Friday 31 May 2013

The Geography of Hell: Merging Milton and Dante

Lindsay McCulloch's take
Can two very different visions of Hell be merged into one? With compromises, heck yeah! It's the Infernal Peanut Butter Cup.

The circles were the biggest obstacle. Much too constraining.

So what to do? Lop off half and turn them into semi-circles.

This solution allows for the great empty continents and wastelands that Milton described, filled with horrific creatures such as hydra, dragons, and basilisks, but keeps the structure of Dante, essentially, intact.

All the traditional layers remain, starting with the vestibule. Limbo, the lustful, the gluttonous, the hoarders and wasters, and so on follow.

Two of the four rivers Milton describes flow down the ledges, creating spectacular waterfalls, while the other two come in from the wastelands and pour into the central Lake of Fire. Lake Cocytus lies nearby, frozen by the constant beating of Satan's massive wings. Cataclysmic weather patterns would emanate from here into a great maelstrom of energy and lost souls that swirls endlessly above the Lake of Fire. Fun!

Camps for Infernal Legions and rehabilitation centres for heretics (Fountains of Illumination) ring the more civilized regions.
Auguste Rodin's Gates of Hell
The entrance I derived from Milton, which had Hell bordering on Night and Chaos, realms filled with all manner of bizarre creatures that pre-date the arrival of the Fallen Angels. But with Dante's gate inscription, natch. Abandon all hope, ye who loiter here...

Sean Meredith's film Dante's Inferno, based on the book by Marcus Sanders and illustrated by renowned artist and satirist Birk Sandow, depicts a contemporary version of Dore's Hell, filled with gritty urban landscapes and nightmarish denizens in casual garb. 

I opted to go for a society mired in the past, with hints of modernity and industrialization around the edges.

The result of my effort (below) shows a much richer environment than Milton's, with a more open layout than Dante's. Of course, the interests of cartographers and illustrators were not top of mind for either. But it gives me a nice backdrop upon which to set the book, and plenty of wiggle room. Not as fine or elegant as the earlier maps, but it'll do. The Hell Lost graphic novel plays out across the ledges, from The City of Dis to the rings of Malebolge.

Outside of Hell is Milton's Ocean of Chaos. Not literally beneath the earth, but able to enter it through the shadows and deep ocean, as angels enter through light.

I've added to Dante's urban centres (such as the Palace of Minos and The Castle). Hell is slowly moving from a rural, agriculture based economy to an urban, industrial one, and the time of the book depicts a crisis point between the two systems, albeit in a very light hearted manner. I don't get into it as much as I'd like in the first book; it will become more important in the next. 

Belphegor, a demon associated with technology, has his own factory fortress (Belphegoroth) from which he churns out all manner of infernal machine. Because infernal machines are fun to draw.

The Palace of Light and Lucent Palace house the Lightbringers, Satan's proselytizers, who ensure theological purity in Hell.

Wood of Suicides

Watchtowers have been built to watch over the surly Demon shepherds who tend The Damned and rebel every now and then from their tedious task. Think about it: their job is to tend assholes for all eternity. Not a formula for a happy workplace.

I played fast and loose with the depiction of punishments; The Damned are peripheral to the story at this point. Other than the Wood of Suicides and the tombs on page 49, most are shown being tortured in stereotypical fashion, if at all. I put this down to budget cuts, overcrowding, and urbanization. Souls are tortured in ad hoc manner until space on the proper ledge can be secured. I also (Mea Culpa!) put them before the Walls of Dis, rather than after. 

The Pit of Abaddon houses the great beast and his swarm until Judgement Day arrives.

Mount Gehenna rises out of the Fields of Filth, Hell's great garbage dump, domain of junk demons, spiritual waste, hoola hoop fads, and maggot hordes. Yum!

Stretching out into the wastes of Sobor are legion camps that guard against incursions by Hell's monstrous native inhabitants, as well as Furnaces of Illumination, where faith criminals are 'rehabilitated'. The Angel Gulag.

Rebel demon princes too powerful to destroy are imprisoned in the Eternity Prison Pyramids.

Dante's great giants have petrified, save for one or two (Nimrod perhaps). Because, let's face it, giants are cool.

Hoarders and Wasters spend their time building and dismantling two towers of Babel.

I wanted the big, obese Satan to have some wiggle room at the bottom. Dore depicts him in a vast, icy cavern, and I took my inspiration from his vision.

You can't go wrong with Gustave Dore.

Next up: Inspired Demon Designs. Who created the best?

Dore's magnificent depiction of Satan brooding while embedded in the Cocytus
1911 Italian Film L'Inferno's version of the scene

Thursday 30 May 2013


Like monsters? 

Then Monstrosity, a monster anthology, is the book for you!

Two hundred pages of mayhem, including a 9 page story written by yours truly and illustrated by the incomparable Noel Tuazon. Check out the Indiegogo page, and support your local monsters... if you dare!

It's looking to be one heck of a book, with a truly impressive crew of talent, brought together by the cthonian duo of Brian Evinou and Phil McClorey.
"Monstrosity is a monster movie lovers dream. Godzilla vs. King Kong. Giant robots smashing through cities, Jason and the Argonauts battling sword and shield wielding skeletons. Those were the types of movies that fuelled a love affair with monsters that provided the creative fuel that led to the creation of this graphic novel anthology, Monstrosity!"

Does that sound fabulous or what? Look at all these exclamation marks; it must be awesome! 

Check it out!

Tuesday 28 May 2013

The Geography of Hell: Milton vs. Dante

Dante and Purgatory Mountain. 
Both Dante and Milton described the geography of Hell, but Dante's ultra-detailed vision is far more dominant in popular culture.

There are only a few maps of Milton's Hell online, compared to literally dozens of Dante's. The reason for this is readily apparent: Milton's Hell is, comparatively speaking, rather plain.

Take a look at Milton's netherworld:

Eugene Cox's 1928 map of Milton's Hell. 

Highlights include the Lake of Fire and Pandemonium, but otherwise there's little to draw; The Damned have yet to arrive (the map depicts Hell at the time of Adam and Eve), so it's just wildlife and the angels who threw their lot in with Satan.

A full third of the Heavenly host joined our original rebel narcissist. Johann Weyer's Pseudomonarchia Daemonum puts the figure at 44,435,622, arranged in 666 legions composed of 6,666 demons each, led by 66 dukes, princes, and kings. That was in 1583. Alfonso de Spina counted 133,316,666 demons in 1467, over a hundred years earlier. Apparently there was a massive cull during the early 16th century.

There are the four rivers leading into the Lake of Fire into which the angels fell: the Acheron (River of Woe), the Styx (River of Hate), the Phlegethon (River of Fire), and the Lethe (River of Forgetfulness).

On the Lake of Fire's burnt shores looms the gleaming capital Pandemonium, designed by Mulciber. He's otherwise known as Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Hephaestus to the Greeks. According to Milton, all the old pagan gods are actually demon con artists posing as deities, just to piss off The Big Guy. That includes the Norse, Greek, Aztec, Roman, Phoenician, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Native American pantheons. Basically, everything listed at God Checker? Demons.

The frozen continent of Sobor lies far beyond, teeming with horrific beasts.

No named geographical features (no, 'Parched Desert' doesn't count). No other cities.

It's fabulous, but more icon than map.

Below Milton's map of Hell is a diagram of the greater cosmos, showing Satan's journey, which is fun but not enough to tip the scales.

In fairness, the geography of Hell was never the focus of Paradise Lost, and was only covered in the broadest of strokes.

Dante's Hell, on the other hand, is obsessively detailed, with punishments exquisitely described across nine circles and dozens of bolgia (pouches). Plus fabulous creatures, walls, giants, and burning blood!

Very different. And much more fun for a map maker.

It's Milton's vanilla versus Dante's Rocky Road with maple bacon and marshmallows sprinkled in evil coconut flakes. The Damned and their punishments make all the difference. Dante sat up many a late night thinking of nasty ways to punish sinners, particularly political figures he disapproved of, in the afterlife.

That's one reason the first part of the epic poem The Divine Comedy, Dante's Inferno, has defined Hell since the 14th-century. It also happens to be beautifully written. So well written, in fact, that it helped shape the Italian language.

Inferno describes a great pit, lined with circular ledges. At the bottom of it all, the centre of gravity, is Satan himself. Buried in the earth, it's the inverse of Mount Paradiso, which rises up out of the earth on the far side and leads to Heaven.

The upper levels hold sinners guilty of a lack of control, while the lower levels are reserved for the purposefully sinful.

First Circle: Limbo. Virtuous pagans and the unbaptized dwell here. It's not an area of active punishment. Think of it as Hell's Lobby. Virgil's a resident of The Castle, along with other famous pagans from the Classical Age. Decent digs and interesting company.

To go further down, souls must be judged by Minos and assigned to their proper punishment zone. There's a sin for every circle.

Second Circle: The Lustful are blown about by powerful winds.
Daniel Heald's map of the Inferno. 
Third Circle: The Gluttons. Blind and pelted by hail, they 'live' mired in foul slush.

Fourth Circle: The Greedy. Those who hoarded or squandered material possessions obsessively push great stones against each other, over and over, for all eternity.

Fifth Circle: The Wrathful. In the fetid swamps surrounding the River Styx, they fight each other, while The Slothful lie hidden beneath the surface.

The Walls of Dis, guarded by Medusa and Fallen Angels, split Hell in half, with the more serious sinners contained within/below. The lower circles are each broken into a number of bolgia (pouches or trenches) for finer and more precise punishments.

Sixth Circle: Heretics. Imprisoned within flaming tombs, they roast alive. Healthier to eat than fried sinners.
Seventh Circle: The Violent. The Seventh has three rings, the first being the River Phlegethon (Violence against others), where sinners fight for position atop piles of bodies in order to escape the scalding blood. Centaurs guard the shores to prevent anyone escaping. Second is the Wood of Suicides (Violence against self), and third the Desert of Fire (Violence against God), where The Damned are pelted by burning flakes.

Eighth Circle: The Fraudulent. Everything from panderers to false prophets: flatterers up to their chins in shit, sorcerers with their heads twisted backwards.

Ninth Circle: Traitors. Buff giants from The Bible ring the floor of Hell. Sinners are frozen under the Cocytus at varying depths, depending on the seriousness of their betrayal. The greatest traitors of them all (Brutus, Cassius, and Judas) are chewed upon for all eternity by the three mouths of Satan, himself imprisoned at the centre of Lake Cocytus, up to his waist in ice.
A rare full colour version from the Museo Casa di Dante. 
Artists, including Sandro Botticelli, have been rendering Dante's Hell for hundreds of years, drawn to it like moths to flame. There are even contemporary versions where it's depicted using pixel art, 3D graphics, and lego.

Pixel Art Hell
But there's always a snake in the grass. The problem with Dante's conception of Hell? The concentric circles make the lower layers cramped (see the black dot, left). It's a cartographer's nightmare. One way around it is to start with absolutely massive circles (below, right). Even so, Lake Cocytus winds up being the size of a jacuzzi.

That just won't do.

Where would Pandemonium go?

In Paradise Lost, Milton describes the breathtaking Infernal Capital, Pandemonium, being built in a single day.

So cyclopean edifices could be raised as quickly as they were razed, and be as common as litter in New York. What a wonderful visual setting: monumental structures dedicated to the vanity of preternaturally powerful beings, jutting out of frozen wastes, lit by scattered volcanoes and steaming pits of bubbling lava. Their internecine fighting would lead to a world made up of beautiful, shattered architecture.


I've loved maps since I was a kid, so naturally I had to do one for my book Rebel Angels (the new title for the online comic Hell Lost). Since I was taking inspiration from both Milton and Dante, I wanted to merge their two visions into one. Have my cake and the icing too.

The result was a pitch black satire. Dr. Strangelove meets Milton. A graphic novel (really long comic book) that explores epic scale, cosmic dysfunction in the realm from which Hellboy came. He's more famous. Just name dropping.

The resulting graphic novel has been retitled Rebel Angels and will be available at fine comic book shops next spring from SLG Publishing. The first seventy pages are available from Comixology here for FREE.

Pick up a copy and discovers what's really happening down below, before it's too late.

So. Merging Milton and Dante: can it be done, or is it mission impossible?

See the results here: Merging Milton and Dante. It's Hell updated and expanded, with cities, petrified giants, and suburban sprawl. All grounded by the carceral architecture of Giovanni Piranesi.

On top of that are amusing musings on plausible Political Factions of Hell, modern interpretations of Hell, and resources relating to Hell's geography.

The full McCulloch version of Dante's Hell

Monday 27 May 2013

Arnold Bocklin and Friend

Bocklin's gloomy self-portrait (above). Quite in keeping with the times of the Symbolists, obsessed as they were with sex and death. Often achingly romantic yet exquisitely morbid. Fans of tragic romance would do well to peruse their contribution to art history.

Another Bocklin piece (left). Beautiful, half-naked woman by the sea. Very popular subject in art history, the half-naked beautiful lady. It's just full of pervs.

Took the pictures in the Alte Museum. Unfortunate reflective sheen to both of them.

Born in Basel, Switzerland in 1827, Bocklin spent much of his time in Rome, Zurich, and (just outside) Florence. His most famous work (all five of them), Isle of the Dead, inspired composers and poets. There's almost an adolescent fatalism to his work, filled with grand struggles and epic themes.

If he were a writer, I doubt the endings would be happy ones.

I culled a collection of his work below from the internet. Far better images. Can you feel the angst? The sheer agony of being? The lack of consumer choice? I can.

Sunday 26 May 2013

The Disappearing Liu Bolin

Can you find him? It's harder than Where's Waldo. I've never seen this sort of illusion done so well. The series was sparked by the destruction of his studio by authorities, and has an interesting subtext. Check out the article at Slate.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness Review (Spoilers, spoilers, and more SPOILERS)

Totally necessary T&A shot. Honest.
It's a mess. A magnificent, action packed mess, but still a mess.

First, there are two villains, and they detract from each other.

Second, the plot is so full of holes it makes your brain spin, if you've left it on.

Third, the film recycles elements of Star Trek II and VI, including chunks of dialogue and iconic lines.

It starts with eternal rebel Kirk being reckless, skirting around that annoying Prime Directive in a pre-credit adventure sequence on a planet wrapped in red vines and threatened by a world-destroying volcano.

To prevent armageddon, Sulu and Uhura zip Spock down into the volcano aboard a shuttle, to detonate a soothing Pepto Bismol bomb and shut down the eruption.

Meanwhile, Captain Kirk steals a scroll from the indigenous inhabitant's temple to distract them. Why? The shuttle went in under smoke cover, so they wouldn't see Spock's shuttle anyway. Whatever.

It gets weirder: for some unfathomable reason, Kirk's decided to park the Enterprise underwater.

At least, there's no in universe reason for it. Not even a tossed-off fig leaf line to justify the act.

But it does look cool rising up out of the sea, and for J.J. Abrams, that's enough.

Yada yada, naked chick, cool shit, explosions, the end. That sums the film up.

Now, if you're in the mood for that (and who isn't sometimes) you'll enjoy the flick. But if the numerous logic hiccups ever take you out of the action, your enjoyment is toast.

It's spectacle poorly serviced by story, Star Trek via Transformers.

Let's go through it, shall we?

CumberKhan (from Star Trek II) has been betrayed by Peter Weller's Evil Admiral Cliche (from Star Trek VI), who's unfrozen him to exploit Khan's bad ass brain in order to start a war with the Klingon space bikers. Yes, that. Again.

Let's think about it: Petey unfroze a 300 year old guy to help develop cutting edge weapons technology. That's like bringing back military genius Gustavus Adolphus (who admittedly handled pike men really well) to develop stealth bombers for the US Airforce. Petey needs some serious medication. Khan's military expertise pertained to war on earth, in two dimensions, on the ground. That was emphasized in the first movie.


It would take a lifetime to become a pioneer in any area of such advanced technology. CumberKhan's only been back a short time, and even with his great intellect and engineering background I don't buy him being able to pioneer anything more than a pop gun. What does he come up with, anyway? A really big ship with lots of weapons? Wow. That's original. Didn't we see that last time?

Stop thinking!

CumberKhan's out for revenge, so he attacks Star Fleet. Believing his 72 superpeeps are dead, he blows up a super secret Star Fleet facility using an explosive Alka Seltzer. All the local Star Fleet commanders go to a particular room to discuss their response to the attack; Batch hovers outside in a helicopter and  fires on them. You'd think a bomb might be more efficient. You know, planted in the room. Like he did with the super secret installation.

But no.

CumberKhan the master strategist gets shot down by Kirk, and as his stricken craft plummets earthward billowing smoke, teleports away to a Klingon planet.


He could have gone anywhere in the galaxy, apparently. Instead he goes to the very place Evil Admiral wants to attack, and kills Klingons.

Now, Batch hid his frozen friends in the torps. To keep them safe, naturally. Where better than inside a torpedo? But they fall into Evil Admiral's hands, who for some reason decides to fire his leverage at Batchy on the Klingon planet. Not keep them around, you know, as insurance in case Khan tries to squish his head. Bad move.

Admiral Petey gives Kirk the 72 torpedoes, all 72, and orders Kirk to fire them (all 72, because fewer would leave evidence) at Khan on the Klingon planet, which will start Petey's Awesome Space War.

Scotty quits early on in a fit of righteous indignation, because he doesn't want to take the mystery torpedoes on board (can't see what's inside, it's a secret), and doesn't believe in killing Batch without giving him a trial first. Wow. Abrams was so upset Obama iced Osama without trial he made a sci-fi movie about it? Hey, it's Zero Dark Thirty in Spaaaace!

The whole extra-judicial execution gig sits on Kirk's considerable conscience, deep thinker that he is, so he eventually decides to do the right thing and apprehend CumberKhan instead of ice him with the human mystery torpedoes.

Kirk and crew go down to the planet surface, only to get into a fight with Klingons. The kind of fight that would start a war. CumberKhan intervenes, conveniently kills the remaining Klingons, and then surrenders to Kirk, because he's learned that Kirk has his frozen homies aboard. Kirk discovers Dick Cheney's--I mean Evil Admiral's deceit, and teams up with Khan.

Inevitably, Weller gets his head squished, which would never happen to Robocop. Torpedoes explode and stuff. There's an anti-climactic chase on some floating garbage transports.

Kirk dies in a painfully hokey inversion of Spock's sacrifice in Wrath of Khan. There's much crawling around versus radiation (always dramatic, a guy crawling around fighting radiation, I love that) in order to reverse the polarity of the whatever flow.

Supposed to be sad, or moving.

I laughed.

Death scenes generally shouldn't do that.

But don't despair: there's an obvious setup where Khan's super blood will bring Kirk back to life, negating the need to redo Star Trek III.

Or worry about death ever again. It's synthesized! Odds are they'll conveniently forget all about that next movie...

Benedict Cumberbatch, usually so marvellous, plays his role so cold and you'd think he'd been refrigerated. Carl Urban does his goofy DeForest Kelly imitation. Not sure why he chose to play it that way. He was better in Judge Dread. Yes, I actually enjoyed that one.

Oh yeah, there was some chick on board so she could take her clothes off.

io9 has had some good articles on the film, and explain it better than I have. They may care more.

Check out their Spoiler FAQ and Charlie Jane Ander's excellent review, Star Trek Into Dumbness.

They've even got a defense of Wrath of Khan. It's come to that. Seems kids these days think it's slow.

Thanks a lot, Michael Bay, you dick.

More at Bloomberg about adrenaline dysfunction aboard the Enterprise...

UPDATE: The Red Letter Media crew now have their review up. Spot on. 

The Wire vs. Sherlock

The sense of verisimilitude show runner David Simon achieves in The Wire is phenomenal. A slow burn ensemble piece,  it gives the audience a wonderful window on institutional absurdity. Nuanced Dilbert topped by a throat-cutting edge,  it's rewarding viewing.

Simon has his head screwed on straight; interviews reveal a clear thinking and spiritually aware individual unencumbered by the raging narcissism so rampant in the entertainment industry., His work is refreshing,  challenging,  dark,  wearying,  exhausting,  rewarding,  and brilliant.

Characters are well rounded,  have motivations one can identify with,  believable abilities,  and face an exterior world of crushing weight and overwhelming power. Most shows preach the solipsistic idea that we are indispensable to the world (Fringe, for example). This one actually acknowledges a reality outside the psyche.

It's in stark contrast to Steven Moffat's Emmy nominated Sherlock,  starring the fantastic Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The first few episodes are engrossing,  but before long the show's tropes begin to grate. Superficial,  flashy and endlessly self-congratulatory,  Sherlock's buoyed by a swelling musical score,  ostentatious cinematography,  frequent all-caps 'acting' moments,  and other pretentious affectations. Still,  it barrels along at an incredible pace,  hoping to keep ahead of the plot holes,  dazzling the audience with snappy dialogue and quick cuts.

Natural Sherlock is not. A Superman comic book would feel more real. The saving grace is Cumberbatch,  who has great presence on screen. He rocks the role,  and one hopes to see him get the opportunity to lead on the big screen., The shows are very different beasts. As a drama,  Sherlock can't reach the shins of The Wire. It's like comparing a glittering puddle to a  deep,  quiet lake.

Different strokes for different folks.

TCAF 2013: Judge a Book by its Cover: Designing Comics Outside of the Panels

A great panel moderated by John Green and featuring Chip Kidd, Matt Kindt, Fawn Lau, and Tom Devlin. They talk about fonts, logos, trim sizes, spot gloss, interior layout, and other elements of design. I'd swear the awesome Jim Rugg was up there too, but I might have been hallucinating. I'm a very unreliable narrator.

Although all the panelists are focused on print, discussion touched repeatedly on the wave of the future: digital comics. Everyone was curious what they thought. Kidd hasn't done them; none of the artists he works with want to see their books that way. Yet. And if Knopf does leap into digital, it'd have to be for all formats, including the Kindle; and currently, that's a deal breaker. Kidd himself "doesn't want to make design that can be turned off with a switch."

But all admire the digital comic done by Chris Ware, Touch Sensitive. It shows what can be done when it's done right.

In terms of trends, Kidd says that, "Ugly is really big now... There's great work, so sincerity not snark. SPX, MOCCA, TCAF." He's especially fond of design from the forties and fifties, when there was a clear break between type and image, and hates complicated logos on complicated images. It becomes visual noise, and he's all about legibility. Which puts him at odds with some of the work being done now.
Uno Moralez
Jim Rugg mentioned that Russian artist Uno Moralez has caught his eye, and Tom Devlin's a fan of Oliver East's Sweardown and the publisher Secret Acres.

Kidd is well known for his book, Batman: Death by Design. It took him a summer to write his Batman story, and Dave Taylor three years to draw. Taylor spent a good deal of time doing research for the visuals. For example, what would 1930's Bat Computer look like? An interesting question. The result below:
And they say my pages are text heavy; is that War and Peace in there?

You can see the Hugh Ferris influence. Gorgeous!
In future, Chip would love to work with Ivan Brunetti, but first he's got a book coming out that will teach graphic design to kids. Get them while they're young, as they say. Kill bad design in the crib, as it were.

All believe that layouts should be worked out first on paper, before hitting the computer, and one should try everything. 'Try stupid things' is another way of saying, 'take risks', says Kidd. It fits well with the philosophy of Mouly.

For inspiration, Tom looks at graphic books and does the opposite. You have to create your own trends. In the end, he says, "If they touch the book, I've won some battle."

Devlin, a thirty five year veteran of the field, often stands behind his designs, literally, at conventions, where his work will be spread across table tops. At one, Devlin had a couple walk up and pick up a book he'd designed. "That's what I want," she declared. Devlin swelled with pride. Then she continued, "That's the colour I want to paint the kitchen." Then she put down the book and they walked away.

Typography sticklers one and all, they're united in their hatred of the font Comic Sans. Devlin even suggests practicing lettering while watching TV, and hates seeing words butt up against the panel edge.

So don't do it.

They don't test their covers with focus groups. "The only good thing about the money in publishing is that we don't have any to do focus groups and testing," says Kidd. Tom believes that the more comments he gets, the worse the design gets. It goes south as everyone has to add something. "If they don't say something, they'll be fired," jokes Kidd. Everyone feels they have to contribute in order to justify their salary, leading to a deluge of contradictory feedback and pointless alterations.
Ivan Brunetti
All would love to use environmentally friendly materials, but the cost is often four times greater, making it prohibitively expensive.

The sweet price point for a graphic novel? $19.99. Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics has mocked D&Q for pricing everything at $20.00, but Devlin says that prices over twenty bucks cause sales to drop dramatically. A Daniel Clowes book can command $25, thanks to name power. Kids books have to be cheap, on the other hand. You can't do a $30 one.

Something to keep in mind.

Thursday 16 May 2013

TCAF 2013: Lille Carre's Heads or Tails

There's a lot of great work being done, but it's rare to find something that really speaks to me. Fart jokes, superheroes, and the autobiographies of oddballs generally don't do it for me. They don't stop me in my tracks and make me take notice. I can notice great craft, precision, and skill. Those are all admirable qualities, but doesn't mean the material resonates. There's beauty that leaves you bemused, and there's beauty that leaves you breathless.

That's the work of Lille Carré.

This year's greatest find at TCAF was Lille Carré's Heads or Tails. I hadn't seen her work before (her animation has been shown at Sundance, her art in The New Yorker, and more), I've been remiss, but the cover hooked me. The graphic nature of it, the idiosyncratic layout, the snappy colour and balance between aggressive, blocky shapes and delicate detail was just fabulous. The interior does not disappoint, although I am more drawn to her more graphic work than her traditional inked cartoons. Those are nothing to sneeze at, however; some are reminiscent of Gorey. Her work is united in its aesthetic and manages to plumb numerous different stylistic directions without breaking.

There's a sensibility here that's hard to pin down, an ephemeral mode of thought that defies being narrowly categorized. 

Her story Wishy Washy explores the danger of polar extremes, and to me, how they both destroy. Then again, that's a theme I explore in my own work (even if others don't, or refuse to, see it) so perhaps I'm just projecting. Part of every story is what we bring to it. But when I finished Wishy, I said, yeah. She gets it.

Carré's surreal slices of life and meditative musings are confident and bold in their use of space. She's not afraid to let her comics breathe, or use a double page spread for an extremely bare, irregular star shape. 

Her many one page pieces are like visual Haikus. Light with a dark subtext. Cartoon poetry. Just short enough for my ADD addled brain to appreciate.

Absolutely delightful.

She's already done phenomenally well, and I'd expect even greater things in future. This is one artist to watch. Like Lorenzo Mattotti, she makes it look easy. It's very annoying, in the best possible way.

Future of Comics and the Democratization of Culture

We're experiencing a massive shift away from the elites. It's never been easier to get work out there, yet it's harder than ever to get noticed. The bar is being raised as millions and millions of talented people get connected and toss their creations into the global culture ring.

The pace of change has accelerated. A lot is in flux. The old paradigm is outmoded and the new one hasn't fully formed. How is culture going to be monetized in the future? How will piracy be dealt with? The answers haven't been settled upon. The result? Instability and uncertainty as industries struggle to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

We'll see more authors and artists taking their work directly to the public, bypassing the cultural gatekeepers. Pamphlet superhero comics will dwindle with their aging audience, while and graphic novels will split into high end art objects and digital downloads. Subject matter will continue to diversify. New territories will open up as talented creators plumb formerly unexplored topics. The market will atomize into a bewildering array of niche interests. Big budget material will only be available for properties that can draw a large enough audience, and publishers will pick only the very best talent from the internet farm for high end print editions.

As programs improve, we'll see dynamic translation. It will at first be crude. Eventually advanced modelling and animation software will allow laymen to create comics and even movies of their own. We've already seen the baby steps in this direction.

The gatekeepers of culture continue to fall away. The day of Network TV (when ABC, NBC, and CBS dominated the airways) is over. You no longer need a publisher to reach the public. Elites can't restrict the public's choices. Culture is out of their hands, to whatever extent they were ever able to control it.

Major motion pictures remain collective endeavours, requiring massive amounts of funding, and as such will remain the domain of the elite for some time yet. But comics is being rapidly and thoroughly democratized. Anyone connected to the net can put a web comic up. Instead of a finite number of stories, a few dozen, coming out each week at your local comic book shop, there are now tens of thousands every day on the net to choose from.

If I were so inclined, I could buy every published comic every week from the local shop, and conceivably read them all without quitting my day job. That's not true of web comics. I'd have to spend all day at it, every day. Top Web Comics alone lists over 2,600 of them. All vying for attention.

Publishers of the future are going to be like flavours. Do you like vanilla, or Rocky Road? Perhaps you like bacon products with a hint of maple. Publishers will sift through the enormous wealth of creative material on the web and pull them together, using a coherent aesthetic vision, and then set it before the public for consumption. People will be able to seek out the flavours they prefer and plunge in. The challenge now will be to reduce choice into time manageable amounts. Paralysis through choice will be a real problem in the future. It will be a job in itself to find good material, and those with solid, populist tastes will be able to make a living at it.

That's one way publishers will remain relevant. And most people still love the feel of a beautifully executed book. The best work will be turned into printed art objects. Lesser work will fade into the abyss of the net's infinite memory hole and be forgotten, at least until a future generation contrarian re-evaluates it and foists it upon an unsuspecting but retro-hungry public.

As a consumer, I look forward to it. As a creator, I am thrilled by the opportunities the future presents, but also daunted by the challenges.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

TCAF 2013: Blown Covers with Francoise Mouly

The New Yorker Art Editor Francoise Mouly joined Frank Viva and Anita Kunz to discuss the magic behind the famous images that grace the cover.

Mouly explained, in a wonderfully chi chi french accent, that it's all about dialogue. It's a general interest magazine, too, so all manner of topics can be covered. If they want to do cooking, they can; but they can also do golf and politics. Weee!

In 1993 Tina Brown sought to revive the dying New Yorker magazine. She brought in artists like Ed Sorrell and Art Spiegelman (Mouly's husband) to inject some life into it. 

One of the first and most controversial covers was by Spiegelman, who depicted a Hasidic Jew kissing an African American woman in a style evocative of Marc Chagall. It caused an instant firestorm. A hundred thousand subscribers fled, but even more joined. The goal? 'Lower the reading age down from eighty-three and a half... to eighty-two and a half.'
Spiegelman's explosive cover
A series of reinterpretations of the cover's dandy, Eustace Tilley (A satire of New York dandies by Rea Irvin, culled from an Encyclopedia Britannica illustration of the term), followed. Chris Ware did a sequential version, in his breathtaking crisp, clean style.

Chris Ware's sequential take on Tulley
Mouly even ran two covers submitted by readers.

Most artists make regular submissions of ideas. Mouly tells them to 'think of her as their priest.' Feel free to show me anything. Don't self-censor. Let the creative mind roam free.
Thought provoking, beautiful image by Anita Kunz
She believes that with a very simple idea and a pen, an artist can have an impact on the world. Even change it. She understands and accepts the need for visual shorthand, although the use of 'stereotypes' (having once employing a piece of Arab head gear on a boy jumping on a sand mockup of the World Trade Centre) got her denounced by Noam Chomsky. She strives to keep things nuanced, to avoid the easy didactic drum beat of the political cartoon. These are more sophisticated, nuanced. Oversimplification a no-no.
Lorenzo Mattotti, one of my favourites

Some covers are over analyzed for meaning. Frank Viva described a piece where he placed a white figure over a black background and a black pigeon over white background. People wondered about hidden meaning, racial subtext, but he often changes colours to fit the composition, and there was no hidden meaning. He just wanted the elements to pop forward.

Frank Viva's striking, graphic work
Mouly had to come up with the famous 9/11 cover within 24 hours. After retrieving her children, who were in school right by the Trade Centre, the last thing on her mind was the magazine cover. 'Everybody was lost, and so was I.' An outraged and worried friend told her to do no cover. That's where it started. Art Spiegelman suggested a black on black silhouette. Instantly, she knew: that was it. The perfect statement. No subtitle, no explanation. Exactly what was needed. But it would have to be subtle. Would it work on a web press? It did, and joined the list of other legendary New Yorker covers.

Artists submit to her constantly: ideas, sketches, doodles, thoughts. Most don't wind up on the cover, but you can get a glimpse behind the curtain at her hit blog: Blown Covers.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

TCAF 2013: Tenth Year Anniversary Show

Checked out TCAF, the Toronto Comics and Arts Festival, on the weekend. Held at the Metro Toronto Reference Library, it brought together hundreds of graphic novelists, zine creators, caricaturists, artists, illustrators, and writers. Fellow dreamers with their inner thoughts laid out on table tops, realized in ink and line. It was a remarkable gathering of talent, and I'll be making a number of posts in coming days with highlights.

As always, the festival was well organized, the volunteers delightful, the parties fun, and the panels (mostly) intriguing. An inspirational experience. Fabulous and free.

State of Small Press Panel

Featuring Matt Moses, (Hic & Hoc) Bill Kartalopolous, (Rebus Books) Austin English, (Domino Books) Leon Avelino (Secret Acres) Jordan Shiveley (Grimalkin Press) and Anne Koyama (Koyama Press). A great panel of enthusiastic pessimists who live and breathe sequential art. They're in it for the work, make no mistake about it, and they'll stand firm against all odds 'so long as no one loses their apartment.' As another panelist said, 'If you know going into it is a bad business decision, which in a way it is, just make it sustainable and about the art.' The Dream cradled in pragmatism. Wise words.

And they do. Economic uncertainty means a short horizon, so their publishing schedules are guided by the success or failure of each work they lovingly present. One book at a time. 'How did this one do? Not so good? Okay. That's how many books we're doing this year.' They have to be careful not to overstretch. Some are pragmatic enough to have kept their day job.

Tom Devlin's defunct Highwater Books came up a couple times.

Still looked to for its quality, quirkiness, and innovation, it went under in 2004. Devlin was incredibly ambitious in terms of the quality he sought to deliver considering the companies' small size, publishing notables such as Marc Bell, James Kochalka, and Megan Kelso. He's at Drawn and Quarterly as CD now. I have Highwater's Free Comic Book Day Reggie 12, which is tons of fun.

None can tell what book will be a hit, nor could Devlin. 'If I tried to pick out books I thought would be huge hits, it would be a disaster.' Books that look like sure hits fail, and long shots wind up succeeding beyond all expectation. As they say in Hollywood, nobody knows anything.

All have a very clear vision of what they want to publish; each a distinct identity and feel. They're conductors, putting together a symphony of artists, a collective that becomes greater than the sum of its parts and emerges, in the end, as a distinct brand. All the pieces have to fit with the others. Its one of the reasons why you must always look at what a publisher is putting out before submitting. Cellos won't fit in a rock band. Death metal guitarists aren't going to get a spot on the London Philharmonic, and superhero books aren't going to fly at Koyama Press. Look at the material publishers print before you submit to see if there's a fit. Be honest. It'll save you cash, and them time. Win win.

Each puts out six to eight books per year. Since they already have a stable of artists, that means only one or two spots are likely open for new artists. One of the self-described smaller small publisher said they received an unsolicited submission every other day. That's roughly 175 per year, for one or two spots. Roughly a one per cent chance. Great compared to the lottery, okay for a click through rate, but not so good for dreams. Which is why being printed by a publisher is more the cherry on top than the ice cream these days. Getting your work up on the net is the new first step.

Not coincidentally, publishers are finding new talent by surfing. All follow Tumblr. Anne Koyama is blessed with no need for sleep, so she prowls the internets at night, hunting talent. That woman has an eye for it. People who are doing notable work eventually will weed into their consciousness and, if the stars are right, prompt them into offering the artist a publication deal.

So there you go. If you want to get noticed, do the work, and put it online.

Everybody loves the net. It's great for marketing, and helps expand the audience base, rather than cannibalize sales. Don't worry about that. Tumblr just builds audience for the print version. It is hard on distributors, however, and makes things incredibly competitive. Hard to hold attention.

If I were so inclined, I could buy every published comic every week from the local shop, and conceivably read them all without quitting my day job. That's not true of web comics. I'd have to spend all day at it, every day. Top Web Comics alone lists over 2,600 of them. All vying for eye balls. So it can take time and perseverance to get noticed. That's key for publishers: they want to see not just that you have talent, but that you're sticking around, too.

And none of them want to hear artists complain about how difficult things are. It's hard for everyone. 'Save your complaining for your significant other or your cat.' If you don't celebrate yourself, no one will. So plug. Promote. Show enthusiasm for your work.

One of the publishers who was originally from Europe commented that in France, if you grow to a certain size and are sustainable, stable, you're considered a success. In North America, you aren't a success unless you're growing. Constantly. Stasis is death. A very interesting observation, reflective of Europe's age and the wild expansion the United States experienced as it flooded West across the North American continent. That mindset still echoes.

While they aspire to get into the big bookstores, the accomplishment is a double edged sword, as it opens them up to book returns. They also need to work farther in advance, to a more set, stable schedule.

Some general notes: All look to the quality of Drawn and Quarterly books now (Tom Devlin again, who popped up at another panel). There are no government grants for pamphlets (hey, this is Canada), and most stores won't stock them; they're good for cons and that's about that. And never scan your black and white linework in greyscale.

Monday 13 May 2013

Kris Kuksi's Infernal Sculpture

Kuksi's sculptures are almost fractal like, with smaller and smaller levels of detail becoming evident as you get closer.

Kris Kuksi's a mad Missouri sculptor who's work would fit in with any worthwhile depiction of Hell; his disturbing sculptures mash together high art and kitsch to stunning effect. I just can't stop looking at The Damned things. If there's to be a cinematic Hell, he absolutely has to be on the design team. Best of all, there's a delightful satirical edge to these macabre, operatic tableaus, an irreverent glee, which I find irresistible. His impish, iconoclastic outlook has something in common with England's equally provocative Chapman Brothers.

Finding beauty in the grotesque is Kuksi's forte. As his website describes, each sculpture takes countless hours to complete, as hundreds or even thousands of separate elements have to be altered, treated, and then assembled. 

I am particularly fond of his church tanks. Why, oh why, didn't I think of those? I have tanks ghosted into the background of crowd scenes, but none with churches for turrets. Brilliant and hilarious, but the thought simply never occurred to me. 

Kuksi's Church Tank
I only wish I'd discovered his work earlier. It reminds me of the work of the Symbolists, who were obsessed with sex and death, and the art of Felicien Rops in particular.
Sentimental Initiation by Felicien Rops

Thursday 9 May 2013

Rating the Doctors of Doctor Who

They rate physicians, don't they? So there's no escape just because he's a Time Lord. This is the final of a three part look at The Doc.

These are gut impressions, of course, and shouldn't be seen as an appraisal of the actor, only their performance within the context of this particular show. The result is dependent on not just their own acting choices, but the scripts they are given, the actors they must play against, budget and time limitations, and the guidance of the producers and directors. 

Each Doctor's performance had strengths and weaknesses. There are two ratings for Baker given how dramatically different his performance is between when he started and when he left. While Baker put more emphasis on comedy in the latter half of his run, he was funnier when his eccentric humour broke real dramatic tension. Without that juxtaposition, it's just Baker hamming it up on set.

The early and the late era Doctors from the original show I saw the least of, so take it all with a grain of salt.