Saturday, May 30, 2015

Saturday Revue May 30th: Xibalba

Hurry, Hurry, Come See The Show!
Come Take A Walk On The Wild Side

Gods, dreams and visions. An epic unfolding. A fascinating tale. That is Xibalba, a tale of fates intertwining.
Penned by a creator by the nom de plume of Xibalbansleeper, the comic can be found here.

The Rating

Some clever ideas, but this traveler still has a long way to go.

The Raves

The first thing that impressed me was the site design. I would LOVE to be this good at site design. And design is the strongest point of this comic; a good sense of layout and page design helps move the story along.

There's also some interesting experiments with  intersecting storylines. Oh, and experiments with drugs by the characters; make of that what you will.

 The story delves into Mayan mythology, and takes it in several interesting directions; I always enjoy seeing people try out new things with myth, including poking fun at it. In this case, it's a rain god admitting that he keeps certain areas in drought to ensure worship, which tweaked my sick funny bone just a bit.
There's a good sense of momentum to the layout of this story, keeping it moving at a nice jog. It feels a lot like a movie, in fact; clean, simple and direct. The color palette keeps things moving as well, with a nice change in hues keeping clarity between the two intersecting storylines; a nice touch.

The Razzes

I can sum up my complaints about this comic in one unpleasant word: FLAT. FLAT, in both storytelling and art.
In storytelling, it's an issue of depth: we have two intersecting storylines, one about a girl lost in a desert and one about a hunter. But aside from a few action scenes in one and delusions in the other, we're honestly not given much of a reason as readers to care. I have a feeling strips to come will solve this issue, but as of yet, the story isn't doing much.
The flatness issue in the art is rather worse. The creator has great ideas, but they have yet to discover how to add depth and contrast to their art, and as a result, you get strips like these.

You get the feeling in these  strips that there SHOULD be movement. There SHOULD be a lot of emotion conveyed in these strips. But what you're getting is essentially flat still life's, impossible to connect with emotionally or humanistically. The drawing style lacks humanity, and it lacks movement.

BUT! Take heart, readers and creators, if that's the problem, there is a solution!

To the optical center of the eye, the whole world is shapes. What makes those shapes dynamic and full of depth is a two fold quality: movement, and depth. Movement and depth are what visually distinguish something like a concrete road from something like a flowing stream. Now, as comic artists, we can't directly capture movement, but we can convey it through two techniques; shading and gesture line.


Shading is to the comic artist what a chisel is to the stone mason. It's the difference between a living, dynamic object and a flat line.  Shade more, and you get a greater sense of depth. Shade in the center of two lines, add highlights on top, and you have a sense of deep water. Use shading to make your world pop.


To create more realistic and mobile figures, begin a drawing with gesture lines.
Every pose of every animal with a spine can be described as a series of curving lines, usually the line of the spine. A good rule of thumb is, rather than beginning with the 'pose', to begin with these gesture lines and build the pose around them. The lines help make sure that your poses seem alive and fluid rather than stiff.
The last thing I'd suggest is some serious study of human facial anatomy. Expressions lose a lot of their power when the underlying bone and muscle structure of the face is wrong.
I've attached links below for pages that I drew the above tutorials from along with a few extras; I hope they're useful.

The Revue

Xibalba has a long way to go artistically, but hang in, it'll get there!

The Resources

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday May 23rd: Piece Of Me

Ladies And Gentlemen!
                   Let Me Introduce You

                 To A Most Interesting Fellow!
Introducing, Piece Of Me!

I've always been one of those people who has to read something with their breakfast. Time and again as a child I was told to put the book down and eat. As an adult, morning is my time to catch up on my favorite gag-a-day strips.
But you really shouldn't sip your tea when you're reading 'Piece Of Me', because you will invariably spit out said tea when you burst out laughing. And cleaning spit and tea off a phone or computer screen is no fun at all.
This romp of a strip, the creation of  Lukas Draxl, can be found here. It falls into the slice of life category, but only barely; there are plenty of fun asides and dimensional jumps to keep things interesting. And the creator's takes on life are no slouch either; their takes on the creative life and life in general will keep you grinning.

The Rating

A wonderfully dry, clever and off the wall take on life.

The Raves

Here's a good explanation of how much I enjoyed this comic: as I wrote this piece I jumped onto the page to check the url for adding here....and got distracted by the comic. Twice. I read a few strips each time before a lightbulb clicked on: 'hey, I was supposed to be WRITING about this, not READING MORE of it. I'm addicted, aren't I?' and at this point I indeed am.

From the beginning, the strip has had a wonderfully deadpan sense of humor. The oneshots usually follow a similar formula; an intelligently worded setup, followed by a witty payoff out of left field.

Though occasionally the humor is a bit more direct.

I especially recommend this comic for other comic artists and writers in the crowd, because the creator often reflects on things that fellow creators will definitely identify with. The strips regularly comment on drawing problems, writer's block, and all the other embarrassingly or painfully funny issues of living with creativity. It was one of those that made me spit out my tea laughing, by the way.
The art, despite the creator's often illustrated opinions to the contrary, is wonderfully crisp and well done, capturing scene and moment in a few graceful lines. The use of color is vibrant and lively, but I think the best feature is the slightly exaggerated facial expressions. The creator borrows a bit from the anime school of exaggeration when it comes to expression, and in 'Pieces' that works to wonderful effect, underlining jokes beautifully. But their more natural expressions are also one of my favorite things about this piece.

Oh, and as an aside, have I mentioned the Lukas is also a coder and a geek? The jokes for those two groups are just as good as the ones for comic artists. And as a quick aside, the site for 'Pieces' is GORGEOUS. I particularly covet the design of the archives page, which makes finding things wonderfully easy. It makes me wish I could do more with code than...well....

The Razzes

Beautiful as the site design is, one thing CONSTANTLY got on my nerves. Webcomics have trained us to a universal truth: hit the comic image, see the next one. When I find a comic that doesn't do this, I can hear my own mental gears grind. And ESPECIALLY on a gag-a-day comic, that extra half second to scroll up a bit and use the nav buttons IS A PAIN. Note to creator: Please, please use those coding-god superpowers and let the reader click the bloody strip to go forward.
Aside from that small coding glitch, I found the occasional joke just tried too hard and didn't pan out, though that does happen to everyone occasionally.

 And I hope the creator's girlfriend is really, really understanding, because she ends up looking like a twit more often than not in the comic rendition of her, and it's a little sad to see. At the beginning of the comic, there was a little more variety of joke, with some recurring features: Fun With Hitler and The More You Know, for instance. But over time, they petered down to a single feature, 'Actual Conversations With my Girlfriend'. I'd really like to see some of that variety come back. Give the poor lady a break!

The Revue

Definitely one that goes on my personal reading list. But I'll set my teacup down first...

Monthly Mattinee May: The Dragon In Your Head

Ladies And Gentlemen!
  Boys And Girls!
               Come One,            Come All! 

This Month: Be Amazed And Terrified, 
By The Dragon Of The Mind!

"Why do they hate us?"
Have you ever had to answer this for a child? Or maybe you had to explain when asked 'why am I different?' 'why are the other kids so mean?' My own mother was faced with the terrible question 'why can't I be like everybody else?!' asked by a tearful seven year old.
So why do we ostracize the different? Why do racial slurs continue to be popular even in this enlightened era? Why do people continue to be beaten and killed because they're the wrong color or love the wrong person? Why do people join gangs 'just to belong' and then kill somebody who's wearing the wrong color? Why do ethnic wars go on for HUNDREDS of years?

Oh, and why am I writing about this on a blog dedicated to the craft of webcomics?

Unfortunately, all these disparate questions have the same answer...and it's hard wired in.
It's called tribalism, and it's one of the base functions of the reptilian brain. And I'm writing about it because it is, sadly, one of the driving forces in storytelling today, shaping characters and plots in many stories. Maybe it shapes the characters in your own creations as well.

The reptilian brain, or brain stem, sits under what makes us human, the neocortex and the mammalian brain.

Art by Antonio Menza
It is deep and hard and old, and it is ineffably patient. It doesn't forget. It is the dragon of our psyche, coiled around our roots. There it lies and growls to itself; 'this is mine, all this is mine, and if you touch what is mine I will tear your flesh and break your bones. No one touches what is MINE."
And like a dragon, it's strong. It's frightening how much of our actions, our hates, and our wars are under the dragon's control. It's terrifying how many rivalries are STILL going on based on things like this:
"They took my grandaddy's farm. After the war, we had nothing." -kkk
"This is our land, and they're taking it. God gave it to us." -Israel/Palestine
"They took our home from us and made us slaves within it."-The Irish Troubles
The list goes on. And why? Because it feels good to belong, to have a tribe, and even to have a tribal grievance. Look at the Wailing Wall if you doubt me.
The Brain Works Project sums it up nicely: " One of the most primitive ways reptilian coping brain seeks to protect us is joining forces with others. Among teenagers or adults it might be joining a gang. Or we may desire to compete so we “win” or dominate another school in athletic games. College or professional sports teams are examples of how the reptilian brain urges us toward tribalism...Reptilian tribalism also strengthens our social identity, by being part of a social group, nation, religion, political party, etc. Another type of territorial behavior is excluding and criticizing others who are different from us and outside of our group."
And because it feels good to belong, we make a point of excluding 'the other'. They are OUTSIDE. We are INSIDE. That's why racial slurs stay popular; it's a way of forcing another human being to be an object, a 'lesser' being, which makes the user 'greater', right? Yeah. That's what the dragon's whispering in your ear. No one wants to say 'they're different, and that scares me.' The dragon never wants to look weak.The dragon in us makes itself strong by making others weak, morally, culturally, or physically. Any way it can. When you look down at somebody else, it's so easy to feel taller.

For those of you who think it's all about skin color,
 here's a tip: not all that long ago,
 the Irish people weren't 'white' either.

Because it is such an integral and driving force in our phsyche, the dragon rears its head in thousands of stories....but some handle it better than others. As creators and as readers, the trick is to find stories that fight the dragon rather than feeding it.

When comics began in America in the 1920's, it was one of the WORST media forms for feeding the dragon. Because it is a storytelling form based in pictures and lending itself towards clean, simple ideas (and because our culture at the time allowed it) comics and cartoons regularly used racial stereotypes, treating them as a given and acceptable part of life. Naturally people of German descent had big bellies, replaced every 'w' in their speech with a 'v', and fell down a lot. Of course anyone with African ancestry had lips like inner-tubes and wasn't very smart. And anyone from the Emerald Isle was by their very nature hot headed, drunk and lazy. Comics like Jiggs, Happy Hooligan, Tin-Tin and Lil' Abner perpetuated stereotypes for endless ad nauseum slapstick.  
World War II didn't exactly encourage cultural understanding and respect either, and neither did our comics. As Japanese-Americans were carted off to internment camps, people read Captain America and Beetle Bailey.  The message was, basically:


Minorities were used to fill roles: servants, enemies, amusing sidekicks to great white heroes. But they weren't treated as people.

It wasn't until the 1960s that race was brought up as an issue in the comic industry. Stan Lee (say what you will about his other issues) made great strides with the Xmen comics, but there's still a long way to go.
But today, there are are a plethora of comics that explore race and ethnic issues in powerful ways.  Just in print comics, I can list:

to name only a very few.

In webcomics, the exploration has exploded in thousands of directions penned by thousands of artists.
But there are good ways and bad ways to go about it, and some approaches, made by well meaning people, actually encourage and perpetuate stereotypes in subtle ways.
So how do we fight the dragon as readers and creators?
Here's some tips. 

 *Person First, Concept Second

It's not a hard rule: never, ever, EVER create a character who's just there to look interesting. Never create a character only there to prove a point. And NEVER create a flat character.
Too often, characters are added conceptually, in a burst of aesthetic interest. 'oh, I want to draw an aztec princess. Aztec princesses look cool'.
Okay, an idea can START that way. 'I'd love to draw an aztec princess' is a fine first thought. But the following thought should be 'I wonder where  I can get the research I need' rather than 'I wonder what she'd wear...' Too many characters have been created simply to look exotic, and that leads to terrible cases of cultural appropriation and cultural disrespect. Disney is one of the most widely known culprits in this area, but it happens all over the place. You want to work with a culture? Fine. Get to know it on a deeper level. Get beyond 'looks cool'.
WRONG WAY: Aladdin
Right Way: Habibi 

And go beyond race too. NOBODY should have an identity based solely on their ethnicity. It can be important, crucial even, to their personality, but make sure they HAVE a personality. Make them people with lives, interests, creative ideas, loves and hates. NOBODY should be simplified down to a stand in for their race, a plot point, or a bit of atmosphere.
And never, ever, EVER,EVEEEERRRRRRR create a character 'because my story needs some diversity.' It's a noble idea, but characters created for this reason often end up flat and painfully empty of any real meaning, which can come off as an insult to the very people they were supposed to represent and respect. That, to me, is the absolute WORST result you can end up with: a cultural farce protected by the thin veneer of 'diversity'.
My main point here: write a person with a history, not a cultural idea attached to a face.

* R-E-A-S-E-A-R-C-H!!!!!!!!!!!!

Write What You Know is a golden rule. But too many people take that to mean 'write less.' NOOOOOO! LEARN TO KNOW MORE! 
Do fantastic research. And not just Google. Go to the library. Don't just read the history and sociology stuff; that's often written by academics and outsiders. (but do read the boring sociology stuff, it can be surprisingly useful) Read the novels of the group you're interested in on your spare time. Interested in the Navajo culture? Read Tony Hillerman. Interested in Mexican culture? Read 'The Sea Remembers'.
Here's a personal example: I co-write and illustrate the webcomic Parmeshen, an alternate-earth  fantasy based around two main characters.
One of the characters comes from a culture I based loosely on the Romani people. Yes, the idea did begin as 'cool! Gypsies!'. Most ideas are pretty weak in their infancy, like any baby. But then I did my research, starting with googling Romani musicians, artists and writers. I read every history I could find, read Romani poetry and stories, and got ahold of Romani music to listen to while I'm drawing. I tracked down discussions of Romani life written by the people themselves. I joined a Roma Rights facebook group and if I'm ever unsure I go there and respectfully ask questions.
It's hard work, but it's worth it. And I ended up with a culture which, while it definitely isn't Romani, also isn't a badly thought out and thinly veiled stereotype. Even if your world is fantasy, do your research. 

*Know Your Character's Relationship To Race

Once you know all the details, decide: how does your character feel about them? No group is homogenous on a topic as fraught as race. Not all blacks are indignant, not all Indians are proud. Know how your character's ethnicity has affected their character, their outlook, and their actions. Because whether you know it or not, how you look does effect you, through other people. If people have looked at your character with scorn all their lives, how has that made them feel? Some people get angry, but some just get self conscious, scared even. Or maybe they were raised in a part of the world where race isn't an issue, and they're being faced with discrimination for the first time. How much of a shock would that be? How would your character react to this sudden injustice?
Get beyond the 'my people' point of view, and find out how your character really feels.

*Know YOUR Relationship To Race

Now here's the real toughie. How are you really feeling as you read this? How are you really reacting to writing a culture? Are you bringing your own baggage to the table? Well, of course you are. The dragon in your head  is down there, whispering 'they're not like you, that means they're a threat.' But if we consciously know that, we can face it. Be aware of your own story as you tell others'.

I try to be very aware of this. I'm half Irish and half Menominee tribe, and was raised on the
Menominee reservation to the age of 11. Throughout my childhood, my Irish skin was a distinct badge of shame. Nobody tried to be cruel (okay, some kids, but kids are universally evil) but conversations and comments were regularly passed about 'the whites' and I very quickly got a personal narrative of being somehow 'watered down', a defective version, tainted by white blood.  To this day I feel anxious talking about race, afraid deep down that I'll be called an imposter, a mongrel. I also got a cultural narrative of oppression. So when I write, I have to consciously THINK 'don't write another noble person oppressed by the cruel world story. And don't write another freak cast out by the cruel world story either. This is a person, they aren't all good or all bad.'  I watch out for my own personal assumptions creeping into the story. Not all cops are bad, I remind myself. You don't need to walk around with a chip on your shoulder just because you have history, I tell myself. I examine myself as I tell a story, to make sure I'm telling THE story, not MY story.
Be ruthless with yourself. Examine your assumptions, your cultural views. Where did you get them? Are they still valid? If you find an answer you don't like, fix it.

If we write like this, we can fight the dragon rather than feeding it. Maybe one day, we can help people see all of humanity as 'one of our kind'. That's worth striving for.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday May 17: Doomsday, My Dear

Ladies and Gents! Grab the Popcorn

You're in for a show with 'Doomsday, My Dear'!

Okay, I'll begin this review with a warning: hide the kiddies, this one's mature. Not only is there blood and gore (for some reason our culture has defined indiscriminate killing without thought of consequences as 'mature') but the themes are deep, dark, and convoluted. This isn't ameture hour, ladies and gentlemen. This is V for Vendetta without the easy moral rights and wrongs.
You were warned.
The story revolves around a genetic mutation that causes a disease in the offspring of those who carry it. These 'carriers' are immediate targets for cultural terror and hatred, for their disease costs not only the lives of their children, but of every infant who comes in contact with them. You can imagine the social turmoil. And unfortunately when a culture is stirred up, all the nasty stuff comes floating to the surface.
In Doomsday, we follow several interconnected lives and trials as people try to navigate a new and terrible reality, one where the government has awful powers given to it by terrified mob rule, and the wrong dna will get you killed, or worse.
This fascinating, intriguing and disturbing comic can be found here.

The Rating

A tour de force

The Raves

I don't often find a comic that handles dystopia quite this well. The exposition that is used is done with intelligence and such a strong sense of humanity to the characters. Too often 'dystopia' is a fig leaf for 'blow things up because there really is no tomorrow' but you don't see that in Doomsday. Instead, there's a terrible, helpless sense of menace that cinches your heart strings, aided and abetted by really well used exposition and characterization. These characters are all nuanced, well rounded members of the human race rather than plot points. Their internal struggles are integral to the story, and as strong a motivator as the world acting upon them. It's one of the strongest things about Doomsday; the fact that it allows all characters their humanity even as some of them deny it to each other.
The plot walks the dangerous territory of the multi-pov structure, but it pulls it off seamlessly, keeping the storytelling tight, forward-moving and energetic by depicting realistic characters making difficult decisions.
The art carries that sense of dynamic movement through a strong use of color to denote mood, a quick brush-stroke style to the line work, and extremely expressive body language and use of pose. The character design, posing and page layout work together to draw out the constant theme of impending menace. Oddly, the watercolor-esque style of the comic actually enhances the mood rather than detracting from it; had it been done in a more gritty style, it would have been too easy for the work to devolve into another vigilante piece. But the art style forces you to see all characters as people, not good guys and bad guys. It also underlines the sense that the emotional and mental struggle the characters face is just as valid as the physical one, which is truly unique in the dystopian genre.

But don't worry, this heavy material is leavened by a deliciously snarky wit that will have you bursting out laughing at the oddest moments. What impressed me was that the humor also strengthened the world the artist was trying to create, because it shows normal people trying to use gallows humor as a coping tool to deal with impossible situations. In this comic, even the snappy one liners become an integral part of the storytelling.
Oh, and did I mention that the creator gives you a really wonderful head of this terrible new government to despise? Trust me, you'll love hating her.

But it's the insidious, world war 2-reminiscent anxiety that will stay with you when you close the browser window on this comic, a numbing dread that the creator has instilled in this piece with an almost painful clarity.  This isn't the Mad-Max adrenilin fed terror that lets people blow up other people without a qualm. No, the fear in this comic is the slimy, entrapping, insidious kind that turns authority rotten, that pulls friends apart, that isolates people in their own private bubbles of terror, so afraid of becoming the next target that they dumbly watch atrocity without raising a hand.  It's the kind of numb fear that lets normal people become monsters.
Doomsday not only reminds you that the world can go wrong, but shows you with painful clarity just how easy it is for good, normal people to do evil things.

The Razzes

I've got very little to complain of in this piece, if I'm honest, except for one odd quirk; when the artist depicts blood, it looks like washed out Kool-Aid. I'd like to see a little more reality there; it'd be good to be slapped in the face by that reality, especially given the circumstances.

The Revue

This is MOST DEFINITELY  one to read.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Saturday Review May 9: Tripping Over You


Fall Head Over Heels 

For 'Tripping Over You'!

Love isn't easy. Neither is college. It's hard to go through, and it's staggeringly hard to portray well. But the comic 'Tripping Over You' pulls it off with an A+ and with charm.
I have to admit, I'm biased. This is one of my favorite romance tales of all time. So apologies if I gush.
The creation of Suzana Harcum and Owen White, Tripping Over You can be found here.
The story centers around two young men as they navigate the complex steps of this dance we know as love. Milo Dunstan is a gorgeous, outgoing, witty and warmly outrageous class clown; impulsive is his middle name. The only thing he's ever been slow to act on is his love for Liam Shwartz, the quietly sardonic law student he's loved for years. And when he finally admits it, it involves alcohol, misunderstandings, and a black eye.
oooooops.....and it gets better from there.

The Rating

One of the best romance stories on the web. A must read.

The Raves

I still haven't pinned down how they do it, but this is the only 'school romance' tale I've ever read that works. And by works, I mean you're grinning as you read and archive bingeing so heavily that time loses all meaning.
I think one of the things that makes 'Tripping Over You' work so well is the tight, well-scripted writing style. A lot of the extraneous 'talking about our feelings' stuff that shows up in other school romances  is cut out here. There's no self-absorbed angstiness, though there's plenty of emotional conflict. There's no contrived struggle put in the way of the lovers to test them as you so often see in romance stories. Only their own perceptions, misunderstandings and emotions get in their way, but that's what makes this story all the more real, and all the more powerful.
 The social interactions are some of the most natural and funny I've ever read. 'Natural' is the keynote of the written dialogue as well; it reads so smoothly that you can hear it in your head. And every character is totally believable as a human being.

   Humor also plays a strong part in making this story strong.
The humor is wry, clever and 
at times verging on the sarcastic or the black,
but it's used to bring out the characters' 
humanity and breaks up scenes that could so easily
descend into painfully maudlin prose. In 'Tripping' 
humor leavens the emotional recipe and gives the reader
the breaks they need at exactly the right times. The dry wit of it also makes this one of the few romances that doesn't make you feel your IQ might be dropping as you read. It's nice to find a romance you don't start guiltily over when someone catches you reading it. Paired with wonderful writing and wit is lovely artwork that evolves along with the characters. There's a great sense of movement and pose in this piece, and a really wonderful use of lettering. And when the comic begins to use color, a whole new level of enjoyment comes in.
The great grasp of comic craft, reminiscent of  Craig Thomson in 
grasp and clarity and of Daniel Corsetto in style and skill, allows 'Tripping' to skillfully handle a wealth of really wrenching issues: self worth, social norms, sexisim, homophobia, family issues and expectations verses personal identity, to name a few. And because it's a tale told with intelligence, compassion and humor, the moments when it does deal with these subjects WORK. They come off in the creators' skillful hands as powerful rather than preachy. In fact, some of them are strong enough to leave you with tears shamelessly standing in your eyes and a lump in your throat. Under the humor, the sass and the fun, these characters are sincere: honest human beings going through real life events and overcoming real obstacles, some of the most challenging that a person can deal with. And as they deal with their problems, we, the readers, are helped to work through some of our own through them. Some of the scenes in this comic will move you, may even change you. And that's the highest praise I can give any piece of art.

The Razzes

I really have only one complaint with Tripping Over You, and that's the artistic shortcuts they regularly take. It's pretty jarring to go from a page that looks like this
to a page that looks like this
or even this
it really puts a reader off their stroke....pardon the pun. It's the only thing I have to ding, but it's a pretty big ding; this inconsistency in art style is the only reason I give a 9 rather than a 10 out of 10 to Tripping Over You.

The Revue

Among the best romances in the field. A definite must read.