Sunday, November 28, 2010

Blowing Things Up

Page 62, inked final, of Big City Otto.
I realized, as I was inking Page 62 this week, that I love to blow things up. Not literally, of course – I’ll leave that to the professionals, fanatics and inspired lunatics that seem to populate our world these days. But when it comes to putting pencil to paper, I love blowing things up.

I always have. Most boys do. It’s why their earliest art is filled with vast and complex panoramas of huge battle scenes, planes going down in flames, limbs severed, blood spurting. I was as guilty as the next.

One of the less gruesome battle scenes that filled my childhood sketch
books. From Zok the Caveman, drawn when I was 8.
And when I wasn’t busy blowing things up on paper, I was out playing complex wargames with my friends. Armed with homemade weapons (my parents refused to buy me guns), my wooden commando knives lovingly shaped and sharpened on my father’s grinder, heavy machineguns created from gasoline cans, wooden submachine guns and rifles, we would do battle for hours on my friend’s farm. In the back forty we had constructed a trench system, complete with barbed wire, sandbags and roofed bunkers, on a sand slope that would have been the shores of Lake Ontario in some bygone era but now became the beaches of Normandy, fought over time and time again. Or in my own homemade bunker in a sand pile next to our house I would spend hours in solo combat with the Nazi aggressors. As Harry Pearson puts it, in Achtung Schweinehund!, his hilarious homage to toy soldiers and growing up in the 60’s, “To me, the Summer of Love was a six-week school holiday filled with Stukas, swastikas and bazookas.”

Some see this as a boy’s morbid fascination with war. The art of destruction. But I think it’s something else. I think it is a boy’s love of action. There is nothing more action-packed than play battle (not war, which is famously and drearily long periods of inaction punctuated by brief moments of sheer and utter terror). Take out the actual dying and carnage and you can begin to see the adrenaline-stoked fascination with the running, jumping, diving for cover and shooting. Today’s first person shooter computer games serve the same function - without the exercise.

For some of us, we never out grow this fascination with pure, unadulterated action. For some it takes the shape of contact sports, or racecar driving or mountain climbing. And for the less adventurous it may take shape on paper.

I’ve said before that to truly inhabit my drawings I have to, at some level, actually be living those things that go down on paper. It’s one of the greatest pleasures of my work, the opportunity to inhabit worlds, do things that I would never be able to do in real life. And never do I more fully inhabit that action-packed world than when things are blowing up. Gravity no longer becomes a factor, items become air borne, everything disperses from a central point on the page. There is exhilaration there.

Which is why you will never see me creating a more serious graphic novel. The idea of drawing panel after panel of people indulging in intense conversation as they work out or relive their less-than-exciting lives won’t be what I’ll be drawing. I’ll be the kid with the water gun, down in the shallow end of the graphic novel pool, blowing things up!

Friday, November 19, 2010


When I penciled my last pages this week I realized I was saying good bye to Cajun Joe. It was a bit sad to think I wouldn't likely be drawing him again as I bundled him into a paddy wagon. But never say never. Here's my penciled rough for Page 79 of Big City Otto.

So congratulate me. I finished penciling the last page of my book today.

That’s not to say that I’m done. There are still twenty pages waiting to ink and colour and then all of the compilation at the end, but none-the-less, a milestone has been reached!
I won’t make the same mistake that I made when, after months of work, I finally finished the thumbnails for this story. I remember sitting down in a comfy chair on my back porch, cracking the spine of the big black sketchbook that contained all my labour and reading through the story from start to finish.

I was done in fifteen minutes.

It reminded me of the time a friend and I decided we were going to bike around the coast of Cornwall. We rented a couple of old clunker three-speed Raleighs, hoisted our army-issue backpacks onto our backs and set off. For two days we crawled up and down the indented coast, clawing our way out of one fishing port after another as we followed the undulating coastal road. On the third day we woke up exhausted, packed the whole thing in and caught a train back to Plymouth.

In fifteen minutes we whisked by all those hard-gained miles and were back where we started. Fifteen minutes. It was a bit like that.

I have to remind myself that it isn’t the single reading that justifies all the work but the cumulative hours and hours of all those readings by adoring fans that make it all worth while. That and the fact that there’s nothing I would rather be doing in this world than drawing comics.

And this is merely a slender eighty-page volume. At the moment I’m working my way through Craig Thompson’s graphic novel, Blankets. Six hundred pages of beautifully rendered black and white drawings. Now there is a labour of love!

Really, these comic book artists should be canonized. Not me – I’m taking a bit of time off to pursue a childhood dream – but I’m thinking of those who have made a career of it, pouring their hearts and souls into pages and pages of drawings. Don’t think for a minute many are getting rich on it. Personally I think comic book artists are the great unsung heroes of contemporary art. The very best are the modern day counterparts to artists like Durer, Rembrandt, Doré and Goya - consummate draughtsmen who could render beautifully and prolifically. Today’s comic book artists keep alive a tradition centuries old – the art of drawing. And they continue to stretch and explore the boundaries and possibilities inherent in visual story telling.

So take a bit of time the next time you read a graphic novel. Take a moment to get beyond the words and into the visual story that the artist has laid out for you. It’s a sumptuous feast, not to be bolted down quickly but savoured and appreciated. And remember that it was a remarkable amount of work that made that meal possible.

They deserve to be congratulated.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Negotiating the Minefields of Political Correctness

Pencil rough for p. 65 of Big City Otto. This is the version you won't see in the book with offending lyrics, keg-shaped GatorJuice container and the pending-lawsuit logo still present.
This was one of those weeks where you really wonder whether it’s all worth it.

I never pick up my pencil to draw thinking, “What would a kid like?” Instead I trust in my inner twelve year old and simply put those things down on paper that make me laugh. As a result I sometimes forget that I’m doing a comic that’s ostensibly for kids.

I think comics can work at a number of different levels and, like the animated films we see in theatres, are filled with bits and references that only an adult audience is going to get. But for some reason we set the bar a bit higher for children’s books, probably because they have to run the gauntlet of administrative approval in order to get into schools, rather than simply the court of public opinion. But I’m also very aware that I am the product of a different generation, growing up on a steady diet of Bugs Bunny cartoons and Asterix comics. So my compass for negotiating all of this may be a bit rusty.

I don’t blame my editor, who's the best of the best. In this case she’s merely the messenger for an industry that is concerned over possible lawsuits or books being rejected by certain markets. She suggests these should be my concerns as well, (which they are not) and says the worst part of her job is when she has to come to authors with these sorts of requests. In the end it’s a fine dance between the publisher’s needs and what I feel is right for the book. But sometimes the comments continue to baffle me.

For instance, here are a few things I learned this week:

1. Gangstas aren’t gangsters.
I actually almost get this one, but I was still surprised when any direct reference to “gangstas” wound up on the cutting room floor. I’m no fan of gangsta culture and believe that it is wreaking a terrible toll on disenfranchised black urban youth and should not be glamorized or re-enforced. But in my comic I honestly thought I was satirizing white suburban youth who emulate the culture, and am ancient enough to still believe that satire can be a powerful force for good. (See previous post, Alligata Gangstas). But I guess ten year olds might not get satire, although I’m suspecting more likely it's adults without a sense of humour.

2. No drinking allowed!
Loose women have never been my forté so at least I avoided that pitfall! And even I knew that Otto is an innocent at large and probably shouldn’t be seen indulging in under age drinking. But I hadn’t realized that even oblique references to drinking must be expunged, even when the binging is on energy drinks and junk food. (Maybe you have to be fifty and a victim of clean living before you can contemplate the fact that binging on junk food can lead to hangovers!) So the keg-like container for the “GatorJuice’ becomes a giant pop bottle and next-day head aches become tummy aches, and slowly I can see that all references will have so completely disappeared that what I thought was a relatively innocent joke will be lost! Sigh. Deep breath …

In a pathetic attempt at rebellion I drew the line at ridding my junk-food-hung-over heroes of their “queasy bubbles” over their heads, arguing that they weren’t only cartoon short hand for inebriation but also for tummy trouble.

3. … Or smoking!
I found out that good guys can’t smoke and apparently this can extend to bad guys if the audience is perceived as being too young. Big Al was able to keep his cigar, (it was suggested that it not be lit but I happen to like drawing smoke) and I honestly think that his stunted growth makes him a poster child for NOT smoking. But you won’t see any sign of a cigar on the book cover. Non-negotiable I’m told.

I could go on, but these were a few highlights. Threat of lawsuits, real or imaginary, have already seen my arch villain, “The Man in the Ten Gallon Hat”, become the “Man with the Wooden Nose”. And probably none of these changes on their own are going to make or break the success of the book. But bit by bit they do chip away at the original cohesive concept and do, at the cost of not alienating any markets, end up creating something that’s less than it could be. And in the end we’re left with a degree of self-regulation that maybe gets so good at anticipating the market’s response that it stops taking the chances one needs to take to create something of value.

Not that I’m trying to do important art here. But fo' shizzle, jus' 'cause I’m drawin' talkin' elephants don’ mean my book's fo' ankle biters! I just happen to like drawin' talkin' elephants, dawg.

Next week (or sometime in the future):  A cautionary tale about the Comics Code Authority and its effect on the North American comic industry.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Winsor McCay – Something from Nothing

I took the week off from Otto to do some odds and sods including this rough 
for Know Magazine on Winsor McCay. It got me to thinking …

I took a break this week from working on my comic to do some other stuff that had wandered across my desk. One of those things was a bi-monthly installment for Know Magazine, a children’s science magazine that I have a regular gig with, producing a one-page comic called Great Moments in Science. This month’s issue was on animation and I was given the choice of a piece on Walt Disney or the lesser-known Winsor McCay.

Like a shot I opted for Winsor McCay, (as Disney already gets far too much press!)
For those of you who don’t know, Winsor McCay was a cartooning and animation pioneer who created the first commercially successful animated film, Gertie the Dinosaur. He was also the creator of the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, a strip that still stands head and shoulders above most because of its beautifully designed panels and intricately realized artwork.

But while researching the history of his early animation attempts, two things struck me. The first was that, prior to making his film, McCay used to entertain audiences in Vaudeville shows where he would speed draw characters and tell stories. I found this interesting, the whole idea of producing visual art as live entertainment, because in some ways this is an idea that really has come back to the forefront via the Internet and Youtube. There are a plethora of visual-art-as-live-entertainment videos out there, one of the most striking examples being the evocative sand drawings of Ukranian artist Kseniya Simonova.

On a personal note, I’ve been toying with the idea of filming my drawing of one of the pages from Big City Otto and putting it out there for people to take a peak at. I’ve already made one failed attempt (as I got into my work my head gradually impeded into the frame until all you could see was a giant bald spot!) I figure now that this will be something I will tackle when I have finished the first book and have some more time on my hands. And I will wear a hat.

But I want to do this because I know people love to watch others draw. I do. It’s that magic of pulling something from nothing which is - just that - magic. When I visit schools I usually do a bit of drawing for the kids and you can hear a pin drop when I’m in the middle of doing that, the kids are so engaged in watching me work. I remember once sitting by a roadside in the Azores with my wife Esperança, and the two of us were sketching some Portuguese cottages. A group of country kids came up and started watching us and for more than an hour they just stood there in rapt attention, not uttering a word, until their mother, worried they were bugging us, called them home. It was remarkable.

Which leads me to the second thing I discovered while working on this one-page comic. I thought that it was interesting that when Winsor McCay created his first film, Little Nemo, the audiences didn’t really understand what was going on up on the screen. They thought that the animation was created somehow with wires, filmed in real time. But it wasn’t just a failure to grasp the technical aspect of it, a succession of drawings flowing together to create the illusion of movement. When you think about it, those first animated films really had done something truly remarkable. For the first time in human history the images in a person’s mind had been taken out of their shell and made to move and interact in front of the audience. Today’s audiences, glutted with special effects, take all of this for granted, but those very first audiences were simply baffled by something that had arrived in their world that they had never experienced before. In a sense it was the next quantum leap from when a caveman picked up a stub of charcoal and captured a beast from the fields and placed it on the wall.

Winsor McCay had created something from nothing.