Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mr. Parrot Pockets

If Pluto’s a dog, what’s Goofy? It was this sort of question that should have plagued my generation growing up, but in all honesty, I think most of us just took all those anthropomorphic inconsistencies in stride. We all knew how it worked, the clothes made the man –er – dog –er –man/dog, and an unclothed animal was, well, clearly an animal. Speech balloons or the absence thereof sealed the deal.

It’s that sort of interior logic that allows an elephant to wander unnoticed in the streets of New York City. On first landing Otto obtains some stolen clothing from the unclaimed baggage area, and after that, clothed only in a fedora and trench coat, he is now mistaken for merely a largish human. At least by the less-than-curious occupants of a big city.

The parrot is taken at face value because we all know parrots can talk. So it’s a small leap of logic that allows Crackers to have a conversation with a bartender. And other animals can always recognize and communicate with one another, despite the presence or absence of clothes, because of the universal bond of animalhood. Or something like that.

Okay. So it doesn’t make sense. It’s why I love this medium called “comics”. The reader is a willing accomplice in a suspension of disbelief. But dubious logic aside, the real challenges in anthropomorphism from a cartoonist’s perspective are simply those created by an animal’s physical characteristics. Crackers’ wings transform relatively easily into large fingered hands when necessary, but Otto creates more problems. I mostly imagine him as a person in over-sized oven mitts (without thumbs) which allows him to grapple with most things. Catching cabs, (literally) blowing his nose, holding a bowl. I’ve even managed to squeeze a pointing finger out of him, but not easily. (Fortunately elephants are one of the few animals that walk the same as humans, not tippy-toed but flat-footed, so at least his knees bend the right way, anthropomorphically speaking!)

Parrot wings morph fairly easily into hands but the large saucer-like foot pads of Otto create challenges for  even the simplest gestures, like pointing.
Then there are the Alligari Boys, alligators so acclimatized to life in the big city that they have taken to wearing human clothes. Big Al has even elected to go for patent leather shoes! But again, although their claws are more easily adapted to being hand-like, I did run up against the problem of their arms being too stubby and low down on the body to easily reach their snout. Mostly not a problem other than when they’re shushing Otto, like the image below …
The stubby legs and long snouts of the alligators make hand to mouth gestures a bit tricky. It could only be managed by a hunching of the shoulders and getting the alligators to bend into the pose.
But it’s the inconsistencies around anthropomorphism that can be the most fun. Maps mysteriously appear and disappear in Cracker’s plumage, but when he pulls out a bill to pay the cabbie, Otto really takes notice. His realization that Crackers is carrying around cash leads to the following exchange, as jet lag and the frustration of their search for Georgie finally blows the top off their collaborative efforts.
The inked drawing for p. 52 of Big City Otto that I was working on this week. The bottom right panel is one of my favourites in the book, as Otto and Crackers square off eyeball to eyeball.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Elephant Thumbnails

Above you can see the thumbnail and subsequent pencil rough for p. 62 of Big City Otto. I'm constantly referring to my original sketch in order to capture the spontaneity and energy as I work on my finished pencils.

In my on-going education and elucidation, I can say, unequivocally, that elephants do not have thumbnails. Toenails, yes, and lovely ones at that, but the lack of thumbnails is inexorably hinged to the lack of thumbs which creates no end of troubles for an illustrator who needs his elephant to, well, hold things. But that remains for a future post – the visual pitfalls of anthropomorphism!

In talking about storyboarding, or thumbnails, I’m really reaching into the vault here, as this was a process started over two years ago. Much of the original storyboarding for Big City Otto (book one of Elephants Never Forget) was done on a trip to the Azores, my partner Esperança’s birth place, in the summer of 2008. It was a memorable trip for the fact that most of my two-week stay on those beautiful islands was spent in the hospital waiting room, while Esperança attended to her mother who had become quite ill a few days after our arrival. Fortunately I had the Otto manuscript and my sketchbook in hand, and the visual story just poured forth over that time and the weeks following when I returned home. I remember it as a golden summer spent sitting and drawing on my back porch while the weather held. It was a very creative time, working with nothing more than pencil and sketchbook, liberated from art table and computer screen, and really just letting the creative juices flow. It was the cliché of the artist’s life and so far from the reality of what it usually takes to make a living as an illustrator.

The months of work spent on those thumbnails was all speculative work, something that is familiar to the writer but less so to the illustrator who usually has contract in hand before pencil goes to paper. But the fruit of those days’ labour was a fully-realized manuscript complete with sketches, and I honestly believe that this lead to the subsequent acceptance of the story for publication.

When I speak of thumbnails here I’m really referring to the art of storyboarding, or getting the story down in small simple quick sketches. It is at this stage that I’m working out points of view, lights and darks, where the text will likely fall and how the action will be communicated over how many panels of storytelling. The thumbnailing is always the most creative part, in my view, of the entire process, a chance to tackle the bare bones of the visual narrative without getting hung up searching for references or fine-tuning the drawings. That all comes later, once I settle into the pencil roughs, many of which I’ve reproduced previously here in the posts of this blog.

But the thumbnails are really the heart of the whole thing. It is where I get my hands deep into the clay of storytelling, and in those thumbnails lies the energy and compositions for my later drawings. I refer constantly to these small sketches as I work on my pencil roughs. When I stray too far from those original imaginings the picture starts to loose its energy, gestures become wrong, angles of view too acute. So I constantly find myself returning to those very first spontaneous sketches to bring myself back on track, to those sketches that will serve as a road map for the months and months of hard work that still lie ahead. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Toilet Humour and Brainstorming Otto

Above is the pencil rough for Page 36, part of the scene described below. One of the wonderful things about doing comics is that the usual restrictions of reality aren't a hindrance. This means it's completely acceptable for an elephant to be stuffed into a port-a-potty and then hoisted to the top of a high-rise. In fact, not only acceptable but actually rather funny.

I’ve talked a little bit in an earlier post about how the idea of Otto originally emerged (http://www.billslavin.com/2010/07/star-is-born-imagining-otto_9811.html) but thought some of my readers might be interested in the brainstorming process that leads to ideas getting organized and on paper.

Most of the first book of Elephants Never Forget was written episodically. That is to say, once the arc of the story had been established ( Otto and Cracker's journey to America in search of Otto’s kidnapped pal, Georgie the chimp) most of the rest of the story was constructed from a series of scene ideas. These ideas usually came up and were fleshed out in brainstorming sessions conducted during regular evening walks with my partner Esperança Melo. Most of the best ideas were Esperança’s and would usually come from a conversation that went something like this:

Me: So, Otto and Crackers find themselves adrift in this huge metropolis, looking for his pal Georgie. What happens next?
E: Otto might get stuffed in a Porto-Potty.
Me: What?!!
E: A Porto-Potty.
Me: (dense) Why a Porto-Potty?
E: Well, he’s in the city and he has to go to the bathroom somewhere, and an elephant in a Porto-Potty is funny.
Me: (thinking now this isn’t such a whacky idea) Okay. Poop humour is funny. But why would there be a Porto-Potty?
E: Well maybe it’s on a construction site.
Me: (more enthusiastically) Yeah. And maybe he has to go to the bathroom because he ate a box of prunes or something.
E: That would have happened sometime sooner.
Me: Sure, like when Otto and Crackers first arrived in the city. Remember, he was hungry the whole time on the airplane and on the baggage carousel, so he may have done something ill-considered like eat a box of prunes. Maybe from an early morning delivery van when they first get into the city proper.
E: (still with the Port-a-Potty) It would be funny if the Port-a-Potty is being lifted up on a platform by a crane …
Me: What??!!
E: It would just be funnier if it all happened while being suspended from a crane.
Me: (hesitantly) Oookay. That might work. Sort of a Buster Keaton high-wire act?
E: Exactly,
Me: (gears churning) And actually that could work quite well, because once he gets out of the Port-a-Potty he would be way up in the air, and maybe for the first time gets a glimpse of how huge the city is! Like a great concrete jungle – an obvious metaphor for an elephant, don’t you think?
E: (uninterested in my elephant metaphors) Sure. Whatever. And maybe he sees an organ grinder and his monkey below in the street and thinks that it’s Georgie.
Me: That could work.
E: It would be really funny if he ran into a monkey on the street who was part of a flea circus.
Me: What??!!!

This is typical of our collaboration around the writing, with Esperança coming up with the wackier and more original ideas, forcing me to then think out of the box. Then I run with it, taking all the good stuff, writing up the scene descriptions and dialogue and figuring out how it fits into the narrative as a whole.

There are many ways of writing for a graphic novel, some highly descriptive, others sketching things out in the broadest strokes possible. Because I have the luxury of being both lead writer and illustrator, my scenes and even panel breakdowns can be fairly loose allowing me to fill in the details later. I will speak more about this in another post on storyboarding the book.

At any rate, all of the discussion on our walk (other than the flea circus bit, which made no sense whatsoever!) led to this written scene:

High Wire Scene

Caption: Hours later …
Scene: Otto and Crackers walking down the street despondently.
Crackers: Cripes! We’ve been searching for ages!
Otto: I gotta go.

Crackers: Go? Now? We just flew 3000 miles to get here and you gotta go?

Otto: No, I mean go! You know–
Crackers: Ah, jeez! This ain’t the jungle, Otto. You can’t just go anywhere.

Scene: Now walking past construction site. There’s a Johnny-on-the-spot present. A construction worker has just left it, buttoning his pants and whistling.
Crackers: See that little house? You go there.
Otto: It seems a bit small …

Scene: Otto trying to get through doorway. Crackers pushing from behind, head under Otto’s behind.
Otto: It would be much easier if I could just-
Crackers: Don’t even think about it!

Otto is now inside. Crackers is pacing out front, with back to toilet. A crane is lifting a chain that is attached to the four corners of a skid that the toilet is standing on.
Crackers: Just let me know when you’re done.
Otto: Okee-Dokee.

Scene: The toilet is now lifting up. Crackers still has his back to it.
Otto: I’m feeling much lighter.
Crackers: Just hurry up, would ya?

Scene: Crackers is still facing away then turns, doing classic double take. The toilet is gone.
Crackers: I told you not to eat all those- Whaaa-?!!

Scene: From below, Crackers (in shadow) looking up startled as a sky crane hoists the platform with the toilet up into the air, towards the top of a skyscraper under construction.
Crackers: Otto!

Scene: Crackers chasing after platform. Otto still inside.
Crackers: Otto! Otto!
Otto: I’m coming! Just a minute!

Scene: Crackers now fluttering outside door. (Flush! coming from toilet.)
Crackers: No, Otto! This is bad! You gotta get outta there!

Scene: Door opens. Otto steps out.
Otto: So what’s the -

Scene: Otto jumps back, hugging toilet. Toilet tilts on platform.
Otto: Aaargh!

Scene: Toilet tumbles off of platform. Otto is following it, flailing, but Crackers has grabbed him by the tail.
Otto: Aieee!

Scene: Otto is pulled back onto platform, and grabs chain, shaking. Platform is tilted dangerously to one side.
Crackers: Steady, big boy. Steady. Just make your way over to the middle here …

Scene: Otto has made his way to the center of the platform. He’s looking out on the panorama of the city below.
Otto: It’s huge! Like a massive jungle, but made out of- umm …
Crackers: Concrete?

Scene: Close up of Otto. We can see a tear in his eye. Crackers looks on with concern.
Otto: Sniff! We’re never going to find Georgie, are we, Crackers?
Crackers: Sure we will, big buddy.

Otto:(Crying inconsolably) No we won’t! It’s hopeless! Boo hoo hoo!
Crackers: Easy, big fella. You gotta get a grip.

Scene: Otto suddenly wiping away tears, pointing excitedly at a tiny figure below. The whole platform tilts dangerously again.
Otto: Wait! I see him! There!
Crackers: Where?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Some Thoughts on Visual Literacy

Below is a bit from a talk I did a couple of years ago at the Saskatchewan Reading Council conference in Regina. I think I alienated half my audience and bored the other half (note to self – don’t try to do any heavy-thinking at a luncheon key note) but I think the thinking is good enough to share here and ties in directly to the value of graphic novels in libraries and classrooms.

The adage goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But I think there are few things in this world less well understood then the art of visual communication. My profession uses pictures, an even older form of communication then the printed word, and the basis of most of the world’s alphabets. For us visual artists, words are the new Johnny-come-lately, and although expedient and easy to use, still viewed with suspicion.

Going back to pictures, we can remind ourselves that there are and always will be many ways and means to communicate. Every pre-literate child begins their relationship with books through the pictures in picture books, “reads” the stories through those pictures and uses them as a spring board to understanding those arcane marks on the page we call words.
Because, as we all know, the pictures are the first key to a story in the preliterate mind. Like those massive and age-darkened canvases that loom out of the shadows on the walls of ancient churches and cathedrals, a picture book’s illustrations are there to bring alive and communicate a story to an audience that is unable to read.
I think at some point many of us lose our ability to “read” the visual, slip into a sort of visual illiteracy in a sense, as we attach more and more importance to the words that symbolize things, and stop truly seeing the pictures that may accompany those words. I constantly see evidence of this – from the fact that children often recognize what is developing in the narrative of a story, by reading the visual clues, before the adult does, to picture book reviews that give only a cursory note to the illustrations or fail to mention them at all. I’ve even read reviews that attribute entire portions of the narrative to the author that were only told in the illustrations and were the illustrator’s contribution to the book, a case where the reviewer is so blind to the role the illustrations play in telling a story that they didn’t realize part was being told in the pictures.
I remember reading a short story once, by C.S. Lewis, I think. In this story he describes a series of passing images, amorphous and indistinguishable blobs of shape and colour, with no real discernable pattern. At the end of the piece you discover it was a trip in a car, seen through the eyes of someone who has become so separated from their ability to actually see, that this is what their visual world had been reduced to. I think we are all born with the ability to truly see, but as we start to order and make sense of all of this stimuli entering our brains, we slowly prioritize and discard, give names to objects, and in naming them, stop seeing them for what they truly are. So a “chair” becomes the archetype of a chair, the word “tree” becomes a substitute for all trees in their many and varied guises, and in the end we rely heavily on a literal shorthand for this visual world around us, and stop effectively seeing. We all do it, even artists, but I think the artist, by constantly exercising this part of his brain, perhaps holds on a little more to the ability to actually see as we did when we were children.
But in this world we all live in, bombarded constantly with visual imagery, perhaps we all need to relearn, in small ways, how to see properly. It could well be that today’s children and even their young parents are one of the most visually literate generations this world has seen – children raised (some might say gorged) on a banquet of imagery, from television to computer games. Comic books are being read, not so much by children, but by a generation well into their twenties and thirties. It’s the same generation that is driving the computer game industry. Pictures are no longer just kids’ stuff.