Thursday, July 30, 2009

Don't keep Flashpens in your Pocket!

Okay, this will probably interest nobody, but it does illustrate the new sort of problems we have to work around these days. My PC monitor died, just about one day after the warranty ran out, so at the moment I'm doing everything on a laptop. The laptop I prefer to work on (an older Photoshop with all my favourite filters) is above, on the right. Now the wireless connection works just fine on that laptop, but not on the one on the left (newer Photoshop but hardly any bells and whistles), and I can't get the one on the left online, and I can't hook it up to the one on the right. As a result, when I want to put artwork I have on the laptop on the left, online, I have to put it on a Flashpen and transfer it to the laptop on the right, and I do this often because I like to scan into the laptop on the left because it works harder than the one on the right.

Just the other day I scanned some artwork onto the laptop on the left, and then worked on it and saved it to my Flashpen, with the intention of transferring the finished work online using the laptop on the right. Then I put the Flashpen in my shirt pocket, promptly forgot about it, and the following day the shirt, complete with Flashpen, was put through the washing machine(about the third time I've done this).

Fortunately, I didn't delete the artwork from the laptop on the left, and as a result I was able to copy the artwork onto the large external hard drive, in the picture on the right of the laptop on the left, and then transfer it to the laptop on the right.

Trust me, that's a lot easier to do than it is to explain.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Don't Get Married to an Idea!

Don't get married to an idea.

I wasn't quite sure what Charles Schulz meant when I first heard that. That's because gag, or magazine, cartoons are often recast with a brand new punchline, so you never really have to kill-off the entire idea, just come at it from a different angle. I know Michael Shaw has rewritten a punchline for a cartoon that the New Yorker didn't like, and then liked, in its new version. I've done it myself, when it suddenly occurred to me that I could completely remake a cartoon I had drawn years before, by changing the punchline to suit a new market, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Truth be told, cartoonists do it all the time. That's not to say though, that you can't ever come up with a completely unusable cartoon, you can - at least I can; but it is never as difficult to kill off a cartoon idea as it is to kill off an idea for a comic book, or comic strip, or a graphic panel. Those often represent a larger investment of time, energy, materials, and hope, and I suppose they also represent a larger degree of emotional attachment than the single cartoon idea.

Maybe it helps to think about it in purely economic terms, especially in this day and age, and add that given the current economic climate, when you are in the 'ideas business', and that is essentially the business cartoonists are in, you just can't afford to wed yourself to an unprofitable idea. I know that maybe goes against your artistic sensibilities, but you know, you have to make a living, and the best way for a cartoonist to make a living is to churn out as many ideas as possible.

Now, I came up with these twin characters a few years back, and I wrote a few one-page stories around them. And then I wrote a larger story, and then started to plan strips and entire comic books. Every so often I would admit to myself that maybe I was wasting my time, they were, after all, a bit of an odd concept, but I just kept devoting more and more time to the idea of creating, exclusively, stories about these characters. In time, I realised that they should have stayed on the doodle-board because they were very self-indulgent; but not before I had created comics and paintings and even a sculpture or two, to the exclusion of all my other work.

The Little Cherubs idea was another that I found hard to let go. I really designed it with a middle-of-the-road parent-type magazine in mind, but pretty soon I was designing cards and posters and promo-pages, and in no time at all I had almost 20 adventures ready for print and I could readily imagine the things being successful, even when the returns were telling me a different story.

Eventually, as you must, I divorced myself from those ideas, perhaps simply because I couldn't think of a way to make them pay, which makes them a costly lesson, but a valuable one. At least, in one way or another, I did manage to 'unwed' myself from these ideas, and they now sit in a folder in my archive, and I hope that just knowing they are there will remind me of the lesson I have begun to learn (you are never too old).

The extract here from Sunshine on Leith might surprise one or two of you, but it should be here under the 'bad ideas' section. Not because the book itself is a bad idea, it's not, it's just that the idea of creating a very big book was an idea that really very quickly started to get out of control. The section of the book that took place in Leith was very small, and really should have been made into a good small book, that still tackled the same big subject of sectarianism in Scotland, but the idea started to grow and grow, and as a result the story began to stretch too thin.

The section below is by far the largest section of Sunshine on Leith, and it grew from a story called Tommy Apple, which was in itself a charming little story about my friend Tom getting stuck in an apple tree in the Convent of Poor Saint Clars in Liberton, by a bunch of nuns with a German shepherd. By adding this section to Sunshine on Leith, I started to change the subject of the story to fit the overall arch of the longer narrative, and I robbed this major part of the book of all its charm. It was becoming clear to me that the idea of the book, of what it should 'say', was killing the story, so I killed the book and split the story up into three smaller stories, and as a result it is all starting to look, and to read, a lot better.

The Gnomes project really takes me back. The Gnomes was almost a career disaster for me because the project took up about a year of my life, and I did it while I was working on a weekly comic and trying to draw cartoons. I teamed up with a friend who was a salesman, and together we approached the Scottish Development Agency about setting up an animation studio in a proposed film production studio to be established in the old slaughter house building in Chesser, in Edinburgh. The idea of establishing a movie studio there had been on the table for a while, and it looked to have legs, even Sean Connery was interested, along with a number of politicians and business folks. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I created the characters and put them on a show reel and in book form and comic page form and designed the merchandise and strips and all the assorted paraphernalia over the period of time we were 'in talks'. When those talks finally got down to the bottom-line, the proposed deal was that I would have a teeny little stake in the business, and I would still be expected to invest money. Of course I walked, and took The Gnomes with me. That was an idea it was much easier to divorce myself from because by the end of the business process I was as poor as a church mouse and I needed to start drawing and selling cartoons as quickly as possible. I must say though, although I have no happy memories of drawing through the night like a maniac to make the things, they are not that bad.

This strip struck me as an obvious idea, a sort of female Calvin, but without Hobbes. I started it right away, without designing the characters and I just sat down and drew about five episodes, and then I kept going. I think I have about twenty finished strips, but I think I lost interest by about strip fourteen. There was no way I was going to draw and write the thing for twenty years, so there was no point in it going in, so it went in the archive. I think, to this day, only Aussie cartoonist Nik Scott has seen the strip. It had a cool name, Reindeer in the Attic (RITA), but it was a very slight idea.

Okay, this is really a good example of what Schulz meant by 'don't get married to an idea', because it should never have been drawn at all. In this case the strip didn't even have a name, I just thought it would be cool to draw characters in animal skins. But not just that, I kind of had an animal spirit kind of idea going on, so there was going to be another layer of meaning to this seemingly simple idea. Well, it lasted two strips before I realised that I just had no idea what I was on about. I had an idea that I would like to draw this scenario, and I could have created one hundred episodes and sent it out there and sulked when it didn't get taken and kept refining it and you know, I would have been married to the idea. It's just not a healthy choice.

So today, I am in a happier place, I think. I have been writing and drawing a strip and it is going well. I'm pretty sure I'm doing it for all the right reasons and I'm not just married to the idea - at least, I hope that's the case.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The late, great, John Ryan

Steve Holland and Lew Stringer have both posted wonderful obituaries to Edinburgh-born cartoonist John Ryan, on their blogs. They have also both posted marvelous early drawings of Ryan's Captain Pugwash and his later Harris Tweed strip, from The Eagle comic. Please head on over to their blogs and take a look.

Pugwash strip from Steve Holland's Bear Alley Blog, click here to visit

I was invited along to an exhibition of cartoon art which featured one of my Harvard Business Review cartoons a couple of years back, and I was tempted to go because John Ryan, the creator of Captain Pugwash, might put in an appearance. It was enough that some of his drawing were there, to be honest, but meeting the man himself would have been such a thrill. At any rate I didn't manage to get there because something or other popped up; as it often does.

I've been a fan of John Ryan and Captain Pugwash for a long time, you see. It dates back to my lying on the carpet in front of the great-god-telly, eating ham rissoles and watching Gigantor, Belle and Sebastian, White Horses, and Captain Pugwash and the like, and being transported. As I think back, I am transported once more, not back to that time but back to the feeling of that time - it's a feeling of security, of warmth, of unadulterated joy. I can't think of the old cut-ups of Captain Pugwash without associating them with the feel of a warm carpet, the smell of home cooking and overheated TV valves, and the worry-free days of my youth.

I love the anime Gigantor, and the memory of it, but Gigantor never made me think I could become a cartoonist, nor did Wacky Races, or The Impossibles, but Captain Pugwash did. Captain Pugwash was not only fun to watch, but it looked possible to make. It was clunky and awkward and nothing like some of its more polished contemporaries. In today's parlance, it looked doable.

It never looked amateurish, none of his work did, it was obviously high quality and deserved its place on TV. It just looked like it was something it might be possible to replicate, with the sort of tools Blue Peter might use. Not only that, but it was possible, looking at Pugwash, to work out how the magic of animation worked. You could see which parts stayed still, and which parts moved. The backdrops were intricate and looked great, but there was no mistaking the jerky quality of the cut-out limbs.

Of course it has become fashionable over the years to make animation that looks like cut-ups. It costs a lot of money to make The South Park Show look as if it is cheaply made. Somewhat ironically, though, the new Captain Pugwash cartoons are slickly animated, and look as polished as any modern cartoon series. The quirkiness and uniqueness of the old series is lost, but the charming humour remains and one can see something of the old anarchy of the older artwork in the Puffin New Edition books, like Pugwash and the Ghost Ship, highlighted on the Vintage Kids' Books my Kid Loves blog.

All copyright remains with the respective copyright holders.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Art of True Blood

Or at any rate, the art of Lisa Desimini, for the covers of Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Novels, adapted for TV as True Blood; but that really doesn't trip off the tongue.

Let's begin with the TV series itself before we look at the books, because True Blood begins its British TV debut on FX later this week, and I have an interest in vampire lore. Many more moons ago than I care to admit, I began a thesis on The Role of the Gothic Outsider. I had high hopes for the thesis, and I was surrounded by people who had authored books on Gothic literature and even edited the The New Critical Idiom series on the subject, but during the research phase, I stopped believing in the subject matter.

Then I saw Guillermo del Toro's steam-punk vampire tale, Cronos and I was interested in the Gothic all over again. My appetite whetted, I even reread Anne Rice's Lestat books, two of them at least, and even partly resumed my studies, for my own benefit, and then, well, nothing much happened for the longest time, until that is, Let the Right One In appeared. My God, that is one seedy book. The movie of the book, which is brilliantly acted, is less seedy, but disturbing on many levels, especially if one has read the book beforehand, which many of the reviewers had clearly failed to do.

And now, along comes the TV adaptation of Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries, featuring Sookie Stackhouse, surely one of the most determined and daring heroes in any literature. In the TV adaptation, by Alan Ball, the creative genius behind the movie American Beauty, and the TV series Six Feet Under (surely the closest TV has ever come to creating art), the part of Sookie Stackhouse is played by Anna Paquin, the very versatile Oscar-winning actor who played the part of Holly Hunter's daughter in Jane Campion's marvelous The Piano, and Rogue in the X-Men movies.

The opening credits for the series, created by the same firm that created the opening credits for Six Feet Under, Digital Kitchen, are absolutely spectacular, and the theme song Bad Things, by Jace Everett, are really helping create the right buzz for the show. I have to say, looking at the True Blood merchandise on HBO's site, and the Digital Kitchen credits and the outline of the creative process on their website, I am really impressed by the ultra-professional way the various teams get right behind an idea they believe in, in the US. There is a sense that there is a well-oiled machine at work, but I don't mean that in a pejorative way, you don't loose sight of the individuals behind the project, it's just that all their talents seem to have been pooled together to create this juggernaut; from the author of the original books, to the screenplay writers, to the direction, to the acting, and the lighting, and the music and the mood, it's an all out attack on the senses. It's one very seductive package. The only worry I have is that Gothic is a romance genre, and very melodramatic and even when the melodrama is tinged with irony and humour it can still seem a little OTT. Hopefully though, the savvy viewers will stick with it as by about episode 8 of the first season True Blood really finds its feet. No spoilers, but season 2 is even better.

The one gripe I often have when a series like True Blood takes of in such a spectacular fashion, and I'm sure it's not one that the authors in that happy position share, is that book covers change to suit the new readers the shows or movies attract. A case in point would be the fantastic P.G Wodehouse covers by Ionicus, that one can only find in second-hand bookshops or vintage book emporiums or whatever they call themselves nowadays. It would be a shame if the same thing were to happen to the marvelous covers created by Lisa Desmini for Haris's books. There is something captivating about Desmini's drawings, and much as I like the series there is no way photos can capture the same magic.

I have to say, I was delighted to find that Lisa Desmini is making prints of her artwork available online here at her site. I'd actually quite like side by side copies with and without the lettering, but that's me. I think my favourite cover is A Touch of Dead. It shows Sookie perched precariously on top of a gravestone she is perched between life and death, between the land and the sky, between the Earth and the moon. It is a marvelous illustration.

You'll find a goodly number of True Blood sites out there but you could do worse than starting here at Loving True Blood in Dallas.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Comic Book Cultures: France

I've looked enviously at the French love affair with comics several times over the years. When I was very young, before I was interested enough in comics to discover that Herge was from Belgium and not France, I thought all the major cartoonists were born there; the European ones at least. Of course I later found out that many major European cartoonists, and those from further afield, had simply, naturally, gravitated toward France, a natural home for artists, and, it seems, a natural home for cartoonists. From Herge, to Hugo Pratt, to Ronald Searle, to Crumb, and to Gilbert Shelton, that migration toward the place continues even today.

In the UK, we cartoonists, perhaps with two exceptions (no more), are artistic pariahs. The lone arts programme on independent terrestrial television, The South Bank Show, now cancelled, was more likely to feature a dancing-bear as an artist, than a cartoonist. Like Newsnight Review, our "other" arts programme, from the BBC, The South Bank Show figured there were maybe two or three cartoonists in the UK, Ronald Searle (living in France), Scarfe, and Posey. They are, of course, two very different sorts of arts programme, The South Bank show, chaired by Melvin Bragg, focused on one artist or movement at a time, whilst the BBC programme consists of a panel of arty-types, almost always journalists, poets, authors, or sculptures, curiously enough. Think, the London/Notting Hill village and you will have a mental picture of the usual panelists.

Newsnight Review is more of an arts magazine, and more like the French model of discursive TV, and it constantly reviews movies and TV shows based on comic book characters. Now, you might think that on the odd occasion the show actually does feature the work of cartoonists that it might have the odd cartoonist on the panel discussing the merits of the work, but no, it just doesn't happen. In fact, I have my doubts that the researchers even realise that much of the material these poets and journalists and sculptures review is written and drawn by UK cartoonists. As I said, we cartoonists are the pariahs of the arts world.

The position of cartoonists in the UK is solidified by the absence of cartoonists and cartoons not just from Britain's art shows on TV, and newspapers and magazines (with obvious exceptions), but also from artistic debates, art magazines and galleries. With the exception of Computer Arts, which occasionally mentions maybe Peanuts in a passing article on merchandising, I can't really think of one magazine that has ever devoted time and space to the artform. Oh there has been the odd review and even the odd 4 or even 8 page piece on French or US cartoonists, like Sempe or Chris Ware in the broadsheets over here, but those are mainly puff-pieces by trendy hipster journalists trying to appear geekily cool. The same people ensure that lots of ill-informed column inches are devoted to the most talked-about graphic novels and even manga, but those always seem to have been squeezed in for novelty value amongst the "real" literature.

Over in France, meanwhile, The Musée de la Bande Dessinée, in Angoulème, the town that hosts the celebrated comic book festival every January, has been granted full status as a Museum of France; so it ranks alongside The Louvre, not just in the public imagination but also in officialdom. Not that there has ever been a great distinction between comic art and any other art in France. Indeed, The Louvre itself recently celebrated comics art, the 'ninth art', with an exhibition of original drawings and paintings by some very famous bédéistes (Bande Dessinées creators). The new museum, with thousands of original drawings and more than 100,000 magazines and comic books, will also function as a reference library, storing every comics publication published in France. And fortunately for the museum's director, not all the 34 million graphic publications the French consume every year are published there.

In France, there is no suggestion at all that cartoons are such low art that neither they nor their creators should be seen and heard. The French magazine, Beaux Arts is the sort of publication I imagine we will never see in the UK. It is an arts and culture magazine that will discuss Fauvism in one issue, Expressionism in another, Bande Dessinee (graphic novels) in another, and Manga in another. It is simply accepted that cartoons are art and that the cartoonists who create the work are artists.

It is the recent manga edition of Beaux Arts hors serie, Qu'est-Ce Que le manga? that, for me, really illustrates the lack of interest in cartoons, of respect for cartoonists, and of inquisitiveness and interest about the artform amongst the literati in the UK. It is, perhaps, this manga edition, more than those that have focused on Band Dessinee that illustrates the poverty of Britain's art scene. It is unimaginable that such a magazine with such an in depth discussion of the history and role of manga would be published in the UK.

Edited by Claude Pommereau, the manga edition of the magazine celebrates the artform looking back at the history of manga, and forward to the new wave of mangaka. From an examination of the ubiquitous role of manga in Japanese life and culture, the magazine looks at different genres and looks back to link the art of Hokusai with the venerable movement. The overview of the artform, in this context, makes it almost impossible to argue that comic books are not art and it goes some way to illustrating the poverty of thinking on these shores.

In addition to an examination of the culture of manga, and a small history of manga there are liberal illustrated examples, including a gorgeous reproduction of a Walking Man piece, by Jiro Taniguchi and an episode of Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack, both of which are 'un-mirrored' and should be read right to left. In addition, they are printed backwards through the magazine - better to enjoy the real Japanese-style experience of reading manga. The 'Walking Man' page below, is the final page of this excerpt.

Like Walking Man, this wonderful Black Jack adventure, the tattoo man or man with tattoo, ends with the first page you see. For die-hard Tezuka fans this excerpt is a delight, and there is little doubt in my mind that it looks so fresh and vibrant that it must also serve to bring new fans to worship at the feet of 'the god of manga'.

With some excellent pieces on the masters of manga, the current crop of young masters, and the enfent terribles of manga, this edition of the magazine goes some way to explaining why you seldom hear any French cartoonists say 'I don't like manga', as many of their British and American counterparts do. Let me explain what I mean by that, whenever a cartoonist from Britain or America says 'I don't like manga' they invariably mean they do not like a particular genre of manga and, unsurprisngly, that genre is usually the genre of manga created for young girls aged 8-13. It is difficult to imagine the well-informed French cartoonist, and no doubt a good deal of the wider comics loving French public, if this magazine is anything to go by, mistaking one genre of manga for all Japanese comic books.

Beaux Arts magazine really does bring home to me that there is an almost unbridgeable chasm here in the UK, not between the reading public and the creators of comic books, graphic novels, BD and manga, but between the gatekeepers of the British Art World (including publishers) and the rest of the planet. Britain is fast becoming a cultural wasteland, obsessed with the sort of ephemeral souless art that the toxic banks hung in their foyers, and the prattle-filled thoughts of celebrity "authors". No wonder our cartoonists and illustrators and writers increasingly look elsewhere for support. You'll have noticed, I hope, that while the French have 'les bédéistes', and the Japanese have 'mangaka', Britain has no word to describe a cartoonist or illustrator who is skilled and experienced in the creation of comic art.