The sequential art of R. M. Rhodes
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Oceanus Procellarum News


I just got the art for the cover of Book 5 of the Oceanus Procellarum series and I wanted to post it here to show it off. I also wanted to use it to point out that I am releasing Books 4 & 5 of the series concurrently, to pre-emptively answer the inevitable question “but you just put out Book 3 earlier this year, didn’t you?”

One of the things about comics as a format is that it designed to display a series of moments to the net effect of telling a story. These moments can be easily grouped at the frame level, the page level and the book level; there is as much significance and narrative power in the gutter break between books as there is between installments of a regular daily strip.

There is a scene at the very end of Book 4 that references the title of Book 5 in such a way that works better if the reader knows that Book 5 has, in fact, been published. One of the themes of the series is the idea of a character deliberately setting down a historical canonical record that does not mention everything. It’s a situation chock full of apocrypha – which happens to be a bit of a pet obsession. I’ve always wanted to write an apocryphal novel, so why not write a situation that generates the ability to include one in the story?

The best part about apocrypha is the very strict binary nature of the classification. If a work exists, it’s not properly apocryphal. This works fine for stuff that’s been physically destroyed, but it gets interesting around organizations that only recognize certain works – ie the Bible, when Church officials chose to pretend that certain books didn’t exist. It was information warfare at the most basic level and it required a serious amount of steely reserve and deep self-delusion (or a real knack for politics). But it also produced tangible examples of an apocryphal work that you can hold in your hand – a true paradox.

And that’s even before you get to Borges.

I accept that it’s probably self-indulgent to structure a series of graphic novels in such a way to enable myself to write an apocryphal novel that I can hand to you. But if you are reading Book 5 in a series about characters that remember that they’re characters when they encounter the truth in a story, this shouldn’t surprise you. After all, I’m writing a metafiction series. I figure that I might as well pack as many different kinds inside as I can.

Which reminds me – another bit of apocrypha I built into the series is the promise of Books 6, 7 & 8. Right now, they exist in an early draft and will need a lot of work before they’ll be ready for publication. I have no plans to address the first of them for at least a year – after all, Book 5 is out a year early. But I offer you the promise as a kind of apocrypha type two: the anticipated.

Posted 3 years, 11 months ago at 6:28 pm.

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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, 9 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, 9 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, 9 months ago at 2:47 pm.

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