Chasing the horizon takes you interesting places, not doing it gets you nowhere

Visualise now a donkey, perhaps of the kind you’d see in old animated short film, visualise the donkey seen full figure from the side. The donkey is standing still. Tied to its neck and extending forward over its head is a stick, and at the far end of the stick hangs a carrot. The purpose of the contraption would be to lure the animal into walking after the bait that will always stay at the same distance. Still, the donkey does not move, instead it is trying to will the carrot to come to it.

That’s what waiting for inspiration is like.

Good afternoon, fair-game icons!

Taking a leisurely Sunday after an intense week of publication designing, and before a full month of teaching comics. I’ve been reading Johnny Cash’s latter day autiobraphy, and thinking of Batman as a collective trope. Not sure how the two are connected, just letting my mind wander here.

For elaboration of the latter, though: Batman, Mickey Mouse, and a handful of other characters have permeated the hive mind to a degree that claiming ownership of them is ridiculous. Of course, there are always legal gatekeepers that try, and occasionally succeed in enforcing those rights.

Some other characters in that fuzzy, public domain would be religious figures. Essentially mythicized to archetypes (dare I say “caricatures”?) in and of themselves, Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad are interpreted differently (but largely homogenously) by different worshippers.

I’m willing to bet that even within the same Xian congregation or sect, you could be able to identify several different but compatible Jesuses (Jesui?), simply because of the character’s non-specific characteristics, and at the same time the intimate relationship that worshippers feel with their prophet.

And the there’s Batman. The character has gone through several interpretations (visually and conceptually) over the decades — there is literally a Batman for everyone out there, but my point here is how the idea of Batman has entered the public mind-at-large, more than any specific, publisher-sanctioned Batman story has, or ever could.

Think of the ways that pagan deities and tradition lingered in medieval European folklore, while biblical apocrypha was popularised and spun on like pre-urban legends and tall tales. Same thing.

Stories that escape their original framing, organic narratives living on unchecked in people’s imaginations (perhaps even affecting their host’s actions like toxoplasma Gondii of fiction) …I find that incredibly fascinating, and not a little comforting.

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.

Call for words

I’m joining Derik Badman’s 30 Days of Comics program again this year, and because I seem to have a masochist strain (at least when it comes to work), I thought it would be fun to make a complete, comprehensive piece of work this time.

That’s basically all I have to go on, except I’d like to work within a musical frame, or what I just coined a “graphic symphony” on Twitter. That may or may not be the end result, but I’m running with that for now. I’d like some input from you guys, though.

The next few days I’ll prepare a word bag à la Lynda Barry, or perhaps Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, which will serve as random prompts for my daily output through November. What I need from you is some words to put into my bag (or envelope, actually), specifically verbs and adjectives.

Since so much of my work is non-figurative these days, I don’t think nouns will be of much use to me. Sorry nouns, I’ll do you some other time.

So please, comment with your contributions below, it’ll be a great help (and you’ll be namechecked if your prompt is used during November)! Thanks in advance!

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 thinking about comics


Do you have to want to be a cartoonist in order to make comics?

Or can making comics be more like singing along to a song when we are alone for no reason other than it gives us something (almost undetectable) that not singing doesn’t?

Or can making comics be more like using a salt and pepper shaker to show your friend just where your car was in relation to the other car when the accident happened?

What if people thought of making comics as another good way to sort certain things out?

Lynda Barry, on her tumblr

Teaching comics again






This week and three weeks on I’m back at Holbæk school of arts teaching comics.

Today was the first of our recurrent music interpretation assignment: students make comics from a given tune, today with the added challenge to only use clippings from discarded encyclopedias and art books.

This found footage approach lets the students work with storytelling and graphic representation without being inhibited by their (perceived) drawing abilities.

Using ready-made imagery allows them to focus on the layouts, and the “lyrical” nature of the assignment relieves them of linear narrative concerns. Every time I give this task to a class I’m blown away by the powerful results.

The music interpreted here is “Making of Cyborg” from the Ghost in the Shell movie. Enjoy the snapshots, I’m mighty proud of this day’s work!


A draft version of my editorial for next volume of C’est Bon Anthology, “Motion Picture”:

You know the guy. If you have ever in any social context tried discussing comics on more than a “Lil’ Abner was a durn good strip” level, chances are he was in the crowd. He’s a pretty nondescript guy, could be anybody really, but you’ll recognise him when he chips in and goes “Yeah, comics and movies are similar in a lot of ways.” And then the conversation takes a turn towards film, and it turns out he’s in cinema studies and really needs the attention. And sometimes he’s a woman. Look, I just made him up to prove a point, okay?

And there’s really no connection between comics and film, either. For one thing, comics don’t necessarily move (although some webcomics do); for another, movies very rarely work with plastic framing (since the silver screen doesn’t change its shape). Certain compositional analyses apply to both media, simply because they are both related to art theory, in which the analyses originate.

Film is the vision of a director (and a producer, and a board of CEO’s, and their daughter, and the pony she rode in on) filtered through a cameraman, a cast of actors, a sound designer, an editor, and, ultimately, a projector. Comics are the vision of a cartoonist, filtered through anything that might leave a mark on paper; the cartoonist sends her work to C’est Bon Anthology, you read it, end of line.

But there’s more: Comics are sequences of images composed and arranged to convey the passing of time graphically, and/or by juxtaposition transcend the meaning of the individual images. Which is quite exactly what the sequential images of a filmstrip can’t do without the projector, and, incidentally, in experiencing the time and space of the movie, we cease to perceive the sequence of the displayed images.

But the notion that film and comics are related on a deeper level is popular, and hard to lay to rest, much like Justin Bieber. What better way, I ask you, than to orchestrate an anthology of comics set to the tune of (no, wait, that’s our next volume!) – to the theme of Motion Picture? Read on, but be aware that we might be spoiling movies for you altogether!