7. The Making of a Comic: 'Dead Dreams' with Sasha E. Head
Designer of the award-winning Image+ magazine talks comics, video game development, and logo creation
Howdy Brave Being,
Welcome back to The Making of a Comic. This week, Sasha E. Head joins us, the designer hailing from the award-winning IMAGE+ magazine, and Jonathan Hickman’s DECORUM. Sasha is an incredibly busy person with several titles in comic book shops now including TIME BEFORE TIME and VINYL. But she’s taking a break to chat about all things design as it relates to not only comics, but also her other fiery passion, game development.
We’ll also discuss her designs for DEAD DREAMS: THE LUCID CHRONICLES #1 and how the logo evolved. But before we dive in, I have to tell you about our platonic meet cute. Sasha and I met at San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) 2015 and unexpectedly roomed together. She was the new Production Artist at Image and I was the old-hand hawker for their booth. After 12-hour days on the con floor, we retreated to our room and chatted comics—somehow we still had energy. I told her I wanted to write my own and she offered to design them.
As soon as I had something to share, I reached out and she said yes to the cover dress for DEAD DREAMS. I was and am still honored she joined me on my quest and so happy with her fantastic work.
Now for the interview. Let’s hop to it!
Brittany Matter: Tell us a little bit about comic book design and your role.
Sasha E. Head: A lot like traditional graphic design, my role is to consider the tone of the story, the artwork, and the audience, and create a brand from it that pulls it all together cohesively. My personal background is in editorial design, so many of the teams I’m on have specifically hired me because they know they would like to have some sort of editorial element to it (backmatter containing essays, interviews, etc). I enjoy logo design but I think editorial and interiors is really where I excel, so that’s where my role is most comfiest on a team.
BM: Tell us a little bit about design as it relates to game development. I know nothing about game dev, so what's the best way to describe it to someone like me?
SEH: Game development is everything that goes into creating or shipping a game.
Sorry—that’s a very vague answer, haha. That can be writing, it can be actual art asset creation, it can be QA/testing, animation, concept design, coding, programming, graphic design, admin, production, everything. So many people have to come together to make a game happen and work properly, and they are all game developers.
I think the thing that always terrified me before deciding I wanted to switch gears into game dev was that I thought there was no room for me. My background is in print—what the hell do I have to offer video games? But I think it’s the same for comics, or any creative medium: varied personal backgrounds inform better, well-rounded games.
BM: What's it like going from comic books to game development?
SEH: I’m still working on this so my view and experience is still looking up from the ground floor. All I can say at this point is that there is quite a bit of overlap; many of the people I work with in comics are involved in games, and vice versa. There are many people who made the jump from games to comics or from comics to games, and with good reason: both industries attract people who are inherently creative and love to tell stories.
What’s extremely special about both industries is that most people within them are in it because they love what is being created. People are not creating comics specifically for the money, they create comics because they genuinely love reading and making comics. People in video games love video games. It’s what makes both industries relatively competitive, sometimes emotionally charged, but ultimately inspired.
I’m sure there are exceptions, but I think most could agree on that—a love for games or comics is what initially brought them to the table. So, to be frank, I feel pretty at home moving from one space to the other.
BM: What have you learned from each industry that has changed your approach to design?
SEH: This might be a general lesson (but I happened to be working in comics when I learned it), but lingering too long on any one design problem you are having is sometimes the most unproductive thing you can do. And I don’t mean taking productive time and simply working for a LONG time on something—I mean, lamenting and beating yourself over something that you don’t like about your own work. It won’t ever make it better, and just makes you exhausted. Sometimes it’s really just the best thing to land on “good” and move onto the next thing.
Sometimes it’s really just the best thing to land on “good” and move onto the next thing.
I am hesitant to say that I learned this lesson because I don’t want to come across as someone who doesn’t strive for the best within my own work—I think that that’s the problem, though. The emotional labor I put into every single project and every page of every project is sometimes over the top and unhealthy. For me personally—and this might not be good advice for everyone—learning how to move on even when I don’t feel “done” is simply necessary for staying in a creative field and remaining relatively sane, haha. Not to mention, when you lament that hard, sometimes art looks OVERworked and unnatural.
I am still so new to game dev, but much like comics, there is never enough time to reach “perfection.” It will never be perfect. It’s better to keep creating and moving forward and learn from what didn’t work the last time than get tangled up in a singular problem that distracts you from everything else you could/should be doing.
Again, so hesitant to express this publicly. I do think my work has gotten a lot better since I actively and thoughtfully stopped overworking.
BM: When it comes to either industry, what's your best advice to aspiring designers?
My main advice for any designer at all, but specifically for games and comics, is to stop looking at your fellow designers as competitors and start looking at them as collaborators. This is probably good advice for writers and artists, too, but that isn’t my work experience so I will stick to my lane here: My graphic design education set me up to feel competitive with (and even actively resent) other designers, and it’s something that’s really made my creative output and personal self worth suffer dramatically. It’s something I am still unlearning.
People will remember that you were kind and personally invested in them before they will remember your perfectly structured resume.
This is something I’m learning specifically from game dev: Put the same energy into connecting with people at your “level” that you would with people “above” you (as in, mid-to-exec level folks you would like to work for/be someday) and put real value on their opinions and their work. There will certainly be friends and colleagues that get the job you wanted—that’s fine. Start looking at their wins as your wins too. Connecting with other people on a personal level, not just related to what they can get you or where they can place you, will not only make you happier in general, but will make your work more inspired, and will help you in the long run.
People will remember that you were kind and personally invested in them before they will remember your perfectly structured resume. I do believe they will remember the fun conversation you had about your mutual interests before they will remember that you were angling to get something out of them professionally. I do not hire people, and my career in game dev is just starting out, so take this advice with a grain of salt! But on every other project I have ever worked on (comics, marketing agency, tech startup), I genuinely think it was the personal connections I make outside of the work we are doing that made a huge difference for me, both creatively and professionally.
BM: What was your first step in creating a logo for this story?
Well, my first step in creating any logo is to read the story. :P And then I always ask my collaborator(s) what they love and hate in general—even if it’s not directly related to the genre, I love to see what the writer and/or artist enjoys the most in graphic design. So much of design for me personally is empathizing with your collaborators, but also pulling from completely unrelated places for inspiration.
But after research, the first step for me often is to just throw down about 30-50 different fonts/font combinations on an artboard in Illustrator, or placing them directly on some cover art. I don’t alter the fonts yet, I just place them and mix and match them, trying to get the overall “feeling” of the story, and marrying it to the artwork. I ask myself how I would like the logo to sit on the cover specifically, and how this will inform the general silhouette of the logo.
From there I start altering individual letters to create illustrative forms or figuring out how to use the negative space in interesting ways. Originally, Dead Dreams was called Lucid—so I recall drawing up a lot of drafts where the “L” was most prominent.
BM: How did the logo evolve with each draft before and after the title was changed to Dead Dreams: The Lucid Chronicles?
The earliest drafts of the logo had way overly complicated letterforms. I was overthinking it at the time. After a while, I got pretty frustrated, and went back to the actual pages of the comic—I think that’s when we zeroed in on the symbology for the individual tonics within the story.
I had a bit of an ah-ha moment where instead of making the letter forms overly intricate, I chose a simple singular font for the title itself and added in an illustrative symbol element to tie it into the rest of the design we were doing for the world-building. As I said before, sometimes the very best thing you can do for any piece of creative work is just step back and breathe. I’m really glad I was able to do that with Dead Dreams!
BM: Something that readers may not know yet is that Dead Dreams has logos for all the dream tonics and drugs that are within the world. Tell us a bit about designing these logos.
SEH: This was a fun little melding of worlds—I think anyone who sees those symbols can see how much influence even DECORUM had on it. I had been pretty busy with that series at the time, and even though the genres are completely different, so much of my work with Hickman is coming up with glyphs and symbols and alien letters. They’re not alien in DEAD DREAMS, of course, but alchemical—and I love alchemy (I have two big tattoos that heavily rely on alchemical symbols, so these were special for me to create!).
To create them I looked at a lot of very old alchemy illustrations, but then also pulled from Dailen’s illustrations. Part of the concept of alchemy is that everything is connected at a fundamental level—so I took Dailen’s original illustrations, added the circle elements to connect everything together and give each of the symbols a common language; even though they are all very different, they are easily recognizable as a set.
I imagined these symbols being made after finding some ancient scroll where a wizard had etched his alchemical notes, haha. How would those symbols be translated down through several iterations and perhaps even through parallel worlds? I try to put myself in the actual world and imagine the histories that these symbols might have.
BM: What about this project challenged you as a designer and how has it informed your ensuing work?
SEH: I believe this question is probably referring directly to design-specific challenges, but I recall this specific project took place when I was pretty early on in my full-time freelance endeavors. It was a huge jump for me to make, personally, and it was definitely a turning point for me. I believe you (Brittany) had given me a pretty open ended due date, and I had just gotten done at a job where my deadlines were tight and practically suffocating. I wanted so badly to make it absolutely perfect, and did a lot of overthinking over the course of WAY too many months on it. It was an important lesson in making decisions and sticking to them—and simply moving forward even when you are feeling stuck.
The main reason I am choosing to answer this way is that so much of being a graphic designer is setting boundaries and coming up with rules to follow, sometimes straight out of nowhere—making things cohesive and structured. And I wasn’t doing that with the time I was spending on it. Once we got near the final drafts, it really started to click into place for me, creatively and on a personal-mindset level. I make creative calls a lot faster now, and more decisively.
Getting to know Sasha
BM: With an interest and career in game development, which games do you find influence you the most?
SEH: Despite most of my work in comics being sci fi, all of my favorite games are fantasy, for some reason, haha. This is, of course, not exclusive to fantasy games, but I love open worlds I can explore and discover things about it just from existing in it and poking around. I love environmental story telling, and I love when the environment itself is a character. I just so happen to enjoy these things even more when it’s a fantasy world.
I also love any games that portray deep and personal stories in general … characters that feel real and intimate.
I’m actually not very competitive and don’t ever hit level-cap because I spend way too much time exploring every nook and cranny of the environment, ahaha. I really love finding little details that the dev team snuck in for people like me to find!
BM: What are your top three favorite games of all time?
SEH: This is too hard a question! The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age franchises are two of my favorites, mostly for the reasons I listed above—they contain really huge worlds with a lot of lore and history that I can escape into!
I also un-ironically love Sonic Adventure 2: Battle because I played it way too much when I was 12 years old and never got over it. It’s just terrible and fun.
BM: What are you working on lately?
SEH: Besides my regular comics work (TIME BEFORE TIME, VINYL, and DECORUM), I’m working with William Chyr Studio as well as Draknek & Friends doing graphic design and production.
Mostly, I’m doing a lot of exploring right now. I’m writing original stories that I hope to do something with someday and learning how to build within the Unity game engine. A group of fellow devs and I are also making a visual novel/strategy game that I haven’t been able to talk about yet, but I’m doing UI/UX, Art Direction, and some writing for it.
I’m doing everything! It’s a bit chaotic. But it feels right.
BM: That’s so fantastic, Sasha! Can’t wait to hear more about the super secret game! Check out more of Sasha’s work here and follow her musings @sievish. Don’t forget that you can find several comics that are out now featuring Sasha’s work such as DECORUM, TIME BEFORE TIME, and VINYL.
Read more about Dead Dreams with artist Dailen Ogden from the archives here, and stay tuned for upcoming deep dives into the lettering and editing processes of the miniseries.