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All I ever write about on here is SPX. Of course, that’s mostly because SPX is the fall harvest festival directly before the Fiscal New Year – and I like to keep my thoughts about it someplace permanent instead of a blink and forget it stream of consciousness site like Tumblr.
This year’s SPX was awesome. I’m a backstage, behind-the-scenes guy by nature, so I spent more time paying attention to the production details than the big names of the show. There were a lot of little changes that worked really well. The most obvious were the balloon letters over each of the islands. At various points during the show, various volunteers came around and asked me if I needed anything or if I needed them to watch my table while I went to the bathroom or got food. I thought that was a fantastic touch.
The SPX Good Eats food map that I curate (friends don’t let friends eat at Chili’s) was made into a print by the fabulous Yao Xiao, which was really exciting. They sold prints at the main SPX merch table and had a larger version mounted on foamcore in the hallway outside the ballroom. That was really cool to be a part of.
I was also involved with the Prom, again in a backstage capacity. Tony Breed announced that he was going to play music for dancing and my wife offered up our DJ rig and sound system (she was a dance club DJ for seven years). Tony took her up on the offer and asked her to join him as a second DJ. My job was to offer suggestions to the Prom committee, pack the rig and speakers with my boxes and generally act as the roadie. It’s a role I’m used to and have gotten very good at.
While everyone else was at the Ignatz awards and watching Simon Hanselman get married to comics, we were in the Prom room, getting everything set up. That was entirely by choice, mind you. It’s just where I feel the most comfortable – doing what needs to be done so that everyone else can enjoy themselves. And people really enjoyed themselves; the Prom was basically just a dance party with fancy decorations and disco lights and a good dance party is a good dance party.
The only downside to being the roadie for the Prom was that we woke up at 7:30am on Saturday morning and went to bed at 2:30am. I spent the majority of those nineteen hours on my feet because I don’t believe in sitting behind my table, even if there are no customers. On Sunday morning, we discovered that the blackout curtains in our room didn’t quite close all the way, so I had to spend a groggy twenty minutes getting them sort of closed so that I could sleep in til 10. Next year, I’m bringing some twist ties.
I didn’t really get out from behind my table on Saturday, but I did make enough to cover my table, so I spent the first hour or so on Sunday morning walking around looking at books and talking to friends. We didn’t buy as much stuff this year as we have in years past, but I did shell out for the giant Little Nemo tribute book that Locust Moon put out. I also picked up the Weird Al book by Kelly Phillips. It wasn’t until I got to her table on Sunday that I realized two things: a) I’d picked up one of her books last year and b) she was one of the other prom organizers. It’s funny how that works. “Apparently I’m already a fan of yours,” I told her.
On more than one occasion, I had a conversation about the fact that it can be really difficult for comic book creators (not every cartoonist makes comics and not every comic book creator is a cartoonist) to stand out from the crowd. The running joke is one creator emailing another six months after the show, saying, “I was the guy with the glasses, the interesting facial hair and the shirt with the witty saying.” The female version goes, “The girl with bangs, nerd glasses and a tattoo on her arm.”
I will say that I noticed a lot more creators wearing ties (with or without full suits) this year. That trend started a few years ago, but it’s really gotten noticeable in the past two or three years. Funny how people who spend a lot of time focused on graphic design seem to have such difficulty with presentation.
The other major conversational theme that I had was the relative inability of creators to sell themselves. Last year, Derik Badman covered Simon Moreton’s table next to us and sold Simon’s stuff better than Simon did. I think there’s a lesson there. Maybe everyone at SPX should move two tables to the right as an experiment to see how well people do when someone else is enthusiastic to the public about their work.
For those that are just looking for the executive summary: SPX was great this year. I didn’t see everyone I wanted to see because it’s gotten to the point where it’s impossible to see everyone and everything. And that’s a great thing. If SPX is a microcosm of the larger indie comics world, then I would say that indie comics are thriving. And that’s enough to keep me going until next year.
Posted 6 months, 2 weeks ago at 9:26 am. Add a comment
In the hours after the show ended, I told Sam Marx (one of the organizers) that SPX is my favorite holiday, better than Christmas. I was not being hyperbolic – SPX is, far and away, the most anticipated event on my calendar. Everything in my life gets organized around it.
Backing up and thinking about the show, I’ve been mentally unpacking the sentiment, trying to get at what it all means to me and why.
I’m a Defense contractor in my day job, which means that everything I do at work is wrapped around the Fiscal Year, which starts in October, not the Calendar Year that starts in January. My birthday is in mid-October and SPX is in mid-September. I’m not sure exactly when I started viewing SPX as the start of my year, but it’s not without precedent.
For myself (and many others), SPX is the culmination of an entire year’s worth of planning and creative endeavor. The fact that it’s in Fall makes it feel like a post-modern harvest festival, where all of the creators show up after a year of hard work and bring the fruits of their labors to market. It’s a time of celebration and community where everyone reconnects with friends they met in years past.
SPX also feels special because it’s my hometown show – I went to high school down the street from the venue. My work with the SPX Good Eats Map is part of my personal relationship with the show – I want to be a good ambassador to the people who are visiting the place that I grew up.
So that’s what SPX means to me in general. This year, 2013, was a crazy year for me personally.
It started out on a really high note, charged up from the post-SPX buzz. I took Frank Santoro’s composition course in January and really pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I waited a long time to actually post the results in public because I was really embarrassed by the artwork, but I finally got around to cleaning everything up and posting a rather lengthy manifesto of sorts in late July that wrapped up my newfound sense of purpose and goals in advance of turning forty.
The same day I posted that on Tumblr, my father died. In fact, going by the timestamp on the post, he was already dead – I just didn’t know it yet. In a lot of ways, the theme of this year has been death – Iain Banks (the only fandom community I really feel a part of), Kim Thompson,Josh Burdette, Elmore Leonard and, of course, the shooting at the Navy Yard the day after SPX by – get this – a Defense contractor.
Needless to say, looking at SPX through the filter of a year-end celebration that also marks the start of the new creative year has really been very cathartic for me. So now that I’ve been a major bummer by bringing death into the conversation, allow me to switch from abstracts to specifics.
I had six new books on my table this year, the product of a very busy year of making comics. Most of them were not a twinkle in my eye when I left SPX last year – they just sort of happened, which I’m taking as a good sign. Making comics has ceased to be a long, drawn out, complicated affair and has turned into something far more spontaneous. It remains to be seen if this trend continues.
When I was talking to Rafer Roberts before the show, he noted that the hall seemed to be about the size of a football field, which meant that my table was on the fifty yard line. After last year’s position near the front doors, it was a bit of a letdown to be in the center rear of the hall, but we can’t all win the SPX lottery every year.
The people on either side of me were fantastic – D. Austin Bedell, Chris Sweet and Zach Taylor on the one side and Warren Craghead and Simon Moreton on the other. One of my favorite parts of working at SPX is getting to know my neighbors and making new friends.
I also got a chance to catch up in person with people I talk with on Twitter all the time like Kat Feete (and her husband Dan and their adorable daughter Ella), Marguerite Dabaie, Tony Breed, Ken Eppstein and Sam Wolk. I would have enjoyed a longer conversation with Box Brown but he was a very busy man the whole weekend. Tony introduced me to Matt Hoddy from the Space Pyrates crew who flew all the way from Brisbane for the show. There should really be an off-season version of SPX where the creators can just show up and hang out in a room together and not worry about selling anything.
We went to the mixer on Friday night but didn’t stay long because it got really crowded really quickly. And for the same reason, we skipped the Ignatz Awards after party and opted to hang out in the room drinking wine with John Bintz and Meredith Burke instead. We got a noise complaint for our troubles, which I’m totally blaming on Meredith’s laugh.
For some reason, the hotel room was really dry this year and I woke up in the middle of the night on both Friday and Saturday feeling parched and desiccated. I don’t remember this from previous years and it may just have been the incipient con crud making an early appearance.
Sales were decent. Early on, I got a lot of “that looks interesting,” followed by “I’ll be back after I’ve had a chance to look around some more.” I’d say that maybe a quarter of that traffic came back. Not surprisingly, Emo Galactus and its thematic sequel Who Watches the Watcher? were my best-sellers by far. Both have quick, easy hooks that appealed to impulse buyers, a class of comics that I feel are the biggest sellers in a marketplace of that size.
One of the benefits of having Square is being able to identify when the sales occurred. Our busiest periods were just after noon and between 2 and 3pm on both days. Very interestingly, I only had 45 total transactions the whole show, but it felt like I talked to a lot more people over the course of the two days.
I probably would have taken more pictures but I was trying to save the battery on my phone, which was the only method of authenticating credit cards. Given that about half of my sales (by dollar amount) were via credit card, I’d say that was a good choice.
For the second year, Sarah P had her own half-table adjacent to mine so that we could share resources like Square, bags, water and food and cover for each other as necessary. I had some very interesting conversations about Starseed with some of the male cartoonists around me, mostly about the predominantly female audience and how far outside the superhero comics mainstream a gay porn space opera really is and how close it is to the center of female-centric mainstream (if such a thing could be said to exist).
My favorite customer interaction of the weekend was a little old lady with a walker who motioned towards the Starseed fliers. I handed one to her husband, who looked at it and refused to give it to her until she beat him up some. It was almost like our own personal slapstick revue.
Our banner from last year (“gay porn space opera – you either perked up or you didn’t”) worked remarkably well for bringing in the target demographic. A lot of people laughed and got a flier for their sense of humor. The girls who perked up were really happy to see the comic and it was fun to watch Sarah squee with them about their shared interests. I joked that we needed to encourage people to wear AO3 buttons so that we can spot them in the crowd and refine our marketing technique.
I also plotted secret projects with a couple of people and got a chance to kibitz with Frank Santoro. In fact, just riffing with Frank about some of my more outré notions about comics was one of the highlights of the show.
A few people mentioned my Heavy Metal Tumblr and at least one guy told me that reading it was always the highlight of his day, which was high praise indeed. I was seriously considering stopping when I got to 1986 in my reread because the magazine format switches from saddle stapled to perfect bound, but if one of my readers is that dedicated and enthusiastic, I guess I have no choice but to keep going.
In all honesty, it only takes a soupçon of perspective to notice that I’m not really going through hell at the moment. My father’s death aside, 2013 was actually a pretty good year – we traveled to Brussels, I took a lot of art classes and I generated a lot of positive momentum.
So that’s where I’m at coming out of SPX this year. I’ve been using the show to recharge my creative batteries for the past few years and this year was no different. There’s something about the friction of having books with completely different styles aimed at completely different audiences sitting right next to each other that generates a certain kind of creative tension and energy that just doesn’t manifest at more mainstream shows like Baltimore Comic Con.
SPX makes me want to spend my downtime being creative and making awesome things because I’m driven to make even better things through peer pressure alone(I’m allowed to call them peers even though they’re two decades younger than me, right?). I don’t want to be the only one on the floor next year without something new and amazing on my table.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s officially a new year and it’s time to start planting seeds so that I have something to bring to next year’s harvest.
Posted 1 year, 6 months ago at 5:14 am. Add a comment
As we were eating dinner on Sunday night after the show, my wife pointed out that the last post on this site is last year’s SPX wrapup. Whoops.
In the week leading up to the show, I did the math and figured out this was my tenth visit to SPX, five years as a vendor (four as press, one as a volunteer). It was also my best show to date. Part of that was the general atmosphere of the show. Almost everyone I talked to had great sales.
This year, SPX brought in an ATM specifically because the hotel ATM is always tapped out by midday on Saturday. The $10,000 in the back-up ATM was gone by 4pm on Saturday afternoon and had to be refilled. They even drew a crude map telling people where the local ATMs are and posted it on Twitter – producing something cleaner is on my to-do list for the coming year. As far as I’m concerned, that blows the whole “same $200 being passed around the room” noise away.
Emo Galactus sold out. It got a favorable review from the Wait, What guys and an unexpected bump on The Beat on Friday morning, which most of my friends said something to me about it throughout the weekend. This was Meredith’s first book and I told her that she shouldn’t expect this kind of success with her next book.
Sales were brisk on Saturday and it was gone by 2:30 Sunday afternoon. My other new books got flipped through, but not bought at the same rate. One was of local interest and the other was a straight up art comic – which has a distinct, other audience. And my metafiction graphic novel series is daunting – but the sample comic has sold out two years running, so people are intrigued but wary about jumping in at the deep end. At $20 a book, I don’t blame them – that’s why I have a $2 sampler.
The tone of the show, however, is not especially deep and introspective unless you bring that reputation (and audience) with you to the show – the whole leather patches on elbows crowd is downstairs, away from the marketplace. As always, good presentation and quick high concept are proven best practices for standing out in the crowd. Flipping through the books we bought, one of the main things that seems to move books is a whimsical concept. We bought a book called Food Porn because the cover was amusing. Is it good? Who cares, it was three dollars. There is another book called Teen Boat – all the angst of being a teen and all the fun of being a boat. It’s been around for years and sells very well.
Emo Galactus sold for three dollars. And it is whimsical, with a pop culture reference that people can easily lean on – or at least be willing to take a chance on. The fact that it was born from a dream about Galactus going to SPX probably didn’t hurt. It’s very much a project that is specific to that show – Galactus is even standing behind the convention center on the cover. And if readers like it and want to learn more, there’s an ad for my deep metafictional graphic novel series on the inside back cover, with a link to the whole thing as a webcomic. Always be promoting.
The other main comic that debuted this year was Starseed, the gay porn space opera that Sarah P and I have been serializing on the web. We scheduled the launch of the webcomic in May so we could sell the first book at or about the time that the first book ends initial serialization. The main selling point – beyond the laser-focused tag line of “gay porn space opera – you either perked up or you didn’t” – is that the comic is black and white on the web and color in print. And the color is amazing.
The title is aimed at a very specific pair of demographic groups – the obvious (gay men) and the orthogonal (straight women who enjoy gay porn). The latter is a huge, untapped market that is almost completely opposite to the straight male-heavy demographic of superhero comics. Starseed will never, ever sell well in a mainstream store. But at a show like SPX, where there is a much greater chance of a straight woman who likes gay porn randomly walking by, we did very well. The plurality of openly gay men moving through the crowd also helped a lot.
We have a few other conventions that we’re thinking about – YaoiCon is a gimme, as is Geek Girl Con – but it is extremely unlikely that we would ever seriously consider New York or San Diego. Those are simply not our markets. We just happen to produce an artform that everyone assumes would do well at those events simply because Starseed happens to be comics and they are comic cons.
This was Sarah’s first con and we did everything we could to set her up for success. I sold my books on my table and she sold her book in the adjacent space. We got a banner and made sure that she was dressed to impress – no purple dress, though. She did well for her first con behind the table and we spent most of the show trying to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. There is always room for improvement – the trick is figuring out how to do that most efficiently and effectively.
The best part of getting ready for SPX is figuring out which purple suits I should wear and what ties and shirts should go with them. I have options, which makes it fun. The suit I bought in Baltimore has become my regular convention suit and I wore it on Saturday. It’s got browntones in it, which isn’t usually paired with purple, but my wife reminds me every year that I specifically bought a tie to go with it. The Sunday suit was bought on H Street. It comes with two pairs of pants, one plain and the other in plaid to match the jacket and one side of the vest (the other half is plain).
SPX Red Carpet from Griller Video on Vimeo.
My wife and I have been joking for years that we should run a red carpet event before the Ignatz Awards. This year, we got serious about it and called in friends to do interviews and film the whole thing. On Saturday night, after a full day on the floor, we ran a red carpet event before the Ignatz Awards. My wife Shannon Stewart and her friend Stacy Hayash interviewed people while our friend Matt McGarrity did the filming.
My job was to work the crowd, bringing volunteers who wanted to be interviewed. I have to say that getting indie comics creators to go promote their work in public was like pulling teeth. Far too many plead shyness. I gravitated towards people wearing fezes and top hats, on the theory that style wants to be noticed (I know I do when I wear a purple suit).
We got some good, entertaining guests on the red carpet, including (but not limited to): Box Brown, Meredith Burke, John Bintz, Jen Vaughn, Matt Dembecki, Andrew Cohen, Anne Thalheimer, Godzilla and a man wielding a lightsaber and wearing a George Bush mask. At one point Godzilla tackled George Bush. It was a lot of fun. Our primary instruction going into the event was: “If we’re not having fun, we’re doing it wrong.”
One of the weird things that I’ve noticed about SPX over the past few years is how much more dapper the crowd has become. The running joke for a long time was that the standard cartoonist uniform is a flannel shirt, pop culture t-shirt and Converse All-Stars. I flatter myself that showing up in a purple suit for five years running upped the game, but this year I noticed some great hats and an awful lot of suit jackets. The purple suit is about attracting attention and staying memorable. In theory, it should work with an awesome hat.
Even portions customer side of the crowd were dressed well. A State Department delegation rolled through at one point in suits and ties. Godzilla aside, there was no cosplay, which is really weird for anyone who has vended or attended a “real” comic con.
My brother used to live across the street from the convention center, so I’m very familiar with North Bethesda. Technically, Bethesda doesn’t extend north of the Beltway, so the Marriott is located in the no-man’s land between the Beltway and Rockville. Bethesda has a nicer cachet, but the whole area is far more Rockville Pike than Bethesda. Bethesda is pedestrian friendly. Rockville Pike is a road that stretches from the Potomac in Georgetown to the wilderness north of Frederick but is most notorious for the strip malls along this stretch and not pedestrian friendly at all. At least, not yet.
The good news is that Montgomery County is a largely affluent suburb of a relatively affluent major city. One of the most generous things you can say about Washington DC is that it’s a transient city – only 35% of the people who grew up here still live here. Between military personnel being constantly rotated in and out and the two-year election cycles and all of the contract recompetes, there is a lot of turnover in population, so these kinds of shows are always new to someone. DC also has a strong art tradition – there is a periodic free art show called Artomatic that draws thousands of people.
The bad news is that North Bethesda is a suburb – if you go four blocks in any direction you’re surrounded by single family homes as far as they eye can see. Beautiful place to grow up, but about the only tourist-friendly places you’re likely to find out there are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (directly across the street from the hotel). The public transportation infrastructure is really good in Montgomery County, but a large number of people drive everywhere and there’s a lot of stuff you just have to know about. We ate dinner on Friday night at an Iranian kabob place ten minutes up the street that my family has been going to since I was a kid. (Take the metro one stop to Twinbrook and walk three blocks. Try the lamb.)
Having said that, SPX held it’s own against the H Street Festival this past weekend – a major event in the District proper aimed at the crypto-hipster population that frequents the themed bars in the so-called Atlas District. That event got somewhere over 60,000 people and at least a portion of those might have also been inclined to show up for something like SPX.
Speaking of which, I hit the Ignatz afterparty at about midnight on Saturday night and talked to a few people, but I really wasn’t up for trying to hang out in the scrum. To a certain extent, a combination of age and locality gives me a different perspective on the afterhours activity. It’s not a case of “there’s nothing else to do” because there are plenty of things to do. But given my choice of activities, sleep works best for me – I gotta work in the morning. And the day after that.
I had some very good conversations. A pair of experimental fiction students were interviewing people about experimental comics so I gave them an earful about how not being able to draw pushed me to seek out different ways to illustrate my comics. I think I even paraphrased a Brian Eno/Alan Moore exchange because I thought it was relevant; I’m not sure that they knew who either of those people were, to be honest.
One of my favorite parts of internet interaction is meeting peers that you’ve been talking to on Twitter for weeks or months. I love it when someone is as cool in person as they seem to be online. It’s been happening to me for over a decade and it never gets old. It would be nice to have more time to talk that didn’t incur a sleep deprivation penalty, but there are always tradeoffs.
One of my primary goals this year was to connect the three diverse pieces of information about myself; I am immediately identifiable as the man in the purple suit and have been for five years, but nobody knows my name and nobody knows what kind of comics I make. This year, Emo Galactus propped up the content end of the triangle and I made sure to mention my name in conversation to prominent journalists – I actually got a few “oh yeah, I recognize the name” responses.
This kind of thing takes time to build. As much as I’ve been learning how to make comics over the past five years, I’ve also been learning how to brand myself, how to sell comics, how to work a table and how to talk about comics like I know what I’m talking about online with other people who share my interests. These are all distinct skillsets and I’ve only been exercising them for five years, if that. Going by the “it takes ten years of constant effort to get good at something” yardstick, I’m about halfway there. Operating under the assumption that I’m going to be making comics for the next 35 or 40 years (at least), a slow build is worth the time invested. No reason to go around being dumb in public when I can be dumb where nobody’s watching.
And, of course, I bought comics.
Overall, the show did what it does every year: fill me with an urge to make comics. The wave of creative energy that builds around the show does a lot to charge the batteries and reinforce the determination to get things done, to impress the people next year with something even better. I had five separate conversations that boiled down to “yeah, let’s do something together” with other artists – always a good sign.
One of the things that SPX does in general is fill me with optimism about the future of the comics medium. I keep hearing that this or that is the death knell for comics. The people moaning about the state of things are not attending SPX. The American superhero comic publishing industry may be having trouble, but any medium with this many dedicated people who are doing this for more love than money (although the money was good this year) is quite healthy, thank you very much. More than anything else, this year’s SPX was a reaffirmation of our creative confidence; it is okay for us to be doing the things we are doing. Not that we need permission.
On the way home, I then harshed my buzz by rear-ending an elected official in Columbia Heights. But that’s another story….
Posted 2 years, 4 months ago at 4:47 pm. Add a comment
Small Press Expo has become my favorite show to work. For many reasons, I like to think of it as my flagship convention, the place where I try to make the biggest impact. The purple suit helps. Having a collection of purple suits, which allows me wear a different one each day, helps more.
I live in Alexandria, which means that SPX is a local show – I went to high school up the road from the convention center. As locals, we also tried to be hosts. I made a Google map of places to eat. My wife bought pastries at the hidden Entemann’s outlet store (that we discovered when we were putting together the map) and took them around the vendor room on Sunday morning before the doors opened.
Friday afternoon, I picked up Dan Barlow at the airport because it was stupid of him to spend an hour and a half on the Metro up to Bethesda; I live ten minutes from the airport and was planning to go up to SPX for Friday night socializing anyway. We drove around Rockville and visited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave, practically the only tourist attraction that Rockville can lay claim to.
The show itself was amazing. We ran into a lot of old friends and saw a lot of new faces. I recognized two bartenders and a slew of friends and neighbors from the DC metro area were in attendance. I talked to Darryl Ayo on Saturday, a conversation that probably would have been better if we’d been in a quiet bar sipping whisky. As it was, we were both working and I’m always conscious of crowding the table. (I hate it when that happens to me, even when I want to talk to the person.) I also got interviewed by Rusty and Joe from Full Sanction, who were doing video interviews with any creator that felt like sitting down with them, which was fun. I can’t wait to see the result and I really want that experiment to stick around next year.
Every time I talk to Carla Speed McNeil, she hands me valuable, hard-earned advice and I do my best to pay attention to it. One time she told me to make sure I have something new on the table every year for that one fan who will buy anything new. Check – this was the debut for books 4 and 5 in the Oceanus Procellarum series and long-time readers bought copies of both books.
The next time she gave me advice, she told me to make something “book shaped” that people can walk away with for not very much at all. Accordingly, I made a little sampler comic for the Oceanus Procellarum series. I gave the pitch – “The hidden truth is that when a character encounters the truth in the story, he remembers that he’s in a story.” – then pointed out that I understood that buying a full book was a big ask for a first time reader. But! I had a $2 sampler. “If you like the sampler, you’ll like the series. If you don’t, you’re out two bucks.” I sold out of my sampler. And someone bought a copy of the main book after reading the sampler. Thanks Carla!
Another thing I did was hand out free propaganda – the one page strip about Practical Ideas for the Passionate Comics Reader on one side and an ad for Oceanus Procellarum on the back. Someone read the ad and bought the main book in the series, which pretty much means that the free propaganda that I shoved in everyone’s face all weekend long paid for itself.
Unfortunately, I ran out of propaganda about midway through Sunday. Between that and selling out of the sampler, there was a notable drop in sales on Sunday afternoon – a generally slow time anyway. Of course, that’s when I went shopping for bargains. Sometimes that strategy works and sometimes it doesn’t. I was not in time to get all three of Jen Vaughn‘s menstruation comics for my wife because one had sold out.
I came home Saturday night with aching feet and discovered that the shelf porn I’d sent in to Robot 6 had been posted, which was a great morale booster from an odd direction.
All in all, this was a great weekend. I really felt like I hit my stride, sales-wise. After four years of so-so activity, it was good to see the hard work paying off. It also made me feel like I’d figured something out, which gave me a nice endorphin rush. Going back to work today was a struggle.
Posted 3 years, 6 months ago at 5:37 pm. Add a comment
It’s now a few days after the end of the first quarter of 2011 and it’s time for a quarterly report.
I started the year weak as a kitten after a surgical procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia over Christmas. Ninety plus days later and I’m off the follow-up meds and feeling strong and productive.
Four of the five books in the Oceanus Procellarum series are at the printer (I sold out of the first printing of Book 1). If you are interested in reading the series but don’t feel like paying $20 apiece for physical books, the first two books (Weapons of Devotion and Class of 63) are available online – the third (Taste of Flesh) is being serialized right now at the rate of four pages a day. Books four (Kampyle of Eudoxus) and five (Morose) will go live in January of 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Copies of all books will be available at SPX. Look for the man in the purple suit.
The comics that I’ve made this year are being published in a webcomic series called Irregular Variables. After producing 200+ of the 500+ pages in my aforementioned graphic novel series last year, I decided to give myself a break. This year, I will only make self-contained comics of less than 16 pages in length. To date, the Irregular Variables I have published are:
Tressage – An out-and-out art comic that started with a conversation I had with a bartender about standardized symbol sets. I’ve learned a lot more about the topic since I made the comic, but that’s okay because the comic itself really veered into conceptual territory pretty much from the second page.
Why I Remixed Star Wars – A number of years ago, I completely remixed Star Wars for what I felt were perfectly valid, artistic reasons. Read the comic if you’re curious – that’s why I made it.
Art Cars of H Street – I took a scrapbooking class in February. I’ve been fascinated by scrapbooking for a long time. Because I cannot draw, I’ve spent a long time trying to find new and different ways to illustrate the stories I write. I stumbled upon scrapbooking almost by accident and figured out that it has all of the elements of traditional comics. In fact Karon Flage once called scrapbooking, “Comic book making for midwestern housewives,” which is about as accurate as it gets. This particular comic was made using pictures I took with my iPhone during the H Street festival in 2010.
Shape and Color – Another piece from my class. I ran out of material and started improvising with what I had at hand. The great thing about working on 12 x 12 pages is the amount of room there is to play with.
The Great Escape – Last year, I picked up some batik elephants at World Market for about $12. On a warm Sunday afternoon in February, I took them into my backyard and made a comic with them using my iPhone. I remixed the pictures on my iPad using the TiltShiftGen app and made them into a 16 page comic with the Strip Design app (also on the iPad). I’ve made plenty of photocomics before, but I’ve never made a completely silent comic.
I have made other comics, which are scheduled to be published as follows:
Theft of Excellence – This comic shows off my meager cartooning skills and my not-so-meager painting and collage skills. The lament that I heard from my peers was that the scans don’t show off the texture of the pages. Go live date: April 11th.
Leaving Nebraska – This comic was illustrated by Sarah Anderson, who did a piece in Kampyle of Eudoxus. Her work was good enough to make me want to do something else with her. I dusted off this character study I’d written and sent it to her to see what she would do with it. Go live date: April 18th.
Rue the Day – I found the first scrapbooking class interesting and informative enough to sign up for the follow-up, where I made this piece. It’s a visual poem as much as it is anything else. Go live date: May 2nd.
Books of Novelty – I don’t really have much of a destination in mind when I start designing a pair of pages. Mostly, I’m paying attention to color, shape, composition and the materials that I have at hand. Meaning (and thus, storytelling) is usually a distant thought until the very end of the process, when I’m ready to decipher and distill something from what I have created. Go live date: May 9th.
Y-3 – Another experimental scrapbooking piece. Instead of actual journaling, it features asemic writing. Go live date: May 16th.
I’ve got a few other projects in the works, including a few anthology submissions. I’m taking the third, follow-up scrapbooking class as well, so I should have some more pieces to put up in the months to come.
Posted 3 years, 11 months ago at 3:09 pm. Add a comment
Posted 4 years, 6 months ago at 10:00 am. 1 comment
I have been making digital collage for the better part of a decade, long enough that I am comfortable and confident in my abilities – almost to the point of complacency. In the Spring of 2009, I decided that I wanted to try something different; I wanted to try making art with my own two hands. Something analog.
At first, the intention was to find out what I could do – what I could do well and what I couldn’t. As the pile of pieces grew, I made the mistake of thinking that I could take those pieces and turn them into comic pages (they were drawn on comic book backing boards, after all).
I envisioned a narrative set in a world where random colors and shapes in the background were commonplace and created a set of characters to populate that world. I came up with a story structure that I’ve always wanted to try and I pulled the whole thing together.
I’m not going to say that it was an unqualified disaster, but it certainly wasn’t my best effort. The most important thing I can say about the Lungs of the World was that it taught me a number of things.
First, I learned that I have to start with a story. This was probably what got me into the most trouble. The pages were just random doodles that I built up until they fit into the story that I was putting together as I went along. This is not an optimal way to make sequential art. Lesson learned.
Second, I learned with kinds of effects work and what don’t. I expect I’ll be exploring this in the months and years to come, but I don’t know how much of that will be for public consumption.
Third, I learned that I have some small ability to create characters that pop, visually. This is not insignificant. Good design can make a character iconic, which allows it to live beyond the timespan allotted by the pages that it starts on. This is absolutely something that I will be working to improve upon; it’s a skill worth cultivating.
Today, on Christmas, the last four pages go live. The story hangs together, after a fashion, but it’s closer to a heavily roughed in sketch of a narrative than a polished piece destined for retail sales. I am deeply grateful that webcomics allows creators like myself to present experiments to the reading audience with no real financial commitment, but my intention was not to fall flat on my face; but then again, it never is.
More than anything, the Lungs of the World is a cautionary tale, a reminder to myself that it’s okay to try new things, but that not everything I try has to go live.
Posted 5 years, 3 months ago at 8:24 am. Add a comment
I’ve always said that I can’t draw and I’ve always meant it. In the spring of 2009, I decided to find out exactly how badly I can’t draw.
I keep buying art supplies in the hopes that I can make interesting things with them, but I never do. Over the course of several weeks, I used those art supplies to make random marks all over a pile of comic book backing boards – on the theory that if anything good came out of the experiment, I might be able to show it to people.
After a bit of tweaking and a lot of page shuffling, I finally figured out what kind of story I could tell with these random pieces that were not specifically designed to go together. I even had a page that gave me the name of the story – The Lungs of the World.
It’s an experiment, in every sense of the word. I was trying different techniques to see what worked, artistically. I used a classic story structure that I’ve always enjoyed, but one I’ve never tried before. I’m trying a new distribution method and I’m looking to apply the lessons learned from Weapons of Devotion – which ran in the spring of 2009.
There will be four new pages of content every Friday from July 10th through Christmas, 2009. It’s a complete, stand-alone story that probably won’t have any sequels, but I don’t like to make idle promises.
The webcomic can be found here. Enjoy!
Posted 5 years, 9 months ago at 9:46 am. Add a comment
I just got back from HeroesCon and I haven’t even unpacked the car yet. It was good to meet so many great, creative people who have such a passion for the medium.
The conventions I usually go to do not have a lot of people in costumes, so it was really neat to see these people wandering around. There were three scouttroopers from the 501st that were amazing.
I also talked to a lot of interesting artists, whose names I’m not sure I rememeber. Good thing I got business cards.
I was interviewed by Chuck Moore of ComicRelated for their convention podcast and I saw the live demo for Longbox. Very interesting stuff, with a lot of potential.
Posted 5 years, 9 months ago at 9:45 am. Add a comment
That the human eye is drawn towards attractive or well-composed visual images is self-evident. I find it interesting that human beings have adopted this penchant for, say, stopping to notice a nice sunset, into their mating rituals. This is self-evident, too; we are sexually attracted to well-composed faces and elegant curves (male or female) and points are given (quite literally) for overall presentation.
Wrapped in Armani or tied up in Japanese rope bondage knots, the external accoutrements (should) only ever serve to enhance the natural curves of the individual (concealment is a close cousin in purpose, admittedly). At the same time, this dual role of clothing spotlights the underlying reality: everyone on the street, on the bus and in your office is naked under their clothes.
This is hardly a profound revelation, but the amount of avoidance, distraction and cultural morality that is directed towards nudity and its implied sexuality would suggest otherwise. In fact, there is a great deal of social stigma associated with nudity, enough that the mere act of being naked is considered shameful. By extension, the act of observing nudity has been shackled with similar shameful connotations. For all their power, though, these connotations are externally applied and do not necessarily reflect the power that nudity provides to our lives (through reproduction, to name but a single circumstance).
I believe that there is an inherent artistic component to the basic composition of the human body. I do not believe that I am alone in this; various attempts have been made to take the sexual implication out of the nude figure through artistic representation, with varying degrees of success. In recent years, however, there has been a backlash against this, with so-called Erotic Art, a term that signifies that the artist has (consciously or unconsciously) captured the sexuality implicit within the context of the nude and, in doing so, not apologized away the relationship between the two.
I’m all for this. It makes sense, really. So what do I do about it?
First of all, I am unashamed of the fact that I look at pictures of naked people (or whatever you want to call it; pornography, erotic art or clinical photos) wherever and whenever I can. There is an undeniable sexual thrill that comes with this, but that’s not my primary purpose; I’m looking for interesting or well-composed pictures. While I do take note of what the specific image is, I tend to pay attention to and find myself commenting on good textures or colors and good curves instead.
It sounds strange, but that’s where my attention is drawn. A poorly focused full-beaver shot is not necessarily more seductive than the curve of a hip in good lighting and a well-composed picture of a body in fishnets can be more erotic than either. By now, my friends are used to comments from me disparaging the quality of pornography in certain venues and the fact that I appreciate the artistic photo shoots in Playboy more than the centerfolds.
What I am forced to apologize for is my really dirty secret: I am the modern age equivalent of a pirate. Entire books have been written on the subject of how different cultures have dealt with the rise of technology and its effects on this kind of subject matter. (Go read the Christy Report, for example.) Instead of lingering over the history of the format, we’ll take the fact of Internet pornography as read and move on to the specific issues associated with nudity on the Internet and how they apply to this specific instance. Anyone with a decent computer, basic applications, basic skills and an Internet connection can acquire an extensive home pornography collection for their hard drive in only a few hours. I have all of these and an active interest.
But, like I said, I don’t just acquire Internet porn for the purposes of sexual gratification. And, while I don’t doubt that there is a deluge of redistribution piracy in nudity and other content being offered on the Internet (among other media platforms), that is not the only other use such images can be put to. Using commercial graphics programs (Photoshop being the best example), any image can be manipulated to such an extent that the final product bears little or no resemblance to the source image.
Such is an unforeseen and – frankly – ungovernable aspect of the degree of technological and cultural overlap in our lives, especially in the United States. Arguably, it is also a valid art form, one that comments on and mirrors contemporary imagery, similar to the Readymade art of the Dadaists. The art of collage has become subtler, but the fact that is has begun to reach the shores of painting drives and entrances me.
I mix images together using layer effects and filters, combining the colors, textures and shapes of the various pictures until something new and different is created. Often, there are two or three source images and as many as nine or ten different layers in a given image. These images can take as much as an hour or two to create and a lot of thought and patience goes into each one. Often, there are various versions of the same picture, due to the fact that each version is too good to throw away.
The fact remains, though, that they are photographs – they come from snapshots of reality and remain snapshots of reality. The reality that each source image references is still visible and evident in the final product, even if the image is no longer immediately recognizable as a photograph. At the same time, the captured reality has been altered and reshaped until it no longer describes a reality that we inhabit. Instead, the reality that these remixed images describe is of an abstracted sensuality.
The curves of pornography remain, but removed from their context to such a degree that they are barely recognizable as such. For some images, aspects of the color, texture and composition of these otherworldly images capture the eye, only to reveal specific details upon further inspection. In other instances, the images are mere enhancements that do nothing to mask the tribute they pay to the source image. Both are valid art forms, in my opinion.
What’s more, they are separate and distinct from their roots, enough so that they could be called originals. In the end, though, beauty (and its attendant implications of sexuality, originality and morality) is in the eye of the beholder. But the beholder is not the only person whose opinions seem to matter.
The primary concern among distributors of any kind of content is anonymous viewers stealing images and redistributing them as their own, which (rightly) falls under copyright laws. But what about private collectors? And what about collage or works that contain a portion of, but are significantly different than, original pieces, a noted exception under copyright laws, very similar to what is done with sampling in music? Where is the line between Negativland and Andy Warhol?
Does fair use apply to images found on amateur erotica sites? These images are not offered for reasons of profit, but instead for the purposes of sexual fulfillment, by the people and for the people. In such cases, should it matter if these kinds of pictures are used for something besides purely pornographic pictures? Is it a noble endeavor to want to add artistic meaning to an image that was not created with artistry as the primary purpose?
More interesting is the idea that only blatant plagiarism could ever be considered as a reasonable use for these images. Whatever the original intent of the creator of the source image, the concerns about their ongoing distribution and intent of that distributor are identical. Given the relentless strip-mining of popular culture that has served up entire pastiche and nostalgia platters without any pretense at originality combined with oversaturated cross-media tie-ins, the reaction is understandable.
I have shared some of the images that I have manipulated with the authors of the source images and the responses have been varied. While I have been complimented on the artistic elements of the new images, the more common response has been outright accusations of theft. One photographer said “I will say that you seem to be interested in artistic expression and I would encourage you to push yourself toward an original creation…inspiration from others is always evident but you must make your art your own,” which somewhat misses the point.
The purpose of art should be to inspire. That the person being inspired is another artist, who uses the inspiration directly or indirectly, seems to be rarely considered when the works are being created and should not cause detriment to those artists who are inspired. That another artist has drawn something from the works presented to such an extent that they wish to tell the creator of their inspiration about it should not be discouraged.
Furthermore, the reaction of these artists begs the question, Why does it make them uncomfortable that their art causes me to want to create instead of masturbate? If I had written to them describing how wonderfully aroused their images made me feel, would the reaction be different? Is the role of the viewer merely passive? Or is the viewer somehow instructed to create a reaction to the static image presented, no matter what the subject matter?
When people view pornographic images for the purposes of sexual gratification, do they masturbate to the images alone? Or do they create a scenario in their head based on the images that are presented? I wonder.
Posted 5 years, 9 months ago at 3:25 pm. Add a comment