The idea for this print began at the San Diego Comicon in 2008. My first two prints, with partners Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, had been released, and during a dinner with some of the creative crew from the FABLES books I letter for DC Comics, questions came around as to what I might be doing for later prints, and with who. Mark Buckingham, sitting next to me, said he’d be delighted to work on one, and that gave me something to think about. That evening I came up with a print idea that I thought would be ideal for Mark, or “Bucky” as his friends call him. Bucky loves to draw animals, as any reader of FABLES can surely see, so my idea involved lots of them: a fabulous feast for a host of animals. I thought I’d try to go through the alphabet, getting one or more species for each letter in there, and the first thing that came to mind was, “Antelopes ate canteloupes.” That seemed familiar, so I googled it and soon found that lots of people have hit on that rhyme. It was in a children’s book, a song lyric, and several poems, none of which I’d ever heard of or seen. I felt it was okay to move on with that as a beginning, which I probably wouldn’t have done if the line was from one famous book or song that everyone might know.
I thought of a few more lines, and when I saw Bucky again the next day, I told him my idea, and he thought it was perfect for him, so we had a deal. His print title would begin with the letter E, and I still had to do prints for C and D first, so we knew it would be a while before we got to it.
In January of 2009 I wrote the entire poem, which now had an introduction setting up the scene, and and after-feast section to say what happened later. I emailed it to Bucky, and he replied:
“I think it’s simply wonderful! It’s definitely the perfect tone and subject matter for me 🙂 My only immediate concern was the last couple of lines, as I’m not sure if they flow well. Ending with the word unafraid didn’t seem to sit well with the preceeding lines. Sorry!! The rest of the poem has a lovely rhythm 🙂 Do you have a layout in mind for the structure of the print?“
We discussed the end further, and I did change it a bit, but I convinced Bucky the rhyme structure, though a little different than the bulk of the poem, did work. (Either that, or he just agreed to humor me!) As for the layout, I saw it this way: a large title at the top, then the poem running down each side, and a picture with lots of animals between, with perhaps a few more around the title letters. In my head I was imagining a picnic table with the animals around it, but I wasn’t sure if that would work, and told Bucky to design it any way he’d like.
Things stood there for a while, as I was busy with other prints. At the San Diego Con in 2009 we talked about it again, and by then I’d released a C print with partner Alex Ross and a D print with partner J.H. Williams III, so Bucky was next. I asked if he’d like me to lay out the print and letter the poem first, then send it to him to do the art, and he was fine with that, so when I got back from the con I started working on it.
Stylistically, my inspiration was the work of Walt Kelly, particularly the illustrated poems and songs he often included in the Pogo paperback book collections published by Simon and Schuster, like this one from “The Pogo Peek-A-Book” of 1955. I wanted a similar feel to this for the poem lettering, and wanted the title to have a lot of energy and bounce like this one, too, although perhaps not this much bounce! I’ve been a great fan of Kelly and Pogo since my childhood, when I began collecting these Pogo books, and it took me many years to amass the complete set. Kelly’s lettering (with the help of his assistant Henry Shikuma, who did a lot of the actual lettering over Kelly’s blue-pencil layouts) was also an influence, though I don’t get to display it very often.
Here’s the title and poem laid out in pencil on a sheet of 11 by 17-inch art paper. I left the initial E open for a hand-painted spot color, but planned to fill in the rest solid black. The credits ended up a little too close to the title, but I could lower them later. By chance, the lines of the poem on the left worked out longer in general than those on the right, but I thought it didn’t matter, as the art would fill in the center anyway. I emailed this scan to Bucky (back home in Spain, where he’s been living the last few years), and he thought it was fine, so next I began lettering the poem.
Using a Speedball C6 dip pen point, I did an upper and lower case italic style along the lines of the Walt Kelly example above, but with less of a serif look. The capital letters at the beginning of each line of the poem were thickened with a fine-point technical drawing pen. Since I was working at printed size, I might have worried about small errors and places where the letters run together, but I planned to touch up things like that later on the computer, where they seemed distracting or made the text hard to read. That’s my safety net, allowing me to just do the lettering without too much fuss. The title I left uninked in case Bucky decided to put any of his art in front of the letters. He chose not to, but I gave him the option.
When I was finished, I made a high-resolution scan, just in case, and mailed the piece to Bucky in the first week of August, and it got there safely. Meanwhile, Bucky was very busy working on FABLES and other projects, going to conventions, and so on, so it was quite a while before I heard or saw anything further from him. In mid October, Bucky emailed:
“I’m currently without Fables script…so I’m taking advantage of the break to get pencilling on our limited print. Would you prefer for me to include every single animal listed…or will a representative sample suffiice?”
I once again told him to do it any way he thought best, and added that it wasn’t necessary or probably even possible to get all the animals in. Bucky also wrote:
“I’m contemplating a more graphic approach to the art built around the animals’ shapes, rather than a scenic illustration…to help differentiate this from the last two prints that have had quite a delicate illustrative style. What do you think?”
I thought that sounded fine, and though I didn’t mention it to Bucky, I had always pictured this print in his usual open-line art style used for most of his FABLES work, which is what it sounded like he planned to do.
Then Bucky got busy again with FABLES, but on December 7th I received this by email:
As has been the case with each of my prints using art, the art that’s come in has been WAY better than anything I’d imagined, and this one was, too! Bucky used every bit of the space between the poem columns in a wonderful animal collage, with a few items of food in there, as well. And around the title were more animals and food. It was perfect! Bucky wrote:
“I focused on it over the weekend and think it turned out rather nice. Hope you like it, too! I enjoyed working bits of the art into every little nook and cranny around the lettering. I really miss that part of making comics since the world went digital. Please feel free to ask for any adjustments to the art. I want to be sure you are happy before I ink anything 🙂 “
I was quick to assure him I loved it just as it was. My only note was to say he could have the animals actually standing on the title letters at the top instead of floating above them, and he agreed to do that. About a week later he sent a scan of the inks:
It was looking better all the time. Bucky mailed it off to me, and I got it back safely. (Always breath a sigh of relief when that happens!)
Next I inked the title, outlining the letters with a technical drawing pen, and filling in the blacks…
…then erased all remaining pencil marks, scanned the art, and did my adjustments and touch-ups on the computer. Note that I’ve lowered the credit line a bit here, probably the only adjustment you can see at this size.
Next I printed some samples on three paper stocks, all in the line of Wausau Exact Vellum Bristol I’d been using since the first print. I’d ordered some yellow stock, thinking it might go well with this light-hearted subject, but I wasn’t happy with the way it looked printed. The yellow color seemed to flatten out the art too much. I also tried the Cream color, and the Ivory, then filled the open E in each with an orange watercolor that I’d decided to use for spot color painting. I scanned each of these and sent them to Bucky. He agreed that the yellow didn’t work, but liked the other two. I decided to print the run on the Ivory stock (on the right), the same color I’d used for the Alex Ross print.
In addition to the E, I painted the contents of a jar of marmalade in the center, and a small dish at bottom right, to give the spot color some balance. For a while I was thinking of painting the Bengal tiger, too, but Bucky talked me out of it, saying:
“It doesn’t work well with the balance of the page, being to one side of the illustration. Also, by painting one of the main animals, rather than enhancing the piece I’m worried it makes it look unfinished. I think it also gives the Tiger a level of importance that isn’t reflected in the poem.”
I thanked him and bowed to his judgment, and I’m really glad I did, because, not only was he right, he saved me lots of painting time! Even so, it took me many hours to paint the entire run of 500, plus extras for Bucky and I and a small batch for comps.
On January 14th they were all painted and signed by me, and I packed them securely and shipped them off to Bucky for his signature. Bucky signed them in orange, to match the color theme, and sent them back, with all prints making both trips safely. It’s been a long road, but my fifth signed print is ready for release at last. I’m very happy with the way it turned out, hope you are too.