I approached Jhonen Vasquez, (creator of Invader Zim and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac) a few months back and asked him to create an image for BioShock 2 that represented the game, its characters, and the atmosphere of the city. Today, I present to you "The Sisters" along with a blog post written by Jhonen himself detailing his journey to create the final image.

Jhonen will also be at our BioShock 2 booth (#5033) at the San Diego Comic-Con On Saturday, July 25th from 2-4 PM, signing a Comic-Con special edition printing of "The Sisters." Come by early for a chance to receive one of these 500 prints, meet the artist, and check out the booth.

Visit Jhonen's website at

This might be a bit longer than I can fit on my Twitter, so I'll settle for here. Deadlines really do a number on the already erratic hours I keep, and what usually happens right after a project is taken care of is what's happening right now: I stay up for maybe two days to reset things a bit, hoping that I can pass as normally functioning member of society, hoping to be accepted into the safe machinery of daily living, so that one day I can bring it all crashing down from the inside.

This time around, I find myself trying to fix my hours because, a few months back, 2K Games asked if I'd do a print for BioShock 2, the sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, so naturally I said "HELL NO, YOU WIFE-SWAPPING FREAKS!" They repeated their offer, stating again just who they were and I realized my mistake, promptly apologizing for the misunderstanding and accepted gladly.

This was back when the earliest images of the game were trickling out, so I was already a wee bit familiar with the Big Sister character that seemed to be the focus of all the attention, and my mission here was to do an image of said Big Sister. I had some time to figure out my image as I was busy on other projects and having epic, metaphysical battles in Australia with that leprechaun that plays the cheerleader on Heroes, so I was looking at just about a month and a half of actual work on the BioShock 2 print. Funny how many awful things can happen in a month and a half.


Started doing sketches back in April, but the going was slow as I had gotten miserably ill upon my return from the other side, the sure sign of having fraternized with the wrong Australians. In between nose wipes and fits of coughing up tiny koalas, I had decided early on to do something a bit more on the graphic, stylized side, with very little dimension, and, strangely enough, inspired by classical images of Washington crossing the Delaware. You can see in the sketches that it was veering more towards "cool pose" territory, with the Big Sister crouched down on a pile of debris or statues (it varied depending on the sketch) while Little Sisters played on and around her as though she was a jungle gym. It was cute, and people seemed to dig the idea, but I just kept rethinking the thing, never quite diving in to just get it done. Went back and forth with a couple of variations on that theme, as you can barely tell from the quick sketches I did while out and about and while hacking up more lungs than a human body should have. These are done about as fast as possible, getting more a of a sense of lines and blocking than finer details and such. Some of them veer off into looking one step away from Playmobile figures more so than actual characters, but hey, it's what helps me figure this stuff out. I'll not include all the sketches because, believe me, some look more like the kind of automatic spirit-writing you see when some medium is channeling a seemingly illiterate ghost that has taken control of the medium's wrinkly hand - in this case leaving me with orb after orb on top of a stick figure body in various poses.

Early sketches

Top left of that sketch up there is what the initial idea was, and it stuck for quite some time. The problem I was having, however, is that I wasn't exactly feeling the Big Sister as a character, and knew very little about her at the time. As more details came out about her, more and more ideas came to mind as to how to approach her. Thing is, what I was doing was pretty much all I could do at first, and that was just put her in a cool pose. The difficult thing about her as a character is that there's very little character to her aside from her physicality and the obvious coolness of her outfit, an outfit which covers any kind of facial expressiveness whatsoever, unless that facemask changes colors like a mood ring, which I doubt it does. A character like that is very friendly to Spiderman poses or your general "hey look, I'm visually impressive" kind of drawings, which are fun, but not entirely what I wanted to do with drawing of mine. I thought the Little Sisters cavorting all about her would alleviate the problem, which it does in a way, but not quite in the direction I was thinking. It would have been funny, but in a sillier way. Nothing wrong with silly, but I do enough of that on my own time, and sometimes I just want to sit down and have a good cry. Forget I said that.


Another quick pass, moving away from the more stylized profile shot that I was puttering about with, and again, it was pretty much just cool pose territory with not a whole lot else going on. Sure it would have looked nice in the end, but wouldn't have had any sense of narrative, and more and more, that was what I was hoping to get outta the image. Short of having Big Sister sitting in a nice comfy chair, reading The Fountainhead and sipping some fine wine, something else was going to be needed to get more a sense of it being a scene instead of just some badass pose you'd see plastered on those horrid button up shirts guys in cargo shorts wear at Comicon. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Okay, there is. Anyhow, this newer direction was slightly more dramatic, mainly because of the lower angle, but it still said nothing other than "I'm quite limber, and aren't those little girls just disturbing in a Japanese horror kind of way?"

"All clear!"

This direction, which ended up being the first real sketch for the final image, came very late in the sketching days, as late as probably eating into the phase where I should have been doing the final line drawing. If you look up at the very first sketch I included up there, in the bottom right hand corner, you can see where I quickly doodled the first inklings of this idea. I wanted to see something both playful and awful at the same time, and just the thought of Big Sister holding a Little Sister's hand was enough to get me going this way. It was more that sense of a moment over simple dynamic pose that had been missing from the other sketches, so it's what I stuck with. The general gist of it was that the Little Sister in the lead there was way past being rescued, having already whipped into shape by Big Sister, so she's having a ball pretending to be a blood-drenched scout, just making a lil' game of it. Not quite ready to play along is the other Little Sister who has probably seen better days than this in which she's being dragged around by a monster while walking through broken glass. Pleasantly nightmarish enough.

"My big sister was a horrifying monster in a metal suit, too."

Who says kids are good for nothing other than emergency food in disaster conditions? I don't, because at this point my badass nieces helped out quite a bit for reference. I dragged them, much like Big Sister there, out for a quick photo session and we had a damn fine time in freezing winds posing like little the little, demonic wee ones that they are. Being my niece, the youngest had no problem finding that place in her heart that allowed her to simulate the howling face of a child being dragged down a nightmare alley by an unspeakable horror. Throw in a tall, monstrous friend of mine to stand in for Big Sister and you have four people with chattering teeth and trying to steal my jacket. After that, the line-art came pretty easily enough, save for an adjustment period of finding the balance between a more realistic style and not losing the strange cartoonishness.

You'll notice the area above and behind Big Sister, what is supposed to be a glass window, is blank in the final line-art. I saved that for the digital phase, figuring I'd just paint it in later.


What I left out, is that in between the start and stop of that process, I had one of those legendary computer disasters that are, well...legendary, even in hell, annihilating my main work computer and taking down several external drives with it, including my backup drive. Time for a Drobo, I guess. My only guess here is that some serial killer was sentenced to die in the electric chair, but all those volts failed to take the bastard down, instead turning him into a supernatural wraith made entirely of electricity with the face of Mitch Pileggi. Mitch Pileggi then escapes through the electrical wiring and the law ends up tricking him into entering my main computer where he hops from drive to drive until he's been cornered, dying in some awful effects finale, leaving me wondering just what the hell happened and how it happened in one night. These are called unexpected setbacks and you should expect them any time they'd be devastating to your schedule.

I had been doing a lot of early sketches in the computer, so the horror was pretty fantastic, not letting up until I finally set up my new, more powerful replacement computer and a vastly improved system for keeping my files safe from irreparable harm. My old, dying computer passed on its matrix of power in a very touching scene that, personally, I think blows away anything you'd get out of anything Michael Bay poops out of his ass, an ass formed of incomprehensible shards of swirling metal and fiery explosions.


The computer disaster meant I was without a machine capable of doing the digital paint work on a file that would likely end up being pretty enormous, so steps were taken to make things easier and still stay on schedule. I'm pretty damn slow when it comes to the kind of digital paint I wanted for the final piece. I'm pretty known for the comic book/animation looking stuff of mine, but that's not quite what I wanted for this BioShock piece. What I wanted was something pushed over into a more painterly style, with a much more rendered feel considering the mood of the thing. With the two weeks left that I had, I didn't think I'd be the guy for the job, instead wanting to pass it on to someone to do the heavy lifting and then get it back for a few days of my final pass on it. So I got together with a painter buddy of mine and went through the overall direction and then, with a tear, I let him fly away to get down to it. Some communication issues arose, and he seemed to vanish for long stretches, not quite updating me on the progress as much as I would like. With just one day left before the deadline, I received the thing I was supposed to do my final pass on, and it was nowhere near complete, and pretty far away from what I had been expecting. It's little nightmares like these that make deadline crunches so fun, and I celebrated by soiling myself and firing a bullet through my brain (I heal like Vamp in Metal Gear, so I can do stuff like that, guys).

Two weeks and I had a piece that I could use nothing from, as it wasn't at all in the style I had wanted, and only one day to turn the final image in. I explained my situation to 2K Games, and they were lovely about it, only threatening to murder a few loved ones instead of all of my family members. That's some little seen heart in a big company, people. So, I washed the blood of my previous color guy off my hands and face, buried the body and moved on, sweating and mumbling incoherently from lack of sleep, and began planning out the next few days that I had to work on the thing. I happened to get some help from a digital concept artist that a friend of mine happened to be related to. I had met the fellow a few times before and he seemed like the kind of guy capable of pulling this off in a short amount of time. Remember, I was scrapping the previous guys thing entirely, so we were starting from scratch here, so what was nice was to hear a bit of confidence in someone at the prospect, even if it was confidence born from insanity. The progress report they sent, after a nights work, was very reassuring, looking like it needed maybe just two more nights to get somewhere good.

By night 3, they had stopped working on it, leaving it about half done, and still rough as all hell. The situation had gone from bad to hellish. I sat with the file, staring into its incomplete face as it leered at me, daring me to try to salvage what was promising to be a bloody disaster. It had the face of Mitch Pileggi.

A confounding final touch on what the guy had given me was something i couldn't quite figure out at first. Something about the image was incredibly awkward looking to me, unsatisfying in a way that made me feel bad for having apparently drawn it. Big Sister's head was just bothering me, looking flat and utterly without coolness. Then it hit me...the head I was looking at, the head painted over my drawing, wasn't going off of my artwork. The guy had actually redrawn my artwork! "It looked wrong to me" was their only response before their head fell off revealing the stuffed cabbage that was operating their body in secret.

Not my head. Cabbage?

That's what I got up there, complete with the altered head, complete with altered hardware and everything. What's fantastic is, if you look closely at the actual full sized image (not included here) you can see the new head haphazardly painted over the still visible line-art. So not only was the angle of the head changed, but the overall design of the helmet. The helmet I drew was slightly modified from the concept art, adding a few more vents to the mask so you could cook bbq on it if you wanted. Changing the angle of her head made Big Sister look like she was not quite paying attention to anything in particular, instead looking pretty dead on at the viewer for no good reason. It's subtle stuff, but to me, changing that angle undoes a lot of what there is to get across with a character that is fairly limited in how they express anything. If you look at the original drawing, and ultimately, the final painting, she's looking slightly above where Little Sister's grinning head is, like they're moving along a careful path.

That was it. I basically spent the last four days painting in ways I had never imagined I would for this, adding missing details and upping the colors on almost everything that was there. It was exhausting, but I have to admit, incredibly fun. It's those frantic, panicked rushes with heart attacks impending that make everything feel so much more vital and vivid than your average nights. Got in quite a bit of practice with the ol' Photoshop, too. Rikki Simons helped out with making selections and masks, freeing me up to just keep painting like a lunatic. Breehn Burns, a horrifically talented friend of mine, the guy behind Dr. Tran, actually did me a huge favor by redoing Big Sister's ruined head and getting her to look in the right direction again. I had Breehn in to help earlier in the year with some feature development paintings, and that guy is just the best. With Breehn's repainted head as a base, I just painted on some lighting effects like the red flaring from her mask, and threw in more color in places like the liquid filled vials on her arms and such. Finally got around to painting in the city visible through the window area, too.

I thank everyone that helped out in those terrible, hilariously awful nights, even the people that didn't quite do what I was hoping they would, I thank 2K Games for digging my stuff enough to let me play around with their characters, and I hope you all learned never to read one of my interminable, rambling posts ever again.

- Jhonen Vasquez

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