Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Secrect Origins

Happy New Year! 'Tis the season to regroup, rethink and forge ahead. So, in honour of the coming new year I thought I'd take a look back at how I got into comics. It all started way back when I was a lad... Well actually it wasn't until I was in high school that I really became aware of comics. Oh, I knew the iconic characters like Batman and Superman and Spiderman but only through their spin-offs into TV and movies. I had a friend in high school who decided to start collecting comics. I flipped through a few of his books but wasn't really impressed. It was all superhero stuff and full of characters I'd never heard of with names like Dare Devil and Wolverine. I was more interested in playing AD&D and watching Robotech (I think I just dated myself there.) so that was as far as that went.

Stephen introduced me to the New Mutants some time after that. I remember thinking that Illyana Rasputin (Colosuss' little sister, for those who care) was kind cute and I was intrigued by a six armed samurai woman who's name escapes me now. (Spiral?) That was enough to get me to read the section of Dragon magazine dedicated to the Marvel role-playing game. So even though I didn't read any of the comics I was becoming fairly well versed on the backgrounds of some fairly obscure characters. Surprisingly, this all became useful a decade later when I was living Japan.

I was working as an animator in Tokyo and the friend of an acquainence who helped me get into the industry there asked me for help translating some storyboards for the Spiderman cartoon that was being animated there. It wasn't actually translating words that was the problem. The translator simply couldn't follow the story; it was too convoluted to make sense.
(This was the cartoon version that included half the Marvel universe and had Peter Parker sprout a set of ten-foot hairy spider legs out of his rib cage.) My job was to explain things like who the Kingpin is and why Kraven the Hunter want to kill Spiderman...

But I didn't really get interested in collecting or reading comics until after I finished high school and started seriously pursuing animation as a career. I met an new friend (this is getting confusing so I am going to start naming names. I may or may not change names to protect the innocent.) His name was Dave. Dave lived for comics. So I would accompany him to the comics shop and there I discovered... MANGA.

I was already an anime fan and manga had the same look and feel so, while Dave bought his superheroes,I would browse. A lot. But I was very particular about what I would buy. I recall liking the artwork in Akira when it came out but I didn't want to collect it because it didn't have any giant robots. (So my exposure to anime at that point was very limited.) There were, however, two comics that did catch my fancy: Nausicaa and Appleseed. So I decided to get my feet wet. I told myself I would collect anything that caught my eye until I had all of these two series and then I would quit. And thus began a long and intense love affair with Japanese comics.

Next time: why I fell for manga and how it all ended.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Brief History of Cold Iron Badge, Part 2

So Patrick and I had agreed that we should work together on a comic without actually knowing what the project was going to be.

Now, I had a bunch of ideas that I thought were pretty solid. Some of them, I'd been waiting to use for years.

None of them was Cold Iron Badge.

They were good ideas. They would have made good comics. I suspect that some of them would have lent themselves better than Cold Iron Badge to monetizing and merchandising.

But they weren't ideas that worked for both of us. No matter how good they were, I couldn't be married to them. We found -- had to find, through a lot of discussion and a lot of give-and-take -- a story that we could both get excited about.

There are a few reasons for this; one is philosophical. I'm not a proponent of applying auteur theory to comics -- even though it's actually possible in comics to be an auteur (unlike, say, film).

But just because something is possible doesn't mean that it's always a good idea. Collaboration is an incredibly powerful creative tool, and a lot of my own best writing has been collaborative. Comics is a medium that lends itself to collaboration. Particularly in my case, since I can't draw, and I am pretty much utterly dependent on having a creative partner in the form of an artist if I want to make comics.

(And even in comics, there are few genuine auteurs. My friend Mark Oakley is one. But even Dave Sim had Gerhard.)

Another reason is practical. In any comics project, the artist is going to be spending a lot more time drawing it than the writer spent writing it, so if there's no money on the table, it damn well better be something they actually want to draw.

(I believe it was Warren Ellis who said that he begins every new collaboration asking the artist he's working with questions like, "What do you love to draw? What do you hate to draw? What have you always wanted to draw and never gotten the chance?" That thought was never far from my mind while Cold Iron Badge was coming together.)

And besides: Patrick is talented. He has good ideas. Why wouldn't I want him involved in creating the story?

This isn't unprecedented for me -- Xeno's Arrow was developed in very much the same way, with Greg Beettam and me discussing the kind of story we wanted to tell, building our characters and world outwards from the initial desire to collaborate. It wasn't the first idea we kicked around, either -- just the best. It beat out, by the way, an idea that we did give a lot of thought too, that even got to the scripting and plotting stage before we decided that we weren't really into it, and which -- conceived, keep in mind, in early 1993 -- was eerily similar in many ways to Harry Potter.

That's a whole 'nother story, but I will say that it's enough to make me wonder if Alan Moore is right about IdeaSpace.

So: Patrick and I were kicking ideas around, mostly by email. And the germ of what became Cold Iron Badge was contained in a phrase he wrote, about being in a "super" mood -- wanting to tell a story that was superheroic, or supernatural. I immediately gravitated to the latter.

More on how that evolved into Cold Iron Badge next time.

Monday, December 15, 2008


I have a friend that is still working on his student film. We graduated fifteen years ago.

My friend (and you know who you are) continued to work on his film after graduation. Then he looked at the stuff he did in school and decided to improved it, since his skills had improved. By the time the old stuff was redone it was better looking than the new stuff. So he deicided to redo the "new" stuff, which was better looking than the other stuff... for fifteen years.

My approach to my student film was more pragmatic. I knew that after graduating I would never touch it again, even if I didn't finish it (which I didn't.) I did the best I could, used it to get a job and moved on. A few years later I made another film, and finished it. And then made another; and then a couple more (which are almost done). I like to finish what I start.

With each project I set out to acheive certain goals. The first film was to be finised first, quality was secondary. The next films were to experiment with different techniques and to push my self as to do the best work I can. My goals with Cold Iron Badge, were to make a comic and to tell a long format story. What I didn't take into consideration at the time was that a long format story take a long time to tell. And in that time, I am improving. It has gotten to the point where the earlier pages of CIB are full of things that are painful to look at. Some of it is in the pacing. Some of it is in the layouts and some of it is in the drawings themselves. It is to the point where portions of the comic are no longer representative of what I am capable of doing. So what do I do? Move on or revisit?

As much as I like to move forward, sometimes going back is inevitable. Experience is a good teacher and hindsight is always 20/20. So I will be going back and "fixing" some of the artwork. When eventually (knock wood) we make a print version some of the things I am talkng about will be much more obvious than when veiwed a week at at time so I owe it to Christine and Delric to show them in the best light I can. I will be leaving the archives alone for now but at some point I will post the new and improved versions somewhere. And I promise that won't take fifteen years to finish.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Brief History of Cold Iron Badge, Part 1

I'm going to leave my impressions of the rest of the first edition of The Hobbit -- from Chapter Six on -- for another time, for a couple of reasons.

I haven't actually finished it yet, for one thing -- I've been reading other things, books that I can actually read while on public transit without fear of damaging an heirloom. A lot of science fiction (one of my other loves, and which I also write) by John Scalzi and Charles Stross, both terrific writers.

The other thing is that first edition of The Hobbit, after the radically-different Chapter Five, the variation between versions in the chapters that follow is pretty minor. Barely noticeable, and not the sort of thing that makes for very interesting analysis.

So, if I'm not going to bore you with that, what do I intend to bore you with?

Well, Patrick has been wowing everyone with his posts about process, so you've learned quite a bit about the whys and hows of his creative choices. But you haven't heard much about the writing side of that particular coin.

So: How was Cold Iron Badge conceived? How did that translate into the story you've been following and, I hope, enjoying the hell out of?

It emerged, first and foremost, from a desire to work together.

Patrick and I have been friends for a long time, and at various times in the past we had talked about doing a comic of some sort. Nothing that had gotten beyond an interesting conversation or two and some character designs.

About a year and a half ago, I was frustrated. My attempts at breaking into screenwriting had long since fallen by the wayside (the details are a long story for another time). I had also recently had reason to remind myself why I've always avoided writing short stories or a novel: I'm just not very good at prose. What I'm good at is scripting.

Especially in the wake of attending the 2007 Toronto Comics Art Festival, I missed comics. But it was clear to me that, in terms of creative outlets that were fun, didn't have many related expenses, gatekeepers or bars to entry, but still held out the possibility of being of high quality and maybe even profitable someday, webcomics were where the action was.

The problem was, I can't do a webcomic by myself. Because I can't draw. It pisses me off. It's the one talent I don't have that I really, really wish I did. But I can't draw for beans.

At that point, I didn't have many contacts in comics anymore. My "career" (and I use the self-deprecating quotes advisedly) was about as cold as my "career" in film. The artists I was still in touch with were all busy with their own lives and projects.

So, Patrick and I were talking, and I was bemoaning my situation. "The problem is," I whinged, "That I don't know any artists who want to work with me!"

"Ahem," he replied.

"Oh! I thought you were busy!" I said.

So, that was where it all began.

That left wide open the question of what we were actually going to work on. More on that next time.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Things I have learned

After laying out fifty-odd pages of story I think I am finally getting a handle on pacing the story. As I mentioned last time, I try to end a page on a scene cut or a dramatic moment. Sometimes that leaves me with a lot of business to cover in that page and sometimes it leaves not very much. When that happens I have to look at whether to stretch or condense the action. Do I squeeze it into one page or stretch it out over two, and if so how much goes on page one and how much goes on page two?

I don't think I can explain how I make these decisions right now. All I know is, it is getting easier to make them. But here are a few things I have learned in the process:

1) More panels on a page means more work for me. This may seem fairly obvious but it wasn't to me. For example, Christine's fight with the goblins at Puck I used a couple of sixteen panel pages. I asumed that more smaller drawing would be take the same amount of time as fewer larger ones because the pencil mileage is the same. I was wrong. Perhaps the drawing time is the same but I didn't account for how long it takes to work out the composition. (Significantly longer that it takes to do the drawing.) So extra panels ends up being a lot of extra time per page.

2) Size matters. The size of a panel does influence the seeming passage of time. In Comics and Sequential Art, Eisner states that a longer panel will seem to occupy more time than a shorter one. Even though I had read that, I thought that the number of panels is more important than the size. Now I have to conede that Eisner knew best. (I quess that is why he has an award named after him.)

3) Blow by blow action is really boring. In a movie it is great to see a fight in intricate detail. Fast cutting can make any number of shots feel as fast or slow as you want. But in a comic, too many drawings slows things down. Even though I know this, I still imagine that action as a movie, which I then have to distill down for the comic.

4) Planning is essential. Not just thumbnailing out pages and panels, but taking the time to really think about what the story needs. I tend to thumbnail out twenty or so pages at a time, then draw them, then thumbnail out another twenty, and so on. By the time I get to the twentieth page of any given set, I have been thinking about it for weeks more that the earlier pages, and they (not surprise here) turn out better. The pacing is better and the story works better. So, as in all things, measure twice, draw once.