Monday, April 7, 2014

Original Art Sundays No 180: The Sharp Invitation

Well, technically after midnight, so not really Sunday any more. But I won't complain if you don't.
Worked a 55 hour week this week, so did not make it to the library to scan.
Here's a story I completed a while back to promote a class on Graphic Memoir that I was set to teach. The class was cancelled due to low enrollment, which made me rather sad.  However, even in this very rough stage, I felt like I was on to something. This work was previously published at the Loft Literary Center blog in relation to the proposed class.
I'd like to complete this work (I know, there are so many projects I've already said that about). Part of me considers much of my previous work- Tranny Towers, A Private Myth (not forgotten, only stalled), TranScending, the Squirell, Cat and Car short story- as prelude to this.

This art in this is beyond crude, deliberately. I've been irritated for some time by the praises afforded to "loose" artists like Christopher Iriving and Rich Burlew, creator of Order of the Stick. I now my work has its, ahem, uneven properties, but some artists don't appear to even try and have praise lavished on them. I mean, come on, stick figures are popular? So I thought I'd try to work a little looser, let go of some of the control. This is the result. A bit too far the other way, I think. I suspect my answer lies somewhere in the middle.
As for the story, I plan to execute sporadic short pieces and work towards assembling them. That seems to be my strength anyway, so why not? 
Soon: the long-promised Surrealist Cowgirls short, which has been completed for weeks now.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Original Art Sundays No. 179: An Unexamined Life

Wow, more than a month away. This new job really kicks my butt -working overnights as a caregiver for AIDS patients.
I have completed the aforementioned Surrealist Cowgirls short, but it turned out to be two pages, not four. I will be able to scan later this week.
As a placeholder, here's an editorial page I did for TransSisters Magazine, just under 20 years ago!
The emotions are a bit raw in this one. I was still mending from that abusive relationship I've mentioned in the past.
In general, I rather like this page. It was done oversize and was a bit of an experiment. The editor asked me stick to humorous material after this one, but as a direct result of this page, I also became staff cartoonist for the other major political transgender zine of the 90s, TNT News.

The craft on this one is all over the place. I particularly like the last image of the second tier, but the one before it is aesthetically painful. The lettering is wildly uneven. At this point, it was still more about getting the work - any work - out there than about any measure of craft, though I was too stubborn to accept that at the time.
I'll post some catch-up images later this week!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Original Art Sundays No. 178: The funny animal/comic strip/comic book Enterprise

Missed last week's post. I was preoccupied with preparing for a new job. Many logistic difficulties- government forms, meetings, etc. Well, the job orientation is tomorrow, so we're back in the saddle again!
Working on a 4 page Surrealist Cowgirls story (and a couple fun Cowgirls side projects), but they're not ready to post yet.
As a placeholder, here's an airbrush piece from 1990!

The craft is rather crude, but it's a fun piece anyway. It grew out of my then-partner's love of both Star Trek and the Pink Panther.
Starting top left and going counter-clockwise:
The Little Mermaid as Dr. Beverly Crusher
The Tasmanian Devil as Lt. Worf
Omaha the Cat Dancer as Counselor Troi
Opus as Lt. Commander Data
Calvin and Hobbes as Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher
Pepe lePew and Commander Riker
center: the Pink Panther as Captain Picard (Captain Pinkard!)
So there it is. More pure silliness.
Next week: back to the Cowgirls!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Original Art Sundays (Wednesday) No. 177: Surrealist Cowgirls, the Recipe!

Completed my blog post for another institution by deadline, details to follow. I'm finally making time to post a piece I finished over a week ago.
My vision for the Surrealist Cowgirls comic is much like the old Sugar & Spike comics: a great variety of content. So far, I have short stories, slightly longer stories, and paper dolls. I'm considering adding an illustrated text piece, more paper dolls and another surprise I hope to post soon.
Meanwhile, here's today's contribution.
As I've discussed in the past, I'm quite fond of comic book cookbooks, and of recipes in comics. To that end, here's a recipe I got from my late Mother, one I make a lot, for papaya and pumpkin stew!
There are a number of fun things about this page.

  • The Cowgirls get to wear slightly different clothes. I've pretty much had them in the same shirts, jeans and vests for all their stories so far. 
  • This was all done in marker, fast and loose.
  • I created the recipe card in Photoshop, rather than doing a printout and pasteup of it. If I do another, I'll try it the other way. This was OK, but had its frustrations.
  • I also worked a bit smaller on this one, on 11 x 14 board rather than on 14 x 17. The proportionate live area is 9" x 14"- I got to use my old proportion wheel! Hooray for traditional production tools!

Mother always called this Brain Stew, but I prefer to just call it papaya-pumpkin stew. I love it. I've served it at a couple potlucks, and people seem polarized on it- either you love it or you hate it.
Next: either more Cowgirls, or...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Original Art Sundays (Tuesday) No. 175: Surrealist Cowgirls, last page

As promised, I was able to correct the scanning issue today.
Here's the last page of It Does This When I Hurt. It's an aftermath sort of page, where everyone says their goodbyes.
There was a slight drift on the board as I inked the borders, so there's a hinky angle to the last two panels. I don't mind it. If I didn't say anything, you might not even notice it.
The little dude holding the "The End" sign is a loose swipe of a Joe Orlando character from a late issue of Weird Science.
I debated a different ending, foreshadowing a new threat, but I thought, nah. Let's give them all some time to be happy.
I have a one-page Cowgirls thing, just a little fun thing, on the board right now. There's another short Cowgirls story I have in mind, probably three pages, and I want to do paper doll pages of Tolcanan and Kay Seurat-Seurat.
But after I finish the page I have on the board now, I have a short assignment that's due February 3, a 3 or 4 page story unrelated to my usual cast of characters.
It feels good to have this one done. The idea for it grew out of a pun I sang whimsically in 1987, while watching the second version of  Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. I added the pun, and the character it inspired, to another story idea ten years later. After doing four pages, I put it aside, only to come back to it a couple years ago. So the story is either 37, 27 or two years old, or else it's brand new. Take your pick.
Don't you just love time?
Next: the one-pager.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 4: Mind Mgmt.

The National Lampoon once ran an article purporting to discuss the nature of pornography. One of the examples given was a single panel gag depicting dogs humping while a policeman watched and recited political slogans. The article said, "this is not pornography. Anyway, we're not sure what's going on here."
That's the way I felt when I began reading Matt Kindt's Mind Mgmt. (the not sure what's going on aspect, not the porn question) - a bit nonplussed, but in a great way. I've been an admirer of well-crafted solipsistic paranoia since The Prisoner first ran on American TV.
A plane lands with everyone aboard, save one girl, afflicted with amnesia.
The girl in question becomes a reluctant celebrity as a result of the incident. She authored a bestseller based on her experiences, but her career since then has been precarious at best.
Her daily life as an investigative journalist is hampered by her insistence on delving into The Event, as it comes to be known, at the expense of her current assignments.
As you might surmise, there's more going on here than even those cryptic events imply.
Our heroine, Meru, is propelled into an international journey of discovery, searching for the mysterious figure known only as The Manager.
The obvious comparisons apply. The work evokes Kafka, Phillip K. Dick, the aforementioned The Prisoner, and in some senses, more mainstream paranoia like The X-Files and its predecessor Kolchak, the Night Stalker, though the paranormal plays a diminished role in Mind Mgmt. 
Note the border elements/story!
As the narrative unfolds, we are drawn deeper into it in almost Machiavellian ways. The pages are bordered with text that unfolds a related story and offers excerpts from the Mind Mgmt. manual. These become inside messages to the reader, clues to what may really be going on. And in an aspect that's frustrating to those of us who sometimes prefer to read these stories as collections, there's a third (or fourth) story unfolding on the inside front covers of the individual issues. This sub-story is not included in the first collection (I've yet to read the second). So there's a piece of the story that you can only get by buying the back issues, at least as of this writing. Grr.
 I've had sporadic and passing acquaintance with Kindt's other work. I enjoyed his work on the New 52 Justice League series, but an earlier solo work, 2 Sisters, left me cold.  Very well crafted, but just too melancholy and too detached for my tastes. In contrast, though it also has its morose aspects, his work on Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is an over-the-top romp through the best chaos that escapist fiction has to offer. He also contributed some material to Jeff Lemire's wonderful Sweet Tooth. Kindt's 3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man is on my short list for catching up on my reading, and has been optioned for filming.
Meanwhile, back at the story:
Kindt's design and color sense
are also vital parts of the story.
Even here, Meru is more a cipher than a fully fleshed-out character at times. While she does drive events, she is more driven than she is the driver, if you get my drift. There's an undertone that even within the story, her life has been scripted for her, and she's struggling to care about it. But there's enough of her here that we do care what happens to her (which I did not experience reading 2 Sisters), and I will revisit the narrative when Vol. 2 makes its way to the library. The regular series is ongoing from Dark Horse, with issue no. 18 due out this Wednesday. Again, kudos to Dark Horse. Their business model is a comic line that maintains an effective balance of licensed and more mainstream titles and ambitious experiments. Mind Mgmt. is a challenging and worthwhile example of the latter.
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 3: a tie!

Best Comics of 2013, No. 5: Genius

(Note to the faithful: the final page of the current Surrealist Cowgirls story is done, but the scan files were corrupted and I will not be able to rescan until Tuesday. Have faith.)
Some years ago, a student recommended Steven Seagle's It's A Bird as a text for the superhero portion of my Graphic Novel course. Intrigued, I dived in and got a great deal out of it. However, I thought its premise, that a very limited man could not identify with a Superman, was too thin for two weeks' course discussion, and that the theme had been addressed more succinctly in Michael T. Gilbert's Mann and Superman.
However, I was quite impressed by the book, and when Seagle's Genius appeared this year, I was tantalized.

The story of a promising physicist whose fire burned out too early, Genius is told in awed yet vibrant tones. Visually and verbally, this book is the poetry of loneliness and inadequacy. Reading it, I kept returning to the line from Leonard Cohen's Story of Isaac: "my father's hand was trembling with the beauty of the word."

The physicist in question, Ted Marx, lives in fear of losing his job, of losing his dying wife, of alienating his distant father-in-law, of losing contact with his children who are growing progressively farther away from him.
But mostly, he fears himself, and fears that he will never fully understand or equal the work of his idol, Albert Einstein.

One day, his father-in-law casually mentions that he knew Einstein, that he served briefly as his military guard. Of course, Ted does not believe him at first. The old man must be addled; he cannot have known my God!

But he realizes the elder man tells the truth ("work on my used car" is a private father-and-son moment, nicely played).

And he learns that Einstein confided a secret to him. Awed, he asks for more information.

Only to be rebuffed. The elder man's principles are not to be compromised, especially to a man who he does not respect.

As his increasingly smaller life comes into conflict with the magnitude of the promise in the elder man's secret, Ted feels himself diminishing. This encounter with his dying wife sums up his utter failure to grasp the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.
At last, the elder man relents and tells Ted Einstein's secret.

I can tell you all that and it will spoil none of the book's rapture.
There's a school of writing in graphic novels (also in text novels) in which things are plainly stated, and the magnitude of their meaning is made clear by their simplicity. Clearly, Genius is a very successful example of this.
Teddy Kristiansen's painted art is sublime. The stylized faces do take a tad of getting used to, but it's a short lived problem. I've enjoyed his work on GrendelSandman, Sandman Midnight Theater, the aforementioned It's A Bird, and my personal favorite, his Deadman story with Neil Gaiman from the SOLO series. His style reminds me of another personal favorite, Bernard Krigstein, in that they both use very raw and stylized elements in service to the story. Kristianses is slated to release another collaboration with Seagle in 2014.
This is another book that will bear revisiting- not daily, but often. It's a beautiful, humbling read.
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 4: another for the mind.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 6: The Lost Boy

These entries have dragged out a bit, but I am completing the list today and tomorrow.
A bit of backstory on today's entry.
Last time I attended San Diego Comicon, I picked up a small volume that I chose for reading on the plane ride home: Greg Ruth's Sudden Gravity: A Tale of the Panopticon.
I was so blown away by it, I was sure my reaction would send the plane off course. Ruth's surreal yet oddly comforting nightmare of intentionally distorted reality has a devastating effect on the unsuspecting reader. I elected to use it as a text in my next Graphic Novel course, and Greg was kind enough to join the course for a week of online discussion- very informative, educational and fun, and more to the point, inspiring to comic art students. Many chose it as their favorite book of the semester.
Since then, I've followed his career with great interest. He has illustrated a number of children's books, including the fun Pirate Guide to... series and one based on President Obama's first inaugural address. He's done more comic work, including some Conan illustration and 2012's City of Orphans (still on my reading list). When I saw his new solo book The Lost Boy this year, I jumped at it. As its presence here indicates, I was not disappointed.
Example of Ruth's exquisite control and line work

(note: all illustrations for this entry are courtesy of Greg Ruth)
Themes that appear to be central to Ruth's solo work surface here: childhood isolation and vulnerability, surrealism and magical realism in daily life, and a burning desire to triumph over melancholy.
While Ruth hardly has a monopoly on these themes, he executes them adroitly.
This is the story of Nate, a boy stranded in a particularly unwelcoming country house (which at times felt like suburbia) by the career caprices of his parents. Two things happen in short order. He is befriended by a neighbor of like age and temperament, Tabitha. Together, they explore the mysteries of a tape recorder Nate discovers in his attic. The tapes are a record of the mysteriously lost Walt, who years earlier went in search of missing pets only to find...
But that would be telling. Aided and hampered in their search by talking animals, insects and abandoned toys (many of which have eloquent personalities), the pair set out on their quest for Walt.
Ruth manages to pull the reader into implausible situations with great ease. We all feel our lives to be impossible at times, and Ruth taps directly into that. There's an empathy, coupled with a wry wit, to his writing.The latter is especially apparent in Tabitha's dialogue here, and is sorely missed when he capably illustrates the writing of others.
The child's journey into the world of the lost is a classic theme, the basis for works as far-ranging as Peter Pan and Neil Gaiman's Mirrormask (the fractured world into which the child is propelled, also present here, is another recurring Gaiman theme). Despite these commonalities, Ruth offers a singular voice.

There's another great delight here for me. The presence of talking critters and armies of insects and frogs invokes the heyday of vintage cartoons, a lifelong passion. As I read The Lost Boy, part of me saw it as a really elaborate storyboard for an incomplete Fleischer feature film, a nightmare sequel to Mr. Bug Goes to Town!
Establishing shot two-page spread or animation background?
You be the judge!
It takes great talent and restraint to bring out the magical and the nightmare in the mundanity of the everyday. Ruth uses some subtle visual devices as storytelling aids. The sequences in the present are bordered in black, if they have borders, while those set in Walt's past are bordered in white.
A few critics (mostly Amazon reviewers) found fault with the level of explanation of some plot points- "this or that was not clear enough." I didn't have that trouble. I see nothing wrong with having the reader involved in deciphering the narrative, especially when there's an element of mystery, as there is here. A good reader doesn't need to be spoon fed the story, and a good writer knows that. I have no more respect for lazy readers than I do for sloppy writers. I also respect the fact that the story is not dumbed down for young readers. Kids are a lot smarter than some writers, and many publishers, believe them to be.
As cerebral as this story is, it's action heavy. There's a war on (possibly more than one), with very high stakes.
Ruth often uses simple tools to create his eloquent art (Sudden Gravity was drawn entirely in ballpoint pen!). As discussed when looking at Colleen Doran's A Distant Soil, it's always a delight to read the work of a skilled artist who also really knows how to write.
A member of the Out of Step Arts Collective, Ruth works on new projects at a pace to rival that of David Mack or Matt Wagner- consistent, sometimes frenetic, but never a sacrifice of quality to time. The quality and individualism in Ruth's work clearly rivals those creators. I suspect the primary reason his name is less of a household word in comic circles is that he's done less mainstream work than they have. Like them, he's on my list of creators whose work will always get an eager look from me.
I imagine that writing such emotionally intense work with veracity takes its toll on Ruth, which would explain why he's done relatively few solo books in the two decades he's been a comics and illustration professional. That's certainly understandable, but as satisfying as The Lost Boy is, I'm hungry for more.

Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 5, also not for the simple minded.

What the heck, here's one more great Lost Boy page on which to fly away!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 7: 7 Against Chaos

Really, when Harlan Ellison and Paul Chadwick collaborate, how could the result not make the list?
Chadwick's Concrete remains one of my two favorite superheroes (the other, oddly, is Herbie, the Fat Fury, with James Robinson's Starman as runner-up). And Ellison is - well, Ellison. I'm relieved his health appears to be holding, despite reports of his imminent demise a couple years ago.
Concurrent with the Strange Armor storyline, a Concrete short story appeared in which our heroes visited the home of Dwayne Byrd, a not so thinly veiled reference to Ellison's preferred nom de plume, Cordwainer Bird. The story, Byrdland's Secret, used Ellison's life, work and philosophies as a starting point to muse on the role of art and literature in our lives, and the urgent, almost primal need to cling to a spirit of adventure in those lives.

This story appears at first blush to be old-school space opera- some fun ideas and elaborate trappings. However, as is the case with most of Ellison's work, it quickly becomes something larger than the sum of its parts. An aggregate of strange beings, given singular abilities by the perversion of their forms in the names of profit, politics, power and entertainment, is off on a quest to do - well, something. Only one of them knows their mission at its outset. At this point, it feels a bit like a fairly conventional superhero narrative, albeit a smartly written one.
The plot and its implications quickly thicken.
The stakes are no less than the nature of existence, as a reptilian life form is trying to rewrite not only history, but evolution. Unbeknownst to the rest of the universe, this group of rejects is fighting for the existence of everyone, and should they succeed, nobody will know.
There are several Ellison themes that come into play here. Of course, the humanizing of those considered rejects dates back to his civil rights work, and the classic short story The Discarded. And the tragedy of great work going unrecognized has been a recurring theme in Ellison interviews for decades.
Ellison's proprieties: Sugar & Spike rightly rank with Mount Rushmore in the scope of human achievement!
Paul Chadwick's work here is as strong as anything else he's done. While I cherish the populist notions in Concrete, his vivid imagination is seen in other works, including his The World Below mini-series and one issue of the classic Dr. Strange mini-series, The Flight of Bones. In 7 Against Chaos, he's given the opportunity to stretch thematically and offer some beyond cool science fiction illustration, and he rises to both challenges admirably. The work is reminiscent of the best of the 1960s DC science fiction stories in terms of pure imagination and joy, while holding to a contemporary quality. This is not a nostalgia piece, but it does recognize the value of past works, a challenging balancing act, well executed.
And it's cool to see, and a great adventure to read!
7 Against Chaos begins with a fairly direct, albeit elaborate, scenario and sweeps the reader along to ask complex questions about the nature and purpose of life, all while riding an interstellar roller coaster. In addressing the best of 2013, I've talked about works that have value as pure enjoyment, and works that say something deeper and challenge the reader. This is both. I pray that Ellison and Chadwick collaborate again!
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 6, gets lost.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 8: RASL Color Edition!

My admiration for the work of Jeff Smith is hardly a state secret. I treasure BONE and its related stories ROSE and Stupid Stupid Rat Tales no end, and was delighted by his interpretation of the SHAZAM! legend. The latter made it seem like Smith was addressing recurring themes in his work- not a bad thing, but one that can lead to predictability in even the most capable hands.
How wrong I was.
When RASL debuted at San Diego a few years ago in an oversized teaser edition, it was unlike any of his previous work. Certainly, there were dire and grim aspects to all the predecessors of RASL. But this was downright gritty.
The story of an inter-dimensional art thief, RASL also touches on near-Promethean scientific concerns as it plays with concepts from the work of Nicola Tesla. There's also mythic trappings from native American faiths, and a seemingly autistic girl who may or may not be God. As the story unfolds, we learn that our thief is a scientist on the run, trying to hold onto his discovery.
It's also a story of love, loss and betrayal.
While these themes are clearly present in the earlier works, they take center stage here. This is a much harder edged, much more adult story than the BONE or SHAZAM! material.
In addition to the thematic concerns, this work is noteworthy for its coloring. While past color versions of Smith's work have always been worthwhile (note that SHAZAM! has only been printed in color- I'd be curious to see it in B & W: an artist's edition, perhaps?), the color really stands out here. Tightly controlled palettes, low key color (even in the brightest scenes), and use of color for mood and atmosphere, beyond the obvious and blatant uses of color (skin should be this color, etc.) make this a remarkable achievement.
Smith has offered a singular work here. His current online book TUKI, which I am woefully behind on reading, is every bit as good and every bit as singular as its precursors.
Sample of RASL page in B & W and in color
Again measuring up to standards set in past works, RASL is offered in a very affordable hardcover single volume, along with separate volumes of each chapter and a deluxe and super spiffy slipcased hardcover edition (sold out, but there is a deluxe HC at Smith's website for $10 over the base price of the HC).
I'm not a shill for Jeff Smith, really I'm not. But good work deserves both attention and commerce!
Over the years, I read and re-read Jeff Smith's works. The themes are solid and challenging, the art is consistently high quality and moves the story along with deliberation and precision (Smith's background in animation has clearly honed his narrative timing), and the books are exciting every time I open them. As I've lamented ad nauseum of late, my finances are precarious, but I'm mulling what I can sell to secure funds for the deluxe edition of RASL. Reading the public library copy again just won't cut it on this one!
The sold-out slipcased edition
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 7: two masters working at the peak of their game.