Spotlight

Leif & Thorn – A sparkly queer bilingual fantasy comedy

Erin Ptah is an artist, humanist and fangirl currently based in Ohio, where she moved in 2018 because she wanted to live in a swing state. She makes LGBTQ fantasy with language jokes, trauma/recovery, time travel, and cats. She is the creator of Leif & Thorn (since 2015) and But I’m A Cat Person (2011-2020).

Synopsis: Dragonslaying hero Thorn Estragon has just barely recovered from all the burn scars when his team of knights is assigned to guard a foreign embassy. There, he quickly hits it off with Leif: an indentured gardener, paying off an ominously-unspecified debt.

Thorn doesn’t speak Leif’s language too well when they first meet — but he’s about to find a lot of reasons to learn.

A sparkly queer bilingual fantasy comedy. Our heroes struggle to communicate across cultural boundaries, deal with traumas and scars, use magic for practical solutions, and pick the perfect outfit for their Kolpovision Song Contest party.

What is the main genre of your comic? What appeals to you about that genre?
Fantasy! I love having the creative freedom to make up new worlds with their own rules, to figure out how the fantastical elements would push the development of societies, and to draw cool magic stuff. With Leif & Thorn, designing a new setting from the ground up, I decided to take full advantage and throw in every genre trope I’ve ever wanted to write — vampires, time travel, magical girls, races of tiny people, elaborate fantasy swords, the list goes on.

If there’s something that’s fun and interesting to research, I can still add that to the story in a realistic way. And if the research is boring, well, there’s a lot of latitude for handwaving. It’s also nice to be able to poke at issues through a fantasy lens, so the story can have a thread like “diplomatic friction between two nations” without having to be a 1:1 commentary on any real-world conflict. And the ability to go “you know what, they just don’t *have* homophobia or transphobia, it’s not even a thing” sure doesn’t hurt.

Are there any other genres that apply to your comic?
Comedy – listen, anything I write that lasts longer than a chapter or two is going to have some humor in it. Even if it’s fundamentally a really serious story, I don’t have the stamina to keep up a dramatic or suspenseful tone long-term without any breaks. And a comedy, which has the room to build to moments of drama when they come up in the plot? I can do that for *years*. A big part of the reason I chose the 4-panel strip format was because the rhythm of “setup-setup-setup-punchline” creates its own momentum. Getting to the end of a multi-year story arc can be a huge, intimidating task, but getting to the next joke? That’s easy.

Romance – the growing relationship between the title characters is the heart of the comic. It’s the central plot we keep coming back to, no matter how many detours I feel like taking along the way. It’s what makes this “a single ongoing work” instead of “an anthology of unrelated short stories that happen to share the same fantasy world.” My other comics had romantic subplots, but I’d written romance-centric stuff before — almost all fanfiction — and I wanted to finally bring that energy to something original.

What was your inspiration for the story?
I think a lot of it gets touched on in the answers to other questions…but the short answer is a mix of “stories that brought me joy, so I wanted to make more like that” and “stories that brought me down, and I wanted to do them better.”

Do you have any favorite artists or writers who influenced your style?
Art-wise, the biggest influences are anime/manga creators: Naoko Takeuchi (Sailor Moon) and Kohta Hirano (Hellsing). For the writing, they’re probably the comedy ones — Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Grant & Naylor (Red Dwarf), and more recently Stephen Colbert and staff (The Colbert Report). And for comics in particular, for the crafting and pacing of the strip format, that owes a huge debt to GB Trudeau (Doonesbury) and Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes).

How long does it take you to complete one page?
I honestly have no idea! With the daily strips, I always make them in batches rather than one-at-a-time, and I’ve never clocked it to find the average time-per-strip. (One day…)

Bonus strips are even more variable, because they come in so many shapes and sizes — double-height specials, triple-height super-specials, full-page one-off gags, multi-page side stories, worldbuilding strips that go really quickly because they’re mostly text with simple character/object illustrations, and that’s just off the top of my head.

What is your process like for creating comic pages from start to finish? What tools do you use?
Lineart: still do this traditionally, pencil-and-ink on paper.

Cleanup, colors, text: digital, with a tag-team mix of programs. I touch up the lineart and do the flats in Paint Shop Pro 7, an ancient program that miraculously still runs just fine, because it has the best “keep multiple colors on-deck and switch automatically between them” features.

Effects are in Clip Studio, which has great brushes, amazing perspective/distortion tools for things like tiled patterns, and a massive materials library full of contributions from other comic-makers.

Shading can be done in either program — I just pick one shadow color and apply it to everything with the flood-fill tool on multiply. For text, I always switch back to PSP, because it makes it easy to do that all on one layer, and has the shape tools I already know how to use.

And there’s a couple specific details for which I break out Photoshop CS2 (another ancient program, this is pre-Adobe-subscription-model). It’s always the last program I use on a finished comic, for instance, since it has the “one-click generate a web-size comic with exactly the color settings I want” action all set up.

Is your comic a finished work? If not, how long do you think you think it’s going to be when it’s complete? Is there a definitive ending or will you just keep going for as long as possible?
Definitely not finished! I’ve been saying from the start that I want it to run for 10+ years (both my previous major comics ended after 9). And so far, so good: the 5th anniversary passed a while back with no sign of slowing down.

There are some ongoing plot-arcs that have specific planned endings, so when I’m getting close to those, I could start engineering the whole comic to be wrapped-up at the same time. Or I could weave in a new major arc with an ending further down the line, and transition the main focus of the suspense over to that.

Leif & Thorn was designed from the beginning to be modular and flexible this way. I plan to keep drawing it for exactly as long as I want, and still be in a position to deploy a satisfying conclusion for the readers at the end, no matter when I feel like stopping.

How many pages do you have complete at the moment?
About 1,700.

How long did it take you to plan the comic before even beginning to physically create it?
Years and years. I like reusing/reworking characters from earlier projects, so there are bits of Leif & Thorn that you could say date back to 2000. If you’re talking about when I started creating plans that were specifically *for* this comic, there’s an early draft of the worldbuilding that started in 2010. At that point, it was prose fiction — I started noodling around “how could I adapt this into a comic” circa 2013.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced during the course of making of your comic? If you could go back in time to the point where you just started making it and give yourself a pep talk, what would you say?
…you know what, I faced so many hurdles and learned so many lessons in the course of my first two comics, I don’t feel like anything about Leif & Thorn has been that hard? There are things I’ve gotten better at, but it’s mostly through the long-term process of practice, not through figuring out a shortcut.

I guess the one thing I’d say is “find a MakerSpace, design a template for the basic panel layout you reuse most-often, and make yourself a laser-cut stencil, it’ll save you hours and hours’ worth of carefully measuring lines with rulers. Other than that, keep doing what you’re doing, it works.”

Assuming I’m restricted to comics-related advice, anyway. If I get to tell past-me anything, I’d give stock tips, election warnings, and the advice to stock up on masks in 2019.

What is your favorite part about working on your comic?
Honestly? The anticipation of how readers are going to react when they see whatever scene I’m working on. And then the satisfaction of reading the comments as they come in.

What is the most difficult part about working on your comic? How do you overcome it?
There are a lot of individual art elements that are boring and time-consuming to draw, but the scene looks much worse if you skip over them. From almost the beginning, when I had to draw an establishing shot of a complicated scene (say, a street with lots of buildings), I would draw the background in a separate file so it could be reused in later strips. I also made my own seamless tiled patterns, for things like rock walls or crystal textures, so I could fill in those areas with one click (but still have it blend seamlessly with my art style, instead of being an obvious copy).

The Clip Studio materials library has let me take all this to the next level. I keep looking up new things, and 9 times out of 10 there will be a great pre-existing brush, texture, or image material in a simple lineart style. I almost never draw my own windows and doors anymore, just drop Clip materials onto the canvas, rotate them to fit the background, and color accordingly. Definitely don’t hand-draw individual flowers, chains, railings, or even background people in crowd scenes these days.

Do you have a favorite character to write for? If so, why? Tell us more about them!
It changes from storyline to storyline! At any given moment, whoever has the most immediate and interesting goal that they’re pursuing is probably my favorite to write.

Sometimes it’s probably obvious to readers — for instance, the current Leif & Thorn storyline focuses on Hermosa Zikos, who has partial amnesia, is escaping from what he thinks is a prison, and has to reconstruct what’s really going on while staying under the radar of any pursuers. So many layers to juggle, there. Other times, it’s more subtle. Leif himself tends to look like his only goal is “obediently following everyone else’s directions”…but he usually has a lot going on underneath, and part of his ongoing goal is “carefully obscuring the fact that he has a lot going on underneath.”

Which character gives you the most difficulty to write for?
That also varies. But if I’m seriously blocked on how to write someone, I tend to just…let them fall out of the narrative, instead of forcing it. (The Ambassador at the Embassy where Leif works is a great example. I came up with this distinctive character design and a bunch of background, and then had no idea what to do with him. This whole time, he’s appeared in maybe 5 strips.)

Do you have a favorite character to draw?
Well, flipping through the bonus art I’ve done recently, it looks like the answer is “Leif and Thorn, together.” They have pretty straightforward designs, not too fiddly or time-consuming to draw, and they make each other so genuinely happy that it’s happiness-inducing just to draw. (Which goes to show that “making their relationship the central pillar of the comic” sure was the right decision, huh?)

Which character gives you the most difficulty to draw?
Some of the magical girls have really complicated costumes. It’s an important element of the genre, so I’m glad I didn’t make them simpler…but they do take forever to draw, and I have to reference them every time because if I draw from memory I’ll miss something.

In the earliest days of the comic I took some obvious shortcuts to hide parts of the costume so I wouldn’t have to draw them all, but these days it feels like a cop-out. (Fortunately, the time-and-effort-saving tricks I’ve mentioned in other answers have made other parts of the process faster, so it’s easier to suck it up and put in the time to draw every single accessory in every panel.)

Where can we find you?
Comic site: leifandthorn.com
My other comic: bicatperson.com
My other other comic: shine.erinptah.com
Twitter: @ErinPtah
Tumblr: leifandthorn.tumblr.com
Patreon: patreon.com/erinptah

Anything else you want the people to know about yourself or your comic?
There are 3 volumes of Leif & Thorn available in print — you can buy them via gumroad.com/erinptah — and I crowdfund a new one using Kickstarter every year! Follow https://www.kickstarter.com/profile/erinptah to get notified whenever the new ones get launched.