of it about ghostly bears, and read his thoughts on computer games at his Bear Cheek blog.

Jeph’s writing aside, these are examples where I’m watching people develop skills that I don’t use. But I’ve found that it still helps me to learn, because it encourages me to work out how their work is changing, and why, and so to flex the parts of my brain that deconstruct any piece of culture. That’s a skill I can take back to my writing, looking at it with a sharpened critical eye.

As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Can you think of other good examples of creative types developing their skills in public? Maybe examples you’re particularly impressed with? Let me know in the comments.