Friday, 21 November 2014

What's Left Out : an Unreview

Shaun Tan, Dan Berry & Lorenzo Mattotti have produced amazing comic books with no words in them.  Rob Davies and Emily Carroll have used comics to tell stories that lack a conventional ending or closure. Shaun Tan (yes, he get's around!) and Chris van Allsburg have written picture books that do away with conventional narrative structure altogether, but can still be read. And they're all gripping, and amazing, and deep! And I'm going to unreview them, in pan-dimensional techni-colour, right here and now!!!

from "The Arrival" by Shaun Tan

Unreview (n)

  1. An article that discusses one or more published works of art, but whose primary aim is not to promote the works being discussed
  2. A made-up word coined by some work-shy blogging fop in the hope of sounding vaguely cool, interesting or hyperdimensional

So, today I want to talk about subtraction, and omission, that is, leaving out some tried-and-tested part of a story-telling formula in order to improve upon the story-telling. Along the way, I want to refer to a number of good comics that I've read recently, which might encourage you, the reader, to take a look at them. As the omni-potent all-seeing dictionary definition-o-tron says above, this is not a review of the books I'm looking at. Some are recent, and being actively marketed by their publishers at present. Some are not. If reading about them here encourages you to buy them, I'll be delighted *, but my primary aim here is to pick away at the mechanics of storytelling, whether in comics or other media, like some sort of great mechanical crow with "mechanics of storytelling" written along it's beak.

(* unless you buy them, hate them, and sink into a spiral of despair, ennui and destitution, in which case I'll adopt a wistfully contrite air and shed little tears of subdued colour into my vintage/steampunk ink-well.)

So, without further ado, here's a venn-diagram-of-contents depicting the books that were not left out of the Unreview entitled "What's Left Out"!



(L to R : The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris van Allsburg, Carry Me by Dan Berry, The Red Tree by Shaun Tan,  Chimera by Lorenzo Mattotti, The Arrival by Shaun Tan, Through The Woods by Emily Carroll, The Motherless Oven by Rob Davies)

Rules are there to be (Observed and) Broken

There's a tenet of creativity that the rules are there to be broken. Creativity knows no limits, and in the outer sphere of playfulness, brainstorming and bouncing ideas around, this rule is good.
There's another tenet of creativity that in order to break the rules effectively, you must first understand how to play by the rules. Carefully choosing which limits to observe, and which to break, belongs to the next sphere in, of craftsmanship, diligence and patience. Being aware of both these spheres at once while creating, and treading a careful path between both, requires mastery. (Disclaimer - While I might presume myself capable of talking about this stuff, I'll make no pretence of  being able to pull that off myself - I'm an absolute beginner, and these are partly notes to myself to help me in my big project of improvising a graphic novel out of 5GB of photos and video!)

from "The Motherless Oven" by Rob Davis


Here are two standard rules that the authors I'm looking at today have "broken". One is technical, the other is about craft.

  1. In a comic book, the words and the pictures flow side by side, and much richness and ambiguity can be fostered by having the two streams touch tangentially, or glance off one another. Indeed, much of the unique richness of comics can derive from the interplay between the words and the pictures. Let's call this one "Moore's Law", because it was explored a great deal by Alan Moore in the way he wrote Watchmen, at a time when few other writers were exploring this particular technique (and also, as you'll know if you're into computers, because it's a really lousy pun).  
  2. In many stories, there's an underlying character arc known as "The Hero's Journey", that provides an inherently satisfying narrative that speaks to some deep/primitive/cosmic part of us. The hero/ine struggles against external and internal antagonists, reaches a nadir, recovers and achieves a sense of closure. Joseph Campbell is widely attributed as being the inventor/discoverer of this pattern, based on his extensive knowledge of myths and legends around the world. George Lucas used it to shape "Star Wars", attributing Campbell as a primary influence, and Hollywood's been strip-mining it ever since. Sticking with the lame pun theme, let's refer to this one as Campbell's Condensed Plotline, with a nod to arch-iconoclast Andy Warhol. (Oh dear, I'm so sorry!)

Unrule 1 : Leave out the words

Rich, ambiguous meaning can be carried between the words and pictures, so does it follow that removing one of the streams entails a loss of richness? Not with the unruly creators that we're looking at here. Mattotti, Tan, Berry and van Allsburg have produced a striking variety of works here that do away with words (mostly - Mattotti's Chimera has a caption on the first page, and "The Red Tree" by Tan has a few words scattered about). If anything binds them together, it is the use of emotion, the expressiveness of pictures being used to communicate a gut-level experience. 

Chimera reads like a dark version of Disney's Fantasia, I find it hard not to "read" it without imagining some sort of music. Goodness only knows what it's about, beyond the communication of powerful emotional states, but there is a clear progression, and recognisable narrative passages, such as the coupling of the cloud people followed by a birth, and the flight of the rabbits from the bird of prey.
from Mattotti's "Chimera"

Berry's work, while much less overwhelming and alienating on the surface, treads a similar ground. The focus is on the emotional triangle between father, girl and dog, and characters age, change shape, size and even species, and the landscape becomes alive, a reflection of their mood.
from "Carry Me" by Dan Berry

Tan's Red Tree is similar in using pictures, distortion and surrealism (and a few decidedly un-narrative words scattered obliquely here and there alongside the pictures) to describe an emotional arc. I've placed it in a "special" bubble in the Venn diagram with van Allsburgh's book, because the two go much further than any of the other no-words books in doing away with narrative continuity. Yes, the Red Tree follows a path through hopelessness to hope, but there's no explanation of how the central character progresses from one scene to another, whereas Carry Me and Chimera at least obey some form of continuity and motion.
from "The Red Tree" by Shaun Tan

So, is there a rule within the first unrule, then, that taking the words away lends itself to a depiction of emotional states and archetypal situations? If that's the case, then Tan's other book in this category, The Arrival, stands out by breaking this rule too. It's by far the most cerebral of the lot - certainly it tells a strong emotional story (and several of the back-stories told by the immigrants are heart-wrenching), but the book also carries a strong political and moral message - a stark contrast to the utterly amoral forces of nature depicted in Chimera.

Isn't it also interesting to note that the two books here that are most radical at the technical level are both marketed as childrens' books rather than as graphic novels? I've written before about the Ghetto of modern comics - it's always refreshing to take a look outside. 

Unrule 2 : Holding out for a Hero

So, onto the second rule, and Campbell's rule of thumb for a satisfying story. Can a story be satisfying if it doesn't end with the triumph of good over evil, however we choose to define those. Obviously, the standard action formula of "goodies" versus "baddies", or the rom-com search for True Love set out Good and Evil in fairly straightforward terms, but even a more introspective narrative, such as the Red Tree, can follow this basic arc, with the antagonist being an internal characteristic, such as depression, that must be overcome. For all that it throws conventional narrative out of the window, the Red Tree provides us with a happy ending, as does The Arrival - the nuclear family, that most cherished, idealised, conservative form of modern society, are separated, and finally reunited in an uplifting ending.

So, onto the two other books - Carroll's Through the Woods and Davis' Motherless Oven. These use words and pictures together, solidly and well, but with relatively little technical innovation. Carroll's emphasis is entirely on storytelling - ghost stories in this case - and the attention that she pays to her craft is evident. The stories are superb, original, and thoroughly frightening. One common ingredient running through them is the open-endedness. We find out what the neighbour is not, but not what he/it is. Underground, the (un)dead brother turns to look at us, and we don't know what happens next. And so on. The reader is left to fill in the missing ending, exactly at the point at which they're razzed up to the nines by what has gone before, and it absolutely works. I read most of these stories alone in the house after dark, and the only thing that has left me nearly as uneasy this past year was the unknown thing under the blanket in "Doctor Who" (which also worked because of what it didn't show, and forced the reader to bring their own fears to the party).

Horror

It may be that Carroll is walking a well-trodden path here - the sudden, ambiguous ending is a relatively common trope in horror, and uncommon outside it. (I can only think of Michael Caine's "The Italian Job", Rutu Modan's "Exit Wounds" and one of Christopher priest's early novels - any other takers?) Nightmares often happen that way, stopping at the point of revelation, as the antagonist reveals itself. 
from Emily Carroll's "Our Neighbor's House" (in "Through the Woods")

Completely off-topic, YA writer Michelle Paver completely gets this, in her "Spirit Walker" series of books. They are superb. Even my cat loved them, he likes to sit on me when I read, the better to absorb the pictures in my head. Whenever I picked up these books, he'd appear from nowhere, and stay! Just go and read them all now, I'll sit in the corner gathering cobwebs until you're done.

Back now? Ok.

Alienation

The Motherless Oven is a different piece of work entirely. We're set up, within a very surreal context, with a very recognisable set of archetypal characters, with teenage rebels on the run from a range of elderly authority figures. On the surface, it's utterly bizarre, and that plays off beautifully with the comfort and familiarity of the teenage rebel/loner/misfit at the story's emotional core.

(A brief aside here on two technical narrative devices employed here that do break new ground, very effectively. One is the Home Gazette recording device that regurgitates Scarper Lee's inner thoughts, weaved in and out of the conventional voice-over narrative superbly. The other is the full page illustrations of "The Wheel" (a sort of mechanical TV show?!), with little stylised figures communicating strange mixtures of emotional states that seem to mirror the story in a very tangential way. Rather than playing off the words and pictures here, Davis plays off the representational pictures of the main narrative with a second, occasional stream of pictures, that mean something, but remain elusive.)

(A second brief aside - the "world-building" in The Motherless Oven is superb, mixing in the utterly bizarre with the absolutely recognisable - in the same breath as telling us that it's raining knives, the narrator Scarper tells us that "biscuits are king". The same is done by Tan in The Arrival, creating a world that is bizarre, but just recognisable enough to give us a frame of reference. And neither book goes to lengths to over-explain the oddness - the strangeness is everyday, and taken for granted by the inhabitants of it's worlds, encouraging us to accept it too.)

[WARNING: PARTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD]
So, getting back on track, Davis really pulled the rug out from under me at the end of the book by taking away the comforting sense of closure. By a gnat's whisker, evil seems to triumph, and the remaining good guys, interestingly, are left without words - we can see them raging in the forest, but can no longer hear what they're saying. I was gobsmacked, and left feeling very upset, in fact, after getting to the end of this book. I've had time to calm down since then, and think about why it ended the way it did, and how the choice to do it that way changes the shape of the story. Davis had a choice, as all artists do, to go one way or the other. He took the less obvious choice, and that triggers a reaction in the reader (me, in this case). What I do with that reaction is up to me, and it's his job to anticipate the cumulative effect of the possible reactions to the various ingredients in the book. In this case, I think the ending is what is described as "a brave move", and I salute him for taking it. The questions that it raises about the futility of Scarper's struggle against his fate, and the source of Vera's certainty and seeming control of the situation are good questions, and the kind that would be poorly served by the comforting sense of completeness that Campbell's rules engender.

In summary, then...

The works that I've looked at here all break some of the rules by which we understand comics narrative. They work, because they do so carefully, observing enough of the other rules to keep the reader on track while they adjust to the difference, and, ultimately, because the rule-breaking is done in service to the story.

I'll leave the final word to the Home Gazette:



Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Improvised Comic Update : 1 month in

It was a month ago yesterday that a gang of intrepid theatricals, assorted talented photographers and members of the public met up during Kendal's Comic Art Festival, to take photos and videos of one another, engage in various pointless activities and consume some utterly fine cake (and fish & chips!).

There's relatively little finished art at the moment, I've been mostly working on the script, and now have a good overall pattern, with quite a few of the details for the first third filled in. In the run-up to the festival, I'd been throwing new "possible" ideas into the pot on an almost daily basis, and since then, I've been having to cut things out in order to get some sort of a controlled narrative that holds together as a story. It's an interesting process, but not the most exciting one to share.

To whet your appetities, here's a few key storylines that are emerging at present:
  • A blind composer describes how he used to be able to "read" people until he betrayed his country, and himself
  • A young woman is looking for her imaginary childhood friend, who she lost as a child when her family were forcibly relocated
  • A being who may have created the universe explains why trying to record everything in a book would be a bad idea
  • A man is pleading for forgiveness for something he did, or didn't do, but we can only hear one half of the conversation

I have pretty much completed the first two pages of an introductory sequence of 5-6 pages, and will post something when the full sequence is done, hopefully in the next couple of weeks. (I expect to be turning out much more than two pages a month, there's been a lot of "invisible" foundation laying going on these last few weeks!)

And here are a few (pre-digitally-remastered) photos of something happening...








Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Martians are coming!

Yet another unsplash email into my inbox... nothing deep this time, just funning around, and focussing on the dialog. Enjoy! Big thanks to Jonathan Velasquez Ramiro Checchi Sven Schlager davide ragusa (twice) Greg Shield Gabriel Santiago Kim Daniel Volkan Olmez for some really beautiful images to work with, and the cosmic Dr Mike 2000's sprawling saga Universe Gun, who's writing inspired the banter between the Chet & Sue characters in this strip.








Friday, 14 November 2014

Echolalia

Echo

James Moran, writing in the Inkling recently, asserts that Facebook, and potentially other social media, are actively curating readers' newsfeeds in order to serve up content that matches their existing worldview. Not only matches, but reinforces, of course, because the passive consumption of information is anything but passive, we're actively shaping ourselves while we do it.

The notion of echo chambers on the internet is nothing new, of course. What's novel about what Facebook is doing though, is that the self-selection has slipped below the level of the individual actor. When we, as individuals, follow like-minded bloggers, tweeters etc., at least there's an element of choice. Self-selection's slipped below the plimsoll line here, into the plumbing (in a gloriously salty maritime/plumbing mixed metaphor! I'll discuss the way in which party political thinking resembles a lobster pot with a broken ballcock next week.)

The jury's still out, by the way, on how strong the echo chamber effect is, but for me, the interesting issue raised by Moran's article is somewhat broader - that some of the core conduits of our interpersonal interactions are now interceptable, manipulable, measurable mechanically - and therefore on a grand scale. At which point, I'm swapping my sea captain/plumber's hat for my futurologist's goggles.

Goggles

And what goggles they are! They look like something from an 80's pop video, don't fit my head properly, and have a range of about 15 minutes forward when they're not obscuring my vision. But wow are they cool? (no, don't answer that one!)

According to the script by which we've chosen to run our modern civilisation, the role of a publicly floated corporation is to maximise the value for it's shareholders. Never mind that that's a contradictory goal, if the shareholders include long-term investors backing the company for years and hyper-twitching robots exploiting sub-second noise on the line of the share prices - a very good way to achieve the goal is to identify the common denominator upon which a large part of the population depends, and erect a toll booth. Existing pathways are generally quite saturated, although biotech companies'  efforts to target foodstuffs that are ubiquitous in processed food, such as canola oil and soya, and to diversify into privatised water supplies in the developing world, illustrate that this strategy can be played out on a common denominator as old-fashioned as food. But the other smart tack is to create a new market, and preferably pull the door shut behind you. Microsoft employed this strategy in the 80's and 90's to create and dominate the nascent market in personal computers (and then landed on the wrong side of the tracks of the mobile device market). But it's nothing new, the same patterns were playing out 150 years ago as the smart money moved from canals to railways.

Anyway, back to the Facebook news feed, and echo chambers and all that. We've been talking to each other for millenia, but the recent rise of social media, and the ability to intercept that conversation, allows for the possibility of our conversation being turned into a market (yep, yep, nothing new - the printing press did that too, in just as revolutionary a way in it's time).

So, goggles down, it's time to bang into a few current pre-conceptions and obsessions as we stumble into the jaws of the future!

Immersion

Compared to ten years ago, we probably spend more of our conversation time online, mediated via social media. I "know" a lot more people on Twitter than I did 3 years ago, and many of them I haven't even met face to face. In which direction is this trend likely to go? Hologram technologies are actively being developed, as are VR headsets like the Oculus Rift. Wearable computing is big, voice-controlled assistants are teetering on the edge of actually being useful. Our interactions via technology are becoming more immersive.

Come and take a walk with me, in the future. Nowadays, when I go for a walk with a friend or friends, we're all subject to the same views, the same sights and sounds, and the same old conversations. It's only the 20-30% of our interactions that take place via social media that can be distorted by the echo chamber.

In the future, though, immersive technology could change all of that. Prefer my old haircut to the new one? No problem. If you enjoy my conversation but wouldn't be seen dead in my company because of my awful fashion sense, you could hologram me up in a different set of clothes, CGI out my bald patches, and maybe replace some of my jokes with ones that are actually funny and original. You like beaches, I like woodlands? No problem.

You'd rather take in a movie? I like slow cinematography and moral dilemmas, you like action? No problem. He likes rom-com with a slow fade, she likes something a bit more graphic? No problem. All the technologies required for interactive movies are rapidly evolving within the games industry.

Why stick to rigid categories of interaction like walks, movies, or meals? I want to discuss philosophy, you want to shoot mutants - no problem. A sophisticated enough translation engine could convert your backflips into insightful comments and my ripostes into deadly energy bolts in such a way that we both come away feeling that we've really connected in rather a meaningful way, and must get together again soon. And if I'm accidentally double-booked - a walk/meal with you and a meal/saving or blowing up the world with someone else - the immersive tech's translation engine can probably take care of that too.

Hey, if I got run over by a bus tomorrow, and that might make you feel bad, would you even have to know? The possibilities are more endless than we are.

Fiction, Truth

This is fiction, of course. Science fiction - possibly the only kind of fiction capable of expressing the conundrums and dilemmas that we face now, in the real world, in a meaningful way. As Caitlin Moran demonstrates, fiction is a powerful tool for getting at the truth (and so is humour).

What I've written just now is not about the future, it's about our lives now, here on this Earth. We're already pretty good at taking past each other. On the worldstage, uncomfortable views, people, ideologies, ideas, practices, are airbrushed out of the picture. Our reality is constructed. And on close inspection, my futurist's googles are nothing more than a bit of cardboard egg box, gold effect paint and knicker elastic.

So, if what I said makes you feel nervous, then you're probably a left-leaning liberal, slightly arty sort - welcome to my echo chamber! No doubt there are a thousand things that I hate find interestingly challenging about you, but thanks to the self-correcting newsfeed, we need never know.

If it makes you salivate and rub your hands, you're probably a VC or entrepreneur, or a lefty liberal's caricature of one. You are no doubt savvy enough to understand the grey line between truth and fiction, and see the opportunities anyway. (Well done for making it through the "barrage balloon" layer of vaguely anti-GM, anti-capitalist sentiment, btw!)

And if it makes you salivate and wag your tail, you're probably a dog, in which case, I look forward to the immersive translation engine reaching a level of sophistication where I can have a really good chat with you about shooting mutants in early 20th century French cinema.


Friday, 7 November 2014

A Singular Occurrence


A snippet from the next stage of the Improvised Graphic Novel. I'm doing test graphics - will post more soon - and writing up (as prose, initially) some of the stories that I might want to include. This is one of them.

Bit of background, as this is just a snippet: The notion of a technological singularity, whereby networked machines converge into a single super-intelligence, has been flip-flopping on the thin edge between science fact and fiction for a while - the Terminator movies, Vernor Vinge's fiction, Ray Kurzweil's non-fiction, Elon Musk's recent concerns, the upcoming Avengers Ultron movie, and so on. The history of the internet boom reads awfully like the boom in canals, railways and telegraph over 100 years ago. What if the singularity already happened, via these networks and the newly-globalised postal system? (Yes, it is all just a little bit steam-punk. This flavour won't permeate the entire novel.)

A small crowd gathered to watch as Mother, having made her dreadful decision, folded herself into the envelope. She turned such a brave and piteous look at me and Elsie, that all at once, tears rolled down my cheeks.


Most of the crowd were just neighbours and gawkers. Old Jen Flint was peering round the door, looking to see if the carriage clock or any silverware was out on display, but Mother and I had encrypted it all last night. Her hands shook as she showed me how to find the thread of things by pretending it weren’t there, and turn it inside out in little neat loops, until it were only there in the corner of your eye.


(Editor’s Note: The depiction of encryption of goods as “women’s work” may strike modern readers as out of place, and even surprising that the women-folk of the day were capable of such mathematically challenging pursuits. The reader should recall that encryption was not in widespread economic use at this time, as the Williamson Brothers’ invention of the Vortex Turbinator was still some 15 years away.)
(Real Editor’s Note: If this sounds like sexist BS, it’s meant to - please put your satire goggles on! Wish I didn’t have to spell it out, but this is the internet…)


“You’re in charge now, Het”, she said to me, and smiled. It were a sad, trembling sort, not one you’d trust. People try to put all kinds of things in front of their faces, but you can see what’s underneath if you but look for it.


“I’m frightened, Mam”, I said then, and was fighting not to say it again now. She’d struggled her way three quarters into the envelope, only her head and one arm out now, and I squeezed Elsie’s hot little hand.


The delegation from the Weights and Measures Office turned up, in their brushed black coats and moustaches. Mother turned round to smile at them, casual as if she were hanging out the laundry on the line.


“Oh, hello Mr. Simpson”, all sweet and mild, like. He was clutching a small package, and I closed me eyes to pray there was enough money inside, that they’d had a whip round, or robbed a bank, anything.


“A fat lot of good it is you turning up now, Mr. Simpson”, she continued, sweet as cake. He went all stiff, and there were gasps and muttering, of the sort she’d normally do anything to counter.


“Now, Mrs. Smail, there’s no need for that”, he stammered. “For any of this, it’s rash. You’ve a good job in the typing pool.”


“There’s need”, she snapped, “to put food on the table for these littl’uns. Typing pool won’t do it, or what you pay our Alfred. Dear Lord, he’s at 90% most days, can’t hardly say a word to us, and you’ve got the use of both his eyes.” As if remembering he was still there, she called in through the doorway. “See you, love!” An absent-minded mumble of agreement drifted out through the door.


I were blushing. It felt she were airing our poverty to all and sundry, but then, everyone on the street was as bad off as we were. Since the invasion, and the rewriting of the books, things had been like that for most folk.


Mother had become bold as brass. She turned to the crowd with a sort of wave, as she lifted her arm into the envelope. “I’m going on a sort of holiday”, she said. “I’ll send you all a postcard.” Her eyes weren’t jolly, though.


She turned to me and Elsie, and were sober again. “And I’ll write to you, love. And you can always write back, you know that.”
“They’re very young, Mrs. Smail.” Mr. Simpson shuffled. “Writing’d be a dreadsome chore for them. We came here to offer a mannequin, we’d waive the installation fee, they could at least talk to you.” He presented the package. “I’ve taken the liberty of preparing documents, just needs a signature.”
“And how d’you think we’d pay the bloody rent on it?!” Mother snapped, her face white. “Ooh, you’re vultures, you lot, you can stick your mannequin! Stay away from my girls, I’ll be watching you.”


I swear her eyes were burning as she climbed into the envelope, folding down the flap. She called out to Mo Fairbanks and Mrs. Chowdry, and they lifted her, light as a feather, towards the post box on the corner, and slid her through the flap.


Elsie and I had been standing stiff as soldiers, but suddenly she crumpled into tears. I picked her up, and with a sharp look at Mr. Simpson - just like Mother had given him - went inside.


Dinner was bubbling on the stove. The stack of envelopes and writing paper was at one end of the table, and at the other was Father, sat in his chair, with his horrid metal eyes swinging blindly across the room, hands flat and lifeless as paper, palms down.


“We’re back”, I said. “Mother’s gone.”
“Gone? Oh, yeah.” He was miles away, calculating weights and measures somewhere. “Love you.”

He always said that, and it sounded blank as his eyes. I tried not to mind. I tore off a bit of bread for Elsie to keep her quiet, and turned to stir the pot on the stove.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Water Ways

Another Unsplash kata, using the images mailed 29 Feb. Trying to combine the words and pictures in less of a traditional comic-book way here.





Lots of pale, watery images this week, with the bright yellow of the tree standing out among them.

The canoe was the obvious narrative starting point here, and I "cheated" and did a bit of gimp-ing to remove the boys one by one. Leaving in the reflections started out as an accident, but it was a good one that serves the story well, I think!

Credits: Caleb George Taylor Leopold Silvestri Matteo Brownie Casey Fyfe (twice!) Caleb Thal Dustin Scarpitti Todd Quackenbush Matthew Clark