Monday, November 24, 2008

The Riddle of Riddles in the Dark

On to Chapter Five: 'Riddles in the Dark'. Bilbo, lost and alone in forgotten caves beneath the Misty Mountains, finds a Ring, finds Gollum and finds his way out. And some riddles are exchanged.

That much is the same.

There's so much that fascinates me about the changes between Chapter Five of the first edition of The Hobbit and the revised version, released after the success of The Lord of the Rings, that most of us are more familiar with.

(I'm going to stop at this point to somewhat belatedly acknowledge that what follows is going to contain rather a lot of spoilers. Although if you don't already know what happens in The Hobbit, why the heck are you here? Go read it. Now. Come back later.)

Obviously, Tolkien's big ret-con* is the centrepiece. Over the course of writing The Lord of the Rings, his conception of what the seemingly innocuous ring of invisibility that Bilbo found deep under the Misty Mountains actually was changed so dramatically, that Chapter Five of the original version of The Hobbit simply made no sense at all anymore. So Tolkien came up with the brilliant idea that the story as originally written was a lie that Bilbo told, and wrote in his memoirs, because he wanted his claim to the Ring to be indisputable, and was ashamed at the thought that he'd stolen it.

Tolkien had a little bit of fun at his own expense, as well, when Frodo and Gandalf discuss Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring and Frodo describes the "true" version of the story as "much more likely."

And then, of course, Tolkien rewrote The Hobbit, emending many minor details (as discussed in one of my previous posts) and altering Chapter Five extensively, making it reflect the "truth" as described in The Lord of the Rings.

But that vital change was made up of countless other changes, major and minor. One of them in particular is surprising to me: Gollum barely matters to the story at all.

The Hobbit was written by a man who had studied, and who understood, myths, folklore and fairy-tales right down to the core of his being, so it's no surprise that The Hobbit shares at least some of the classic characteristics of the Hero's Journey as articulated by Joseph Campbell. Campbell suggests that the Hero's Journey consists of a call to adventure, a journey out, a series of tests, some sort of ultimate trial (usually a confrontation with death) and if the hero succeeds, a journey back, with a reward.

Of course these criteria are sufficiently general that they can be applied to a very broad range of stories. But I don't think that it's entirely a coincidence that the subtitle of The Hobbit is There And Back Again.

The point of this digression is that The Hobbit is a story about a journey, a going and a returning. It's also an episodic story, well-suited to being read aloud a chapter a night at bedtime. Bilbo goes from one point to another in his travels, meeting new characters and having fairly discrete adventures along the way.

But the interesting thing is that virtually every character that Bilbo encounters returns at some point. Every character becomes important again later on, either at the climactic Battle of Five Armies or during Bilbo's return home at the very end of the story. Elrond, the Goblins and Wargs, Beorn, the Elven-King. Even the trolls, indirectly, when Bilbo and Gandalf pick up their treasure on the way back.

Except Gollum. Gollum, after Bilbo leaves the Misty Mountains, never matters again in the story. He was a mechanism for getting Bilbo the Ring and getting him out of the caves.
Gollum, who is arguably the pivotal character of The Lord of the Rings -- key to the theme, the unfolding action and the resolution, the tragically fallen counterpart to Frodo -- doesn't matter.

He's also a rather more pathetic figure, who apologizes to Bilbo for losing the Ring that he apparently genuinely intended to give him for winning the riddle contest, and tries to make up for it by leading him to safety. He's clearly not a very nice person (the reference to him eating Goblins, when he can, is present in both versions) but he's not the treacherous, debased, tragic, obsessive figure we know from The Lord of the Rings. His last words to Bilbo are directions: "It musst squeeze in and sneak down. We dursn't go with it, my preciouss, no we dursn't, gollum!"

Compare that to the blood-curdling accusation and threat, "Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever!" that echoes in Bilbo's ears, and across the pages of The Lord of the Rings right through to the conclusion.

Gollum was a minor, almost a throwaway character.

That Tolkien had the chutzpah to change things so dramatically is frankly astounding.

It's also inspiring, and illustrative.

It's a reminder that tales can, and sometimes should, grow in the telling. That I -- that we -- can grow creatively, and that the process of creative growth never really ends. That earlier works can be reinterpreted in the light of later ones. That characters too, can grow and become more than they were.

That these changes, sometimes even retroactive ones, are not something to be feared, but opportunities to be explored.

Tolkien was good enough, and wise enough, to grow with his work as his work grew with him, and he was smart enough to use that growth as a solution to the story problem it created.

None of which means that I'm about to rewrite the past to support the revelation that Christine is actually a spider elemental, or that Delric is really a giant who only looks like an elf because he's been merged with a magic sword.

But the reason not to do those things isn't because they'd be ret-cons, but because they'd be stupid. I think that's my take-away from all this, and a new mantra: Embrace change, but avoid stupidity.

After all, Tolkien managed it.

Next: 'Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire'. Yes, that's what Tolkien actually called Chapter Six of The Hobbit.

* That's geek-speak that means a retroactive change to continuity.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

From script to page

There are a few consideration when sitting down to draw Cold Iron Badge. First is the amount of story to put on each page. Then there is the number of panels to use to tell the story, and the layout of the panels on the page. Then there is the content of the panels. I go through these steps first as a set of thumbnail drawings, often right on the script pages. I will go through twenty or so pages at a time like that. Then I go to artboards and rough out a scene at a time before going back to ink the pages.

When Stephen gives my a script, the first thing I do is the happy dance (because I even though I helped write the story, I don't know exactly how things will go until it is written, and sometimes Stephen adds a twist of his own.) Then I get to work. I will read through the story again and mark off the page breaks. I try to find a good dramatic spot to end a page. The end of scene is good, especially if it has a twist or cliffhanger element to it (think "You want to arrest you partner?)". This presents a mystery or a question to the readers (that you) that will make you want to see what happens next. I avoid having a scene end in the middle of a page. It just seems a really unnatural page to do it. Not to mention that the page itself will end at an awkward moment.

Once I have the pages broken down, I read through the script again and decide how many panels it will take to tell that bit of story. This is on of the hardest parts of the process for me. As I read the script I can visualize the story as a movie. And if I had to storyboard it, there would be no problem. But this is a comic, not a movie. So what I have to do is translate the movie in my head into a limited number of images. This is most difficult for the action scenes. I love action, especiall kung fu movies. And I really want the action in the comic to shine. That means balancing the drama of the story with my desire to show detailed coreography. (More on this later.)

Once I know the number of panels, I arrange them on the page. This step and the previous are somewhat fluid. There are times I need to add or subtract a panel to get the page to end on the right note, sometimes my idea for the action evolves, requiring a new number of panels. Some times the whole page comes to me at once. These are the easiest to do, because I can just jump in a draw them. Usually they are simple layouts or splash pages. Sometimes I get an idea for a panel or a short sequence of panels. These are not bad to work with either. I just place the sequence on the page and fill in the gaps around it. Sometimes I get nothing. A blank. Like right now. I know what I want to put on the page but I am not sure where to start. When that happens I default to a nine panel grid. I originally thought I would do the whole comic in a grid, like Watchmen. I give a great deal of control over pacing to the writer and, most importantly for me, it removes on level of decision making. All the panels are exactly the same. But when I started to draw, the first shot of Puck just screamed out to be bigger. So I decided to follow my gut on that one and I am happy with the results. But when I get stuck, I do fall back on the tried and true.

Once the page is laid out, I compose the images with the panels. I used to hate the rule of thirds, because it struck me as being formulaic. But I have to admit that it does work. Check out the Watchmen, if you don't believe me. The focus of nearly every panel is on a third. So I have been using that a lot. I probably should spend more time thumbnailing the actual compositions but I will admit to taking short cuts here. I follow my instincts at to where to place everything in the frame. This often lead to a lot of erasing and redrawing. But as long as the paper can take the abuse I will continue on.

Monday, November 10, 2008

From An Unexpected Party to Riddles In The Dark

So, we were speaking of The Hobbit.

As I mentioned, I decided to finally -- I've had the book for about three and a half years -- read the first-edition copy of The Hobbit that my wife gave me.

So far, in the limited amount of time I have to read for pleasure (other than on the subway, which is not something I'm going to subject a seventy-year-old rare book to) I've covered just over a hundred pages -- from the start of the story to just past the ending of Chapter Five.

Chapter Five, 'Riddles In The Dark', is of course the chapter that's radically different from the version of The Hobbit that most of us are familiar with, the chapter that Tolkien felt he had to ret-con in order for Lord Of The Rings to work. More on that another time. The four chapters that precede it, in comparison, are not altered as dramatically. Minor changes at most -- a word here or a sentence or two there, that's about it.

And the overall difference is almost shocking.

It's not that the book isn't outstanding. It's just strikingly different. And, to anyone familiar with Lord Of The Rings, sometimes bizarrely so. The idea that one of Bilbo's Tookish ancestors had married a fairy is followed by a paranthesis noting that less friendly people suggested it had been a goblin. And Elrond refers to his High Elven kindred as "gnomes".

But it goes deeper than that.

The Hobbit, in the version that most of us are familiar with, is full of anachronisms and things that strike a tone that's not entirely consistent with Lord Of The Rings. But anachronisms and inconsistencies of tone are a huge part of what Tolkien cut -- so those elements are even more pronounced in the original.

The overall effect, for me, was that the story reached, and then crossed, some sort of tipping point. That tipping point was in Chapter 2, 'Roast Mutton', on page 43 in this edition.
The Dwarves are discussing the dubious character of the region they and Bilbo are crossing (as they do in both versions). The italics are mine, for emphasis: "These parts are none too well known, and are too near the mountains. Policemen never come so far, and the map-makers have not reached this country yet."

Policemen? In Middle-Earth?

In the long-abandoned wild lands between Bree and Rivendell? What policemen? Whose? How?


And with that, the balance of the familiar and the fantastic, that Tolkien was such a master of, was thrown irrecoverably off.

Again, none of this makes the first edition of The Hobbit a bad book, or a poorly-crafted one. It's a great book, wonderfully written. But it clearly doesn't take place in Middle-Earth, not really. It takes place in a world much more like our own, that uses the languages, and history, and some of the characters of Middle-Earth to enrich a fine and very engaging story.

Fantasy fiction depends on striking that balance -- what and where it lies depends on the story -- between the familiar and the fantastical. And what I've realized, in reading The Hobbit as it was originally written, is how small and subtle the choices that balance rests on can be. A single word, a single idea that doesn't quite fit, can make all the difference.

Fantasists, it is sometimes said, are playing God, freely creating entire worlds to tell their stories in. Well, this is a reminder of the tremendous responsiblity that accompanies that freedom. The existence of an imaginary world is always provisional; it depends on the reader continuing to believe in it. And the smallest inconsistency or wrong note -- a single word! -- can tip the balance from belief to unbelief. And then poof. A whole world gone, like that.

As a writer of fantasy, I haven't decided yet whether the fact that even Tolkien struggled to find and maintain that balance takes the pressure off me... or just makes me feel doomed.

Next time: Riddles In The Dark.