Archive for the ‘Comics’ Category

Hi, Mom!

August 23, 2008

I never imagined this would happen, but I guess it’s old news that everything is on YouTube these days. You kids with your digital video!


Berlin ist Hier

August 21, 2008

Fed Ex dropped of my copies of City of Smoke today. Clem appears delighted, but it may just be the off-gassing of industrial Chinese printing ink that’s making her smile like that. I’m not as excited as I should be, for some reason. There it is, seven years of my life in 196 pages of story. What is that, like 28 pages a year? Oh yeah, maybe that’s why I’m depressed.

Anyway, here’s to getting the next one done in four!

Hogan’s Äule*

August 13, 2008

The above images show the four stages I recently went through to complete the cover illustration for the German edition of Berlin: City of Smoke. You can see in that first sketch that my drawing often starts out looking pretty awkward, and gets improved through a process of refinement. Figure placement gets readjusted, facial features are shifted, tiny details added or removed. The hardest part about this drawing was making the composition work with the Siegessäule (Victory Column) in the background, and I think it’s marginally successful. The only part I’m not really happy with is Kid Hogan’s head, which in retrospect looks a little squished.

This working method, as some readers and critics have noted, often leaves my finished work looking “cold” and “stiff.” I don’t disagree with that assessment, but neither do I think that there is a single visual standard to which all cartoonists should aspire. Between Gary Panter and Joost Swarte is a rich and multifarious spectrum of visual potential, and I’m happy with my place near the cooler end, having arrived here after many years of experimentation and hundreds of pages of comics.

Still unhappy about the squished-looking head, though.

* Nothing like a bad pun that doubles as an unintentional Tolkien reference.

Create Comics!

June 25, 2008

This week at CCS we’re running a summer workshop — a 5-day series of intensive classes that will culminate in two student-produced anthologies. This year’s enrollment is nearly twice that of last year’s, and some folks have traveled quite a distance to hunker down and draw in White River Junction. Pencils are blurs of motion, eraser dust coats the floor in drifts, and by the end of the week people will be seeing the world as a series of panels in sequence. It’s great to be in an environment where so many people are so excited about making comics!

Insert Barbie Pun Here

June 17, 2008

Besides being a swell guy, Gabby Schulz (aka Ken Dahl) is one of the great unsung talents in American comics. If I could sing at all, I would sing his talent right now in some sort of terrifying streaming audio that would pop in suddenly while you were browsing some other tab and make you frantically click back here to shut it down. So we’re all glad I don’t sing, because it would just distract from me telling you to buy and read Ken’s comics.

Click on the image below to read a sample story from the book (NSFW):

Welcome to the Dahl House collects various short pieces from hither and yon into one nice, tidy, and oh-so-reasonably priced package that amounts to a delightful, beautifully-drawn screed against American “civilization” in the Oughts. Gabby’s more recent work, the Ignatz award-winning Monsters, can be found here.

If I’ve managed to pique your interest about this singular cartoonist, you can also check out Startlin’ Steve Bissette’s interview with Gabby here.

City of Smoke in the Wall Street Journal (Online)

May 27, 2008

I don’t know who reads these sorts of online reading lists, but I have to assume that the Wall Street Journal pulls in a fair number of eyeballs. You have to scroll down, click on the “See our summer reading list” link, then the “Historical Fiction” tab and then the title of the book in the left-hand sidebar. Seems kind of buried, but I’m not complaining! I’m really happy that they put it under “historical fiction” and not a “graphic novel” category, and they say some nice things. Bob Hughes, the WSJ books guy, was also refreshingly kind and well-informed on the phone.

CCS Class of 2008

May 20, 2008

Commencement for the Center for Cartoon Studies class of 2008 was held last Saturday in the old opera house in White River Junction, Vermont. We kicked another crop of misbegotten ideogramographers out the door and celebrated afterwards with root beer and mice made out of chocolate mousse. I would be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear or two during the ceremony. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to spend my first year teaching at the college level with this particular gang of artists, whose careers I will follow with much interest in the coming years. Thank you all for the hard work and passion you brought to the drawing table and classroom!

The above image is a great self-group-portrait the students put together as an awesome parting gift to the faculty. Here’s is a key to the characters with links to their comics work:

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:



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.


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.

Pancakes by the Pond

May 6, 2008

Today was the last day of the Thesis Seminar class that I teach at the Center for Cartoon Studies, so we just had everybody out to our place for some brunch in the swamp by the pond. After a week of gray and rainy days, we lucked into blazing sun and clear blue skies. Most of the students were wiped out from pulling all-nighters to finish their thesis projects, but they were all good sports about making the half hour trip. Thanks for coming out, gang!