Friday, May 27, 2011

Milton Glaser on Failing

I recently watched a short video by Milton Glaser that really put in perspective what I've achieved recently with my work, despite the fact that I've yet to achieve commercial success.

My work's just starting to mature now that I'm in my late thirties, and it's in a place it would have never reached if I'd been more successful earlier. I don't just mean craft, or skill, but intention. It's been about pinpointing what I LIKE to do as much as what I want to do. I'm less concerned than I was before about being too kitsch, or too cute, or too banal. Right now I'm only concerned that the effort and intention I put into the work is genuine, and the pleasure I take in making it is expressed through it. Everything else doesn't matter. (Though it would be nice to make more of an income.)

Listen to Milton Glaser talk about fearing to fail, here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

More May Figures

Drawing has not been going well lately, so I'm just starting to get back into it. This was a good figure session. I regained a little confidence. We had a great model--round and curvy, and she was really fun to draw.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bus Design

This is a design for a ramshackle bus that is featured prominently in my chapter book. I couldn't seem to get the right look, but I finally came up with something I was happy with. Part VW bus, part chevy truck, with a bicycle wheel, a radiator and a screen door. Perfect!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

May Figure, Searching for Portrait Models

Here's a moderately acceptable figure. The drawing is just OK, but there's a nice feeling of weight to it.

Still in a bit of a slump. I'm switching focus somewhat, for the next few images, concentrating more on YA/Teen material. I'm continuing with my middle reader chapter book, but I'm going to attempt a few mock-up YA covers. Or at least that's the goal. Since these will be portrait-based, I'm currently looking for portrait models, girls between 12 and 15 for photo ref, which has proven somewhat difficult. Illustrators: how do you find models for photo ref? When the ref I need is non-specific, or I'm going to generalize the information I use multiple photos pulled from a google image search, or I pose myself, but for something as specific as a portrait, finding models not in my peer age range is a little difficult. I can't render from someone else's photo--that photo would belong to them, and I also want to be able to pose and light the photo myself.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Nailing Down a Character, Chomet's Illusionist

I don't think I realized it until recently, but I've been in a bit of a funk lately. I'm coming out of it now, so I'll try to post more, but it's put a small dent in my productivity.

At any rate, I've been designing this old woman character for the illustrated chapter book I'm working on. I've made dozens of drawings, a few represented in earlier posts. This is the first sketch where I thought I was starting to get somewhere.

And here's where I feel like I nailed it. Not so much in the face on the left, but in the profile.

Sometimes a rough sketch can express something that you can't quite get across in a tighter one, so in this sketch I've tightened things up a little, popping the original sketch under the light box, but something was lost. I'll try to refer to the first sketch as I draw her, but this one was necessary to get a sense of her proportions.

The character is physically and emotionally very strong despite her years, a real stalwart personality. I once saw a film about Georgia O'Keefe and watching her walk across the New Mexico landscape at 80 was impressive. At 80 she still looked like she could kick your ass if she wanted to. I wanted to give that sense with this character, with a strong center of gravity and her legs planted firmly on the ground. She's a bit of a gypsy, so I gave her a headscarf and used a lot of pictures of old Gypsy women and Eastern European women as reference, those old women that you know have worked hard their entire lives. She has prominent cheeks and chin to reflect that Eastern European matriarch look, and sensible shoes, probably sneakers.

I'm trying to be more conscientious with my character design than I have in the past, because sometimes I have a tendency not to stay "on model". Keeping in mind both a sense of the characters personality and her proportions should keep me better on track.

A great inspiration for character design has been the drawings of Chomet and Milt Kahl. Animation artists are some of the best at character design since they have to design their characters to move, and your character design has to be strong to sustain a wide range of movement.

The Illusionist

I recently saw Chomet's new film, The Illusionist.

I had mixed feelings about the film--I loved Triplettes of Bellville, and I think Chomet is a real contemporary master of animation, the first 2D animator in a long while to match the best character animation of what I think is the highpoint for Disney for character, the 60s. This is the 101 Dalmatians and Jungle Book era, and even films like The Sword in the Stone have a character that I don't think has been matched in a very long while. Everything about the character animation and backgrounds is beautifully done. The color palette is a complex, muted spectrum of earth tones that you don't typically see in animation, and when you do see brilliant color, it has more impact than if you were in the saturated world of your typical CGI feature. The movie is practically silent, with characters occasionally speaking a mumbled imaginary version of English, and there's some wonderfully subtle physical humor.

The film is based on a screenplay by Jacques Tati, my favorite silent comedian, and Chomet captures the essence of Tati beautifully in the film. The script had been written by Tati in the 50s, and for whatever reason, he never produced it. Unfortunately I think it might have been because it's somewhat of a flawed and maudlin premise.

Tati's magician character performs in a Scottish village and a young woman becomes enamored of the idea that he can perform real magic after he notices that her shoes are worn and buys her new pair, making the new shoes seem to magically appear. She follows him to London and he takes her in, spending beyond his means to continue to enchant her with expensive luxuries. The young woman is not only childlike, but so naive she seems to be from another planet. She's not familiar with the basic value of money, for instance, attempting at one point to buy fancy jewelry with a low denomination coin. This character is the weakest part of the movie and is unfortunately central to the plot. It's a depiction of women in film that has a long history, the pretty young naive ingenue, and the part of the story that dates the most. Thankfully the film does not go into a romantic direction, or at least, the magician and the woman don't become romantically involved, but she does end up with a handsome archetype who appears to be much too sophisticated for someone so naive. His lack of a personality, in a way, makes up for the discrepancy, so this plot line ends up to be more empty than creepy.The handsome character amounts to nothing more than a plot device.

The story begins tragically as the magician finds that his talents are not appreciated, and as he struggles to get work as the story progresses from tragic to bleak. It's this romantic idea of artist as anachronism, and there's nothing more romantic than a tragic artist. This is where the story predictably spirals into a maudlin puddle. It's not as bad, in this regard, as Toy Story 3--though the emotional trajectory of the film is as obvious as a hammer, Chomet doesn't milk these emotional moments in quite so manipulative a way as Toy Story 3, and there is enough subtly and humanity in the characters for me not to feel completely betrayed by the story.

I consider this a stepping stone film for Chomet--the character animation has reached a new level of naturalism, and the story is well told and well paced despite being fundamentally flawed. Perhaps with the right story Chomet will reach a new high with his next film, so I'm looking forward to what he comes up with next. I still enjoyed The Illusionist, if for no other reason than the character animation. It's a subtly and grace that hasn't been seen in character animation in a very long time, particularly in 2D animation. 2D features have practically disappeared, but the French seem to be approaching the medium with strong craft and an original point of view with both Chomet's films and the recent and excellent animated adaptation of Persepolis.

Myazaki continues to be the best 2d animator in Japan, but his character animation is much more limited--it doesn't have the fluidity and nuance of Chomet. There's a cypher quality to the characters in Japanese animation since their expressions are limited by the default Tezuka inspired big eye style, a tendency that has plagued Japanese animation since its inception. At the same time, Myazaki's characters are strong on body language, his storytelling is superb, and the originality of the worlds he creates is singular. The most ideal scenario would be to have a film with the originality and storytelling of a Myazaki, and the character animation of Chomet, but maybe that's asking too much.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Comics: Not a Genre or An Industry, But a Medium

This post is based on some remarks made on Facebook, principally as a response initially posted by the very talented Eric Orchard.

Often, when comics are discussed in the news or elsewhere, it's discussed as a "genre", and even among die hard comics readers it's discussed as an "industry", but it is neither.

"Industry" is a word associated with commerce, and the vast majority of the comics that are published are self published in one form or another--on the web or as self-published zines, because anyone can make comics. Anyone. So it couldn't be further from being a commercial medium. At one time you might have called TV and movies commercial mediums, but that's arguably changing as well, with the web. Now anyone can produce and distribute video.

What this puts into sharper focus for me, is that there is no such thing as a commercial medium. There might be periods in history when a medium is dominated by the influence of the marketplace, but once again I think this kind of statement confuses form and content, just like when people call comics a "genre".

Cartoonist" as a job, as a paid profession is something different altogether, but then any profession is market driven on some level. But calling comics an "industry" suggests that you can't be a cartoonist, as in: on who engages in the act of cartooning or making comics, without the market being a fundamental concern, and that's just a sad, sad way to think about comics. And though there is a comics industry just as there is a book industry, comics aren't an industry in and of themselves, anymore than poetry is an industry in and of itself, which is why it also disturbs me that, so often, any discussion about comics among people who are very much invested in the medium is a discussion about, "the industry".

Comics the Genre

Calling comics a genre further confuses the form with the content for your average non comics reader. You don't want people to base their decision to read, or not read comics on their assumptions about content. There's no assumptions made about content when you talk about a novel or a poem, but people will often dismiss comics because they think they don't like what comics are about, not because they don't like the form, and this misapprehension is responsible for discouraging many people from reading even the good stuff. And that's when the good stuff is available to them, which it often isn't, since the industry part of comics has, largely, become a niche. If you want to buy a comic book, or, as long form comics are more fashionably called, a "graphic novel" you have to first know what you're looking for, and then you have to know where to find it. There might be a "graphic novel" section in your local bookstore, but it's likely dominated by superhero comics and japanese manga (the Japanese word for comics) which are largely comprised of romance, science fiction and martial arts genres.

Just as genre doesn't define content, no genre is inherently qualitatively good or bad. Quality can exist in any genre, and just as there are good mystery novels and good science fiction novels, and yes, good romances (romance tends to be the genre most often dismissed out of hand, but, in the broad sense, Lady Chatterly's Lover could even be considered a romance novel) there are good superhero comics, science fiction comics and romance comics, but like most genre fiction, the marketplace is dominated by schlock. Commercial genre fiction in most forms is the most aggressively marketed, since genre is the easiest way to appeal to a mass audience. But genres like superheroes have become increasingly niche, and have long been associated with, and have dominated the medium.

Why Superheroes Have Dominated the Medium

Since, historically, comics, or comic books have been dominated by content directed towards children, they've been long thought of as a children's medium. The first comic books were collections of comic strips, and though comic strips at the time had a family readership, they were the part of the newspaper that was most accessible to children. Print media and periodicals were as much a dominant form of entertainment as television is today, and were as commonly consumed as the other dominant entertainment medium at the time, radio. Some strips were directed towards adults-- principally humor strips like Bringing up Father, or even the original Blondie-- accessible to kids, but with humor that had more to do with adult domestic life. But as the part of the newspaper that attracted kids, the new comic books were targeted almost exclusively at a young audience.

The first true genre to emerge exclusively form comic books was the costumed superhero. Superheroes were in fashion in the late 30s and 40s, then went out of fashion after the war. In the 50s superhero comics were in the minority, then they became more prevalent and once again dominated from the 60s on. There's no reason for this than I think, can be definitively identified, though I could make a wild guess. There was an intense moral crackdown on comics in the late fifties, blaming comics for juvenile delinquency. A "comics code" was established by the industries largest publishers as a preemptive against censorship, and the code required a very stringent, conservative, and puerile approach to morality in comics. It may or may not be a coincidence that this is when superheroes became a dominant genre, since the content, at that point, was more pointedly skewed towards an even younger audience, and superheroes represented a black and white, distilled form of morality.

But the initial young readership soon grew older, and as they grew older, were still attracted to the genre, so by the late 60s and 70s, the content became a little more sophisticated, targeted more at young adults than young children. By the early 80s, comic shops started to appear, and by the 90s, comics were almost exclusively sold in comics shops. This trend was driven by these increasingly aging superhero fans who not only were the dominant consumers of comics, but had become aggressive speculators-- comics were now considered collectibles. Individually, they were willing to spend more money on comics, so retailers could sell more comics to less people.

Throughout this time, the comics code was resisted, but wasn't fully removed from the majority of superhero comics until very very recently, even though there was no real enforcement of its rules, and the marketplace no longer cared about what it was supposed to have represented. To the publishers this symbol represented on some level, a concession towards that early idea of a family audience, even though the readership of superhero comics was, and continues to be dominated by readers in their 20s and 30s. The age of the current readership of the genre reflects it's current niche status--the readership has aged with the medium and has attracted no new readers.

Literary and Non Genre Comics

Coincident and parallel to the rise in popularity of superhero comics, a movement of adult oriented comics also arose in the form of underground comics. Artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton deliberately pushed the boundaries of what had previously been considered a children's medium, with content that was heavily influenced by 60s drug culture and the sexual revolution. These comics were sold at head shops, and as the head shops disappeared in the late 70s, so did the undergrounds.

In the early 80s, what came to be known as alternative comics emerged. The first of these were even more adult oriented superhero and genre comics directed at the new older audience that were frequenting comics shops. Around this time, Art Spiegelman's watershed anthology, Raw, appeared, which contained European imports and a new breed of U.S. cartoonists influenced by the Europeans and U.S. undergrounds. Raw didn't find its way into comic shops but was principally sold in progressive bookstores in larger urban areas, and it's distribution was minimal. Some of these same artists also began to have their work seen in free weeklies, and eventually, started bleeding into the comics shops, generating a new, but still minority clientele. Since the comic shops were owned and operated by superhero fans, the shops relationship to this new audience became a somewhat reluctant one. But this minority audience began to grow, and a new generation of non genre and literary comics emerged. Long form comics or "graphic novels" started to come into the fore. Distribution was still spotty, but by the late 90s, the quality of these books could no longer be ignored by the intelligentsia. These comics were still little known, but became increasingly well critically regarded, and as they began to enter bookstores, sales increased, but most continued a marginalized life in the back shelves of comic stores, or squeezed into the "graphic novel" sections of bookstores between Batman and Superman.

In recent years, non-genre, and more specifically, non-superhero periodicals have been almost entirely pushed off the shelves of comic shops. graphic novels or long form comics have become the main venue for literary and non-genre comics, but they're still hard to find. Young adult genre comics are on the increase in bookstores, especially manga, but kids no longer read superhero comics. Superhero movies and cartoons continue to appeal to kids, but superhero comics, no longer targeted at kids, have completely lost their once young audience and are now exclusively targeted at an adult audience whose conservative tastes have been catered to by the comic shops and publishers to their own disadvantage. They've inadvertently cut their audience off at the knees.

The Problem

The perception that comics are principally about superheroes has been perpetuated by their fan base. Comic book conventions, which have always been dominated by superhero comics, are now a place where superhero and science fiction movies are promoted, further blurring the distinction.

The problem is that, even though, in the last couple of decades, a large number of non-genre and literary comics have emerged, it's almost impossible to have a discussion about comics with someone who did not grow up with them and who does not have an expressed interest in them. There's simply no common ground to begin the discussion. Because of the dominance of comic shops, comics have lost a generation of readers who never had the experience of walking into a grocery store or drugstore to buy a comic book. Even though, when I was a kid, comics were still all about superheroes, they were at least practically accessible. I didn't need to go to a special store. All I needed to do was walk around the corner.

With the internet my hope is that the new generation of comics readers will have the equivalent of the experience I had as a kid. That they'll be able to find comics, if not at their local drugstore, than on their browser. The internet has the ability to inform a whole new readership that comics are more than just a genre, but a thriving medium.

What Publishers Need to Do

Publishers have recently become more graphic novel friendly, but most of them are in the dark as to how to sell and promote them. Keep in mind that a new readership needs to be developed and cultivated. For all my focus on adult oriented and literary comics, it has to be said: if you want adults to read comics, you need to start with kids. Kids need to start reading comics again.

In the area of Children's and young adult fiction, Diary of a Wimpy Kid has recently been a breakthrough book. Even though it may look like an illustrated book, it's essentially a text heavy comic book, dependent on both words and the pictures to tell its story. Unfortunately, publishers answer to Wimpy Kid has mainly been to make inferior Wimpy Kid clones. Their other tactic has been to make graphic novel versions of their already successful young adult series novels, but these graphic novels become ancillary to the more popular novels. They're more a form of merchandising than a success in themselves. So how do you successfully produce and market children's comics?

I think one of the best things you can do is hire a comics savvy editor. Candlewick Press recently picked up Francoise Mouly's Toon Books because they know that Mouly knows comics. She and her husband, Art Spiegelman have had success with their line of Little Lit books because they know who the best cartoonists working today happen to be, they know comics, and they have a good feel for what appeals to kids.

Someone Needs to Hire Chris Duffy

Chris Duffy was the editor of Nickelodeon Magazine's comics section, and he knows comics every bit as much as Mouly does. Nickelodeon Magazine is now defunct. If you're a publisher and you want to hire an editor that knows his stuff, Chris is the guy. Snatch him up before somebody else does.

Don't Ignore Girls!

Another important audience that both alternative comics and manga have brought to comics: female readers. Since superheroes were mainly targeted at boys, girls were long excluded. Now there's a growing audience of female readers that comics haven't seen since the 50s. Take advantage of this.

As for comics for adults: simply look for what you would look for in any good fiction: good writing and good storytelling. Don't be afraid of it because it's a comic book. Sell it like you would any good novel that you believe in. I'm not an editor or a publisher, so if you happen to be one, this may sound naive, but it might just work.