The Process: Code Monkey Save World
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Last year, musician Jonathan Coulton and writer Greg Pak teamed up to create Code Monkey Save World, a comic inspired by one of Coulton's popular folk songs. The end result was incredible, so much so that they're back with their new children's book, The Princess Who Saved Herself. But how do you go from a song to an entirely original comic book in the first place? We asked Pak how they did it.
The Musical Inspiration
The Code Monkey Save World graphic novel only exists because of the amazing characters in Jonathan's songs. Every one of Jonathan's songs is a story, with vibrant characters full of weird, utterly human quirks and various degrees of attitude, moxie, despair, and inchoate, hilarious, unfulfilled longing. I'd been listening to Jonathan's music for years when one day I sat up and thought, Hey, these characters could fit together into a bigger story, couldn't they? Jonathan immediately loved the idea and we were off to the races. But let's start at the beginning, with our hero as he first appears in Jonathan's beloved song, "Code Monkey."
The sad, seething, forlorn, and love-lorn monkey pretty much stepped right out of the song into the book. Jonathan did such a great job establishing the character's voice and quirks that my job was really to craft a story to challenge this character and put him into motion.
Cracking the Story and Concept Art
Long before we launched the Code Monkey Save World Kickstarter, I worked up a detailed outline that laid out the characters, conflicts, themes, and big story beats of each of the four issues that would become the final graphic novel. Jonathan and I went through that document a few times, honing it and improving it until we both loved it.
And then we sent it to our artist, Takeshi Miyazawa, and asked him to come up with concept art for the characters. And he immediately nailed it. I was particularly sold by the image of Code Monkey typing. That was the kind of borderline character we had in mind from the beginning, a young monkey on the edge, who could turn hero or villain depending on what might transpire during the course of our story.
The First Issue Outline
Two days after the campaign ended, I went back to the outline and drafted a page-by-page outline for the first issue. See below for the first page of that document, complete with my hand-written edits and notes-to-myself. You can see a few lines of dialogue that actually made it into the book — "Aaaand... Shakespeare!" And there are some bits that didn't — "Are you familiar with the term 'bush meat'?"
I usually work with page-by-page outlines like this to get the basic structure of the story down and figure out how everything fits into a 20 or 22 page comic book script. But things always shift and change and improve when I write the actual script. As you can see on the next page, the actual script for Page One ended up considerably different from the way I originally envisioned it.
Openings are always a bit of a bear. You want to introduce your character and world in that special way that just makes it shine. I originally started in the office with boring manager Rob. But I felt in my gut that we were missing an opportunity. So I got on the phone with Jonathan and we talked it through. Jonathan and I both had the thought of opening with Code Monkey at home, waking up, getting coffee, going to work. It occurred to me that we could show a happier, more optimistic Code Monkey in a graduation photo on his bedstand, which would be a nice way to subtly get a little backstory in there. But we still needed that special something that would encapsulate the terrible drag that is his day-to-day existence. And Jonathan laughed and said he had this goofy idea of Code Monkey in a coffee shop getting his cup and seeing that someone had just written "Monkey" on it. I couldn't stop laughing — it was just perfect.
See below for the final script page for issue #1.
From Layouts to Finished Page
When the script was done, we sent it to Tak, who first created rough layouts. I LOVE Tak's layouts — they have so much raw energy and character in them you can always see exactly what emotion he's going for and know he's totally nailed the story and character beats.
Once we approved the layouts, Tak went to pencils. As you can see, the basic panel arrangement remains the same, but Tak made all kinds of small improvements, like shifting the position of the barista so we can see his face and giving Code Monkey much more attitude in the fifth panel.
Once we approved the pencils, Tak went to inks. Cleans up pretty nice, doesn't it?
And then we sent the page to Jessica Kholinne, our amazing colorist, and Simon Bowland, our brilliant letterer. As you can see below, the colors add hugely to the storytelling by establishing the time of day and setting the almost comically bleak, greenish tone of this early section of the book. And Simon's letters do a great job of visually creating a variety of sound. The beeping of the alarm, the electronic voices, and the normal spoken words all have their own look, which almost subconsciously helps the reader "hear" them in their different registers and timbres.
For more from Jonathan Coulton and Greg Pak, take a look at The Princess Who Saved Herself.
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