Spider-Man vs. Teen Pregnancy
Andrew Farago (Curator at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, and husband of Shaenon Garrity of Narbonic fame) has a blog post about a head-explodingly wrong Spider-Man special feature, co-produced by Marvel Comics and Planned Parenthood, wherein Spider-Man fights teen pregnancy. Specifically, he fights an alien who hypnotizes teenagers into having unprotected sex and getting pregnant so he can use their babies as slave labor on his home planet.
I am not making this up. It's... wow. I am at a loss for words.
It's a sad comment on superhero comics that when they tried to take on Issues of Relevance to Society, they were more likely to do it an awkwardly tacked-on and anviliciously preachy way, like this, than to make the issues a part of the lives of the main characters, like in mainstream fiction.
Comic strips vs. Comic books, FIGHT
The Watchmen movie got me thinking about this.
In the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary book, Bill Watterson presented some of his favorite (and least favorite!) strips, with text commentary. It's a great peek into the mind of one of the all-time comics greats.
There's this one strip in there, a color Sunday strip, which parodies the drawing style of a Dark Age superhero comic, emphasis on the bone-crunching violence. At the end you see Calvin, looking up from the comic book, shell-shocked, going to watch TV, and his mother telling him "There's too much violence on TV, why don't you go read something?"
It's a good strip, it makes a good point. But below it was this comment from Bill:
"You can make your hero a psychopath, you can draw gut-splattering violence, and you can call it a 'graphic novel', but comic books are still incredibly stupid."
I read that in 1995. I worshipped Bill Watterson; anything he said was pretty much the Word of God to me. That thing he said about comic books stuck with me. I read comic strips, I read manga, but I wouldn't touch American superhero comics with a ten-foot pole. After all, they're all incredibly stupid; Bill Watterson says so. I didn't end the embargo until around 2005 when I tried reading really old Fantastic Four, and found that I really liked it.
That one sentence in the Calvin and Hobbes collection turned me off to an entire genre for ten years, one I might have enjoyed.
Look, people are constantly underestimating and dismissing the entire comics medium based on stereotypes of its worst examples. Lots of people didn't think newspaper comic strips could be art; they didn't think they were capable of anything beyond poorly-drawn talking-heads and gag-a-day strips. Bill Watterson spent ten years railing against these small-minded people and continuously proving them wrong.
So why did he turn around and make the exact same misjudgment when it came to comic books? Sure 90% of them are crap, but 90% of everything is crap. Why judge an entire genre by its worst examples? I don't understand it.
Sushu's China Comics
Check out this series of comics that Sushu is doing to explain the little everyday things that are different between China and America.
Time for a Company Trip to the Onsen
You knew I as going to have to do a hot springs episode eventually. I tried to keep it as un-fanservicey as possible.
Except maybe for people with an oba-san fetish. If that's you, then, well, enjoy your fanservice.
You should definitely be reading Skin Horse.
Just a couple weeks old at this point, so catching up on the archives will be easy. What's there so far is very, very promising.
No, I won't even try to explain what it's about. Just go read it. From the beginning.
See, that's how you should start a story. Jump straight into the middle of a bizarre situation so the reader is immediately curious to find out what the heck is going on. Explain later.
A horrible propaganda comic I found
I found this utterly strange comic strip in a stall in the men's room at an In-N-Out Burger in Millbrae, CA last week. (Link not safe for work).
So, what is it? I guess it's supposed to be some kind of slander of gay people, like a Chick Tract or something. Then again, it might be a parody. It's so deranged and hopelessly out-of-touch with reality that I can't tell one way or the other. And where's the punch line, anyway?
When you can't even discern what point something is trying to make, you know it's a failure as propaganda. (At least Jack Chick could never be accused of making that mistake.)
If it's not a parody, it's certainly an "own goal" for whoever made it, since it succeeds only in making homophobia look as stupid as it really is. I can't even get too offended at it, though, since the thought of someone spending time drawing and distributing these is just sad. Or giggle-inducing.
Uchi-con on Saturday
The ol' japanese-cartoon-imation club at University of Chicago is putting on their annual one-day convention, Uchi-con, this Saturday. Here's the schedule and the directions for getting there, in case you're interested.
I helped run it the first couple of years. This year I'm going to go as part of Artist's Alley / Webcomickers panel and make my first public attempt to pimp out my webcomic. Hmmm... I'll have to print up some business cards with my URL on them before Saturday.
Addendum: The Chicago Maroon had a very positive article about Uchi-con.
I found out they make this special kind of graph paper with no lines on it. It's called "paper". They even have this thick kind that doesn't melt or warp when you put watercolors on it. I started using this kind of paper for the inking stage of the latest Yuki strip. I think it's a big improvement.
- Can you identify what university Mai goes to?
- How many plant species can you identify?
- How about their Latin names?
- Does Yuki have a houseplant... problem or something?
- Is the text more legible now? (I used a ruler this time.)
- How about the picture/text balance?
- Is this dialog too much like Expospeak?
- Darknet? Lightnet? Panoptikon? Huh?
Oh hey what's this is it a NEW COMIC PAGE?
Yay, and it only took me from what, October until February? Ah yes, that was the period where I barely spent two consecutive days in Chicago.
With this page, I tried something new: hand-lettering all the spoken words onto the page, instead of typesetting on the computer after scanning. Please tell me what you think it did for coherence and legibility.
Edit: Oh yeah, I forgot the link.
Writing for webcomics
I am back to working on the comic. I have planned out the rest of the first chapter (which should run about 30 more strips, give or take a few) and pencilled the next six strips. But I won't be able to post the next strip until I get back to my scanner and webserver (i.e. the Mac on my desk in my apartment) next Thursday. Until then I'm in California for more planning meetings with Mozilla.
(Egads, what's that burning ball of fire in the sky? Oh, I guess that's the "Sun" that I've heard of. I guess here in California it's visible from the earth's surface.)
I want to talk a little bit about my method for writing the comic. The problem is how to capture the amorphous mass of Yuki-Hoshigawa-themed ideas that's swirling around in my head and turn it into a sequential narrative. (I'm not talking about writing dialogue, so much as just "deciding what's going to happen and in what order".) I've tried several methods before -- pencil in a notebook on the train, giant text file on a laptop -- but none of them has worked the way I wanted.
Finally a couple nights ago I discovered a method that works really well for me. I take a stack of 3x5 notecards and on each one I put a one-sentence description of one of the plot points or jokes that's floating around in my head. (Often the same idea could be either a plot point or a joke, depending on how it's played.) Then I go back through them and jot down the dependencies that each one has. By "dependencies" I mean, for instance, "joke X is only funny after personality trait Y of character Z has been established", or "plot twist A only makes sense after we know fact B about the setting".
So far I'm thinking about each index card as a single strip, but as I go through them again I look for places where two cards could be combined into a single strip. I feel that for a story to be tight and well-paced, every scene should multitask. That is, for a scene to pull its weight, it should provide at least two of the following:
- Setting or background details
- Character development
- Plot advancement
- Thematic statements
I feel that a webcomic has to work in two ways: First, the individual strips have to be interesting (especially if it doesn't update that often). Including two or more things from the list above helps make a strip that has enough substance to stand on its own for a while. But a webcomic also has to work as a continuous story when you're reading through the archives in a big chunk. So for overall story pacing, the comic shouldn't neglect character development for too long, or neglect plot advancement for too long, etc. The different aspects have to be balanced in the long term.
I'm not very good about following my own rules, yet. For instance, in my comic I've been neglecting "plot advancement" almost entirely. Go easy on me, I'm a beginner at this, and I'm figuring it out as I go along.
So, I go through all the index cards again noting which ones hit character development, which ones hit plot, which ones hit theme, and so on, and if a strip is only hitting one of these things, I look for a way to combine it with another.
Next, I can lay all the cards out on the floor in a kind of dependency graph, so I can see what strips depend on what other strips. I can see whether there are several strips that involve the same characters in the same place, so they form a natural scene. From there, I can start to think about what order they'll all be happening in, and try to arrange them so that there's some kind of rising action. This is where the mysterious skill of "pacing" comes in.
Finally, glancing over all of the index cards and their dependencies helps me to see whether I'm missing something. For example, I notice that the names of the people in the office (besides Yuki and Fudai) haven't been mentioned in the comic yet. Some of them are scheduled for character development of their own later on, so I realize I'd better start dropping their names into the dialog, wherever it's natural to do so, in order to get people used to the idea that they might be people with their own lives.
Does it seem weird that I use such an analytical, top-down approach for what's supposed to be a creative process? Well, that's just the way I roll.
So, now I've got the rest of chapter 1 plotted out on index cards. This has a couple of nice side-effects. When I feel like sketching, I can look ahead to the next strip that hasn't yet been sketched. When I feel like inking or writing dialog, I can look ahead to the next strip that needs that done. Best of all, I have a solid base for revising and planning things, which I hope ought to lead to the comic being much tighter from now on.
If I can just find the free time to actually get the damn strips done!
By the way, I've found the TV Tropes wiki to be an excellent inspiration for story writing. (The only problem is that reading it can be so addictive that I never get around to writing anything...) This wiki started out as a list of tropes that are commonly observed on TV shows, but it's grown from their into something much more than that: it's almost like a design patterns for storytelling. And that's cool.
I've also been much inspired by reading the director's cut of Narbonic. This is one of my all-time favorite webcomics, which finished its story and ended after a six-year run; the strips are now being re-run with commentary by the author. The commentary is full of insights. There's a quote I can't find right now, so I'll paraphrase it from memory:
"When I started doing a daily strip, I mistakenly thought my biggest challenge would be coming up with enough material. So I thought I had to use everything I thought of. If this story arc had happened later in the strip's run, I would have cut this particular strip without a second thought."
That is wisdom. Seems like a major part of writing is knowing what to throw away: you will always have more ideas than you can use.
Final link for today: It looks like this hasn't been updated in a while, but what a great idea for a blog: Your Webcomic Can Still Be Saved. Note that in Yuki Hoshigawa I have committed every single listed sin of ugly lettering and ugly dialog balloons. I'll do better in the future, I promise! I'm hand-lettering my next comic; we'll see if that makes the text look better.
Drawn-on-the-airplane comics theater presents...
Not a Yuki Hoshigawa comic; just a random thought I had on the airplane that I decided to comicify with no regard for quality.
The Naughty Librarian
Do you expect me to fly?
Back from my secret mission to California. The Bay Area was experiencing a cool breeze with light rain and everybody was complaining like it was the worst weather disaster in years. Since I came from a place (Chicago) which was ten degrees F before accounting for wind chill, I had little sympathy.
I did a lot of extremely cool things on this trip that I can't tell you about. I think it's probably OK if I mention that I saw a talk by Randall Munroe, the xkcd guy, at Google HQ in Mountainview.
He opened the floor for questions. First Guido von Rossum raised his hand and asked "You keep saying how things you write about in the comic come true; does that mean you expect me to fly?" in reference to this comic. Next, Donald Knuth raised his hand and asked what the O(n log(log n)) algorithm was. (Randall said "You'd have to ask Elaine.")
It was total win, and it really showed off how over the course of the last, oh, year-and-a-half or so, XKCD has gone from being an amusing stick-figure web-comic to being The Official Comic of the Hacker Culture.
Also, driving south on 101 from SFO airport, we saw a car on the highway with the license plate "HALF ELF". I was amused.
Some comics I am enjoying lately
Thanks to Jake for linking me to Breakfast of the Gods, an epic, gritty, violent, noir-ish drama about breakfast cereal mascot characters. Seriously. The main villian is Count Chocula, who has cowed the populace into submission with kidnappings and torture; opposing him are a world-weary Cap'n Crunch and a battle-scarred Tony the Tiger; the first scene opens with the funeral of the Honey-Nut-Cheerios bee. And it's mostly all played straight. I'm not sure what else to say except that you should go read it right now before the artist gets sued off of the Internet by General Mills.
In the realm of comics-in-book-form-that-cost-money, I've been getting a thrill out of Y: The Last Man. The gimmick-o-riffic premise is that a mysterious plague instantaneously kills every male human -- in fact, every male mammal, along with every sperm or fetus with a Y chromosome -- except for one loser from New York City named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand. With a setup like that you know it's going to be either thought-provoking speculative fiction or exploitative schlock. Lucky for us it's the first thing!
It's mostly about the survivors cope with losing their sons, brothers, husbands, etc. and how they try to put society back together after the sudden death of half of the population and most of the government and industrial infrastructure. (The Secretary of Agriculture is suddenly promoted to U.S. President because everyone before her in the chain of succession was male and therefore dead.) Yorick is a walking McGuffin because whatever kept him alive might be the key to saving humanity from slow extinction. The Israeli army wants to kidnap him (Israel had the best-trained female soldiers in the world, and are now therefore a freakin' military superpower); there's a cult of feminazi bikers called the Daughters of the Amazon who want to kill him; there's geneticists who want to study him and his congresswoman mom who wants to keep him locked in a bomb shelter. All Yorick wants is to find his way back to his girlfriend, last seen in Australia.
So, yeah, it's a great book. The writing is really good, and new twists keep coming up, and it's doing exactly what good science fiction is supposed to try for. Can't wait to get the rest of the series!
Hey guys, speaking of comics, what about my comic, huh? Well, I'm halfway through penciling on the next page, and I have layout/dialogue for the page after that. It's been slow going since I've been traveling so much on top of my normal workload. It's not over yet! Tomorrow I'm flying to California again, and then from the 12th through the 21st of December I'll be in Sweden.
..maybe I can get some drawing done on the plane...
Multitasking (A comic with a lot of text in it)
A New Comic Is Posted, Huzzah.
This one took a long time mainly because I had to design a lot of stuff before I could draw it, and designing stuff is time-consuming. Every time I introduce a new character, set, or prop, I need to do sketches first, and this comic has all three. It's the first appearance of Ubuntu-Tan, first appearance of the inside of Yuki's apartment, first appearance of the Mitsubishi MkII Mobile Power Suit, and first apperance of the kotatsu-with-integrated-multitouch-display. (I really want one of these. I wonder if anybody is working on such a thing? If not I might have to invent it myself.) Oh yeah, this was my first time coloring with PrismaColor markers instead of watercolor paints.
Also, this comic spurred me into doing a ton of internet research about traditional African cultures, about the Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF), and about Bangladeshi geography.
Go read it and leave a comment!
My most manga-esque comic strip yet
It's a new comic and it's only been a week since the last one? That sounds like what I would do if I had a regular update schedule or something! Well, here's hoping.
This strip features detailed drawings of food (name the dish Bucho-san is eating!), a 14-year-old girl in a school uniform, and a silent final panel with rain. I think that makes it the most manga-esque one I've drawn so far. I'm rather happy with how it came out.
Also: I want to draw more close-ups of old people. Drawing all those wrinkles is really fun.
Finally: I didn't know what MATZ's full name was until I looked it up to put into the caption in panel 3. That's when I discovered that Yuki's hero is named "Yukihiro". What a delightful coincidence!
IT'S A COMIC
It's a comic. Posting it has made me late for work, so I gotta go now.
Yuki's Electric Dreamtime Hackstravaganza, guest-starring Billie Holiday and the flying toasters
Say, remember that comic I used to do? That I haven't updated since, like, April? And now it's September?
Here it is: the comic that I started five months ago and finished tonight.
Some things I learned about getting a comic done in a reasonable amount of time: First, stick to a fixed layout of a small number of panels. If an idea is too big to go in the panels, cut something. Don't add more panels whenever you think of more dialog. Also don't try to do some crazy Scott McCloud inspired infinite-canvas layout.
Do it in black-and-white. If you must do it in color, at least color it using art materials you're already familiar with, and don't try to teach yourself new painting and shading techniques.
Keep the backgrounds simple. If you can't keep the background simple, at least only show the complicated background once, and don't repeat it eight times from slightly different angles.
Only draw characters you already know how to draw; don't try to create new character designs on the fly and certainly don't try to draw a recognizable likeness of a real-life person.
Keep the dialog short and to the point. Don't include things that you're going to have to research. If you do, don't research them so much that you end up throwing out all of your original dialog and rewriting it all. If you must rewrite all the dialog, do it before you draw the speech bubbles so you don't have to try to squeeze new words into old bubbles.
I broke every single one of these rules. And that's why this comic took five months.
Warning 1: It is about seven megabytes. You will want to have it loading in a background tab while you do something else.
Warning 2: There's a sex scene at the end of it, so, I guess, don't read it if you're under 18 or terminally prudish. AbsolutSauron: ask your sister if you can read it. ;-)
Warning 3: Horizontal scrolling required.
Yuki's Electric Dreamtime Full-Color Hackstravaganza of Sex and Death
To celebrate the fact that Enso is now compatible with Windows 2000 and Windows Vista (previously it only worked on XP), I drew this picture. From top to bottom that's 2k-tan, XP-tan, and Vis-tan.
Now I'm going to see if I can convince the guys at work to put it on the official Humanized website, mwa ha ha ha!
OK, so Stephen has been bugging me for info on the cool project I mentioned a while back.
I'm hosting the project on Google Code. Here's the homepage. You can check out the code anonymously. You'll need Subversion installed to do so. To run it, you will need Python 2.4 or higher installed, as well as the packages wxpython, pysqlite, and sqlobject. The download URLs for these packages are all in the readme document. If you have all the prerequisites, then here's the command lines to check it out and run it:
svn checkout http://rchi-zui.googlecode.com/svn/trunk/ rchi-zui
If the above paragraph made no sense to you, don't worry; just wait a couple months for me to produce an easy-install version.
But what is it?
It's a prototype ZUI (Zooming User Interface) with tag support, aimed at webcomic creation. That is, right now, it's not good for much of anything, but my goal is that it will eventually become The Only Application I Need to edit webcomic scripts, scan in drawings from my scanner, crop, rotate, resize, and touch up images, add speech bubbles, shading, color, gradients, and sound effects, make backups, paste text into speech bubbles in various fonts and formats, save the results, preview them, edit html, preview that, and upload the final version to my web server.
Because the existing tools suck and I am sick of using them. Photoshop is too expensive, GIMP has a horrible UI, and GraphicConverter is lacking advanced features (layers) and doesn't have proper word-processing support either. And even if I did have Photoshop, I'd still have to switch back and forth between that and several other applications, doing the annoying work of importing/exporting/saving as different data formats/copying/pasting in order to get data between applications. That sucks. I want everything in one app.
That's not all I want. I want to be able to do all my image-editing work with my right hand on a mouse or tablet and my left hand on the keyboard. So everything needs to have keyboard shortcuts that I can hit with my left hand.
Wait, there's more. I am very demanding. I want to be able to browse all my files in this app too, so I don't have to switch back to the Finder. I want to be able to put tags on everything so that I can easily find image files by searching on tags, so nothing gets lost in a folder hierarchy. I want to be able select multiple files at once and manipulate them as a group, including performing advanced image-processing on them as a group, and transparently copying them to my web server space, whether it's on the same computer or a different one, to the exact URL I want, and have the new files automatically integrated with my HTML templates and my CGI scripts and my database backend and my RSS feed.
Is this an ambitious project? Hell yeah. In The Humane Interface Jef Raskin proposed an idea for the ZUI, or Zooming User Interface, which would eventually replace the current GUI model. This project is an early prototype of that idea. Eventually I want to be able to do everything in one environment, so that there's never any need to switch between windows. There's just an infinite space which I can navigate around, and zoom into, infinitely deep, like a fractal. And in this space, all functionality of every piece of software I have installed is available to me at all times, through some kind of natural language input, so I don't have to hunt through menus for it.
Enso is attacking that idea from one direction -- giving you all your commands all the time through natural language input. ZUI is another part of the puzzle.
Ultimately, I would love to have a ZUI with good voice recognition and a multi-touch interface like the one demonstrated in this video (thanks Ian for the link) so that I can reach onto my screen, grab objects, and drag them around, while painting with my fingers and speaking commands to the computer.
But for now, there's a lot of advances that can be done even if we're stuck to a mouse and keyboard. I've already got the zooming and scrolling and tagging and searching working pretty well in my prototype. The "drawing tools" are currently limited to a crappy pencil and a crappy eraser; they're just a proof-of-concept, but they work. Everything else is in its very very early stages.
If you're technically inclined, you can download the thing right now and start playing with it. If you want to help, just email me and I can add an account for you on the Google Code project so you will have the ability to upload stuff.
If you're artistically inclined, email me and tell me what features you would ideally want to have in a ZUI for organizing/searching/browsing/creating/editing/manipulating/transforming images.
Unibrow for the win!
Spike said that the guy's unibrow in the latest page of her webcomic Templar, Arizona was inspired by mine. Boo-yah! Also there is a picture of all of us and the McCloud family if you scroll down below the comic. Also you should go back to the beginning of the archives and read all of Templar because it is strange and fascinating.
DM of the Rings
Kathy, an old friend from my JET program days, just sent me a link to a photo-webcomic called "DM of the Rings". It's much the same idea as the post that I wrote a few days ago (which I forgot to put a title on, d'oh) where Lord of the Rings is reinterpreted as an RPG with a horrible railroading DM and bored players wondering where all the loot is hidden. Illustrated with movie stills. It's good stuff, worth reading from the beginning of the archives (this will only take one sitting) and it's especially interesting to look at in light of all the discussion that we've been having here recently.
The part I find disturbing is that, judging by the comments below the comics, the author seems to be taking the DM's side and blaming everything on the players for being "powergamers". Whereas I read the comic and see the opposite problem -- this guy shouldn't be DMing, he should maybe try writing and directing community theater, since he's all but handing the players a script. No wonder they're bored!
Oho, what's this? It's a very late Comic!.
Now I go to work. I'll tell you about that cool idea later.
Corn is a Deal-Killer
It's two days late, but I'm proud of this comic.
I don't have the comic up yet because I was weak yesterday and succumbed to the urge for socialization and fun with friends instead of locking myself in my room and inking all day like I intended. Bad Jono!
(Am I being sarcastic or not? I can't tell sometimes.)
But maybe I can still get it done tonight. Not sure.
Touched by his noodly appendage -- Ramen.
Yuki is back! First new comic in three weeks! Huzzah!
Stephen went crazy and made fan art. Don't believe what he says, I never asked him for anything, but I'm flattered all the same. As Isaac says, "this is both nice and weird/horrible".
The comic is up. A day late because I spent Saturday at Uchi-con and Sunday playing Twilight Imperium. And I'm not sorry! Later on I will post pictures from the weekend.
Japanese people hate confrontation for this very reason
New comic is up. This one gave me a lot of trouble, for some reason. It is starting to go in some kind of weird directions. I am quite proud of Bucho-san's face in panel 3; I redrew it several times to achieve just the right mixture of condescension and dismay.
Giant Pile of Random Cool Links
People have been sending me lots of cool links lately. Here are some in no particular order.
A congressman from Oregon goes on a bizzare rant about how There are Klingons in the White House. And not even real Klingons, faux Klingons.
Somebody did a realistic computer simulation of Zombie Evolutionary Epidemology. Inspired by an important point that T-Rex of Dinosaur Comics made about zombies.
For sale: a Plush Rygel XVI from Farscape.
Penny Arcade: If grocery stores worked like video game stores.
Vote for the funniest picture. There's some dumb/crude stuff in there obviously but a lot of them are truly hilarious. The current top 40 are here. This is a site set up by the guy who draws one of my favorite webcomics, XKCD.
Dresden Codak. A webcomic I wish there was a lot more of, but given how intricate the artwork is, I understand why there's only a relative few of them. But man! Oh man! The colors! The surrealism! The philosophical pretentiousness! The D&D references! It's like prog rock in webcomic form! Go there now and read all of the archives! Marvel at their beauty and strangeness! I wanna draw like that someday.
A dude plays the guitar and talks about how much he hates Pachelbel's Canon. You don't know what Pachelbel's Canon is? Yes, actually you do, you just don't know that you know. Go watch this, all the way to the end, it's inexplicably hilarious.
Also inexplicably hilarious and on YouTube: College Saga. If you have ever played a Final Fantasy game, you must watch this. The creativity that went into it is really impressive. The first part is the best; it's diminishing returns after that.
Not funny, but rather insightful: Stephen writes about the 0x10 most ignored rules in free software. I guess this is mostly only of interest to software developers, but it's a good read.
More old links from my friends' livejournals: Sushu starts an interesting conversation about smart and socially alienated kids.
More recently, mah favorite emo-boy Eric recounts this fascinating true story about an encounter with a poor sick man in a wheelchair and the philosophical implications thereof.
That's all I can think of right now. You go read that stuff and I'll get back to working!
The comic number 13 is up. Also I made this totally sweet title banner:
Which you could use if you wanted to put a link to my comic, for instance.
Comic page 10 is up
I'm back from Christmasing now and the comic is up. Also I have a pretty bad cold. I'll write more later.
And again, I updated The Comic this morning. These jaggy speech bubbles are really bothering me, as is the fact that the only program I have to do lettering is an old Japanese-only copy of ClarisWorks and I can't figure out how to adjust vertical spacing of text. When I was in the Apple Store last week with the guys from Humanized (man that place creeps me out, it's like a cult headquarters) I saw a cheap Mac program called Comic Life which seems to be intended entirely for adding speech bubbles to images. I might have to try that out.
I do update even if I don't make a post
I did update the comic yesterday morning, by the way. I said it updates Monday and it does, even if I don't put up a weblog post about it! And then the first comment broke the comment system (thanks Stephen). Drat. I'll have to go fix that tonight.
This latest page I actually drew back in spring 2006, but here's where it goes chronologically, so here it is... and boy, my drawings were noticably worse back then, as was my ability to write dialogue! I guess I should be happy, that means I'm improving |=`). I fixed the dialogue up a bit (it was originally lettered in ugly pixelated 12-point Geneva) but I left the drawings alone because I'd rather spend my time drawing new stuff instead of being a perfectionist about every old panel.
Thanks for your support so far, everybody!
I have just added the ability to leave comments directly on pages of the comic.
Your username and password there are the same as here. Also it has an improved interface where, if you're not logged in yet, you can login and leave your comment all in one form submission, which ought to make things a little simpler. There will probably be some bugs to work out but if you like this system I will apply it to weblog comments as well.
BTW, the weblog and the comic are both reading and writing the same cookies and the same database tables, but the weblog is in Perl and the comic is in Python. Now that I know how to do in Python everything I used to do in Perl, I really don't want to write Perl anymore. Actually, the main thing is that I don't want to have to read Perl anymore, even my own. So I might migrate this part of the site to Python too, but... no hurry.
Yuki Hoshigawa Update
The Hoshigawa update is up. This makes 1 consecutive week without missing an update! Huzzah!
I might as well change the comic to "Yuki Hoshigawa and the Obsessive-Compulsive Need To Draw Wrinkles In Fabric". And irrelevant background details which take forever and probably nobody will even notice.
Panel 3 is my first attempt at doing colored point-light-sourcing with watercolors, and it shows, but I'm still proud of it.
Trivia question: In panel 6, who is that a statue of? It's a real historical figure.
A bonus page
I stuck up page number 6 of the comic. This was intended to be part of the batch that went up last night, but I needed sleep, so here it is now. Next update is still next Monday.
The following link will always take you to the most recent page, so this might be the link you want to bookmark:
Latest Page of Yuki Hoshigawa.
Big big thank yous to everybody who has already left comments! They make me happy! I'm going to rig it up so that you can leave comments on any individual page of the comic -- just as soon as I figure out how to read cookies with Python. Also I want to rig it up so comic updates appear in the RSS feed even if I don't post anything here about them. Yay for web programming in my spare time.
It reminds me of the old cartoons from 70s university publications.
Um... OK? That's not a comparison I expected to hear, and I don't think I've ever seen one of the cartoons you're talking about, but any comparison to the decade which was the pinnacle of human civilization, the 70s, makes me happy. I've already made two references to 70s anime and one reference to 70s prog rock. See if you can find them.
I can't tell whether Hashbang is about Slashdot or Fark
Slashdot, definitely. I've never read Fark. I notice that hashbang.com
is unregistered (although there is a hashbang.org
already ) so I am tempted to grab it and continually put up fake news articles about the future with idiot comments in several different languages, but if I did that I would never get around to finishing the comic.
especially making me wonder what the fuck the Panoptikon is
Mua ha ha ha ha ha ha!!
Totally different starting point in the story, but that's cool...So I take it the social commentary will come in later?
The scene that is now the first page of the comic is the sixth
unique scene to hold that dubious position, by my count. Figuring out what's a good way to start things is hard. I finally figured that what works best is to just start off with the main characters in their natural environment rather than have any sort of framing device, narration, flashback, prologue, or other unrelated waste of time.
But everything I've drawn before, including the 5 previous "first scenes", will get recycled at some point. Example: In this strip, panels 1, 2, and 5 were recycled from a strip that I drew in summer of 2003 and never showed to anybody. So the gap between panels 2 and 3 in that comic, which is instantaneous in internal chronology, is three years of real time.
Yes there will be lots of "social commentary" coming up. And plot. But I thought it was most important to establish some character motivations first.
I made a comic
It's called Yuki Hoshigawa and the Scariest Thing in the World.
The comic is basically about a collision of two worlds I've been a part of -- Japanese culture and computer hacker culture. It is set slightly into the future. I am attempting to make each page function as a discrete chunk of humor or at least interestingness, while also progressing the story, such as it is. The meaning of the title will become clear in the fullness of time.
There are five pages up now. I will do my best to upload a new one every Monday. If I can keep to that, I ought to finish the story I have planned in, oh, about ten years.
There's not much else to say yet. I've been working on this for a long time (since 2003), and a few of you have seen various false starts and bits in progress. This time I think I've got most of the bugs worked out of it. But I have absolutely no idea how most people are going to react to it. Maybe the jokes will be too obscure. Maybe the plot won't make sense to anybody but me. We shall see.
My Sister the Hardcore Gamer
I'm at my parents' house (which I just realized is precisely "Space Wolves Grey", heh heh, little WH40K humor there), and Aleksa is upstairs getting read a bedtime story by Mom, so I finally have a break and I can write some website stuff. (Must... not... use... the b-word!)
One of the things Aleksa has been very much into lately is a computer game called Zoo Tycoon 2 (she always corrects me if I leave off the number). This is supposed to be a Sim-City style strategy game, in that the basic mechanic is:
- Attract people by building cool stuff.
- Afford cool stuff by getting money.
- Get money by attracting people.
- Repeat until bored.
But Aleksa has decided that attracting zoo visitors cramps her style. She figured out how to put the game into "infinite money" mode, and since she doesn't need guests' money, she doesn't let any guests in. Sometimes she doesn't even put the animals in cages. She just uses all the zoo-construction tools to build a huge and wondrous playground for her animals to roam around freely, and ignores the game's warnings about how there's no way for guests to view the animals and how her zoo has a zero popularity rating. Then she figured out how to put the game camera into zookeeper's-eye-view mode, and explores her zoo that way, going across bridges and down over waterfalls and through swamps full of crocodiles.
It's a pretty good example of how games can be played in a way completely different from what the designers intended, if you just set your own goals. I hear that since the success of Grand Theft Auto, "sandbox" play has become a buzzword in the computer games industry. But it's not really anything new, since it existed in SimCity and even long before that.
I guess this Zoo Tycoon game is pretty educational, too, since Aleksa has been using words like "biome" and "scenario" and telling me about animals I've never heard of like the Okapi and the Spectacled Bear. Also she says things like "Look! See those hearts above the hippos' heads? That means they're in love! That means the female hippo is going to get pregnant and they'll have babies!!" Like I said. Educational.
She also can't wait for the next expansion pack to come out (it's going to be "Sea World" themed). She sounds a lot like a World of Warcraft player when she talks about the expansion pack. I told her about how some people love computer games so much that they wait in line outside a store for the store to open on the day when a new expansion pack for their favorite game is going to be released. She looked at me and said, real seriously, "But Jono, I can't do that! I don't have any money!"
Aleksa was also messing around in Google Sketchup (see earlier post) and looking at a contextual menu, and I idly said "Try clicking 'Walk', see what that does." And she clicked "Walk". So I know that she is for sure reading at least simple words by herself. But she seems to be one of those "stealth reader" type of kids who pretends not to be able to read because she likes to have people read to her.
Lately she especially likes to have people read her the comics. When we're done she laughs. Even if the comic is not funny, or I know that she didn't get it, she laughs anyway. You can tell that it's a pretty fake laugh. I guess she's just decided that laughing is part of the game so she's going to do it no matter what.
Her favorite newspaper comic is "Prickly City". This is a relatively new one about a girl and some kind of fox-creature(?) wandering around in a desert which I guess is supposed to be Arizona or something. It's very lame. Which should go without saying since with a very few exceptions, all newspaper comics in history have been very lame.
(Oh, this is a good point to drop in a link to The Comics Curmudgeon, who posts lame newspaper comics and then vivisects them and mocks them with merciless deadpan humor, kind of like MST3K or something. I read it every day.)
Worst part about "Prickly City" is that it sometimes tries to be political, in that the author has obvious conservative leanings which he sometimes just can't keep from putting in the mouths of his characters, even though it doesn't make any sense for little girls and foxes to have any political views at all.
There have been several great or at least good liberal-leaning newspaper comics, but there have been very few conservative-leaning ones and they have been uniformly lame and boring. It's kind of a shame, really, because it would be better to have both sides of an issue, and I think it would be quite stimulating to read a comic which puts forth ideas I disagree with in a witty and intelligent way. (When I say the good liberal ones, I am thinking of Doonesbury, Boondocks, and Bloom County; your milage may vary... although I suppose the only reason they are recognized as "liberal" is because they got most of their jokes out of making fun of conservative politicians, and in the braindead with-us-or-against-us atmosphere of modern American politics you are defined by who you attack... then again, Doonesbury made fun of Clinton constantly when he was in office (they drew him as a floating, talking waffle for crying out loud) so I'm not sure it's fair to say that Doonesbury is all that biased one way or the other.)
Prickly City is sadly no exception to the dismal pattern. Its political "wit" is usually limited to having one of the characters randomly say something about Hillary Clinton being an extremist or that Iraq isn't doing as badly as people say. Boring and predictable.
But it's Aleksa's "favorite comic" and she always laughs at it. And I say "Wait a minute, Aleksa, you don't even know who Hillary Clinton is! You're just laughing because you arbitrarily decided that this is your favorite comic and so you're going to laugh at it no matter what!" She denies this.
Sadly, I think that also describes the way in which some people end up with their political affiliation: pick a side based on some superficial quality and then defend it to the death.
I went home for another visit to the family and Al told me about Yet Another Google Beta Project called Google Sketchup.
This is not something you use on the Web like the also very cool Google Spreadsheet (Microsoft: Oh my god we are obsolete now). This is something you have to download and install on a Windows machine (Microsoft: phew, we will at least be allowed to survive as a platform for Google applications).
Google Sketchup (it rhymes with ketchup! Heh heh heh) is a 3-d drawing tool with an extremely streamlined interface. It doesn't have any of the intimidating interface cruft that professional 3-d design software has, and it does a very good job of defaulting to the behavior that you basically want it to have most of the time, and it has a very nice set of animated tutorials, so it seems pretty easy to learn. It lets you draw 2-d shapes and then stretch them out into 3-d objects with just a few mouse movements. The paint bucket lets you change the composition of a surface into bricks or wood or glass or whatever, and there is a menu of pregenerated models of things like people and trees that you can drop in like clip-art, and it does realistic outdoor daytime shadows by default. So it's kind of biased towards making houses and towns, but you could really use it for anything. Google even encourages you to use it to draw your own house, and then drop it into Google Earth in order to improve Google Earth's accuracy and detail. (Go ahead, it's not like Google doesn't already know all of your secrets.)
I've been playing with it for only about half an hour so far, but I can tell it has a lot of potential. My six-year-old sister loves playing with it, and at the same time, my professional architect stepfather uses it at work, where he says that the pay version of Google Sketchup has spread like wildfire and quickly replaced their AutoCAD software for many common uses. Having a range of users like that has got to be a pretty good argument for a piece of software, eh?
Aside from all the obvious uses, it seems like Google Sketchup would be a very attractive tool for making webcomics! Somebody with no drawing skill at all could quickly use it to make some interior and exterior settings, populate them with clip-art people, take a screenshot from a good camera angle, and add some speech bubbles. The default display settings have a clean, cartoony look which lends itself well to this sort of use.
I'm not going to do it, because I like drawing my own backgrounds, but I'm sure somebody will. Thing is, only one person can really get away with it, because after that, everybody else who tries will get the exact same look and it will become very cliche and boring.
Last Friday I got Scott McCloud's brand-new book, Making Comics. It will be seen as part of a trilogy along with Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, but really it's much more of a direct sequel to the first book. (In other words: if you were disappoianted by Reinventing, as many people were, then here is the book that you probably wished it was.)
The difference between Understanding and Making is that the former was something like a PhD thesis in comic-book form, while the latter is a how-to guide in comic-book form. It is not a how-to-draw book. There are already lots of how-to-draw books; this is a how-to-tell-a-story-with-pictures book, which is a topic that has only very rarely been directly adressed, ever. So yeah, I needed this book! There's a lot of stuff in it about choosing panel layouts and "camera" angles and other mechanical details, always stressing that there's no "right" answer but always helping you to understand what the artistic effects of the different choices would be.
Another great thing: it's chock-full of examples and visual quotes from some of my favorite comics ever. Every couple pages I let out a happy yell of recognition as I saw a chunk of a panel from some obscure comic I read and loved years ago. There's panels from Calvin&Hobbes, Ranma 1/2, Sandman, Rose of Versailles, Maus, Edward Gorey, One Piece and Osamu Tezuka, Tintin and Asterix, Fantastic Four, Watchmen, Persepolis, Penny Arcade, Ghost World, Jason Shiga and James Kochalka and Spike. There's webcomics, newspaper comic strips, newspaper comics, manga, European comics, graphic novels, underground comics... none of the book is biased towards any particular format or culture. All the advice is universally applicable, which is really cool!
There is a chapter about facial expressions and body language which is mind-blowing. It's one of the most insightful things I've ever read. Scott dissects the way that the body and face express emotions with such vivid accuracy that I will literally never look at people the same way again after reading this book. Search the web for reviews of Making Comics and you will find there's a lot of discussion going on about this chapter in particular.
As someone who spends way too much time putting tiny details in the backgrounds of my drawings, I was also a big fan of Chapter Four, "World Building", in which Scott discusses the importance of creating a sense of place with establishing shots and so on, and pleads desperately to his readers to please learn how to draw in perspective and not to skimp on backgrounds!
Finally, in the chapter on styles and genres, there is an analysis of manga, as in what makes it feel different from western comics, which made me want to stand up and applaud. NO IT IS NOT JUST BIG EYES AND SPEED LINES THANK YOU VERY MUCH. "And as styles and stories on both sides of the Pacific Ocean continue to evolve, manga can be seen for what it always has been: Another word for comics." he says.
So, I am mighty inspired by this book. I've been drawing a lot lately anyway, but Making Comics came along at just the right time to give me a mega inspiration boost. I am rapidly nearing the point where I will be ready to unveil a secret project that I've been working on for a very long time. By a strange twist of fate, it looks like this will happen at almost exactly the same time as Humanized finally releases Enso. In other words, next month is going to be, knock on wood, a pretty exciting time for the life of Jono!
"Ha! You missed! And you won't get another shot! Certainly not during the time it takes me to speak all the dialogue in this panel!"
Yeah, I've been reading more Marvel comics. The "Essential X-Men" collection. This is the 1970s "reboot" of the X-Men -- so it's not the original version with Iceman, but rather the much better-known version with Wolverine.
So far I am not liking it as much as I liked the Fantastic Four. It's from that awkward time period in the development of superhero comics after they lost the innocence of the early stuff but before they gained the depth and self-awareness of something like Watchmen or The Incredibles. I would describe this particular version of X-Men as very adolescent.
What I mean is that it takes itself way too seriously, and it's trying to have more depth and maturity but it doesn't really know how, so it compensates with lots of violence and angst and cynicism and clenched-teeth attitude. Everybody either has no personality or they are a Bitter Angry Loner. (Just like Final Fantasy 7!) Whereas in earlier superhero comics, everybody either has no personality or they're Gung-Ho Defenders of the American Way. Which I find kind of charming in a goofy nostalgic way. Whereas the bitter angry loner thing has been done to death these days, and it just really gets on my nerves.
I've been having an e-mail conversation with my cousin about trends we hate in modern anime, and the Jaded, Sulking, Nobody-understands-me kind of hero is high on both of our lists. I'm not a teenager anymore, so I have no sympathy for characters like that. I kinda want to smack them around and tell them to grow up already.
Other trends that suck:
- Non-Sequitur Endings
- shows that try way too hard to be Edgy and Innovative (it usually backfires on them)
- remakes and sequels and anime based on video games
- shows that get so caught up in structural innovation that they completely lose the plot
- heroines who are emotionless killing machines
- comedies based on spoofing the cliches of a certain genre (this has been done so many times it is now a cliche in its own right)
- shows that try to get your attention with outrageous nonsensical gimmicks
I really want to watch an anime that is an original story with no gimmicks. Something that's just based on quality characterization and storytelling. Preferrably hard science fiction, but any genre is OK, really. And with no panty shots or gigantic boobs. That's all I want. Is that too much to ask, Japan?
I'm really looking forward to seeing this Haruhi Suzumiya show. Everything I've heard about it has been very positive.
Anyway, back to 1970s X-Men: Cyclops is a tool. Colossus and Banshee are embarassing ethnic stereotypes. Wolverine is the aforementioned bitter angry loner. Thunderbird is both a bitter angry loner AND an embarassing ethnic stereotype, but he dies after like two issues. Nightcrawler is kinda cool but has no personality. So the only characters I like are Professor X and Storm. Storm is admirable. She is calm, collected, competent (all words that begin with C!), self-confident without being arrogant, and there is plenty of misfortune in her backstory but she doesn't feel the need to angst about it all the time. Although she's from Kenya she somehow managed to avoid the curse of embarassing stereotypes that afflicts all the other ethnic characters. Yeah. Go Storm.
Random point of continuity: the X-Mens' uniforms are made out of the "unstable molecules" invented by Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic). That's right. Different superhero teams share technology. Also, the scene in The Incredibles where Edna shows off the special properties of the costumes she made is clearly an homage to Reed Richards' "unstable molecules".
One thing that totally boggles my mind about Marvel universe is that it seems to have been officially established that artist/writer team Stan Lee and Jack Kirby live there. They appear in the background of a New York City panel in X-Men saying something to the effect of "Stuff like this never happened when we had the book". Stranger still is the scene in Fantastic Four where Lee and Kirby are hanging around their studio trying to think up new villians for the Fantastic Four to fight. They talk about how they never should have had Dr. Doom get launched into deep space, because great villians like him are hard to think up, and then Dr. Doom smashes his way into the building and kidnaps both of them. What the...?!?! It's like a self-insertion fanfic collapsed in on itself and twisted the fabric of the fictional universe into some kind of Moebius strip!
Random goofy links
Here are some links to randomly amusing things to help you waste time on the Internet.
A one-minute TV advertisement for Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, which is one of the best albums ever (I have it on vinyl). This commerical is... wow.
Cookie Monster as Shaft ("Cookie!!") This is an actual Sesame Street clip. See, cookie monster was awesome back before he sold out. "Cookies are a sometimes food" ?!? What kinda BS is that?
Dinosaur Comics is very funny and you should read it every day. You might think that a comic which uses exactly the same artwork for every single strip would be boring, but the way this guy writes dialog is so brilliant that it more than makes up for it!
I was laughing at this comic for hours. That is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Do I have a sick sense of humor?
Order of the Stick is another great comic, but probably only funny if you're a role-player. The people are all stick figures, but they're really well-drawn stick figures... I can't explain it, just go look at it and you'll see what I mean. The characters are all part of a D&D game; and the game is its own self-contained universe -- you never see outside it -- but at the same time the characters are fully aware of the rules of the game. It's a strange blending of reality and fantasy but it works great, especially as the strip progresses and becomes more about the personalities and the story than just about the gaming jokes.
Some joker took Kurt Cobain's (the guy from Nirvana) suicide letter and ran it through Google AdSense to see what ads would be matched up with it. Ouch.
Finally, just to show that I'm equally willing to ridicule those on my own "side" politically: the Gorequiz is a series of quotes from Al Gore's Earth in the Balance and from the Unabomber's Manifesto. Can you tell which ones are which?
(Not that I think this proves anything -- since there's obviously a lot of cherry-picking going on -- but it's funny.)
It's Clobberin Time!
At Chicago Comics the other day, I bought a big ol trade-paperback compilation
called Essential Fantastic Four. It is a collection of black-and-white
reprints of the first 20 issues of The Fantastic Four, from way back
in the early sixties. It's pretty awesome. It's the kind of thing where they
refuse to let physics or logic or common sense get in the way of telling a good story.
And oh, what a story it is. All the things that The Tick and Mystery Men
and The Incredibles spoof so effectively are right here, in their pure, larger-than-life,
completely unironic form. Ohhhh man. The magical super-science; the don't-know-any-better sexism;
the flying saucers; the ever-present worry that the Communists might have super-mutants more
powerful than our super-mutants... it really is a window on its times. I was expecting
to enjoy it on the level of camp, but I'm surprising myself with how much I'm enjoying it
straight-up, just cuz I'm eager to find out what happens next.
When I was a teenager, of course, I was much too sophisticated to be interested in superhero
comics. And now that I'm 26 I'm getting into the Fantastic Four? What does this tell us
about my mental development?
My favorite bit so far is in Issue 6 where Dr. Doom teams up
with Namor, the Sub-Mariner. The first time we ever see
Dr. Doom, he's got a book next to him that says "Science and
Sorcery". Cuz, you know, they're practically the same thing in
Marvel-Comics-land. One panel Dr. Doom might be inventing space
rockets and implausible magnetic-levitation devices; the next panel he
might be summoning up demons.
And the explaining, oh the explaining. In manga, or in modern American comics,
actions are conveyed mostly by having a series of images which illustrate the action, maybe
with the help of some sound-effects and motion lines, and speech bubbles are used only
when there's a conversation going on. But in 1960s superhero comics,
apparently the narrative convention is that everybody constantly explains everything they're
doing. Villians are constantly explaining their plots to the audience. Heroes are
constantly explaining exactly how they are using their powers to do what they're doing.
Every panel, if it doesn't have dialogue explaining what's happening, will have a narrator
interjection explaining what we're seeing. There hasn't been a single silent panel yet, in
seven issues. Every single panel is like
"Little do the puny humans realize that I, Kurrgo, Master of Planet X, am watching
their every move through my interplanetary atomic observo-scope!"
"I'll knock down this wall to escape!"
"He just knocked down that wall and escaped, just as I expected he would!"
"By increasing the heat of my flame and flying close to the surface of the water, I can
create a giant cloud of steam to hide our ship's position!"
Did this seem normal, to readers back then? Cuz it seems absolutely nuts to me. I mean
can you imagine if I went around narrating my every action like that?
"Using this liquid dish-soap and the rough surface of this scrub-pad, I will remove the
food particles from these dishes! Just wait until the rest of the gang gets back and sees
how clean they are!"
Unnatural, isn't it?
P.S. Did you know The Thing is Jewish? I didn't either, but it's apparently canon.
A very silly comic
The Knight And The Kninja
Aleksa is five, and obsessed with knights and ninjas and dinosaurs. So I drew her a comic starring all three. It was supposed to be a christmas present, but I got way overambitious and decided to ink it and shade it and everything. Which is why I didn't give it to her for christmas 2005 as I originally intended. I finally finished it during the days I spent bedridden with the flu this week.
It's just a very simple (and goofy) story with very simple (and goofy) drawings, but I'm proud of how it turned out. The only thing I don't like is that the Faber Castell shades-of-grey markers I used leave a streaky pattern when I fill large area with them. Bleah. I hope Aleksa likes it and saves it until she's older and doesn't decide to color on it with crayons or something.
I'm almost over a really bad sickness. I missed two days of work with a horrid stomach flu. Felt like a monstrous larva was crawling around in my abdomen taking bites out of various organs. Threw up a whole bunch and couldn't eat anything. It was unpleasant. I'm feeling better now, but my neck is really sore. And I'm in a weird place mentally, so if the content of this post seems disjointed, blame the germs.
Most of my other friends either have already had it or they are just coming down with it. The onset of this epidemic coincided with Isaac's arrival from Portland for a week-long visit. He himself was perfectly healthy and unaffected, and therefore the theory has been proposed that he is a carrier, a "Typhoid Mary" if you will.
I have this electric heater which I use to keep warm in my poorly-insulated apartment in the bitter Chicago winter, because gas heat is too expensive. Man, I hate this apartment. My hatred begins with heat not being included. The electrical outlets are really sketchy. Every time you pull a plug out of one it feels like the whole box and faceplate assembly is going to pull right out of the wall. The sink is hard to turn on and off. The kitchen is too narrow. And I sleep on a sunporch which doesn't retain any heat. I've learned my lesson. Next time I pick an apartment I am going to put way more time into examining the details and not just take the first place that looks kinda good and is cheap.
So anyway I have this electric heater, next to the living room couch, where I have been sleeping because my sunporch room is too cold. And when Isaac was here he sometimes sat on top of the heater to warm his bottom. Usually nothing special happens. But last night he sat on it and huge sparks flew out and the living room circuit overloaded and the lights went out. Not so good. We flipped the circuit breaker and tried the heater again, but it immediately sparked so we turned it off and are leaving it off. This heater was kind of a sleazy number we found when we moved in, and it makes me dehydrated, so good riddance. I'm just going to turn the gas heat back up and suck up the cost. Spring can't be too far away at this point.
A few nights ago I had this great dream that I was doing some stuff, and I found a really cute sailor-fuku to wear. It was navy blue with red trim. I put it on and then I was pretty and that made me happy.
Another night, I had a dream that there was a such a thing as a sex act called an "L-job", but nobody would tell me what an L-job was. They wouldn't tell me, dammit. I was really curious.
Last weekend was that Uchi-con thing, and it was totally rad. You could feel the love. No drama, no crisis, just really laid back and lots of people having lots of fun. We did (or rather, my crazy undergrad friends with the Copious Spare Time did) a better job of advertising this year, so we got more people coming from other universities. And we made a good decision to condense more stuff into fewer rooms, so we didn't have sadly underpopulated rooms like last time.
This amatuer band called "The Spoony Bards" showed up uninvited and set up their guitar and keyboard in the hallway and started playing famous video game music and taking requests. They were pretty good. Definitely added to the atmosphere. Next year we will definitely invite them back.
I played a little bit of Taiko no Tatsujin and DDR, but I spent the entire con hanging out with the webcomics artists who I mentioned in my previous post. They are such totally cool people. The panel ran twice as long as it was scheduled for, since we were having such a good discussion and nobody really wanted to stop. Everybody was doodling charicatures of each other and talking about dramatic pacing and characterization and what influences their drawing style and how often one has to update to maintain an audience, stuff like that. Good times.
I got so inspired to draw that I got back to work on a certain mini-comic that I originally started doing as a present for Aleksa. I finally finished it over my two sick days. After I'm done with this post I'm gonna go scan it in and put it up.
Speaking of webcomics, enough people told me to read Achewood that I was finally pushed over my "people-telling-me-to-read-stuff" threshold and read it. I do not regret it, for Achewood is a very good comic strip. The characterization through dialogue is very well done. After I read a bunch of Achewood I find that its writing style starts to influence my speech patterns. The humor can be absolutely filthy at times, so don't read if you don't like that kind of stuff. You have to start at the beginning; the beginning is not very good, but without it nothing makes sense.
After Uchi-con I went up to my sister Kristin's place on the north side for a bit of an anime party. Her apartment is totally crazy, with big naked fairies painted all over the walls and stuff. I guess they let tenants paint on the walls there because it's all artist apartments. Basically it's like Kristin took her room from home and made it into a whole apartment. It's so Kristin, you know? Saw some Chobits (we hates it) and Naruto (we hates it) and the dialogue-free experimental animation Cat Soup (quite good). I fell asleep on her floor and then went straight from there to work the next day.
Then I realized I had left my keys on her floor, so we had to arrange a morning rendezvous at the Dunkin' Donuts downtown where she works so she could return them. It was a logistical operation worthy of some spy movie, especially because this Dunkin' Donuts is inside a federal government building protected by armed policemen and metal detectors.
Tomorrow is the big day, Uchicon, the University of Chicago anime club's third annual mini-convention. My undergrad friends who have free time to spend on this stuff have been putting huge amounts of work into making it happen. It's got a sort of academic focus (no! really!). We invite people from "Asian Studies" and "Film Studies" departments at other universities who have written papers about Japanese pop culture to come and give talks. Pretty nerdy, eh? This way we can get funding from the student government. It also gives us a unique identity, which is what you need when you're trying to get a new convention started.
Last year I ran the "Old School Room" where I showed only pre-1985 anime. It ruled. But I wished I had gotten to hang out more with the webcomics artists downstairs. So I'm happy that this year Sushu has given me the job of hosting the webcomics panel! Huzzah!
So yeah, I love webcomics. I mean, most of them are total crap, it's true. Even more so than most anime is total crap. But so what? The good ones can be very, very good, and even when they're not, there's a certain sense of limitless possibilities to the art form which I love. It's an extremely personal and democratic form of communication; anybody can draw one and stick one up on the web, and no editor can reject you or tell you to alter your work so it sells better. So it's like a window directly into somebody's imagination. What we learn is that most people's imaginations suck, but it's still fascinating.
Nevertheless, I have tremendous respect for anyone who sets an update schedule and actually sticks to it, despite (usually) the demands of having a real job on the side. I also have tremendous respect for anyone who draws real backgrounds in every panel, cuz man, that's a heck of a lot of work.
So, our guests include:
Dirk Tiede, who does Paradigm Shift at ModernTales. This is an amazingly well-drawn manga-style police story set in Chicago. I love things that are set in Chicago. And his backgrounds are so realistic that i often look at one and say: Yup, I know where that intersection is.
Spike, who does a whole bunch of stuff at GirlAMatic. Her newest one is called Templar, Arizona. Spike is just really groovy. I fell in love with her instantly last year. Her work is full of "fat sassy chicks", wiggly organic shapes, bold inkwork, and dialogue that sounds like the way people actually talk in real life. Ever notice how rare that is?
Two other guests, whose work I haven't read yet ( But I will read every single page before the con, so we can have an intelligent discussion! ) are Caroline Curtis, who does Ninth Elsewhere, and Gerry Swanson, who does Biozoic, a kind of "nature documentary on an alien planet".
Since I got back, I've been reading a lot of comic books. (They're the perfect thing to read when it's 4 am and you're sick and can't sleep.) Since Sushu and me are married now, we combined our comic collections onto one bookshelf, and so I'm catching up on some of her old stuff and vice-versa.
Today I finished reading Marvel 1602, an alternate-universe miniseries by Neil Gaiman in which all the main Marvel characters were born in Elizabethan England instead of 20th century America.
Fun premise, really pretty artwork, but the story is only so-so. It suffers from the need to squeeze in EVERYBODY and give them all things to do; it reads like an overcrowded crossover fanfic. It was an enjoyable bit of fluff but not up to Gaiman's better work.
That said, it was a pretty fun puzzle trying to figure out which character in 1602 corresponds to which Marvel character. (My Marvel trivia is not all that good, so it was more of a guessing game for me than it would have been for some people.)
Anyway there's one thing about it that bothered me a lot...
OK, so a major plot point is this (blonde) native American warrior named Rojhaz, who shows up in England as the burly protector of Virginia Dare, the first girl born in the colony of Roanoke. It turns out he's Captain America ( = Steve Rogers = Rojhaz).
I thought that a Native Captain America was a pretty neat idea, but then it turns out he's the original, super-serum-and-jingoism Captain America who came back in time from the future; he's just been disguised as a native (and that's why he's blonde).
Near the end he goes on this whole rant about not wanting to return to the future; he wants to stay in the past so that he can protect the first Americans and guide America's history and make sure it all goes right this time and that there's not so much senseless dying. Oh cool, I thought, he's going to prevent the colonists from slaughtering the natives, and change America's history into one that's not founded on genocide?
...No. It becomes pretty clear that when he says "first Americans" he's talking about the British colonists; they're the only ones he considers Americans and the only people he cares about protecting. The natives (who saved both "Rojhaz" and the colonists from starvation) are treated as total non-people.
Anybody else in this story I'd expect to treat the Native Americans as non-people, just because of ignorance and being a product of their time, but not only has "Rojhaz" come back from the year 2000, he's also lived as one of the natives for the past dozen years so he's got no excuse at all for being a racist scumbag.
Neil Gaiman! Why?
Webcomics and the hybrid storytelling form
My favorite kind of webcomic is the ones where each strip has a joke in it, but when you put them all together they make a story. As opposed to pure one-joke-per day, e.g. Dinosaur Comics (note that my definition of "joke" is very loose) and as also opposed to the Scott McCloud-esque style of self-contained short story webcomics.
With the hybrid mode, you get something fun to read each time it updates, but you also get a deeper experience when you start from the beginning and do an archive binge. That's what I'm trying to do in Yuki Hoshigawa. It's hard! But it's the kind of storytelling that seems uniquely suited to the strengths and weaknesses of the webcomic medium.
I'm trying to think of a list of webcomics that do (or did) the story/daily gag balance really well. Help me out?
- Sluggy freelance (the first such one I discovered, opened my eyes to the possibilities of webcomics, even though I later gave up on it in disgust for its endless recycling of the same ideas)
- Narbonic, long since completed, might be the best webcomic of this genre ever. (Most everything else by Shaenon Garrity is in the same vein.)
- Order of the Stick
- Achewood (which sometimes is just a joke a day for a while, but then without warning it will launch into a story arc of unknown length that gets more and more surreal as it goes on)
Leave a comment and tell me about others?
Also, what do you think are the qualities that make a hybrid comic work or fail to work?
I'm sick of not drawing comics! Time to draw comics!
You know what I haven't done in over a year? Posted A new page of Yuki Hoshigawa!!
Yes, that's right! My webcomic is back in action.
Sushu helped me with this one, both by giving feedback at the sketching stage, and by doing some photoshop touching-up in post-production. We're a husband-and-wife comics team! Huzzah!
Another comic I read while I was sick recently was The Tick: the Complete Edlund, which collects the first 13 issues of The Tick comic book. (The only ones by original creator Ben Edlund.)
I was a huge fan of the cartoon (my friends will note that I quote it incessantly), so it's a very illuminating experience to finally read the entire too-brief run of comics that started the whole thing.
A few scenes are almost word-for-word identical, like when the Tick is trying to find the non-existent secret lever that will turn Arthur's apartment into a high-tech crimefighting base.
Other wonderful bits of surrealism and whimsy never made it beyond the comic — like the one where the Tick reads a book about ninjas and exclaims "I never knew ninjas could do all these things! I thought they just hung around airports and got sucked into jet engines!" or the whole subplot about a meteor carrying an entire planet's worth of tiny people named Anne and Ricardo who came to warn us about Canada — I'm sad to see that one never got followed up.
Minor characterization differences: Comic Arthur is a lot less neurotic and more adventuresome than Cartoon Arthur. The Tick is definitely an insane asylum escapee.
But all that aside, it's the same inimitable Tick sense of humor, just in a less-polished, embryonic form. If you look closely and squint you can even spot hints of the brilliant sense of humor of the Venture Brothers — a show made by many of the same people who worked on the Tick cartoon. Ben Edlund even wrote the VB episode "Viva los Muertos". So this comic is in some way a spiritual ancestor of Venture Brothers.
Which is not to say that the comic is good, per se. The early issues actually suck, a lot, both in writing and artwork. There's a lame Superman parody character who fights the Tick for no real reason, and issues 3 through 5 are taken up with a really hokey ninja storyline. (This was the late 80s/early 90s. Remember those days? Everything was about ninjas. The idea of spoofing ninjas was still novel.)
But you know what's cool? In the course of going from the sucky issue 1 to the quite good issue 13, the quality increases dramatically. You can sense the writing and the artwork getting better and better with each page. And the whole thing is such a weird, individual vision and such an obvious labor of love that one can almost forgive the initial suckiness. In fact, I find it rather inspiring: that something starting out this bad could evolve into something so good gives me hope for my own comicking aspirations.
I'm at my parents' house right now, looking through some of my old comic books. Ah, I remember when I went through my Jhonen Vasquez phase. I guess most comics fans probably went through a Jhonen Vasquez phase.
I'm looking at it now, and I'm like, wow. Jhonen Vasquez isn't very good.
Jaggedy black scribbles and giant distorted eyeballs are not a substitute for good artwork.
A random succession of wackiness/horrible violence is not a substitute for a plot.
Generalized misanthropy and yelling at strawmen is not a substitute for social commentary.
Tiny fourth-wall-breaking margin notes are not a substitute for a writing style.
Randomly yelling "MOOSE!" is not a substitute for humor.
Edginess is not a substitute for talent.
It's all so... self-indulgent. It seems great when you're 17 years old and craving to see boundaries broken, but it doesn't hold up on later re-reading at all.
Invader Zim was by far the best thing he did, and it took the enforced limits of working with Nickelodeon on a kid's show for Vasquez to get there. There are some artists who seem to need editorial constraints to avoid falling into self-indulgence and to reach their full potential.
Oh, but I gotta say: Making fun of goths? That NEVER gets old.
"Minority Report" wasted the opportunity to explore the limitless embarrassment potential of these things.
That's right humes! I got another comic done!.
Sushu helped a lot with this one. She did some penciling of poses and more importantly she drew the cover for the GUIDO X MATZ manga (higher-quality raw scan) (unused alternate version). Also she added the mouse in panel 5. Slowly this comic is becoming a team effort.
I just finished the first volume of Iron Empires, a military science fiction comic by Christopher Moeller. It was... OK, not great. Very nice painting-style artwork, generic plot, no character development, setting and imagery very strongly reminiscent of Warhammer 40k. As in, power-armored elite warriors with heraldry painted on their enormous shoulder pads jump out of dropships and blow stuff up with fusion pistols and power swords; heretic cults prepare planets for sinister alien invasion; theocracy. Stuff like that. 40k is all recycled tropes anyway, so who cares; it's just funny that Iron Empires uses virtually the exact same recycled tropes.
I first heard about this series because of the Burning Empires roleplaying game based on it. Burning Empires is a spin-off of an earlier fantasy roleplaying game called Burning Wheel, which I own but haven't yet played. (Burning Wheel + Iron Empires = Burning Empires, get it?)
Burning Empires is an intimidating game. From what I've read about it, it sounds interesting and innovative and well-designed, and you know there aren't many good science fiction roleplaying games, and I do like the idea of roleplaying in a real serious space-opera campaign... and Bankuei kinda pitched it to me last time I visited him...
but on the other hand, Burning Empires, like Burning Wheel, is really really complex and crunchy. More crunchy than I generally like my RPGs these days. Playing it would require a lot of commitment, to spend time learning the system, making a character, and playing a campaign to a proper conclusion. Is it worth it? I guess that comes down to how excited I am about the setting. That's why I decided to give the comic a read.
Well, now I've tried the comic, and I'm still kind of ambivalent. It didn't make me jump up and shout "I MUST ROLEPLAY THIS" but it's not bad, either. With the right group, if we brainstormed up some character concepts that grabbed me the right way, I think I could get excited about it.
(Can anybody who's read the comic tell me if it's worth getting the next volume? Does it get more interesting?)
Alternative Press Expo
I went to the Alternative Press Expo with Sushu yesterday afternoon. It's an indie comics convention. Well, basically it's nothing but a big dealer's room where indie comic artists you've never heard of try to sell you their wares.
Kate Beaton, who makes
Sushu's favorite webcomic, was there. Sushu was too shy to talk to her, though. So I went up to her and said, "Hi Kate Beaton, my wife is totally a huge fan of your stuff, but she is too shy to talk to you." and then they had a good interaction.
After that, though, it was mostly Sushu talking to artists and me tagging along, like one of those tagging-along-to-the-convention girlfriends or boyfriends you sometimes see. I mildly enjoyed browsing around and glancing at things but I didn't really engage, you know? I felt detached for some reason and at first I didn't know why.
I think part of it is that my webcomics reading has gone way, way down since the old days of 2001-2004 when I used to seek stuff out and do like massive archive binges. I haven't stopped liking webcomics, I've just been doing other things more. But that means I haven't been following the webcomics world, and thus not following the largely overlapping indie comics world, and thus I don't know what's going on there anymore or what artists are worth paying attention to, which means that at APE I had no idea who anybody was or how to find stuff I might be interested in.
Part of it was also that being at APE made me feel big-time guilty about not working on Yuki Hoshigawa.
Finally I just kept thinking about the big pile of unread comics on my bookshelf at home, and how silly it would be to buy more comics before I read those. I guess because I didn't want to buy anything, I found myself avoiding looking at anything too closely, making eye contact, or talking to people, because I didn't want to get drawn into a conversation that was going to end awkwardly unless I bought something.
I guess what I'm saying is, "Comics! I miss the relationship we used to have! Where did the passion go?"
Got up at 6am today (which felt like 4am since I was in Illinois but still on Calfiornia time) to join Al on a trip to stand in line outside Half Price Books, which was having a big Black Friday sale. In the store, I saw a copy of Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 for $5. Like Iron Empires, I was interested in the Mouse Guard comics because of the Burning Wheel spin-off role-playing game based on them. So I grabbed it.
When Aleksa heard I had a comic about mice with swords of course she wanted to read it too, so we read it together over a couple of sittings this afternoon. We had a blast! It's hard to say which one of us enjoyed it more. I think last year it would have been either too scary or the plot too complicated for her, but this year she's right at the level of being able to appreciate it.
Gorgeous artwork, a realistic medieval setting (well, as 'realistic' as anything with talking mice could be), a decent mystery/politics/warfare plotline, and most of all: brave mice with swords kicking serious ass. Like the bit where they're being attacked by crabs five times their size; one of the Mouse Guard basically pulls an Empire-Strikes-Back Imperial Landstalker Takedown using a line with a fishhook on it. It's freaking epic. Mouse Guard is good stuff. I would totally want to role-play it now!
Sushu has a new dedicated web page for her China comics. Read them!
This reminds me, I need to add some kind of permanent links bar to this site, to point at my friends' sites and other favorites.
To do list for 2010
Not so much resolutions as a to-do list.
When I was in Seattle, Alexis teased me mercilessly about my abandoned comic. She teased me so much that I actually started drawing again. It's something that has been back-burnered for much too long (I only wrote two strips in 2009) and I've been wanting to get back to it anyway; I just needed a kick in the pants. So doing my comic is going to be my top personal goal for this year. To have a measurable goal, I'm going to aim to finish the first story arc by the next Hackers conference.
My other goals are to...
Finish the five presents I promised to make. Two are done, one is mostly done, one is like half done, and the last is barely started. Hmm.
Then there's my programming projects...
Produce a playable demo of Beneath An Alien Sky.
Make the music program usable. (That thing needs a name, too.)
Then there's the skills I'm trying to learn...
Get good at the accordion! My plan is to practice playing some anime theme songs, then bring the accordion to ACen and play a show for my friends there.
Become conversationally fluent in Chinese, enough to participate properly in a dinner table conversation with Sushu's family.
Get back in shape. I joined a group from Moz that's been doing exercise classes. I went to one Wednesday and another one Friday. My whole body aches now, especially my abs and my lateral muscles. They were even more out of shape than I realized. Well, the first couple classes are the worst. It should get better from here. These exercise classes will make it easier to...
Start Aikido again, which I haven't done since summer 2008 when the Obama campaign took over all my free time. After that I got married, went to china, moved... my life turned upside down and hasn't gone back to normal since. But things should be calmer in 2010.
In order to have any chance of doing all this stuff, I'm going to have to fundamentally reorganize how I spend my free time. I'm going to have to make some sacrifices and cut out some stuff.
So, sadly, no painting miniatures or making terrain for me in 2010. (Or reading about them on the internet). You would be shocked at how much time and creative energy I spend on tiny army men for a game that I don't even play. There's just something about painting miniatures and painting terrain that I find very addictive and I can easily blow hours of free time a week on it. If I put all my miniature painting time since 2004 into comics instead, I would have a lot of comics done now, and I would be much prouder of the end product.
Even more sadly, I'm quitting my saturday role-playing group. It's been fun, but it's going to have to end so I can have my saturday afternoons back for creative projects. (Dave sent me an email with six sad-faces in it when I told him this news.)
Not sure how much I'm going to travel this year, but traveling is really time consuming (especially when it means flying between California and anywhere back East) so I want to keep it to a minimum. I got a webcam for my family so I'm going to try to do video chat or something with Aleksa so I can keep in touch with my family more without traveling so much.
Am I going to care about politics in 2010? It is an election year. But on the other hand, caring about politics is a time-consuming hobby, and mostly it makes me angry and depressed. Is it really worth it to me personally to spend energy reading, thinking, or arguing about?
Finally, I have to try to cut way back on internet stuff too. As for this blog, I think I'm going to try writing MUCH shorter posts. Like, one sentence posts. Both to practice brevity in writing, and to burn through the backlog of post topics I have built up while spending less total time on blogging.
Writing dialogue: Why, how, and what
In working on writing my comic, I'm trying to figure out the secrets of writing good dialogue. It's hard! And there aren't a lot of helpful guides. Books on writing always say things like "write subtext!" but what does that actually mean?
Here's an approach I've figured out which seems to be working for me.
(Apologies to whoever took this picture... I got it from Google Image Search)
The stuff above the surface is the WHAT: what the character says. The stuff under the water is the HOW and the WHY: How the character says it, and why they say it.
My approach is: Start with the WHY, because that will determine both the HOW and the WHAT.
Here are some reasons that people in real life may have for saying things:
- They want to make a good impression on someone they care about impressing. (Politeness, showing off, flattery, etc.)
- They sincerely care about their relationship with the person they're talking to. (bonding behavior, expressions of affection and trust, sincerely interested inquiries)
- They want to look like they care about their relationship with the person they're talking to. (Small talk, noncomittal statements, social grooming behaviors, looking for the earliest non-rude way to end the conversation)
- They're making idle chit-chat to fill up an awkward silence. (how bout those local sports teams!, every conversation that happens with a stranger on an airplane)
- They're filling somebody in on what's happened since they saw each other last because they think it's either important, or just cool/interesting (excitement, "You won't believe what happened!")
- They're defending their point of view on something they care passionately about (argumentation)
- They're upset and they just want to strike out at somebody (snippiness, sarcasm, random outbursts about trivial things)
- They're upset and trying to hide it (noncomittal grunts, changing the subject)
- They're upset and openly confronting the source of what's making them upset (rage, frustration, sobbing, accusations)
- They're with a friend, relaxed, and just having fun (jokes, stories, gossip, quoting random song lyrics)
- They've got something they want to get off their chest and don't really care who they're talking to but just want somebody to listen (griping, ranting, commisserating)
- They're doing their job ("Would you like fries with that?" "I think we need to upgrade the servers.")
- They've got a reputation to uphold (people think I'm smart with computers, they're asking me a question, I better have an answer that doesn't sound dumb...)
- They're teaching or mentoring someone else how to do something (patient explanations, questions to see if they understood, pride when the student succeeds)
- Something terrible is going to happen unless they speak up (desperation, lying, pleading, grudgingly confessing...)
- Someone asked them a question and they're giving an honest answer (It was $40, why do you ask?)
- Someone asked them a question that they would really rather not have to answer (changing the subject, looking away, leaving things out, evasiveness, outright lying)
- They're trying to get someone else to do them a favor (extreme politeness, wheedling, begging, demanding, trickery, manipulation, bargaining, bribes...)
- They need to exchange information in order to make a plan (anything from "Do you want to go grocery shopping before or after dinner?" to "Where is the rebels' moonbase?")
- They're confused and asking questions just to try to figure out what the heck is going on
- They're trying to make somebody else feel worse (bullying, teasing, put-downs)
- They're trying to be funny (to defuse a tense situation, because they want to seem clever, or just sharing honest amusement)
Etc. etc. etc. Infinite possibilities and combinations! But I'll stop there.
If a character has no reason for speaking in a scene, then why are they there? Why aren't they off somewhere else reading a book?
Figure out this reason for EVERY character in the dialogue. It tells you WHY the character is speaking. And that will tell you HOW the character speaks: their tone of voice, facial expression, body language, choice of words, choice of emphasis, whether they speak metaphorically or sarcastically, etc. etc. Everything!
The agenda itself, the WHY, does not end up on the page. The HOW ends up on the page. The reader reads the HOW and interprets it, using it to deduce the WHY.
Meanwhile, the WHAT -- the actual literal meaning of the words -- is there too, but it's secondary. The HOW and the WHY are the subtext, and an alert reader uses them to understand the character's internal state, which conveys what the scene actually means for the character, which is generally where the meat of the storytelling is.
Here are some things that are NOT reasons people say things in real life:
- To advance the plot
- To explain things to the audience
- To announce their true feelings to nobody in particular
- To narrate what they're doing
- To make sure the overall conversation is grammatically correct and has smooth transitions. (For example: just because one person asks a question doesn't mean the other person will directly answer it... unless they're characters in a foreign-language textbook.)
- To make a dramatic speech expressing the moral of the story (OK, preachers and politicians may do this for a living, but nobody else talks like that.)
- To give somebody else the set-up for a joke or a dramatic speech
Those are reasons that authors make characters say things. They're not reasons for characters to say things.
They are nevertheless sometimes necessary. You do have to move the plot forward somehow. But putting the plot directly into the WHAT, what people literally say, breaks suspension of disbelief, because people just don't talk that way in real life. People don't say things like:
"Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo, so long ago when there was nothing but our love."
Movie screenwriters have a word for this sort of thing, when characters speak in literal plot-advancing statements. They call it "On-the-nose dialogue". A useful term for what you're trying to avoid. Google it!
Instead, take the plot-advancing reason for the dialogue and hide it behind an even more compelling in-character reason. Tell the story through the subtext, through the characters' actions and HOW they speak, not WHAT they say.
If you do this right, it lets the reader exercise the parts of their brain that evolved to understand the motivations of other human beings. Exercising this part of the brain is one of the main things that makes fiction enjoyable. Don't let it atrophy by writing crappy dialogue!
First comic of 2010
Hey Alexis, look what I finished!
With this page I decided to see what I could do if I went for broke on the backgrounds. I tried to really capture the feeling of walking down Japanese city streets at twilight in autumn. I used a lot of reference photos of Sendai, which is one of my favorite Japanese cities (apart from Kamaishi of course).
It took forever to do these backgrounds, and I think the end result is too busy visually - it makes a cool drawing but it doesn't read well as a comic. So, it was a fun experiment but I think I'm going to cut way down on the details from here on in order to get pages done faster.
Mixi is a real social networking site. It's bigger than Facebook in Japan.
OMG The Princess Planet!
OK I have a new favorite webcomic. It's called The Princess Planet and it is about a planet where all the girls are princesses and they have adventures! It is nothing but incredibly corny puns and sight gags. (I secretly love corny puns and sight gags.) I don't think I've ever laughed out loud so many times during an archive binge.
Seriously, you guys, I am not being sarcastic. The Princess Planet is the best comic. It's so refreshing to find humor on the internet that is not based on pop-culture references punctuated with sick violence. The Princess Planet is just simple, creative, and fun, with good art, and kids could read it.
You could just start at the beginning so you get all the running gags, but if you want to see an example, this one or this one ought to explain why I think it's so funny.
OH YEAH SECOND COMIC THIS MONTH
Check it out guys!
Miniatures painted: 0!
Comics drawn: 2!
So, it turns out I really like drawing sushi.
And another thing!
And not only that, Sushu did another China comic tonight too! She posted it while I was scanning. We are like some kind of productive comic collective over here.
P.S. I should add that Sushu has taken charge of doing postproduction (i.e. photoshop) duties for Yuki Hoshigawa. She has mad photoshop skills and can do things that I could never do in Graphic Converter which is what I was using before.
PVP normally doesn't do anything for me, but I really like the Watchmen parody they did, called "Ombudsmen". It shows a deeper understanding of what Watchmen was all about than did oh, say, the entire corpus of Watchmen-influenced mainstream superhero comics in the 90s. Which is to say: Watchmen is in many ways a comic book about comic books; this series of PVP strips reimagines it as... a comic strip about comic strips.
Enough people have told me to read Kingdom Come (most recently in this comment) that when I saw a copy at the bookstore today, I bought it and read it (while sitting at a table on the sidewalk outside a coffee shop, looking at the rainbow that marked the end of California's week-long rainstorm).
It was kinda... um, well, the art was really pretty, I'll say that. But I thought the story really suffered from too much telling, not enough showing, and from being overcrowded with too many cameos and continuity references. (Which seems to be a common pitfall for these "big event" comic miniseries... gotta find a way to cram in everybody from the DC universe, right?)
Spoilers ahead, so don't read if you don't want to know.
The setup is that it's the future, most of the main DC heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc etc) are old and retired or semi-retired. There is a new generation of "metahumans" (i.e. superheroes, not Shadowrun races) on the streets, but they kind of suck because they care nothing about protecting innocent lives; instead they just spend all day fighting each other and causing massive collateral damage, because, I dunno, they just like fighting I guess. The main plot is about whether the Geriatric Superfriends are going to come out of retirement and stop the rampaging metahumans, and if so are they willing to fight violence with violence? Are they willing to break their code against killing?
Cue many pages of grandiose posturing and self-righteous speeches about war and peace, etc. liberally sprinkled with quotes from the book of Revelations. There's a boring framing device with this hooded dude, who is like an avenging angel of justice or some nonsense, takes a bearded old preacher guy on a trip through time and space to silently and invisibly observe events (i.e. be omniscient viewpoint characters) while making OMINOUS PORTENTS OF DOOM every couple of pages. There's also a pointlessly complex plot about Lex Luthor mind-controlling Captain Marvel. Meanwhile Superman builds a giant super-jail and throws lots of angry dudes inside it, Wonder Woman is uncharacteristically bloodthirsty, Batman double-crosses people, and Kansas gets nuked. Twice.
No, look, I do get it. I get it. It's a commentary on the de-evolution of superhero comics: the new generation of metahumans are all grim-and-gritty 90s antiheroes, and the story is about how horrified the Superfriends would be at all their ultraviolent shenanigans, and how ultimately the corny 50s-style caped-crusader characters are the ones you would much rather have around in real life. It's all wrapped up with a lovely message about how What The World Needs Most In These Dark Times Is Hope.
And that's great, but what annoys me is how it's all just told to us in narration boxes instead of shown, explored, proven through storytelling, etc. The central problem that all these 90s antiheroes are making the world suck because they just fight all the time with no concern for civilian casualties? Potentially an interesting problem. But the problem is literally explained to the audience - in about as much detail as I just used - in narration boxes, spread across beautifully painted panels of funny-looking dudes flying around shooting laser beams at each other. Most of these 90s antiheroes don't even get names, let alone personalities or motivations. Where did they come from? What do they believe they're fighting for? Who are they fighting exactly? Why don't they care about collateral damage? Why didn't the Superfriends teach them better before retiring?
There's only one 90s antihero, named Magog for maximum clumsy allegory points, who has any individual screen time at all, but even he is just a walking plot device with no personality. The rest of them are just an undifferentiated mass of capes and spikes and guns, a collective McGuffin.
It's fine to do metaphorical commentary on the state of the superhero genre, but the problem here is that if you ignore the metaphor, the literal events don't stand on their own as a believable story.
It's also implied at certain points that some of the old generation of superheroes are running the earth like gods, imposing order on humanity through totalitarian rule, not letting humanity find its own destiny, etc etc. but again this problem is just stated in as many words, and never explored or illustrated in any depth.
Meanwhile, the framing device with Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Future, sorry I mean The Spectre and the preacher dude, just felt unnecessary. They could have just used an omniscient viewpoint and told us the story directly, without having to explain who was viewing it all. The Spectre says a bunch of stuff about how the preacher must pass judgment on what he sees and decide who is innocent and who is guilty, but he never actually does that! Aside from nicely asking Superman to please not collapse the UN building at the end, he doesn't have any effect on the plot at all. The whole thing could have been taken out and you wouldn't have lost anything except a lot of random Revelations quotes. It felt like they were just in there so that every couple of pages the writer could remind me that the clash of the superpowered titans could mean the end of the world, armageddon is fast approaching, the fate of the world is at stake, everything is Very Serious and Full of Portent, yadda yadda yadda. Bad writer! Stop
telling me that your story is Very Serious and show me why I should take it seriously!
Finally, why the heck did they make Captain freaking Marvel such a central character to the plot? Who cares about Captain Marvel anymore?
(Sushu: Captain who?
Me: He's this dufus with the lightning bolt on his chest. He was really popular in the 40s.)
Does it even make sense to use the term 'webcomics' anymore? Everything is on the web now. And we don't call musicians who release MP3s on their website "web musicians" we just call them musicians, right?
On the other hand, there are a few things that set webcomics apart. Webcomics have two pleasures which you don't get from any other medium.
One is the pleasure of a really weird, idiosyncratic, singular vision, the kind that you only get from reading the brain ravings of an isolated weirdo with no editorial oversight.
The other is the pleasure of watching something start out crappy and then start getting good as the author figures out what they're doing. You get to watch someone evolve as both an artist and an author in the space of an ongoing narrative. You get to watch previously flat one-joke characters grow unexpected depth. You get to watch as people learn how to use Photoshop. You get to watch people finding their voice, and figuring out what their strip is really about only after they're a hundred strips in. Those embarrassingly bad early strips never go away; they're stuck there in the archives forever. It's also interesting, if sometimes painful, to watch someone retcon their gag-based early strips into a serious dramatic arc.
You don't get to see this in other media because most of them have some kind of gatekeeper which ensures that the creator has to reach a certain level of skill before they can get published at all.
Of course, there's also the pleasure of the Archive Binge...
Two comics I archive binged on recently:
People have been telling me to read these forever, so I'm happy to be finally caught up.
Both are really, really good. Both are more story-driven than joke-driven, still ongoing and with deep archives. Both original and well-developed settings. Aside from that they're completely different from each other.
Erfworld is all strategy and logistics and intricate planning. It doesn't connect the dots for you, it throws out a lot of information and unfamiliar names and challenges your left-brain to put it all together.
Gunnerkrigg Court is the opposite: all emotions and mysticism and leisurely character development, and at first it appears to have barely any plot at all. You can just drift through it enjoying the atmosphere and the beautiful colors.
Erfworld is the story of a fat, unloved gamerdork transported to a fantasy world by a summoning spell which was intended to summon "the ultimate warlord". Parson's only warlording experience comes from tabletop games... but the world he's in appears to operate by tabletop wargame rules, to the point where people only act on their "turn" and know exactly how many hexes they can move. It all seems suspiciously similar to a game Parson was designing... so is he hallucinating the whole thing or what? Despite being essentially living game pieces with very goofy names, the characters here are fleshed-out characters with their own loves, hates, loyalties, and vendettas. The faction that summoned Parson is on the verge of total defeat, and nearly everyone else is allied against them. Can Parson overcome both their situation and his own ignorance of how the world works and use his strategy gamer skills to turn the war around? More importantly, should he, given that the faction he's working for appears to be the bad guys?
It's exceptionally well paced; once you get into it you won't want to stop reading. The writer really knows what he's doing. It's obvious that Erfworld isn't his first webcomic; he's already figured out exactly how to tell the story he wants to tell. Underneath a surface layer of extreme silliness ("dwagons", "twolls", "gwiffons" that look like marshmallow Peeps, Titans who look like Elvis impersonators, magic specialties like "croakamancy", and a universe-wide filter that turns all swear words into "boop"), Erfworld has at its core a very serious story about war and loyalty.
Gunnerkrigg Court, meanwhile, is the story of some girls at the eponymous Mysterious Boarding School. It's a sprawling, city-sized, ancient and mostly empty structure (beautifully rendered in mesmerizing shades of purple), full of secrets, and feels like a place to get lost in for weeks. Beyond the court is The Forest, a forbidding place of myths and spirits generally unfriendly to humans. In many ways the court and the forest are the main characters; this is a comic about places as much as anything else.
The human protagonist, Antimony, has a gift for speaking to spirits, and seems destined to become a sort of human bridge between the scientific creations of the Court and the mythological beings of the forest. A lot of the events have a dreamlike quality; they don't make sense right away, and aren't explained, but they follow a certain dream logic.
The plot can best be described as meandering. Many chapters seem to go nowhere in particular: Antimony and friends might befriend a ghost, or track down a minotaur for a class project, or explore the world of the robots, and that's it. The atmosphere of mystery and exploration pervades everything, so events are sort of inherently interesting even if they don't play into a larger conflict. Then again, we keep coming back again and again to certain central mysteries, like the ghost of a woman with a sword who guards the Annan Waters... are all the wandering story threads going to come together after all?
Lesser comics that try to pull of this sort of thing usually fall apart into just-weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird. But Gunnerkrigg makes it work, proving you can be consistently interesting without following a tightly plotted 3-act arc structure. There is deep and subtle art at play here.
Both of these comics are a lot better than a simple description of their premise makes them sound. They take somewhat cliched elements and make them new again. I'd rank them among the best comics I've read on the web or on paper.
Read and enjoy!
Didn't know much about story structure
When I started my webcomic, I didn't know the first thing about story structure.
I didn't know anything about story structure when I came up with the original idea and first sketches and plot outline, which was in freaking 2003, I still didn't know anything about it when I started drawing pages in 2004, and I still didn't know anything about it in 2005 when I started drawing the stuff that ended up in the archive I have now.
Story structure is hard to learn. It's even harder if you're a science fiction fan and a (traditional) role-player. Science fiction teaches you all the wrong lessons about story structure, because SF makes the settings so prominent that when SF fans start trying to write things, we've got a pathological focus on setting to the exclusion of character and plot. Traditional RPGs have character and plot, but they get it all backwards. The GM writes the plot first and then you take a bunch of characters who have nothing to do with the plot and try to force them into it. So as an SF fan and RPGer I had a lot of crap to unlearn about the relationship between setting, character, and plot. (And theme? What's that?)
In the last couple years I've finally been figuring out a few things about story structure.
Part of it is understanding that it's all artifice. It means looking critically and analytically at how your favorite stories function, not just letting yourself get swept away in them. You have to look behind the illusion if you want to learn how to create it, which means giving up certain romantic notions: about inspiration, and about imaginary worlds taking on a life of their own, stuff like that. I understand now that comicking is 1% inspiration: the rest is careful planning, repeated revisions, throwing stuff out, trimming dialogue, and grinding out lots and lots of drawings of the same things over and over.
I think I've also learned a lot from the improvisational, collaborative style of role-playing that I've been doing the past few years: how to create an initial situation that is ripe for action, with characters who have motivation and natural reasons to get into conflict with each other, characters with issues that will force them to make morally/thematically relevant decisions.
Suffice to say, if I was starting the comic now I would do things a lot differently. I'm proud of (most of) the pages that I've done, but if I was doing it now I wouldn't have spent 30 pages just on lining up characters and setting and Yuki's daily frustrations etc. I would have started with more of a bang.
My plan right now is to do 19 more strips to finish out the arc I had planned for chapter 1. I've had to throw out a lot of stuff to get it down to just 19, including some strips I had already sketched - they amused me, but they weren't essential to the story. Chapter 1 will end on or around strip 50.
Then I'll plan out Chapter 2 using everything I now know about story structure, and hopefully it'll be a lot tighter and have a lot more drama.
Yuki Hoshigawa #33
Yuki Hoshigawa # 33: Do you want to be a stalker? is up. I'm rather proud of this one.
Many thanks to Sushu for the post-production Photoshop work!
I just might be able to keep to this 2-comics-per-month schedule. Huzzah!
By the way, I fixed the comment form on the comic page, and I added a new RSS feed just for the comic. So you can subscribe to that if you want to get just the comic and not the blog.
Creator Studio with the author of Axe Cop
I'm going to a a comic artists' event in San Jose on March 6. It's put on by SLG studios, a company I haven't heard of, but the important thing is that there is going to be an "interactive demonstration" of graphic storytelling technique by Ethan Nicolle, the artist of the amazing webcomic Axe Cop.
Haven't heard of Axe Cop? Ethan does the art; the story is written by his 5-year-old brother. The result is...
"But the avocado caused Dinosaur Soldier to turn into an avocado who can shoot avocado out of his hands."
...unique, and hilarious. The kind of weirdness a 5-year-old can come up with is really impossible to fake. You should read it!
A lame excuse
I finished drawing and scanning in my second comic for February, but the image files still need some editing and I can't stay up too much later, so I'm going to post it tomorrow.
Second comic for February
I'm sorry that Sushu had do to so much painstaking post-production work in Photoshop on this one. But I really like how that "background fog" gradient came out! Thank you Sushu!
Sushu has a comic up about the ever-vital topic of squatting and Asian toilets.
She wrote, laid out, drew, inked, shaded, and lettered the whole thing during the time I spent inking one panel of my last Yuki comic. She works fast! I work slow |:-(
A day of comic creation advice from SLG
I went to this comic meetup thing today. I planned to take the train with Oscar and Jinghua. But after I biked to the train station I discovered I had left my event ticket at home AND forgot to get train fare money out of the ATM, so I ended up missing the train and meeting them at the event half an hour later. I have been exceptionally absent-minded lately.
The thing was at the San Jose HQ of Slave Labor Graphics (SLG), who were the publishers of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac among many other lesser-known things. The HQ is in a converted warehouse in a sketchy part of town, with a comic shop up front, publishing shop offices behind that, and inventory storage and shipping (i.e. lots and lots of stacks of T-shirts, books, and shipping boxes) in the very back. There was a kind of stage area in the storage room, with mikes and stuff and a back wall completely covered with a mosaic of classic album covers. (Apparently they sometimes get bands performing there.)
I didn't know quite what to expect going in, but it turned out to be a pretty good day.
The owner/chief editor of SLG, Dan Vado, gave a pretty good talk about visual storytelling techniques, stressing ECONOMY. I.e. he likes it a lot better when somebody tells a good standalone story start to finish in 32 pages than when they come up with a grandiose idea for a 12-volume graphic novel series that will probably never get finished. He showed some clips from Aaron Sorkin's show Sports Night and pointed out how efficiently it communicated characters, relationships, themes, and plot points with just a few extremely well-chosen bits of dialogue and staging; how even a single word from a character at the right time can communicate volumes. Economy of storytelling is something I really need to work on, what with how I spent the first 30 pages of my comic tentatively circling around the main point and not getting the plot started (Dan described this exact thing, saying it's what happens when you start writing without knowing exactly where you're going to end up.) He got the audience taking turns brainstorming a story about a bank robbery (an activity not entirely unlike a role-playing game) and some pretty good ideas came out of it.
Dan also gave a talk about how to pitch a comic idea to a publishing company, which I mostly tuned out since I do webcomics and thus advice on print publishing is about as relevant to my interests as advice on planning an Oscar-watching party. Actually, no, scratch that: I should totally write a pitch for Yuki Hoshigawa. Because right now if people ask me "What is your comic about?" I have a hard time answering them, and that's a bad sign. Writing a pitch would force me to get straight in my head what the comic is ABOUT and what's incidental. This is another thing Dan was talking about - writers who don't know their own story nearly as well as they should.
(There was also a really funny/tragic story about why you need to include your contact info on EVERY PAGE of the pitch package you send in: Dan has a pitch for a comic called "Berta, Queen of the Potatoes" which he loves and really wishes he could publish... but the cover letter got lost and the other pages don't have any contact info, so he doesn't know who wrote it. He's been looking for the author of this apparently amazing comic for NINE YEARS. Contact info, people!)
Next was the part that I came for, which was Ethan Nicolle who draws Axe Cop. He drew a pageright there in the back room, using a tablet on a laptop connected to a projector so we could see how he does it. It's an all-digital process using Manga Studio, but he's got it set up to produce some very nice hand-drawn-looking line textures. Hmm, this Manga Studio thing might be worth looking into.
He's got a file containing hundreds of questions that people had written in to "ask Axe Cop", along with the answers that his brother Malachai has given to them. He picked one out to make into a new page of "ask Axe Cop", and made us all SWEAR SECRECY that we would not give away the SHOCKING PLOT TWIST which is going to happen in it! (It's pretty shocking.)
While Ethan drew, he answered our questions. It came out that he was completely shocked by the explosive Internet fame of Axe Cop: he thought of it as a goofy side-project, but almost overnight it was getting exponentially more traffic and attention than anything else he's done (e.g. Chumble Spuzz). Sadly, it sounds like all the attention on Axe Cop hasn't brought any more attention to his other works: the Internet flash mobs don't care about the artist, only about the irresistible gimmick of "written by a 5-year-old". You could tell he was somewhat frustrated about the fickleness of Internet fame. Also, he said he's had to go from a $30/year web hosting plan to a $300/month hosting plan to handle all the Axe Cop traffic. It would be some bitter irony if popularity actually made Ethan lose money. Here's hoping he can make enough off t-shirt sales and ads and stuff to at least break even.
Watching Ethan use Manga Studio, the audience noticed that he was navigating a huge context menu hierarchy instead of using a certain shortcut key. Somebody asked him why he wasn't using the shortcut; he said "Oh yeah, I know about that shortcut, but for some reason I never think to use it... I guess because my mind is on this point in the drawing so using the mouse to get the menu feels more natural." I whispered to Jinghua, half-joking, that this was a user interface field research opportunity. Jinghua took it totally seriously and decided to go up to Ethan and video record all his mouse and keyboard interactions while he worked. For over an hour. I hope he was OK with that.
Meanwhile, Dan Vado (the owner of the company) was doing portfolio reviews. He had sent us all an email the day before reminding us not to forget to bring our portfolios! And I was like "portfolio huh? Well, I guess I can bring this stack of finished comics, not that I expect anything to come of it, but what the heck." So while the Axe Cop drawing was going on, Dan called us out one by one to his office. I told him "You know, I'm already doing a webcomic, so I'm not interested in pitching anything for print - I would love to have your advice on improving but I don't want to waste your time...". He was like "this is all about getting better, and besides, I don't feel like hearing any more pitches today anyway".
I was pretty nervous having an Actual Comics Industry Guy look at my stuff. He basically said two things:
1. "I applaud you for doing all the shading by hand on paper", he said, "but you're going to regret it when you publish a print collection because the greys won't render right in print. You need to scan in as 2-color black and white so that you have a clean copy that you can apply dot-based print tones to."
I tried to tell him that I have no plans to make print copies but he said "You will, though. I guarantee you you will want to print it, because everybody does. How old are you?" "30." "Before you're 40 you're going to want to make a book you can give to people, and then you'll have to deal with hundreds of pages of unusable greyscale scans, and you'll wish you had scanned in black and white."
2. "Your layout is boring", he said. "It's always the same six panels. This is what I don't like about webcomics: they reduce everything to a boring grid of boxes that never changes. And it's really sad because your drawings are good." (yay!) "You ought to break out of the grid and do some more dynamic layouts, because right now almost all your panels are just people from the waist up. And it might be storytelling but it's not visual storytelling."
Huh. Even more interesting. This is closely related to something I've been thinking about lately, which is that almost all the strips I've done are fully text-dependent. Like this one, for instance -- the whole and know exactly what was happening, but if you looked at just the drawings, you'd have no clue. So I would like to experiment with getting the drawings to carry more of the weight, making the kind of comics where your brain has to interpolate between the text and the pictures to construct the meaning.
Thinking back, I originally created the six-panel layout quite intentionally to restrict myself. It was supposed to be one of those "restrictions breed creativity" things -- since I was just learning to make comics, I would keep the form fixed and focus on creativity in the content. My one experiment with breaking out of the grid (NSFW at the end) is not something I'm particularly happy with, now; it's kind of a huge mess.
But maybe it's time for more layout experimentation? Or maybe I should finish out chapter 1 the way I have it planned, and then start going crazy with layouts in chapter 2?
There was some talk about making this into a monthly meetupl; I hope it happens, because it would be great to have a dedicated group to talk comics with and exchange feedback with.
Workin' hard on the next comic. I penciled most of the panels before deciding that it sucked: the flow was all wrong, there was way too much text, and it did nothing to advance the plot. Grar.
It put me in a pretty grouchy mood, but taking a walk with Sushu cheered me up and helped me figure out a better direction. So I started over with a completely different punchline, salvaging a couple of panels from the first version and redrawing everything else.
The finished product is gonna be worth it, but man, I've penciled almost twice as many panels as I should have. I need to get better at revising in the writing stage before I sink time into drawing. But then again, sometimes I don't know whether something will work or not until I see it laid out visually.
Maybe someday I'll post a gallery of all the stuff I've drawn for Yuki Hoshigawa that didn't make it into the strip. There's a lot.
A terrifying GUI
Tonight Sushu brought home a copy of Manga Studio EX. The box cover proudly proclaims that it is for creating "Manga and Comics". Oh, that's good; I was afraid it could only be used for one or the other, since they're soooo different.
(The adoption of the word "manga" into English, even though we already have the word "comics", and the use of "manga" even for comics that aren't Japanese... it's weird, man. Somebody should write an essay.)
Manga Studio provides enough screen tones, speed lines, and cliche effects (from blood splatters to windborne cherry petals) to satisfy any unoriginal artist who wants to make their "manga" look like every other "manga". This isn't exactly one of my aesthetic goals with Yuki Hoshigawa, but I was still excited to try out the software and see if it had anything useful that could streamline my production process.
My excitement lasted until I got my first good look at the user interface; it was then replaced by sheer terror.
Look at this. Every menu has sub-menus. Every tool in the tool palette has sub-menus. The big palette on the right has tabs within tabs. The main window has "story" and "page" tabs and choosing the other one changes all the buttons at the top. There are millions of tiny icons and I have to mouse over each one and wait for the tooltip to pop up in order to have any clue what they mean. Let's not even get into the multi-tabbed "Properties" dialog.
Where does one even begin learning an interface like this? There's no tutorial, no basic mode, no clue how to identify whatever subset of features I would actually want to use.
I would rather have to learn a new programming language than try to figure out this interface. Compared to modern content-generation GUIs, learning a programming language is easy. At least in learning a language I can find a tutorial that will start with "Hello, World" and walk me through one keyword at a time until I know everything. If I was in the UNIX shell I'd at least have tab-to-autocomplete and man pages to help me figure stuff out.
That's right: GUIs like this make me long for the relative user-friendliness of a command-line interface.
Sushu's comics class
Sushu taught a class on making comics to her students as an extracurricular activity over the past week. (Sushu is cool.)
Some of the resulting students' comics are now online. The common theme was "Knights" -- they were supposed to do a story about "somebody saving somebody" whether that meant literal knights or not. The results are... well, let's just say they're high school students and for some of them this is their first time drawing or writing a comic. But some of them are really cute.
Things I bet you didn't know about The BAT-MAN
I've been reading the Batman Archives, Volume 1. It's a very pretty, color, hard-cover reprint of the first 24 Batman comics from 1939 and 1940. It's pretty... uh... what's the word... it's pretty different.
For instance, you might have known that he is called "The BAT-MAN", but did you know...
...Instead of a Batmobile, The BAT-MAN drives around in a cherry red Ford?
...The BAT-MAN's batplane has helicopter blades and a zoologically realistic bat face modeled onto the front of it?
...The BAT-MAN just loves his trusty guns?
...The BAT-MAN has absolutely no problem with killing people? As long as they're evil, of course. They deserve it!
...The BAT-MAN can swing from ropes that are obviously not attached to anything! (Seriously, what's holding that rope up? The scrollwork on the caption box?)
...In the first issue or two, The BAT-MAN's has these weird wiggly elf-ears?
...The BAT-MAN doesn't know the difference between a vampire and a werewolf?
We don't get The BAT-MAN's origin story until issue six; and when we do, it's a measly page-and-a-half. Until then he's a total cipher.
(If you're wondering, no, the details of his origin story haven't changed at all. They're remarkably immune to retconning.)
...In the middle of an otherwise grittily realistic story, The BAT-MAN will suddently veer into a trippy, surrealistic scene like this one? (And no, this is never explained. It's not handwaved as magic, or a hallucination; it's just there. And later, the flowers start talking to him.)
So much of The BAT-MAN's story is told in caption boxes that at times it's more like an illustrated picture book than a comic. Look at these pages - there's only one panel without narration in it!
The BAT-MAN is really more of a detective than a superhero. (That's why he appears in Detective Comics, after all). The conventions of the superhero genre hadn't really been established yet, so most of the tropes and plot cues come from detective stories.
That's why The BAT-MAN finishes most of his stories by pulling masks off bad guys and explaining in detail how their evil plans worked.
And he doesn't fight super-villains; his iconic foes not having been invented yet, The BAT-MAN mostly fights generic 1930s mobsters with fedoras and zoot suits.
(And the city he's protecting? It's not Gotham. It's just some nameless city. Except when he goes to Paris and fights French criminals for a while.)
Speaking of 1930s mobsters, Robin's origin story involves his parents getting killed because the circus refused to pay off the protection racket.
A lot of the comic is like that. It's quite dark, gritty, and realistic. Especially compared to the Silver Age batman who had to obey the Comics Code, or compared to the Adam West Batman.
No goofy "Pow!" "Biff!" sound effects here. Barely any sound effects of any kind, in fact.
Of course The BAT-MAN can't just fight mobsters and death-ray-weilding mad scientists all the time. When the artist got tired of drawing fedoras and lab coats, he turns to pulp fiction's other favorite source of disposable antagonists:
That's right, hideously xenophobic ethnic stereotypes!
I love how in these old comics, they never bother showing actual Chinese writing -- I mean looking up some real Chinese characters might require going to the library or something! We'll just put random squiggles, it's not like our audience will know the difference!
The BAT-MAN deduces that the "Horde of the Green Dragon" is behind these crimes because they kill their enemies with hatchets. And only Chinese people do that. Chinese Hatchet-Men. You've heard of The Dreaded Chinese Hatchet-Men, right?
Don't worry, The BAT-MAN will kill all these guys by crushing them under their ugly green statue. What, you thought they were going to have trials and be sent to jail? Don't be silly, they're foreigners. They deserve to die.
Because they no speak good English!
Oh my god, they made the curvy triangle font into a plot point.
(The Bat-Signal hadn't been invented yet, so people who need help contact The BAT-MAN via random classified ads in the newspaper. Really.)
The Indians aren't treated any better than the Chinese. They track down and murder anybody who steals their favorite idol:
Now, I don't claim to be an expert on all of India's thousands of local dieties, but wouldn't the Hindu god of destruction be either Shiva or Kali? And I'm pretty sure it wouldn't look like a red devil. Oh well; Hinduism, Satan-worship: pretty much the same, right?
And as for the treatment of women, well, they're all pretty much hysterical dames. Especially Bruce Wayne's fiancee Julie, who we see in maybe one or two panels every five or six issues. It's like the writers kept forgetting she existed. And, well...
I'll just let that panel speak for itself.
Multitouch drawing webapp experiment
I was trying to work on my comic, but I got really frustrated with all the tools available to me - both software and physical tools.
I have an idea, though, for a drawing app based on a multitouch interface interface design that will work exactly the way I want it to, and make a fully-digital comic creation process easy and non-frustrating. The best part is that web standards have advanced enough that I can actually implement it as a web-app. Since it'll be running on my webserver, I'll be able to "publish" the finished comics by saving them directly to the comic directory, saving more steps.
So the past couple weeks I've been feverishly working on that in all my time off. It's coming along very quickly; I've already got layers, infinite undo/redo history, multitouch zoom and pan, and a speech balloon tool that automatically resizes the balloon to fit the amount of text inside. I still need to add image import/export, selections, translucent colors, and a panel tool, and then I'll have all the basics. Everything else (filters, gradients, etc.) is optional.
It should be ready to start using seriously in a couple more weeks (of course, that's probably what Knuth said when he started writing LaTeX...)
I realize that I still haven't finished my music-composing webapp OR my board-game-testing webapp. I haven't forgotten them, though. All of these webapps actually share a lot of code and server features, so the work I do on any one of them is eventually going to impact the rest. (That reminds me, I need to set up a public bug-tracker and SVN repository... or should I put the code on GitHub? Hmm...)
I'm looking for catchy names for all three (drawing comics, making music, and playtesting board games); bonus points if the three of them fit together somehow, with a collective name for the whole "creative suite". Any suggestions?
After repeated pestering from Isaac, I finally broke down and started reading Homestuck. I'm glad I did; it's one of the most creative, ambitious, original things I've seen in any medium in quite some time. (incidentally: it feels really good to archive binge on a quality webcomic again. Been a while since I've got to do that.)
Alright, so what the heck is Homestuck? This is the hard part. Even in the crazy anything-goes world of webcomics, Homestuck is an odd duck, not easy to describe or explain. I think it's best to start by explaining MS Paint Adventures.
It started with a guy named Andrew Hussie playing a game on a forum: he'd draw a picture of a character in a situation and then ask forum posters what the character should do next. He would always take the first suggestion, no matter how silly, and he'd draw and post the results and so on, acting as an RPG game master or, perhaps a closer analogy, acting as the input parser for a graphic adventure game. His first such adventure was called Jailbreak, and the first page is here.
Taking the first thing the forum barfs up at you creates exactly the kind of crazy non-sequitur story you'd imagine, and so Jailbreak isn't all that interesting, except for introducing the basic format: click on the "command" to go to the next page and see the result. Reading the archives is like watching somebody else play an adventure game. It also introduced some running gags, like armless characters being ordered to find their arms (they all have arms; Andrew just doesn't like to draw the arms on unless the arms are doing something. It's a stylistic choice, not a world of amputees.) Also a running gag about appearing/disappearing pumpkins.
A brief experiment with choose-your-own-adventure storytelling in Bard Quest inevitably burned itself out rapidly under the exponentially increasing workload that such a thing requires. Andrew then moved on to Problem Sleuth, a detective-themed "escape your locked room" adventure game. Or is it? Isaac described Problem Sleuth as "the biggest shaggy dog story ever". In this story Andrew was executing much more authorial control over the direction of the story by picking and choosing the most interesting commands (or the ones that were in line with where he wanted the story to go anyway...). He was also drawing it in Photoshop, not MS Paint, so the whole name of the site is a misnomer. And by the midpoint he was integrating animated gifs (and some colors) on a fairly regular basis. What you think you're signing up for when you start reading Problem Sleuth bears very little resemblance to what you end up getting, which is 22 chapters of ever-escalating insanity as parodies of RPG game mechanics, boss battles, and cosmology are introduced, permutated, ridiculed, and transcended. It culminates in an enormous Dragonball-Z style battle with the Final Boss that takes up as many pages as the whole rest of the comic up to that point put together.
How to top that?
In 2009 Andrew began Homestuck. (Which is already somewhere in the vicinity of 4,000 pages. Do the math - this man churns out multiple updates per day. He's the most prolific webcomic author I know.) It maintains the "adventure game input" format, but it's a much more coherent and tightly planned story. Homestuck goes beyond the animated gifs and incorporates Flash animation complete with background music. The music is 8-bit video-game style, contributed by people from the MS Paint Adventure forums, and some of it is quite astoundingly good. In a couple of places the Flash is even interactive and lets you control the character and explore the environment on your own. Finally, large chunks of the story are told through instant message logs: the characters are almost continuously in touch through an IM application called "Pesterchum" and their "pesterlogs" make up most of the dialogue. It's hard to even classify Homestuck as a "comic" at this point, there's so much music and text and animation and interactivity. It's more of a, I dunno, a multimedia story presented via the web.
What's it actually about, though? Well, there's these four kids. And they decide to install the beta of a game called SBURB, which is some sort of reality-warping meta-game that lets you take physical remote control of real objects in your friend's house. And possibly causes your friend's house to be hit by a meteor and destroyed. If you do just the right thing, though, SBURB might save you by teleporting your whole house to a mysterious realm called the INCIPISPHERE. And it just gets crazier from there! It gets quite absurdly epic for a story where technically nobody leaves their house for thousands of pages.
All the while, the kids have to interact with their environment through a series of ridiculous and impractical user interfaces. They can never just pick something up, for instance. They have to CAPTCHALOG it in their SYLLADEX, which is equipped with a FETCH MODUS (stack, queue, tree, hashmap...) that makes retrieving the needed item a difficult and dangerous chore. They can't just use a weapon, they have to ALLOCATE their STRIFE SPECIBUS. The kids' frustration mirrors the presumptive frustration of the imaginary individual who is "playing" this adventure game. And that's even before the kids start playing SBURB, the game within the game, which features a punch-card-based alchemy subsystem. This is largely a story about the feeling of trying to puzzle out a needlessly convoluted video game that came without an instruction manual. But with lives at stake.
What makes it all work is, first, Andrew's use of language. He has a knack for the perfectly precise description of every absurd situation, for giving every silly thing a perfectly grandiose name. It's not a piggy bank, it's a CERAMIC PORKHOLLOW. Pesterchum's anti-friend list is labeled TROLLSLUM. Combat is called STRIFE and the choices of actions include ABJURE, AGGRESS, AGGRIEVE, and ABSCOND. You never know when you might have to PROTOTYPE a KERNELSPRITE or DEPLOY a CRUXTRUDER. Andrew also seems to have an obsession with writing repeating patterns, arcane correspondences, elaborate cosmologies, significant recurring numbers, etc. He doesn't just create a setting, he creates a SYSTEM, if that makes sense.
The other thing that makes it work is the characterization of the four kids - John, Rose, Dave, and Jade (AKA ectoBiologist, tentacleTherapist, turntechGodhead, and gnosticGardener). Their personalities are developed largely through their pesterlogs and through their reactions on being ordered to examine the stuff in their rooms (as adventure game protagonists often are). And they're all very likeable too, this is key. John is naiive and clueless but also loyal and earnest. Rose is intellectual, full of literary aspirations and archly superior put-downs. Dave is self-consciously cool and ironic. Jade is a natural mystic, a simple soul who takes even the weirdest things in stride. The kids are great; they're all very different from each other and yet somehow believable as friends, and you just root for them and want them to succeed. That's what keeps me going when the head-smacking silliness of it all is otherwise too much to bear.
That reminds me of the parts I didn't like. To try to say it without spoilers: I was somewhat put off by certain plot developments at the end of chapter 4. It made heavy use of a certain narrative device that I find detracts from my ability to care about a story by robbing the significance from decisions made by the protagonists. And of course right after that we get into the infamous Troll arc. Or soon-to-be infamous anyway. The Troll arc doesn't offend me as much as the end of chapter 4, but it is really hard to read because it's especially text-heavy and because the text is full of nOnStAnDaRd cApItAlIzAtIoN, numb3r subst1tut1ons and other Troll-isms. Slow going.
I stopped reading for a while. But Sushu finally plowed through and got to Act 5 Act 2, and judging by how much she's laughing, Homestuck seems to have found its groove again. I guess I need to press on through the Troll arc and see what happens.
Homestuck does weird things to my brain. After one particularly archive-binge-filled day I spent at Isaac's apartment, I tried to sleep but couldn't. My brain was in that place where it won't stop spinning its wheels and let me sleep (have you ever had that? You know what I'm talking about?). My brain was stuck in a loop of generating inane commands and then refusing them for bullshit reasons with lots of made-up words. All. Night. Long. Like it was being re-wired according to the logic of Homestuck.
It may do the same thing to you. You have been warned!
Isn't it weird how Penny Arcade is only rarely about video games, anymore? It's slowly turned into a comic about tabletop gaming and raising a family. I, for one, like it better this way.
The artist of Axe Cop is doing a new comic (this one with a coherent storyline). It's called BEARMAGEDDON and thus far it is living up to exactly what the title promises. I'm finding it very entertaining. But you already know just from the title whether you'll like this comic or not. Those who don't want to see graphic images of bears eating people (why wouldn't you?) should not click that link.
More thoughts on writing comics
There was a Q&A session at a comic book signing i went to once. Sushu pointed out how you can tell the fans from the aspiring comic authors: the fans ask about the fictional characters, the aspiring authors ask about the writing process. Fans ask questions like "what was character X doing between the end of part 1 and the beginning of part 2?"
From an author's perspective, questions like this make no goddamn sense! Do fans think these characters really exist somewhere, having adventures, that the author observes and reports on? No! It's made up! The characters don't exist outside of what the author has written about them, and if the author chose to leave something out the book, it's usually for a good reason: that part of the character's life is boring and unimportant!
Trying to write fiction for real forever changes the way you relate to it as an audience. I used to get swept up in a story, forget it was imaginary. Now I'm always thinking about "why is this character in this scene" "why does this scene happen at this point in the plot" etc. The ability to get lost in a story has been taken away from me. (But in exchange, I've gained the ability to appreciate the craftsmanship in what I'm reading. It's a fair trade.)
Trying to write fiction has given me a new appreciation for cliche. That is, I still don't much enjoy reading it, and I don't want to write it, but I understand why it's so common and what function it serves. Cliches are structures that have proven themselves to work reliably.
Take the "journey to the other end of the map", favorite cliche of fantasy authors. It works because it lets you take the reader on a vicarious tour of your setting without too much infodumping. It lets you show off how the diversity of nations and cultures in your world and demonstrate how they're all suffering because of the Dark Lord, it taps into the universal human interest in exploration, and the journey across the map can be, like, a metaphor for an internal journey of self-discovery, like wow man did I just blow your mind?
One of the most common science-fiction plotlines is "Hero is the only one with a technology that can change the course of a war". It works because it gives enormous moral weight to the hero's decisions (important) while letting us explore how a new technology can upset the balance of power and change the status quo (one of the primary, central themes of science fiction). Plus it gives us an excuse to have lots of cool battle scenes.
Why do horror movies always have the phone lines get cut or cell phone reception mysteriously go out? It's so the protagonist can't just call the police and let them deal with it, which is the first thing any sane person would do in real life.
If you want to avoid those cliches you need to come up with an alternative structure that accomplishes the same things, and that's really hard. People have been telling stories for a long time across a lot of different cultures. No matter how brilliantly original you think your idea is, somebody's probably written something at least a little similar to it before, and so they've had to solve the same structural problems as you have. The problem I posed in the previous post - how to decide what happens, and in what order - gets a lot harder when you're purposely avoiding the most reliable and popular patterns!
There are easier ways. You can disguise the cliche so it's not so blatantly obvious - throw out false clues to trick the trope-aware reader into expecting one plot twist, then go with another. Or you can accept cliches in your structure and try to be original in the contents. (You didn't invent the sandwich, but you can experiment with new sandwich fillings.) An interesting cast of characters can make a story worth reading even if the plot structure is something you've read before.
I think that trying too hard to avoid cliche is a trap that beginning writers fall into. You read TV Tropes and say to yourself "I'm not going to do ANY of these things!" until you realize that ripping out all the tropes is like ripping out the skeleton -- if you don't have something to replace it with, your story will flop around on the floor and be unable to move anywhere.
My story is about Japanese computer programmers in the near future, so every cyberpunk cliche ever is readily available. Right now I'm giving a lot of thought to which ones I might want to try to put an original twist on, and which ones I want to avoid entirely.
Elfquest: it's almost good
This dude I work with who is into comics found out that I had never read Elfquest, so he lent me his copies of volumes 1-4. I just finished reading 4 last night because I wanted to give them back to him before I go to China.
So, Elfquest. It's, uh... (sigh) let me put it this way: 12-year-old Jono would have loved it. It's too bad 12-year-old Jono never got to read it. If he did, I'm sure I would be all nostalgic about it now. But as is... ehhhhhhhh. It's almost good.
Elfquest was a self-published epic fantasy comic done by Wendy & Richard Pini, starting in 1978. I've got tremendous respect for people who self-publish comics - especially in full color, and especially back in 1978, before the internet, before manga came to America, before the term "graphic novel", before most Americans knew any comics existed outside Marvel and DC.
1978 was one year after Ralph Bakshi's movie Wizards, and one year before the first AD&D hardcover, and you can really tell the Elfquest aesthetic comes from the same zeitgeist.
I guess part of that aesthetic is not being embarrassed to spill blatant daydreamy wish-fulfillment all over the page? The protagonists of Elfquest are the Wolfrider tribe, and of course they have very special bonds with their wolves, and they've all got names like Strongbow and Clearbrook and Dewshine, but they also have secret "soul names" that they only share with their "lifemates", and they have special Elven telepathy called "sending", and they have something called "Recognition" which is like falling in love but WAY MORE SPECIAL because it means your souls are destined for each other or something. And they'd rather live in peace of course but the humans, who are superstitious, xenophobic and violent, keep attacking them because they can't understand the awesomeness of Elven culture.
The word that comes to mind is "twee". If the word "twee" did not exist it would have to be invented to describe Elfquest.
So of course the
mean high school jocks humans burn down the Wolfriders' home glade, and so the Wolfriders set out following the Lodestone that this one elf named Skywise carries. The quest for a new home turns into a quest to discover other tribes of elves, to reunite them and eventually to discover the lost history of their common ancestors. This is what you might call an "Elf-quest".
And there's something there that I really like, which is that the quest isn't about finding treasure or conquering enemies or satisfying some magical MacGuffin prophecy; it's about self-discovery, seeking knowledge, forging alliances, and learning to live with other cultures. My favorite parts are the portrayal of the cultural differences between the Wolfriders and the other elf tribes -- the culture shock, the conflicts, the participation in unfamiliar rituals, the seeking of common ground, and eventually the adjustment as everybody's understanding of elfhood expands. All that anthropological stuff is pretty good. Also, the desert-dwelling sun-elf tribe may be the only elves I've seen in fiction who are dark-skinned and not irredeemably evil (like Drow). In fact they're more civilized than most of the light-skinned elves. So kudos for that, I guess.
Unfortunately, any moral about the importance of understanding other cultures is undermined by the trolls in this book. Sigh. The trolls are big-nosed, dumb, ugly (comically ugly), treacherous, greedy for gold, they take elves for slaves, and have not a single redeeming quality. They're pretty much a "genetically evil" race which are in here because the story needed villains and the writers wanted some guys the elven heroes could kill without feeling bad. I was feeling sorry for the trolls by the end, just because they spend the whole series getting beaten up by elves.
The art is okay; I liked the super-saturated colors and the loving attention to detail, but the weird body proportions and huge doe-eyes of the elves are kinda creepy. And then there's the narration. The many, many caption boxes full of purple prose, explaining what's happening even though we can see it happening right there in the panel next to it. Argh! I'm glad comics have moved away from the "Stan Lee lecture" format; they're a lot better when the writer trusts the art to convey what's happening.
Unfortunately the good stuff is not quite enough to make up for the twee-ness, the overbearing narrator, the fantasy cliches, or the endless troll-slaying. I'm left with the feeling of "damn, this is almost good".
The Proving Grounds, and other comic scripting advice
As I've complained about before, it's hard finding usable advice for writing comics.
So I was pretty excited to discover, via random internet searching, a column called The Proving Grounds, by a writer named Steven Forbes. In each installment, a reader submits a draft of a comic script, and Forbes rips their horrible ideas to shreds. I mean, provides helpful feedback!
It's aimed at people who are trying to break into the American weekly-comic-magazine market, so there's the assumption again that writer and artist will be two different people. Nevertheless, there's a lot of good, useful stuff here about panel-to-panel flow, story pacing, dialog, establishing shots, and what is or isn't drawable. Plus I find it really entertaining when Forbes calls somebody out for "white void", "moving panels", or being "magically delicious" (when something we should have seen earlier appears out of nowhere).
There's another, newer column on the same site called Points of Impact which goes through comics published that week (mostly ones I've never heard of) pulling out graphic narrative devices to talk about why they work or don't work. I'm getting some useful ideas out of this one, too. The rest of the site is not so relevant to my interests.
Sushu's been working on scripting a new comic project of her own. She wrote a good post about killing your headcanon, among other things.
Alternative Press Expo
I'll be at APE in San Francisco this weekend helping table for Sushu's China Comics.
This month, holy crap this month has been just
For an unemployed person, I'm pretty busy.
The first week of the month I was sprinting on the Legends of Hanyu code trying to get teacher features done in time for Sushu to show it off at a teacher conference. Partial success -- got a lot done, not as much as I would like.
Second week of the month I was doing a week-long statistical modeling / data analysis task for a startup I really like. I was one of a couple candidates they were considering hiring, and they offered this task as a way of letting me prove my abilities. In the process I learned a bunch about applied stats and data mining. That was pretty cool. But I didn't get the job, and I really wanted to work for them, so this was a bummer.
Ah well. If I never failed, it would mean I was sticking to things that are too easy for me.
There has also been... well, read Sushu's dreamwidth for details. It's been hard on both of us emotionally and hard on her physically.
If you follow my twitter you noticed I made some pretty angsty and depressed tweets the last couple of days. I'm worried I might be slipping back into depression. But this time I've decided to talk about it and reach out to people instead of withdrawing and trying to keep it secret.
Jinghua (my old boss from Mozilla) saw my tweets, got worried about me, and called me up to check on me. She's really sweet! She suggested meeting up for dinner that night with the Mozilla user research team (including Gregg who was visiting from Minnesota that day). We had shabu-shabu. It was really good to see them again. Man, for all the things that made me decide to leave Mozilla, I really do love the people I got to work with there. It will be hard to find such good co-workers anywhere else.
This week I wrote and thumbnailed a ten-page comic. Oh, right, I forgot to tell you guys: I pitched a comic idea to this anthology of science fiction short stories set in San Francisco, and it was accepted! The final pages are due on April 1, so I'll be drawing and inking like a maniac all next week to try to meet that deadline.
Even with all the deadlines that landed this month, the job hunt doesn't stop. Sushu's school is looking for a new math/computer-science teacher, so I went in and observed a class on Thursday to see if it's something I might be interested in. (Answer: probably not.) Next I'm trying to set up interviews with some companies involved in building the "smart electric grid".
March was also the month when, out of the blue, I had chances to reconnect at least five different friends who I haven't seen in years. All independently. That was great!
Oh yeah and I went hang-gliding, and played taiko in front of thousands of people at a baseball game. Somehow that happened while all this other stuff was going on.
On the 30th I'm flying to New York City to meet a bunch of people there, then road-trip (or possibly Amtrak) through Connecticut visiting friends and relatives on my way to the big Chinese teacher conference in Boston.
I Finished My First Real Comic Today
Today (a week past the due date) I finally turned in the finished version of "We Can Regrow That For You", a 10-page science-fiction comic, which will be published in the upcoming anthology Sci-Fi San Francisco by Skodaman Press.
This is kinda my first "real" comic, in that it's a finished, self-contained, original story, that is being published in print by somebody I don't know. I'm even getting paid (a little) for it!
Finishing it was an ordeal. My plan was to get it done before leaving on my trip to New Jersey-New York-Connecticut-Massachusetts, but I started too late, had to bring the work with me, and ended up spending almost the entire week desperately trying to finish the comic! I'm afraid I was rather rude to all the people I visited, trying to multitask between visiting them and inking pages with a stylus on my laptop.
It didn't help that I was doing it in GIMP. Screw you, GIMP.
Today was a week past the due date. I really, really should have started earlier. Luckily, it was still accepted.
I still wouldn't be done if Sushu hadn't volunteered to step in and save my butt. Besides proofreading and feedback, she also did the majority of the inking and shading. The actual lines you'll see on the finished page are mostly hers. I asked the publishers to please put both our names in the byline, since it turned into a team project.
Things that "We Can Regrow That For You" Taught Me About Comic-Making
The thing I'm least happy about with the finished story is how cramped it feels. Honestly, the idea that I picked was a bit too complex for ten pages. But I didn't have time to think of a simpler one, so I had to go with it. As a result, some pages are overcrowded. Pages 2 and 3 are both nine-panelers, which is seriously pushing it.
Working under a length limit was good for me, though. Spilling over to an eleventh page was not an option. (Good thing, too, given how long ten pages took.) It helped me learn to think of dialog as a limited resource -- you can only squeeze so many lines into a page, and only so many words into a line. But there's so much that needs doing! Backstory exposition, character development, plot advancement, expressing conflict, telling jokes, etc etc. Spread that duty across the limited lines of dialog and every line has to be carrying a lot of weight. Double or triple duty.
I don't think my dialog in this story is particularly great, but at least I've eliminated all needless lines. Dialog is almost always better when it's shorter.
Finish Your Shit
It's not good to go through life with one "master" story you're perpetually "working on". Because then every idea you have wants to get into that story. They have nowhere else to go. All those extra ideas clinging on to the sides of the story like refugees on the last bus out of town, making it unweildly, weighing it down. The story becomes too big to finish, so you're always doing it but it's never done.
Cough, Yuki Hoshigawa, cough. (The irony is that Yuki Hoshigawa was itself originally supposed to be a quick project to do for practice before I got into the big story I really wanted to do, which was my Epic Space Opera.)
It's better to have multiple smaller stories so ideas can go into each one as they fit and no one story gets overly bloated. I only thought of "We Can Regrow That For You" a few months ago, and now it's done! That's a good feeling. I haven't had to give it years of rent-free lodging in my brain.
Me and Sushu are still figuring out how we work together on creative projects. We've tried to do some before which kind of fell apart. But I think we're starting to figure out what it takes to make it work: We have to know which one of us is in charge of the vision. The other one just helps with the execution. In this case, the comic was my baby and Sushu helped me execute. The Chinese learning game got a lot easier to work on once we accepted that it's Sushu's baby and I'm just executing.
Sometimes collaboration creates something mysterious. Sometimes Sushu saw something in my sketch while inking it that I didn't mean to put there. I didn't mean to give the waitress on page 8 a huge ridiculous bow tie, but Sushu thought she saw one, and somehow it works, so there it is. Who created that bow tie? Neither of us did! It's spooky.
Fiction Is Just A Fancy Word For Lying
Like, duh, right? Fiction is made up. But it still surprises me how fake everything about my story is.
Most of the writing I've done in my life has been nonfiction -- blog posts, argumentative essays, lab reports, expository technical writing, etc. There's a set of facts which are the fixed stars in your firmament; your task is to put them in order and explain them in a coherent and maybe entertaining way.
And when you read fiction, if it's any good, you experience it like a true thing. Like you're peeking into another world where all this stuff is really happening. It seems like there's a fixed set of facts there, and the author is just guiding us through it. And fanfic writers sure do care about getting the "facts" of their canon right.
So there's a misconception I had when I started trying to write fiction that it would be like this: there's a world in my imagination, I open a channel to it somehow, observe events there, gather a set of "facts", and then guide the reader through those "facts" in a logical way.
But no. Everything about telling a story is artificial. Everything. There's no facts. There's no alternate world. There's just me, drawing a bunch of lines, and making a bunch of decisions about what I want my lines to express.
Nothing is sacred. Every time I catch myself thinking of a certain plot point as fixed and necessary, I'm wrong - there's always something else could happen instead. The order of events is flexible. Characters' personalities are flexible. Basic assumptions about the setting are flexible.
It's like sculpting with mist. There's just nothing solid there.
If the end result resembles naturalism, if the reader believes for a moment that the markings on paper represent a consistent alternate world, it's only because the magic trick worked.
This means that the writer's experience is never going to match the reader's experience. The writer doesn't get to have the reader's enjoyment of discovering this world - no more than a a magician can be fooled by a trick while they're performing it.
The Character Just Took Over, Man
Speaking of magic tricks: Sometimes authors talk about a character having a mind of its own and telling the author where the story should go.
I'm not sure what's going on there, man. Maybe if you're writing a new entry in a series and have some long-established characters and you need to stay true to them. But when you're writing a character for the first time? You decide who the character is. Whatever you make them do, that's who they are. For any given character there are infinite possible interpretations, which you narrow down with each word or action you give them.
I do think that sometimes you write a line for a character and suddenly the character clicks, like you just discovered who they are. That's happened to me a lot. With role-playing game characters especially. But the character still doesn't have "a mind of their own". It's just that you discovered a characterization that works for you.
That said, consistent characterization is really fucking important. Nothing ruins a story faster than character motivations that don't make sense, or that are plain missing. Bogus science can be hand-waved, but if your people don't act like people, nothing can save your story. So out of all the magic tricks, "this character has a mind of their own" is the most important illusion to create.
Most of Writing is Rewriting
The reader experiences the story beginning to end, as a series of fictional events. The writer experiences it first draft to last draft -- as a series of decisions to be made, blanks to be filled, plot holes to be fixed, etc.
The story would ALWAYS be better with another rewrite. But at some point you have to call it good enough and start drawing. One good thing about working under a deadline is that the deadline forces you not to be a perfectionist about the rewriting.
My original idea changed a lot in the development. Like, the first draft was just Zach and assorted background characters. Julia and Pedro didn't exist yet.
I rejected my original ending for being all talk with nothing interesting going on visually. I think this was the right choice. Repeat it with me: Comics are a visual medium. If you have a whole page of talking heads to draw, something is wrong with your script.
After I wrote a better ending, I realized I had some empty roles to fill, so Julia and Pedro were invented to fill them. I think it's a way better story with them in it.
The original idea, the inspiration, is what gives you motivation to start working, but don't cling to it. You'll have other ideas. Sometimes the original idea is just a stepping stone to something better.
A lot of story problems are the result of seams between different drafts -- this page will be at revision 5 and this other page at revision 6, as it were, and they don't quite line up. Sometimes a page is full of holdovers, stuff that was needed in revision 5 but doesn't matter in revision 6. Sometimes the holdovers stay in for a while before you notice them. It really helps to have someone else read it over and point out the seam for you.
Like, in the first draft, it was important to show Zach interviewing for the job and getting hired. That took up page 1 and part of 2. The interview stuff stayed there for several revisions before I finally realized that it was a relic. There was no need to see the interview: I could tighten things up a lot if Zach wasjust already part of the company when the story opens. Several panels on the finished pages 1 and 2 were originally drawn for the interview scene and then repurposed -- that's how late in the process I figured this out.
An unexpected benefit of drawing comics is that it makes you look more carefully at the world around you. Because you might need to draw anything. Random everyday objects you've never tried to draw before, that would not usually be a subject of art: there they are in the background of a panel! Better find one and figure out how to draw it.
Walking around town when my brain is in "comics mode", I see things I wouldn't normally see. A person with a cool hairdo that I want to swipe for a character. A neat old building that would look good in the background of a panel. The shape of a tree. Etc.
On Science Fiction
The science fiction that interests me most is what-if stories about social change. Which means you need four parts:
- the what-if: the new technology or whatever and the rules for how it works
- the society: how does this new whatever do to affect the tangle of unspoken rules and assumptions we call culture
- the characters: what do the changes to technology and society mean for the characters
- the themes: what are you trying to say about, you know, the human condition and stuff. Hopefully something more interesting than just "oh no, this technology/social trend is really bad". Write a blog post if that's all you want to say
The themes and characters are what the story's about. The what-if and the society belong in the background.
A lot of really shitty science fiction has been written by writing the what-if and the society and ignoring themes and characters.
Balancing themes, characters, and world-building is really hard! It's hard enough to get one of those things right, and when you try to do them together, sometimes they fight each other. Science-fiction fans, including myself, love to nitpick stories where the world-building isn't quite consistent. But trying to do it myself has given me a newfound sympathy. I'm starting to think it's a valid artistic choice to favor the emotional impact of the story over the consistency of made-up science if the two are irreconcilable. Nerd heresy, I know.
Will The Audience Get It?
There were a lot of things I wanted to say in "We Can Regrow That For You". Themes and ideas I didn't have space to explore in depth. So I just hinted at them. I have no idea how many readers will pick up on the hints, but they're there.
Readers hate being bashed over the head with something obvious, right? I figure it's better to hint at things and let the reader feel smart when they figure it out. Instead of telling the story directly, you describe the edges of a story-shaped hole and let them fill in the blanks.
That's what "Show, Don't Tell" is about, right? It's really more like "Show them one thing by telling them another thing"
The story, in my head, is a cloud of marvelous possibilities. I hope that in the reader's head, it becomes a cloud of marvelous possibilities as well. But in between, it has to be flattened to pass through the narrow, limited, linear medium of scratch marks on paper, that can only hint at the story I imagined. I can only hope that whatever story the reader creates in their head, inspired by my scratch marks, is meaningful to them.
We Can Regrow That For You (read it online)
I contacted the anthology publisher and asked if I could share my story on the web before the book comes out. They said sure, no problem. So I put it up on the Studio Xia site.
Read it here!
Looking over it again, my biggest regret is that it feels too rushed. Ten pages was a little too short for this story idea. As a result, the art and the dialog both feel a bit cramped. I'm pondering maybe doing a "director's cut" where I expand it to 14 or 15 pages, just to give it a little more room to breathe and develop.
Podcast #2 - Seirei no Moribito
Here it is: Podcast 2.mp3. (35:45, 32.7 MB) Recorded Thursday, May 2nd, 2013.
0:00 - Visiting Chris in the hospital
2:00 - Our anime "book club".
4:40 - Anime cons then and now; the fragmentation of fandom.
8:00 - Awkward homestucks; cutting-edge cosplay.
11:00 - Today's anime: Seirei no Moribito. Kicking butt; pacing.
13:00 - What's this show about? Is it set in the distant past of Japan, or an alternate history, or a fantasy world?
14:00 - Balsa's characterization.
15:30 - Role-playing games and martial arts philosophy.
17:00 - Setting development without infodumping.
18:00 - Introducing characters via their actions.
21:00 - Trying to learn how to introduce characters better in our comics, Squanto and We Can Regrow That For You.
23:50 - Making the outer represent the inner in comicking.
24:30 - What's up with these fake kanji? Is this Japan or not? (round 2).
27:30 - More about the pacing and setting. Characters who aren't good or evil, just trying to live their lives.
29:00 - Balsa's challenges are about trust, not fighting. If she was a PTA character.
31:30 - The prince's character development, and his silly hairdo.
33:30 - Other shows we might watch for anime book club.
35:00 - Robotech and stupid "vehicle" Voltron! "Lying to a child!"