Friday, January 30, 2015

MAKING and SURVIVING COMICS (Part 3: Character, character, character.)

by Greg Ruth

The terrible Mr Ward, from INDEH
This post says it's about comics, but really this applies to all storytelling in general. While my views are entirely my own, no matter how much I bloviate as to their merits, they remain mine and mine only. For me the most important aspect of any storytelling is character. You get this wrong, the rest doesn't matter... but get it right, well now you've really got something.  We're coming out of an addicton to high-concept narratives or twisty twists that have us spinning around so much in place we don't notice how flat and utterly boring most characters in these stories are. Clever left turns or overly clever plot points or settings are like a candy bars: they taste great and are utterly satisfying while you're chewing on it, but it's over minutes later and you're still hungry. Create a character people believe in and they'll follow that character anywhere. Create a plot point and you'll only take your audience as far as the plot point's end. Even worse, the reader will have now reason to come back and read it again. We re-watch Star Trek episodes, reread Tolkein or the Dune books because revisiting those stories is like reuniting with an old friend. They are places we want to go to again. They are a kind of home that way. Clever hooks, plot points, single line story grabbers sell books and stories more easily, that is a fact. The mistake comes when one confuses the tag line with the story- remember the commercial is not the product it's trying to sell. Make your story about something, no matter how goofy it is, and make the most effectively painted characters go through its trials and you will leave your publishers and your readers hungry for more. The best compliment you could ever get as a storyteller is to have someone ask if there's going to be another one. Here's a few simple pointers to help you get there:

Places are a character too.
Beyond the fabulously weird literal interpretations of this as in Grant Morrison's brilliant Danny the Street, the transexual moveable city block from the Doom Patrol comics, you should treat your location and setting with the same diligence as you characters. As much as it matter to build up your character with qualities to make them desirable and worth caring about, you settings and places should be attended too in much the same manner. Why is this place here? What is the history of this house? Is there a little crack int he window where a bird struck it last week, still un-repaired? Is it still yellow because the owner just doesn't have the wherewithal to paint a color he likes? The more you bestow your places with character, the more you add to the story's overall strength of purpose. The more effective anything you do there becomes, especially as it ties to how we may read it from a place of our own choosing and meaning. 

Cliches can be your friends, but mostly they're the other thing. 
Cliches derive from some originating truth, but the cliche has at this point overtaken whatever reality it stems from to render that argument meaningless. We like as an audience to see the next stage of the basic character cycle- the reverse cliche. The hooker with the heart of gold, the tough biker who maintains a Hummel collection, Spock crying. These are all obvious by virtue of citing the cliche they are reversing. It's a reflection in a mirror and not as a fact, entirely different. My usual advice is to take a character and add at least a third wrinkle to them and see how immediately they become something more. 

Dancy Flamrion from ALABASTER

Pretty does not equate with empathy.
One of my favorite examples of this mistake is the film, Cloverfield. Not a work of high art by any means of course, but who cares about that. the idea of a Godzilla film told via cell phone footage or whatever could be epic, and in some respects it achieves that. But it suffers almost entirely from the key problem of confusing handsome attractive characters, devoid of much else. In this particular story the problem is catastrophic because in order for the drama to be meaningful, you need empathize with them, not delight in seeing them all get crushed because they look like d-bags out of a Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. If you're goal is to do this, then push that all the way to its most intense extreme, but generally you should not. Imagine that film with the cast from say, The Wire. Imagine that you wanted to see them survive and how much more it would have been if they had bothered to achieve this basic hurdle. The knee jerk thing to do in telling a story with a character is to put forth the prettiest ideal- the fantasy version. But really it's far FAR more effective to avoid the fashion runway and make them look like your Aunt Helen or Uncle Morty, because even beyond the novelty of that approach, tangible real characters are the epicenter of what makes most stories function. A thriller is more thrilling if you care about your character's fate. A horror story more horrifying, and drama more dramatic, and comedy is more hilarious. It's the difference between the silly yawn fest of Friday the Thirteenth as compared to the narrative genius that is The Babadook. 

This isn't to say ugly is the solution immediately of course, but if you're finding this hard to bend to, go for ugly and see what it teaches you. And let's face it when we're talking about actual beauty we really mean something more than sexy vampires or the posters out of Tiger Beat. Find the flaws, the human characteristics and make them paramount.


Don't take your characters too seriously. 
Know the difference between being dramatic and being maudlin. Don't tell me why the character is supposed to be sad, make them cry as if all you need to do is tell me they're crying when you really should be crafting them in such a way that I am crying with them whether I want to or not. Pay serious attention to them, but don't become so entangled by them that you lose an editorial perspective on what they story needs them to do. Remember: you're making things and playing pretend up for money. It's a ridiculous job to have by any measure, so lighten up and have fun. Don't be afraid to counter sad moments with humor or the reverse. Keep a wide range of emotions in play as this will enable the character to be more real, and by association, more readable and fun to experience. 

Pamela Sweetwater gets got but not gone, from SUDDEN GRAVITY

If you don't believe in your characters, why would anyone else?
Seriously- you are your first and sometimes only fan. So be a true fanatic and love and be your characters. By a hat they would wear, and wear it while writing him/her. Find all the details of their lives that have brought them to this place even if you never once mention any of it in your story. It will inform your character's most essential qualities and shape their responses in a way that will only make them richer on the page or screen. Think about their voices, what their breath smells like, keep crafting all the little bits that make a person in your head until that magical tipping point comes and they start talking back to you. If you're doing this right, this will happen. You're not crazy, you've only finally achieved a character that is rich enough to be on its own, and argue with you when you make it do things counter itself. This crazy is the sound of success. 

Get outside your comfort zone. 
If you make stories about bunnies and teddy bears, use that ethic to tell me a story about biker gangs on Mars. If your schtick is the woman's point of view, use a man's. This is not necessarily to say you should go all anti-Woody Allen and refuse to write what you know, but more as an exercise to see what you're about by playing in a sandbox you're not about at all. We find and define ourselves by what we are not. We only confuse ourselves by thinking we are what we imagine ourselves to be. So flex some unused muscles and get out of the yard for a bit. You'll craft far richer and more varied characters this way, and despite the fear of doing it, you'll have fun too. 

The Laamia Berry explodes, from THE LOST BOY

It's great to use magic to get a character into trouble, 
disastrous to use magic to get them out. 
This is an old Pixar-ism, and one of it's most essential truths. The basic thrust being that leading a character into a trap by unnatural means can be world building and powerful, whereas using some invented widget or clever super power rends the character from interest and its own agency. The most famous of this kind of mistake goes back to Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower after being dead for a year and simply writing it off as that whole year being in fact, a dream. Or in the case of Interstellar, saving everyone by invoking broad concepts like "time", "gravity" and "love" but refusing to buttress these ideas with any realities within the story. It's fine to surprise your character with a last minute gift that saves him/her- be it a lifeline jungle vine that drops just before Indiana Jones before the boulder crushes him, reaching your hand behind you fro the Doctor's as a monster comes at you from the front. Magic in this case is a previously unsupported trick of the narrative that hops in only to rescue the character from a plot-trap the writer won't invest in a more clever way to escape from. It's lazy at its core, but it's worse than lazy because the pretense carries with it the scolding of one's character fro refusing to play along with the saving grace.

First draft of the death of Haloran from THE LOST BOY

Don't be afraid to say goodbye.
This is mostly for the writers out there, and something both entirely difficult and more overwrought and poorly executed than most. Whether you're killing Superman, Sherlock Holmes, or Wolverine, kill them dead and be merciless. Avoid graveside maudlinism, overwrought emotion in lieu of plot. You don't need to be cruel but you have to make something like this count and you must have it make some kind of sense- or if it doesn't and it's just your guy getting run over by a train by accident, then make that cruel randomness the point. The hardest thing for a writer to do is to let go of a character, especially if that character has lived with them for so long. It's also the easiest to screw up too because the writer's emotional investments make it hard to see the difference between eulogizing a character's exit and making that exit meaningful to others reading the story. Again, the more real world weight and quality you apply to your setting and characters, the more transparently goofy a melodramatic hacked out end will feel. Respect the work you've put into the character, the story and all the rest by really taking time to get out of your comfort zone and make it count. You only get one shot at this, so try and aim true. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Open Studio - Donato Arts

by Donato

For the first time in years, I will be opening the studio to visitors who wish to stop by and take in the extensive collections of paintings, drawings, sketches, books, prints, and other arts on display and for sale around the studio.

Saturday  February 7, 2015
12 - 6 pm

Donato Arts
397 Pacific Street
Brooklyn, NY 11217

New paintings from the 2015 George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire Calendar will be fresh back from the Society of Illustrators, including oils from my work for National Geographic, Tor Books, Magic: The Gathering, Middle-earth, Disney, and many other projects over the past few years.  Scores of sketches and preliminary drawings never before exhibited at conventions or galleries will also be laid out for perusal. 
Discounted prints, books and DVD's will be available to those who make the trip. 

I've included a few shots of works already hanging as well as a sample of the pieces to be on display throughout the four floors.  As much as is shown here, it is just a teaser for what will be on exhibition!

A new monumental canvas of Beren and Luthien in the Court of Thingol and Melian, from J.R.R. Tolkien's the Silmarillion is in progress in the studio for those who would like an early peek at a work in development.  The final canvas will be 9' x 5'.

I will be present the entire afternoon, so feel free to stop by and talk some art!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Comic Con Angoulême

-By Jesper Ejsing

It is very early in the morning. I am packed and ready to go. At the airport I will join with the rest of the guys from the studio and we will all go to Paris, and then on to Angoulême, and the fantastic Comic Convention.

I especially look forward to meeting this lovely french lady:
Claire Wendling
And this awesome dude:
Didier Cassegrain

I will post an interview with both artists as soon as I can.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mighty Men & Monster Maker

-By Dan dos Santos

I take a real enjoyment in going back to the things that inspired me as a kid, and got me into art in the first place. Lately I've been on a kick of re-watching old television shows I enjoyed as a kid (introducing them to my children now), and re-readng the comic books that later inspired me as a teenager.

There's no real "reason" for doing this. I'm not trying to bone up on basics, or re-evalute why I do what I do... it's just FUN.

Sadly, a lot of these old things don't hold up as well as I remember, especially in a technical sense. But sometimes I get lucky and they're even better than I remember.

Recently, I purchased a vintage "Mighty Men & Monster Maker" plate rubbing set off Ebay. They aren't super hard to come by, but it is hard to find a complete set at a reasonable price.

I didn't own my own as a kid, but a friend had one, and I always coveted it. The set comes with 10 different heads, 10 torsos, and 8 legs, which you can mix and match to your heart's content. Place a sheet of paper over the plates, rub a crayon over the surface, and you just made your own super hero or monster!

Now that I have one of my own (which I begrudgingly have share with my two boys), it's just as much fun as it was back then. It really is a fantastic toy, and my boys enjoy it so much, that I can't understand why they don't still make 'fashion plate' sets like these now.

Part of what makes this toy so successful is that the art on the plates is really good. Surprisingly good for a children's toy. Why is that? Well, it turns out an artist named Dave Stevens drew the plates. Yeah, THAT Dave Stevens!

As a child, it was the seemingly limitless possibilities that intrigued me about this toy. As an adult, I can see the limited options. Now, the fun for me lies not in the options, but instead in the restrictions. There is something inspiring about working within a confine, and trying to create something fresh out it. Mixing plates in ways they shouldn't be mixed, or embellishing them with your own elements.

Needless to say, my kids and I have gone through a LOT of paper in the past 2 days.

What were some of your favorite "art toys" as a kid? Was there a particular cartoon, or action figure that inspired you to draw? Share your favorites with us in the comments section.

Monday, January 26, 2015

For the Bookshelf

by Arnie Fenner

I love books. Not as a collector, really, though I (purely by accident) own some relatively rare titles and a few limited editions. No, my books are meant to be read, to be enjoyed—and they are. They're my well-thumbed, occasionally scuffed and foxed friends, ready to be pulled off the shelf and enjoyed without having to upgrade an OS or make sure a battery is fully charged. Though you can find all manner of good stuff on the internet it is simply not the same—it doesn't have the same resonance—as encountering similar content in a nicely designed book. In an age when people happily watch Lawrence of Arabia on their tablets or present their portfolios via smartphones, I guess my preference for good old fashioned ink on paper makes me a dinosaur. That's okay by me.

So naturally there were some wonderful art books published in 2014 and, just as naturally, a batch of them found their way to my bookshelf. Here are a few.

The Collector's Book of Virgil Finlay was a Kickstarter-funded book celebrating the art of one of SF's most important artists. Compiled by Robert Weinberg, Doug Ellis, and Robert Garcia this limited edition is a fitting tribute to Finlay, whose influence on the field is felt to this day. Published in a tiny edition of 400 copies this undoubtedly won't be in print for long.

I had posted my introduction for The Art of Greg Spalenka: Visions From the Mind's Eye on Muddy Colors some months back so you knew it would wind up on this list. Greg, of course, is a pioneer in the illustration world: whether working in paint or pixels you can see his influence on any number of artists working today. This sumptuous collection charts his career and serves as a beautiful forum for him to share his philosophy on self-empowerment and what it takes to make a living as an artist today. 

I had never heard of William Mortensen before American Grotesque came out, but it turns out that many artists (unbeknownst to me) had been using his photos as reference for decades, the sneaky devils. Offbeat, dramatic, and occasionally disturbing (in that back streets of Hollywood seaminess sort of way) it's obvious why Ansel Adams raised an eyebrow at his photos and Anton LeVey dedicated The Satanic Bible to him. Before Photoshop there was Mortensen and this book is an interesting look back.

I've always enjoyed Fred Gambino's art and was happy to finally snag a book of his work. Primarily a digital creator, Fred makes the software do his bidding rather than the other way around. 

Bob Chapman's Graphitti Designs is one of the true groundbreakers in our field. They were producing statues (starting with Randy Bowen's "Doc Savage" bust), action figures, T-shirts, signed ltd. prints, and artist editions (gotta love Elektra Lives Again) literally before everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. Their Gallery Edition of Batman: Kelley Jones is big (12"x17"/248 pages) and beautiful. Jones is one of the most interesting artists DC used on the character and this beautifully printed collection showcases his intricate, Goth-flavored line work.

I'm a sucker for Steranko and have been since I first encountered his art in Spyman #1 in 1966. When IDW came out with the Artist Edition of his Nick Fury/Strange Tales art, a purchase was a foregone conclusion. If you don't know why Steranko is important…shame on you. What might seem like a standard today was an innovation in the 1960s—brought about by Jim Steranko. Like most of my comics-related books, I picked up this literally coffee table-sized baby at Clint's in KC, probably the first comics shop in the U.S. Historians, pay attention.

Another Artist Edition from IDW that I had to have was their Hellboy collection by Mike Mignola. Putting it simply, Mignola is one of the best writers/artists the comics industry has ever seen. Impressive and expressive, his art is an inspiration of directness and simplicity not seen since Alex Toth was at his peak. If you're one of the few who doesn't think what Mike has accomplished is genius…go away and don't bother me. Philistine. 

Frank Cho, in his own unique way, is as brilliant as Mignola and has a deft touch with a brush that is second to none. Frazetta had it. Dave Stevens had it. Mark Schultz has it. And so does Frank. His Drawing Beautiful Women book is a nice primer for budding artists, made accessible through Frank's straight-on approach and playful sense of humor (see the "contents page" for an example). He's unapologetic about his delight in drawing bodacious females and that honesty (combined with the fact that his women are all strong and in charge of their environments) is a part of both his charm and appeal. An extra attraction for this book is the sequential chapter which includes a previously unpublished "Jungle Queen" comic: it's a winner.

Name a film and John Alvin probably did a poster for it. Which is a quick way to say, yes, I liked this collection and so will you.

Brian Kesinger is a Disney artist with a side fascination with Steampunk and octopi. His latest book featuring his characters Victoria Psismall & Otto is a coloring book (and coloring seems to be "the thing" for adults now for some reason) that I wouldn't dream of defacing with my Crayolas. Beautiful line art combined with charm and humor makes Coloring With Your Octopus a keeper.

If you like space art…shoot, just go buy John Harris' book. You'll be glad you did.

Bob McGinnis' new art book is a welcome companion to his first collection, Tapestry, that Cathy and I edited for Underwood Books 15 years ago (good God, how time flies). There's a little overlap, true, but there's art in one that isn't in the other (and vice versa) as well as different treatments—so if you have Tapestry, you'll be happy to have a copy of The Art of Robert McGinnis. And if you want more after picking up the new book, you'll be well-rewarded in tracking down a copy of Tapestry from your favorite antiquarian bookseller. 

This is a stunning book, beautiful from the first page to the last with tip-top production values. Marina's 3D art is expressive and emotive: describing what she creates as "art dolls" is both accurate and deceptive. Marina is a storyteller and her work is both unbelievably wondrous and ultimately unforgettable. Trust me: to see this book is to want it.

Since today is the deadline for entries to Spectrum 22, I of course have to end this post with a mention of Spectrum 21, the first volume produced and edited by John Fleskes. For his first time at bat I think John knocked it out of the part. With a fresh outlook and the introduction of new features (and revisioning of originals), John has started to put his stamp on the annual as editor—which is precisely what Cathy and I wanted—all while showcasing some of the most exciting art of the previous year. And there will be more changes, more refinements, more tweaks and additions in future volumes—which is as it should be. Spectrum has always respected the past, celebrated the present, and embraced the future: I can't wait to see how Spectrum 22 turns out! 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Taking a big bite - part 1

I think there is great value in taking on projects that are ambitious.  You don't have to look beyond Muddy Colors to see some great examples.  Donato's incredible large scale Tolkien paintings, Justin Gerard's massive battle scenes filled with hundreds of characters, Arnie and Cathy Fenner starting Spectrum (remember to enter!) and building it into the institution it is today and many other works and projects come to mind.  Dan Dos Santos is working on a killer large painting right now as well, I can't wait to see it when it is done!

It is inspiring to see people reach high and then keep climbing.  I have found that I go through phases where I take on fairly safe work and then I build up a little ambition and bite off something a little harder to chew.  When I do that, I really grow.  Those pieces mark periods of greater change and progress... and stress.  The stress goes away though and the progress stays with you!  I highly recommend it.

I recently started a large painting (large for me).  It is 60"x60" and has 30 figures in it, just under life sized.  It is going to be similar in presentation to Norman Rockwell's painting The Golden Rule.

My wife has been helping me with this project by finding models and costumes of kids from many different countries and ethnicities.  I have had a photoshoots in two different states, coordinating with models, wrangling costumes and working out the composition as I go.

I have been doing studies of each of the faces as well as a full sized drawing.  Here are some of the studies done so far along with :

Lola, 11"x14"

And a quick time lapse of the study:

Silje, 8"x10"


Isla, 8"x10"


Starting the painting.  Canvas is toned, drawing is transferred, first pass on face begun.

Below is the underpainting pass for one of the faces.  I will do a second pass to refine the painting, add more texture, color and detail.

A few more faces with the underpainting complete.  The face on the right has a quick flat wash that I will paint into to finish the underpainting.  I can do the underpainting for two faces a day and will spend another day to do the refining pass.

That is it so far.  I will update more in the future.  I have learned a lot on this piece so far and I am just getting started!

Now my question for you.  Do you have any projects that have been too big or overwhelming at first, but have been instrumental in your growth?  Share links and experiences in the comments!


Howard Lyon