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Mecha Design Works

Friday, November 7th, 2014

There’s usually a big crossover between science-fiction, comics, and mecha, and right from the beginning I wanted Grease Monkey to be loaded with cool, high-tech space machinery. Here’s a deep dive into the mecha catalog for the story.



We visit various interiors of the Fist of Earth throughout the story. Here, we approach Bay M in the hangar deck section, home base for Barbarian Squadron.


When I started drawing Episode 1 of Book 1, all the backgrounds were literally made up on the spot. There was no attempt to lock them down into a specific geography – which made it a challenge later to figure out how the rooms actually fit together. All these drawings were done between Episodes 6 and 7.


After I wrote and drew Episodes 1-6, the series went through its animation development phase, during which time I wrote Episodes 7 and up. This is when I figured out how many different rooms Bay M would require, and how they should be laid out.


At left is the map I came up with, which had to reconcile the spaces I’d already drawn in Episodes 1-6. Fortunately, the puzzle fit together without having to alter any of the parts. At right is a crude CG model of the space based on the map.


And here is the finished Bay M in its entirety, with the CG wireframe as its foundation. The only thing it doesn’t show you is how the fighters get to their launch tubes. That’s a project for another day.


The F300 Space Superiority fighter was a lot of fun to work out, and I’ve never tired of it, even after drawing it hundreds of times from every conceivable angle.


In 2001, I took a beginner’s class in Maya, one of the world’s most popular CG modeling programs. We were allowed to choose our own personal project for the final evaluation, and since I’d always wanted to see if the F300 held up to full 3D scrutiny, that was my choice. The first step was to create the blueprint seen at right.


The blueprint itself was a joy to create and looked even cooler with a color treatment. Below is the end result of the class project. It’s not quite film-ready, but the structural integrity is as solid and precise as I’d hoped. Building it took about a month (a couple sessions a week), and I have since forgotten 90% of what I learned about Maya.











Find more mecha designs in the Grease Monkey animation pitch here.


Yes! You can have a career in animation

Friday, November 7th, 2014

SBA1992 was a momentous year for me. I came up with Grease Monkey in the spring, started drawing the first six chapters in the summer, and completely changed the path of my life in the winter. The big event that caused this was a move across the country (from snowy Michigan to sunny California) to work full time for Malibu Comics, for whom I had done most of my freelancing for the previous three years. I saw it as a stepping stone into the world of film and/or animation, and the first chance to enter that world found its way to me in the form of the flyer shown at right.

Hanna Barbera Studio still existed then, was running Cartoon Network, and opened up a contest for anyone to submit a storyboard of their own to pitch an animated show. I was ready, willing, and able to do this with Grease Monkey as my subject, so I drew up my own storyboard template and got to work adapting Episode 1. The limit they placed on it was 50 panels or less, so the trick was to squeeze it all in by May 1, 1993. One of my new friends at Malibu, artist Albert Deschesne, agreed to colorize it for me, which marked the first time the characters moved beyond black and white. Albert did a bang-up job, and set the “tone” (hardy har har) for all color works that followed.

Below is the entire storyboard as it was submitted. Afterward comes the butal evaluation.



The brutal evaluation:

Of course, my entry into this storyboard contest didn’t win anything. All I got for my effort was the judge’s ballot shown at left. I did make it as far as semi-finalist, and the marks were surprisingly high. I say this because I personally would have scored it lower, especially in the “series adaptability” category.

I really had no idea what I was doing with this project. I didn’t even know what a proper storyboard template looked like. My goal was simply to get Grease Monkey seen by a studio. I had never done a storyboard before, and was utterly ignorant of the mechanics involved. My actual animation career began three years later, and every time I’ve gone back to look at these “boards” since then, I’m more astonished by how clueless I truly was.

First of all, the attempt to simply cram it all into 50 panels was the wrong approach. That limit was set to govern screen time, and 50 panels equates less than a minute. Second, if a cartoon was made exactly as these boards suggest, it would be pretty boring. There isn’t enough room in the frames for anyone to move around, the environments are unclear, and the shots would linger far too long. Basically, as a storyboard it makes a decent comic strip.

Though it’s easy for all of us to be embarrassed when we find out how little we knew way back when, recognizing the follies of your past is a mark of advancement. The mere fact that you can look back and see how awful your work used to be means you’ve improved. Now that animation has been my day job for almost 20 years, It’s actually refreshing to dig this project out once in a while. When I spot yet another level of boneheaded incompetence in it, I can be confident that those mistakes are even farther in the past.

The Animation Pitch (1995-96)

Friday, November 7th, 2014

As explained in the “Whole History” article, one of my early goals for Grease Monkey was to explore its viability as an animated TV series. My pursuit of this goal got its first results in 1995 when a chain of events initiated by Kitchen Sink Press got me some face time with various executives at various studios. It was necessary to create a presentation package with new artwork that explained the story at a glance. Coupled with an verbal explanation by animation writer Jymn Magon, they allowed me to project forward past the first six comic episodes into an expanded story that would work on TV.

The first studio to bite was actually the last one we saw, Universal. They liked my work enough to hire me as a storyboard artist AND character designer for Wing Commander Academy, an SF action-adventure series that was right up my street (13 episodes were broadcast on USA Network). This turned out to be the first of many animation gigs that took me all the way up to today (as of 2014 I’m a director on Avengers Assemble for Marvel) and I’ve never forgotten that Grease Monkey is what made that possible.

Here are the images that were presented for consideration.


The setup for the story: the alien horde invades Earth and nearly wipes it out. The benefactors arrive to accelerate gorillas and the planet recovers. The Fist of Earth is built and takes off into space to find the horde.


Meet our main characters: young cadet mechanic Robin Plotnik arrives on board and meets his new boss, chief mechanic Mac Gimbensky. It doesn’t go well at first.


But over time, the two find they have some things in common, like an eye for the ladies and a special talent for finding trouble.


Space battles are a daily occurrence as the squadrons train against each other – and the hottest squadron of them all is an all-female unit called the Barbarians.


Barbara Brand is the ice-cold squadron leader – Mac and Robin are responsible for keeping her fighters in top condition. Valerie Diaz is her fire-hot second in command, and everything is flipped on its head when rookie Kim Barnett shows up ready to fly.


I hadn’t drawn Kara Soki in the comics yet, but in fact she was invented before Kim. The art at left was drawn “on spec” in case we found a way to include her, but in the end her role was limited to Book 1. At right is the squadron lead by Lyle Brand, Barbara’s smart-ass brother (he’s the REALLY smug one at far right).


The other essentials are Admiral Stettler (the object of Mac’s affections), and Colonel Henniker who lives to make everything harder than it has to be. As the story ideas developed, I hit on the idea of the STAC group, which stands for Strategic Tactical Air Corps.


The three pilots (Lyle, Valerie, and a gorilla named Figgis) would pilot these cutting-edge weapons against the alien horde once enough data was gathered.


If you’ve read Book 2, you know the role the STAC ships played in the story. But you probably didn’t know they had a name.


As those ships were being developed, Robin got to work on his own, which he called Whirlwind. This, too would go on to play an active part in Book 2.


The little cartoons were just me having fun and scoping out a little more of Robin’s character. (Remember, at the time these were drawn, the only comic material that existed were the first six episodes of Book 1.)


The Whirlwind in color, seen here in stage 1 and stage 4 configurations. Stage 4 never actually got used in the story, since the ship went straight from stage 3 to 5. (They were in kind of a hurry.)


You can’t have heroes without villains, and developing the story for animation made it necessary to figure out what they looked like. At left is a representative image of the alien horde with Earth getting beaten up in the background. The central character was originally named “The Ravager,” but I dropped that in favor of “The Renegade” for story reasons that developed in Book 2.


“Grakk” was a word that just popped into my head one day, and since it sounded like a noise these creatures would make, it seemed like a decent name for them. Their flagship has biblical implications when you look at it from the front, and the Grakk fighters are as brutal as their pilots: they’re best at slamming into things.


Three last images to go out on: a second view of Robin Plotnik after he’s grown up a bit, an imaginary scenario of Mac tangling with a Grakk (done to meet a request for a fight scene in the presentation), and a closing title card that revived the first “finished” drawing of Mac and Robin. They still had a long way to go, as did I.