Thursday, September 28, 2006

Oceanside Soo Bahk Do

Recently with my not-so-copious free time I've managed to construct a website for my martial arts studio back home in California, Oceanside Soo Bahk Do ( As I'm currenlty in Boston, I don't have the pleasure to train back there too often, so it was nice to be able to contribute in this way at least (I currently train at Boston Classical SBD).

It's been interesting going back and forth with my teacher, Ted Mason Sa Bom Nim, in constructing the site, since he's really the epitome of "humble martial artist." While he, and many others at our school, are tremendously impressive, he also leaves things out like the fact that he was instrumental in the establishment of Soo Bahk Do in Argentina.

The story as I understand it is that an Argentinian Tae Kwon Do practitioner came to America to learn martial arts and had been swindled out of money by a Tae Kwon Do school. He had read a letter that Master Mason wrote in Karate Illustrated and then tracked down our school. Master Mason took him in, trained him with next to no cost, and sent him back with plenty to share with his countrymen. He then persuaded many Tae Kwon Do schools in Argentina to convert to Soo Bahk Do, leading to a huge following there. Apparently they refer to my teacher as the "godfather" of Argentian SBD down there (he went for their anniversary several years back, only to be welcomed with banners strung across the streets. He was rather embarrassed, though I'm sure quite proud as well).

Of course, he'd never put this on the site. So, I figure that's what students are for, to brag for you.

Anyhow, that studio has been my second home for over half my life now, so I'm glad I can provide it a home on the web.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Playing with Reality and Limitations

While watching the local Boston public channel I stumbled across the end of a documentary about photography that "plays with reality". I only caught the last artist profiled, but his work was so amazing I had to find him online and post about it.

His name is Arno Rafael Minkkinen, and while seeing his photos I was literally watching TV with my jaw hanging open. Most all of his works are "self-portraits" where he uses his body in combination with nature to create truly unusual and amazing images.

On the documentary, he was talking a lot about how limitations can provide you with proper constraints to do things that are remarkable (he uses no digital tools or manipulation). I think this applies to many aspects of artistry, and of the human mind. In language, the constraints and limitations of our grammar make it so that we can understand each other. Breaking those rules makes problems occur.

I actually prefer constraints in artistry. It shows that one has a control and mastery over the specific set of rules and limitations that one is faced with.

Japanese arts do this a lot. Their poetry is highly structured with syllabic restrictions and content requirements (as in Haiku and Waka). The same is true of Noh and Kabuki plays, as well as traditional Japanese music. Indeed, the shakuhachi (a Japanese flute) "sheet music" uses Japanese characters that indicate finger positions only – not tonal notes. So, when musicians play correctly, they are encouraged strictly to do the proper fingering and head motions. The sound that comes out might be different for every player and every flute, and this is considered beautiful.

In terms of "comic" creation, this same tension appears in the "Infinite Canvas" versus standard formalism debates. Though I might be grouped in with Formalists, I think I prefer working with a structured page size most of the time. It gives me the proper constraints to then be creative within. If I recall correctly, at his MIT lecture, Scott McCloud intimated some of his own reflections about limitations. His preference for an Infinite Canvas stemmed from the idea that while limitations are good to have for art, self-imposed ones are better than those that come from sheer circumstance (like the size of a page having come from the history of printing). I intend to return to this idea once I ever get around to finishing off my next Comixpedia piece on visual language poetry (uh... hopefully soon).

In any case, go check out the work of Arno Rafael Minkkinen; it's well worth the time spent.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Comic Strip Artist's Kit, and more

In the "tools for comic making with some thought behind it" category comes this blog, Temple of the Seven Golden Camels, by storyboarder Mark Kennedy. He's been posting several good entries of advice for cartooning and comic creation. Much of his thoughts come from Disney animators, as that seems to be where he works (or did work… not entirely sure).

Of particular interest was this Comic Strip Artist's Kit by famous Disney artist Carson Can Osten, which reminded me of Wally Woods 22 Panels that Always Work.

Like 22 Panels…, these pages contain tips for creation, described as being "created to help beginning comic artists deal with perspective problems and other drawing difficulties." It also seems to have been an industry meme that eventually had some parts end up in the book The Illusion of Life. Over seven pages he identifies several common problems that creators face in framing and representation, and then offers solutions and tips all around. Kindly, the pages are all downloadable in large printable sizes.

Other notable posts include these: One, Two, on Composition by illustrator Rowland B. Wilson. These also are downloadable and have some good advice in them, though they are less theoretical in my opinion than the Osten pages.

He also has a whole series on Design and Drawing. One of his comments stood out at me, because it contrasts with the opening sentiments of McCloud's chapter on character design in Making Comics. Kennedy advises in drawings to avoid symmetry, saying ," The human eye doesn't like symmetry. It's lifeless and boring." Contrast this to McCloud who calls symmetry "Life's Calling Card."

In other places, he and McCloud share opinions, like with proportions in frames, to which they both advise against symmetry and placing the focal action right in the center (though McCloud notes its uses as well).

As this post might intimate, the site is full of interesting posts and one can easily take up quite a lot of time reading it. Go: Read!

Update 9/22: It's been pointed out to me that Josh Farkas has created PDF downloads of many of Kennedy's writings and posted items. Lots easier than downloading all those jpgs at the blog, but still recommended to read the original posts too.

Making Comics by Scott McCloud

For those who have been living in a cave the past summer, Making Comics is Scott McCloud's latest offering; a how-to book on the process of comic creation. I've had my copy for about a week, but wanting to give it a good thorough read-through before commenting (as well as juggling it with reading about statistics and developmental psychology), I'm only now finally posting some thoughts on it.

Perhaps returning to familiar ground is a good place to start. Not infrequently I've noticed, I have been wrongly anonymously-quoted as saying that Understanding Comics was a how-to book, and I think MC helps make a clearer distinction. UC is a book of theory, but like the start of any good field's theories (which it is, both good and a starting point) it begins with what is most accessible to people's intuitions. From this, you can go in two directions: theory and practice.

Take for instance nouns and verbs. One can use nouns and verbs to better understand how to be a good writer (like in English class), or you can use them to analyze the deeper structures of how language works (like in linguistics). Comparable is the idea of panel transitions. In UC, McCloud took a very theoretical approach to dissecting and analyzing them, while in MC he (kinda) uses them as a tool for praxis. Both are valid ways of using that theory.

And from the basis of UC these two paths should now be clearer. With MC, McCloud has gone the route of English class, essentially becoming a "visual language instructor." I've primarily gone the linguistics route, diving into theoretical waters and ultimately critiquing the initial theories that McCloud set the tone with (though, while maybe not always as immediately recognizable as McCloud's, even my theories have a practical application too).

As always, as an author McCloud is a treat to read. His drawings looked fantastic and polished, yet, part of me wished he returned to the greys he used in Reinventing Comics, which gave nicer tone difference to the black of the line art and would have been softer on the eyes than his faux-screentones.

The footnoting of every referenced image on every page was tedious and annoying (and better served by the then redundant end section). It made things seem awfully cluttered at times. I liked that he had endnotes and drawing activities, though I would have preferred the activities to be drawn (or have "worksheet style pages" rather than just a listing in text).

Though well executed, Chapters 1 and 2 I felt were a little long because of how dense they were. Each had many subsections (and subsections of subsections), and it would have benefited from broader "book sections" for each, then subdivided into chapters per sub-topic. This might have allowed McCloud to breathe a little more for each one and really go further in depth. Despite the great probing he does, you can tell he's just scratching the surface of his thinking.

I loved his "Choice of moment" discussion of events carried out by panels, represented by connecting the dots of an overarching event. Particularly interesting was how he seemed to equate different parts of the visual sequence explicitly to different words. It reminded me at least a little of how linguistic semantics uses one language to describe the meanings of another (the idea being that if something can be said in one, its equivalent can be found in the other, implying all the while that the two are equal in expressive power). It was very interesting to see how he changed his description of the sequence with each change in panels.

What was also particularly intriguing about this discussion was that it betrayed an internal conflict within McCloud's approach to sequential meaning. While McCloud does include his taxonomy of panel transitions from UC in MC, he uses them sparingly in scattered amounts throughout. Now, I've been a critic of transitions and closure (which surprisingly hardly appears at all in MC), but a simple difference in my theoretical approach to McCloud's is just one of scope. While transitions simply relate one panel to another, a broader look at sequences admits that they form a holistic sequence.

Unlike his panel transitions, this "dots" depiction implies this same sentiment of mine that a sequence composes a contiguous whole event based around an intended expressive idea. Things like his lengthy (and excellent) discussion of "establishing shots" actually damage the idea of transitions, as they also rely on a functional relation to the whole sequence, and would have trouble being placed in a transitional approach (especially when the establishing shot itself is broken up into several panels).

Another theme of the book (and talking to him in person) is how self-deprecating McCloud is about his own work. He consistently expresses that his own work isn't quite good enough, and that is why he's writing a how-to book: to teach himself. As I told him in person, I think this is pure baloney.

In the words of his own "Four Tribes." analysis, I feel that McCloud isn't fessing up to his own Formalist identity, and critiquing his own work from the perspective of an Animist or Classicist. Part of the benefit of this theory is in understanding the inherent subjectivity of how one perspective views another.

He interestingly footnotes that much of his instruction in the books is teaching how to be an Animist, and in reflection seems to be what McCloud wishes he was more of. In some ways I feel that this is a case of "outside type envy," believing that you should be that which you're not because the other might thereby seem better (and might be more prevalent and thus louder in expressing their distaste at things). On the one hand, it's good to respond to criticism and grow as a creator beyond where you already are. On the other, it's good to embrace what's good about yourself for who you are (and for McCloud, there's lots), and it's quite alright to tell people to fuck off and enjoy their own camp without being so prejudicial to that which is different from their preferences.

That said, I should say that any of my gripes about the theoretical underpinnings of the book are tangential to the practical aspects for which the book was intended. In fact, I was a bit surprised there wasn't more theory in it, given that many theoretical observations that have been in his live talks of late didn't make it into the book.

For what the book purports to do though – instruction – it excels at. While I was able to scrape together what I feel was pretty good tools for learning when I was younger, this is certainly a book I would have loved to have when I was first starting out as a comic author.

This also taps into the concerns some reviewers have expressed regarding the book's audience. It certainly doesn't seem to be for people who can't draw at all, but rather for those who already have at least a base understanding and ability. It isn't a "foreign language class" that teaches you from ground up.

Rather, it’s a "(visual) language arts" class that teaches you to hone the intuitions you already have. McCloud strives to take what you have and make you better. He certainly lives up to his side of this equation, and hopefully the rest of us readers can live up to ours.

Other reviews I found interesting:

TCJ Forum
Stephen Frug

Monday, September 18, 2006

Tim and Time

So, well timed for my new essay, "Time Frames... or Not", on why panels don't equal moments (and time does not equal space), Tim Godek posts this excellent and simple example of a temporal paradox. (I'm not reposting it here because the file size is rather large, so go look yourself!)

Since the three "moments" of the event happen across the same background, a "temporal map" reading would force the foreground figure to be hovering in front of the background, or, the background shifting behind the character. I think that we're forced to reconcile that the person is doing an action that occupies a singular space (i.e. sitting and thinking) while the background does not remain consistent behind that static foreground space. So, either fore/background is shifting or it creates a paradox of temporal progression where we parse the foreground figure in his own "conceptual space" separate from the background.

This also relates back to the "positive/active" versus "negative/passive" elements I talked about in my "A Visual Lexicon" paper. I think what makes this strip work without a "shifting" interpretation is that the Tim character is Active in the sequence compared with the Passive background. So, our focus of attention is held on him rather than on the consistency and oddness of the background.

In either reading, there is something in the content that illicits a "not normal" reading (i.e. moving when sitting vs. static yet background conflict). If anyone finds more of these temporal paradox type examples, definitely send them my way.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

McCloud at MIT

Well, it seems that nothing brings together comics-folk like a good long Scott McCloud lecture. Scott gave his lecture at MIT tonight to a packed house to promote his latest book Making Comics (which I just finished reading... review coming soon).

We got there fairly early, so I actually got a nice long chat in with him before things got too crazy. It's been awhile since I've gotten the opportunity to chat with Scott, so I was greatful for the chance. As I intimated, lots of comics folk turned out, and several of us went out to dinner afterwards...

Present were the "Comixpedia quartet" (upper left) of Bryant Paul Johnson, Me, Alexander Danner, and Kelly Cooper, along with the ever-entertaining duo of Jeph Jacques and his girlfriend Cristi. Along the bottom are some friends of Kelly's and one lucky comic fan who we adopted for the evening. (Hmmm...there's something kinda fun about being able to link nearly everyone you had dinner with).

The evening was quite fun and reminded me of college when I used to get together with a bunch of people in the Bay Area comics scene. Hopefully we'll have similar gatherings in times to come.

** Bonus linguistics observation of the talk: McCloud made a great noun to verb conversion with "breadcrumbing" (i.e. making a path for people to follow). **

Monday, September 11, 2006

Eloquence on 9/11

I really didn't do much to think about memorializing 9/11 today. I saw them lowering the flags to half mast on campus this morning, and besides that it persisted in and out as a passing thought in my mind throughout the day. However, the most eloquent speech on the subject that I have found was spoken by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann tonight. Not only am I finding him to be of the best caliber journalists on TV these days, but, in an era applauding "plainspokenness" over "eloquence," Keith is also one of the most stirring in his words.

I encourage everyone to watch.

(Linked video from the excellent Crooks and Liars)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Essays on "Narrative Art"

Rob Vollmar has an ongoing essay up about "narrative art" on his blog, currently serialized in three parts:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

It seems like he might be going somewhere with it, but as someone who has studied a little of cognitive neuroscience (and hopefully will be doing direct research on it very soon) I am a bit put off by his continued invocation of right/left brain distinctions. So little of the brain's functioning is known that it is easy to make broad sweeping claims about it and hard to say anything truly substantial. It might seem like a picky thing, but it struck a nerve for me...

It is easy to be enticed by the desire to discuss the brain. After all, it is the hidden key to understanding human activity, and I can see how mentioning it lends a feeling of legitimacy totalks of "narrative art." However, in most discussions (like here), it is largely irrelevant. "Word, images, and writing" can adequately be described and interestingly discussed as human behavior without invoking vague pop-psychological discussions of the brain, especially for his "historical" aims.

It is very hard to make claims about neurological activity (like that "narrative art" involves right or left brain activity and/or their interactions) without some sort of experimentation. Hell, it's hard to make conclusive claims about the brain even with experimentation! (…which is partially what makes it so intriguing to study)

At this point in studies about "narrative art," (as Vollmar calls it) just discussing the functions, of how image and text work together is enough to provide fascinating reading. Vollmar clearly has intuitions that can lend to interesting observations about this topic. I hope that his future writings can tap more directly into them.

In both scholarly and public avenues, I often get asked about "comics" and the brain. The fact of the matter is, no one knows anything (yet). I know of no studies addressing it at all (yet). At this point it is wholly conjecture, and a big blank white page on which to paint any number of discoveries (or tabulate data, as the case may be).

With that I will now turn to sleep, so I can wake tomorrow, begin this adventure called "grad school," and aim to hopefullly build some contributions to this neuro-comics discussion before too long.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

New Essay: Time Frames... Or Not

Wow, its been a really long time since I last posted a new downloadable essay. Well, if you've been anxiously awaiting one, today is your lucky day! I've just posted my latest theoretical offering, "Time Frames... Or Not," where I tackle the assumptions that lead to the (false) belief that successive panels equal moments in time. Here's the full abstract:
The juxtaposition of two images often produces the illusory sense of time passing, as found in the visual language used in modern comic books. While this linear sequence may seem on the surface to present a succession of individual moments, the understanding of graphic narrative is hardly so simple. This paper will explore how the linearity of reading panels and the iconicity of images create various assumptions about the conveyance of meaning across sequential images relation to space and time.

Astute and long-time readers of this blog will remember that I mentioned writing this paper way back in January of this year. Its good to finally get it done and out!

Like many, I'll be back to school come Tuesday, so hope you all enjoy the day off!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class

As long as I'm doing politically oriented posts, I've been meaning for a while to plug Thom Hartmann's new book Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class -- And What We Can Do About It.

Thom is, of course, the author of the political book I illustrated We the People: A Call to Take Back America, and is a great writer (and radio host. If you listen to talk radio, he's easily accessed on via iTunes webradio). Alas, his latest offering isn't in "comic form," but I'm sure it'll be a good read nonetheless. Thom often talks about these issues on his radio show, so I imagine the book to be a lucid expansion of those ideas he hits on frequently.

The Power of Nightmares

For anyone that is interested in the state of the world today related to American politics and terrorism, I highly recommend watching this BBC documentary on the concurrent rise of the neo-conservative movement and Islamic terrorism over the past fifty years.

The documentary is downloadable in three parts and is rather long (one hour per installment), but it is definitely worth watching. Not only will you learn the history of these movements, but you'll also see how supremely weak grounded both ideologies and movements are. Seriously, it is worth setting aside the time to watch them (as well as contemplating these issues in relation to other things like, say, the military industrial complex and corporate personhood).