Thursday, March 28, 2013

"I Promise" Says Gentlemen Beetle: Character and Pantomime

I went to figure drawing last night--I went earlier this month as well, but I'm still very rusty. It will take a another few sessions before I get back to form, or share any of my figures here. I really can't go that long without drawing from life without having to get back on it. So for now, more Ladybug and Gentlemen Beetle.

My Favorite Model

As I put together the mock-up of the book, I'm finding that as I draw the images, lines of text become superfluous to the action. The characters body language is increasingly carrying the story, which is as it should be. The best case scenario of a picture book is that the words are as important as the pictures, and the story can't be told without both. In aid of this, I rely on my favorite model. 

One of many blurry photos that helped me get just the right gesture for this pose. What these guys lack in fingers, they make up for in arms and legs, so then it's about how to best translate human body language into bug body language.

Character and Pantomime

I based the earlier dance sequence on stills I took from Fred Estaire and Ginger Rogers. Watching the film by frames I began to really see how Ginger Rogers was at times struggling to keep up with him. I never quite realized just how good a dancer he was! But I wanted my own dance to have a little more give and take. Here's that post if you missed it. 

But often it's hard to visualize the gesture if you can't see it. I have a full length mirror in my studio, but often that's not enough, and so then it's time to prop up my camera and set the timer. Then I translate this gesture into bug anatomy, adding a little exaggeration and drama and hopefully subtlety. Cartoon anatomy has its challenges--everything is simplified and distilled.

In that earlier dance sequence linked above, one of the hardest things to do was to have Gentleman Beetle give a bow and offer his hand in that courtly manner of a traditional gentlemen. When drawing this pose, I neglected to use my favorite model, so I had to make it up from a few scant pieces of reference found online and my imagination. Little problems arose, for instance: my Gentleman Beetle lacks not only hands but a neck. All that head tilting and head raising has to be implied without a neck. His back, too, is stiff as a board, since it's all shell. So the arms legs and held tilt have to carry much of the motion. And I almost forgot to give him antennae when he took off his hat--I hadn't yet had to draw him hatless. 

The more I draw the characters, the more I get to know them and how they work in space. Sometimes they've surprise me by subtly changing the tone of a phrase written in the prose. While in the prose I said, "Ladybug smiled" when she asks Gentleman Beetle for reassurance, suggesting that she's not at all as frightened as her words suggest, here her body language could easily translate as earnest entreaty. But she's still smiling. It's not as obvious. Should it be more obvious? I decided that no, this works better. Just as Gentleman Beetle has his own mock expressions as he playfully describes the scenario, Ladybug in her own way is just as clever.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Arriving on the Island...

So I'm concentrating in the next week or so primarily on the Ladybug and Gentlemen Beetle book which is going pretty briskly, but here's a rough from the early reader book I was working on before. I'll be returning to that one soon. I've been having fun with both, and barring anything unforeseen, should be back to full productivity!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Ladybug and Gentlemen Beetle Dancing

So I'm making Ladybug and Gentlemen Beetle into a picture book, rather than an early reader. Here are some sketches from the dummy in progress. I've always been a fan of sequential action, so here's Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle dancing!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Another Spread for Work in Progress

Another spread. Deliberately messing with scale a little bit. Since the boat is something from their imagination, it's huge when their working on it, smaller when their in it.

Monday, March 11, 2013

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mary Sue?

In 1973, Paula Smith wrote a story called "A Trekkie's Tale" for a Star Trek fanzine that parodied what was then becoming a common trope in fan fiction written by women. The character in the story was named "Mary Sue." As much as has been made of the story and the trope since, it's surprisingly brief. You can read it here in its entirety.

That's it. That's all there is to it. For all that's been written about the trope, and plenty has been--just Google "Mary Sue" if you're curious--it's all of about 200 words or so.

Essentially Mary Sue is a character who is talented to the point of absurdity and admired by all who come in contact with her. She achieves boundlessly and, if it comes to it, dies valiantly, a soul too good for this world.

In this insightful interview, Paula Smith herself explains the problem with the trope better than anyone I've heard so far. In her own words:

"A story demands headspace, and the Mary Sue wants to come and occupy your whole head, so the writer gets the enjoyment and not the reader. It's a little too much like being used. I suspect that's why an awful lot of people agreed with our assessment."

She also identifies one of the most problematic aspects of the trope as it relates to gender:

"I was really struck when the Doc Savage: Man of Bronze movie came out. I thought: that's a Mary Sue, too!"

"...Any of these wish-fulfillment characters [James Bond, Superman] whose presence in any universe warps it way the heck out of reality. But we don't notice that when it involves men."

Soon after the term "Mary Sue" came into popular use, Marty Sue was added to describe Mary's male counterpart, but Mary Sue was still more commonly used as a pejorative to describe female characters than Marty Sue was to describe male characters, and these canonical male characters, Superman, James Bond and Doc Savage, tended to get a free pass. 

This is why the fact that "Mary Sue" is a woman is not insignificant.

I think it’s fair to assume that male “Mary Sues” existed in fan fiction with equally blatant and amateurish prevalence well before "Mary Sue" was coined. but I also think that  the absurdity of the trope stood out all the more because the characters were women. This fact is significant if we are going to use historical precedent in our evaluation of the term.

Part of the assumptions behind these canonical characters “getting a pass” is because they initiated a certain archetype. They were the model. But women don't have the same archetypal precedents, so they’re by default disenfranchised from getting this “pass.”

In genre fiction, men have more Marty Sue leverage than women. We’re willing to permit more Marty Suishness in male characters than Mary Suishness in female characters.

What separates Marty Sues from their female counterparts is also an aggressive kind of masculinity. Idealized men are given more license to be disliked while still being held up as heroic. They can be ruthless because they are noble. Conan, Batman and Wolverine are great examples of this kind of Marty Sue. The begrudging respect they receive is sometimes treated as a character flaw, but I think it’s a false one. This character embodies a different kind of wish fulfillment. What used to be called the "anti-hero" has become the contemporary go-to Marty Sue.

The contemporary treatment of James Bond in the recent spate of films with Daniel Craig reflects an effort to try to update the Marty Sue trope, but I think this too follows the same pattern. The model is more Conan than super spy. People associate this kind of grittiness with realism, when it’s still just veneer. It’s a trait that women aren’t permitted to have, further requiring them to be more flawed by comparison. Bond has no female equals either in his films, or equivalents in other popular fiction.

On the one hand, the Mary Sue/Marty Sue trope is a useful way to point out this trend in writing. Unfortunately, it doesn't tend to be employed as equally or judiciously to both genders. It's still fundamentally about Mary Sue, and the term is generally used to vilify idealistic portrayals of women. So it’s not simply the origin of the term, but its employment, and the fact that it’s often used as ammunition to dismiss characters that have similar attributes to celebrated male characters that puts it in the realm of sexism.

When Paula Smith identified and named the trope, I don't think she intended it to be about gender. But like all language, once the term went into circulation it took on a life of its own. It became both a convenient way to identify the trope, and a convenient way to hold women to a double standard. Which isn't to say that every use of the term is inherently sexist, or identifying this trope in fiction isn't useful or even helpful as a tool for an author to look at their characters more objectively. But that double standard still exists. 

The term isn't going to go away any time soon. I think we're stuck with it. But if we're going to be pointing out all the Mary Sues we should level the same finger at all the Marty Sues. And if we're allowed our few exceptions--Batman and James Bond--then shouldn't women be able to have the same kinds of characters who embody this same kind of wish-fulfillment?

Because if not, then I don't think our Marty Sues should get off so lightly.


While the trope is often used as a justification for sexism, I think the Mary and Marty Sue CAN be well written. I don’t dismiss the trope. I don’t think the trope by default is an indication of bad writing. Keep in mind that Paula Smith's original piece was a PARODY, exaggerating the worst aspects of the trope, not a definition.

James Bond doesn’t get a pass. Batman doesn’t get a pass. At least not until we see female characters who embody the same archetype who are equally embraced. If precedent is the measure of these “passes” then you can hardly give a blanket dismissal to the same trend in women when they have no such precedent to go by.

But I do think there is such a thing as a well written Superman story or James Bond story. And if these canonical male characters get a pass, it should be because of a compelling story with a compelling conflict, not their precedent as archetypes. Mary Sue can be a well-written character if handled right. 

Friday, March 08, 2013

I'm Drawing!

After months of sporadic and spotty productivity as a result of my illness, I'm back to it! This is a rough spread for an early reader dummy I'm working on. This time I've done a little more homework and am confident that I can do a book that will be a good fit for the early reader market. 

This book is written at the very early end of the spectrum. One thing I noticed with some of these early reader books is a lack of scale. I think a lot of them are well done, but its as if, because the physical size of the book is small, the spaces in the images have to be small. So I'm trying to make a big world is a small package in this one with lots of full bleed spreads. Vocabulary, word count and physical size doesn't have to limit the scope of the book.