The sequential art of R. M. Rhodes
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Le Reflet

One of the BD I picked up in Belgium was Le Reflet (the Reflection) by Marc-Renier and Yvan Hasse. One of the things I was specifically looking for as I browsed the European comic markets was metafictional works. I picked it up because Le Reflet is one such work – obviously so.

My French is not very good. It got marginally better over the summer, when I took my first French class in 22 years. However, I took the class after I read Le Reflet – which involved a painful, word-by-word flip through the French/English dictionary. There were several passages that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at the time, but I’m fairly sure that I got the gist of the whole story, if not the specifics.

Having said that, the whole piece has sat heavy on my mind for the past several months and I decided to take the opportunity that has been granted (the wife is on a girl’s weekend in Brooklyn) to unravel my thoughts on the work.

The book itself is very short. It’s not as wide as a standard BD album and it’s a brisk 30 pages long. The art is a Herge-influenced ligne clair style with a color scheme that is slightly more pastel than you would expect for a story with such dark themes. This makes sense, as Marc-Renier got his start working for Tintin magazine at about the same time. The two best things about the art are the numerous callouts to classic European BD (the story is set in a BD shop) and the tails on the word balloons, which have a beautifully art deco flip to them. The book was published in 1983, but the clothing on the characters suggests an earlier era – 1950s or 60s, maybe.

Spot the references.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Marc owns a shop that specializes in classic BD, which he declares to be genius (“Genial,” above). He’s found an artist to illustrate a BD that he wrote – something of his own that he can place next to the canon on the shelf. The comic shop is named “Au Miroir Malefique” which translates into “In the Evil Mirror.” The reason for the name is an ominous mirror (that you can see below) that came with the shop when he first rented it. He took it as an omen. No, really. Accordingly, the BD is called Le Reflet (the Reflection) – an obvious nod to the name of the shop, which is appropriate because it’s about the history of the shop.

Close up of the detail on the balloons and the mirror.

All of that gets established in the first dozen pages. In the next two pages, the book arrives. Unsurprisingly for those that have been paying attention, it is the book that the reader is currently reading. The title is the same, the cover is the same. In a broad hint about this eventuality, Marc is seen on page two holding an inked page for his yet-to-be published BD that is the same as the previous page.

Mise en abyme

Ann Miller’s Reading Bande Dessinee calls this Mise en abyme, where “art is transposed ‘to the level of the characters.’” Her book gives a more obvious example from Mathieu’s L’Origine, whose main character begins receiving pages of BD art in the mail – each one depicting a scene that has already occurred. Mathieu takes the conceit to an existential conclusion (to great effect), but it was published in 1991, seven years after Le Reflet was published.

It’s details like these that made me pick up Le Reflet in the first place. They don’t happen enough in Anglo-Saxon comics, but they seem to appear in the BD created in the land of French language theorists with startling regularity. What I found most interesting about this particular narrative artifact was what the creators did with it.

The final two-thirds of the book start with Marc receiving his books from the printer and then goes rapidly downhill as he finds himself completely unable to sell any copies of his books. The situation spirals out of control – he yells at customers and friends and grows despondent as boxes of books are returned and begin to accumulate.

Eventually, he shuts up the shop and hides with his BD. Unshaven and distraught, he talks to himself (literally – a clean-cut reflection that appears in the evil mirror and is his sole voice of encouragement) and eventually dies. His publisher friend finds his dead body and is astonished to flip to the back of Le Reflet to find a page that looks exactly like that scene; even moreso because it was not there the first time he read the book.

Breaking and entering.

There’s a bit of a Twilight Zone ending to the story, but it’s a necessary twist. Without it, the whole construct begs to be given the third degree. To wit: did Marc knowingly write a story about his own downfall and death but pretended to be surprised when it came true? The implication comes with the conceit – the album published in the story is intended to be read as the actual album and vice versa. What happens in one will happen in the other. Fate happens to everyone eventually.

But if the content of the story changed after the fact, then Marc is not a self-destructive creator, merely a run-of-the-mill self-delusional one. And that’s a much easier position to understand; who hasn’t gone to those histrionic extremes in this day and age of self-publication? In fact, there’s every reason to believe that the original story Marc published was all about how wonderful he was and how successful this book was going to make him.

There’s more than a basic parable about believing your own hype here – I still haven’t unpacked the symbolism of the mirror. Obviously, calling the shop “In the Evil Mirror” is a broad hint at the nature of the mirror itself. But it also points at the nature of the relationship between the shop (and the universe it sits within) and the mirror; the shop is in the mirror, and is the evil reflection of some other, idealized world.

I doubt very much that Marc really thought too much about these implications. After all, “In the Evil Mirror” is a pretty awesome name for a local comic shop; it’s almost on par with “Forbidden Planet” without having to contend with all of the pop cultural baggage.

But one hopes that he thought about this stuff when he named his book Le Reflet; placed in the context, the BD becomes the reflection that is in the evil mirror. I don’t think he parsed the relational themes as presented. If he had, he might have figured out that the outcome he was experiencing was a result of being on the wrong side of the mirror.

Which is the reflection?

The book ends with both reflections of Marc on the inside of the mirror, looking out at the mess that was created. In the end, it’s where Marc was probably meant to be.

One ironic footnote to the album. I found my copy in the bargain section of a used-BD store in Belgium. The price tag shows 2.50 euros and it’s obviously seen better days. Exactly where you’d expect to find a book that presents itself as a sales failure. I honestly wonder what happened to les Editions du Miroir (no kidding!) – as far as I can tell, they only put out a handful of books; two of which were written by Yvan Hasse. His entire bibliography.

Posted 3 years, 11 months ago at 8:46 am.

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Looking back at the Lungs of the World

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.

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 4 years, 10 months ago at 8:24 am.

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The Lungs of the World

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, 4 months ago at 9:46 am.

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Watch for patterns

For some reason, I’ve always seen post-modernism, slipstream and metafiction as different facets of a single premise. There’s also a distinct Dadaist/collage thing going on there, too. An echo of the “modernism” bit, perhaps?

Warren Ellis once described Iain banks as being a man “who writes across genre boundaries as if they did not exist.” (Letters column for Transmetropolitan, issue #10 – in a response to my letter.)

To be honest, at a certain point they don’t, really. The thing about genre is that it shares a root word with generic. Which is appropriate, because genre fiction is about the generic elements that we would expect to find in a given… well, genre. And once you start picking and choosing your generic elements from all over the place, you get something that is appropriately patchwork.

I compare and contrast two concepts when I’m not feeling particularly challenged. First, the idea that you can only break the rules after you has mastered the rules. Second, the idea that there is such a thing as outsider art – produced entirely without regard for whether rules exist, never mind what they are.

Now, I don’t believe that it is entirely possible to learn to just be a brilliant crazy obsessive artist who pays no attention to commercial concerns whatsoever but be simultaneously perfectly marketable. I think that it’s just one of those things that happens. Either you are or you aren’t. And if you are, you already are. If you aren’t, you are probably not going to get there from here.

Still, there is a lesson to learn there – that it is entirely possible to make up your own rules. I hate to say it, but rules are important. Rules create structure – and any creation that wants to stand entirely on its own needs a structure. Even something extremely rudimentary. The nice thing is that the rules (and thus, the structure) don’t have to be generic unless you want them to be.

Posted 5 years, 8 months ago at 9:24 am.

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On audience

Several months ago, I was asked “what is your audience?” and I didn’t have a ready answer.

The other day, I was asked “what are you trying to tell your audience [with your cover design]?” which I felt begged the question of what my audience is. Again.

This time, I had my marketing specialist at hand, who pointed out that my audience is people who don’t ordinarily read comics.

Mind you, this is a tough sell because it means that I am automatically restricting myself to speaking only to people who are willing to check their expectations at the door and try something new and different. Which is okay, because what I do is conspicuously Avant Garde and non-commercial.

The key insight comes from the understanding that there is a difference between getting eyeballs and keeping eyeballs. In a traditional bookstore setting, the cover is the mechanism for getting eyeballs and the content is the mechanism for keeping eyeballs. On the web, the relationship between cover and content is less consistent. In fact, I would say that the brand, logo and name are of greatest importance for gaining new eyeballs.

To a certain extent, this frees the cover from explicitly commercial concerns. Obviously, it should be focused on its point – communicating to the reader what they can expect to find inside. But the effectiveness of communication can be more relaxed.

In my case, I am attempting to communicate to the reader by managing their expectations. If they cannot tell what to expect from the cover, I have done my job successfully because the visual style of the story can change drastically from page to page. And that dynamic art is my mechanism for keeping eyeballs. Not coincidentally, it also serves double duty to catch eyeballs as well – especially in the web environment.

Posted 5 years, 8 months ago at 6:13 am.

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Are you here to make money or are you here to make comics?

I would say that one of the good things about the new Diamond policy is that it removes the necessity of having to worry if my product is commercial or not because it will now start from a default state of non-commercial. If I want to make something commercial, I have to work very hard and meet certain formulaic benchmarks – strong suggestions that tend to include the word “should.” And, if I want to measure my success by a financial metric, these benchmarks are damn near necessary.

A central tenet of business planning is that the person who takes on the most risk stands to gain the most reward. The trick, then, is to identify the risk in the equation, because the reward will be directly keyed to the risk. It may not always be obvious, but it will be there. And, if there is no obvious reward, there probably isn’t a reason to take the risk.

In comics publishing (and publishing in general), the risk comes from printing – literally, creating a hard copy that can be sold and consumed in the most convenient fashion. So printing costs are the risk, sales are the reward and convenience is the hook. Notice that content doesn’t factor into the equation.

The truth is that content is free. I can (and do) publish the content for nothing. It’s easy to do and there is absolutely no risk associated with it. And, by any realistic financial scale, there is no measurable reward. Fair enough. But if my criteria for success is “to have people read my material,” then free content is not an obstacle to overcome – but a measurable means to an end.

The reward comes from the convenience of having the story continue. For example, book one will run until May. Book two will not start as a webcomic until January of 2010. But, if you get to the end of book one and do not want to wait seven months, you can buy the next book immediately.

Posted 5 years, 8 months ago at 6:26 am.

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Thinking out loud about the attention economy

For those that have not been paying attention (which would be most of you, because it really doesn’t affect you directly), diamond comics distributor has raised the sales limits on the books that it will allow in their catalogs. This is huge, because diamond is the only distributor for comic books in North America, period. The new rule is that if a book does not get $2,500 worth of sales, the solicitation will get pulled.

what this does, in all practicality, is destroy direct marketing to comics shops as an avenue for small print-run publishers (like myself). As it turns out, I really wasn’t counting on diamond distributors as a sales avenue in the first place. But even if I was, the door has closed.

So what does this mean? Well, it means that if people like me want to get noticed, we have to get creative. Which is where the attention economy comes into play? I was struck by this yesterday, when I went to the webcomic list and saw how much noise there was on the page – how many different kinds of comics there were competing for my eyeballs and my attention.

My first thought was that in this environment, advertising revenue becomes a kind of closed loop, where the money gets passed from people seeking to advertise to people who want to keep their visibility up. Getting into that ecosystem is worthwhile to a point, but what point?

I have this refrain running through my head – “abandon all hope of profit, ye who enter here.” essentially; this refers to the fact that small print publishing is not an inherently profitable enterprise. For this reason, the people who do it have to work for the love of the medium without regard for eventual reward. It’s a crazy thing to do, but the whole point is that if you are not compelled to do this, you probably shouldn’t.

Another phrase that this brings to mind comes from the Tao of Steve – “be without desire.” in this case, I modify that slightly into “be without concern for profit.” in the attention economy, money is not just a distant concern; it is almost an unachievable goal. Once you realize that it’s not attainable, it becomes easy to be unconcerned with it. And by disregarding money as the goal, commercial concerns go out the window as well. All of which can become enormously liberating, from a content point of view.

Going back to the Tao of Steve, I wonder if the rest of the tenets from that philosophy have any relevance in the attention economy. Number two is “be excellent.” as it turns out, Scott McCloud’s four tenets for up-and-coming comics artists (learn from everyone, follow no one, watch for patterns and work like hell) dovetail perfectly here. So, yes. Do good things and produce good content.

On to number three, which is where the Tao of Steve becomes problematic. “Retreat, for as Heidegger says, ‘we pursue that which retreats from us.’” it would not be wrong to point out that I’m still parsing this one, because it is so massively counter-intuitive. I want people to notice what I have produced and, ideally, to read it as well.

Obviously, one of my favorite approaches to problem solving is to find other viewpoints and match them up to the problem at hand in the hopes that someone else’s answers might inform my own. To this end, Kevin Kelly’s concept of intangible generatives that cannot be reproduced at no cost come in very handy. Of these, the concept of findability – where “being found is valuable” – is the most relevant. And retreating, in this context, seems like a very bad idea. It is absolutely the worst thing to do in this situation.

But this is the Tao we’re talking about. The inherent paradox is what makes it worth considering. And, in an age where broadcast becomes synonymous with spam, I’m starting to wonder if the idea of exclusivity – content that is only available to those “in the know” becomes more attractive.

I don’t know. But I’m thinking really hard.

Posted 5 years, 8 months ago at 2:47 pm.

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