A Shomen for Drawing

18 10 2013

shomen3Awhile back my friend Anna wrote a post about building a physical, external aid to creativity. Hers was an automat– a replica of one of those old-timey walk-in vending machine/diners, which she would stock with things to help her get writing when she’s feeling blocked. I thought this was a really cool idea. She invited her readers to suggest their own constructions, but I couldn’t think of anything. But then, writer’s block isn’t really my problem. I have miles of story mapped out for my webcomic. My problem is sitting down and getting started on drawing pages, and then continuing to draw pages rather than re-watching old seasons of Breaking Bad.

One morning I was doing what I always do. I’d had breakfast, read the paper, and I was reading all my online newsfeeds, comic subscriptions, and Facebook updates, trying to rev up for some drawing before it was time to walk the dog. I go through the same routine every day. It’s a ritual with no clear conclusion. There’s always more to peruse on the internet– I just stop when I feel guilty enough. Or I don’t stop until Teagan starts bugging me for a walk, and the morning is a wash. And then I have other obligations that eat up the day and the comic falls behind.

I decided that rather than a construction like Anna’s, I need a better ritual. One that sends a clear signal to my brain: now is drawing time. Kinda like how we bow in for Aikido. In fact, almost exactly like that.

We bow a lot in Aikido. At the beginning of class, at the end of class, when we practice with someone, when we pick up a weapon. We bow to other students, to the sensei, and to the shomen, which is a kind of altar at the front of the dojo. It may look like a lot of pointless rigamarole, but it actually serves a purpose. Aside from being good etiquette, treating the time and space of practice in a certain way we separates it from the outside world. Starting class with a bow is a way to clear the mind, set aside whatever else went on that day, and focus on training.

shomen2So I started doing this for drawing. I made a very rudimentary shomen by hanging up a collage of artists’ work I would like to emulate. I found a nice box to hold my favorite drawing tools when I’m not working. I do a formal bow at the beginning and end of the work day, and a casual bow when I step away for a break.

I did this for several weeks and managed to crank out pages consistently. Then some other obligations came along, and I stopped bowing, and page production slowed way down. Causality? Or spurious correlation? Rather than a pure cause-and-effect relationship, I think the ritual and the work feed each other. I’m going to get back in the habit of bowing in and see what happens.


The Unfair Critic vs Life Of Pi

10 05 2013

life_of_pi_ver2Warning: I will spoil everything

This is a hard post to write, because I find myself in endless ironic loops. I’m just going to barrel forward and try to ignore them, you can do as you like.

I read Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I only knew what everyone knows about it: boy gets stuck on a lifeboat with tiger. I like animals, and I like ocean voyages, and I was hoping those things would be dealt with somewhat realistically. I was engaged by part 1, about Pi’s life in India. I thoroughly enjoyed part 2, the part about being stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger. I found myself frustrated and angry by the end of part 3, when the author brings everything back around to a question of faith. It’s not the book I want it to be, which is my problem, not the author’s. The author, as far as I can tell, achieved exactly what he intended, and I commend him for it.

I didn’t see the movie, and I don’t plan to. I think I would hate it. The still images I’ve seen from the movie glisten with that CGI sheen. I don’t want this story to shimmer with magic. The situation is fantastic enough; I want the sights and sounds and smells to land with matter-of-fact, undeniable reality. I want to believe it. I want to be on that lifeboat with that tiger. I want to breathe the air in the middle of the ocean with a wild predator, at once dangerous, inaccessible, and part of a bond with a human being.

Part 2 of the book accomplishes all this admirably. Pi’s strategies for dealing with the tiger are surprising, ingenious, and plausible. Their journey is arduous and enthralling, and believable. The distance between human and tiger is never entirely bridged, because hello, it’s a wild animal. Believability is key. I desperately didn’t want the story to become fantasy. I enjoy fantasy, but with this story I was hoping to feel a more authentic connection to the natural world; the ocean, the sky, wild animals. Again, my problem. What’s the point in approaching any work of art with such specific expectations? I’m not writing the book. I can interpret it in my own way, but I don’t get to decide what happens.

Still. Expectations met, as I said, in Part 2. Even though there were some elements that stretched plausibility, that might be called magical realism. The oil tanker that blindly brushes past the castaways seems unlikely in the vast ocean, but also seems like one of those events so ridiculous it has to be true. The island of algae may or not have any basis in actual botany, but I had no trouble believing it. The one thing that really threw me was meeting the other blind sailor in the other lifeboat. That was so utterly unlikely, I thought the whole episode was a hallucination, right up until the two Japanese reps discuss it in Part 3.

Part 3, when Pi tells his story to the men from the shipping company, and they don’t believe him. So he tells them another story, with no wild animals, that they can believe. And then I start to doubt this wonderful story I’ve just finished. Why would the author do that? Probably for the same reason he wrote 100+ pages of Pi being in India and absorbing different religions. Pi is pious (is that why Martel chose that odd name for his protagonist?) and he prays a lot at sea, but it’s his empirical knowledge of zookeeping that saves him. So what’s all this religion in aid of? Only the central theme of the book, it turns out. In the end, we are given a choice. Believe the unbelievable, the much better story, or fall back on what fits with our own experience. Have faith, or don’t.

To clarify, I don’t really doubt the story with the tiger. It’s pretty clear what really happened to Pi (if anything can be said to have “really happened” in a work of fiction.) I think Martel is just giving us an exercise in faith, a miniature model of faith. I am not religious, so when I hear people talk about faith a part of me switches off. Faith is nothing to do with me. So I was frustrated to get to the end of the book and feel evangelized to, even in a most subtle and friendly way.

Still, I have to admit, all the things I wanted from this book–the sense of connection to the ocean, the sky, wild animals, the natural world–most people would call that a spiritual impulse. I don’t mind calling it that. One can seek and feel a connection to the larger universe without believing in God. We skeptics get a lot of spiritual juice from scientific observation. That’s why I so craved, and so appreciated, the realism in this story. Realism was my best path to a spiritual experience. When faith became the clear central theme, I almost felt my realist path to spiritual connection devalued.

Almost, but not quite. In the end I have to just let it go, as Pi lets Richard Parker go, connected and disconnected at the same time. Which again is the nature of spiritual experience, because unless you are fully enlightened and enter Nirvanna there will always be an element of disconnect. See! Despite my best efforts, Life of Pi remains the book its author intended. I’m gonna go read Spider-Man now.

Magic is Real, in the Past

17 10 2012

I recently listened to an old episode of Radiolab about memory. I was struck by the capricious nature of memory as described in the program. Remembering something, they say, is not like playing back a tape. It is actually a a reconstruction of the event being remembered.

This is a weird concept, especially in the digital age, when we take for granted the capacity to record and play back any visible or audible event with perfect accuracy. We expect our memories to work the same way. Even when memory is suspect (we’ve all forgotten things, or remembered things differently than someone else) we can compensate by externalizing memories. We can look at old photographs, read old journals, re-watch movies, and virtually re-live past experiences.

But what did memory mean to cultures with no photography, and no mass literacy? How does a society conceive of the past when all their histories are maintained by oral tradition and abstract art?

As any art historian will tell you, pre-modern artists were not too dumb to paint in a lifelike way; they just weren’t interested in doing so. One might say they understood the folly of Pygmalion (which my drawing teacher Joseph Mann was fond of citing). The map is not the territory. A work of art is a representation, not the thing it represents. So if a culture doesn’t care about lifelike recordings, what is their understanding of the past?

I’m speaking in wooly generalities here, but it’s a blog post, not a dissertation. Ancient cultures had a wide array of myths and legends– magical tales. Today we intuitively understand the universe to be predictable. It can be dumbfounding, sure, but it works according to rules that can be understood through study and exploration. It’s hard for us to imagine someone truly believing in magic. But if we had no records to go on apart from stories that had been passed down for generations, stories that had been imperfectly copied from one teller to the next, stories that inevitably alter, perhaps growing ever more colorful and outlandish…wouldn’t those stories seem as real as our photographs? Even if we’re aware that the stories change over time (again, ancient people were not idiots), they are our best tool for understanding the universe. And if our best tool is fluid and abstract, we might sense that it reflects a fluidity in the universe. Unlike a photograph, which reflects concrete, predictable reality.

Or–this is even better (and it’s really where the Radiolab thing comes in). Suppose you live in this world with only fluid, mythic histories, and you have an outlandish experience, like, say, being struck by lightning. And every time you recall that experience, you recreate it slightly differently, until it becomes an encounter with a monster or a spirit. That memory is just as real and reliable as the weight of a rock in your hand at the present moment. And then, you hear a story from someone else about magic elves. Why wouldn’t you believe it?

Magic cannot happen in the present, but it can happen in the past. For ancient peoples, magic was constantly going on in the past, as evidenced by both personal and ancestral memory. Boom! All ancient mythical stories are now true. You’re welcome.

Notes on Style

24 04 2012

“…we must not force (style) upon our artwork, but rather let it grow of its own volition, from the totality of our influences and abilities (or inabilities, as the case may be). When style is not the natural outcome, the outgrowth, of all these things, we have instead a repugnant, off-putting mannerism. Many beginners, sadly, approach the whole matter “bass-ackwards.” They fret about style long before they master some reasonable drawing ability, learn to handle the tools of the trade, intuit the basics of design and composition, or (worst of all) eliminate affectation and dishonesty from their stories.”

Ivan Brunetti, Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice

I’ve been wrestling with the idea of style lately. I read an essay years ago about painting (apologies, I can’t find it and have no idea who wrote it) that talked about “manufacturing a style,” and made essentially the same point that Brunetti states so eloquently. My response was to ignore the idea of style as much as possible, drawing with a focus on communication and expression and letting the drawings assume whatever visual character they want. I’ve had some success doing 24 hour comics this way, but my other projects have suffered from a lack of design consciousness.

Basically  I’ve been so set on not falling into the trap of manufacturing a style, I’ve avoided making conscious decisions as much as possible. But that’s ridiculous. Art has to be deliberate, it has to consist of intentionality, or else it’s just noodling. Sometimes that’s enough, but usually it’s not.  And anyway, like the song says, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”

I feel kind of silly that it’s taken me this long to figure this out. You probably already know it, so just humor me as I spell it out for myself.  Honest self-expression can come from conscious as well as unconscious sources. The important thing with stylistic decisions is to ask, “Is this best for the story?” (Or the painting or the film or whatever the whole piece is.) Not, “Will this sell?” Not, “Does this look enough like artist X or genre Y?” Also not, “Is this different enough from artist X or genre Y?” Just, does it express what it needs to express in the best possible way? The artist can and should closely examine his/her own work in order to make it the best it can be.

DC’s New 52, A Selection

30 09 2011

For those of you who don’t follow comics and may not have heard: this month DC relaunched its entire line of characters, starting 52 comic books over at #1. Why would they do that? To sell comics, obviously, but it makes a lot of sense from a narrative point of view. Many of these characters have been around for decades, had dozens of writers, gone through many transformations, and wound up with such complicated (and contradictory) histories that if you haven’t been following the action for at least 5-10 years, you can’t understand what’s going on now.

I tried recently. I heard great things about what Geoff Johns was doing with Green Lantern, specifically the Blackest Night storyline. So I checked out some books from the library, and they were great, but a lot of the drama hinges on who has died in the past and under what circumstances. And there have been A LOT of deaths and resurrections and substitutions and inheritances. I tried to get a grip on the history reading some other large crossover storylines (basically anything with Crisis in the title) but it was hopeless.

So I was happy to hear DC was starting everything over, and giving me a chance to get in on the ground floor. I even went to my local comic store and subscribed to a bunch of books, something I haven’t done in about 15 years. Here are my findings within a more or less random sample.


Justice League. The flagship book, launched all by itself the last week in August. I enjoy these characters most when they interact with each other, rather than having solo adventures. This book has all the key players, and Geoff Johns’ writing, so it’s clearly a keeper.

Action Comics. Superman at the beginning of his hero career, as written by the ever-imaginative Grant Morrison. A fresh take on the character, and on his home city. Makes it easy to stick with what DC calls the foundation of the new universe.

Animal Man. My favorite new title, and a big surprise. It just happens to have the best art, and Jeff Lemire’s writing is reminiscent of DC’s Vertigo imprint, best known (by me) for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles.

Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE. Also written by Jeff Lemire, the perfect blend of monsters and superheroes.

Green Lantern. Geoff Johns writing his signature character, so I have to stick with it, even though for a reboot it seems to carry a lot of history I’m not privy to.

Swamp Thing. Written by Scott Snyder, also very Vertigo-esque. The first issue raises lots of intriguing questions, and some implication of an Animal Man crossover.

Batman. Also written by Scott Snyder, and the only one of the 7 (!) Batman or Bat-family books I’m reading. In the old continuity Batman was always fairly straightforward, but Robin has gone through many different incarnations. This book got me up to speed on the various Robins in one full-page panel. That’s how to do a reboot! The rest of the pages were cool too.

Justice League Dark. I don’t much like the title, and I’ve never liked one of the characters (Deadman), but with the magic/occult themes this one seemed likely to be another Vertigo-style book, so I tried it. And I like it.

The Savage Hawkman. I don’t think any old-continuity character had a less coherent history than Hawkman. I tried to get on board with him, had to check Wikipedia to get any kind of foothold, and found that even with parallel universes and reincarnations no one has been able to reconcile his divergent origins. So I wanted to see how he would be handled with a clean slate…and it’s pretty cool.

Captain Atom. I decided to pick one title I had absolutely no history with…and it’s pretty good. It’s really good actually. A hero who’s immense powers are a danger to himself, and somewhat unorthodox artwork. I’ll stay with it for awhile.


Stormwatch. This is the only title I followed before the reboot–or more to the point, I followed The Authority, which is what Stormwatch turned into and where Apollo and The Midnighter came in. And these are the characters that I feel like the reboot has gotten all wrong. I was eager to see how the Martian Manhunter would fit in with this group (Stormwatch started out under the Wildstorm imprint, not part of the DC universe at all), but it’s all pretty lackluster.

OMAC. This…uh, thing (it’s a character now, it was more of a group before) seemed to loom large when I was trying to catch up on the previous DC universe, but I could never get a handle on what it was about. Apparently it’s just some crazy genetic cyborg. Not too thrilling.

I, Vampire. I read some reviews giving this one high praise, but I found it to be fairly tired war-of-the-vampires stuff.

The Fury of Firestorm. Here’s another one I checked out because I never quite got the old Firestorm. Now that I get it, it’s not that interesting.

Legion of Superheroes. This was a longshot for me, and it didn’t pan out. I remember enjoying LOS when I was in like second grade, with their vaguely uniform outfits and their outer space exploits. The reboot updates that whole scenario about as well as can be expected, but there’s no compelling reason to come back for another issue.


The Flash. The art is good, the layouts are interesting, but some of the events don’t make a lot of sense, and the story just didn’t grab me. I think I’ll be happier following Flash as a member of the Justice League.

Legion Lost. A small group of the Legion of Superheroes travels back from the 31st century and gets stranded present day. This is a much more engaging take on the Legion, but by the end of issue 1 both my new favorite characters are dead. They’ll probably be back, but aside from that their are some common time-travel pitfall that bug me (why did they have to arrive in the past AFTER the bad guy the are chasing from the future? Hello, time machine??) I may stick with this for a few issues, but not for long unless it improves.

Justice League International. Lots of characters I don’t know too well, some squabbling and secret manipulation, generally fun. Batman makes a gratuitous guest appearance. If I had unlimited funds I would keep this subscription, but more likely I will drop it after a couple more issues.


Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws. This whole reboot SHOULD have been the moment when DC turns away from rank exploitation in their portrayal of female characters, but it wasn’t. I didn’t read the books in question, but Laura Hudson makes a convincing case that they blew it. So does this seven year old girl. and this comic critique of DC’s math skills is just awesome. I wish DC would get the clue, but it doesn’t look like they will. It sorta makes me feel like a sucker for buying any of their books.

Worldcon 2011: The Hugos

25 09 2011

Yes, the Hugo awards, voted on by Worldcon attendees and presented Saturday night. I enjoyed the ceremony this time much more then at Denvention in 2008. In fact all the major events seemed better organized and more hospitable. Mad props, Renovation peeps!

The Hugo Award is always a sleek rocket, but every year it gets attached to a different base. As part of the awards ceremony, they brought out the artist behind this year’s base and had her talk about her inspiration and process. I was really glad they did that, because her ideas and execution were brilliant. Inspired by recent photographs of geysers on Enceladus, Marina Gelineau used layers of scored and painted glass to represent the surface of an icy world, with strange life forms beneath the surface. (Click here and scroll down for a blurry photo.)

For in-depth analysis of the Hugo outcomes, visit Erik’s blog. The full list of winners is here. I’m just going to talk about some of my favorites.

For best novel, I voted for The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. This vote was pretty much a foregone conclusion ever since I heard the author read some excerpts at my last Worldcon in Denver. I also really liked N. K. Jemisen’s The 100,000 Kingdoms, which built a compelling, original mythology and put the gods in the action with the mortals. And I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Feed by Mira Grant, a.k.a. Seanan McGuire. I’m generally not a big fan of zombie stuff, but her scenario was different than the standard undead apocalypse and offered some significant surprises. But after reading all three, I still liked The Dervish House best. The other two entries I didn’t finish. Not especially cool, I know, but I had a lot to read in a short span of time, and after getting about 100 pages into each I could confidently rank them fourth and fifth. (Connie Willis won with her 1000-plus page epic in two volumes, Blackout/All Clear.)

I really wanted Bryan Talbot to win best graphic story for Grandeville Mon Amour. It’s a steampunky murder mystery in a world of anthropomorphic animals, where France has colonized Great Britain (and renamed it Grandeville, also the name of a 19th century illustrator known for animal characters.) However the Hugo went to Girl Genius by the Folgios, as it has every year since the category was added. I’m a longtime fan of Phil Foglio, but it would have been sweet to see Grandeville Mon Amour win. Oh well.

In the end my only vote for first place that actually won (besides Inception for best long-form dramatic presentation, a shoe-in) was Shaun Tan for best professional artist. He’s more of a cartoonist than the book cover artists he was up against, so I was surprised but psyched to see him win the Hugo.

So now, as a member of this year’s Worldcon, I get to nominate works for next year’s Hugos. I’m going to make an effort to read books that actually come out this year. I’ve already read China Mieville’s Embassytown, and it’s one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read. I’m still working my way to A Dance with Dragons, but I believe George R. R. Martin has taken himself out of the running. The HBO series is probably fair game, though.

Got any other suggestions?

This was given to me while waiting to board the plane home. (I was reading the book.) Thanks Brigid!


Worldcon 2011, part 1

26 08 2011

I’m not going to give a day-by-day accounting of the world sci-fi con in Reno, like I did for Denver. Just recapping the highlights this time. Or lowlights. Most-interesting-lights.

I flew in from Portland and my brother Erik flew in from Denver. I started reading A Game of Thrones on the plane. I wanted to have a nice fat book for the trip–reading in airports and on planes is no fun when you have to pace yourself so as not to finish the book with hours of travel time left over. And I’ve been hearing good things about the HBO series, although I won’t be seeing it until it’s released on disc. Still I was glad to have jumped on the Song of Ice and Fire bandwagon. The popular series always loom large at these events–Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. Being a lately converted George R. R. Martin fan made me feel that much more plugged in.

The first evening, Erik turned me on to a new writer, Lauren Beukes. I read the first few pages of her book Zoo City, and promptly bought it and her other book, Moxyland. Am I too quick to judge? Probably. But it usually doesn’t take more than a few pages to know if I’m going to like an author. Mira Grant is a notable exception- more on that later. Anyway, we signed up for a Literary Beer with Beukes. The Literary Beer is a gathering of one author and 10 or so fans, much like the Kaffeeklatches, but with alcohol instead of caffeine. As with the Ian MacDonald Kaffeeklatch in 2008, this was one of the most rewarding experiences of the con. Beukes is a South African journalist, and she shared some of her remarkable experiences that inform her writing. I’ve been home for a few days now, finally finished Game of Thrones, so now I’m reading Zoo City for real. (I did run out and buy A Clash of Kings, but I’m taking a break between Ice And Fire tomes. Otherwise I’ll be reading nothing else for the next year.)

We kept busy attending panels. As in Denver, there were a dozen rooms of programming throughout every day of the con, with subject matter ranging from writing tips to hard science to scholarly critiques to fun goofiness. (One panel we went to posed the question, which historical events are so unlikely they are clearly the work of time travelers from the future?) Due to the panels I attended, my experience had a strong political theme. Some socially-minded panels I sought out (Social Justice in Science Fiction, Revolutions in Science Fiction, for example), others just bubbled it to the surface (The Far Future, How To Draw People of Different Races, The Future of Cities, F&*# Your Knight and the Horse he Rode In On, and others).  My next big project was on my mind, and I want it to address inequality and corruption in the real world without degenerating into a mere screed, as my past satirical efforts have tended to do. I picked up some strategies that seem promising.

Some people wear costumes. The majority of costumes I saw were steampunk in nature. There were lots of steampunk books and artwork as well, but the prevalence in costumes really struck me. I think we’re looking at a 3rd phylum of fanciful tales, alongside Science Fiction and Fantasy. Steampunk could be considered a subset of either sci-fi or fantasy, but it sort of has to pull elements from both, and it has its own distinctive aesthetic and tropes. It also contains a wide variety of sub-types, as sci-fi and fantasy do. (Does everyone really hate the term “sci-fi?” Too bad, I’m using it anyway.)

I didn’t wear a costume. I took advantage of the venue to wear dorky clothes I would wear everyday if I wasn’t self-conscious; leathery flight hat, big round goggles, pockety vest. I added a BPRD patch to my vest, so if anyone asked I could say I was dressed as an agent of the organization from Hellboy. My specialty: archaic cosmologies. Or silly drawings. Yes, I’m a nerd, we’ve established this, if you don’t like it read some other blog.

Next: The Hugo Awards