Saturday, June 23, 2012

Comic Books Reflecting the Times

Multitalented Dave Lowe asks:

With DC annoucing the original Green Lantern will become a gay character being big news... what do you think are the top milestone moments in comic history when a book, character or story was revised to reflect the times better.

Comic book companies, or a number of creators working for comic book companies, have transformed the field to greater or lesser effect by attempting to tackle real life issues, or in other ways merge the world we live in with the world in which characters such as Batman and Spider-Man inhabit to varying degrees of success. Some of these attempts were genuine, made by creators committed to an ideal, or who felt that inserting material reflective of real world issues would add some weight to their work and also differentiate it from all the other similar cape and cowl stories being published every month. Other attempts, such as suddenly deciding and announcing that a peripheral character, such as the original Green Lantern, is now gay just feel like a grab for media attention and a sudden sales boost. People who worked for Marvel comics at the end of the 80s-beginning of the 90s used to joke that if a trend such as punk rock, or skateboarding, showed up in a Marvel comic that meant the trend had been dead for at least two years. This hasn't stopped people from trying though. 

Focusing on superhero comics and ignoring alternative comics which have always had far wider ranging subject matter, the notion of making comics more relevant seems to hit in attention getting key moments followed by lots of lesser imitation moments. One of the big attention getting moments was this:

The 70s became a time of commenting on real world politics, economics, societal and environmental concerns. Superhero comics were filled with labor disputes, student protests, commentaries on racism and equal rights, feminism, pollution, the gap between the rich and the poor, corrupt businessmen and politicians. You name it and it was bound to have appeared as something that proved to be a challenge with no clear solution for Superman or Spider-Man as opposed to the black and white conflicts between heroes and costumed villains. Even the X-Men was an allegory for the civil rights movement thinly disguised as escapist entertainment, though of course the "woe is me, mutant outcasts from humanity that were the X-Men were all good looking, came with cool, and useful powers and lived in a mansion with a private jet, which blurred the issue a bit. This trend came and went over the next few decades. Judd Winick tends to fill his stories with relevant issues, and to be honest I wrote a two-part story for The Hangman which dealt with modern slavery. With so many superhero comic books out there and with such a long history behind them, any means of inserting some sort of freshness into them is crucial, and if the headlines of today can be adapted for The Avengers, then why not do so? Superheroes are really a sub genre of science fiction and one of the prevalent things about science fiction as a whole is its ability to deal with social issues of today by transporting them to an alien society whether that means on another planet with species other than humans, or simply another time period. 

The next biggest change came in the late 1980s - early 1990s, which many of you may remember from the numerous media articles that appeared with titles such as "Bam! Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't Just for Kids Anymore." These articles came in reaction primarily to three comics that hit almost simultaneously: Maus by Art Spiegelman, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Maus was Art Spiegelman's account of his relationship to his father combined with his father's recollections of the Holocaust. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were both dystopian stories set in the near future, or futuristic, alternative earth present,and treated superheroes in a noirish manner with psychological baggage, physical infirmities, and more or less real world physics and scenarios. In many ways it took the super out of these superheroes and replaced it with a very human element. All three titles were well written and very successful. Sadly, the lesson that was gained from these books was not that comics didn't need to be hacked-out, disposable, interchangeable stories but could be well written and relevant. Instead what happened was every superhero comic, whether it lent itself to the transformation, or not, was made grim and gritty, which meant more violence, more sex. more trying to fit the superhero world into the real world. Gone were outlandish concepts and wildly imaginative escapism, in were lots of guns and drug dealers (later to be replaced by lots of terrorists). Comics were no longer "not just for kids" they weren't for kids at all, a problem which remains to this day. No one can deny that a character like Batman lends himself well to a shadowy world of corruption, and heinous crimes carried out by psychologically damaged criminals, but does Superman, Green Lantern, or Plastic Man? Instead of a wide variety of better written stories suited to the nature of the characters that occupied them, we were subjected to repetitive stories told using first person narrative captions in which all of the superheroes suddenly began acting like Batman or the Watchmen's Rorschach.  

The movement to make superhero comics better reflect real world concerns that I personally feel was the most successful, most important,  and had the  most impact was the first one which was when Stan Lee and artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko introduced a new breed of Superheroes in the 1960s who bickered with one another, worried about how they looked, girls, jobs, money, their families, and so on. Comics such as The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man were a welcome and complex contrast to the wholesome Superman-style comics of the same era. What Lee and his collaborators showed everyone was that you could have more dynamic and complex artwork, storytelling, and characters and still deliver familiar exciting clear cut good guy vs bad guy action and adventure month after month. The new villains and the fight scenes might be the superficial draw to these titles, but what kept readers coming back was really the continuing struggles of Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker, or the Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm as he tries to come to terms with being transformed into a hideous monster with a heroic and sensitive soul. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920 - June 5, 2012)

I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Ray Bradbury who has been one of my favorite authors ever since I came across a paperback copy of R is for Rocket in the school library in 5th or 6th grade. He always claimed that Fahrenheit 451 was his only science fiction novel and that his other work was all fantasy, because science fiction is about what could happen. His writing evokes something of a literary equivalent of a Norman Rockwell's nostalgic paintings of American life only with dark shadows creeping in. Bradbury's enthusiastic recollection and presentation of what being a boy was like at age eleven was not only infectious, but provided a sunny outlook that would have to struggle to overcome the encroaching dark clouds that came to visit in Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine and The Halloween Tree, three of my favorite Bradbury stories. Equally infectious was Bradbury's own enthusiasm for life and ability to remain eleven years old at heart throughout his life, which encouraged me that it was okay to still like dinosaurs and robots as an adult.

For me, the month of October, and Halloween, itself doesn't feel complete without Bradbury's presence in some form. For many years, weather permitting, I created my own Halloween tree on the front lawn to greet trick-or-treaters on Halloween night. I regret that I'd never had the opportunity to thank him in person for all of the joy and inspiration he brought to me in life, but look forward to returning to his fiction again and again.

Thank you, Ray Bradbury. Rest In Peace.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

For Those Of You With An iPad

There is a new magazine on storytelling called Backstory which looks really cool. It's also available for free. Unfortunately, at this time it is only available for the iPad (which I do not own). 

The premiere issue is now available and includes an article on "The Road to Shermer," the John Hughes tribute show that Gallery 1988 held last year and in which I participated. Part of the article is directed towards one of the pieces I did for that show. 

Details for downloading the first issue can be found just after this pretty awesome image of their first cover as well as more of the contents for issue #1. 

Let me know what you think of the magazine, because this is definitely something I'd be interested in. 

                     The Art and The Business of Storytelling
Read a script, watch a short, view an art exhibit or hear a
comedian - you can do all this plus enjoy in-depth entertainmentjournalism and more in my new digital magazine Backstory.

                 Download issue 01 for FREE on the iPad now!

A Few Issue 01 Highlights:

On the Cover: Prometheus
  • Find out how an off-the-cuff pitch led to the making of the film.
Off the Shelf: Bessie
  • Writer-director Richard Kelly discusses his unproduced, labor of love script, Bessie. Plus, read the script in its entirety.

Staged: A New Vintage of "Sideways"
  • Writer Rex Pickett chats about adapting his novel into a stage play. Plus, read the play in its entirety.

Black List Tales: Strange Skies
  • Scribe Pat Healy discusses adapting Matt Marinovich's novel, "Strange Skies," which landed his script on the fabled Black List. Plus, read the entire script.

Inside the 2011 Nicholl Fellowship
  • Full coverage of the fellowship, including the screenplay of one of the contest winners

Cinema Obscura: Mr. Nobody
  • Jaco Van Dormeal discusses his 40 million euro sci-fi film, which you probably haven't seen. Plus, read the script.
In-depth interviews
  • Featuring director Barry Sonnenfeld, actor Jeffrey Combs and producer Craig Perry
  • Writer-director Edgar Wright shows you his latest short film series, which the audience helps to create.

All this and more can be found in issue 01 of Backstory, free on the iPad for a limited time.

How to Get & Read Issue 01:

1. Type "Backstory" into the iPad's App Store.

2. Touch to download the free Backstory App.

3. Once it downloads, launch your iPad's Newsstand. Backstory will appear in the top left. Touch to launch it.

4. You're now inside the library and can see Issue 01. Touch to download it for free (use a wifi connection; it's big).

5. Swipe right to left to turn a page; swipe up and down to read an article.

6. Write in to and let us know what you think!


No iPad?

We're working hard to ensure Backstory will be available in other formats in the future. Stay tuned for updates.
Viewing this email on an iPad? Touch here to get your free issue:

Cineplex June 2012

The current issue of Cineplex, the Canadian film magazine, contains a short piece on the collage I made based on The Birds for the recent Alfred Hitchcock show at Gallery 1988. For those of you who can't obtain a physical copy of the magazine, you can also download it as a PDF through a link on the lower right on their website here.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Ask Me Anything #21

It's the first Monday of the month which means it's time for "Ask Me Anything," the monthly feature in which you get to do just that. So, if you have questions about my work, my influences, movies I may have seen, books I may have read, food I may have eaten, or anything else that I might possibly have an answer for, go ahead and ask and I'll do my best to answer.

Head down to the comment section and post your question. I'll either post my answer in the comment section as well, or answer it in a special post all its own sometime later in the month.

Please take the time to view the previous questions so that we don't wind up with a lot of repetition. I've been asked a lot of good, thought provoking questions in the past as well as some really banal ones, all of which I tried to answer. You can see the previous questions by visiting Ask Me Anything  #1#2 ,  #3#4#5#6 , #7 , #8#9,  #10,  #11,  #12 , #13#14,  #15 , #16#17 , #18 , #19 and #20.  Answers not found following the questions can be found in the archives section for each associated month under Ask Me Anything.

Now ask away.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Writing Dialogue

Travis asks: I find that whenever I try to write dialogue, I have a lot of trouble really giving it a sense of life. Do you have any advice on how to write dialogue that doesn't just feel flat?

I don't know if I'm the best person to answer this, but I'll take a crack at it. 

Dialogue needs to accomplish one or more of the following (not in any order of importance): 

1. It needs to help define the character speaking the dialogue.

2. It needs to help define the relationship between the two characters interacting.

3. It needs to provide exposition that informs the reader in a manner that should feel natural and unobtrusive while providing the reader with details that help them understand the story.

4. It needs to help move the story forward. 

In terms of comic books (and movies) much of the above can, and should, also be accomplished visually rather than through dialogue.

My best advice really is:

1. Really understand who your characters are. This makes the job much easier overall, because this understanding informs how they will act, or react, in certain situations, and how they'll interact with a wide range of other characters. It will also make it much easier for you to figure out how they'll talk.

2. Figure out what needs to be accomplished in each scene. How much of this can be done through action and how much of this needs to be covered in dialogue. 

3. What are you trying to accomplish with the dialogue? Is someone merely giving information? Are you trying to demonstrate that the two characters have a history and are either comfortable with each other or uncomfortable? 

The page above taken from Midnight, Mass. #4 (with art by Jesus Saiz, Jimmy Palmiotti and Kevin Somers and lettering by John Costanza) is just this sort of use of dialogue. The story itself is not really moved along by it, and the amount of key information that serves the plot is minor, but it establishes Harmon (with the beard) as a really unlikable person, but yet someone with enough clout that Adam and Julia,  the wealthy stars of the story, will still come and work for him even though they can't stand him. 

4. Relax. Don't try too hard. Real conversation is peppered with awkward phrases, misused words and tangents that go off subject. While I don't recommend using "um" as a comma, or "like" as it's used in common speech, using asides is okay. Because so much of my work is fantastical in nature, I try to ground the fantasy in reality by balancing the fantastic with the mundane in the conversations occurring on the page. 

In the scene above from the never published Xombi Hanukkah Special (with art by Guy Davis and Noelle Giddings) the dialogue contains exposition about the people they are on their way to see but never reach (which happen to be Adam and Julia Kadmon from Midnight, Mass. ) with some mundane asides such as directions and comments about the weather and road conditions which while seemingly inconsequential make the conversation feel more natural and more real while at the same time signaling the danger to come. 

The two examples above go about contrasting the fantastic and the mundane in a different way. Both pages add interesting visual contrasts to keep the exposition in the dialogue from feeling boring or chatty. In the top example from Midnight, Mass. #1 (with art by Jesus Saiz, Jimmy Palmiotti and Hoelle Giddings and lettering by Ken Bruzenak) the purpose was to humorously contrast with boring business, which grounds the fantastic in the real world, with the weird activity in the background. 

In the second example from Midnight, Mass. - Here There Be Monsters #2 (with art by Paul Lee and Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh and lettering by Janice Chiang) a lot of things are happening at once. An extract from a longer scene, the main action features the Kadmons dealing with a haunted severed hand and the malignant spirit inhabiting it. The main purpose is to lend visual interest to a scene in which a lot of exposition and speculation is given about a separate case which is the focus of the story as a whole. By having the characters discussing something that doesn't have anything to do with the action at hand, I'm also showing that dealing with supernatural threats is just a job to them, just as guys roofing will talk about something unrelated to what they are actually doing when they lay down a roof. The dialogue also contains material that illuminates the relationship that Adam has with his grandmother and gives hints about the mysterious nature of his absent grandfather. 

The key is to tell only what you absolutely need to to keep the reader from feeling lost and to allow them to move forward with the story, but also to tell enough so that they can fill in the missing blanks on their own, or feel like they are filling in the blanks so that they become caught up in the story enough to want to stay with it to find out if they are right. 

As long as you have that bare minimum of essential information present, you can start building your characters and the world they inhabit through the way they speak, make asides, joke, criticize, and so forth when they are exchanging this information, and will make it seem more like real people talking. This also gives you room to breathe and to allow the conversations to play out in a less forced manner, and you may discover something about what you're writing that surprises you and your readers, and adds to the quality of your story.

For myself, I find that by not planning out more than just the barest bones, I can let the characters respond to one another as well as the situations they are in in a spontaneous manner that seems to be coming more from them and less from me which also makes what they say feel more natural. When you do it this way you'll know you're doing it right when you want to have one of your characters say something and realize that they never would say what you need them to. 

Remember also that fictional characters don't really talk with one another like real people do. It's more of a stylized representation meant to approximate and suggest how real people sound when they talk with one another. Depending on the medium, the abstraction of this stylization is more or less apparent. Plays are probably the least like real speech. Comics, because the dialogue is as much a visual element as the images, are abbreviated approximations of real speech otherwise the pictures would be completely covered with dense word balloons. 

The two exercises which may help you are to go sit down in a Starbucks and eavesdrop in on a conversation happening at the table behind you. While you're listening, write down what you hear, and then later reread this as if it were a scene. What's being told in that conversation? What is essential to the scene? What's not essential, but helps define the people who are talking? What should be cut from this conversation? The other exercise is to take a pair of your characters and simply write a back and forth exchange of dialogue between them. The conversation should have absolutely nothing to do with your story. They can talk politics, discuss a book they both read, or a meal they've eaten, or gossip about someone they know. This will give you a better handle on them as characters and on how they talk and should help improve how you write dialogue. 

I don't know how much of this will really help you, or anyone, and I'm not sure how useful those examples are that I've provided. It's really just some thoughts I have on the process based on your question. Feel free to ask me more if you want me to elaborate, or add something I left out.