Glass Under My Skin

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Transfer of Power

I just transferd my blog over to my new webcomic site: Radiant Comics. Check over there for posts from now on.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Censored Again

Last week I wrote about a new collection of pre-comics code Steve Ditko comic that I had been reading. "Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1" was it's name and it got me thinking about how censorship had effected the U.S. comics industry. I've been pondering that a bit more this week.

Less is more. Or is it? I have always heard, mostly in the also censored world of movies, that not showing something can be a more effective storytelling device than showing it. You know, first a gun is shown, than a shot is heard, and then a person falls to the ground. We never actually see a person shot. Or stabbed, punched, kicked, or whatever.

The viewer's imagination is supposed to fill in the blanks with its own horrible vision of the violent act that is somehow more effective than anything the filmmaker could come up with. I always, sort off, bought into this idea because I'm not much of a gore hound so, I guess, it played to my taste.

Now I see that idea is a total crock. First off is the fact that not everyone's imagination is particularly good. Half the audience may wince at the unshown act while it doesn't affect the other half at all because their imaginations don't scare them. Not showing something can't be relied on as an effective technique because it depends on the individual viewer.

Then there the basic fact is that we are visual animals. When we see things they can affect us and stick with us. When something horrible happens we tell children to look away. Often times people exclaim, "I wish I didn't see that". Our eyes are our main reality.

When the Allies in WW2 liberated the death camps they marched all the Germans they could find through them so they could see what they'd done. They didn't throw a curtain in front of the camps and describe what happened in them. They made people look. No one in their right mind would think not showing them was a more effective method.

I came to the conclusion that the "Not showing" method of story telling is purely because of a censorship. That idea is not invented except in a censored world. It's exists to help creators make the best of a censored creative environment.

I can see this in the Ditko book. He was doing things that would be censored a couple of years later but now they were just nonchalant ideas. They weren't exploitive or sensational; they just were. If a guy got stabbed then he ended up with a knife in him. If demons ate people than they might be seen eating people parts.

The violence was all "matter of fact" though. It was done with whatever emphasis the story demanded of it. They bloody, gory special effect of today, are partially at least, a response to being censored and not being able to show that stuff in the past. A lot of people find it fun to show what shouldn't be shown. But that also only exists in a censored environment.

I write all this because I wonder how many more ways of doing things, both in comics and movies, would have been invented without such censorship. Books which for the most part haven't been censored in this country have a million ways to deal with all sorts of story elements. It's no wonder books are usually respected more than movies or comics. They're not just stuck with gore or no gore.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Comics I Bought This Week: December 7, 2009

I'm back from the comic shop this week and I got three new comics plus two hard cover collections:

  • Echo - 17

  • The Walking Dead - 68

  • Sergio Argon├ęs: Groo - The Hogs of Horder -2

  • Tomb of Dracula Omnibus Volume 2

  • Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil (Not the original story but the Jeff Smith one)

  • And now for a review of something I've read recently.

  • "Fables: The Deluxe Edition Book One" by Bill Willingham, Lan Medina, Mark Buckingham, and Steve Leialoha

  • "Fables" is one of those comics that I have never read because I have a general prejudice against Vertigo Comics books as they usually aren't to my taste and I've always thought the "High Concept" premise of "Fables" was dumb. But I have some friends who like it and I actually enjoy the work of most of the creators involved so when this oversized hardcover came out I decided to buy it and give it a go.

    I'm glad I did because "Fables" is a nice read. Not the greatest thing in the world but a solid, enjoyable, comic. I had heard that the first five issues of "Fables" were meant to be a mini series but it sold so well that the decision was made to continue it as an ongoing series. I found it interesting how that appeared to be played out by the storytelling styles of the two story arcs collected in this volume.

    "Fables" is about a whole bunch of fictional characters from stories, fables, and fairy tales who were driven from their magical lands by "The Adversary" and now make their home in our human world. We humans know nothing of them and they aim to keep it that way. The first story arc is a murder mystery tale that takes place amongst the Fables who live in their own Manhattan housing community and the second story arc is a tale of Fable on Fable rebellion in upstate New York.

    I found the storytelling style of the first story arc interesting. I wrote a piece some time ago about a lost comic book story telling style that I noticed when reading the 1954 comedy comic "Get Lost". Basically it's this: modern comic book story telling is all about what is going to happen next and this other (I have no name for it) style is all about what's happening right now.

    The first "Fables" story arc is done in this "Lost" style. You're supposed to spend time with each panel. There are things going on in the moment that you will miss if you're only concerned about what is going to happen. The penciller, Lan Medina, draws all sorts of things happening at once in a single panel. It's all designed to slow you down and keep you in the moment. The plot holds less meaning than spending time in the moment of that world. I found it interesting as I hardly ever see this type of storytelling anymore.

    With the second story arc we're back to a more conventional, plot driven, move you along story telling style. It was still well done but a departure from the first story. I enjoyed this second arc but I think I liked the first one better because it was unusual.

    Overall I did find the whole fairy tale characters thing a little distracting. I think the story would work just as well with original characters but I understand the nature of the marketplace and how things get done. It's easier to pitch, "Staring all the fairy tale characters you already know who are alive and well and living in our world" than to try and explain who twenty new characters are to a tired editor and the public.

    The bottom line is that this "Fables" book was good. Give it a read.

    Sunday, December 06, 2009

    The Key to Grey

    For the last couple of days I've been reading a book I bought this week, "Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1". It's a collection of Ditko's early comic book work from 1953 to 1955. It's a collection of "Pre-Code" comics.

    For those who don't know, the term "Pre-Code" means before the implementation of, in the late 1950's, the "The Comics Code Authority". The CCA was the industry's way of self-censoring before the government put them out of business.

    Just like today when do-gooders crusade against video games, television, music, or movies that they think are ruining the children of America in the 50's the crusade was against comic books. And it was a very powerful and successful crusade that went all the way to congressional hearings. It nearly killed American comics.

    A book I read this year, "Ten Cent Plague", chronicles the history of the war on comics and lays out it's human toll. People lost their jobs and never worked in the industry again. It's not a happy tale.

    I bring this all up because I've never had a chance to read many of the pre-code horror and crime comics that lead to people being up in arms. I've read many EC Comics which are the most famous pre-code horror and crime offerings but they are actually well done, generally tasteful, and mainstream. They stick to the same general rules as any mainstream horror novel of the time. I never quite saw how people could be so against them. But it was a different era and there were plenty of other comics to be against.

    I can see how these "Strange Suspense" stories could get people riled up. These comics aren't made for kids and there is some real grown up physically and psychologically scary stuff in there. It can be as simple as an innocent person trying to do right but suffering a horrible fate anyway to a guy getting stabbed and ending up laying there with a knife sticking out of him.

    It's interesting to read these Ditko stories because everyone involved was making up their own rules on the fly. People had been reading comics since the late Thirties and comics had started growing up as kids grew into adults. New things were starting to happen. You can tell that the creators expected adults to be reading these stories. Or at least eighteen year olds. The CCA put an end to that.

    The Comics Code basically said that good must always triumph and in a bloodless way. And that's how comics were made for decades. Those were the rules that everyone had to play by and though some good comics, even for grown-ups, can be made within those rules they narrow the scope of story telling and squelch creativity and growth.

    That's what censorship does. Stifles things. In reading these comics I can see pre-censorship minds at work. They are using stuff to scare us that wasn't done post-censorship. Simple stuff but not kids stuff; ideas of hell, suffering, and monsters outside of any notion of human justice. Imagine how comics books could have grown, as the have in other parts of the world, if this censorship never happened.

    Even today when the Comic's Code isn't much paid attention to it's effect lingers. Not in what isn't allowed but in the fact that creators may have rebelled against the code but they are not beyond it yet.

    What I mean is that most of today's comics that are aimed at adults don't explore pre-code themes that were developing, as seen in these Ditko stories, but are still directly rebelling against what was not allowed for decades.

    "Good must always triumph and in a bloodless way" has become "Good doesn't always triumph and it's bloody out there". That is how I'd describe most of the adult aimed superhero/adventure comics I read today. They can be bloody and sometimes the bad guys win. I never realized how much the comics code influenced even today's non-code books before reading this Ditko book. There was another sensibility starting to develop in the early Fifties that I didn't know existed. It made me see the sensibilities of today's creators in a new light.

    It's not that today's comic books are on the wrong or bad path it's just that the path is a lot more narrow than it could have been. That's the effect of censorship even when it's less than what it used to be. It defined good and bad and those definitions are still with us. Even those who like "bad" are still basically using the same definition as the Comics Code. Comics would do well to get off that narrow path. If only others were allowed of it back in the 1950's.

    Thursday, December 03, 2009

    Comics I Bought This Week: December 3, 2009

    I'm back from the comic shop this week and it was a big haul. I got seven new comics, a trade paperback collection, plus two hard cover collections:

  • G-Man: Cape Crisis - 2-4

  • Savage Dragon - 155

  • North 40 - 6

  • Glamourpuss - 10

  • GrimJack: The Manx Cat - 5

  • Elextropolis TPB

  • Marvel Masterworks: Deathlok

  • Strange Suspence: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1

  • And now for a review of something I've read recently.

  • "Planetary" Numbers 1-27 plus two specials by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

  • X-Files syndrome. That's what I call something that ends in such a bad way that you forget how good it once was. I've been reading "Planetary" since issue one and I really enjoyed it back then but have recently thought of it as suffering from X-Files Syndrome. Since the last issue of the series is finally out I figured I would give the whole series a read to see how it stands up.

    I'm happy to report that it stands up very well. To summarize for those who don't know, "Planetary" is the story of a group of "Archeologists of the Unknown". The three main characters are all super-powered, have a vast organization behind them, and go out to figure out the secret history of our planet.

    It's well done fun stuff that tries to link together popular fiction characters from the last hundred years or so. There are ghost stories, giant monster stories, crime stories, plus thinly veiled versions of Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, The Shadow, Tarzan, Dracula, and many others popping up now and again.

    Also the story involves Planetary's struggle against "The Four". A thinly veiled version of the Fantastic Four who are evil and have been behind a lot of atrocities and crimes against humanity for forty years. They are massively powerful and everyone if the super secret world of Planetary is afraid of them. With good reason.

    This is A list material. Good writing, good plots, good storytelling, good artwork, and good all around. So why did I think it suffered from X-Files Syndrome? One word. Late.

    It took ten years to get out twenty seven issues. To get from issue twenty two to issue twenty seven took from March 2005 until October 2009. No story, no matter how good, can sustain any kind of quality with that schedule if you read them as they come out. The individual issues are paced pretty quickly and don't take long to read so reading one every few months or years is very unsatisfying. I found it hard to follow the story that way.

    My friend John had the perfect description of what that type of schedule leads to. He asked me if I had read the last issue yet (since it just came out) and I said no. He then told me his critique of it which was, "I read it but I just couldn't seem to care". That totally summed up my feeling about "Planetary" the last few years. How can you care about a story when it is a year between issues? I'll accept that from my small press comics where everyone involved is struggling to make a go of things but this from some of comic's heavy hitters.

    Anyway, I'm glad I read them all together because "Planetary" really is good. Sure I thought the resolution to the plot point with "The Four" was as dumb as dirt and the final issue had annoying time travel stuff in it but neither quibble was enough to ruin the overall story for me.

    So if you've never read "Planetary" or have had it ruined for you by the infrequent schedule dig out your issues or wait for the new Absolute Editions and give it a read. It really is good from start to finish.

    Sunday, November 29, 2009

    Glib and Glamour

    I just don't care about this blog today. I'm all blogged out. Y'see, I've been working on a site for my new web comic and for the last two days it's been a pain in the ass. But at least I've made some progress and that's better than when I tried before.

    I decided, a few of months ago, to use something called "WordPress" to make my new site. It's blogging software that's widely used and seems to work fine for everybody else. A plugin for WordPress called "ComicPress" is specifically made for web comic sites. With the two I could combine my blog and web comic. I could also upload comics ahead of time and it would load them day by day. Easy to update is what I'm after.

    That's why I rarely update my site. It's an html site that I made in a program called "Freeway" and it's just too much of a pain to update. The site is graphics heavy which makes it cumbersome to change things all the time. I want a different solution for my web comic.

    When I first started implementing WordPress I knew I was getting off on the wrong foot by messing with it too close to bedtime. Never start doing work that gets your mind racing close to bedtime. You'll be too tired to work effectively plus won't be able to shut your mind down to sleep. But I messed around anyway. Couldn't get anything done. Couldn't sleep. Just as I suspected but I thought I could sneak one in.

    The next time I tried it to get WordPress installed correctly I was full of confidence that things would be up and running shortly. And after a little while they were. Then I tried to get ComicPress up and running. Oh boy. Error after error. I had no idea what was going wrong.

    I went on every help site, read lots of forum posts, scoured FAQs, and tried everything they said but I still couldn't get things to work properly. I must have tried to get ComicPress to work at least three different times. I just never could. Other people had sites up using it so it must work but I couldn't make it go. So I just left it for a month or two. I couldn't face it. I continued to make comic strips but I stopped figuring out how to post them.

    On Friday I decided to start designing the site in Freeway. It would take more work to keep it running but at least I knew I could do it. I worked on some logos, basic designs, and got things going. Things went fine but at the end of the day I came to the conclusion that if I wanted the site to run smoothly I'd better give ComicPress another try. So I did.

    Saturday morning bright and early (I'm a morning person, another reason I shouldn't have started near bedtime) I wiped everything clean from my server and database, downloaded the things I needed, and started again. A couple of hours later and much to my surprise I had ComicPress up and running. Shock of shocks.

    The site still looks awful since I have to modify the basic design and haven't figured out how to do that properly yet but now I can upload and schedule strips and blogs. That's what I want to be able to do. Ugly and functional I can live with.

    I haven't done much web design in my time but I finally figure out why there is so much bad web design out there. The "Web Safe" color palette that web designers work with has almost no neutral colors in it. Maybe just a couple.

    Neutral colors are they key to color. They're not too bright, not to dull, not too white, and not too dark. They put all the other colors in context. The world has lots of neutral colors in it and they make bright colors brighter and dark colors darker. Web colors are mostly too bright or too dark. The reason half the web is designed with grey gunmetal and light blue colors are that they are as close to neutrals as you're going to get with web safe color. Who ever designed the web safe color palette was no artist.

    So anyway that's why I'm tired of this whole blog thing. It's much easier to deal with when there is only creative work to do.

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    Comics I Bought This Week: November 25, 2009

    I'm back from the comic shop this week and I got one new comic plus a trade paperback collection:

  • Usagi Yojimbo -124

  • Incognito by Brubaker and Phillips

  • And now for a review of something I've read recently.

  • "The Lone Ranger Volume 3" by Brett Mathews and Sergio Cariello

  • This is the third volume of the Lone Ranger from Dynamite Entertainment and I've bought them all so obviously I like the series. That being said I think this is the strongest volume in the series. It kind of ended in the middle of a story but that didn't affect my enjoyment of it.

    The origin part of the Lone Ranger's story is over and I find that a good thing because I'm tired of origin stories in general. Not that they can't be well done but they're all nearly the same. Now we move on to a story of the Lone Ranger and Tonto helping a lawman to track down a killer.

    That's pretty much all there is to the plot because this book is more about the characters, who they are, and how they play off each other. The writer, Brett Mathews, did a nice job with this interplay. It was the peppiest script so far.

    Sergio Cariello, once again, did a fine job on the artwork. His storytelling is good and his drawing is nice. He was helped out by a good coloring job by Marcelo Pinto. Both the color and the drawing set the mood very well.

    Not much more to say other than I liked it. All three volumes of "The Lone Ranger" are solid tales of the western hero. Whether you like comics in general or westerns specifically "The Lone Ranger" is a good read.

    Sunday, November 22, 2009

    Bending the Ending

    I'm always coming up with ideas of things to do. It's not easy but I like to. That's because I like to do things. But if there is one thing I've learned over the years it's that the rest of the world's idea of "Doing something" is not the same as mine.

    To nutshell it: what most of the world thinks of as doing something I think of as having someone else do something to entertain you. Going to a concert is not doing anything in my eyes. Playing a guitar yourself would be doing something. Going out for diner is not doing anything to me. Cooking a meal would be doing something. Going to see a movie would not be doing something. Making your own movie would. And on and on.

    This has always been a problem for me. Whenever someone says, "Hey, do you want to do something?" they mean a totally different thing than I do. Usually people don't like my idea of doing something because it takes effort. But to me the effort is what makes the doing. Let's pay some money, sit there, and enjoy the fruits of somebody else's effort has it's place but not when I actually want to do something. Yeah, yeah, I'm misunderstood.

    But anyway that leads me into my latest idea for doing something. I occasionally make art cards. I occasionally buy them too. An art card is a small baseball card sized original piece of art. A sketch, a drawing, a painting, or whatever your medium is you make art on a 2.5 x 3.5 inch piece of paper. It's kind of neat and kind of fun.

    What I want to do now is make a writing card. Instead of a piece of art it has a piece of writing on it. A sentence or two. Each card would be an original piece of writing as that would make each card distinct. An individual piece of writing art. This appeals to me because I've been writing short slogan-like pieces in conjunction with my artwork for years. I've always put words and pictures together. Writing an art card the slogan/sentence would be fun for me.

    Except I'm not sure what form the writing card would take. I think it would be best if it was hand written by the writer but that immediately brings up questions of aesthetics. Should it be hand written neatly? Should one use calligraphy? Or maybe just nice script? All questions of design and soon I'm pretty far away from a writing card and back to an art card. So I'm a little stuck at this stage.

    I think I'm going to have to try and design something for the cards. It might have to be something that looks undesigned so as to emphasize the writing. Unfortunately this is the hardest kind of design to do and not really a lot of fun. Fancy and elaborate is much more fun than stripped down and unobtrusive. That's why there is so much bad fancy and elaborate design out there.

    The writing is actually the easy part for me. I like the micro writing form of just a couple of sentences. I wonder though if other people have ever made writing art cards. I can picture writers dashing off a few interesting sentences here and there to make cards but what would those sentences be about? I ask that question because a lot art cards feature famous characters. Batman, Superman, Darth Vader, Spider-Man, The Hulk, and just about every other pop culture character is who collectors want art cards of.

    Would writers make a writing art card about Batman? I don't know. I don't think so. I think most writers can find something interesting to say in a few sentences but who could find something interesting to say about Luke Skywalker in two sentences? I'm not sure. And would fans care about a two sentence card about Superman?

    I think fans of, say, Steven King would love a couple of sentence hand written card by him. He's famous for his writing so that's what people want from him. But writers of movies, comics, and TV are famous because of the characters they write. Their writing isn't famous; the pop culture character they write about is. Would anyone care if the current X-Men writer wrote a few lines about the X-Men on an art card? I don't know.

    These thoughts have nothing to do with me making some writing art cards but they pop into my head. Anyway, I'm going to try and do something now.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009

    Comics I Bought This Week: November 19, 2009

    I'm back from the comic shop this week and I got two new comics plus a hard cover collection:

  • Echo - 16

  • Dr. Horrible - 1

  • Hercules "Full Circle"

  • And now for a review of something I've read recently.

  • "The Invincible Iron Man: World's Most Wanted: Book 1" by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larrroca

  • This Iron Man volume can be summed up like I summed up "The Ultimates". It's alternately good and a train wreck. I blame Warren Ellis's writing for bringing "real" geo-politics to super hero comics. Except in Ellis's comics the geo-politics usually hinder things. It's tough to get things done in the real world. In Ellis-land the heroes were often thwarted by bureaucracy and politics.

    In the current Marvel Universe Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, is in charge of the US's national security. It defies believability and takes me out of the story sometimes. That and as the guy in charge Norman Osborn has no checks and balances on him. He just does whatever he wants even though if these were "real" geo-political stories he would lose his job in a day. At one point Norman Osborn decides to test a super hero's power so he orders an airliner shot down. It is shot down and he has to explain himself to no one. It's this kind of stuff that makes me put the book down in disbelief.

    The rest of the story is pretty good. It's an "Us Against the World" tale as Tony Stark (Iron Man) has to go on the run because Norman Osborn has made him an outlaw. The "Us" refers to Tony Stark, his co-worker Pepper Potts, and Tony's ex-secuity chief Maria Hill. All sorts of chase scenes, fight scenes, and strategies go by at an entertaining pace.

    The art was only so-so for me. It's that photo realistic type artwork that's been popular in mainstream super hero comics for a while now. It comes off as a little dead to me. Well executed by lifeless at times.

    So there you go. When it was good it was good but when it was bad I had to put the book down out of sheer disbelief. But at least sometimes it was good. That's more than I can say about a lot of comics.

    Sunday, November 15, 2009

    Not Bored But Board

    I bought a new drawing board this week. I think it might be the only drawing board that I've ever purchased in my entire life. That's quite odd when I think about it.

    I've had two drawing boards that I've used for years and years. Decades and decades even. The first one is an actual board. It's about twenty two by fourteen inches and is a scrap piece of one inch plywood that I first used as a drawing board in junior high. I finally retired it this year as it has gotten too chipped and splintered over the last thirty years to be very useful. A long life for a piece of scrap wood.

    The second drawing board I've had since High School. My mother got it for me. At a garage sale I think. At twenty four by twenty inches it's the bigger of the two and is still in use. It also came with a T-square and has slots underneath for storing the T-square. It always just got in the way and wasn't a very good T-square so it was tossed long ago. I don't think I own a T-square anymore since I've had a parallel rule on my drawing table since college. So much for T-squares.

    I don't use a drawing board much these days for drawing. I generally prefer to stand and draw and do so at my drawing table most of the time. I use the drawing board mainly as a place to put my laptop as I sit and type or surf the internet. Sometimes I'll sit and draw but not too often. That's probably why I haven't gotten a new one in decades.

    Over the years I have also had a couple of those ubiquitous art school twenty two by twenty six inch Masonite type drawing boards with the built in clips. I barely count those because I've never liked them and they don't stick around for long. They are way too thin to be used on anything but a table and have too much bounce back if put on an easel or across the arms of a chair. That and the die cut handle and top clips always manages to get in the way. Since they're cheap and every one semester art student has one there are plenty of them tucked away in closets and every so often someone gives me one.

    My new drawing board is one of those white, super heavy, laminated, particle board drawing boards. It's not very portable. But that's okay because it will serve a totally different role than my old one. It's a big twenty four by thirty six inches and is going to be used on my easel. Y'see, I've got it in my head to do some big drawings. I have big paper. I've always had big paper. I buy it in twenty two by thirty inch sheets but I've rarely done drawings that big. Usually I cut the paper down to a smaller size before drawing on it.

    I'm not even exactly sure what I want to draw. I just know I want it to be big. I could have cleared off my drawing table and dropped a big piece of paper on that but it's kind of hard to draw that way. An easel is definitely the way to go if you want to draw big. You can approach the drawing from better angles, literally, and see things a whole lot better.

    When making one of my large paintings I've always drawn on the canvases which were on my easel so this really won't be new for me but it will be different. An underdrawing for a painting is preliminary. This will be a finished drawing. At least I think so. I haven't actually finished anything yet.

    I'm may have to replace my easel one of these years because it's not very convenient when I have to move a painting up or down. It's an easel that I built myself right after I graduated college because I had no money for a store bought one. It has served me well since 1989 when I built it out of scrap wood. I designed it myself in a fit of inspiration and it is solid but a nice crank handle for moving a painting sitting on it up and down would be good.

    This new heavy drawing will probably be more a pain to move up and down. The way I built the easel means that I have to loosen two wing nuts on the bottom beam that the painting sits on, move the beam and the painting up and then tighten the wing nuts. Not the most difficult thing in the world but not as easy as a crank handle that most professional store bought easels have. Turn the crank and the painting raises or lowers.

    So there it is. My first new drawing board in a long time. Now I wonder when and what I'm going to draw.