Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Works in Progress 1

I'm still bashing away at the Improvised Comic project, a few more images in progress here...




Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Under the Radar

Totalitarian regimes often employ strong centralised censorship of media channels as a means of exercising control. It's interesting to note how often these operations develop blind spots to particular media, allowing some discourse against government ideas to filter through. The blind spots often develop around areas of humour or fantasy - seemingly pointing to a certain literal-mindedness or lack of imagination in the average dictator and his or her apparatus of control.

The most commonly cited example of this is the Soviet era's willingness to publish science fiction, such as Bulgakov's "Heart of a Dog" and the Strugatsky brothers' "Monday begins on Saturday", which offered thinly-veiled criticisms of the state. Not all subversive work escaped the censors - Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We" was largely circulated via underground channels, for example, but still many subjects could be broached because they were done so in disguise.

The example of this topic that we'll examine today is the syndicated cartoon strip "Feeling Lucky, Adventure Jim?", which appeared in the Ogopathian tabloid newspaper "Petelin", (literally "The Cockerel", but linked via various phrases to the concept of freedom) in the years immediately after the digital revolution known internally as The Encryption. As a state-registered publication, Petelin was watched closely by the Ministry of Information, and editorial and news content followed the party line. The curiously-titled "Adventure Jim" typically featured on the back page, and purported to inform citizens of the appropriate response to the new surveillance technologies that were being rolled out across the country. An early example does this in a rather straightforward fashion, although the somewhat clownish appearance of the eponymous hero strikes an odd note from the start.

 Jim assures us that he is lucky, to have the support of the Ministry in thinking an acting like a citizen of the new regime.

Within a matter of weeks, the tone of the strip has changed somewhat, offering a range of rather disconcerting imagery, such as the representation of the state as a bowl of talking disinfectant:

Sufficient elements of the earlier strips, and of official party wording, are retained, but the juxtaposition of the phrase "emptiness is serenity" with Jim's look of outrage or horror tells us a lot about the cartoonist's sympathies, and his/her expectations as to what the largely automated censorship process will and won't pick up on. (The identity of "Buffalo" has never been firmly established, and, as has been noted elsewhere, the symbol of the Buffalo was co-opted by both the ruling committee and elements of the early resistance, based on the ambiguity of the nonsense sentence popularised by the jazz band The Overcoats in the years immediately prior to The Encryption.)

Having secured a few column inches out of the censor's watch, Buffalo appears to have placed a test strip that openly lampoons the earlier message:

Having got away with that, subsequent strips appear to offer veiled references to emerging technologies being developed by the Ministry of Information, and their deployment.

The nonsensical reference in the strapline message has been speculatively linked to the town of Cnoot, out of which a cell of resistance operated for some years. Further strips demonstrate awareness of the micro-sensors that were deployed in the third decade after encryption, and of the cottage industry of "tin foil hats" thought to guard against some of the Ministry's more intrusive systems.



It should be pointed out that the samples shown here illustrate the few examples of direct knowledge of Ministry activity, and that inbetween times, the strp would run for weeks in a rather more whimsical mode, developing the diverse cast of characters including the increasingly argumentative feet, and the singing bath tub. Whatever the nature of the elusive Buffalo, the strip ran for little more than two years before it was unceremoniously dropped, and most references to it within official documentation wiped. 

In contrast to the slow-moving bureaucracy of the Soviet era, the censorship apparatus of post-Encryption Ogopathia was highly adaptive and innovative, and one can only assume that Jim's adventurous author soon found that his/her luck had run out.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Process : Building up Image from a Photo

Here's a quick run through of one of the processes that I use to create the images for "The Book of Everything". I'm using The Gimp, but photoshop users ought to be able to translate quite easily. This was done for a single panel, in an image file of it's own.

Here's the starting point, an "out-take" photo of Liz (left, knitting) and Karen (right, with mask on) - on the days that we were doing the photo-shoots, all the photographers were taking snaps pretty much flat out, as anything could end up as a panel.


Liz' character's already been introduced at this point (the knitting wasn't intended as a prop - her grandson was due a few weeks after the shoot, and she had something to finish off - but it's been incorporated into the story as a "pocket universe" that her character is creating). This is the first sighting of Karen's character, who won't reappear for some time.

I want to create a rough mono-coloured background colour, and add linework over the top. First, to get the flat colour, I apply a threshold on a copy of the base layer:

I'm not cropping the image at this point, but I take the opportunity to delete that blasted curtain! Next up, I'll substitute the black for something gentler:

I'll then use the "oilify" filter with a large mask size (32, IIRC?) to soften the edges. (No idea if PS has an "oilify" equiv, or what it's called...

A lot of fine detail's been lost here, but that's ok, as the next layer will retrieve it. I apply the cartoon filter now, on another copy of the original image:
and then threshold that to a very low value (2 or 3 of 255), to wipe out all the colour, and just leave the black linework:
I replace the white with transparent pixels (colour to alpha), so the previous layer is visible underneath. I also apply a layer mask to the linework layer, initially all black, and then paint in the areas where I want the lines to be seen (generally faces, hands, the ball of wool, some of the head dress of flowers, but leaving the silhouette blank for a pleasing graphic effect). This adds dramatic emphasis, and also allows me to fix up where the cartoon effect went wrong. As I recall, Karen's chin ended up looking strangely stippled, so I just expose the linework on the mask.
 At this point, the working image file is done.I export to a jpeg and import that as a new layer on the page, then play around with the colours a bit more to get it to fit. Here's the finished art for the page, sans lettering.

The cross-hatching effect on the lower two panels and the cut-out at the top is rather more complicated - maybe I'll cover that another time.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Friday, 23 January 2015

Words and Pictures

Comics are all about how the words and pictures bounce off each other. The words and pictures can both convey the same message, or carry out complementary functions. They can create friction, by saying something similar, but not quite the same. This was all laid out in Scott McCloud's watershed book "Understanding Comics". But I want to look here at how these instantaneous associations work when we add time into the equation too.

The pictures can change the words, and how we perceive them. Let's take a short phrase:

"It's important to relax at the end of the day."

Here are four random (creative commons) images from Google that could illustrate the above phrase:




And here they are all together, in strip form. It's hard not to form a narrative around them, isn't it? Comics are all about time, after all.


Now let's add a few words, including the phrase that we started off with:

...and change the way that you, the reader, responds to the images in the process. (Nothing clever here, this is a staple of horror stories, mixing up the familiar and the unsettling.)

So that final set of words, next to the final panel, have changed their meaning because of the picture that they go with.

But, taken as a whole, the words and pictures have also done something else - set up associations between visual concepts and concepts. He's not resting on the grass, he's dead! (panel 3). But I find what has happened to panels 2 and 4 more interesting. Daisies and cups of tea are probably now linked in your mind, at least temporarily, with the concept of poison. I'm guessing that this wasn't the case beforehand!?

Let's say that I were to repeat the image of the same cup of tea, with the phrase "I don't like my brother much either." Taken out of context, the link between words and pictures might evoke tea and sympathy, but if it comes after the sequence above, it might be enough to suggest another poisoning is in the offing. Even if I included a different image showing a close up of hands holding a cup of tea, it should be enough to trigger the association. If I show several different hands, with different cups of tea, and finished the sequence off with the words "My story touched a chord for many people.", then I can suggest a whole string of copycat poisonings, maybe? And by simply suggesting it rather than coming out with it direct, I leave the reader with a question rather than an answer, which, as I've written before, is often much richer and rewarding.

There are lots of possibilities here. Colours can be used to build up associations, as much as objects like tea and daisies. Specific compositions such as extreme close-ups or long shots, could be built up to be associated with particular concepts. In film, music can do the same, as well as it's more traditional purpose of setting the mood.

This play of associations and recurring motifs isn't limited to comics - films do it, novels and plays do it too - but I think in comics, the two streams of word and picture are quite distinct. This allows us to set up the association once, and then, when we want to re-use it, let only one stream do the work, while the other can get on with something else.