Tuesday, 23 July 2013

DAILY SKETCH: The Suspense of Disbelief

A few of you have heard me rant about viewer response to superhero films. Maybe more than a few. The modern audience refuses to suspend their disbelief and simply enjoy a sci-fi movie; they feel the need to dissect it, pick apart every little bit of fiction that doesn't fit into their apparently realism-starved brains. Disbelief, you are being charged with crimes against imagination. When found guilty, you will be given a suspended sentence.

A Work in Progress, and a Challenge Answered

I don't often think about my work in terms of a gallery context. The stuff I make is not meant to be hung on walls, mostly; it's meant to be printed in books. So the fact that I've found myself tackling multiple gallery-oriented projects this summer still confuses me a little bit. I was chatting with a friend on the phone the other day and he made an observation about my summer undertakings and the fact that last time we went for coffee I had waxed verbose on the fact that I hated gallery work. All I could do was verbally shrug. I blame Byron, actually. Byron Johnston was my sculpture prof for three years running, one of the most skilled, gentle, and humble men I have ever had the honour of knowing. One of the last things he said to me before he retired was a challenge, really: to find a way to blend my drawing and my sculpture. If this project is dedicated to anybody, it's Byron, our beloved old man from the sea.

These photos went up about a week ago on my Twitter feed (https://twitter.com/Vitaeleous) as I was preparing the last bit of the proposal for this project. That is now submitted (my first official gallery proposal!! WOOO!) and I'm waiting for the news with bated breath. While we wait, here; I'll give you some pictures to look at and the write-up I submitted to the gallery. It concerns cartoons, journalism, the nature of entertainment, and a liberal dose of nostalgia. Enjoy :)
Saturday mornings as a kid were a beautiful thing when I was growing up. This is not to say that I've stopped growing up, or indeed that I've grown up at all. It is simply to say that I remember those mornings: getting up before anyone else, before dad even started making coffee, and running downstairs (or upstairs, or wherever I needed to go) to turn on the TV and sit and watch as Jerry repeatedly outwitted Tom, and as Bugs mocked Elmer mercilessly.
Saturday mornings have become decidedly less fun as I have gotten older. Now I haul myself out of bed to check Twitter and Facebook and CBC.ca, and what I find there is rarely Warner Bros caliber entertainment. Somewhere a teenager has been shot, or a soldier has died in the line of duty, or a far-off government is collapsing into anarchy and its people are rioting. Saturday mornings, all mornings, are a serious business. They're a time when the world wakes up and collectively discovers what's going on, and starts talking about it. And yet, in the middle of all this global turmoil, we still have the blessed nostalgia to associate Saturday mornings with cartoons. So, why not? Why not use cartoons to start conversations about what's happening in the world, and to explore the conversations already going on out there?
Cartoons are a great way to understand things, and a great way to tell them to others. I as a cartoonist get to break these stories down into simple and communicable fragments to tell a story that everyone can get. That's what this piece is, this big, lumbering piece of metal that I decided to draw on. I want to tell a story that is happening right now and impacting thousands of people close to home. I believe it's important, and I am equipped to tell it using cartoons. So I shall. The story itself is a journalistic piece, composed by me from fragments of many other stories and scripted as a comic strip. The medium: an old and defunct satellite TV dish.
As with all my sculpture work I believe that the material is as important to the piece as the form that I am creating from it. This dish came from a house in which children had been raised and grandchildren entertained; it has had many decades of cartoons streamed through. It has a history of cartoons embedded in its being. It was perfect for this piece. I want this piece to speak to many aspects of both the story and the cartoon form. I want to address the issue of news being used as entertainment, of real-life pain being dramatized for profit. I want to explore the cartoon as an informative medium. I want to play with this synthesis of three-dimensional support and two-dimension image. More than anything, though, I want to tell a story, and have it understood.

"Stay hungry." - Byron Johnston

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Paradigm Shift: Comics, Artists, and the Digital Age

There's nothing more painful than listening to a podcasted radio show that you wish ever so much you could have weighed in on. I was mowing a lawn last week, and listening to a recorded episode of Rex Murphy's Cross Country Check-up, in which Rex was inviting listeners to call in and talk about their concerns regarding the gradual publishing shift from traditional bindings to e-Books and the digital format. I had so much I wanted to say, but of course the time for picking up the phone to talk Mr. Murphy's ear off was long past. So I tried my best to commit the bulk of my thoughts to my mental memo pad, and now with some time on my hands to sit and write I think I'll sort it out here and leave the rest to you.

Comics have been around for...a while. That's a statement that won't surprise anybody, especially if you've read anything on this blog or spent any time talking with me. It's been a hundred years, give or take, since the storytelling form that we now recognize as comics emerged, and in all that time comics have managed to stay comfortable on paper. Not comfortable content-wise. There are always going to be punks like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison messing about with the boundaries of comics stories, but that's not what this is about. Comics have always had pages. Whether you pick up a trade paperback volume at Chapters or a monthly single issue at your local shop, you pic it up and open it and find pages. And then you jump in and start turning those pages, and you lose yourself in the book. There's a lot to be said for books. From a purely nostalgic standpoint, they're old-school. They're romantic. They smell great, and when you put a couple thousand old ones in a shop all together they smell even better. As an illustrator I think of books as a vehicle, the thing that's going to carry my art to the people I want to get it to. I can put pictures on pages, and people will turn those pages to go from one picture to the next, and the next, and the next...but what happens when pages aren't being made anymore? That was the question that hit me while I listened to people phoning in and telling Rex about their children's Kindle reader. What happens to Comics in a world without pages?

Books engage people. It's the turning that does it, the action of reaching and grabbing the corner of a page and moving it, flipping it over to get at the other side so you can keep moving through this world that has, incredibly, been pressed onto the surface of a funny little sheet of paper. I have become lost in countless novels, active in my search for the next plot twist. I don't recall that I've ever become lost in a PDF, so enthralled that it becomes an act of pleasure to reach out and press the "down" arrow. When you have art on a page, the viewer engages with the art in the same way. The challenge of moving book art into digital space is similar to the challenge of moving it into gallery space. The viewer is no longer permitted to touch the art. The world inside a computer is just as sterilized as the walls inside an art gallery. The images there are not for touching; they are there for you to look at from a distance as you move through. But there is no physical engagement. The viewer remains detached, and the art remains stationary.

Art Spiegelman taught me something. Not directly, of course, but through his work (maybe someday I'll learn something from him directly. I'll make sure you hear about it.). If there is one thing that sets Spiegelman apart from other comic artists it is his ability to compose a page. It is one thing to compose an image; it is quite another to compose several sequential images into a cohesive form that stands apart as its own composition. Yet this is Spiegelman's gift: to create pages that are more than just a collection of well-drawn panels, but carefully arranged bodies of work, a whole that is more than simply the sum of the parts. Comics artists strive towards that goal. We labour to understand the visual space of a page and the best ways to lay out our panels, to guide the eye of the reader through the narrative. That space is easily identified. Pages have edges, publishing sizes are standardized. We have almost a century of tradition that we can look back on and study to learn the most effective ways to fill that space. Artists have gotten good at filling those pages, and filling lots of them, and now the industry wants to turn those pages into screens.

This is where my feelings become mixed. A quick note: I spent the last year actively boycotting digital comics and trying to purge digital media from my art practice. Then I accidentally created something that only makes sense if published digitally and was forced to take a second look at the possibility that digital publication is not, after all, something sent from the devil to kill comics. Now then:

We have two options here, the way I see it. We can take comics as they exist now, scan them, and publish them digitally. That's already happening. Most comics these days are created digitally anyways, so its easy. We keep the page sizes we're comfortable with, the page layouts we know, and eventually phase out hard-copy publication altogether. The artists stay happy. Publishing colour digitally is cheap and easy. It's simple, safe, foolproof. We're already halfway there. So...what the hell's the point? Seriously. We're entering an entirely new stage of evolution of Comics here; we are moving the visual narrative off the page and into a realm devoid of physical boundaries. Yet we're just copy-pasting our books into this realm and leaving it at that. We're saying that we want to "embrace the future", "be progressive", but really we're taking the old ways of doing things and doing them over digitally. It's safe. It's boring. It's stagnant.

Let's mix it up. Take all those ideas you have about how to compose a page, and toss them out the window. Better yet, put them in a library full of real books where they can be preserved, studied, remembered, read, respected, and loved for the rest of time. They deserve all that. But leave them out of what you're about to do. What you're about to do is take your passion for drawing and writing and telling visual stories and figure out how to compose a visual narrative in limitless space. No edges. No pages. This world scrolls, it doesn't flip. It has code instead of a spine, pixels instead of ink. So, what are you going to do with it? This is the question we need to be asking, instead of building databases of e-Books with "front covers" that aren't the "front" of anything because they exist in a world with no spatial qualities. When your readers can't pick up your art-vehicle and engage with it physically, how do you pull them in? Without the smell factor of a new book, or an old book, how you do seduce a new reader into buying your art-filled file? Or do you (horror of horrors. This next section contains graphic content, Marvel and DC executives may want to turn away) give it away. Yeah, you heard me. Chew on that.

This is the hard way, because this way involves starting over and reinventing what comics look like. We're fools if we think technology is just going to be free and automatically be easier. If this technology is going advance our art we have to meet it halfway. It's a paradigm shift. It's going to be a lot of hard work, and it's going to change the world.

It's a good thing I have a blog. Rex Murphy would never have let me finish all that.

Friday, 5 July 2013

DAILY SKETCH - American Gods

I posted earlier this week about my love affair with Noir comics, and that if I ever got the chance to draw Neil Gaiman's American Gods I would do it as a Noir. Well, here you go; the sketch of Shadow from that earlier post has...evolved. What can I say? I'm addicted to ink.

Monday, 1 July 2013

A Love of Ink and Shadows

I'm starting you off with a link this time: http://www.gravediggercomic.com/?comic=meet-digger

Read it. If you like Noir, I can guarantee you'll enjoy this comic. That's sort of the view I've come around to in the last few weeks. Maybe it's a view; it might just be a realization. Actually, it could easily be both. The view is that Noir is extremely well suited to the comics medium, due to ink and shadows being conveniently the same colour. The realization is that there is some extremely good Noir being written in comics these days, and the quality of it far outstrips most of the superhero stuff being churned out. That's not to say that all superhero comics these days are crap. But they seem played-out, overcooked, ready for retirement instead of re-boot. Noir feels...fresh.

I also just started using Twitter last week. You might have found your way here from there, or you might be headed there now. Either way, it's proved a very interesting tool for me in terms of keeping up to speed with what certain authors are producing and what people are reading. Ed Brubaker's Fatale #15 just came out last week, and the online response has been incredible. Even he was shocked, which was cool to see, re-tweeting posts from shops that had sold out of that issue. I've been reading his series Criminal, and reviewing it a little on this blog, and have dipped into his Gotham Central work with Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. Both of them are excellent reads, compelling, street-level intrigue with characters that are just real people living real lives...except where Batman is involved. I knew Fatale was something more than all that. Listening to Brubaker and Rucka talk at a panel on crime comics at 2011's Emerald City Comicon in Seattle I'd heard the genuine passion in their voices when they brought up H.P. Lovecraft as a major influence, and how much they loved that weird, shadowy horror. There's a lot of that in Fatale, and having heard the writer talk so passionately about both Noir and Horror, I found myself wanting desperately to read the genre-blend he'd created. It slipped my mind for a long time. Then I saw Fatale #15  trending on my Twitter feed, and two days ago I went and picked up volume 1. I'm not finished it yet, but it is nothing short of riveting. A spectacular read, to say the least. I'll let you know when I figure out how to say the most.

I have a Noir I want to write. Maybe more than one. I'd tell you about them, but then of course I'd have to kill you. As I've matured as an artist I've discovered that I think very little in colour. Images form in mind primary as line and shadow, and when I set about bringing my thoughts to life on the page I do it in ink. I think better in ink than graphite these days. So I suppose that's where my new-found love of Noir comics originates: in the sheer amount of black you can get away within one panel. The first comic I read with that much black was The Long Halloween. Tim Sale draws shadows, and then he gives them permission to reveal figures. It's beautiful. I've also decided that if ever I were to illustrate American Gods by Neil Gaiman, I would do it as a Noir. Come on, the main character's name is Shadow. How could you not?

Shadow found his way out of my pen about an hour ago. He needed a smoke break.
Well, it's late and that's all I've got for now. I shall continue to embrace Noir as my new favourite thing in comics, even if I am a bit behind the times. And I look forward to seeing what Mr. brubaker has up his dark, brooding sleeve. If sleeves can brood...