Friday, January 25, 2008

Still More Napkin Doodles

Isaac's recent post of his paper-towel upside-downs has prompted me to share a couple of drawings from a napkin I've been idiotically holding on to for ages now (don't fret about my hygiene, it was only used for drawing). I think I was saving it to show Isaac at some point, but it kept getting moved around and misplaced whenever he was in town. Whatever: now it has a digital form, and the treeware version can be recycled.

Nothing quite so clever as an upside-down, just a couple of funny-animal cartoons that I thought turned out pretty well for napkin art. Here is a snake:

...didn't I just say that?

And here, on the other side of the napkin, is what I would describe as a gigantic ape, were it not for the remarkably un-apelike feet that have just tromped through a city now in ruins:

These are in purple ink in the original, which adds a certain charm (while also calling to mind Grape Ape, unfortunately), but black & white scans are friendlier to the bandwidth.

And now I'm fresh out of napkin doodles...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Flash Science

I'm sure I'm not the first to point this out, but the Silver-Age Flash had a peculiar rogue's gallery. With the exception of Gorilla Grodd, I think that every one of them was a genius inventor who had come up with a handheld device that defied the rules of physics. These ingenious weapons or other specimens of strange science (or possibly magic) were then used to rob banks. The Weather Wizard could control the weather with a little wand, but he couldn't come up with a better career idea than robbery (something that can be done with a pistol).

It's hard to believe, I know, but have a look at the cover of Flash #288, featuring Dr. Alchemy.

That's the Philosopher's Stone in Dr. Alchemy's right hand. It can transmute any element into any other. In his left hand, we see a briefcase full of money. Dr. Alchemy could change that stately tree into solid gold (or solid Californium), so I'm not sure why he bothers carrying that much cash. But I'm not Cary Bates, and it's not 1980, so I don't get to write this issue of Flash.

Despite the written emphasis on chemicals and elements, Dr. Alchemy is really a magical foe, not a scientific one. The Philosopher's Stone doesn't really transmute elements; it does whatever the comic's writer wants it to do. Here, for example, Dr. Alchemy invents a new element that makes people more susceptible to hypnosis.

I was eight years old when this comic was on the newsstand, and I think I could have told you that was ridiculous. I wouldn't have been able to say then that the problem has to do with the sorts of chemicals that usually are psychoactive, or the fact that a "new" element was almost certain to be radioactive... But I think I'd have known that we were looking at wishful writing and not real science or reasoning.

And this, in my opinion, is the real disappointment of Silver-Age Flash comics. Barry Allen was a scientist, and so were a lot of his supervillain foes. A writer with a decent sense of scientific reasoning and a decent knowledge of how physics and chemistry work would have been able to make the book genuinely educational for the kids who read it. I can imagine a comic that regularly featured ingenious high-speed solutions to intractable problems, based on real physical principles—or detective-work based on the scientific method. (The current All-New Atom written by Gail Simone gets pretty close to this sometimes, but of course that's a book for today's comic-reader, not for the eight-year-olds of 1980.) Anyway, I can pipe-dream about a scientist superhero who thinks like a real scientist, but Barry Allen is emphatically not that superhero.

Consider the sequence the front cover foreshadows: Dr. Alchemy catches Flash in the park and turns him into a human cloud:

I'm not sure, but it sounds like Dr. Alchemy has just used the Philosopher's Stone to turn water into water.

Or maybe he has changed all of the Flash's other component parts into water. How will our scientist resolve this dilemma? Well, fortunately, he still seems to be able to think, even though his brain is made of water vapor.

...And he seems to be able to control the movement or the agitation of his molecules. He can even create friction between individual water molecules. He heats part of his water vapor here, so that it's even warmer, then somehow propels his "warmer upper half" toward his "drifting, uncontrollable lower half"...

... and precipitates.

Since something about this strictly physical process returns Flash to his normal chemical makeup, he's free to run off and look for Dr. Alchemy.

Probably he isn't going to search all of the caves near Central City, because if you could use magic to alter and reconstitute matter, you would have your hideout in a penthouse or a lab or something, right? You probably wouldn't shackle your "astral twin" to a cave wall in front of a TV (plugged in to a magic outlet, probably) and a life-sized cardboard cutout of the Flash.

But let's not ask the comic to work logically now. And let's not bother to ask what an "astral twin" is. My head is already hurting.

The lesson learned from this comic: superhero comics about scientists are no place to look for scientific reasoning.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Our story may be finished, but there are still a few Elfworld-related tasks to complete. Among these is a bit of bonus content we have planned for the book edition of the story, if (as we hope) our tale is included in the second volume of the Elfworld anthology. The book's dimensions are taller than those of the postcards for which we've designed our story thus far, so to fill out the space in the bottom margin we're creating a series of alphabetical portraits of likely types to inhabit such a world of medieval-inflected fantasy.

I will spare you the details of the Byzantine process whereby Isaac and I collaborated on the creation of an extensive list of potential Elfworld personality types--mostly based on trades, à la the General Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Suffice to say that it was fully in keeping with SatCom practice, in that it involved us bouncing ideas back and forth, exercising some individual choice about which types to draw, and requiring each other to draw certain other types. The alphabet will ultimately include the main characters from our story, as well, probably identified by name rather than occupation (though who knows? Since most of the characters are already named in the tale, it might make sense to label them by their trades, instead).

At any rate, I've drawn my allotment of sixteen non-character types, and here they are:

As you can plainly see, these characters are a Beggar; a Caitiff; a Dwarf; a Hermit; an Imp; a Journeyman; a Knave; a Nymph; a Saracen; a Tapster; an Undertaker; a Weaver; a Wodewose; "Xiphias"; a Yeoman; and a Zealot.

The Weaver is modeled on the manuscript illustration of the Wife of Bath from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, and the Yeoman more or less recalls the poetic portrait of the Yeoman from the General Prologue. The Zealot, meanwhile, is based on images of Savonarola.

As for "Xiphias," well, that's Greek for "swordfish," and I think it entered the alphabet out of sheer desperation (though "xorn" was also considered). "Xiphias" was one of the types that Isaac insisted that I draw. So it's a sword-wielding knight with fish on his shield; what else was I supposed to do?

P.S. -- I have manfully resisted the urge to employ the obvious portmanteau that combines "Elfworld" and "alphabet." It wasn't easy to avoid!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An Upside-Down (Not Incredible)

So, the other day at the dinner table I absent-mindedly drew this:

... A weird beaky-nosed mad-scientist guy with a big manic grin, a little bit muppety in his design.

He was drawn on a paper towel, by the way. That's where those dots came from. I think they add a nice element of verisimilitude, and remind the viewer of the spontaneous conditions of the composition.

Anyway, while I was drawing that mad scientist, I also drew this wild-bearded but sedate primitive chieftain.

Any publisher who wants my undying fealty would do well to reissue The Incredible Upside-Downs of Gustave Verbeek. And if you ever find a used copy of that book for cheap, you know what to get me for Christmas, because I don't actually have it: I've only ever seen a few of those strips myself, and I've found them totally charming.

Update, June 2008: I found a copy of the book at MoCCA!

Pile of Crazy Old Comics

So: I'm planning for the first few weeks of this semester's course on the graphic novel now. I'm changing the course slightly, asking the students to write a few short essays for me instead of only taking exams, because I want to get them thinking critically about their reading from the very beginning of the class.

The first of these essays is going to be a very brief paper contrasting A Contract with God (which is their first assigned reading) with a mainstream comic book published around the same time. Long-time Satisfactory Comics supporter Joe Stinson, the owner of Alternate Universe (the comics shop nearest to Yale campus), very graciously sold me a pile of old comics from the 1970s and early '80s that are, well, not all in very good shape. And some of them are not very good at all. But he sold me the whole stack for a dollar, and I think they're going to work very well for this assignment.

Before I hand them over to my students, though, I'm going to skim them and scan a few pages, to offer a few points of my own about the differences between comics then and now.

For example, here's World's Finest #237, which is dated April 1976. (I was buying and reading comics by this point, but I don't remember this comic or its selection of ads.)

Notice the speech balloon on the cover. You don't see that very much any more. And notice the recurring theme of Superman threatening his friends or ranking their safety below that of a stranger. Also notice the red bulbs at the end of the tails of those Giant Metal-Eating Space Locusts. They become important later...

...When Superman is explaining why his father Jor-El sent this weird Giant Space Bird-Mantis-Dragon to Earth (without a rocket, just in a big irregular hunk of metal), and why Superman's powers aren't any good against the locusts.

The lesson we may learn from this issue: weird stuff used to happen in superhero comics, and it happened for some weird reasons. By the way: the author of this particular opus? Bob Haney.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Midnight Sun by Ben Towle

Ben Towle, self-described "cartoonist, educator, hobo," both teaches comics and creates them. Isaac got in touch with him a while back and invited him to join us for a shuffleupagus page (he drew panels 5 & 6) and to contribute to ____ Are Always Fun to Draw (Ben's contribution just might be my favorite one to look at in that volume). Here on the website, Ben provided us with a great set of constraints for our Elfworld submission, offering a series of nods to other cartoonists, from classics like Segar and Ditko to contemporaries like Stephan Pastis (whose Pearls Before Swine gets a shout-out in one of Ben's recent blog entries). His constraints worked well for us in a crucial stage of figuring out our plot and the stakes of our story, and I've really appreciated Ben's feedback in the comments, too.

This is a long preamble to a tale. Basically, I wanted to reintroduce you to Ben Towle as a sort of SatCom fellow traveler before admitting that he is in fact much more of an explorer and pioneer, one who has blazed a trail far ahead of us by completing and publishing a fine graphic novel with SLG called Midnight Sun, just out in December and just read by me Friday night. (Check out SLG's product page--with preview trailer!--here.)

It's the story of a 1928 Italian airship expedition to the Arctic that goes awry, and Ben succeeds very well in mapping this narrative terrain. A prose note at the end describes the factual basis for the story and the various narrative tweaks that Ben introduced: some streamlining of characters here, conflating of events there, with some invented characters and scenes for good measure. The story is well-paced, well-imagined, and well-designed (Ben has some thoughtful words about its nearly square format in another recent blog post); what I like best about the book, though, is the drawing.

Much of the story takes place in the Arctic, which allows for great expanses of white space on the page and effective use of perspective to convey distance. Here's a panel where three members of the stranded party of airship crewmen decide to strike out for solid land they've spotted in the distance; they are watched by one of the remaining three crewmen who stay behind on the ice floe where their dirigible crash-landed:

But white space isn't all that works effectively in these polar scenes. Ben also makes good use of graytones throughout the comic to sculpt shapes and to alter the mood. Here's a later look at two of those crewmen who left in search of land:

What first impressed me in Ben's drawings for shuffleupagus and the Fun to Draw project was his eye for arresting black-and-white contrasts. They're in evidence in Midnight Sun, too, and one of my favorites is this image of a Swedish Air Force plane, whose pilot swoops in to rescue some of the stranded airship crew, only to end up in need of rescue himself later on:

Finally, I'd like to note that Ben draws great boots. Boots may not be the first thing to come to mind when you think of great drawing--they weren't even on the extended list of over 130 "Fun to Draw" items--but Van Gogh produced a terrific painting of boots early in his career, and Ben has a couple of panels that showcase boots as visually interesting elements that flatter the inker. Here's my favorite pair, in a panel of increasing tension for the stranded airmen:

There's lots more fun stuff to look at in this book--planes wheeling, ships steaming, a bear attacking--and I'm really pleased to see such a fine book from the pen of a fellow who not only did some inking at my dining room table once, but brought along a few beers to inspire his fellow cartoonists to loosen up and enjoy the playful part of their work. I'm glad that Midnight Sun is attracting positive notices, too, and I wish Ben lots of success with it!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Sketchbook: Snow Day Self-Portrait

So: I've been trying to make time to sketch one drawing a day with my Rapidograph. You'd think that wouldn't be so hard to do, but for me it is. And I'm learning that the technical pen is hardly the supple instrument that a pencil or a brush is, and it's pretty unforgiving when you draw without preliminary pencil sketches. In other words, my already high admiration for the masters of such sketchwork (Crumb, Ware) has only increased as I've made my own feeble attempts.

Nevertheless, Isaac has suggested that I blog some of these sketches (none of which he has seen), and since I'm overdue for a post I thought I'd share a quick self-portrait from yesterday, when I bundled up to venture out in the snow.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

New Clowes and Ware from Penguin: The Book of Other People

So: there are short stories by Dan Clowes and Chris Ware in the new collection called The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith for the benefit of 826 New York and published by Penguin.

The Ware story ("Jordan Wellington Lint") is really surprising, because it uses a formal device I haven't seen Ware use before: each page is dated to a moment in the title character's childhood, with a drawing style meant to evoke the developing consciousness of the character, who ages from birth to age 13 over the course of the strip. One of my co-panelists from the Ware MLA thing called this device "Joycean," and I think it definitely stands up under that comparison.

Worth noticing, too, are a fun set of Posy Simmonds illustrations for a story by Nick Hornby. (Or, really, it's not quite a "story": it's a series of about-the-author blurbs that track the undistinguished literary career of James Johnson.) That's a light, funny piece, and Simmonds's illustrations do a lot to help it work.

But I should say something about the Dan Clowes story, since I've scanned a couple of panels from it. It's a study of a single evening in the life of an online "film critic" named Justin M. Damiano, who is on the verge of writing a scathing review of a new film by a director whose work he used to like. I imagine that in the context of this book, the story might seem kind of slight: it's just four pages long, and it rises and falls on a single decision.

But following Ice Haven's Harry Nabors and the ruminations about filmmaking in David Boring, this piece seems like an interesting addendum. Are critics really like horseflies? Damiano is. Like the girls in Ghost World, he aggressively espouses opinions that seem to have been crafted merely to be contrary; he seems to be driven by a combination of loneliness and narcissism. It's a compelling, even somewhat sympathetic portrait of an internet personality type that we're all familiar with.

So: it's a fun book, and it's for a good cause. I should point out, though, that I just got it a couple of busy days ago, and I haven't actually read the prose pieces yet. So this is not a review, really—just a recommendation that you seek this book out.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Scenes of New England 2008

So, the heating oil company sent a free 2008 calendar with "Scenes of New England," and it's been on the dining room table long enough to pick up a few doodles.

I'm basically putting this image on the blog just because I know Mike will enjoy this embellishment.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Chicago MLA Roundtable on Chris Ware

Well, it looks like it has been a while since I posted to the old blog. I've got a good excuse, though, and it starts with the letters MLA. I think I have recovered from the trip now, but I tell you, it was exhausting.

On the Thursday night of the convention, though, I gave a short paper on a round-table panel on Chris Ware. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the best panel I've seen in four MLA conventions: the most tightly conceived, the most interesting, and the most provocative (of subsequent conversation). That has very little to do with my own paper, and lots to do with the other people on the panel, plus the excellent organizing of Dave Ball.

The paper I gave was called "Chris Ware and the Grammar of Diagrams," and it was mostly kind of inspired by some things that Kevin Huizenga said in the "How to Draw Thinking" panel at SPX a couple of years ago. I spent some time in the paper looking closely at the diagrams in Jimmy Corrigan, talking about the way that Ware hides interesting (and, in one case, important) details about the interconnection of the characters' lives in the inscrutable recesses of the diagrams. But the main thing I wanted to claim—and which I only had a couple of minutes to discuss—is the way that the basic reading method of comics seems to be related to the visual grammar of the informational diagram. (I can tell you more about this if you're interested.) Looking at diagrams, as I said toward the end of the paper, can give cartoonists a lot of ideas for innovative ways of connecting information on the comics page.

In case you need reminding, here's one of Ware's diagrams (but not one that has information about the characters: this one just tells you how to read a single-panel cartoon). You can click to enlarge it.

The other four papers on the panel were all really great. Our friend Martha Kuhlman gave a quick talk about Chris Ware's relation to the "Oubapo" movement, and she very generously included us in her list of American "oubapians," based on our interest in formal constraints. Matt Godbey talked about Building Stories and the way that gentrification has been hitting the neighborhood represented in that recent Ware story. Peter Sattler gave a really provocative (I thought) piece about the way that Ware depicts memory—and not only the memory of an event, but the memory of a feeling. (I really wish I could reproduce the Peter's whole argument, because I know there are parts of it that I found really persuasive, and there were other parts I wasn't sure about. I'd like to pick it apart with him.) The fifth paper on the panel was Benj Widiss's paper about Quimby the Mouse as autobiography, focusing in particular on the way that changes to Quimby's head (decapitation, mutation, removal, etc.) are a good symbol for the self-in-formation as Ware develops toward a mature sensibility.

I wish I could present more details about the papers, because they were all really stimulating. There were some really nice moments in the post-papers discussion, too—I remember a moment when one of Matt's slides from Building Stories turned out to be useful in making a point about one of Peter's claims because of the way the image could be read as a diagram. Or something like that. Anyway, the connections between the papers were really stimulating, and I'm hoping I'll get to keep in touch with all of these comics scholars. It's the best academic panel on comics I've been a part of that didn't also include Mike.

(That was another one of my slides.)

One non-comics-related thing about my trip to Chicago: I was totally charmed by the public sculpture named "Cloud Gate," which everyone calls "The Bean." It was just a couple of blocks south of our conference hotel, and on Sunday I developed a little bit of an obsession with it, I think. Here's a cell-phone photo:

It's highly reflective stainless steel. It's thirty-three feet tall. You can walk under it with plenty of headroom, and there are tons of weird reflections-of-reflections-of-reflections in the "omphalos" on its underside. It made me giggle like a four-year-old. I had to go back again and see it at night.

Anyway, it's good to be back. I'll try to post again in less than a week, maybe when I start working on my syllabus for this spring's course on the graphic novel.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

SatCom is "For Your Consideration" at Comicon's The Pulse

A little while ago, Isaac and I were jointly interviewed (via email) by Chris Beckett, who writes a weekly column over at's The Pulse: "For Your Consideration," described as "a weekly spotlight on the small press, self-publishers & web comics" (yep, that's us, all right). I'm pleased to report that Chris's column, part review, part interview, is now live, and you can read it by clicking here. (It's also now linked under "Our Reviews," on the right side of the blog.)

In the review section, Chris concentrates on Satisfactory Comics #6 & #7 and on A Treatise upon the Jam. One of these days we'll post the Treatise to the blog, in whole or in part, but for now you can get a good account of it from Chris's column.

The interview also addresses such burning topics as why we make comics; why (and how) we make comics collaboratively; why we're such suckers for making comics with constraints; and how we settled on the name Satisfactory Comics (though we're not 100% on our answer to that one). If you want to know more, please click on over to Chris's column!