Death and Television

I’ve always been drawn to television because it’s closest to how I experience life.

We don’t meet someone and experience everything with them in 2 hours. We form a first impression, start to like them, learn their secrets. Watch them grow. Each meeting pushing us forward.

But nowhere is this similarity more apparent than in death.

In movies, death is fireworks. Big, loud, tragic – lots of tears and pathos. I can’t relate to that. Thankfully (I think), no one I know has gone down in a blaze of glory.

In TV, there’s still the death, the pain. Sure. Funeral is next week. But after that, we have to live with the absence.

You visit the same places, see the same people, but something is missing. At parties, graduations, around the club table, at Easter. Waiting for a voice, looking for a face, that isn’t there. Replaced by a tangible emptiness.

And we always hope they’ll come back. It was all fake. They’ve got a way, a plan, I know it. And when we see them again, goddamn, that moment is such a rush. Because that just doesn’t happen here.

Gonna miss you, man.

A Few Thoughts on screenplays

Been spending most of my time lately working on TV scripts. It’s incredibly rewarding because screenplays feel so much more finished than a comic scripts.

You can hand your buddies a screenplay and, if you’ve done your job, they’ll feel like they’ve watched it. A comic script is like handing that same friend a stack of blueprints and asking him what he thinks of your new house.

Hollywood has gotten very good at screenplays. There’s a set of rules, all designed to imbue your script with a magical readability. Makes sense, because before you make a movie a bunch of people need to read a script.

But movies are a lot more than scripts.

These readable scripts are limiting. They limit the kinds of movies you can make. There are many movies (mostly art house or foreign) that would have died on the page. This explains the creative success of so many writer-directors, who write for themselves and not their readers.

The macro trend here: the world has gotten a lot better at writing scripts. But have we gotten any better at making movies?

…and we’re back

I’ll keep the obligatory “where we’ve been post” short and to the point.

We’re working on an insane graphic novel called Hatch with JD Smith. It looks like this:

And it goes like this:

A rock star wakes up one morning to find that an impersonator has stolen his life. To discover the truth of what happened, he will have to unwind a conspiracy that dates back to the beginning of rock & roll.

Item 2: Balloond.

As some of you may know at my day job I work at a software company. I have chosen to use my powers for good and create a site to allow indie creators (like myself) to quickly and easily sell their comics digitally. I’m going to try not to talk too much about it on this blog in the future, but for now allow me to say: check it out!

Will be back next week with more critical stuff – thanks for the patience.

An Open Letter to TV from Comics

Hey Television,

Look, I know I’m not that much older than you, so don’t think I’m being condescending, but I’ve been through what you’re going through, and I thought you could use some advice.

I remember when I did “serialization” and “decompression” or whatever you kids are calling it these days. The idea’s the same: instead of treating an installment as its own piece of story, each installment becomes part of a bigger story. Hell, the idea is older than either of us, but it’s taking off for you, just like it did for me.

I remember those first few series that did it for me, just like you had your first few. Those were the days. People talk about how you’ve finally grown up, you’re telling stories that are complex, rich, and rewarding. People even compare you to those books with no pictures (it’s a complement, I’m told).

And then it’s everywhere. Everybody has to get on board with serialization. What’s the point otherwise? It’s old fashioned to tell those “one-and-done” stories. The bosses start telling everyone to serialize. We all get a big laugh at those old-timers who resist.

Sound about right? Well here’s what’s about to happen.

You’re checking out the latest installment of your favorite series, and you ask yourself: what just happened? You know you watched something, and it took your time, but can’t really recall any plot points. It just seemed like a lot of nothing.

And now you realize: maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. We all really dug the serialization thing, but was there another reason? Did the big guys like it because it kept us involved even when there was no story, no character. Because they figured out we’d always come back for the next installment, as long as they never gave us a jumping off point.

But now it seems that in getting rid of jumping off points, they also got rid of jumping on points. Everyone checks out the first installment, but they trickle off and never return. I wasn’t around at the first installment, why start now?

But wait, you were being innovative, right? The cool kids liked it – but now it seems like the only ones still around are the same old folks who’ve been around for a while. Where did all those cool kids go?

They already noticed, and they’re gone.

So what do you do? Well its never really up to us, is it?

Its up to the content producers, to make a drive to put out really good content. To know that serialization is a tool, and good content will always be good and bad content will always be bad.

It’s up to the suits (well, we don’t really have those, but you get the idea), not to put in place policies about storytelling, because that’s not something they understand. They should understand that their job is to identify good work, facilitate good work, and get out the word about it.

But at the end of the day, its really up to the fans. They have to demand from all of the above that they don’t want ploys — they want good stories, serial or otherwise.

I talk like I’m some old man, about to give up the ghost. But when I look in the mirror, sometimes I feel really freaking young. Like we’re just getting started, and this whole decompression thing is a little blip. And at the end of the day, isn’t it nice to know that people are talking about you?

Anyway, don’t be a stranger. I’ve got some property to sell you.

-Comics

The Open Panel

While Umberto Eco might not be a common name among comic readers, but his writing about the Open Work has a strong relation to comics.

Allow me to butcher Eco’s words and years of semiotics theory for you. There is a theory of The Open Work, in which the viewer of a piece of art becomes a participant by interpreting it. The viewer of a painting becomes a performer of the painting by interpreting their own meaning from the piece. The reader of a book is a participant by creating their own unique understanding.

Eco goes on to say that the most rewarding texts are the “Open Texts.”  These are the works that allow the reader to decipher from them many meanings.  The opposite would be the Closed Text, a work that a reader can only draw one meaning from.

Boooooring (Eco’s words, not mine).

So with all the heady stuff out of the way, how does it apply to comics?

Comics, at every moment, ask the reader to contribute meaning and interpretation. I’ve talked about it before: in that white gutter between panels, the comic reader switches from passive viewer to active participant in the construction of meaning in the comic.

It is up to the reader to fill in everything that happens in between those two panels. This is what makes comics so inherently open. It is not possible for a comic to exist that does not engage the reader’s imagination of some level (this also explains why some folks have such a hard time understanding comics).

But there is a question of degree.  Some panels are inherently more open than others. While still necessitating interpretation from the reader, this is essentially a series of Closed Panels:

There is really only one interpretation of the above page, unless you want to imagine Invincible running and grabbing a sandwich somewhere. And unlike Eco, I’m not knocking Closed Panels – they are the bread and butter of the medium, and are essential in almost all storytelling.  But it’s not the only option.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Open Panel – the gutter that asks the reader to do the heavy lifting. I’ve posted this here before, because it’s one of the best uses of the Open Panel that I’ve ever seen:

While these four panels give us an indication of the plot, the bulk of the traditional narrative–the entire interaction between the two characters–is placed outside the physical page. It exists only in the imagination of the reader. The reader is asked to become the performer of the strip.

And the difference between a closed and open panel is not absolute – it’s a matter of degree.  Every panel transition will exhibit its own level of openess – and this is one of the tools available to comic creators that other mediums do not have the benefit of.

The true masters of the medium know how to use closed and open panels in conjunction to engage the reader in an active and unique way.  I’ll leave you with a strip by one of the masters of this combination, Chris Ware:

Splash Pages & Akira

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is one of the crowning achievements of graphic fiction.  It’s a 2000+ page epic that never lets up for a minute.  Page after page, Otomo demonstrates that he is a master of his medium, choosing layouts and panel structures convey so much information without ever sacrificing readability.

To try and cover every innovation and perfection that Otomo made to the medium would take much more space than I have here.  Instead I’ll focus on the technique that most struck me on my recent reading: the splash page.

Comics are no stranger to splash pages – those single panel pages that so often bookend mainstream comics.  While they are casually thrown about in superhero comics, Otomo uses them to a much different effect than what Western readers are familiar with.

Every splash in the first 350 pages of Akira

Start with frequency: in the first volume of the book, there are 11 splash pages, many of which are double splashes. The book is 350 pages long, so Otomo averages 1 splash every 32 pages.

For comparison, look at the recent Justice Leauge #1. It’s 25 pages long, and has 4 splash pages. That’s 1 every 6.5 pages. A whole lot more than Akira.

But it’s not just quantity. The whole approach is different. In modern comics, the splash has been reduced for really two purposes. One is the glamour shot: the superhero arcing through the air, a chance for the artist to dig his heels in and deliver a spandex-clad anatomy lesson.  Generally these pin-ups are fan-service-y tools of decompression and artistic overindulgence.

The other modern use is the reveal. We find out a terrible secret; a full page closeup ofcompromising evidence.  It forces our attention, and let’s us know that this is a Big Moment.  It’s heavy handed, sort of the comic equivilent of very obvious music cues, but it can be quite effective when used properly.

But Otomo’s use of splashes in Akira couldn’t be more different than either of these two techniques. The splashes in Akira are all about space.  Scale.  Scope.  They’re downright geographic.

And almost all of these splashes are in the first 30 or so pages.  The following 200 pages are filled with alleys and corridors – claustrophobic stuff.  So when at the end of an underground lab complex action scene we are treated to the two page splash of Akira’s chamber, it’s a moment to breath, a break in the action.

That’s why all of these splashes are long shots, a far cry from the medium and close ups in the Western Canon.  It serves to set the stage that these small actions have bigger ramifications.  The splashes mirror the overarching structure of Akira’s narrative, which begins as a conflict between people and grows into a battle of massive forces.

It’s not that Akira uses splashes right and everyone else does them wrong.  What Otomo does throughout his work is take familiar techniques and concepts and bends them in ways that suit his story.  He is always first a storyteller, as he transforms familiar comic idioms into original techniques.

That is why Akira is not only a landmark achievement in visual storytelling, but also a damn good read.

Looking back on- and forward to- Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy

Cinematic storytelling in comics is a tough thing to pull off.  The list of artists who can truly nail it is a short one.  Cassaday, Hitch, and Quitely come to mind.  But maybe the best of all of them is Geoff Darrow.  When a new Shaolin Cowboy series was announced at the NYCC Dark Horse panel, I was both shocked and super excited.  After 7 sporadically published issues on the Wachowski’s Burlyman Entertainment, it disappeared, with intermittent rumors of an animated movie and little else to be heard for the past 4 years.  But all I wanted was more comics!  With its return apparently imminent, let’s take a look back on what made it so amazing.

Perhaps the most well-loved issue of the series was issue #6, where the titular character fights off possessed sharks in the belly of monster carrying a city on its back.  All the crazy ideas Darrow has thrown out really come to a head in this issue, and you can tell he loved drawing it.  While the fight scenes are epic, look also at the intense panels leading up to all the hyper violence.

We follow the action in an over the shoulder shot, as Darrow moves our eye back and forth across the page.  We know the attack is imminent, but he lets us wallow in the calm before the storm before we get the straight up action promised by the cover.  This is exactly how to use cinematic storytelling on a static page.  For my money, it works better as a comic than as a movie, because he uses our natural side-to-side reading movements to convey the back and forth movements of the shark.  Then, we simply wait in the fourth panel, soaking in the the artwork, which he produces at a scale much larger than the printed version to allow the insane level of detail.  Then when the action hits, it’s always big:

Yes, it’s a cowboy monk fighting a shark with a chainsaw on a stick.  That’s pretty tough to screw up.  But look at the storytelling for a minute.  While most comic book fight scenes are easy to blow by, the commitment to hyper-detail in every panel slows down the eye to digest and appreciate everything that’s going on.  And look at how expertly he leads the eye through the page.  In panel one, the Monk is leaping off screen, which continues in panel 2 with only his feet and chainsaw visible.  Panel three finds him coming back into view, and panel four finds him landing lightly on a floating suitcase.  How do you know he’s landing lightly?  The splash is contrasted nicely with the chaotic feeding frenzy going on in the background.  And when he lands, he doesn’t even scare off the mice feeding on the bloated carcass in the foreground.  The sense of nimbleness is easily conveyed, even though the the character is not exactly a lightweight.

Oh and by the way, they’re fighting in the belly of this:

Never let it be said that the man doesn’t know how to use splash pages for effect.

So if you’re in the mood for a kung-fu cowboy fighting crabs with grudges, possessed sharks, and the occasional baby, it’s officially okay to get excited now.