Friday, August 28, 2009

Video Bonus

From the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA, here's Ellen Forney on inking:

Friday, August 21, 2009

Outcomes assessment #7

This is the seventh in a series of analyses of exercises and activities from the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA.

Number 1 is here.
Number 2 is here.
Number 3 is here.
Number 4 is here.
Number 5 is here.
Number 6 is here.

Dan's major assignment: (Studio work, days four and five)

On the afternoon of Thursday, the fourth day of instruction, Dan put us into studio mode. There was no lecture or class discussion; we were just to begin creating our final piece for the class. Working together in the classroom, we were to conceive, write, design, and draw a two-page comics story. All the comics would be collected for publication as representative of the GNI class. There were no parameters to the assignment, other than the suggested length.

My own participation in the assignment wound up being curtailed. The class continued until Saturday, and the intention was to use Thursday afternoon, all day Friday, and all day Saturday to create to the piece. My own plans had changed and I would not be able to stay for the Saturday session, so I unilaterally reduced my contribution to one page, preferring a complete shorter work to a rushed or incomplete longer work. I also made the decision to create an imaginary comic book house ad rather than a sort autobiographical piece, which was the the form of choice for most of the class (a strong Forney influence there, I thought); I wanted to work more on my actual art and rendering than on the plotting and storytelling, and to play with the techniques we had been working on all week.

I started with rough thumbnails instead of an actual script:

The premise of the imaginary house ad was that an upcoming series would feature the Universal Studios movie monsters as private detectives. This is an idea I had been kicking around for several years without any product, so the content came easily (nice for the time constraints). I thought on the initial layout had a nice balance.

From there, I moved on to pencils:

I decided on the twelve-panel grid probably because in my mind I was envisioning some Sandman stories (perhaps by Creig Flessel) that used such a grid to good effect. I used some photo references for the art, such as pictures of Humphrey Bogart for the collar and hat brim details, and (believe it or not) an anatomy shot for the foot detail in panel two. As I laid the page out, I thought I was introducing too many characters, so The Phantom of the Opera was cut. I did the pencils on plain copy paper, the better to work with a light box on the inking stage, in the manner of Ellen Forney.

Speaking of inking:

Since my intent was to thrash around with new tools, I tried to stick with the brush pens for most of the inking and pay attention to line weights and such. Given my limited skill set, I'm not sure how successful the approach was. I did make the conscious decision to do minimal hand-inking and no hand-lettering; Photoshop was going to be a big contributor to the final product.

To wit:

All of the black backgrounds are obviously Photoshop fill; I can't imagine trying to do this with hand lettering. I also threw some grayscale fills in, most noticeably on the Creature's hat and trenchcoat; I'm not sure how successful that choice was without complete consistency. One detail that I think worked particularly well was the reversing of the Invisible Man's glasses from black to white in the final panel so they would show against the background. All the lettering was done in Photoshop, of course, and I think most of it works with the exception of panel three, where it gets lost. And panel four shows the most computer work: not only has the figure been reduced and moved, but the streetlight was added in

The obvious deficiency in the page, regardless of the techniques used or the relative lack of drawing ability, is the almost complete dearth of background detail in the panels that could have really used some. The Bride may have an iMac (with poor perspective), but that appears to be the only thing in her office - even the wall appears to be a caption box (with poor proportions) - and the cast appears to be posing in some sort of dark gymnasium for the final shot.

The point of the exercise - for me, at any rate - was to experience, at least in some small scale, the pulling together of all the pieces, particularly on the art side, that go into making a comic. As someone who routinely reads and criticizes comics, I felt it was important to have this experience, and in regards to that outcome, at least, the exercise was successful. My appreciation of the level of engagement and the attention to detail necessary to produce comic art with both the communicative and aesthetic properties intended has been expanded and deepened. I only have to look at my own meager effort, and be reminded that even with photo references in front of me I forgot to render the classic P.I. trenchcoat as double-breasted, to sustain my awareness of how much actual work goes into the making of a successful page and how easily one can miss the target.

As an opportunity for developing talents and techniques, I am not as sure how successful the exercise was. Perhaps I cannot speak to this with sufficient qualification, since I missed almost half of the time allotted, but the work-all-day-with-the-instructor-wandering-around method didn't seem as helpful to that objective as some other models might have been. The differences in level of artistic ability and familiarity with comics form seemed pretty great, however, so I'm not sure what that approach might have been.

And perhaps that was the most problematic element of the whole class. Making comics takes the synthesis of a wide array of skills that come from the writer's toolkit, and the painter's and the graphic designer's, as well as from that very specific toybox of comics conventions. My lingering impression is, that as far as instruction goes, a focus on one of these dimensions of the craft at a time is more successful, at least in the classroom environment. Pulling them all together is a great capstone demonstration.


That's the final entry in the assignment-by-assignment breakdown of the Graphic Novel Intensive class. If you are interested in seeing the final products from all eighteen students - many of whom produced work a lot better than mine - you can buy the class album from Lulu Press.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Post hoc

Postage Stamp Funnies
by Shannon Wheeler
Dark Horse, 2008

I came across this slipcased three volume set at a bizarro gift store in Spokane that had a back corner of comicsy goodness, new and old. I was somewhat familiar with Wheeler's work from Too Much Coffee Man, but it wasn't the content of the books that attracted me: it was the form. Each book measures 2.25'' x 4", and the single image on each page is about 1" x 2.25". I wondered what in the world could a talent do to turn such formalist restriction into a creative opportunity. Unfortunately, the answer in this case is: not much.

These books reprint cartoons from a feature in The Onion newspaper that present pretty much the standard fare for single-panel gag cartoons of the modern era: some non-sequiturs (mother to child: I'm tired of buying you juice), some visual puns (woman to dog in a suit: I take it you're a dog person), some verbal puns (woman to friend: I knew he was a magician when I married him. I just didn't expect him to disappear), and a series of shit jokes. I guess they're funnies; I guess they're cartoons; I'm not sure they're comics. Robert Harvey's essay "Comedy at the Juncture of Word and Image" can be read as nothing more than an attempt to pull single-panel cartoons into the definition of comics; I was never sure why Harvey felt this inclusion was important, and neither his essay nor this collection persuade me that it is so.

But whether the gag cartoon is an example of comics really isn't the point here; the observation that struck me as important was that the miniature form of these cartoons was not integral, essential, or even necessary to their impact. These strips would be just as funny (or unfunny) at a more typical size or full-page; some would work as one-liners in a stand-up routine and some even as animations. Of course, nothing required Wheeler to make use of the form as part of his art; perhaps the reasons for working in this small scale had nothing to do with creativity or formal play. Nonetheless, I felt a little disappointed.

However, there was a saving grace, besides some of the cartoons' actually being amusing. Here are three instances where formal play did manifest itself, albeit in a way completely detached from the scale of the form.


In each of these, Wheeler takes a a non-diegetic graphical element - a word balloon, a thought balloon, and a traditional icon, makes the characters aware of them, and gives them a reality in the narrative. This still has nothing to do with the small size of the comics, but it is the kind of structural experimentation that I find both delightful and intriguing.

Normally, word balloons and similar devices have no substance in the story-world of a panel, strip, or comic book. A caption box may obscure part of the illustration for us, the readers, but the characters can see right through them. What happens when we twist this relationship and give these conventional elements as much reality as the characters and the environment that they move through?

I'm not sure. I do know one thing, however: the gags that take this approach could not be expressed any other way than through the language of comics. The three sample panels above cannot be summarized and communicated in the way I presented the three examples in the second paragraph of this essay; at least, they can't be presented that way without a lot more detail and a lot less impact. They might be described, but they can't be translated. Take this strip in contrast:

I can easily describe this cartoon to you, or the joke could be presented as a short live action film, as an animation, or even as a part of a told story. (Rodney Dangerfield: I tell ya, I get no respect. At our wedding reception, my wife told me she wanted to see other people.) There is nothing about the form that requires it to be a cartoon. Not so with the other three illustrations, and a few other gags in the collection - they need to be comics and can't be expressed any other way. And somehow, when an experimental artifact draws attention to the critical elements of the form, I can't help but think we could learn something about how the mainstream of the form works.

As a collection of gag cartoons, Postage Stamp Funnies is probably a pretty good sampler, if you like that kind of thing. And while it doesn't use its small size and form as anything more than a novelty, a few selected cartoons do raise some interesting formalist questions.

Note: the observant reader will notice that after I introduce the three illustrations central to this inquiry, I begin referring to the cartoons as "comics" despite my rejection of that term earlier. I noticed this, too. I wonder if Robert Carrier's privileging of the word balloon as one of the "essential qualities" of comics has some merit.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Outcomes Assessment #6

This is the sixth in a series of analyses of exercises and activities from the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA.

Number 1 is here.
Number 2 is here.
Number 3 is here.
Number 4 is here.
Number 5 is here.
Number 7 is here.

Ellen's major assignment: (Homework, days one through three)

On the first day of class, Ellen Forney gave us the assignment that was to be turned in on day four, the last day she was instructing. We were to write an autobiographical comic in six to nine panels, oriented vertically. The suggested themes were "how did you get that scar?", "interaction with a stranger," 'clothes shopping with your opposite-sex parent," and "your most embarrassing moment." I chose the interaction with a stranger, and decided to tell the story of an encounter with a cranky waitress.

Monday: Since the comic was bound to be fairly Forneyesque anyway, I decided to go the whole empty vessel route and use her techniques, or as close as I could approximate. Rather than work full-script (like writing a screenplay) or the draw first/write later system I can only call "the Marvel way" (in which the art takes precedence and the dialogue is added afterward), Forney uses an idiosyncratic method: she writes the story in a sort of prose outline, and then blocks out the text into panels before moving onto thumbnails. My version of this approach wound up looking like this:

As a writing teacher, I encourage my students to at least experiment with new heuristics and ways of drafting, and it was in this spirit that I attempted this method. It felt like it had some advantages over a simple outline, but I'm not sure that it didn't detract from some sense of the visual. The prose rendering might encourage verbal beats rather than visual ones, but perhaps not.

In any event, working from that marked-up "script," I developed these thumbnails:


As I was creating the strip, I realized that I was adopting some of Forney's style, particularly the reliance on narrative captions to carry much of the story.

Tuesday: In class the next day, we broke into small groups for peer review. The upshot for my strip was the realization that I needed to reverse the layout for the punchline to work; if I didn't, the word balloon would be out of sync with the visuals. I also decided to use my all-text panel as an introduction rater than a denouement. That evening after class, I managed these pencils, working on bristol board:

I kept the setting as simple as possible so that things would look pretty much the same from panel to panel; I thought a static setting was important to the story. For that same reason, I stuck to stick figures; I didn't trust my art talent to render consistent figures with anything more elaborate.

Wednesday: We didn't have time to review our finished pencils in class on Wednesday, partly because Forney gave an inking demonstration for the first part of the morning. Our homework for Wednesday night was to ink the penciled strip. Although I experimented with brush-pens during the day, I couldn't work up the nerve to use a regular brush, chickening out in the end and inking the whole thing with Flair pens. I worked the way Forney does, with the pencils under a new sheet on a light box, so there's no erasing of stray pencil lines. Here's how it turned out:


I don't know how much I improved the art, and how much I lost with my crappy technique. You can see that I edited the captions and dialogue during this process as well.

But for Forney, the finished product of a comic is never the original art, it is the reproduction, so there was still one step. I scanned the inked page, cleaned it up a little bit with Photoshop, and printed it off: that was the final submission. Here's the file that I printed:

Thursday: We did the by-now familiar hang-up-all-the-work-and-critique-it exercise. My strip got decent reviews; Forney thought that I had captured the body language, particularly of the waitress, pretty well.

The point of the exercise was to experience all the steps of creating a strip, which Forney had enumerated as our first lesson on Monday morning:

Idea
Research
Script
Thumbnails
Good Pencils
Inks
Scan/Tweak
Reduce/Reproduce

In that respect, the activity was a success. Following the process through from beginning to end, even on a greatly telescoped schedule, gave insights into the relationship between the different elements of creation that I don't think could have been gained by discussion. The scope of the assignment was narrow enough to be practicable, yet broad enough to require engagement with and decisions about page layout, pacing, dialogue, and character design. All of McCloud's five choices were forced upon us, to good effect.

I wonder, perhaps, whether there would still be room in a course like this for an additional, extended exercise. Completing a full-script version of a longer work would be very useful for those primarily interested in the writing side of the comics game; similarly, illustrating a full script (or even a treatment) would give those students who really wanted to work on their visual language a chance to experiment with different versions of the same narrative, without worrying about creating the narrative in the first place (and some students on the class had as hard a time coming up with things to say as I did managing to draw effectively).

In my case, as someone who doesn't hesitate to critique the comics he reads, it was instructive to have to go through the whole cycle of creating one.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Function follows form(at)

Before continuing with the series of outcomes assessments, I wanted to take a break to address a topic related to the last post, that of comics format and how it relates to narrative.

The last exercise concerned a rather outré format for comics narrative, that of slotted cards which could be connected in different ways. While it proved to be a useful heuristic for developing character and story, the format didn't reveal itself as especially useful for constructing narrative in a deliberate way.

It happened that at the same time I was considering that format, mainstream comics were presenting themselves in a new format as well: DC Comics began publishing a weekly, near-broadsheet-sized periodical called Wednesday Comics. Looking like nothing more than an old-school newspaper Sunday funnies section, the comic provides fifteen separate one-page stories in a 12" by 18" page format - roughly twice the dimensions of a standard comic.

The most obvious effect of this format is its nostalgic value. The very physicality of the item resonates with indolence and innocence and echoes of time past. A few of the creators play with this, calling out to comic strip conventions. Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred run messages directed at the reader in a slot underneath the main Metamorpho story, and Adam and Joe Kubert use a slightly smaller space for portraits of the cast at the bottom the Easy Co. strip; both of these approaches evoke similar practices that were common in the heyday of the the newspaper strip.

What is significant is that these practices are only possible because of the characteristics of the printed artifact itself. If we reduced these strips to standard comic book size, even though the aspect ratio would be nearly perfect, the absolute (not relative) size of the ancillary material would be reduced beyond usefulness, or even in some cases legibility, coming to resemble something more like Sergio Aragones's marginals in Mad magazine than an integral part of the main strip. This explains why these features have all but disappeared from traditional comic strips; the very structural possibilities of the narrative are determined by its ultimate format. The large-scale page format of Wednesday Comics offers up additional possibilities, which different contributors take advantage of in different ways.

Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook, with Kamandi, and Paul Pope, with Strange Adventures, use this oversize canvas to present artwork that, because of the strength of its composition or the intricacy of its detail, probably wouldn't work nearly as well on a smaller scale.

Two consecutive Allred strips comprised a single panel; the size of the panel was large enough that repeated figures were clearly read as existing in different moments as well as at a different points, moving through both time and space in an expansive landscape. This effect would be much more difficult to carry off on a standard-sized splash page.

Karl Kerschl et al present a multi-layered narrative. Under the banner of The Flash, one sequence showcases the Flash himself, and the other belongs to Iris West, the woman in his life; each is separately sub-titled. You might be able to have this effect in a standard comic by separating each thread on its own facing page, but the horizontal orientation of the strips and their proximity on the same leaf creates a much more intimate connection between the two strands.

The rest of the strips seem to have taken standard comic book technique and simply enlarged the page. While the bigger size gives us a better look at the linework and adds some power to the figures, in these cases it seems like an utilization of the potential of the format. The strips are perceived differently, but are not, it seems, intentionally different.

The oversize format has the ability to affect not just the presentation, but the very structural possibilities of the comic narrative. To draw this conclusion into sharp relief, let's take a look at a completely different format. Here's a short video illustrating how the comic Atomic Robo appears on a GooglePhone:

video

On a screen that is somewhere around 3" x 2", the narrative possibilities are limited, to say the least. One panel at a time is the norm: off the table are expansive page layouts, dual story threads, broad landscapes presented in single panel, and all that. The comic in the video was originally presented in a standard comic book; it was edited to fit the phone format, and its narrative flow was greatly changed in the process. I can't even begin to imagine attempting to present something like Paul Pope's intricate page layouts on the phone; Kamandi's panels would be so small as to be unreadable; and the Flash series would have to offer up one narrative at a time. Comics over the phone may be a viable option in the future, but they will likely contain stories written especially for the format, whose narrative structures play to the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of the format.

This awareness of form is just another layer of complexity in understanding how we apprehend comics narrative; we have ongoing discussions on the difference between reading a serialized narrative published periodically and reading the same narrative collected in one volume ("waiting for the trade"); the questions of format lay themselves over that, to wit: What would a collected album of Wednesday Comics look like -- all the Kamandi, all the Flash, all the Metamorpho, and so on? Wouldn't it be a huge book, however it were edited? Would the physicality of holding such a tome change your interaction with the stories? And from a different take: can you imagine reading a graphic novel on a phone?

And all of this highlights once again the difference between prose literature and graphic literature. With any form of prose, whether short story, novel, memoir, or whatever, the ultimate format - hardback, paperback, e-book - matters little. In effective pose, the little marks on the page disappear from our conscious ken and we live the story in our imaginations. Not so with comics; we don't want the marks on the page or the screen to ever disappear; we want to linger over them and savor them and appreciate them and their details, the physical traces of the artist, what French analyst Phillipe Marion called graphiation. And so, questions of format, trivial to the prose writer, become critical considerations for the comics creator.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Outcomes assessment #5

This is the fifth in a series of analyses of exercises and activities from the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA.

Number 1 is here.
Number 2 is here.
Number 3 is here.
Number 4 is here.
Number 6 is here.
Number 7 is here.

Dan's exercise in the narrative environment: (In-class, day three)

Dan led the class in a short discussion of "environment" in comics and how it affects the delivery of narrative. By environment, he referred both to the created material and psychological world of the told story and to the physicality of the comics artifact itself - whether it was small or large, on paper or a computer screen or the wall of the building. He was asserting that there was influence exchanged between these categories, and that the nature of one could affect choices for the other.

The discussion was followed by slide-show survey of visual narrative and communication, from the Lascaux Caves, through the Sistine Chapel and the illustrated poems of William Blake, up to Topffler and McKay and Herriman and Siegel & Shuster. The inquiry was less concerned with a McCloudian legitimization of proto-comics and more with increasing awareness of how the actual presentation of an illustrated story affected its narrative and its own environmental reality. That the cave painting in Lascaux could only be seen after an arduous journey to a particular place is as significant to a viewers apprehension of them as the size of broadsheet newspapers at the beginning of the last century was to readers of Little Nemo. And in both cases, the form of the art affected what content the creators could and would choose to present.

We followed this with an exercise in the interplay of artifact and narrative structure. Using as a model a European set of laminated images, we each created some interlocking cards; each one contained three panels to a side, and each side comprised some sort of simple narrative. We were given ninety minutes to design, pencil, and ink the cards. I chose a monster movie theme, and created these tableaux, not really narratives, but more like tropes:

Card 1, front: Bride of Frankenstein, Mad Scientist, Frankenstein's Monster

Card 1, back: Rasputin, Golem, Nosy Photographer

Card 2, front: Wolfman, Vampire Bat, Priest

Card 2, rear: Quasimodo, Scared Bobby-soxer, Vulture

Card 3, front: Intrepid Girl Reporter, Sea Creature, Hunter

Card 3, rear: Angel, Wall (I was getting tired), Devil

After we had finished our cards, we assembled them and critiqued each other's work. Here's a little video of how the project actually works:



Some of the projects were astonishing. One woman created cards showing the peaceful narrative of a bunny and a separate narrative of a snake. When the cards interlocked, there was an immediate sense of threat and menace created, even though the images had not been designed specifically to interact. I think my own efforts suggest different narratives without making them explicit, almost like a dial-a-story device.

And I think that's where the nut of this exercise lay. It goes without saying that the sequencing of the panels was the determinant of the narrative; it was also clear that the physical configuration of the panels moved control of the narrative to the viewer/reader, since he or she could re-arrange the cards, and allowed for multi-layered narrative, since when viewing one sequence, another sequence might also be in view, even if obliquely. But it was just as clear that beyond a minimal number of panels, it would be impossible for a creator to design the cards in such a manner as to influence in any more than a general way the narratives created by the re-arrangement of the cards. There are just too many permutations; the decision tree gets so dense so quickly that we couldn't see any way to keep the narrative sequences from being anything more than random. While it was a fascinating art form, there seemed to be little chance of it being used to create a deliberate narrative.

The point of the exercise, however, was to explore the connection between the actual physical environment a comic inhabits and the narrative world its story inhabits, and that goal was certainly met. While this particular comics format might not lend itself to many purposes, it put one in mind of the different formats commonly used for comics - golden age size books, modern age books, old size strips, new size strips, digests, treasuries - and the possibilities of new and different forms - webcomics, murals, and who knows what. These considerations push the envelope around the position often expressed (by Ellen Forney and Art Spiegelman, for sure) that in comics, the product of the art is the finished "published" work. That product could be a lot of things.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Outcomes assessment #4

This is the fourth in a series of analyses of exercises and activities from the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA.

Number 1 is here.
Number 2 is here.
Number 3 is here.
Number 5 is here.
Number 6 is here.
Number 7 is here.


Ellen's exercise in lettering and word balloons: (In-class, day three)

To tell the truth, I think this section got somewhat short shrift, or at least less time than had been planned. The day started with Ellen giving an inking demonstration; it was all technical, brush types and ink types and hand position and all that, real art class stuff. It went on a lot longer than anyone expected.

For what was left of the morning session, we covered the theory and practice of word balloons and lettering. Ellen identified the characteristics of good lettering as allowing the reader to feel comfortable, blending with the artwork, and being laid out well and spelled correctly. She stressed that lettering and word balloons should add visual interest to the text, and said that most strips should utilize three "fonts," a standard, a special standard, and a display font. She provided the following handout and a copy of page 134 of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.

After the class discussion, students completed two in-class exercises. First, we lettered as many templated panels as we could with a provided short dialogue: --What did you say? --Nothing.

We were given about ten minutes and encouraged to be as creative as possible. Here are my results:



After we walked around and viewed each other's efforts, we were assigned a more complex task. Ellen provided a "full script" and artwork for a four-panel strip, and we were give about fifteen minutes to letter it. Here's the script:

And here's my finished assignment:

The point of the exercise was to explore the relationship between lettering and balloons as graphical elements with the artwork itself, and to understand how the word balloons can add to both characterization and action. I have to say that this was one section of the course that felt a bit shallow. The relationship between image and text is perhaps the key dynamic of comics, and focusing so much on the lettering in word balloons seemed to be a bit reductive. Besides dialogue balloons and captions, text also appears in sound effects and in diegetic elements, and should be addressed more comprehensively to develop a real understanding of how it works. Catherine Khordoc's article "The Comic Book's Soundtrack," while ostensibly about sound effects, provides an excellent examination of all of the dimensions of lettering as context for its inquiry.

That said, the experimentation was instructive, and it was a challenge to try to convey different senses of the same language in ways that were both interesting and clearly understandable. This was one exercise in which the folks who had some familiarity with comics conventions seemed to have an advantage, even over those with greater graphic facility. For a lot of the students, the lettering was either troublesome from a design standpoint (just fitting in all in) or from a communicative angle (their choices were interesting and attractive but difficult to discern). Simple considerations such as maintaining left-right and top-bottom sequencing were frequently lost.

If the session didn't convey a broad enough understanding of how text works within a comic, it certainly taught the importance and technical difficulty of the often underrated contribution of dialog lettering.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Outcomes Assessment #3

This is the third in a series of analyses of exercises and activities from the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA.

Number 1 is here.
Number 2 is here.
Number 4 is here.
Number 5 is here.
Number 6 is here.
Number 7 is here.


Ellen's exercise in the visual language of comics: (In-class, day two)

Ellen led us in a discussion of icons; through elicitation, she developed a scheme of iconography that included the following categories: abstract symbols for abstract concepts (example: the peace symbol☮); abstract symbols for specific concepts (example: the Greek letter pi π for a particular mathematical value); and concrete symbols with variable meaning (example: a hand with two fingers extended, which can mean peace, victory, or sod off). The class contributed several other examples, such as the international men's and women's restroom glyphs; national flags; the "no" (or "buster") circle-with-slash; and the Christian cross.

Stressing the importance of using visual language that reads quickly (i.e., which is understood with minimal conscious deciphering), Ellen moved the conversation to comics-specific icons. Examples included the various types of speech and thought balloons; emanata and other symbolia codified by Mort Walker, such as speed lines, glow lines, and so on; and conventional icons, such as light bulbs representing ideas and flying sweat indicating nervousness. Through examination of strips by Ellen herself and Jim Woodring, we discussed how some icons were contextual and some were constant, how conventions could be altered, and how there are iconic gestures as well as symbols.

We then had a short, two-part exercise. Part One was to represent two emotions with two different face/icon combinations: one traditional and one innovative. Part Two was to represent movement in as many ways as possible. We had about five or ten minutes for each part, after which we pinned up our pages and critiqued each other's work. Here's my effort:


The first two faces are supposed to represent excitement, first with a purely graphic element and then with fireworks. The second pair was meant to convey frustration; first with conventional icons and then by means of an ugly knot.

The movement sketches are pretty self-explanatory, I think; Ellen was particularly fond of the buzzing bee for some reason. The class efforts as a whole ran the gamut from traditional to experimental with varying degrees of success.

The point of the exercise was to begin to develop fluency in the conventional iconography of the visual language of comics while at the same time starting to think about expanding the boundaries of those conventions. As an introduction and a taste, it worked very well; I can see a real value in this, though, as an ongoing exercise for cartoonists, to encourage creativity and to keep from developing habits of expression that might become tired.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Outcomes assessment #2

This is the second in a series of analyses of exercises and activities from the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA.

Number 1 is here.
Number 3 is here.
Number 4 is here.
Number 5 is here.
Number 6 is here.
Number 7 is here.


Dan's exercise in character development:
(In-class, day 2)
We engaged in a rather brief in-class discussion of the communication of character through visual design, with Bluto/Brutus from Popeye being the primary example of connection between physical appearance and personality. We talked about shorthand methods for characterization, through clothing or body types, as well as playing against stereotypes for effect. After the discussion, the students were given an assignment: pick three descriptors from a list of words and draw one figure to represent each characteristic. No context or other characters were allowed, only clothing and hand props. We had about 15 minutes.

Here's the list. I checked off the ones I wanted to attempt.

And here are my figures:


I did the "stealthy" ninja twice, because the first guy looked a little too much like he was settling in for a nap, not like he was sneaking around a corner. And the "bullying" guy does have a bald head, but I couldn't get the pencil lines to show in the scan.

After we pinned those up to the wall and critiqued each other's, we tried the exercise again, this time with a selection of character descriptions taken from novels. We had another 15 minutes to illustrate two of them.

I picked number three, the "new fellow," and the last one, Alice. Here they are:


We again did the pin-up-and-critique thing, and then Dan gave us a final exercise. We were to take one character from the first exercise and one character from the second exercise and have them meet in a six-panel strip, following this script (the stuff in the bubble was our reading assignment, not part of the exercise):

We had about 45 minutes to complete the exercise, which was to be handed in for review, not pinned up. I picked the bully and the new fellow and came up with this:

The point of the exercise was to work on ways to communicate personality and characterization using only a figure's physical appearance. To that end, it was very instructive. When we looked around the figures chosen to represent different characteristics, certain tropes and conventions came forward: an exaggerated upturn of the nose for haughty, certain clothing, such as a roll-neck sweater, for the (child) bully. It was also somewhat of a sociological study at the same time; although it wasn't the main point, we found that certain descriptors were universally gender-biased: only women were demure or naughty, for example. This kind of response is probably a good thing to be aware of when designing characters.

There was one severe limitation on the exercise: it seemed critically dependent on a student's ability at figure drawing. Using Scott McCloud's schema, it's all about choice of image:

If we examine these five choices, we can see that four of them could be determined by the writer, (if we broke the cartoonist into two people, a writer and an illustrator). A full script could specify the kind of transition (moment), the type of shot (frame), the text and kind of balloons (word), and the page layout (flow). Even an unimaginative or uninvolved artist could follow the script to produce the desired effect; even stick figures could be used to have the panels "read" in these aspects.

What the script cannot blueprint, but only suggest, is the representation of character through physical appearance. "He was a tough man who looked like he'd just as soon punch you as talk to you." That was easy to write, and I might even have a mental picture of how to convey it, but my figure drawing or cartooning skills are nowhere near competent enough to execute it. Even if I rely heavily on stereotyping and shorthand, I am not sure I could draw them well enough for a reader to recognize the signals.

Take a look at my sketches. You can probably tell the bully is tattooed (although I don't know how his right arm would look any different if a snake was in fact crawling on it), but can you tell he is wearing steel-toed boots? Do the new fellow's clothes accentuate his lankiness (my goal) or does it just look like he's wearing high-waters? Does Alice's over-large head look intentional (as it was supposed to) or does it just look like I got the proportions wrong? Does her face convey any "inner ferment," or does she just look pissed? Without evidence of my own control of line drawing, it's hard for the reader to tell.

As for doing it with stick figures, I think that would take even more talent. Perhaps Randall Munroe or John Porcellino can get across such subtle emotion with lines and curves and gesture, but that appears to take even more talent than "realistic" illustration.

It's not creativity, it's technique that is the problem. I gave the characters different haircuts, but I am not sure it's really noticeable. I tried to give the characters different walks to represent their different natures, but the whole thing is so awkward I'm not sure it shows. Look at the instructions for the strip: it says to "represent each character w/ a distinct texture/line quality." I really had no idea how to do this, so I drew the bully with a soft (4B) pencil, the new fellow with a hard (2H) pencil, and everything else with an in-between HB. I'm not sure there's much difference besides one being darker than the other. In any event, Dan didn't seem to be overwhelmed by my representation of character; here are his comments:

"Nice simple story w/ a good progression. It's very clear." Yeah, I like the story, and in the forty-five minutes we had, I think I did a pretty good job with four of the five choices; it's just that the exercise was really concerned with the fifth. Comics are the combination of art and writing, and this exercise throws that into clear relief. As much as we can examine comics as a "literary" form, good comics have to have competent and controlled artwork to convey a message, and this cannot be overlooked.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mosquito post

Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man
by John Porcellino

La Mano, 2005

I will readily confess to my lack of status as a John Porcellino fan, but only because I have not followed his work. I have encountered his King Kat mini-comic from time to time, but will admit to never having sought it out or thought too much about it. This volume, a collection of works from 1989 to 2005 (which won the Ignatz Award in 20o5), caught my eye in one of my usual Half-Price Books haunts, and I was drawn to it by its subject matter and by its presentation, both of which demonstrated plainly in just the time I was browsing the development of the creator over the years.

It is in the artwork itself that this development shows up most strikingly. Porcellino's work would be described by some as cartoony and minimal, and by others as crude, amateurish, or inept, but a comparison of his early work with his later illustration shows the difference between the two.

While he never comes near anything approaching realism, Porcellino's early drawings had a lot of "realistic" details such as seams and wrinkles on clothing or fixtures and features on hardware. Combined with the unnatural anatomy of the characters and sketchy backgrounds, it gave the whole affair a messy, unsatisfying look. (I have heard some people refer to this as a "punk rock" sensibility; I'm not so sure of that label.)

Porcellino's later work, on the other hand, loses the detail and gains immeasurable reality in the process. By letting go of any pretense at trying to present what things really look like, and instead presenting an almost totally emblematic world of simple curves and shapes, Porcellino is able to connect to the heart of the actual.

As an example, here are two panels, one from 1989 and one from 2005:



In the older panel, Porcellino tries to include on his baseball cap the seams, the logo, even the adjuster-gap in the back; it's a confusing cluster of elements. In the newer panel, he represents the same hat with two simple lines, trusting that our sense of the world will fill in all the details we need to see, if in fact there are any.

That same reductiveness has been applied to the swamp. In the first image, there are lots and lots of straight lines scratched all about, as if their quantity could make up for the lack of resemblance to actual swamp grasses. In the second image, Porcellino has gone with something that is almost a glyph; a collection of three or four stylized strokes that reads as grass. (A similar effect, but with parallel lines instead of angled, is used for the dry-land grass.)

The anatomy in the first picture is just weird; you can call it punk rock if you like, but to me it falls into a sort of comics version of uncanny valley: the angle and perspective is sophisticated enough to raise my expectations, so the watery body just seems poorly executed. On the other hand, the anatomy in the second picture is just as "wrong," but the deliberate flatness of the figure makes me appreciate it as a purer graphic design, and I can actually relate to it more.

While everything about the later art has gotten simpler, it seems so much more controlled and effective. Sometimes growth manifests not by adding to, but by getting rid of.

Porcellino displays growth in the content as well as the art. This volume is a memoir, as the name implies, relating incidents and observations from the author's stint in rural insect control. The earlier pieces have a flaw commonly ascribed to comics in the "black and white autobiographical indie" genre, one I frequently find in my students' first attempts at personal essays: they don't have anything in them to make a reader care. Vignettes without context or consequence, texts that read like journal entries, no sense of audience: these are the hazards of the "personal" without the "essay," and they mark Porcellino's early entries.

The later work, though - that's a different story. The last two pieces, while based deeply in Porcellino's experiences and using them as foundations and support, actually have points - claims that they make, conclusions that they come to, positions that they take about life and its meaning and the choices we make. They are at the same time so much more satisfying and so much more challenging than the meandering and idle reminiscences that comprise the earlier work.

Porcellino has long been considered a valuable and important member not just of the mini-comics community but of the broader comics world as well. I have been remiss in not joining in; consider this my declaration of admiration.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Outcomes assessement #1

Last week I attended the Graphic Novel Intensive class at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps because I am currently working on the program review committee at my own college, I thought I would explore the class through what we would call the "key assessments" -- the primary assignments that illustrate the focus of the instruction. (During the trip home, I posted a more impressionistic response, which can be found under Four-Color Ma in the sidebar.)

Here's the class webpage, here's the syllabus and here's one bit of background: the class met from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm each day, with a working lunch at noon and a presentation from a guest professional at 4:15. Ellen Forney, Seattle cartoon diva and part-time instructor at the Cornish College of the Arts, taught the morning sessions from Monday through Thursday, and Dan Duford, Portland artist and PNCA staff instructor, taught the afternoon sessions and facilitated the all-day workshops on Friday and Saturday.

Frankly, most of the students felt that we were taking two separate classes; the class activities and learning sequence didn't demonstrate a lot of coordination between the two instructors or their respective content. Each section was useful and valuable, but I think there were some futile attempts to reconcile the mornings and afternoons before we all gave in and just accepted each on its own terms. Whether this disconnect was a bug or a feature is unknown.

I'll post an analysis of one major assignment each Friday.

Dan's first exercise in narrative structure: (In-class, day one.) After some class discussion on the narrative potential of sequential images and how comics present shifts in voice and time, the class was given this task: on five separate small cards or slips of paper, illustrate five significant moments from your life. We had 20 minutes. I eventually chose bungee-jumping, filming an episode of my TV show, visiting Stonehenge, bicycling in The Netherlands, and getting shot at chasing a shoplifter, and made my little stand-alone panels.



Then we were told to write down on a slip of paper five important moments from history, to exchange slips with someone else, and to similarly illustrate the new moments. We had another 20 minutes. The list I got from my classmate read: JFK assassinated, Antoinette beheaded, Archduke shot, Sputnik launched, and Indo-Pak partition. These images were in some ways more of a challenge, but in other ways easier to express:


Once we had ten panels, as it were, we put them together as we chose - randomly, chronologically, arbitrarily, whatever - and posted them on the wall to make a single ten-panel strip. I put each set in chronological order and then alternated them, and it looked like this:


We then looked to see what narratives arose from the juxtapositions of the diverse images - did the thread of a story manifest in the sequence of images? In the case of my images, the comments from the students crowded around eventually coalesced into a reading of some kind of spy story, a globe-trotting assassin telling all in a memoir.

The point of the exercise was to experiment with ways that narrative is delivered by sequential art. The results seemed to be less about developing techniques to apply to storytelling and more about coming to better understand how an audience responds to a sequence like this - what kind of order we try to impose on the images to have it make sense. A sensitivity to this is, of course, useful to any cartoonist, so while the activity was not directly about methods, the ideas that arose certainly inform them.

Secondarily, the activity became about how fast an illustration "reads" - that is, how quickly it communicates its content. In the case of my panels, for example, the "road trip on bike through Holland" read instantly, as did "Sputnik being launched." While this was not the primary focus of the exercise, our review of each other's work was instructive regarding use of common and effective symbols, such as employing car fenders and a high hat to set the early 20th century time frame of the Sarajevo panel.


This is the first in a series of analyses of exercises and activities from the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA.

Number 2 is here.
Number 3 is here.
Number 4 is here.
Number 5 is here.
Number 6 is here.
Number 7 is here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A minifesto

So, what's all this "Ninth Art" business? This article from ArtsEditor begins with a pretty good summary of roots of the expression, but essentially it was film critic Claude Beylie's term for comics in an expansion of film theorist Ricciotto Canudo's list of The Seven Arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, dance, and cinema. (Beylie added number eight, television, as well as number nine, comics.)

This isn't the first outlet to use the term in its name. This so-named journal was around for five years, and this German (?) site about super-heroes uses the designation, which is apparently quite common is Europe, in its address.

For my own part, the name change represents a break from my previous comics blogging, both at the Recreation Annex and more recently as a category on my keystone blog. In those venues, I rambled about whatever aspects of comics caught my fancy, played the snark-game a little, revelled in my silver-age memories, and generally made a mash of things.

Here, I want to be a little more intentional. As I continue my more-and-more scholarly study of comics, comic books, graphic novels, or what-have-you, I am drawn primarily to formal analyses of comics and secondarily to inquiries into comics as a social construct. I have less interest in aesthetics, literary criticism, genre histories, fandom, or biographies; I have a great interest in using comics in the college classroom. I hope to contribute some small efforts here that will help fill the same shelf currently being stocked so well by Matt Madden and Derek Badman.

In that spirit of advancement, I will be spending the next week as a student in the Graphic Novel Intensive class at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. I am particularly thrilled because the class is being co-taught by Ellen Forney, but regardless, I am looking forward to six days full of comics, theory and practice. (Dig this syllabus (PDF).)

So, this minifesto is just to get the air circulating in here; I'll be back in a week or so with a report on the class.