Archive for the ‘Creators & Destroyers’ Category

Hulk vs. the Universe

May 19, 2008

In October of 2002 I moved from Seattle to the beautiful mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina¹, with the intention of starting my life over in a place where I didn’t know a soul. Driving into town in a rental car for the first time, having never laid eyes on it before, was a thrilling and terrifying experience, and in the months that followed I came to realize how much a person’s identity can depend on the reinforcement of friends, family, and familiar turf. Sudden and complete anonymity stripped away all but the last shred of my sense of self. I felt like a bundle of exposed nerve endings in a vast expanse of nothingness.

Although there were plenty of negative aspects to feeling simultaneously nonexistent and overexposed, I also felt tuned in to my surroundings in a way I never had before. As soon as “I” became an open question, that openness went both ways, and I absorbed every detail of my environment — birds, trees, fireflies, the incredible roaring chorus of cicadas outside my window at night — like a sponge. There were times when the line between what was inside of me and what was outside of me got pretty blurry, and in those times I had never felt a greater sense of terror and possibility.

In June of 2003, six months after moving to Asheville and in the throes of this state of mind, I took a short trip to Seattle. On my second day there, I took a bus to the University District to meet a friend, and to kill time I decided to catch a matinée of Ang Lee’s Hulk, which was showing at the Neptune Theater.

The best way to experience any film is with as little knowledge or expectation as possible; all the better if you happen to be in a mood that jibes with the director’s sensibility. Hulk is a mixed bag, but even where it falters (as when the screen is sliced up into comic book panels), I admire Lee’s willingness to take chances, especially in the pursuit of the poetic over the bombastic (in a comic book movie, of all things). Despite the missteps, I was enthralled by what I saw at the heart of the film: a man caught between the hard definitions of human civilization and the boundless forces of nature. All of Ang Lee’s movies, from The Wedding Banquet to Brokeback Mountain, are about people struggling to communicate something against some restricting force, and with Hulk he created yet another fresh variation on that struggle. I walked out of the theater in a sort of daze, wandering across the campus of the University of Washington in the pouring rain, staring up in wonder at the brilliant green of the trees.

Of course, the fanboys hated it. In its second week of release, ticket sales dropped by 70%, one of the worst rapid declines in box office history. It was roundly derided for being overly serious (it’s a comic book movie, after all), for failing to stay true to its roots, and for failing to deliver on the summer action movie formula. I actually enjoyed all of these aspects, but the last one — the absurd way in which Hulk subverts the “final battle” expectations of its audience — is one of my favorite parts of the film. The showdown is between Bruce Banner and his father, David (Nick Nolte). From the Wikipedia plot summary of the film:

At night, David is taken to a base to talk to Bruce. As a precaution, [Bruce has been placed] between two large electrical generators which will kill them both with a massive electical surge when activated. David, having descended into megalomania, rants of how the military and their weapons have ruined their lives, and dismisses Bruce as a pathetic shell of his “true son,” with whom he can destroy the military. He bites into a wire, and absorbs the electricity to become a powerful electrical being, and Bruce transforms to battle him. The two fight in the sky before landing near a lake, where David takes on properties of rocks and water. He tries to absorb his son’s power, but is unable to contain the grief and pain that is its driving force, and swells to an energy bubble. Ross orders a weapon (a Gamma Charge Bomb) be fired into the lake, and David’s swelled form is destroyed, leaving no trace of either man.

Yeah, that’s right. The climactic final battle is between the Hulk, electricity, rocks, and water. I’m sorry, that is all kinds of awesome. No wonder so many people were disappointed.

Which leads me to wonder whether or not the Incredible Hulk Annual 2001 was among the piles of comics Marvel gave to Ang Lee and his various script doctors². This book’s main attraction was a forgettable, fan-mandated slugfest between the big green fella and Thor, but the backup story was a beautiful four-page summation of the nature of existence. Starring the Hulk, natch.

Re-presented here, for your enjoyment and with the permission of its creator, the fabulous James Kochalka, is that story:

MM M

NOTES

¹ Former home to legendary zinester Aaron Cometbus, and current home to alterna-comics luminaries Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O’Malley.

² Among them one of my favorite screenwriters, Michael Tolkin, who likely had something to do with why Hulk got under my skin.

The Power of Suggestion [1]

May 7, 2008

One of the great tools at the disposal of the cartoonist is the ability to imply much by showing little. A few marks under characters’ feet suggest pavement; throw a jagged black shape in the background of a panel, and voilà — cityscape. The thing I like about suggesting something over showing it in detail is that it invites the reader to complete the picture. The same effect occurs across all media, really, with comics toward the cooler end of the McLuhan thermometer and movies toward the hotter end. All visual information demands a basic degree of interactivity, but some asks for more than others, and in the continuum that runs from a person’s actual physical experience (where all senses are engaged in maximum detail by the real world) to the open invitation of a blank page (where nothing is provided), the imagination is stimulated more by suggestion and less by exacting description.

Generally speaking, as a work of art “heats up” and provides more sensory stimuli, at least two things begin to diminish: 1) the inventiveness of the medium’s practitioners, who have fewer constraints to work within; and 2) the degree of imaginative interaction the work invites from its audience. For instance, as sound and color were introduced into film, certain previously necessary devices (broad physical acting, intertitles) became obsolete, and viewers no longer needed to imagine what Gloria Swanson‘s voice sounded like.

With every step “forward” in any area of human endeavor, something is gained, and with rare exception there is a concomitant loss. I feel this keenly in video game design, as the cutting edge of graphics slices into the future, opening up new and ever hotter arteries of experience for the player, but leaving imagination dead in its wake. Consider an informal visual chronology of computer game graphics:

Left to right, top to bottom: Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), Rogue (1980), Lords of Midnight (1984), Master of Magic (1993), Age of Wonders 2 (2002), Battle for Middle-Earth (2004).

The earliest text adventures used words alone to suggest the game world, allowing the player’s imagination to fill in all of the details. Later, the ideogrammatic use of ASCII characters made possible things like the dungeon floorplans of Rogue to be clearly delineated, but that “*” that represented a pile of gold was still something to conjure with. With each step in the progression from limited-palette, low-resolution graphics to high-res 3D models and particle effects — with each step toward a more photorealistic rendering of the game environment — the player has to do that much less creative work, that much less imaginative interaction.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad progression. The trade-off is that we get games that are more immediately, actively immersive, as opposed to ones in which we have to work to immerse ourselves. Something is lost, but something else is certainly gained. Even as better and better graphics technology is erasing the need for an active imagination in playing video games, increasingly sophisticated game design has made possible a range of consequential (as opposed to imaginative) interactivity that is unparalleled in any other medium. Plus, I’d hazard that most people who play video games don’t want to use their imaginations — they just want a fun ride¹. The more bells and whistles the better.

Each of us probably have our own sweet spot between abstraction and representation, a point where our imagination is fired up by the power of suggestion, but would be extinguished by too much more information. In video games, that sweet spot for me is best exemplified by Steve Barcia‘s classic Master of Magic, specifically on the tactical combat screen:

The average “figure” or unit graphic in MoM is 12 pixels high by 7 pixels wide, and the potential of that tiny canvas (+256 possible colors) is maximized to artfully evoke specific details of each of the 86 unit types available in the game². In the above screenshot, the lizardman shamans carry staves and wear some sort of broad golden collar, but the player can still read a lot into those combinations of a few colored squares. When I play MoM, my imagination fills in the details and I find myself picturing the collars as having a sort of Aztec design.

By comparison, the units in Battle for Middle Earth leave little to the mind’s eye:

Nothing about these units is suggested — everything is described. Beyond rounding off the occasional sharp-edged polygon, the player’s imagination just has to sit back and relax.

In comics, my sweet spot is probably best exemplified by the work of Hergé or Chester Brown:

The level of detail that both of these artists bring to their work is just right for me. They draw characters and environments with enough specificity to create a believable, grounded world, but leave enough open for a sense of mobility and life to be triggered by the reader’s participation. Generally speaking, too little visual information in a comic makes me believe less in the world of that story. And too much (something I struggle against in my own work) can rob a comic of whatever vitality it might otherwise possess.

Bringing this questionable ramble back to film, last year it was announced that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson will be turning the adventures of Tintin into at least three new motion pictures. In the cinematic equivalent of the graphic progression noted above, these films will be created using motion-capture and state-of-the-art CGI.

Jackson said WETA will stay true to Remi’s original designs in bringing the cast of Tintin to life, but that the characters won’t look cartoonish.

“Instead,” Jackson said, “we’re making them look photorealistic; the fibers of their clothing, the pores of their skin and each individual hair. They look exactly like real people — but real Herge people!”

I will of course reserve judgment until we see the final results, but I couldn’t help but shudder when I read this bit of news. Although some Tintinologists might delight in the prospect, When I can count the threads in Captain Haddock’s sweater, some small part of me will die.

NOTES

¹ There are, of course, innumerable scattered subcultural pockets wherein “antiquated” forms of electronic gaming continue to thrive and grow, encompassing everything from interactive fiction to roguelikes to abandonware.

² Incidentally, the art director of Master of Magic, and several other Simtex games, was Jeff Dee, who will be familiar to any fan of tabletop RPGs from the late 70s and early 80s.

The Tramp

May 4, 2008

The impression left on me (and hundreds of thousands of my geeky peers) by Dungeons & Dragons was indelible. Ironically — given all of the Satanist paranoia at the time — D&D was my salvation from the soulless suburban wasteland where I spent my teen years; it not only inspired my friends and me to heights of imaginative collaboration, it empowered me to be a creative person. Without Gygax & Arneson’s strange vision, and the love of games and improvisational storytelling that it instilled, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the cartoonist I am today (for whatever that’s worth).

Perhaps the most indelible aspect of all those books and modules was the art. Every image in the AD&D publications that I owned in the 1980s — especially the Monster Manual — is etched into my brain. In a fit of nostalgia after Gygax’s recent passing, having not looked at the TSR library since I left home for college in 1987, I bought all the old rule books off of Ebay so I could run some of my students through the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. Leafing through these tomes was like looking through an old yearbook filled with the scrawlings of a madman: page after page of familiar faces surrounded by Gygax’s strangely antique prose and table after possibility-laden table. Those familiar faces, though — the Owl Bear, the Mind Flayer, the Catoblepas — are the things that have never left my head. Whether it’s one of the amateurish, Peechee-worthy dragon portraits of David C. Sutherland III, or the definitive renditions of Cthulhu creatures by Erol Otus, the summary of Armor Class, Hit Dice, and No. Appearing might as well read, “Have a great summer vacation! K.I.T.!” I love all of these old drawings, without exception, and didn’t realize how much I had missed them.

I love them all, but some more than others, and the best ones are all by the same guy. David A. Trampier, who signed his drawings either “DAT” or “Tramp,” was far and away the most talented of all of the artists who ever worked for TSR. His pen-and-ink drawings were fully-formed and beautifully precise, as if the imaginary creatures and scenes they depicted had a long visual history, when in fact they were being realized on paper for the first time by his hand. Sure, there had been folk renditions of the Rakshasa, the Ki-Rin, and the Minotaur, but in Trampier’s hands they took on an archetypal solidity, and he made real such fits of Gary Gygax’s imagination as the Ankheg, Black Pudding, Intellect Devourer, and Thought Eater. Intellect Devourer and Thought Eater? Gary, do we really need two monsters that dine on psychic energy? Well, if the Tramp is drawing them I’m not going to complain, especially if one is a quadrupedal glowing brain and the other is “a sickly gray, skeletal-bodied, enormous headed platypus to those who are able to observe it.” Thank you, David Trampier, for being able to observe it.

Left to right: Basilisk, Wererats, Medusa, Fire Giant (click for larger image).

Trampier dropped out of the gaming scene in 1988, an event marked by the abrupt halt of “Wormy,” the beloved comic he drew for Dragon magazine. Payments sent to his last known residence were returned unopened, and further investigation revealed that he had moved without leaving a forwarding address. Some presumed him dead, but the great game designer and cartoonist Tom Wham, Trampier’s brother-in-law, believed him to be alive and well and living somewhere in Illinois.

The above photo is from a February 15, 2002 article in the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper of Southern illinois State University. Even without the confirmation of Gygax and Wham, who say that the man pictured is in fact the Tramp, you can tell it’s him: he looks just like one of his drawings. After the article ran, people began tracking him down, but he made it clear that he just wanted to be left alone. For whatever reason, he left the gaming world behind and now wants nothing to do with it, which somehow makes me respect him even more.

You probably don’t remember me, but I was the guy who pored over your drawings between classes in the quad, lying on the grass behind my best friend Eric’s house during summer vacation, late at night when I couldn’t sleep because my imagination was running wild with the possibility of imaginary worlds. Thanks for the memories, Tramp.

Coyote 1, Wolf 0

May 2, 2008

(Pixelated for your protection; click on image for the gory details)

We woke up one morning in early April to find this unfortunate animal in an open field about fifty yards from our front door. Because the throat was ripped out and not the belly, consensus of native Vermonters was that a coyote had done the deed. Little had been eaten until the vultures got to it later in the week. Ill omen? I prefer to think of it as a sacrifice.

… And while the strength of glorious Hephaestus was beginning to kindle the fire, he dragged out two lowing, horned cows close to the fire; for great strength was with him. He threw them both panting upon their backs on the ground, and rolled them on their sides, bending their necks over, and pierced their vital chord. Then he went on from task to task: first he cut up the rich, fatted meat, and pierced it with wooden spits, and roasted flesh and the honourable chine and the paunch full of dark blood all together. He laid them there upon the ground, and spread out the hides on a rugged rock: and so they are still there many ages afterwards, a long, long time after all this, and are continually. Next glad-hearted Hermes dragged the rich meats he had prepared and put them on a smooth, flat stone, and divided them into twelve portions distributed by lot, making each portion wholly honourable. Then glorious Hermes longed for the sacrificial meat, for the sweet savour wearied him, god though he was; nevertheless his proud heart was not prevailed upon to devour the flesh, although he greatly desired. But he put away the fat and all the flesh in the high- roofed byre, placing them high up to be a token of his youthful theft.

Sleight of Hand

April 29, 2008

The process of writing and thumbnailing Houdini: The Handcuff King was very rewarding for me. My favorite stage of making comics — the part I think I might actually be good at — is the breaking down and staging of a story. I derive a lot of satisfaction out of completing a page of finished art, but getting there is usually an arduous, time-consuming process; the excitement and fun of creation really happens for me at the scripting stage, which means when I’m drawing my tiny little 1″-high thumbnails.

What made this book especially enjoyable was handing off the art duties to Nick Bertozzi, who worked from my thumbnails to create the finished pages. Collaboration in comics can be a tricky proposition for those of us who have very particular ideas about how the medium works, which makes it all the more satisfying when you luck into a fruitful creative alliance. While keeping within the basic panel structure I laid out, Nick made lots of changes, and every single one of them was for the better.

The above sequence shows pages 38-41 in the thumbnail form that I turned over to Nick, and here are his final renditions:

If you compare the two versions of this scene, you’ll notice a host of changes great and small, and I think every last one of them improves the overall feel of what’s being shown. The main thing I appreciate about here, and throughout the book, is how Nick breaks away from my relatively conservative staging and mixes things up a bit, injecting the story with much-needed life; a kind of visual hubbub.

At the same time, he employs a tried-and-true cartoonists’ shortcut — the obscuring foreground object — to excellent effect. Crowd scenes make a great visual impression, so you need to get a wide shot or two in, but they can be a real chore to draw over several pages. By framing some panels at eye level from within the crowd, Nick manages to immerse the reader in the environment while avoiding having to draw that sea of people. Similarly, the rooftop onlookers which helpfully block out half a street’s worth of the mob below add another level (so to speak) to the content of the scene itself.


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