Why hello there! It’s Dale, the chap who writes the Women in Science cartoon column here every other Wednesday, and today I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit on how that column gets put together, both to satisfy the twos and threes of people who might be curious and more generally to give a realistic idea of the resources that go into a typical column so that people wanting to get into the bi-weekly science history biz (and an illustrious trade it is) might have a feel for what they’re getting into.
This Wednesday, I’m looking at the life and work of Fan Chung, a Taiwan-born mathematician whose unique approach to graph theory has applications to the future of the Internet, social media, biological systems, and in general anything where we’re interested in the possible stable state of a massively connected system. It’s a column I’ve been wanting to do for a while but have been pushing back because of the size of the research load involved. Which brings us to….
STEP 1: Research! (time: about 20 hours, cost: $85)
Here is a look at the materials I assembled and notes I ultimately took:
The particular area of math that Chung researches is one that I had exactly zero exposure to as a mathematics graduate student, so I had to start from scratch, with Bollobas’s Extremal Graph Theory, which was a good introduction to the terminology and fundamental concepts which allowed me to follow Chung’s lectures and books much better. I also contacted Professor Chung about advice as to good entry points and she was kind enough to send me some links to her work that also smoothed things over. This is a really neat area of math that I’d like to set aside a couple months to study intensely, but for the moment I had to rest content with having grasped the means and goals of the fields she works in, aided by the handy fact that her work is so intersectional, meaning that a number of the ideas from the topology and analysis that I spent most of my time studying in grad school crossed over nicely. Books digested to a reasonable degree, on to the writing!
STEP 2: Writing the Article and the Comic (time: 2 hours for the article, 15 minutes for the comic)
Let’s face it, as an artist I am nowhere near the league of most of the people on this site. Amy, Ethan, Ryan, and Emily are all visual wizards in their own fields. I have to work twice as long to produce works half as proficient. I mean, did you see that post where Ryan is making armor for a horse? For a HORSE, with his HANDS!! Anyway, what I seem to be able to do decently and quickly is write. For the comic, I step into the shower, tell my brain, “Okay, Brain, think of something funny about Spectral Graph Theory and Fan Chung” and by the end of the shower, the script is there, ready to be written down on a half sheet of xerox paper. Chung’s episode revolves around the intersection of Graph Theory and the classic 1985 film The Goonies, and that’s all I’ll say. The article was written in one sitting that took an hour and forty five minutes, and the edit took 15 minutes and involved changing six words. I don’t plan, or outline, or massively rearrange in editing. What you’re getting is pretty much the first draft, and that probably comes as a surprise to no one.
STEP 3: Arting! (time: Pencils, 30 min, Inks, 2 hours, Colors, 2 hours, layout, 45 minutes)
Like I said, I’m slow, and this episode went faster than usual thanks to the fact that panel 2 is basically a bunch of circles connected by straight lines. I probably also would have been faster on inks but I was also half watching Parks and Recreation at the time, soooo…. Anyway, here are the pencils for panel 1:
As you can see, my pencils are rooooooough. Since I’ll be the one inking it, I leave most of the detail work (such as it is) to the inking stage and leave the pencils as just broad guides for placement and general expression. My panels tend to have a lot of text in them, thus the broad swath of Nothing But Lawn dominating the middle and top of the panel. I ink the episodes by hand using a motley collection of Copic and sundry other markers. ALL of my .5mm are dry now, and if I were an actual artist, I’d probably get myself to the store and pick up some new ones before moving on since it’s my standard medium distance pen size. But, I’m not, so I didn’t, and just said, “Screw it, .8mm it is!” Detail work I do with .3mm on the close panels and .1mm for panels at a distance, with some extra .05mm work if I’m feeling like the situation particularly needs it.
All the coloring I do in Photoshop using a knock-off brand Wacom tablet clone that is like a thirtieth of the cost but still does everything I need. Here’s the end result of that.
Layouts happen in Illustrator, where I use the same frame that we’ve been using for four panel Frederick the Great episodes since 2007. Geoffrey Schaeffer designed it and I basically use it for everything and, if I’m still doing comics in 2050, they’ll be in that same frame. Here we are after slotting in all the panels:
Blog Stuff (time: about 15 minutes) Next to scanning and cropping the inks, this is probably the most tedious part. It doesn’t take long, it’s just exactly the sort of thing that some small part of me deeply revolts against. Like washing Tupperware. I’m happy as a clam washing plates and cups and forks, but as soon as I see a piece of Tupperware in the tub, my soul (of which I have none) sinks inside me and dreads the future. Importing images, scheduling the launch, putting up the little ad for the books (which seems tacky, I know, but to pay for the research materials for each episode, I need to sell about 10 books a month. Since there are two episodes a month, that equals 20 books I’d need to sell. It is a banner month when I sell 4 books, so for those looking to this column for economic truths, there is one. Each month, I lose about $90 on making this column, but I am going to keep doing it because it’s something I believe in and dearly love to do. There are worse ways to spend $90 a month than on something that you love. But yeah, if you could go ahead and buy 20 books, that’d be great…), it’s all pretty mechanical by now but it’s time all the same.
So, at the end of the bi-week, to make each episode is anywhere from 20 hours for a topic and person I know pretty well to about 40 hours for something I have to learn from scratch, and at an average cost of $50. If you’re thinking of doing something similar, you have to ask yourself, is that amount of time and money worth it for something that from one to four hundred people will ever see? For me, for this column, it is. I’d do it if nobody read it, just to have a place on the internet where these lives and this work is preserved. And if that’s how you approach putting together a column, you might not be rich, but you’ll be pretty happy, and that ain’t bad.