A couple years ago I bought a keyboard (the music variety) from a drugstore in Portland, OR. It cost a little more than three dollars with no sales tax (thanks Oregon!). When I packed up all of my stuff to move out of my mother’s house, it didn’t make the cut. A few weeks ago I came back down to California and found it stacked on top of a bookshelf in my old room.

The thing has an on/off switch, naturally, but net to that there are four more switches. Three do nothing, and the fourth is a volume switch. It can be set to MAX or MIN, and the difference in loudness between the two is negligible. It has two speaker housings–one on each side–but only the left housing actually has a speaker, so it’s monaural. It has surprisingly sophisticated percussion options in that it allows you to change the tempo of the six different (awful-sounding) beats and two beat pads that let you alternate between duck/dog sounds and electronic drum hits. Sometimes hitting the percussion alternation button also makes selected keys switch modes–of which there are six. My favorite is the tremolo banjo setting. No matter what you choose, every note is sharp, and it can only handle two simultaneous sounds at once, so chords are out. There are also, naturally, a few demo songs. One is a very loose interpretation of Let It Be, by the Beatles. It obviously wasn’t in their budget to license it, so it’s a sweet pirated tune.

Still, for three bucks and change, it’s a fantastic instrument. It has so many limitations that you’re constantly reminded that you’re working within its framework. Musically, it’s the equivalent of a high school or college-style essay prompt. It’s telling you what not to include, so you can play it with a friendly ceiling preventing you from proving you don’t have the virtuosic skill to wrangle the vibrations from 88 perfectly-tuned keys into something great.

For the cover of the first chapter of Alpha Flag, I decided I wanted to use a brush for inking like all of my favorite artists. When I originally took up inking years ago, I went straight for the Microns, like so many other manga-influenced high schoolers in the last decade (ignoring the fact that most mangaka [okay, let’s be realistic–most overworked assistants of mangaka] prefer to ink with nibs/quills/what-have-you). They were consistent, cheap, and most importantly, available. I spent way too much time researching and hunting down pens that would give me the thinnest lines possible (The Thin, it became known… to me. Some impossible, uniform thinness. My first of many artistic Holy Grails), but I was never satisfied. At some point I just got sick of the flat, uniform look pens gave my lines, since I rarely wanted to spend twice as long as necessary petting each individual line’s weight into something more interesting-looking.

A couple years ago, I graduated [not that there’s anything wrong with fineliner inking] to a Pentel color brush brush:

Super-durable nylon bristles? Cappable, so you didn’t have to wash it and it would never clog? Hell yeah! It was my best friend for years. I’d only pick up the Microns again to ink small circles and panel borders. It was a great relationship. After a short learning period where my inking was uglier than I care to admit (read: show you), I figured out how to seduce a gorgeous, smooth line out of those wonderful artificial bristles. The relationship wasn’t meant to last, though. I’d eventually find papers that the Pentel ink didn’t like, or it would decide to have issues with letting ink flow, killing the smoothness of my lines without warning, then it would suddenly throw the floodgates open, making my lines super-fat. This was something I couldn’t tolerate. The brush didn’t know about my secret quest for The Thin, how could it? I’d kept it secret for years (also, it’s not sentient, and furthermore, doesn’t know English [and doesn’t even have sensory organs. Man, the downfall of the relationship was totally my fault, looking back on it]).

It was time to stop being such a wuss and get me a “real” inking brush. Kolinsky sable, size 2. Like the pros! I had heard great things about Rosemary & Co brushes. Rosemary (so the company story goes) makes them herself and sells them wholesale over the internet. Even with the shipping and pricing in pounds, they’re incredibly cheap as far as these things go. After a small learning curve (*single tear* Thank you Pentel. You were my first love), I was pulling better lines out of the hairs than I’d ever made before. I’ve spent all of these years preparing to get to the point where I could use a tool that I held as the most terrifying, hardest tool, and here I was using it like my hand had grown to to accommodate it. This is my 88-key grand piano. There aren’t any more self-imposed limits, and no fancier tools to pick up after this. All that’s left is the infinite grind known as improving.

I guess my ultimate point is that self-imposed limitations–like the three-dollar keyboard–are how I’ve slowly learnt how to do art over the last decade. That seems like a really simple point to make for such a long ramble, so uh… here’s some concept art of the Diver:

Oh, also, if you comment now and you don’t have a Gravatar, the site will automatically assign you your own international maritime signal flag! How cool is that? Probably not cool at all to you, but it is way cool to me, since I’m privy to their significance in the story. It is quite significant, as you’ll come to discover in a couple weeks.