Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Papercraft, Urban Paper, Paper Toyz

I have a bunch of posts in the 'drafts' folder that I had forgotten about. They are kind of rough and ready and some lack links and credits, so if you see anything of yours here that should be linking to your site let me know, and I'll slot it in. This post was put together in November 2008, I'm guessing, because I referred to the Guy Fawkes mask as 'timely'.

I should own a Dalek. A real one. Let me explain, when I was a youngster I "won" a competition to name a Dalek. I called it "Deckie", but instead of sending me a "real Dalek" the company they sent me an excuse about having 'too many winners', and a paper Dalek. They sent me what today would be called, I suppose, a papercraft Dalek. Of course, if that competition was run today I'd own a Dalek, a real one, and I would have been spared the trauma of having to try to stick my cut-out Dalek to cardboard with Treacle, because we had no glue at home. Instead, I do not have a real Dalek and I don't even have a parcraft Dalek because it all ended up a tear-soaked, sticky, mess. What a rip-off! It would probably have scarred a less heroic child for life, but I've managed to put the fact that despite actually winning a Dalek, I don't even have a papercraft Dalek today.

Anyway, if you've seen my Rod McKie papercraft cut-out and keep doll, you'll know I love these papercraft things. I'm a fan; it's all I can do to stop myself cutting up my Chris Ware books, believe me. Papercraft sculptures really add to a publication, don't you think? I think they do. They were very popular here at one point and appeared regularly on the back page of some British comics - my cousin Allan told me. I'm not saying he did, but my cousin Allan might have cut out all the papercraft girls that came with the Bunty Comic, and he might well have practised his counselling skills on them - there's a thought - and you thought they weren't practical...

Today's papercraft models are, by comparison, utterly amazing, and despite the fact that you can knock up a 3D-model on Maya or Lightwave or Rhino, these paper constructions still command a lot of respect in the toy and game designing communities, and they are increasingly popular with cartoonists and illustrators who often prefer a tactile turnaround to a digital one. Japan, the home of Origami (oru and kami) leads the way in papercraft, as you might expect, with giant robot sculptures, and an endless amount of practical and impractical designs, from a variety cartoonists and illustrators, and even from companies like Yamaha, Canon, Honda, and Toyota.

With sites like the Paperkraft blog, Papercraft Museum, Thunderpanda, The Web Dude, Cubeecraft, and Toy-a-Day highlighting a range of skills and designs available, Urban Paper, a seriously underrated art form in the west, will continue to attract fans and practitioners. If it is an art form you would like to know more about, and maybe experiment with, then you'll be pleased to know that there is a Japanese Paper Craft programme, Pepakura Designer, and a viewer, Pepakura Viewer, that you can download for free. In the screenshots below, I'm using the Pepakura tools to show you Web-Dude's Papercraft Gigantor guide, and model and a timely Guy Fawkes mask.

Whether you just fancy collecting and assembling some favourite vintage characters, like Astro Boy, or the Moomin Trolls, or more modern cut-outs like the cast of Dexter; or you fancy designing your own Papercraft figures, it really can be a fun way to spend some time. And don't overlook the fact that some Papercraft figures of your own characters can be a pretty handy (excuse the pun) piece of PR.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Swings and Roundabouts.

Okay, washing my Flashpen was a bit silly, but get this, it works! Seriously, a PNY Attache, it did a full wash and dry in a shirt pocket in an Indesit and after drying out, it works. None of the others came back to life, so this is a real good pen, and I suppose its fold-in-on-itself motion is what helped save it. Although at least one of the others might have been thrown into the old washing machine, but I'm pretty sure that was an Indesit too, so the only other factor would be the quality of the shirt, but it was a thin cotton shirt, so you know, it just looks like the pen is a toughie.

So, you know, that saves having to scan all the stuff into a new drive, to move it around, so I'm quite happy. That doesn't balance out the day, which has not been great, but it is a tick in the positives' column.

Anyway, I mentioned the new work for the older book idea well that's what got soaked. I was really upset because the hard stuff, the actual drawing and writing had been going okay, and then I worked through the boring scanning bit and then the Photoshop malarkey, only to lose the darned pen...and well, the rest you know. But that's all water under the bridge now, I have the finished hi and lo res drawing back, without having to do it all again. Yippee.

It is, as I mentioned, now three smaller books but as the story goes forward it also adds to the back-story, so I'm kind of literally beginning in the middle of the thing, rather than at the start. Now I am utterley convinced that author/poet John Burnside taught me this trick about working back in the story as well as forward, when he did a stint at Stirling University, but it's such a good idea I want to pretend I dreamed it up.

Here's an interesting fact (oh, no); the characters are cycling up Ellens Glen Road, and will turn along Lasswade Road, and make their way to Liberton Brae, or Libby Bray, to use the vernacular; which is an area in Liberton that was full of allotments and apple and pear trees. It is the place we used to go 'scrumping', and I write about as Lepertown. Well, I happened to be reading a Tweet from my Twitter chum, author of Going Bovine, Libba Bray, just when I clicked the pen open - Libba Bray, Libby Bray, - spooky, huh?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

That's Seizon - Life

I used to like all the titles Alan Class Comics reprinted over here. They were all really Tales to Astonish or Bewilder or Astound the reader, that is those filling the gaps between the adventures of Mandrake the Magician, and T-Bolt, and the Phantom, were. Those were the stories I liked best, the filler stories. The comics that had no big comic book star, but were made up of a bunch of disparate short stories, were by far my favourites - not simply because they often contained little gems by Ditko and Kirby, they did, but because there was more substance to the stories, or at least it seemed that way to me, back then.

In retrospect, reading them today, as I sometimes do, a lot of these filler stories were a little hackneyed. You kind of new what to expect, a slightly supernatural twist in the tale that was anything but unexpected. Occasionally though, there was a thoughtful piece of writing in there, and those stories really did make a lasting impact on this young reader.

Hindsight is a great tool for any reviewer, and I realise now that the type of story that really resonated with me was likely to be based, however loosely, on urban-mythology. You know the stuff, the claw on the door handle, the banging on the car-roof outside the lunatic asylum, the strange woman with the hairy wrists, and variations on these tales. One story that really excited me was a story about a stranger accepting a lift in a car from a driver who gets increasingly paranoid that the person he has picked up is an escaped mental patient. The twist in the tale is that it is the driver of the car himself who is actually the lunatic at large; not the person he has picked-up. I remember thinking of this story recently, when I was rereading Locas in Love, where an increasingly paranoid Maggie starts to worry that a car is stalking her car. Another favourite was the against all odds tale, that often featured a character who after being diagnosed with a deadly illnes, goes off in search of a final adventure, and ends up being, somewhat mysteriously, cured.

I'll be honest, if you ask me what other stories are in that Alan Class Comic, the one with the paranoid driver, I'd struggle to tell you. And if you asked me which superhero the filler stories frame in the publication, I just wouldn't be able to say. The truth is, I wanted more stories like the paranoid driver, or I wanted the paranoid driver story to stretch for an entire comic book. Perhaps I was already starting to outgrow superheroes. The trouble was, of course, that there really wasn't a lot out there, other than superhero comics, that combined words and pictures for me to read. It is different today, thankfully, there is much more choice now, although it is still in many ways a limited choice if one considers all the autobiographical publications as one genre.

Growing up back then, I would have loved a comic like Seizon - Life. Oh, I admit that today, the adult me thinks the third volume of the series falls a bit flat, and that the story is a tad melodramatic, but the teenage me would have really loved it, and if I'd read it in my early twenties, then I might have started producing work like it.

Seizon, a collaborative effort by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, a previous winner of the Kodansha Manga Award, and fellow Kodansha Manga Award winner, Kaiji Kawaguchi, is a twenty three chapter story, spread over three volumes. It is first and foremost an action thriller, that tells the story of Takeda, a desperate and dying man determined to bring his daughter's killer to justice, before he himself is eaten away by cancer.

Scanlated first by Kotonoha, and finished (finally) by Hox, Seizon, is a classic who-done-it, but with a very modern denouement. The protagonist, Takeda, has suffered the loss of his wife, who died not knowing whether their daughter, Sawako, missing for the past fourteen years, was alive or dead, to cancer. When Takeda learns that his own terminal cancer is in an advanced state, he decides to end his life. However, just when he is about to hang himself, the phone rings and we hear the message from the police that they have found his missing daughter's corpse.

His short remaining life given new purpose, Takeda resolves to remain alive long enough to bring his daughter's killer or killers to justice. But he must move quickly, under Japanese law, the statute of limitations for murder lasts for 15 years, and Takeda has only six months left to live, and six months left to bring his daughter's killer to justice.

Drawn in typical Seinen style, Seizon looks terrific, and in the main the story captivates and keeps the reader interested in what happens next. It does flag a little toward the end, but when it does the cinematic switches of POV, illustrated well in the final page above, pick up the pace. I'd love to see some work like Seizon or Soil (we'll do a Soil blog later), created here in the UK and maybe in the US, but I'm only too painfully aware that there are limited opportunities to showcase such work.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Rupert Murdoch and Micropayments, a Futurology

Let me begin by apologising unreservedly for having no cartoons and illustrations here, there will be lots on the next post, to compensate; promise.

Rupert Murdoch is launching a pay-for-view model for all his newspapers, over the next few months. For me, and for many other magazine cartoonists and syndicated strip producers, it looks like an inevitable step forward, and I would imagine that particular paradigm is the way of the future. At least it is if the pay-for-view method is intended as a business-model, and not simply as a tactic employed to drive people away from the web and back to newsprint.

Of course we won't know how it will play out at first, because in order for this pay-for-view paradigm to be seen to its best effect, or its worst, every other online-newspaper has to follow suit. As Andrew Neil, a former editor of The Sunday Times, has pointed out, it is a good idea "that will work better if all the main competitors do it". That is, of course, the rub, if all the other "main competitors" do follow suit, then that at least throws up the possibility that this business model could be used as a method of coercing people back to buying print newspapers; if those newspapers were considerably cheaper than the cost of reading online. Not that I think that is the Murdoch plan, mind you, because Mister Murdoch has had a team looking at the viability of this business model for more than a year.

So, what might this mean for online newspapers? Well, that depends on what you think a newspaper is. I prefer to stick to Noam Chomsky's definition of a newspaper as 'a device to sell customers to advertisers'. It is a definition that holds true and is best illustrated with the phenomenon of the 'free newspaper', a newspaper that costs the reader nothing to buy, and is paid for by the vast amount of advertising it carries. Newspapers that are not free are simply a more refined, more demographically-targeted, and less scatter-gun, version of the same.

The Guardian online, and The Times online, and the Sun online, will all attempt to sell their usual clearly-defined demographically-pigeon-holed consumers to the advertisers they will attempt to attract to their sites - advertisers who have, bear in mind, partly as a result of the recession, stopped buying space in the print editions of these papers. So how will they do it, how will they attract the readers they need to attract the advertisers they want?

You know, this is not an easy question for the papers to answer. It used to be. If you had to picture a typical city worker, a decade or so ago, dressed in pinstripes and brogues, carrying a newspaper under his arm, you wouldn't imagine the Sun being tucked under there. You would picture a broadsheet, and the particular broadsheet might depend on his political point of view, with the more liberal reader carrying the Guardian. It was, as much as the tie they wore and whether or not their hat was worn at a rakish angle, part of their uniform, a signifier of the tribe to which they belonged. I did it myself, on the way to catch my train every day, I picked up my extended uniform of a Coke and a Guardian. On some days I had a migraine and I knew I wouldn't be reading the paper that day, but I still went ahead and bought it anyway. It was so much a part of me, that if I was racing for my train the newsagent at the station just threw my paper to me, and collected the payment the following day.

Today though, picturing the newspaper the worker surfing at home might virtually tuck under that arm, is fraught with difficulties. That percentage of the readership that collected its paper to brandish like a self-defining badge, no longer needs to do so. At home, no one can see you read, and you can get the same news from a different, a cheaper, and even a free-source of news gathering. Bear in mind that for decades now these same people have been consuming The News of the World on the QT; reading online means they no longer have to buy a broadsheet to wrap around and hide the newspaper they really want to read. It would seem though, that Rupert Murdoch's futurologists have anticipated this problem, and as a result many news items, those that are simple reportage of events, without any editorial filter or slant, will be free. It is the more 'in -depth' or specialist items, and the info' and entertainment that will be pay-for-view.

This focus on specialist items is the area that should be of most interest for cartoonists, because it means that for a newspaper to survive, and especially to prosper, it needs to house exclusive content that the reader will not mind paying for. It is unlikely that the reader will want to shell-out for 'generic', ubiquitous, comic strips like Garfield, because the reader who wants to read Garfield can get Garfield from the cheapest online source. And, with the exception of a timely Halloween or Xmas storyline, it really doesn't matter if you read Garfield's adventure today, for a penny, or with a one week delay, for free. The smart online-publications will surely realise that with every online-publication carrying the same news items, and the same gossip, the same sports features, and the same comic strips, the only way they can proclaim any individuality, that will encourage the reader to choose them, is the amount of exclusive content they provide. So, star columnists will feature heavily in the new online-publications, and so too, if the newspaper's have any sense, will exclusive comic strips and cartoons.

However, there is a danger that for two reasons the online-publications will simply be a PDF version of their counterpart in print. The first reason would be that some publishers will attempt to pay the contributors no extra payment because it is simply an exact copy of the print publication, and the second is that the people behind the online-publications are trapped in a particular mindset that imagines news in only one fixed format. Simply putting a print publication online and then tacking a comments box onto a page does not 're-imagine' the newspaper as we know it.

It is probably time for a radical rethink about what a newspaper can be, and to be honest I can't think of anyone better placed than Rupert Murdoch to define the possibilities. The Murdoch organisation has the resources, and can place news feeds, live reports, and even animation on its sites. It is probably true that the old static magazine cartoon and editorial cartoon and single-column cartoon and comic strip will have to become something else, something closer to animation, or they will cease to have a platform. If that is the case then we cartoonists will have to be prepared to meet the challenge.

To be honest I had always envisaged a publication that the advertisers would hate, if they had to advertise in it, because it wouldn't exist, except in my head. I had always figured I would mix and match my own perfect newspaper, with articles by Charlie Brooker (it is damning him with faint praise to say his writing is better than his cartooning - but it is so much better) and Caitlin Moran on modern culture, Anthony Horowitz on literature, Mathew Parris on politics and current affairs, and a comic strip series like those run recently by the New York Times (Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez, Megan Kelso, et al), but with comics by British cartoonists, or to be more precise, by me. Of course it would not be impossible to make a pick-n-mix publication because the advertisers could target me, the empirical me, not the virtual me, me the individual, not the publication. It is coming I suppose.

Rod McKie, futurologist.


It has been pointed out to me by literally hundreds of people (see earlier posts to discover exactly what that means) that I have not been as transparent as I might have been, so I'll summarise:

I see pay-for-view as an opportunity for local cartoonists in markets that have previously stopped taking cartoons or have used only syndicated work in the past. There will also still be a demand for syndicated work, though.

The paper I have always imagined allows me to 'create' my own personal publication at the point of sale. Instead of subscribing to 'The Times online', I subscribe to 'News Group' and within certain parameters I create my own newspaper with a section from here and a section from there, and featuring the contributors I want to read. And it had better have a good comics section. It is my own personal publication, so the adverts that will tag along with it help to profile me. That's the price I pay for being able to compose my own publication.

In addition, it may be that I, and the other readers who create and Arts and Media publications similar to mine, create a demand for some columnists and a lack of demand for others, even some from rival publications, so News Group can either syndicate in their material, or pay them to create more.

I suppose it goes without saying that if I don't get a good comics section and much as I love Peanuts I'm not including that, or Garfield, in mine; then I just won't be subscribing. And if we are simply talking about a PDF of a print publication, you can forget it - the www deserves better than that.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

How I Didn't Get To See Batman, But Still Came Out Smiling

I don't much remember TV, from my very young years, but I do remember radio. I remember The Jimmy Clitheroe Show, and I vaguely remember shouting out a catch-phrase of some kind. I'm pretty sure Superman, the old Fleischer animation, was on TV once or twice, and Mighty Mouse, I remember those, but that's all I remember of TV from that period. I do remember going to 'the Pictures' though, the 'movies', every week and I remember every single feature.

We lived at the foot of Great Junction Street, in Leith, opposite the State Leith Cinema, and every Saturday my cousins and neighbours and I would be sent 'over the road' to spend an entire morning watching The Batman, The Scarlett Horseman, Superman, Captain America, King of the Rocketman, Flash Gordon, Zorro, et al, tearing up the screen. I remember the excitement, the noise, and the sheer joy of being part of that huge army of kids cheering the entrance of every hero and booing every villain.

Years later, after we had moved to the area I feature a lot in my comics, Lepertown, I was only an occasional visitor to the movies. Of course the cinema was no longer on our doorstep, but TV had also become much more important, and the shows had become much more sophisticated and child-friendly. Saturday mornings were now spent in the company of the Banana Splits and the Double Deckers.

Somewhere around this period, Batman: the Movie, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, finally made it to Edinburgh, to The Playhouse Cinema (a John Fairweather design based on The Roxy in New York), at the top of Leith Walk, and I was aching to go see it. As fate would have it though, my parents went shopping on the Saturday that all my friends (not a Batman fan amongst them; at least not as big a Batman fan as I) decided to go see the film, and when they came to talk me into going I was unable to go. It would be a gross understatement to describe me as pissed; I was more furious than I can describe even today, that those people were going without me, and that my parents had conspired to deny me my right to see Batman. In fact I think it left a scar that can still be (faintly) detected today.

Okay, so there I am fitting the description 'stroppy kid' already, as you do, and I am also bearing a permanent grudge, because of the denial of my basic human rights as an owner of many Batman comics, and I am acting-up at every single opportunity. In fact I'm doing everything except a 'dirty-room protest' and a 'hunger strike'. Eventually though, it got wearing and so I gave in and accepted my parents' crappy compromise, that I could go to the pictures myself. To see what, I didn't care. I just went, the following Saturday, to the Playhouse expecting, I don't know, something for kids.

So I arrive at the Playhouse and the feature is 'The Red Balloon'. Oh my god, I was furious. This was what I was going to see instead of Batman? It wasn't even in English, it was in French, and I hated French. But that didn't matter after all, because it was a silent-French movie. It just kept getting better.

Anyway, the curtain rose, and what I saw on the screen was a kid like me running around familiar scenes of urban decay, and running through familiar narrow streets that could have been in Edinburgh's Grass Market or in Infirmary Street and almost from the very first second I was transfixed by this simple, silent, tale of a boy and a balloon.

In the beginning the red balloon is just that, on ordinary balloon, a found object, that the boy picks up on his way to school.

But he is not allowed on the bus with his balloon so instead of letting it go he walks to school, and when it rains he finds shelter for the balloon under the umbrellas of strangers.

The balloon slips free and the boy finds it and scolds it and from then on the balloon does his bidding. He no longer even has to hold the string, it follows obediently above him or behind him and even follows the bus when he rides on it.

At this stage of the story the balloon develops a personality of its own as it follows an adult from the boy's school.

After the boy leaves school his balloon, now fully a character in its own right, even retrieves a balloon a little girl has lost.

But there is danger afoot and a gang of boys wants the balloon fro themselves.

Our hero is determined to be reunited with his friend though and after a successful rescue mission he recovers his balloon and race of through the narrow labyrinthine streets of the old town, the gang of boys hotly in pursuit.

On a beach, our cornered hero loses his friend when a stone from a catapult punctures it.

After the red balloon is has the life stamped out of it a curious thing happens, all the balloons all over the town tear themselves away from the people holding them.

And ever single balloon in the place winds its way toward the distraught boy, still standing with his airless friend at his feet.

Gathering all the balloons the boy is lifted up clear over the city.

I didn't know it then, but this simple story would have a much more profound effect on the work I would produce over the years than Batman: the movie, ever would. Indeed, looking at the story now, I think I can see its influence on a great many modern works and classic stories and movies.