Archive for April, 2008

Browser of the Living Dead

April 30, 2008

Zombies in popular culture will not die. Like victims of the contagion of undeath, the zombie meme has been spreading and muitiplying since the first mass-media seed was planted, in 1968. Only in the past ten years has it begun to achieve the critical mass necessary to its inevitable triumph. Zombie movies, video games, and books like the great oral history World War Z are eating our brains at a greater rate than ever before.

Although there has been no shortage of attempts, my idea of the perfect zombie video game — one that captures what I consider the essential elements of the genre* — has yet to be made. Last year the boardgame world was blessed/damned with the publication of Last Night on Earth, which pretty much nailed it (or shot it in the head, if you prefer), but from where I sit behind my barricade, a truly satisfying digital interpretation remains unmade. There are a lot of fun, well-made zombie video games lining the shelves of looted Gamestops in abandoned shopping malls across the country, but none of them has dragged me to my doom in quite the way I really want to go (though I have high hopes for Left4Dead).

That being said, if you’re a fan of the genre, there are a few cool browser-based zombie games and widgets out there. Kevan Davis’ Zombie Infection Simulation is a neat little bit of code that makes the undead holocaust seem almost cute; he’s also responsible for Urban Dead, a graphically primitive MMO wherein you can be human or zombie trying to survive/cannibalize in the fictional town of Malton. While Mr. Davis’ work may be as tasty as gray matter, the tender, delicious cerebellum of browzombie games to date is The Last Stand 2, an oxymoron of a sequel to The Last Stand. One of the great improvements in the sequel is that the survivors must gather supplies to move from town to town in their quest for salvation, adding a little bit of a meta-game.

*Among my must-have bullet points are randomized locales, the gradual gathering of a motley crew of survivors, and game mechanics that reinforce the group’s social dynamics.

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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.

McBuck for the Win

April 28, 2008

Talented CCS soon-to-be grad Chuck McBuck is the first-ever recipient of the Awesome anthology grant, awarded by the fine fellows at Indie Spinner Rack. Chuck is a great student, diligent cartoonist, and active promoter/producer of indie comics. The $1500 “kick out the door” is well-deserved, even if he chooses to blow it on fresh sticks of dynamite. Keep an eye out for Mr. McBuck in the future!

Cheating

April 25, 2008

I turned 40 last December, which underlined both the fact of my own mortality and the feeling that there is so much more I want to do and so little time in which to do it. I’ve been laboring over my book Berlin for more than ten years now, with (crossing fingers) four more to go, and my phlegmatic rate of production has been a source of great anxiety for me. So I made a decision not too long ago that I would find ways to “cheat” and take more shortcuts in my work — or to put it more palatably, to “streamline” my working process.

One way I’ve chosen to do this is to trace photographs. Many if not most cartoonists rely on photography for visual reference, but tracing is generally considered bad form, because when you do it you bypass the challenge and learning experience of drawing from scratch. More importantly, from my perspective, you run the risk of producing an obviously traced drawing, which can have a dissonant effect on the reader.

So, in the interest of saving time, I recently began to trace selective images — about 6 panels total out of City of Smoke‘s 192 pages. My rationale is pretty simple: in my philosophy of comics, content trumps technique. Visual incongruity is the only real potential drawback to tracing, so I take pains to make sure the traced image feels of a piece with its surroundings.

The Reichstag figures prominently in Berlin #16, but at the thumbnail stage it’s a harmless little blob, as you can see in the first panel here:

One of the reasons I keep my thumbnails so small is so I can conceptualize scenes without having to worry about how the heck I’m ever going to draw them. Which means when I get to the penciling stage I often review a crowd scene or urban panorama — rendered in my thumbnails as a few little squiggles — and then promptly begin beating my head against my lightbox to the refrain of, “What the **** was I thinking?!?”

Confronted with the above example, I hunted up images of the Reichstag that would roughly suit the angle of the shot in that first panel, and settled on the postcard image that leads off this entry. I began sketching away, flipping the angle mentally (the façade of the Reichstag was essentially symmetrical), and promptly stopped about 25% of the way into it. I’ve drawn pages and pages of street scenes and architecture over the years, but I balked at this one; partly because it’s such an iconic building that I didn’t want to get it wrong, and partly because I just didn’t have the patience. Who has time to draw the Reichstag from scratch? My life is half over already!

So I flipped the image in Photoshop, printed it out, and taped it to the back of the penciled panel:

And when the time came, I inked right over the top of it:

Note the word balloon conveniently placed smack on top of the building so that I don’t have to draw that part of it. That’s right — there is no low to which I will not sink! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Charles Vess in the CCS

April 24, 2008

The great cartoonist, illustrator, and sculptor Charles Vess paid a visit to the Center for Cartoon Studies today, to show original art, give an inking demo, and speak as a part of our Visiting Artist lecture series. Mr. Vess is part of a group of artists including Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jeffrey Jones, and Michael Kaluta, who were all heavily influenced by the great book illustrators of the late 19th/early 20th century. He counts Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, and Kay Nielsen among his early personal influences.

It was interesting to see the relatively small size of his original comics pages, and to witness firsthand the ease with which his exceedingly fine pen strokes are laid on the page. The most remarkable bit of news to me was that he doesn’t fill in blacks in the usual sense — he just layers hatching on top of hatching on top of hatching!

Berlin: City of Smoke

April 23, 2008

The last four months have been gruelling for me, as I taught two classes a week, took care of my daughter half time, and spent every spare hour hunched over my drawing table, trying to finish the second volume of my comics trilogy Berlin. I had missed self-imposed deadline after self-imposed deadline, and I felt like the struggle to get the last chapter out the door would never end — like I was laboring under some sort of Tartarian curse that kept putting un-inked pages under my nose no matter how many I got done. Which, I guess, describes the normal life of a working cartoonist.

Anyway, a little over a week ago I finally shipped Berlin #16 off to my publisher, and the coincidence of that event with the long-awaited arrival of spring could not have been more a more fitting metaphor for my mental state. Within a few days, the four foot accretion of snow and ice outside had dissolved completely, the skies had turned from gray to blue, and everybody on the street had gone from woolen pants to skirts and shorts. There was hope!

I still have some revisions to do in the next few months, but the weight is off for now, and the collected second volume is scheduled for release on July 24th at the San Diego Comic-Con. The above image is a cover “sketch” for the book by Michel Vrana of Black Eye Design.

Spring in Vermont

April 22, 2008

Greetings from the Green Mountain State! I’m currently living with my partner Becka Warren and our 20-month-old daughter Clementine in a renovated farmhouse surrounded by fields and woods. After an epic winter, the new season is finally here and everything seems possible again. The days are filled with birdsong and the nights are raucous with the burps and chirps of the spring peepers and wood frogs that crowd our swimming pond. Becka’s dad just set up a beehive a stone’s throw away, and there are big plans for a garden in the offing.

We’ve moved from Seattle to Vermont partly so I can teach at the Center for Cartoon Studies through spring semester of 2009, lending a hand to my old friend (and CCS founder) James Sturm and finding my footing as a Professor of Comics. I plan to use this space to talk about that experience, but the main focus will be on the creative, practical, and theoretical aspects of my two great passions: comics and games.

Thanks for visiting and I hope you’ll return when there’s more to see!