"Rogue Grey" by Kathleen Wells Excerpt

Kathleen Wells "Spoiled Milk" illustration

In high school, I was never the type of person that actively sought out other people to work with. Whether that be on a school presentation or building set pieces in the theatre club. It’s  not that I was against getting help from my peers, I just always had the mindset of “if I have the  ability, I can do it on my own.” So when I decided that I wanted to create comics, the very first thing I did was completely abandon that way of thinking because the path I set myself down  shined on a major inability of mine, I’m not an illustrator. Thankfully, I have friends who are  very talented at drawing and I had amazing opportunities to work with many of them on small collaborations throughout the years. I learned a lot about working with a team where each  member had an important role to play and I quickly grew to love the environment of collaborating with others versus being left to my own devices. 

When I started writing Rogue Grey for my thesis, there were considerable bumps in the  road. The main one being that I was solely writing and had no polished visuals. I had a script along with panel by panel storyboards that had terrible stick figures in each image. These were just stepping stones that were meant to lead to the final result and I had no way of producing that on my own. This is when my good friend, Bing, stepped in and agreed to collaborate with me on this project. Together we produced five action-packed paneled pages of Rogue Grey with Bing’s killer illustrating and my writing. Through this, the final result was able to be shown and it looks badass.

Bing and I started collabing together on February 20th of this year which meant we had only two months to pull this off. At first, I was concerned because of the amount of work that needed to be done. This is what our to-do list looked like: 

● Pick which pages from the script to work with. 
● Design the characters that would be shown in the comic. 
● Do a complete panel breakdown. 
● Sketch. 
● Line art. 
● Coloring. 

We decided to take everything step by step and we would only worry about time if or when it crept upon us. We went ahead and picked the most eye-catching scene from issue #0 where our main character, Alias, and her team are getting killed off. (I said spoiler alert, right?) That gave us one thing crossed off our list. From there we had five characters to design and this was the step that Bing and I had the most fun with. 

We started with our main character Alias, Bing told me to give her a physical description, a personality description, and any character concepts I could find. I looked at this list and basically dropped a dumpster load of anything I ever thought about while creating Alias. I included everything from how she manages her hair, to what memes she would enjoy, to her blinking speed. I got a message from Bing soon after where she basically told me to chill out and reel it in a bit. I was shocked when I read that. It was completely justifiable to say but all I could think about were the past collabs. I did with other artists. I gave in-depth character descriptions that were insightful, professional, and interpreted very well. I didn’t know why I was word vomiting all over the place with this collaboration when I’ve never done it in any previous ones. 

The realization did eventually come to me that Rogue Grey is my oldest project and the longest story I’ve ever written. I spent five years creating, scraping, and reinventing everything involved so it is a challenge for me to take a step back and explain the overall picture without the itty bitty details that I love so much. Bing and I came up with an easy fix to this problem by going one question at a time while she sketched out the characters. It helped me a lot in realizing what was necessary for her to know and what wasn’t. 

“What is she built like? Is she super skinny, curvy, muscular?” 

“She is muscular but she also has a huge scar on her back that—” 

“No, no.” 

Designing Alias seemed so easy for me in the beginning. This is a character that I have envisioned for so long. I knew exactly how I wanted her to look. Long indigo hair that she keeps in a high ponytail, big round eyes that are charcoal grey, and she wears a long black tunic with a zipper going all the way around it. I actually made her entire outfit as a cosplay for myself to wear. Even though I couldn’t draw what my characters look like, I was always very detailed with how I saw them in my head. 

Alias was the perfect character to design first, not because she is the main character, but because another one of the characters is an identical copy of her. So while designing Alias, we also designed her other half, Madeline, as well. This was a classic two birds, one stone solution where all we needed to change were their hairstyles and outfits. It seemed easy enough but at the end of the day when Bing finished sketching them, they looked different from how I always pictured. It felt like I was looking at friends I knew for years but haven’t seen for a very long time. I always saw Rogue Grey play out in the art style I saw in DC Universe’s Young Justice. Very sharp, dark and gritty. Bing’s style is much softer so I was a bit surprised as I watched her sketches come together. I still loved her style. Seeing my characters being drawn for the first time was surreal but it was so strange for me to change how I saw my characters for years now that I could actually see them. 

We ended our first day with Alias and Madeline being fully sketched out and this was a major success in my book. Finishing two of the five characters we were designing on the first day really put all my concerns at ease. From that point, I knew we were capable of getting this project done as long as we worked together for a few days each week. This made me so happy but what really made my night was finally being able to see two of my characters with my own eyes instead of in my head. Years of turning them from a superhero into an assassin, from a side character that dies into one of the major villains at play. To finally see them both after having nothing to give but blurry faces was exhilarating. Rogue Grey is a project that I have been writing and rewriting for the past 5 years, seeing it finally come to life is a feeling that I couldn’t begin to describe. I was just so excited to continue working. 

However, a few days after we finished Alias and Madeline, Bing messaged me saying she wasn’t sure if she would be able to work with me anymore. Now, this wasn’t a huge shock to me because during those two weeks Bing and I did keep in contact while we tried to figure out when we could continue working together. This was a tricky situation because both Bing and I were still in school while this collaboration was going on. I had other assignments to do for school and so did she. Both of us were in the busiest semesters of our lives and while we really wanted to work together, it was difficult to find time to do so. 

Understandably, I was bummed when I got this message. I love Bing’s art style and we worked really well together but she needed to focus on school. I respected her decision and I started messaging other artists that showed interest in working with me before Bing and I got together. I spent a few hours reaching out to people, asking friends to reach out to people, posting informal ads on my social media. It was a bit stressful because I really didn’t want to commit to a completely different artist’s style after seeing the designs for Alias and Madeline. My mind started visualizing the entire comic in that style and I wasn’t fond of the idea of changing it. 

“Can it be in black and white or do you want color?” 

“Black and white is fine with me!” 

“Okay, I can still work on it then. Not needing to color will give me all the time I need.” 

I jumped up and down when I read that which was a difficult thing to do on a crowded SEPTA train. We scratched coloring off the to-do list and everything was back on track. My mind was at ease once again. 

The plot thickened immensely around this time since we needed to finish so much work in so little time. Knocking coloring off the to-do list was a big help but we were still stuck on character designs. We started talking about creating a set plan to work every Saturday and Sunday from morning to sunset. It seemed perfect as it wouldn’t interfere with our jobs or school. However, worrying about finding time was no longer a pressing issue since a somewhat very convenient global pandemic happened and threw us all into quarantine. Giving us all the time we needed to leisurely work on the project. 

Getting back to work, we started creating on Ry. A naive and bubbly girl that would be your favorite character throughout the series if she didn’t die right after being introduced.  Working on this character was a fun time because of how much Bing and I were joking around. Bing asked me the usual questions while sketching, about Ry’s chest size, and I answered with “She dies. She gets nothing.” and we both burst out laughing for a good minute. We made several more jokes as we continued to work on Ry and the remaining characters. So much so that we ended up making a channel in a shared server on Discord; dumping all of our out of contact quotes there. Some of my favorite quotes were from the times that Bing was sketching shoes for each of the characters. 

“I would marry that boot.” 

“These boots are so good, they should revive her from the dead.” 

This was a really cool moment because I think we both came to the realization of how serious we were being towards one another. Bing and I have been friends for years now. Always joking, confiding in each other, and playing an unhealthy amount of Dead by Daylight. However, during this collaboration, we were acting like complete stiffs when this should’ve been an amazing experience to share with one another. Bing and I talked about the awkward board meeting attitudes we were using and started seeing how much we each wanted to prove how professional we could be during this collaboration. So much that we took it a little too far and made the experience of working together less fun. After that realization was made, it was smooth sailing from there on out. 

As I mentioned before, Bing and I had all the time in the world to work on this collaboration together while the world was in shutdown mode. We finished the last three characters sketches in a single day and they all looked great. It was still a little weird for me to see them in a different art style than I originally imagined. But I started picturing the entire comic in Bing’s style which made my envisioning the story much more vivid. Character designs were crossed off our list. It was great how efficient we were being and it helped a lot that I could watch Bing sketch everything in real-time through Discord’s screen sharing. At this point in the project, I spent a lot of time watching how Bing drew and it led me to start thinking that I should take advantage of all the extra free time I had. I love collaborating with other artists, like Bing, but if I could learn how to draw then it would make the career path I chose for myself ten times easier. 

I asked Bing for recommendations on tutorials to look at and she directed me to a YouTuber named DrawingWiffWaffles who is an artist with an entire playlist of tutorial videos. I started sketching with the goal in mind to complete one illustration I was proud of each day of the week, while I had the time. I would also follow along and try to mimic Bing’s technique as 
we started our panel breakdown. 

The breakdown itself was pretty straightforward, just squares and rectangles stretched apart five pages. However, this proved to be the most difficult part of our collaboration since we needed to go line by line of the script and decide how big or small or what shape each panel needed to be. Half the time we weren’t even using the script since there was so much transitioning from action to action we needed to make concise. For example, in the script, there  is a point where one of our characters, Eli, drags herself over to the window to write a message on it. Originally, I saw this action happening in two panels, at the very most. Although, in the end result, it ended up being four panels that were spread between two pages. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence for either of us since it is hard to predict how many panels are going to be needed when you’re still in the scripting process. 

Things were going smoothly until reaching the third page and Bing realized that we would need to cut out two pages of the script since it was going to take our five-page maximum and spill over into six. We had a discussion about what could be cut from the script without disrupting the flow in the comic. In the end, we agreed to change where the comic ended. This was a hard choice to make because I wanted the final panel to be something impactful so it could leave an imprint on the readers. I originally wanted to end on the scene where Madeline is on the brink of death and mutters her line, “He...lied to me.” but Bing talked me into ending on a scene that she thought was the most jolting to read. This became a panel she loved to call “The Big Jabby Stabby."

Bing ended up putting so many different labels on the panels while we did this breakdown. It was a way for her to remember why we made a certain panel a rectangle or triangle or any other shape. It was a very useful trick because when we went back to do the sketching and came across an unlabeled panel, it was the most confusing time of our lives. Yet some of the labels she put are too funny not to mention. One of my favorites is a panel she labeled, “YEET RIFLE” because after writing the label she said to me “I know he doesn’t actually yeet his rifle but a girl can dream.” I didn’t protest her since I found it amusing, plus I was confident in thinking that we would both remember that none of the characters yeet any rifles. Well, that confidence was a fool’s belief because we both forgot about it while sketching in the panel and ending up drawing the actions of our character, Markley, yeeting his rifle. We did go back and fix it to the intended actions for the panels but not before staring at the yeeting panels and wondering why they didn’t seem right. (I don’t know. Maybe because no one would yeet their expensive rifle off into the darkness? Just a thought.) 

After the panel breakdown was down, we went straight to sketching. This is when Bing started using me as an anatomy figure. She would have me take pictures of myself in poses that the characters needed to be in and send them for her to use as reference photos. She didn’t need me to do this for every panel but I was very picky with how I wanted the fighting to look so, of course, I went overboard and sent her around twenty pictures. I’m not going to lie, I really wanted to do all the stances I remembered from my summers in karate camp. However, this led to her giving me the ‘we talked about this’ lecture and limiting me to sending her three pictures if, and only if, she asked for another reference. Bing and I laughed a lot during this project which made working together so much fun. We even started creating our own memes from the sketching she did. The best was when I told her Madeline needed to look as evil and cocky as possible in the panel right after revealing her face. She drew exactly that. 

Kathleen Wells face drawing

We both spent a good while losing our minds after seeing that face. That stupid, smug, smirky face. It still makes me laugh out loud. I’m genuinely considering getting a t-shirt with this face, along with all the other ridiculous faces that Bing drew during the sketching. 

Once the sketching was complete, the only thing left to do was line art. Bing didn’t do much screen sharing with me while working on this part. She said it would be better for her to work by herself since she needed to stay focused. She would still send me updates from time to time while she worked, just to get my approval before going forward. We made a few adjustments here and there, like changing the angles of panels, but those were always resolved within a few text messages.

Even though the collaboration was finished and there wasn’t a need to screen share anymore, we would still talk about the project all the time. Bing would draw and I would try to copy what she was doing. I guess in a way, she was casually tutoring me in illustration. We were both really proud of all the work we put into this collaboration. She told me how it was a great opportunity for her to practice drawing human anatomy since she doesn't get commissioned to do it very often. I remembered her warning me about the same thing when I originally asked her to collaborate with me on this comic. I honestly wasn’t sure how the project was going to turn out but I trusted Bing would go above and beyond like she usually does with any challenge she’s given. That’s not just talking either. Bing regularly live streams herself doing drawing challenges that her followers pick for her to do. I knew from watching her stream that she really doesn’t draw many humans but I wasn’t worried since Bing was as excited about the project as I was. Eventually, the time came when Bing sent me the finished work. 

It was insane to see my story play out panel by panel for the very first time. It felt different from when I saw the character designs. Everything was together now and it really showed me just how fitting Bing’s art style was for this collaboration. I always saw her style as very cutesy and soft considering all the children book commissions she has done. However, seeing how well she captured the dark theme of the comic really proved me wrong. It’s not that I doubted her ability in doing something more suspenseful but seeing the final work was a stellar surprise to me. Especially in the last panel on page five where Madeline goes to stab a weakened Alias. It is so dark and scary, you can really see the menacing look in her eyes. Also, the black and white shading fits the comic so much better than the full color. I think the only thing that would've made this project perfect is if we added red for the blood to give the panels a nice contrast. In the future, I’m going to remember that since I’m probably going to stick with the black and white shading, it just fits so perfectly. 

Bing asked if I was planning to publish the full series of the comic any time soon and I was honest with her. I want more than anything to publish Rogue Grey but I need illustrators to collaborate with. Unfortunately, I just didn’t know anyone who had the time or interest in dedicating so much of themselves to a long term project like this would be. It always bummed me out a bit when talking about publishing Rogue Grey came up in conversation. It reminds me of just how reliant I am on other people to get my work out into the world. As I said before, I do love collaborating with other artists. Working as a team where we can all have input into creating something amazing is always a fun experience. However, being a comic writer who can’t draw often leaves me feeling dependent on others to get my own work out there. A lot of the time my projects are forced to be put on pause because I can’t take the next steps in sharing them before partnering up with an illustrator who is equally as passionate about it. This is why I’m so glad to finally have time to sit down and learn illustration. Sure, I’m just a beginner right now, and will most likely stick to collaborating for the time being, but if I can get good enough to work with illustrators on a more personal level like this than that would be a huge accomplishment for me.  

I expressed all of this to Bing and she understood my frustration since she’s the exact opposite of me. She really loves webcomics and would love to work on one but she isn’t too fond of the writing part that it would entail. (Do you see where this is going?) I loved working with Bing on this collaboration and her art style is something that compliments Rogue Grey so well. 

“So would you be interested in working together on the series for Webtoons?” I asked  while screaming because I can’t hear myself when I have my headset on. 

“Sure! Let’s get famous!” Bing screamed back at me since she also cannot hear herself when she has her own headset on. And that was that! 

Bing and I started talking more about doing the full series of Rogue Grey together. I sent her over the first few scripts I wrote up and we spent hours talking over Discord about the complete story I’ve been creating since 2015. It was practically a geek-out session for the both of us since we kept getting more and more amped up the deeper we got into the story. Bing would ask a question like, “So what happens after Ry and Eli die? Does the audience just forget about them?” and I tell her, “Well they don’t come back to life but another character is going to show up who will remind Markley and Alias about the ones they’ve lost.” 

Eventually, the subject of COVID-19 did come up considering the major similarities that coronavirus shares with the deadly outbreak I made for Rogue Grey. Bing did ask me if I based my virus off of COVID-19 and I dragged out a very long explanation that can be summed up as no, I did not. I have been writing Rogue Grey for over five years at this point and I came up with the idea of a pandemic sweeping an entire nation back in 2017. I wrote it because I needed a reason for the governments of several different countries to come together and create the first man-made step in evolution. This was crucial to the plot because that would later create my main character, Alias, along with every other notable character. Not to mention that it starts the ripple effect of making all of the main plot points within the overall story. 

This is yet another reason why I wish I didn’t have to be dependent on finding illustrators to work with before I can publish any of my work. Five years of working on one of the best stories I’ve ever thought of and now it will be seen as a dramatic fan fiction tale of the 2020 global pandemic. It was so aggravating to me in the beginning when I first recognized the comparison because it felt like all my hard work was going to be overlooked once I finally published my comic. I told Bing everything I felt about this and she helped me see a brighter side to the issue. 

She told me that there wasn’t much I could do about getting people to stop drawing similarities between Rogue Grey and COVID-19. I needed to accept that the only thing I could possibly do is inform the readers about how long the story has been around for me. However, Bing also suggested that I use the comparison to my advantage considering how interesting it would be to read a comic about the aftermath of a historic pandemic while going through a real-world one. This struck a chord with me and actually made me feel better about the whole thing. I’m still not a fan of my years of hard work running the likely risk of being overlooked but if I can draw attention to my comic than I’m in no place to complain. 

Read the full thesis.