Beasts, beauties, and Borowczyk

Yeah, sorry for the pulpy title, but the post warrants it ;)

Borowczyk_1000pxI made the above illustration for the Electric Sheep movie website, to go with their spotlight on Polish director Walerian Borowczyk. I made a fair amount of research into Borowczyk and his films in preparation for the illustration, which I will unload below the fold. Click on at your own risk: Continue reading

This, oh this…!

I came upon this via Twitter this morning: Sam Lavigne wrote a program that will turn any text into a patent application. Of course, that’s just delightful in itself, especially with the sample output he supplies: Kafka’s The Hunger Artist becomes “An apparatus and device for staring into vacancy”, and from the illustration idex to the Communist Manifesto (“A method and device for comprehending theoretically the historical movement”, PDF) we learn that

Figure 52 schematically illustrates the icy water of egotistical calculation.

Great, right? Being a big fan of machine-appropriated nonsense, this tickled my fancy enormously, but Lavigne’s inspiration for the program was just as exciting to me:

I was partially inspired by Paul Scheerbart’sPerpetual Motion Machine, a sort of technical/literary diary in which Scheerbart documents and reflects on various failed attempts to create a perpetual motion machine. Scheerbart frequently refers to his machines as “stories” – I wanted to reverse the concept and transform stories into machines.

Machines as stories, really? See, that’s another thing that alwaqys makes my mouth water, cross media metaphors :) Lavigne also provides this illustration from Scheerbart’s book which — apart from the obvious similarity to Mickey Mouse, there — immediately made me think of comics:

fig-21True, I think of comics pretty much all the time, so no surprise there. For instance, I’ve been evangelising about IKEA manuals as a form of pure, pantomime comics. However, Scheerbart’s approach adds a layer of complexity (cause and effect, directional motion) which 1) adds to the narrative potential of diagrammatic comics, and 2) is very tongue in cheek for his part, because he’s really having us on with the whole construction bit. Perpetual motion is, of course in violations of the laws of thermodynamics, and Scheerbart is merely using the form of technical schematics to his own, philosophically meandering ends.

I can’t claim to have a very technical mind, myself, but this caught my interest enough to look further into the visual techniques of diagrams, and hopefully work some of it into my own, idle comics experiments. Oh, and Das Perpetuum Mobile is available as online text, although only in German as far as I can see.

Here’s a thought about remixing comics

The main interest for me of the comic strip is the infinite possible links between text and image : a system of representation continually confronting , in a kind of alchemy, text and picture. [...] I try to find new reading perspectives. I dismantle a given material to make something else of it.

Jochen Gerner, talking about his remix of Tintin in America

What’s the harm in fiction? Three points

  1. Pornography is ‘paintings or drawings about wantons.’ Now it doesn’t say anything in there about photographs or films or shared files of wantons or children or anything else. I think a line has to be drawn between the sexual imagination and any attempt to materialize that in a photograph or whatever, and that is something that should be and is covered. We have perfectly adequate existing laws regarding coersive sex, whatever the age of the person concerned.
  2. [that the] cartoons in and of themselves may be considered pornographic, and that they represent children. But these are fantasy figures that can not be mistaken for real children. The criminalization of the possession of the cartoons would go beyond what is necessary with regard to the purpose which has led to the restriction on freedom of expression and freedom of information as a penal provision means.
  3. Oh? You think you are powerful assassins? No. You are foolish little girls. Here, see how a real man assassin puts you in your place. No, he doesn’t ‘literally’ rape them, but a male forced these (fictional) women to act in a way males would find them sexy while another male did violence to them. That is teaching women their place. That is fucked up. That is rape culture.

1) Alan Moore on the under-age sexuality on display in his and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, from this interview. 2) Google translated from this morning’s Swedish supreme court acquittal of a manga expert and translator, accused of possessing child porn. 3) Brendan Keogh exemplifying the rape culture in video games like the latest Hitman.

Here’s a thought about medieval comics

[The] unconventional aspects are deliberate pointers to a hidden poetic structure, accessible only to the initiate. This deep structure is a system of interrelated parts conveying a unity of meaning. Although the links uniting these parts exist on the visual level, they are predominantly a function of subtextual narratives and symbols operating below the surface and realized in the educated viewer’s mind. The iconographer relies on the viewer’s silent co-participation in his creative process to uncover a mystery beyond words.

I had you convinced for a second that this was about some experimental comics, didn’t I? This is actually from the abstract for a study of a 500 years old, Russian icon depicting the biblical “last judgment”.

Let this be a lesson that a) I interpret everything as pertaining to comics, and b) everything pertains to comics.

May contain traces of language

A few days ago, esteemed cartoonist Rod McKie wrote a very flattering blog post about my 2006 graphic novel, Sortmund. He seemed to like the art a lot, but what makes the review more interesting to me is, he got the story perfectly right. That may sound like I’m dissing Rod’s literacy, but quite the contrary—you see, the book was only ever published in Danish, a language he does not speak or read.

I find that incredibly fascinating; that a book, which I have always thought of as rather dialogue-driven, narrates so well visually, too. Mind you, I’m not blowing my.own horn here, a lot of water has run under the bridge since I finished Sortmund, and I’ll be the first to point out its flaws.

Once again, it’s mostly to Rod’s credit that he got it. What follows is a rambling meditation on the comics form, which fell out of my head after reading his post:

You often hear the question from non-comics readers, “How do you read these things?” People don’t know if they’re supposed to read text or image first, where I suppose we trained readers take both in at a glance. So yes, Rod is not just a reader, he’s a professional drawer; he knows the language of comics, as his review also shows.

But everybody can read comics, it’s just a matter of the visual grammar used in the individual work that might pose an obstacle. There are different kinds of visual shorthand that make sense to readers accustomed to the genre, form, or even culture in which the comic is created—but may be incomprehensible to beginning comics readers.

Take the banner image at the top of this site, which is my own joke on those clouds of dust that follow people running in gag cartoons and strips (only in my drawing, the cartoon-me isn’t moving, so oh man, I just ruined the joke). It may originate in animated cartoons from the ’40s, where Tom & Jerry, et al would leave a cloud behind when they broke into a sprint.

Or, remember when DragonBall appeared in the West? Didn’t take anybody long to figure out what those instant nosebleeds meant, but I’m sure we all had a short, head-scratching moment before the shoe dropped. That. That’s how untrained readers feel about comics all the time.

Provided of course they only pick up manga, or superhero comics. Those things are like being thrown into Advanced Mechanics class when you just want to learn to drive a car. No, everybody can read comics, across language barriers. It’s mostly the idiomatic trappings that cut off new readers, or the required trivial knowledge of, say, Wolverine’s past as a mercenary in WWII. That was all the cape-bashing for this post, I promise.

Everybody can read comics, and most of us do on a daily basis. If not daily strips in the newspaper, then instructional infographics. They help us not going into the wrong toilet, finding the emergency exit, or using chopsticks in Asian restaurants, etc. Of course, polemics aside, what we think of as comics tend to be a tad more narrative, or even expressive, than the assembly of a Billy bookcase.

Instead of just using framing for clarity and focus, cartoonists use it in a narrative manner, to convey setting, ambience, mood, tension, or release. The same goes for layouts, pacing to time the page turn; light, shadow, colours. Those are the elements of grammar used by the comics creator.

And intuitively so—making comics, we play on the heartstrings of the reader no less than the Don Drapers of the world, or any other propagandist. The most important part of that is not letting them feel it when we play them. Or making them like it (and by “them” I mean “you,” but ignore that for now).

Even when you learn to recognise the techniques and slights of hand, a story well told suspends that cold rationality, because it is more interesting than the mechanisms that switch the backdrops and make the puppets move.

At their finest, comics are not the even balance of text and image that some people would claim; they are visual narratives, using text only for emphasis, or for elaboration. For those things that absolutely must, or cannot, be told, not shown. Most of the time, however, the words just fly out of the characters’ mouths in abundance, like the celebratory pomp of an Olympic opening ceremony (that was a pun on “balloons”. You’re welcome).

Circling back on our starting point: Aside from the fact that Rod works with visual storytelling for a living, I think the language “barrier” became a reason in itself for him to read the images more intently. I’ve had some great experiences personally, trying to wrench meaning from foreign-language comics. You become more inquisitive as a reader when you approach the work as a puzzle to be solved.

Rod speculates briefly on how his comics horizon might have expanded if he were not an English reader, or if he had learnt more languages and been able to read more works untranslated to his native tongue. I’m in the same situation by proxy, so to speak, teaching myself only english so I could read the US comics I was mostly interested in, in my pre-teens.

I’m not sure anymore if we should regret it so much. We share another language.

Here’s a thought about comics series vs graphic novels

[I]n order to exist the series must:
1 – Have an hero. The hero (be it Tintin or Corto Maltese or John Difool) is not a fully developed character, it’s more of a void designed to be filled by the reader with positive things.
2 – A cast of stereotyped characters: the faithful reader knows that this one does this, that one does that. The reader who likes mainstream stuff usually doesn’t want to be surprised (Obelix *always* says that he wants to drink the magic potion; Captain Haddock *always* wants to drink scotch; etc…).
3- A set of stereotyped situations. The plot obeys to a few fixed rules. In adventure comics the thing goes more or less like this: the bad guys attack, the bad guys defeat the good guys, the good guys make a come back and win. The End. In comical comics the hero (or antihero) always commits the same errors, etc…
4 – Adventure follows adventure and the hero and his friends never age. It’s as if nothing happened from story to story (the few exceptions to this rule are far from being perfect).
5 – Psychological depth, what’s that?!

The graphic novel is a strategy to fight the blunt commercialism of the series, it’s the anti-series. Calling a collection of children’s stories (about superheroes, for instance) a “graphic novel” is a co-optation by the sharks, smelling fresh money.

From a blog post by comics critic Domingos Isabelinho.