Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Review: Velvet #1 - Girl Friday, and a Breath of Fresh Air

The last week has been pretty great. Just, you know, in general. But especially for comics. I picked up some real gems at the shop on Friday, both of which are worth writing about. Here's the first:

Velvet #1

I feel like saying "this has been a long time coming" is a little bit cliche. Or even a lot cliche. But I have been waiting for this issue to be released for a number of months now, and I was more than a tad excited when I walked home holding it for real. A little bit of background. This is a spy comic that was announced back in July of this year, to be produced by the fabled creative team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting. I met Brubaker once, briefly. Our 30-second conversation outside his and Greg Rucka's ECCC panel on crime comics consisted of a handshake and determining that he didn't have time to sign my Death of Captain America collection because he was late for lunch. With someone definitively cooler than my 19-year old fanboy self. Honestly I don't blame him, and that never should have come up in this blog post. Anyhow...the man is a legend. His run with Epting on Captain America post-Civil War was a thing of beauty. So when it was announced that the same team was taking on a creator-owned spy fiction project, I may have gotten a little excited.

Hype is a strange thing, usually best avoided. It twists our perception of creative works before they are actualized, and alter our experience of the work when we encounter it, often for the worse. Despite the hype I had built around this comic for myself, Velvet #1 did not disappoint. I suppose that's the thing about dealing with as skilled a writer as Brubaker. I had seen a short preview of some Velvet pages, and it looked great. I assumed I was seeing the opening scenes of this story, and therefore drew conclusions about what I was going to be reading. None of those pages appeared in Velvet #1. The story took a very different road than I'd expected, building slowly, introducing the Cold War setting from various angles and setting up character roles in a skilfully subtle manner. It was fun to read, in part because I know Brubaker's just playing. The espionage flavour was something he had introduced in small doses to the pages of Captain America, but he could only take the action-oriented superhero genre so far down that road. He jumped back past the Cold War to Noir and the 30s and indulged his love of crime fiction and Lovecraftian horror, and we've been able to revel in the glory of Fatale as a result. In this, we finally get to see him let loose all his pent-up espionage ideas, and I'm loving it. The characters are everything you want and never quite what you expect. More than that, they're real and believable people...a damn rare quality in comics which I've probably ranted about at length before. Brubaker makes us believe his world, which is easy, because it's our world. I guess it's something we'll have to get used to, seeing this guy write about the world without monsters and capes. It's the 1960s, when people were still allowed to have names that were names. Velvet Templeton and Jefferson Keller meet at a rooftop party in New York. They talk about wine, before getting into a muscle car where they light up a joint as they take off into city traffic. They end up in a casual relationship, he the secret agent, her the boss's secratary, before he gets bushwacked with a shotgun in Paris. It's clean, beautiful, believable. It feels vintage, in a way best associated with old wines and finely-tuned cars.

Ed Brubaker is half of what makes this issue a pleasure to read. Steve Epting and his art is the other half. Nowhere have I seen an artist capture The City this way in a comic before (Darick Robertson's art on Transmetropolitan is genius, but that City is a little different...). I had art history class this morning, looking at turn-of-the-century representations of New York and views of modernist painters dealing with new urban landscapes. Three key features are suggested for the painting of the modern city: light, angularity, and focal point. Epting embodies that, especially the first. I miss New York. It happens to me about twice a year, that I hit a couple of weeks or months where I pine for that city and find myself folding my pizza slices and listening to Billy Joel on repeat. Part of what I miss is the lights, a landscape of brilliance that makes you understand the phrase "city that never sleeps". Steve Epting gets that. He puts you in a tailored dinner jacket and leather shoes looking out over the golden glow of a city that is as alive at midnight as it's ever been at noon. You're looking through electric towers at a slate-grey sky, and then you're flying over pavement of that same colour, under the glow and past the embers of glaring traffic lights glaring, driving at a terminal velocity that makes all the marquee lights blur together and snatches of lettering jump out of the world outside your smokey windows..."CHERRY BABY". Epting puts you in the city unlike any artist I've had the pleasure of reading. It's a beautiful thing.

There is a cold side to Epting's city as well. It exists in the underground marble-tiled halls of agencies we don't know the names of...but all that is best left for you to discover yourself. We the readers have been granted privileged access to this world of intrigue, by a man I readily consider one of Comics' most gifted storytellers and one of his greatest collaborators. They have chosen to operate outside the guidelines of their chosen genre to give us a story we simply won't see coming. Spy aficionados will love the wild ride where nothing is what it seems. Feminist readers will appreciate the overturned gender roles. Artists like myself will look at and breathe a sigh of, "ooh...pretty". I won't say that it's the perfect comic, because that's ridiculous. I will say it's really damn good. In the words of agent Jefferson Keller, "Press that button that looks like the lighter...

...and hold on."

Friday, 25 October 2013

Taking on Scott McCloud's 24-Hour Comic challenge: By the Numbers

24 Hours.
3 XL Tim Horton's coffees, black
3 pens killed in action
5 PB & J sandwiches
2 bottles of water
1 weird little vial of ginseng extract
1 severely cramped hand
1 couch that is too short to properly sleep on
Innumerable instances of asking Why the hell am I doing this...?


Yup. That's it. I only produced five pages of work in a challenge to draw a twenty-four page book. Defeat? Perhaps. A learning process? Undoubtedly.

I don't think I ever actually thought I was capable of the 24-page goal. I have a pretty solid grasp of just how slow I work and just how motivated I am, generally speaking, at 4 o'cock in the morning. So I figured I might make it to fifteen pages, twenty if I was lucky, the full twenty-four if I drew like a god among cartoonists. I was so pumped to start this thing that I could barely sit still through Art History class on Tuesday. I bolted back to the studio, pulled out all my pens, got my music going, and by 1 PM I was going at it.

I burned out two pens on the first page.

Which, really, I should have taken as a hint that maybe I was using too much ink. A ludicrous amount of ink, even. But I didn't. Instead, I went SHIT I NEED MORE PENS, and promptly hopped a bus downtown to buy more pens than I actually knew what to do with. Back in my studio, having blown a solid hour and a half on my pen run, I put my nose back to the proverbial grindstone and started drawing once more.

And drawing.

And drawing.

Two-thirty AM rolled around. My hand was a cramping mess, vocally arguing with me that no, it didn't want to hold the pen, #*@$ you. My contacts had dried out and my vision was a blurred mess. I had three and a half pages done, and I was too tired to process what had gone wrong. I pulled the offending lenses out of my eyes, collapsed onto the old-as-the-hills studio couch, and fell asleep.

I woke up at five-thirty...and then I woke up at six-thirty. At seven-thirty I grabbed myself by the throat and dragged myself to the washroom, where I forced my contacts back into my eyes at gunpoint and staggered down to Tim's for another cup of black liquid life. And then I drew some more.

And that, really, is the whole story. I wrapped up page five a little early with a massively obese eldritch assassin in a bar, radiating Kirby Krackle from his cellulite-laden arms, and called it finished. I sat back at that point, looked at the pile of paper that I had intended to consume that night, and asked myself for the first time just where I had gone wrong. Well for starters, nobody (I specialize in sweeping and unfounded statements when I'm writing outside my academic practice) can fill twenty-four sheets of 11x14" paper with ink in a 24-hour cycle. First mistake: scale. Secondly, I should never have employed multiple shades of gray (distinctly fewer than fifty, for those who were about to ask) and a couple different greens in this project; black is, really, all you need for something of this nature. Second mistake: shading/colour. And lastly, I'm just too friggin meticulous. My profs have been on my case for years, and now dear Mr. McCloud's challenge has driven the point home. Final mistake: detail.

All told, this endeavour appeared at first to be a failure, but I am way too happy with what I produced to just write it off as such. I was pushed to redraw many times a character that I had only just created, something I don't do nearly often enough. I had to come up with page composition on the fly, and panel composition, and dialogue...and when I work fast and rough like that my language filter shuts down and I end up scrawling obscenity and violence onto the page out of instinct, which is rather a lot of fun. I learned a lot about my working process and my physical limits. I learned that having company in the studio while you work is a beautiful thing. I've been listening to a lot of radio interviews the last couple weeks on the CITR 101.9 station out of UBC Vancouver. Robin McConnell's show Inkstuds, where he interviews a new comics creator every week, is an excellent way to occupy the ears while drawing. What I hear a vast majority of these people say is that being a cartoonist is a lonely career. You work long hours, late at night, by yourself in the studio. I saw a lot of truth in that this week. I found myself questioning whether such a job is my cup of tea. I'd also read some blogs by people who have done the challenge, and found people calling it a rite of passage as a comics creator. Looking back, I suppose I would agree with that. It was a long, lonely night, but I came through the other side of the thing feeling like I could call myself a cartoonist in earnest, like I had just attempted the Mt. Everest of comic projects and, even though I didn't summit, I still climbed the damn thing. And frankly, I'm really stoked to do it again!! 

I will be kicking off next semester in the new year by tackling the challenge a second time, armed with nothing but a black brush pen and a simplistic drawing style. I'm debating working on my "comic scroll", and attempting twenty-four linear yards of narrative drawing instead of pages. We'll see. At any rate, the five pages I did are waiting to be scanned and in late November will be included in a short anthology of my comics work from this semester. Drop me a line if you're interested in buying a copy; prices at this point are negotiable, I think I'd ask for somewhere around $5-10. Anywho, cheers! I'm off to the books and the small mountain of research I have to do. Check out my Twitter feed @Vitaeleous for some snapshots of the comic to keep you entertained...until next time.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Life is like an Inkwell: messy, and full of pens

Oi. It's early, I'm tired, and I should be reading Kandinsky for my art history class but I'd rather sit here and drink coffee and screendump at you.

Figured I'd write out a bunch of the stuff that's going on in my life as an art student right now, partly to inform you and mostly as an entirely self-serving way to organize my thoughts on everything I have to get done in the next couple weeks. I have my first Fourth-year midterm critique coming up a week from tomorrow, which is a tad intimidating. I get to sit down with the two profs coordinating the Fourth-year class and my personal advisor, the ever so lovely and intensely critical Dr. Jodey Castricano, and show them what I've produced this year thus far. Therein lies the rub: I don't think I've turned out nearly enough work to warrant, or at least support, a solid critique. So I'm cranking the throttle on production this week. I'm going to scribble like mad for a couple days, and then put down my pens and venture boldly into the metal shop where I shall make like a blacksmith and get dirty. I have significant amounts of welding to finish before Wednesday. Likely I'll work through the weekend, seeing as I've been put on political cartoon duty at the newspaper and assigned the task of doing next issue's cover (going to print on Sunday, so, there goes my weekend). Monday I must make a serious attempt to get some sleep, because Tuesday I will be...

...taking on Scott McCloud's 24 hour comic book challenge.

I'll be starting at 1 PM on Tuesday and finishing at 1 PM on Wednesday. Which is when my midterm critique starts. Because you know going full-throttle at the drawing table with no sleep for 24 consecutive hours and ending with your first big critique of the year is going to result in some interesting feedback. I intend to have a book for them to read when they arrive for the critique. There's also a chance that I'll be a cantankerous shmo.

So, what're we at: 24-hour challenge, metal shop, newspaper cartoons, midterm critique...ah, term papers. Here. This is the library that is my studio right now:

Yeah. I'm turning this block of cellulose knowledge into two term papers. One will be looking at Jewish culture in America in the early years of the 20th century and trying to understand why the rapidly urbanizing world in that particular place at that particular time with those particular people was the perfect storm that created the Superhero. Why not Paris? Why not Russia? And by the end of the month I have to have an abstract written up so I can submit a proposal for that paper to the PCA. Keeping my digits crossed on that one. The other term paper is taking the form of a comic, because I've been lucky enough to work with academics who are open to me taking that road. I'll be tackling issues of gender and violence and the gaze in Islamic culture, which frankly unnerves me. It's not content that I'm comfortable with, and it's nothing I've ever approached in my art practice before now. But I'm here in this program to get myself out of my comfort zone, so ONWARD!! Into an ink spattered and sleepless unknown where stories crawl out of the realm of informed imagination and make their home in a sketchbook wilderness ruled by a woodland king named Coffee. 

My life is awesome.