Friday, 13 December 2013

The Artist's Voice: Rachel Dukes on Creative Credit and Exposure

There's a lot of crap that pisses art students off. We're an angsty bunch, the whole lot of us, griping about professors giving us poor critiques and wine bottles that run dry too fast (not to perpetuate stereotypes, but...) Anyway, we like to complain. Some of us would even claim that such disenfranchisement with the world at large is what drives their artistic practice, that they're pouring their soul out onto their canvas, dripping long streams of oil paint as if it were the lifeblood of society being sacrificed in Art for the good of Humanity.

Thank goodness I'm only a humble cartoonist.

One of these complaints is significantly marginalized. It lacks, by and large, a voice, though there are certainly a number of us who sit around and whine about it. It's a line we are fed on a weekly if not daily basis:

"It'll be good exposure."

...which is the world's way of saying "Look here, I need something drawn, or painted on, or otherwise creatively endowed, and all I can do is stick figures. So, if you wouldn't mind pouring your heart and soul into this until it's up to my standards, I won't pay you per se, but I'm sure somebody will see it eventually and wonder who made that." Oh, thank you. Then I'll get another person asking me for free art. Wonderful.



It's not an uncommon problem. There's definitely a part of me that wishes society would develop an Italian Renaissance mentality toward artists and just view us as one more craftsman to be hired. Instead we get funny looks when we tell people we're artists, and lines like, "Yeah, I used to draw a lot in high school." There's this overwhelming assumption that what we do isn't actually work. We must love every second, and it must comes as naturally and easily to us as breathing, and therefore it's not worth paying for. So when Tom Spurgeon posted this earlier this month, it kinda clicked.

The article that Rachel Dukes (Mixtape Comics) wrote about uncredited work making its way across the vast reaches of the internet is pure gold. It picks out all the key points in detail, nails down exactly why artists are getting screwed online. You see, it's a little tricky to get "good exposure" if nobody knows who made the thing they're looking at. Just doesn't work.

Dukes' article is a little stats-heavy, but so very much worth reading. The numbers are the real one-two punch, an overwhelming bit of insight on just how much we don't care about stealing other folks' creative work. On the one hand, I can't even count the number of images I have saved on my computer that have no credit attached to them, and on the other, I'm paranoid about my own portfolio and whether or not you can copy/save my images from it. And I have to wonder, am I going about this all wrong? Art school does some strange things to you. It tells you that you have to sell your work if you're going to get out there, build a successful practice for yourself after graduation...and it tells you that work made in class that is commercially viable is a sell-out, not worth academic consideration, not worth making. It tells us that we should make money and protect our image rights, while offering us opportunities to donate work and volunteer our skills for exposure. We have the unique opportunity to get our education in a burbling melting-pot of mixed messages. Ain't we lucky?

So, I won't pretend to have the answers. This is more of a critique, which is to say I'm taking an issue and bitching about it, this is good, this is bad, this could use improvement, and I love what you did with the green in that corner, it adds a sense of life...yeah, don't mind me, just putting my degree to good use. But give it some thought. Think about what you can do in your online life to give true exposure to the multitude of artists and graphics people whose work we enjoy every day. If it means doing a little searching to figure where a cartoon originated, it's worth the time. For Art, yeah?
The money isn't’t the point. But this is a thing that’s happening. This isn't’t just happening to me. It’s actively happening to the greater art community as a whole. (Especially the comics community. Recent artists effected by altered artwork/theft off the top of my head: Liz PrinceLuke HealyNation of AmandaMelanie Gillman, etc.) Our work is being stolen and profited off of. Right this second.
I do my best to see the positive in these events but the very least I can do as a creator is stand up in this small moment and say “This is mine. I made this.”- Rachel Dukes
The Articlehttp://mixtapecomics.tumblr.com/post/68277854434/after-a-discussion-last-week-with-several-of-my

Cheers!
Asher

pretentious Art School nugget

Saturday, 23 November 2013

How I was inspired by Art - A Story

The way I see it, there are a lot of different ways to tell a story. But that's old news.



This goes beyond the statement, "There are a lot of stories to be told", which is equally true and an entirely different conundrum for the narrative artist, be they writer, sculptor, painter, or cartoonist. Picking which story to tell isn't even half the battle. It might be a third of the battle, potentially a quarter. The thing is, after you have your story chosen you have to decide how you're going to tell that story. This stage is half the battle, you know, give or take. For me, this half of the battle has been the focus of the past three months. I blame Art Spiegelman.

Seeing Spiegelman's retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery this past summer changed something in the way I think about the comics production process. His work filled an entire floor of the gallery gallery building with cut-and-pasted montages of wackily painted caricatures from his RAW days, sobering inked pages from Maus, and a few gorgeously composed pages that were more than a series of panels, they were a single, cohesive masterwork appearing as a sequence of images bleeding into, through, and over each other in flawless harmony. I wish I could remember where those were from.



It sparked a paradigm shift. Drawing has ceased to be the sole method; ink has ceased to be the sole medium. My brain has started to roam around an open realm of ideas and media searching for alternate ways to make a comic, picking through piles of previously discarded materials until finds something usable and then dropping it back into my consciousness, spawning spontaneous and unexpected project ideas. for example, waking up one morning to a thought: "I should make a comic set entirely on sofas.", accompanied by a fully formed plan of a photo collage process with figures drawn into the black & white photo settings with conte crayon and brush pens. Granted, these ideas are still taking baby steps. They may be innovative to me, but they are a far cry from being drastic leaps in progress for the medium. I'm not not pushing any boundaries when I write my text on card-stock and glue in over a drawing instead of drawing a speech bubble into the panel. All I'm doing is pushing myself a little further out of my box of naivety, and that's bloody good enough for me.




Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Review: Velvet #1 - Girl Friday, and a Breath of Fresh Air

The last week has been pretty great. Just, you know, in general. But especially for comics. I picked up some real gems at the shop on Friday, both of which are worth writing about. Here's the first:

Velvet #1

I feel like saying "this has been a long time coming" is a little bit cliche. Or even a lot cliche. But I have been waiting for this issue to be released for a number of months now, and I was more than a tad excited when I walked home holding it for real. A little bit of background. This is a spy comic that was announced back in July of this year, to be produced by the fabled creative team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting. I met Brubaker once, briefly. Our 30-second conversation outside his and Greg Rucka's ECCC panel on crime comics consisted of a handshake and determining that he didn't have time to sign my Death of Captain America collection because he was late for lunch. With someone definitively cooler than my 19-year old fanboy self. Honestly I don't blame him, and that never should have come up in this blog post. Anyhow...the man is a legend. His run with Epting on Captain America post-Civil War was a thing of beauty. So when it was announced that the same team was taking on a creator-owned spy fiction project, I may have gotten a little excited.



Hype is a strange thing, usually best avoided. It twists our perception of creative works before they are actualized, and alter our experience of the work when we encounter it, often for the worse. Despite the hype I had built around this comic for myself, Velvet #1 did not disappoint. I suppose that's the thing about dealing with as skilled a writer as Brubaker. I had seen a short preview of some Velvet pages, and it looked great. I assumed I was seeing the opening scenes of this story, and therefore drew conclusions about what I was going to be reading. None of those pages appeared in Velvet #1. The story took a very different road than I'd expected, building slowly, introducing the Cold War setting from various angles and setting up character roles in a skilfully subtle manner. It was fun to read, in part because I know Brubaker's just playing. The espionage flavour was something he had introduced in small doses to the pages of Captain America, but he could only take the action-oriented superhero genre so far down that road. He jumped back past the Cold War to Noir and the 30s and indulged his love of crime fiction and Lovecraftian horror, and we've been able to revel in the glory of Fatale as a result. In this, we finally get to see him let loose all his pent-up espionage ideas, and I'm loving it. The characters are everything you want and never quite what you expect. More than that, they're real and believable people...a damn rare quality in comics which I've probably ranted about at length before. Brubaker makes us believe his world, which is easy, because it's our world. I guess it's something we'll have to get used to, seeing this guy write about the world without monsters and capes. It's the 1960s, when people were still allowed to have names that were names. Velvet Templeton and Jefferson Keller meet at a rooftop party in New York. They talk about wine, before getting into a muscle car where they light up a joint as they take off into city traffic. They end up in a casual relationship, he the secret agent, her the boss's secratary, before he gets bushwacked with a shotgun in Paris. It's clean, beautiful, believable. It feels vintage, in a way best associated with old wines and finely-tuned cars.

Ed Brubaker is half of what makes this issue a pleasure to read. Steve Epting and his art is the other half. Nowhere have I seen an artist capture The City this way in a comic before (Darick Robertson's art on Transmetropolitan is genius, but that City is a little different...). I had art history class this morning, looking at turn-of-the-century representations of New York and views of modernist painters dealing with new urban landscapes. Three key features are suggested for the painting of the modern city: light, angularity, and focal point. Epting embodies that, especially the first. I miss New York. It happens to me about twice a year, that I hit a couple of weeks or months where I pine for that city and find myself folding my pizza slices and listening to Billy Joel on repeat. Part of what I miss is the lights, a landscape of brilliance that makes you understand the phrase "city that never sleeps". Steve Epting gets that. He puts you in a tailored dinner jacket and leather shoes looking out over the golden glow of a city that is as alive at midnight as it's ever been at noon. You're looking through electric towers at a slate-grey sky, and then you're flying over pavement of that same colour, under the glow and past the embers of glaring traffic lights glaring, driving at a terminal velocity that makes all the marquee lights blur together and snatches of lettering jump out of the world outside your smokey windows..."CHERRY BABY". Epting puts you in the city unlike any artist I've had the pleasure of reading. It's a beautiful thing.

There is a cold side to Epting's city as well. It exists in the underground marble-tiled halls of agencies we don't know the names of...but all that is best left for you to discover yourself. We the readers have been granted privileged access to this world of intrigue, by a man I readily consider one of Comics' most gifted storytellers and one of his greatest collaborators. They have chosen to operate outside the guidelines of their chosen genre to give us a story we simply won't see coming. Spy aficionados will love the wild ride where nothing is what it seems. Feminist readers will appreciate the overturned gender roles. Artists like myself will look at and breathe a sigh of, "ooh...pretty". I won't say that it's the perfect comic, because that's ridiculous. I will say it's really damn good. In the words of agent Jefferson Keller, "Press that button that looks like the lighter...

...and hold on."

Friday, 25 October 2013

Taking on Scott McCloud's 24-Hour Comic challenge: By the Numbers

24 Hours.
3 XL Tim Horton's coffees, black
3 pens killed in action
5 PB & J sandwiches
2 bottles of water
1 weird little vial of ginseng extract
1 severely cramped hand
1 couch that is too short to properly sleep on
Innumerable instances of asking Why the hell am I doing this...?

5 PAGES

Yup. That's it. I only produced five pages of work in a challenge to draw a twenty-four page book. Defeat? Perhaps. A learning process? Undoubtedly.

I don't think I ever actually thought I was capable of the 24-page goal. I have a pretty solid grasp of just how slow I work and just how motivated I am, generally speaking, at 4 o'cock in the morning. So I figured I might make it to fifteen pages, twenty if I was lucky, the full twenty-four if I drew like a god among cartoonists. I was so pumped to start this thing that I could barely sit still through Art History class on Tuesday. I bolted back to the studio, pulled out all my pens, got my music going, and by 1 PM I was going at it.

I burned out two pens on the first page.

Which, really, I should have taken as a hint that maybe I was using too much ink. A ludicrous amount of ink, even. But I didn't. Instead, I went SHIT I NEED MORE PENS, and promptly hopped a bus downtown to buy more pens than I actually knew what to do with. Back in my studio, having blown a solid hour and a half on my pen run, I put my nose back to the proverbial grindstone and started drawing once more.

And drawing.

And drawing.

Two-thirty AM rolled around. My hand was a cramping mess, vocally arguing with me that no, it didn't want to hold the pen, #*@$ you. My contacts had dried out and my vision was a blurred mess. I had three and a half pages done, and I was too tired to process what had gone wrong. I pulled the offending lenses out of my eyes, collapsed onto the old-as-the-hills studio couch, and fell asleep.

I woke up at five-thirty...and then I woke up at six-thirty. At seven-thirty I grabbed myself by the throat and dragged myself to the washroom, where I forced my contacts back into my eyes at gunpoint and staggered down to Tim's for another cup of black liquid life. And then I drew some more.

And that, really, is the whole story. I wrapped up page five a little early with a massively obese eldritch assassin in a bar, radiating Kirby Krackle from his cellulite-laden arms, and called it finished. I sat back at that point, looked at the pile of paper that I had intended to consume that night, and asked myself for the first time just where I had gone wrong. Well for starters, nobody (I specialize in sweeping and unfounded statements when I'm writing outside my academic practice) can fill twenty-four sheets of 11x14" paper with ink in a 24-hour cycle. First mistake: scale. Secondly, I should never have employed multiple shades of gray (distinctly fewer than fifty, for those who were about to ask) and a couple different greens in this project; black is, really, all you need for something of this nature. Second mistake: shading/colour. And lastly, I'm just too friggin meticulous. My profs have been on my case for years, and now dear Mr. McCloud's challenge has driven the point home. Final mistake: detail.

All told, this endeavour appeared at first to be a failure, but I am way too happy with what I produced to just write it off as such. I was pushed to redraw many times a character that I had only just created, something I don't do nearly often enough. I had to come up with page composition on the fly, and panel composition, and dialogue...and when I work fast and rough like that my language filter shuts down and I end up scrawling obscenity and violence onto the page out of instinct, which is rather a lot of fun. I learned a lot about my working process and my physical limits. I learned that having company in the studio while you work is a beautiful thing. I've been listening to a lot of radio interviews the last couple weeks on the CITR 101.9 station out of UBC Vancouver. Robin McConnell's show Inkstuds, where he interviews a new comics creator every week, is an excellent way to occupy the ears while drawing. What I hear a vast majority of these people say is that being a cartoonist is a lonely career. You work long hours, late at night, by yourself in the studio. I saw a lot of truth in that this week. I found myself questioning whether such a job is my cup of tea. I'd also read some blogs by people who have done the challenge, and found people calling it a rite of passage as a comics creator. Looking back, I suppose I would agree with that. It was a long, lonely night, but I came through the other side of the thing feeling like I could call myself a cartoonist in earnest, like I had just attempted the Mt. Everest of comic projects and, even though I didn't summit, I still climbed the damn thing. And frankly, I'm really stoked to do it again!! 

I will be kicking off next semester in the new year by tackling the challenge a second time, armed with nothing but a black brush pen and a simplistic drawing style. I'm debating working on my "comic scroll", and attempting twenty-four linear yards of narrative drawing instead of pages. We'll see. At any rate, the five pages I did are waiting to be scanned and in late November will be included in a short anthology of my comics work from this semester. Drop me a line if you're interested in buying a copy; prices at this point are negotiable, I think I'd ask for somewhere around $5-10. Anywho, cheers! I'm off to the books and the small mountain of research I have to do. Check out my Twitter feed @Vitaeleous for some snapshots of the comic to keep you entertained...until next time.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Life is like an Inkwell: messy, and full of pens

Oi. It's early, I'm tired, and I should be reading Kandinsky for my art history class but I'd rather sit here and drink coffee and screendump at you.

Figured I'd write out a bunch of the stuff that's going on in my life as an art student right now, partly to inform you and mostly as an entirely self-serving way to organize my thoughts on everything I have to get done in the next couple weeks. I have my first Fourth-year midterm critique coming up a week from tomorrow, which is a tad intimidating. I get to sit down with the two profs coordinating the Fourth-year class and my personal advisor, the ever so lovely and intensely critical Dr. Jodey Castricano, and show them what I've produced this year thus far. Therein lies the rub: I don't think I've turned out nearly enough work to warrant, or at least support, a solid critique. So I'm cranking the throttle on production this week. I'm going to scribble like mad for a couple days, and then put down my pens and venture boldly into the metal shop where I shall make like a blacksmith and get dirty. I have significant amounts of welding to finish before Wednesday. Likely I'll work through the weekend, seeing as I've been put on political cartoon duty at the newspaper and assigned the task of doing next issue's cover (going to print on Sunday, so, there goes my weekend). Monday I must make a serious attempt to get some sleep, because Tuesday I will be...

...taking on Scott McCloud's 24 hour comic book challenge.

I'll be starting at 1 PM on Tuesday and finishing at 1 PM on Wednesday. Which is when my midterm critique starts. Because you know going full-throttle at the drawing table with no sleep for 24 consecutive hours and ending with your first big critique of the year is going to result in some interesting feedback. I intend to have a book for them to read when they arrive for the critique. There's also a chance that I'll be a cantankerous shmo.

So, what're we at: 24-hour challenge, metal shop, newspaper cartoons, midterm critique...ah, term papers. Here. This is the library that is my studio right now:

Yeah. I'm turning this block of cellulose knowledge into two term papers. One will be looking at Jewish culture in America in the early years of the 20th century and trying to understand why the rapidly urbanizing world in that particular place at that particular time with those particular people was the perfect storm that created the Superhero. Why not Paris? Why not Russia? And by the end of the month I have to have an abstract written up so I can submit a proposal for that paper to the PCA. Keeping my digits crossed on that one. The other term paper is taking the form of a comic, because I've been lucky enough to work with academics who are open to me taking that road. I'll be tackling issues of gender and violence and the gaze in Islamic culture, which frankly unnerves me. It's not content that I'm comfortable with, and it's nothing I've ever approached in my art practice before now. But I'm here in this program to get myself out of my comfort zone, so ONWARD!! Into an ink spattered and sleepless unknown where stories crawl out of the realm of informed imagination and make their home in a sketchbook wilderness ruled by a woodland king named Coffee. 

My life is awesome.

Monday, 30 September 2013

What Went Wrong?: A Woeful Wonder Woman Washout

Start this critique off by watching this little gem: 
This is another one of those things that I've been following obsessively for a few months now. I have Nathan Fillion to thank for that, after he tweeted the first promo image of cosplayer Rileah's costume for this project. I was pumped. Being something of a medieval history buff, especially in the area of arms and armour, I was excited to see some thought being put into interpreting Wonder Woman's garb via her Greek mythical background. The costume looked practical for once, something that could actually serve a hero in battle instead of something that she might be caught in walking sidewalks at midnight on East Hastings. I checked out the studio that was making this happen, Rainfall TV, and was suitably impressed. I decided to keep an eye on this endeavour, and two as often as I could spare them.
Rainfall's promotional images

Rainfall released the video this morning, and I'm still crying a little inside. 
Here's my rant constructive criticism on Comic Vine
It looks like we're all agreed (mostly, at least) that they did a solid job with the costume design. We finally get to see a practical Wonder Woman outfit that still holds true to the original aesthetics. I think that's really cool. But let's not kid ourselves about this being some off-the-cuff fan-made video. No, it's not a licensed DC product (you can tell, because it hasn't caused open war on the internet yet). But the production studio, Rainfall TV out of Los Angeles, can do better than this. They have done better. This project's been hyped on Twitter and their site for months at this point and the promo shots they release were superb. But in the end they churned out a poorly rendered FX demo reel with no story. It's a bit of a letdown. Nah...it's a massive letdown. I thought we had something here.
On the upside, we now know it can be done: it's possible to put Wonder Woman on the screen without her looking like a hooker. There's just enough Greek armour in that costume and enough badass in those Amazons to make Themyscira believable. All that's lacking is writing...so for those of you who haven't already, check out Scott Lynch's proposed shot-breakdown for the opening scene of a Wonder Woman film (http://scottlynch.us/blog/2013/06/26/in-the-wake-of-man-of-steel-a-timely-proposal/). Read it, and visualize Rainfall's aesthetic (minus that godawful flight scene...), and then join us in kicking DC's tires until they wake up and realize that this is something that's both doable and desired by superhero enthusiasts at large.
Scott Lynch, my disappointment is on your shoulders. If your written vision for a Wonder Woman film wasn't so mind-blowingly beautiful, I might have been perfectly happy with the computer generated plot-less schlock I sat down to this morning. Alas, you set the bar too high. All that remains is for us perform whatever superstitious ritual involving lumber or intertwined digits you choose to put stock in and wait until such time as Grant Morrison releases his graphic novel. With luck we can sit down with a soothing beverage and immerse ourselves in the master's work, eventually emerging content in the knowledge that someone still gets this character. I won't pretend that I understand Wonder Woman, but I like to think I can tell when such an iconic female hero is being done justice (pardon the pun, if you can), and this recent video isn't it.

It's likely Morrison will publish another socially-conscious masterpiece, as is his wont. He will raise the bar yet again, and DC will cower a little lower at the prospect of having to portray a woman with any sort of substance on the screen. Voices will be raised in a cry to have Joss Whedon write the movie, not understanding that he is contracted to Marvel until 2015 and will likely never work for DC. The cycle will go on, and I'll find myself blogging sorrowfully about this every eight months or so.

I apologize in advance.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - "We're not exactly a team..."

Joss Whedon just handed us some of the best (geeky) television you're likely to find...again.


I was going to start this post with "Marvel just handed you...", and then realized that Marvel actually has very little to do with this show. I'm reasonably sure you all now now what I'm talking about here, since a significantly large chunk of the world just finished watching the pilot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. And yeah, it was frakking great. But yes, back to Marvel, and how little we can blame them for the sheer level of awesome on the screen. As we all know, everything Joss touches turns to gold: vampire slayers, Shakespeare, talking toys, you name it. This time, it isn't even just him. This show's credits include Jed Whedon, Jeph Loeb, Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch...big guns in the comics industry and brilliant creators every one. This show is going to survive because of the sheer creative force it has behind it. And because it's not DC...

I went there. I have innumerable issues with the way DC Comics is running things these days, and you can read my griping in previous posts. Not all their content is terrible; Jeff Lemire is writing a pretty damn solid Green Arrow storyline right now and giving that title the creative stability it was pining for ever since the reboot, and hell if I don't find myself loving Arrow in all it's artifical CW-ness. I'm a sucker for a Mike Grell homage. But DC has none of the brilliant consistency that Marvel has managed to weave through its properties, and the damage is ever so painfully visible. Marvel is seeing none of the massive conflict erupting over the canonical validity of Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy, which has nothing to do with DC's monthly titles except having influenced a "new" (2008) way of drawing the Joker, and the more recent post-New 52 Man of Steel, making yet more costume changes to Big Blue. Kudos to Jeff Lemire for gradually bringing the Emerald Archer abstractly in line with Arrow, since that's pretty much the extent of DC's storytelling cohesion. If they were on top of their game to the same extent as Marvel, there would be a Wonder Woman movie in the works to complement Grant Morrison's upcoming graphic novel. We'll just keep dreaming...

With the immense success of The Avengers on the silver screen came the launch of the Marvel NOW! event, a regrouping of Marvel's properties into what Skye would call the "brave new world". In a genius move they canonized the events of that most recent blockbuster, moving fan-favourite Agent Phil Coulson off the screen and into the comics. He features in the Secret Avengers title, a good read, if you get the chance, with more than a passing resemblance to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. There are obvious differences, of course. The "brave new world" of Agents is new to the idea of superheroes, while the universe in the comics is anything but. I think I understand why this is so effective: Marvel is solving the long-standing issue of new readers in a way DC never considered. New readers approaching superhero comics have long faced a dilemma; with decades of back-issues piling up, where's a gal or a guy to start reading if he wants to get a handle on a character's backstory? Instead of taking their comics titles back to origin and retconning 70-odd years of story coughnewfiftytwocough, Marvel decided to tell their heroes' stories from the beginning on the silver screen and bring their comics to bear on a similar course. It's an elegant solution. In the words of Mike Peterson, it's no longer a disaster, "it's an origin story."

So, yeah. Coulson's back in action, there's a serious Iron Man 3 connection in play, and between the flying cars and witty banter this new show has enough Whedon-level awesome to keep me watching for...well, forever, really. It will be great fun to see how the show leads into the upcoming Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron feature films. As for comics, the show offers a great new jumping in point for those intrigued by the world of superheroes. So with beer in hand I applaud you, Joss Whedon. You've done it again.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Polyphemus' Gaze - Burqas, Superheroes, and the Postmodern Identity

Burqas.

Not my usual choice of topic, but I just walked out of a fourth-year Art History dealing with gender roles and representation in the Islamic world, and I'm a little fired up. Not in a controversial, I'm-gonna-make-a-big-deal-out-of-this sort of way. Don't worry. I just made a superhero-greek-mythology-CBC-radio-burqa connection, and I am going to share it with you. This post has been in the works in my head for a month or two, and it all clicked today. Bear with me.

Niqab
So, the burqa. And the hijab, niqab, and various other forms of traditional Islamic head covering. The wearing of these items in public has been a hot topic in European and North American countries for years. The governments of France, Belgium, Quebec, and other regions have been in talks over the last decade discussing the legal banning of head coverings. Some say they are a symbol of oppression, and that it is the country's duty to liberate these women. Other parties claim they are a security risk, and that no individual should be able to look at someone without the other being able to see them. No matter whose platform you're looking at, the issue is a matter of gaze. It's a matter of the power afforded to people both when they look at someone and when they are looked at. The Western world, we in Canada and the States and our close cultural counterparts in Europe, has a balance. We have an established visual culture, and our status quo is upset by the relatively new integration of Eastern modes of dress into that culture. I read the intro to Katherine Bullock's book Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil in which she asserts that, far from being a tool of oppression, the burqa can be liberating. It shields the wearer from the gaze of those around her, and in Western culture that affords a woman a measure of protection from the societal pressure on self-image and vanity. It is, Bullock assures the reader, a welcome relief. That in itself upsets the North American balance. A woman is no longer available to be gazed upon, but can gaze at you. The status is no longer quo.

Allow me to jump backwards a couple of months. I was working for the summer mowing lawns and pulling weeds, and my best friend through long, hot work days was an iPod loaded with CBC radio podcasts. I was listening to a past episode of Writers and Company from Sunday, May 5th of this year. The featured writer was Gazmend Kapllani, an Albanian-Greek immigrant who was talking about how growing up under a totalitarian regime affected his worldview and his career as a writer. He speaks at length about the importance of media, television and radio shows that could be pulled from the airwaves with hidden aerials. There was always a double aerial system; there was the antenna on the roof that the authorities could see and restrict, and then there was the hidden aerial, channeling truth in from the outside world. The gaze of the regime promoted the development of such duality, even in one's own identity. There was a face that you showed in the public spaces, your face for the regime to know and accept you by, and another self that challenged the regime in private, struggling to escape "the lie of the regime, which sometimes looks very much like the eye of the cyclops Polyphemus." (found at 23 min 5 sec in the cited interview) 

That reference struck me. I had listened to Homer's The Odyssey just the past semester as an audiobook read by Sir Ian McKellen, so I was more familiar with Polyphemus than I might have been otherwise. This is the gist of the story, for those of you unfamiliar with it:

Polyphemus is a cyclops who traps Odysseus and his men inside an island cave with a herd of sheep and proceeds to eat them two at a time. Odysseus tricks the monster into drinking wine later that evening, and when prompted to give his name he tells the cyclops that his name is "Nobody", thus creating for himself a dual identity. Tired and drunk, Polyphemus falls asleep. Odysseus is ready with a fire-hardened wooden spear that he spent the day preparing, and he leaps upon the sleeping giant and plunges the spear into its single eye. Polyphemus cries out for help, drawing his kinsmen to the scene and trying to persuade them that "Nobody" has grievously harmed him. They take this for a joke, and leave. In the morning, the blind cyclops opens the cave to let his herd out to graze, feeling the hide of each animal that passes to ensure that his prisoners are not escaping. Odysseus and his remaining men, however, have tied themselves to the undersides of the sheep and thus escape unnoticed...until Odysseus calls out from their departing boat to taunt the giant and reveal his true name.
As I listened to Gazmend Kapllani talk about oppressive regimes in terms of the Polyphemus, everything seemed to fall into place. I began to think of superheroes in terms of Odysseus. Take Batman as an example. When he first appeared around Gotham City, people scoffed at the description of "a guy dressed like a bat" or "dressed like Dracula", an incredulity shared by the other cyclops listening to Polyphemus' claims that "Nobody did this to me." A second identity was created to guard against the gaze of the authority, and then a physical disguise. Odysseus hides under a sheep the way Bruce Wayne dons the cowl. In that guise, the oppressed can pass under the probing inspection of the regime. The individual has split; a duality has been born while a perceived singularity is maintained, and thus the authority's balance is disrupted. The status is no longer quo.

Duality of identity is generally identified as a symptom of Postmodernism. Ask a student of critical studies to identify whether or not a given text is postmodern, and dual identity is one of the first identifiers they will look for. It is a theme that serves as the very foundation of the superhero genre, and has for some 75 years since the creation of Superman and his alter-ego, Clark Kent, in 1938. Always (with a few exceptions) the hero wears a mask and a suit that conceal and change their outward appearance. Sometimes the concealment is so great that another person altogether can use the disguise and pass as the hero (example: Tony Stark is Iron Man; but his friend Jim Rhodes wearing the Iron Man armour is still Iron Man to those who encounter him without the knowledge that it isn't Tony in the suit). Another common theme is the idea that this public heroic identity is a shield. If an enemy were to learn that Spider-man was actually Peter Parker, then Peter's personal life would become exposed to that villain. That personal life is every hero's weak point; destroy his family, his loved ones, his homes, and you effectively kill the hero from the inside. The mask is all that stands between the destructive powers of the outside world and the delicate internals of the individual's life. 

Oppression...or Liberation?


Let's return to Katherine Bullock. She writes in her book that she finds covering, even in a lesser degree like the hijab (headscarf), liberating. Digging into some of the history of veiling and the East-West clash over the matter, she writes this:

"Colonialists, missionaries, Orientalists and secular feminists attacked veiling as a backward tradition, but it is now known that veiling became more widespread in the Middle East after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, and increased during European occupation of the Middle East (1830–1956). Cole writes:
In an Orientalist corollary to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the intrusive presence of Westerners appears to have helped produce the phenomenon [widespread veiling] that they observed. In short, thenotion of tradition as a stable foil for the dynamism of modernity has been demolished, as the diversity and volatility of premodern extra-European societies has come to be better appreciated." (pg. XXI)
I find this fascinating. Every time the Western imposes itself as an authority figure over the Middle-East, people start covering their faces. They start putting up shields between their true lives and the regime. They suit up, and create alter-egos. And this, perhaps, is why we are so inherently nervous when we see Islamic people walking about in what we have decided are our countries with their faces obscured. We understand what it means to put on the mask, because we understand superheroes (perhaps now more than ever, thanks to Hollywood's activity in the last decade). This idea exists in our popular culture, and it has been there since the battle of Troy, so at some primal level we think we know why these people want to be veiled. It disturbs us, then (and I'll not pretend to be making absolute statements here, this is all sweeping hypothesis), because we know a) what masked people who move under the radar can do within a society, and b) because it means we are the regime.

I think that terrifies us a little, and maybe it makes us hate ourselves for what our culture at large has been responsible for through history. Either way, it remains something we must come to terms with. Either we let Islamic people among us wear their veils until they decide, on their own terms, that the coverings are no longer necessary, or we forcibly strip them of their cultural armour and force them out into the open, exposing them to all the inherent oppression of the Western world. At that point, we will know for certain what role we play.

We will have become Polyphemus.



Monday, 9 September 2013

We Got So Angry We Missed the Point - Harley Quinn's Nude Suicide via The Fourth Wall

DC comics blew it this month, and let's be clear: I am far from the only person writing about this.

It started when an editorial team walked off the job. J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman announced last week that they are leaving the staff of DC's Batwoman title, citing editorial interference from their higher-ups when it came to the marriage of Kate Kane (Batwoman) to her lesbian fiancee, police officer Maggie Sawyer. Williams' Twitter feedback on the issue was heartbreaking. "We fought to get them engaged," he wrote, "but were told emphatically no marriage can result." DC rep Dan Didio has made it abundantly clear in the past days that DC is steadfastly opposed to their heroes having anything approaching a normal personal life.

“They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests. That’s very important and something we reinforced. People in the Bat family their personal lives basically suck….Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon and Kathy Kane. It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand.” (Dan Didio, Baltimore Comicon 2013)
I have a lot of feelings about that edict, and you can read about them in terms a different incident here. There's a ton of baggage that comes with the news that DC vetoed this marriage, including their over-the-top publicity when Green Lantern Alan Scott came out as gay last year and the impending writing run of notorious homophobe Orson Scott Card on the Adventures of Superman title. DC has played with cat-and-mouse with homosexuality in the New 52, and all of it has been blatantly non-committal. This last move crossed the line for a lot of readers, regardless of Mr. Didio's assertions that it is in no way related to the characters' sexual orientation. I, and my fellow perturbed readership, refuse to believe that DC is so wholly ignorant of the social climate into which they are dumping comics. And if they are...well how the hell did that happen??

On the heels of that faux-pas came the announcement of a contest. As a young, aspiring comics illustrator I used to dream of opportunities like this: DC holding open tryouts to have your work published in an upcoming issue. And now it's happened, and the comics community at large is somewhat aghast, while the feminist community is downright outraged. I can't really blame them, at all. The scenario is this: DC set out criteria for four comics panels to be drawn and submitted by participants. They depict the mentally unstable character Harley Quinn repeatedly attempting to kill herself using outrageously creative methods. It is the fourth of these panels that has garnered the bulk of public backlash:
PANEL 4Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all. We are watching the moment before the inevitable death. Her expression is one of “oh well, guess that’s it for me” and she has resigned herself to the moment that is going to happen. (http://www.dccomics.com/node/305151)


It blew up in DC's face right off the bat. Talk about the depiction of women in comics is hardly new fodder for the online debate machine, and all the old axes were pulled out of the shed, ready to grind. Jezebel.com got their hate on. Twitter exploded with accusations of misogyny and the sexualization of suicide, and Jim Lee (bless his heart) stood forth in a "Twitter Essay" to defend DC and their rationale for the contest. To be fair, he made some good points. There is a lot of wiggle-room in the area of creative interpretation to take those guideline and produce something, if not "wholesome", at least comical. Writer and inker Jimmy Palmiotti thinks so, at least. He allegedly claims that the whole contest was meant to have slapstick, Looney-Toons-esque flavour to it. Whoever wrote the contest guidelines forgot to mention that bit of information. And since Harley has been portrayed in her recent comics as increasingly disturbed and hyper-sexual, it is not unreasonable to assume that DC is looking for submissions with a dark, deranged flavour to them. We are talking about the infallibly devoted lover of a man who recently skinned off his own face and left it spiked to the wall of an asylum for the criminally insane. Kiddy-style Saturday morning cartoons aren't exactly the same realm of entertainment. Now, the kicker...

September is Suicide Prevention Month.

Let that sink in, and know that you are wondering the same thing as everyone else: What the f*** were they thinking?

It is one thing to refuse marriage rights to LGBTQ characters that are, yes, your creative property, and then argue that the decision is in no way connected to their sexual orientation and feign ignorance at the concern of your readership. It is quite another to be so utterly oblivious to real-world issues that you ask the public to participate in a celebration of violence with the tagline "Breaking into comics was never this fun. ;)", and unleash it on the world during a month when real people are struggling with and coming to terms with these issues. This goes beyond mere ignorance, outside the realm of honest-mistake-driven insensitivity. It's at a point where we, the many critical readers of comic books, are starting to wonder if DC is on a campaign of "deliberate self-sabotage."

It should be pretty clear at this point why people from various public camps are miffed at DC right now. Angry. Furious, even. I myself would describe my response as being twofold.

Baffled and disappointed.

Because I don't understand how a massive corporation driven by the consumption of creative product, which must be running research programs to figure out what will go over well with the fans, could possibly blow it on this scale. I mean, isn't that exactly the reason we haven't seen a Wonder Woman feature film yet? At least that's the online speculation: DC doesn't know how to do a film with a complex female lead without pissing people off, and so...they haven't. But let's go ahead and tell people it's going to be fun to draw an emotionally troubled character killing herself during Suicide Prevention Month. This distresses me because I have for several years now been working on a thesis concerning the social relevance of comics. The medium has a history of tackling socially relevant issues head-on, such as drug abuse in the 70s and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. So I'm pretty confused. Has comics completely lost touch? Or is this an ass-backwards attempt by DC to touch on Suicide awareness in their own (funny?) way?

Now, something escaping a lot of the critique is the fact that there is a very specific purpose for this contest. The work chosen from the contest submission will be included as a page in an "audition issue", Harley Quinn #0. The character is getting her own title, and the creators have decided to audition a number of artists by having them draw segments of the story and then breaking the Fourth Wall. Harley Quinn herself will be walking through the issue and critiquing each artist's representation of her (in a very Deadpool-like manner, for those of you familiar with Marvel's nefarious character). Jim Lee has weighed in on the intended nature of this exercise, as has Jimmy Palmiotti. If all were to go according to plan, they'd end up with something very similar to the 1953 Looney Toons episode "Duck Amuck". It might, in fact, be a perfect example of what they're looking for. And you know what, good on them. They're thinking outside the box, asking new artists to insert themselves into an artistic tradition in comics that includes Grant Morrison's groundbreaking Animal Man run. It's good to note in all this discussion that Morrison's character Crafty was a "thinly-disguised Wile E. Coyote; even a proponent of comics as influential as Morrison could be seen drawing from Looney Toons as he manipulated fourth-wall precepts. DC clearly had nothing but good intentions, and nobody out there needs any more reminding about the construction work that gets done with good intentions. The wording in the contest guidelines suggests that Harley is conscious but not in control of her actions within this comic (ie "She is looking at us like she cannot believe what she is doing. Beside herself. Not happy.", "...she cannot believe where she has found herself.") With that in mind, I want to re-analyse the request that DC is making of the artists.

The artists are being asked to put a character in self-induced, life-threatening situations, while assuming that said character is unwilling, distressed by these situations, and conscious of what is happening. DC has asked artists to force Harley Quinn into attempted suicide against her will.

Or so it appears on the surface.

Now, I'm a Fine Arts major. There's a lot of philosophy that comes into play at this point regarding Death of the Author, creative intention, and so on. We've pretty much established that DC's intention were pure, albeit grotesquely naive. What is left is fairly simple: what will  be submitted. There are a number of campaigns out there right now to flood the submissions inbox with either inane shit or blatant social commentary, and at the end of all this Jimmy Palmiotti will choose a piece, and some young artist will get a huge break in the world of superhero comics. That choice will say a lot about the effect all this controversy has had on DC's editors and on the artists who chose to still take the contest seriously and put their best foot forward. I myself will walk to my local shop which I love so dearly and buy a copy of Harley Quinn #0, and I'll probably read it with a mug of coffee on a Saturday morning, as is my wont. I want to know exactly who succeeded in breaking down that fourth-wall, because they had some serious nerve.

Cheers,
Asher

Friday, 30 August 2013

Review: Chin Music #1 & 2 - Monsters, Mobsters, and Mystics

I have been following Tony Harris' Twitter feed with an incessant eagerness for weeks.

There was only one kind of post I cared about: Instagram links with the barebones Tweet "Tony Harris just posted a photo". That's it. Click the link, and voila! I'd get pages and panels and fragments of work that I didn't understand. I didn't actually know what I was looking at, I just knew that it was beautiful. And then I read something, somewhere, and it clicked. I tweeted at Harris on a hunch, "Really damn curious to know what these pages that keeps posting as he draws them. That's a comic I want to read. Chin music?". "Yes", was the response. Man of few words.

I shot an email off to the manager of my neighbourhood shop, who had the first two issues already in stock because he's amazing like that. I needed to read this comic. I'd fallen a little bit in love with Harris' pencils when I started Ex Machina, the series he did with Brian K. Vaughan. Superb work, with panel composition done through staged photographs that Harris used as reference material (as I write this blog he's posting photos of his studio, with shelves full of props and costumes...go figure). The result was an incredibly lifelike cast of characters. Chin Music (Image comics), Harris ongoing project with writer Steve Niles, is a distinctly different stylistic road.

Chin Music lies somewhere on a stretch of broken asphalt between Brubaker's Fatale and the 1987 gangster flick The Untouchables. Our protagonists are: Eliot Ness (Costner's character for those of you familiar with the aforementioned movie), a federal agent tasked with bringing down Al Capone; and Daniel Shaw, not officially introduced until most of the way through issue #2, a mystical being of sorts who first appears as anachronistic roadkill. By the end of that second issue Niles has promised us a wild ride through prohibition-era gangland fueled by a heavy dose of the occult, on the rocks, with a splash of noir, and Harris' artwork has risen to the task. It's bold and dark, sultry even. It's bizarre at times, sensually so, twisted and terrifying and fascinating. Everything pops. Figures are outlined in thick ink, silhouetted, backlit, outined twice sometimes. And compositionally...I've never seen anything like it. Every page's layout becomes part of the scene's setting. Panel borders become set pieces. We see Capone standing in the Lexington Hotel, and the Art Deco panel borders are more a part of his environment than the background furniture of Harris' illustrations. We witness a scene in the Far East framed by borders that might have been found on a tablet dug from beneath the sands of ancient Egypt. It's brilliant set dressing by Harris.

Niles has done something brilliant with this bit of crime drama. He hands us an alternate history, and then makes us wonder just how alternate it is. Which sounds confusing as hell, until you read it. Which you should do, because you'll get no spoilers from me. Suffice it to say that Niles has set up the narrative thus far in such a way as to keep me increasingly intrigued. I look forward to seeing what direction this comic takes in the coming months; dark, macabre, and sexy, without a doubt. Sounds like a good bit of reading to me. Cheers.


Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Wake Up and DRAW!! A Celebration of The King

I spent most of today in the studio inking, connected to an internet signal that forbade me access to Twitter. Which is probably for the best. Had I known earlier that it was Jack Kirby's birthday, and that there was a Twitter-wide celebration of the event happening with fan-made comic art connected to the hashtag #WakeUpandDraw, I doubt I would have got anything done today. Except drawing for The King, of course. With work done (for now) and a little window of freedom, I'm tossing this up online as my Happy Birthday to that old giant of comics, Jack Kirby. I drew this about a month back, for no other reason than the urge to discover what the face of the quintessential Storyteller might look like, the ultimate mythic bard of an age long lost. What I got was an unnerving blend of John Lennon and Gandalf, which I guess is about right. It needs a little more Jack in it, though...


Long live The King!!

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Review: Collider #1 - What Goes Up...

Oh man, you have got to read this comic!

This review has been a long time coming. A long time. I was supposed to pick this issue up weeks ago at my local shop and, well, life and stuff got in the way. So it just sat there waiting for me while I ran around doing other things. Eventually I went and paid for it, sat down this morning with a cup of fresh coffee and opened it for the first time. And it blew me away.

The first thing you see, obviously, is the cover. Nathan Fox's cover, to be precise. A punchy, tricolour image that screams "screenprint" at me every time I look at it. It has the same unnerving vibrancy as a CMYK print in it's beginning stages, when you know that something more manageable to the human eye is going to come out of this but right now all you've got to work is pure magenta and yellow bursting off the paper. It is, in other words, the perfect cover for a comic about the disintegrating fabric of the universe.

I'd read another review of this issue (and I'd link to it, but I cannot for the life of me recall where it was) that said one of the beautiful things about Fox's cover was the way it dovetailed with the style of Robbi Rodriguez's interior art. I agree. I can't even count the times I've pulled something off the shelf because it has a Alex Ross cover on it, and then discarded it disgustedly because the interior art is nowhere near as pretty. All of this book is pretty. Rodriguez sketchy, sometimes ragged ink work lends an energy to each and every panel. His characters are characters. His colourist is a genius; Rico Renzi's colour scheme is understated in all the right places, and obnoxiously neon in all the places where you need to believe the universe is tearing itself to pieces. Swirling pinks and purples, yellow lettering, a stark and stable blue sky. I can't say it enough. This is a gorgeous comic.

Now, something I've always appreciated about the stuff that Vertigo publishes: no punches are pulled. Those who know the history of the Vertigo imprint know that it was created to handle the mature content being written by the writers of the 1980s "British Invasion". They published comics where you could leave the swearing in and not flinch at a sex scene. In my experience as a reader, most of what I've encountered from Vertigo has benefited from that freedom. It's been more honest. In the case of Collider it lends a humanity to Simon Oliver's writing. It never really occurred to me as I read that these characters, the blue-collar "welders" and the socially inept academic types, the high-school principal and the truck driver stuck in rush-hour, weren't just people. They talk like people I know, dropping the occasional F-bomb and panicking when appropriate. That might be the best thing about this comic: this beautiful synthesis of Oliver's down-to-earth writing and Rodriguez's energy-filled line quality has successfully created a world full of real people.

I could write more. But I just jumped over to Facebook where it appears that Nathan Fox just won Cover of the Week on this other comics blog, and really that says the rest of what I might have to say. This comic is getting attention. It's catching eyes on the shelf, and imaginations when it gets pulled off the shelf and opened. It's like a gravitational vortex of creativity that sucks you in and makes you live in it, in a world where you can call 911 and get the response "...and the nature of your emergency...fire, ambulance, police...physics?". And was that comment on privatized fire departments a sly nod to HBO's The Newsroom? Could we actually be this lucky, and have such a smart, cynical, human comic in our hands? I sincerely hope so. So while my bank account may vehemently disagree with me, I cannot wait to pick up Collider #2 and keep living in Simon Oliver's world.


Friday, 16 August 2013

The Gamers 3:Hands of Fate - A Kickstarter to Remember

I watched an incredible new movie the other day. It made me laugh, and brought to the edge of tears. It made me grit my teeth in anger. It had me jump off the couch and cheer aloud in the middle of my empty living room, pumping my fist in the air. It had me completely enthralled. I can't really blame myself; I, and many others, have been waiting for this film for some five years. And now we have it: The Gamers 3: Hands of Fate.

I don't really know how to write this without sounding like a bit of a suck. Maybe it's not possible, since this film and those that preceded it are among some of my favourite movies of all time. See?? I already sound like a suck. They're just that good. And it's not that they're overly artsy, or filmed in a truly dynamic manner, or edited with masterful precision unseen anywhere else. That's not the draw. It's the community that pulls me to these movies. Four-thousand-three-hundred-and-eleven of us backed this movie on Kickstarter. Us. I love being able to say that, love being part of this international community that all pitched in. It's the beauty of crowd-sourcing. It's the beauty of geekdom. It's something those bums at BlizzCon will never understand, because they don't get what it means to sit around a dimly lit kitchen table with the best of your friends and game. No servers. No chat windows. Just dice, maps, pizza, and good old-fashioned fun.

On a slightly more serious note, well, this was a slightly more serious movie. The other two were funny, satirical, packed with cultural references and glib game lingo. This one is too, but it's got more. It's no longer just about the game. This time it felt like the movie was living up to its title; this one was about the gamers. It's about rivalry, romance, cheating, cancelled TV shows, story trumping rules, misogyny in gaming, insanity, respect, real life, and revenge. They have a knack for lightening up the serious stuff and making you take the silly stuff seriously. By the time you're done watching it you know that world is real because, if you're anything like me, it's part of your world too. It's recognizable, and tangible...it's like the movie understands you. Which is weird, and a glorious feeling, all at once.

There is truly nothing else I would rather have sunk my money into. I only wish I could've given more, but hey, we made it happen. More than that, they made it happen, this inspired group of writers and actors and directors and creative craftsmen and grunts. This thanks goes out to every one of them, for every ounce of hard work put in to this beautiful movie. No one else could've done it. No one else could've understood exactly what we needed to see. I'm going to throw out a special thanks to Brian Lewis, Trin Miller, and Scott C. Brown, three of the leads in this story and three of my favourite actors. Cheers to you guys, for playing characters we can all fall in love with, get annoyed with, and admire.

This is how we roll.

Watch the movie here or visit www.watchthegamers.com, where the film is streaming for FREE until the end of August.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Man of Steel was an Inherently Antisemitic Film...Yeah, You Heard Me

Have I got your attention? Excellent :)

Alright. I just finished the first chapter of Harry Brod's book Superman Is Jewish?, and it hit me like a punch. Most people who know anything about the history of comics know that the founders of superherodom, The Greats, were Jews. Lieber (Lee). Kurtzberg (Kirby). Schuster. Siegel. Liebowitz. Eisner...and the list goes on. For a long ways. These guys were geniuses of narrative, every one, and they were all pulling from the stories they'd grown up with. Brod focuses on that influence, particularly in the case of Superman (created by Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel). He wants to come to an understanding of which elements of Jewish culture made their way onto the pages of comics in the late '30s and onward.

The answer is, "Quite a lot of them".

The biggest blow in the first chapter, though, is the recognition of antisemitism in the comics industry. Let's get this straight: when I wrote "antisemitism", you thought "Nazi". Yup. The antisemitism we're addressing here is significantly milder, though no less a cultural crime. It's more akin to an iconoclasm than a holocaust. It's a whitewashing of Judaism and its influences to make this particular brand of media more palatable to North America at large, and it has changed our beloved characters over the decades to a point where are are almost unrecognizable as the heroes they once were coughnewfiftytwocough...sorry, where was I? Ah, right. I'm not complaining, I swear. I like these heroes. After all, their altered selves are the only ones I've ever known. I'm okay with the changes, but we need to recognize that those changes happened. These aren't my thoughts; I'm getting pretty much all of this from Brod, and passing it on to you, paraphrased. However, Zach Snyder hadn't just made a Superman blockbuster when Brod was writing, so...

Why was he created? Well, he was written by two slightly-built nerdy Jewish guys in New York in the 1930s. That should tell you everything right there. Two young men who are cultural outcasts by birth, who parents set out to escape persecution and find a promised land of sorts, who wound up working the runt-end of the New York publication industry. Awesome. These guys create a story about the man that every boy wishes he was: a moral straight-edge, powerful, handsome...and then they write a flipside for him. They stick themselves in there as an "alter ego", Clark Kent, the little guy. There's a lot to unpack there...but that's not what were here for.

The basics of the Superman story are this: the planet Krypton is about to be destroyed. An alien couple sends their only child off in a small vessel to save his life, and he grows up among a people not his own. He eventually becomes a champion of those people, but disguises himself as one of them so as to live in secret. That's it, in a nutshell. So...antisemitic? Yup. Let's take a quick look at the Bible, or Bibles: the Jewish and the Christian scriptures. Christian students are used to reading Bible stories about heroic figures, like David facing down Goliath, but Jewish students know better. Take the Book of Genesis, where it all starts. It's the multi-generational saga of a dysfunctional family struggling with rape, murder, incest, lies, and theft. And then there's the stuff they do to others. The Jews have no illusions about the flawed nature of their biblical forefathers. But centuries of Christian tradition have sanctified and sanitized those stories, and the characters are looked upon as saints and moral exemplars. Superman didn't start off as a goody two-shoes. He had a little bit of bad boy in him in the '30, threatening to drop people off buildings if they didn't answer his questions, flaunting his powers and operating entirely on his own authority. Nowadays he comes gift-wrapped in an American flag. When Siegel and Schuster were in charge it was clear that the real man in the story was Superman, and Clark Kent was a puny personification of the way he saw us. But now, well, watch the movies. Where does Superman get his moral code from? Martha and Jonathan Kent, his earth-parents. DC even created a heroic past for the family, an ancestry that had the Kents sheltering Harriet Tubman once upon a time. Clark was in good hands,good, all-American hands. I'll quote Brod on this next bit:
"With each wrapping of the flag, the Superman/Clark Kent character moved up a level in what medieval Christian thinkers called the Great Chain of Being, the hierarchical order of the cosmos. Over the years, as Superman's powers increased so that he came to achieve near divinity, Clark became more humanized, even allowed to be heroic in his own right, gaining greater humanity. Over the long term a Pinocchio-like transformation turned Clark from a wooden figure of ridicule into a "real boy"."(pg.15)
And so we ended up with shows like Smallville, made possible because Clark was now a real person. Crazy. But it doesn't end there. I'm going back to Brod for this next bit; I don't trust my paraphrasing.
"By the time we reached the 2006 Superman Returns film that brought Superman back to the big screen after a long hiatus, Superman's de-Jewification had proceeded so far that he was not only the ultimate all-American, he was even being claimed as a Christ figure. Another nice Jewish boy was being resurrected as a Christian god. The Warner Brothers/DC Comics publicity machine launched a two-pronged campaign before the film's release, one aimed at the usual action-adventure crowd, the other aimed at conservative Evangelical Christians and flying under the general cultural radar, specifically positioning Superman Returns as the next Christian blockbuster, hoping to cash in on the trend following The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia." (Pg.17)
So, that got crazy. I didn't know about that ad campaign until I read this two days ago, and I can't help but think that Schuster and Siegel must have rolled in their graves. You've probably all seen that 2006 Superman film. It has this "father becomes the son and son becomes father" motif running through it, and then Supes gets stabbed in a very iconic location...not coincidence. Also note, Superman's trip from Krytpon to Earth was originally a story about an infant being saved fro his dying world. It has become, in both the 2006 movie and now in 2013's Man of Steel, a tale of a father sending his son to save us. We have a messiah, the writers tell us, and his name is Superman. And now, in conclusion, let's return to that opening statement.

I say again: Man of Steel was an inherently antisemitic film. You've read the history, brief and drastically abridged but accurate, of the character's development. Snyder made a movie tailored to a modern audience, building on the character as we now know it and therefore the character as it has been Americanized. Half the movie was conversation between Jonathan and Clark about how to live a moral life with great power under your belt, with Kevin Costner playing a flawless all-American dad. I loved that movie. It felt like someone had finally got Superman right, and I watched it twice in theatres. But let us face the truth here. Man of Steel was the single thickest coat of whitewash yet applied to the Jewish immigrant's fantasy that was Superman. We have all but lost sight of the original character under layers of antisemitic sanitization that we didn't even know were there. So, there. That's my spiel. Superman was never meant to be Jesus.

He was meant to be Moses.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

DAILY SKETCH: The Suspense of Disbelief

A few of you have heard me rant about viewer response to superhero films. Maybe more than a few. The modern audience refuses to suspend their disbelief and simply enjoy a sci-fi movie; they feel the need to dissect it, pick apart every little bit of fiction that doesn't fit into their apparently realism-starved brains. Disbelief, you are being charged with crimes against imagination. When found guilty, you will be given a suspended sentence.


A Work in Progress, and a Challenge Answered

I don't often think about my work in terms of a gallery context. The stuff I make is not meant to be hung on walls, mostly; it's meant to be printed in books. So the fact that I've found myself tackling multiple gallery-oriented projects this summer still confuses me a little bit. I was chatting with a friend on the phone the other day and he made an observation about my summer undertakings and the fact that last time we went for coffee I had waxed verbose on the fact that I hated gallery work. All I could do was verbally shrug. I blame Byron, actually. Byron Johnston was my sculpture prof for three years running, one of the most skilled, gentle, and humble men I have ever had the honour of knowing. One of the last things he said to me before he retired was a challenge, really: to find a way to blend my drawing and my sculpture. If this project is dedicated to anybody, it's Byron, our beloved old man from the sea.

These photos went up about a week ago on my Twitter feed (https://twitter.com/Vitaeleous) as I was preparing the last bit of the proposal for this project. That is now submitted (my first official gallery proposal!! WOOO!) and I'm waiting for the news with bated breath. While we wait, here; I'll give you some pictures to look at and the write-up I submitted to the gallery. It concerns cartoons, journalism, the nature of entertainment, and a liberal dose of nostalgia. Enjoy :)
Saturday mornings as a kid were a beautiful thing when I was growing up. This is not to say that I've stopped growing up, or indeed that I've grown up at all. It is simply to say that I remember those mornings: getting up before anyone else, before dad even started making coffee, and running downstairs (or upstairs, or wherever I needed to go) to turn on the TV and sit and watch as Jerry repeatedly outwitted Tom, and as Bugs mocked Elmer mercilessly.
Saturday mornings have become decidedly less fun as I have gotten older. Now I haul myself out of bed to check Twitter and Facebook and CBC.ca, and what I find there is rarely Warner Bros caliber entertainment. Somewhere a teenager has been shot, or a soldier has died in the line of duty, or a far-off government is collapsing into anarchy and its people are rioting. Saturday mornings, all mornings, are a serious business. They're a time when the world wakes up and collectively discovers what's going on, and starts talking about it. And yet, in the middle of all this global turmoil, we still have the blessed nostalgia to associate Saturday mornings with cartoons. So, why not? Why not use cartoons to start conversations about what's happening in the world, and to explore the conversations already going on out there?
Cartoons are a great way to understand things, and a great way to tell them to others. I as a cartoonist get to break these stories down into simple and communicable fragments to tell a story that everyone can get. That's what this piece is, this big, lumbering piece of metal that I decided to draw on. I want to tell a story that is happening right now and impacting thousands of people close to home. I believe it's important, and I am equipped to tell it using cartoons. So I shall. The story itself is a journalistic piece, composed by me from fragments of many other stories and scripted as a comic strip. The medium: an old and defunct satellite TV dish.
As with all my sculpture work I believe that the material is as important to the piece as the form that I am creating from it. This dish came from a house in which children had been raised and grandchildren entertained; it has had many decades of cartoons streamed through. It has a history of cartoons embedded in its being. It was perfect for this piece. I want this piece to speak to many aspects of both the story and the cartoon form. I want to address the issue of news being used as entertainment, of real-life pain being dramatized for profit. I want to explore the cartoon as an informative medium. I want to play with this synthesis of three-dimensional support and two-dimension image. More than anything, though, I want to tell a story, and have it understood.






"Stay hungry." - Byron Johnston

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Paradigm Shift: Comics, Artists, and the Digital Age

There's nothing more painful than listening to a podcasted radio show that you wish ever so much you could have weighed in on. I was mowing a lawn last week, and listening to a recorded episode of Rex Murphy's Cross Country Check-up, in which Rex was inviting listeners to call in and talk about their concerns regarding the gradual publishing shift from traditional bindings to e-Books and the digital format. I had so much I wanted to say, but of course the time for picking up the phone to talk Mr. Murphy's ear off was long past. So I tried my best to commit the bulk of my thoughts to my mental memo pad, and now with some time on my hands to sit and write I think I'll sort it out here and leave the rest to you.

Comics have been around for...a while. That's a statement that won't surprise anybody, especially if you've read anything on this blog or spent any time talking with me. It's been a hundred years, give or take, since the storytelling form that we now recognize as comics emerged, and in all that time comics have managed to stay comfortable on paper. Not comfortable content-wise. There are always going to be punks like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison messing about with the boundaries of comics stories, but that's not what this is about. Comics have always had pages. Whether you pick up a trade paperback volume at Chapters or a monthly single issue at your local shop, you pic it up and open it and find pages. And then you jump in and start turning those pages, and you lose yourself in the book. There's a lot to be said for books. From a purely nostalgic standpoint, they're old-school. They're romantic. They smell great, and when you put a couple thousand old ones in a shop all together they smell even better. As an illustrator I think of books as a vehicle, the thing that's going to carry my art to the people I want to get it to. I can put pictures on pages, and people will turn those pages to go from one picture to the next, and the next, and the next...but what happens when pages aren't being made anymore? That was the question that hit me while I listened to people phoning in and telling Rex about their children's Kindle reader. What happens to Comics in a world without pages?

Books engage people. It's the turning that does it, the action of reaching and grabbing the corner of a page and moving it, flipping it over to get at the other side so you can keep moving through this world that has, incredibly, been pressed onto the surface of a funny little sheet of paper. I have become lost in countless novels, active in my search for the next plot twist. I don't recall that I've ever become lost in a PDF, so enthralled that it becomes an act of pleasure to reach out and press the "down" arrow. When you have art on a page, the viewer engages with the art in the same way. The challenge of moving book art into digital space is similar to the challenge of moving it into gallery space. The viewer is no longer permitted to touch the art. The world inside a computer is just as sterilized as the walls inside an art gallery. The images there are not for touching; they are there for you to look at from a distance as you move through. But there is no physical engagement. The viewer remains detached, and the art remains stationary.

Art Spiegelman taught me something. Not directly, of course, but through his work (maybe someday I'll learn something from him directly. I'll make sure you hear about it.). If there is one thing that sets Spiegelman apart from other comic artists it is his ability to compose a page. It is one thing to compose an image; it is quite another to compose several sequential images into a cohesive form that stands apart as its own composition. Yet this is Spiegelman's gift: to create pages that are more than just a collection of well-drawn panels, but carefully arranged bodies of work, a whole that is more than simply the sum of the parts. Comics artists strive towards that goal. We labour to understand the visual space of a page and the best ways to lay out our panels, to guide the eye of the reader through the narrative. That space is easily identified. Pages have edges, publishing sizes are standardized. We have almost a century of tradition that we can look back on and study to learn the most effective ways to fill that space. Artists have gotten good at filling those pages, and filling lots of them, and now the industry wants to turn those pages into screens.

This is where my feelings become mixed. A quick note: I spent the last year actively boycotting digital comics and trying to purge digital media from my art practice. Then I accidentally created something that only makes sense if published digitally and was forced to take a second look at the possibility that digital publication is not, after all, something sent from the devil to kill comics. Now then:

We have two options here, the way I see it. We can take comics as they exist now, scan them, and publish them digitally. That's already happening. Most comics these days are created digitally anyways, so its easy. We keep the page sizes we're comfortable with, the page layouts we know, and eventually phase out hard-copy publication altogether. The artists stay happy. Publishing colour digitally is cheap and easy. It's simple, safe, foolproof. We're already halfway there. So...what the hell's the point? Seriously. We're entering an entirely new stage of evolution of Comics here; we are moving the visual narrative off the page and into a realm devoid of physical boundaries. Yet we're just copy-pasting our books into this realm and leaving it at that. We're saying that we want to "embrace the future", "be progressive", but really we're taking the old ways of doing things and doing them over digitally. It's safe. It's boring. It's stagnant.

Let's mix it up. Take all those ideas you have about how to compose a page, and toss them out the window. Better yet, put them in a library full of real books where they can be preserved, studied, remembered, read, respected, and loved for the rest of time. They deserve all that. But leave them out of what you're about to do. What you're about to do is take your passion for drawing and writing and telling visual stories and figure out how to compose a visual narrative in limitless space. No edges. No pages. This world scrolls, it doesn't flip. It has code instead of a spine, pixels instead of ink. So, what are you going to do with it? This is the question we need to be asking, instead of building databases of e-Books with "front covers" that aren't the "front" of anything because they exist in a world with no spatial qualities. When your readers can't pick up your art-vehicle and engage with it physically, how do you pull them in? Without the smell factor of a new book, or an old book, how you do seduce a new reader into buying your art-filled file? Or do you (horror of horrors. This next section contains graphic content, Marvel and DC executives may want to turn away) give it away. Yeah, you heard me. Chew on that.

This is the hard way, because this way involves starting over and reinventing what comics look like. We're fools if we think technology is just going to be free and automatically be easier. If this technology is going advance our art we have to meet it halfway. It's a paradigm shift. It's going to be a lot of hard work, and it's going to change the world.

It's a good thing I have a blog. Rex Murphy would never have let me finish all that.