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.