Monday, January 26, 2009

Manga Ja Nai! (Not Manga!)

So I went to Japan and returned a manga apostate. But if I wasn't going to draw anime-style, then how should I draw?

My assistant at the time was making weekly pilgramages to the comic shop. After a while, I started going with him. I have been in plenty of comics shops over the years, but I virtually ignored everything expect the Japanese imports and their North American clones; and superheroes still didn't interest me much. Fortunately for me, Mike was into the alternatives, stuff I knew nothing about. I had a whole new world to discover.

I started collecting again. After getting burned by the sporadic releases of my favourite Japanese authors, I didn't want to get sucked in again. So I stuck mostly to graphic novels and trade paperbacks. And I was choosey. I wanted something different but I had become picky about what I would spend money on. I picked up stories by Matt Wagner, Jeff Smith, Mike Mignola, David Mack and more. I was looking at a wide variety of artists and borrowing freely from what I liked. Eventually, I think, (I hope) it all evolved into something that was greater than all the parts.

Next time: an overview of my favourite artists and why I like them.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Brief History of Cold Iron Badge, Part 4

Once upon a time, before Professor Stephen Hawking wrote his book, it was possible to write a brief history of something and call is something other than 'A Brief History of Something'.

Not afterwards.

At first it was a joke, an increasingly obvious and un-clever go-to reference. But then it stopped being a reference and, because of its ubiquity, simply became the natural way to refer to a not-very-long written narrative detailing the origin and development of something.

(There were other Brief Histories before Hawking's, of course. But he put the phrase on the popular cultural map in a way that it hadn't been before -- or, to use a more elegant and apt turn of phrase, he put it into IdeaSpace.)

Not to expend too much effort justifying my own lack of creativity in blog post titles, but it never occurred to me to call this series anything other than 'A Brief History of Cold Iron Badge'. And I'd be willing to wager that none of you saw that title and thought that I was referencing Hawking particularly, whether cleverly or (more likely) not.

A Brief History of Blah-de-blah has become a trope.

This is not the only evolutionary path that a trope can follow, but it's an important one for storytelling -- for fiction. Because, occupying a level of universality that lies beyond references, homages, rip-offs and cliches, tropes are fundamental concepts that don't need to be explained for the audience.

Whether something is really a trope, or merely a reference/cliche/et cetera of course depends on who the audience is. There are tropes that are common to every culture, every demographic, every sub-culture, even every clique, that someone from outside those particular groups wouldn't get on the same subconscious level... and there are tropes that are common to all of humanity.

Cold Iron Badge was deliberately designed to be very, very tropey.

I touched on this in my last post, but it bears repeating and exploring in more detail: There are a number of points where Cold Iron Badge pretty blatantly uses tropes -- touchstones, storytelling conventions -- from either fantasy literature, cop shows, or both. And this was entirely intentional on my part.

A story that is fundamentally -- as I also noted last time out -- a genre mashup absolutely depends on honouring the key tropes of the genres that it's drawing from (and sometimes on subverting them). It's important on many levels, but one of the most important is the most basic. Because tropes, especially genre tropes, tell the audience what sort of expectations to have of the story. And when those expectations are either entertainingly fulfilled, or entertainingly subverted, the audience is generally happy. Which makes the writer happy.

This is true of all genres, but genre mashups are particularly fun for this, because an audience familiar with the tropes of all the genres involved will understand when there's conflict between the tropes of the underlying genres. Which creates dramatic tension, interest, and lots of opportunity for expectations to be fulfilled or subverted in a most entertaining manner.

And this, more than anything else, is what pushed the evolution of the collection of characters and other loose concepts that I've been talking about to become Cold Iron Badge.

What, for instance, would cause an interesting dynamic between Christine and Delric, while also forcing them to work together? Why would people like Ray and Bunny -- with their, to be tactful, questionable degree of competence -- be front-line law-enforcement personnel? What would cops as we understand them have to do with Fairyland at all?

The answer came to me, as many do, on the subway. I couldn't tell you what inspired it -- well, the whole process I've been discussing in these posts inspired it, but I don't remember what specifically led to the, "Eureka!" moment.

But there it was: After a mysterious event opens the doors between Earth and Fairyland, people who are themselves strange and marginal enough to be able to cope with all the weirdness are tasked to watch the new border between the two worlds. To enforce the laws, prevent incursions and excursions in either direction, and to keep a fragile peace.

I liked it. It made sense to me, it made sense for the characters. It gave both fantasy and cop show tropes free rein and it provided a roomy stage that would fit all kinds of stories and ideas.

It worked for me, and a couple of emails later, I knew that it worked for Patrick too. We didn't have a plot yet, but the core of what was now definitely called Cold Iron Badge was all there.

Next step: Go from characters and concept to an actual story. More on that next time...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Manga ga daisuki! (I love manga)

So, I fell in love with manga as a teen.

I mentioned that I had been an anime fan for a long time. A really long time. So long that I was a fan before I knew what Japanese animation was. Even before I knew what Japan was. And that was thanks to Gatchiman. Or as I knew it first, Battle of the Planets. I loved that show. I was in grade four when it arrived here and I was absolutely crushed when it got cancelled. Then I discovered Captain Harlock, in French. I stumbled upon it by accident on one the CBC's french channel. I couldn't understand any of it but I was convinced that it was somehow related to Battle of the Planets because the characters looked the same.

Then years later, when I was in high school, Robotech came on. I was hooked again. For Christmas that year, my parents gave me the book, The Art of Robotech. It was from there that I finally learned what I was. An anime fan. I discovered that all of my favourite cartoons from childhood were originally from Japan. Well, from there I was able start seeking it out, although where I was from, there was precious little to be found. The thing that really got me about all this anime was the look of it. I loved the designs. Especially the characters. I learned to draw from freezing videotaped episodes of Robotech and copying them. Which brings me back to where I was.

In the comic store looking at manga. I couldn't get my hands on enough of these wonderfully designed anime cartoons. But manga is like anime in print. The aesthetics are the same; the story values are the same. I was in love again. As I mentioned before, the first issues I bought were Appleseed and Nausicaa. At the time I liked Appleseed better. The drawings were less crude (Miyazaki fans, bare with me) and there was more action. But there was something about Nausicaa that I liked, too. I just couldn't define it at the time. That was the beginning of my comics collecting phase. I decided to collect there two titles and anything else that caught my eye until both of them were finished. I though they were five and seven issues, respectively and that I would be collecting for only a few months.

I was wrong. Both stories were published in volumes of five or so issues at a time, with months and sometimes years in between. So I would devour them when they came out and fill the times between collecting other manga titles. I continued to study them and learn from them. This went on for a few years. Then I went to Japan.

I first visited Japan while in college for a couple of weeks and enjoyed it so much I wanted to try living there. I had my chance after being in the animation industry for a couple of years. I worked for a man with connection in Tokyo who helped me get a job as an assistant animator. I was living my dream! Or was it a nightmare? I was there for six months and although I have very fond memories of Japan, few if any of them are of working there. It was an incredibly valuable experience, but it wasn't fun. And one of the side effects of that experience was that anime and manga now longer had the same magnetic hold on me. Simply put, now that I had been behind the scenes, the magic was gone. Now that I had made it myself, in Japan no less, anime (much like the Japanese language itself) was no longer exotic and mysterious. It was a job. And a dirty one at that.

After I returned from my adventure, I was the opposite of a fan boy. I was vehemently critical of the Japanese style. I would harp on about how all the characters look the same and how annoying speed lines are. All the things I used to defend with equal fervour­. It was made worse by working closely with others who also hated anime.

It took time for the bitterness and the disappointment to fade. But it did. And little by little I was able to recognize the value of manga and to see it for the first time in a truely objective light. So, yah, the characters do look a lot alike, but there's a lot more to comics than character design.

Next time: if not manga, then what?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Brief History of Cold Iron Badge, Part 3

So Patrick was in a "super" mood -- eager to work on a story with superheroic or supernatural elements.

I can get behind a good superhero story, but I wasn't in the mood to write one.

(An idea that Patrick and I had talked about working on a couple of years previously had been a superhero story -- it got as far as being outlined, having the script for the first issue written and all the key characters designed. Then, between our schedules at the time, and someone else independently coming up with another version of the same idea, it fell by the wayside. I may talk more about this project another time, as I still have a great deal of affection for it.)

That left the supernatural.

As you've probably already inferred from some of our previous posts, though -- as well as the comic that we eventually cooked up -- we were both of a mind to create an action-adventurey kind of supernatural tale, rather than one that focused on, say, horror.

(Actually, I pitched Patrick a teenagers-getting-disembowelled story that I had on the shelf, in the form of a mostly-finished screenplay. It wouldn't have been difficult to turn into a comics script, but it wasn't Patrick's cup of tea.)

So we were looking at at least some of our protagonists being tough and competent.

But despite that, "Bunny Mayhem" was the first character to be imported into Cold Iron Badge.


Yes. A lot our our characters existed in some capacity previously to Cold Iron Badge. Not precisely, of course... not in the final forms they appear in now. But Patrick and I -- entirely separately -- had character concepts or sometimes just names, from years of ideas that were waiting for the right venue.

Patrick had been looking for a story to use Christine McCall in for years. Ray Donovan was a character name I'd made up as a teenager meshed with a character concept that was much more recent. And Delric... well, Delric's origins are dorkily embarrassing.

But Bunny was the first. Bunny was one of mine, but I think Patrick suggested using her. And because she was the first, Bunny ended up defining a great deal of what came afterwards.

Because of her name, you see.

Because in the time between me coming up with the name "Bunny Mayhem", there was another supernatural action-adventure story that achieved some degree of success, featuring a title character with an ever-so-slightly similar name.



Bunny. Buffy.

Buffy. Bunny.

You see the problem?

I felt, very strongly, that I needed to deal with this similarity -- which really was a coincidence -- by crafting a story that would not otherwise invite comparison with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But was still a supernatural action-adventure story.

Well, this happened to dovetail with some other things I'd been thinking about. I tend to enjoy genre mashups, and I like procedurals a lot -- they provide story hooks that are immediately understandable to the reader and don't require a lot of complicated backstory to understand: The heroes are involved in the story because it's their job. This balances nicely with the need for fantastical stories to establish and explore a world that is clearly different from our own. So fantasy and procedural seemed like a good fit.

But what sort of procedural?

As I suggested in an earlier post ('Does Fantasy Have To Be Anti-Democratic?'), inspired by both the fiction and the criticism of Ursula K. LeGuin, I think a lot about ethics and fantasy. Much fantasy seems to be seriously at odds with contemporary ethics, and one ethical issue that bothers me a lot in many supernatural action-adventure stories is secrecy, a distrust of the public, and a lack of accountability.

The illustrious Vampire Slayer, for instance, operates in secrecy, aided by a few friends. An attempt by the U. S. military to get involved in battling the supernatural was a major plot point in one season, and interestingly, was treated as being at best horribly misguided, at worst an immoral conspiracy that became a tool of the forces of evil.

The irony of this wasn't lost on me, and neither was the opportunity to resolve my own ethical issues with some of the elements of my chosen genre while also clearly differentating my story from Joss Whedon's.

My heroes wouldn't be secretive vigilantes, but cops, protecting a public that was fully aware of both their existence and that of the supernatural menace...

Um, which was going to be what, exactly?

More on how we solved that problem next time.