Been working up to this one for awhile. Been a hell of a last six weeks or so. Really been a pretty draining year up to this date. The turning of the solstice didn’t magically fix anything either (not that I expected it to — I’m a grownup.) See, there’s some things that don’t get fixed, no magic wand, no hand of God, no self-actualized inner Anima offering up the hidden wisdom until the right instant.
Some weights don’t get to be set aside so easily, no matter how much I’d like, we’d like, everyone would like. The last six months, and really several years previous to that have been rough going. So here’s the thing, which I’ve talked about with some folks in person, but not everyone and not publicly. Like I said, a weight.
There are some things that I really wouldn’t wish on anyone, but that doesn’t mean they still won’t happen to you. You don’t get to plan for them because you don’t want to even consider the possibility of them happening to you or your family. I don’t get that luxury, and believe me, it is just that.
Eleven years ago, not long after the birth of our daughter, my wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Yes, I’ve heard every single Michael J Fox joke: they’re all very funny, very clever, good work. There is not a day that has come and gone since then during which this condition has not played a part or ruled my thoughts. For some years, the external symptoms were not that visible, not that much of an impact on daily life.
That changed over time, continues to change. Medication only masks the symptoms (and in some cases creates its own side effects that are nearly as debilitating), but the disease continues unabated. The weight mounts. On everyone in the family, only I’m Mr. Mom, so I try to take it for the kids where I can. And I have to take it for my wife as well. Stubborn as she is, that only takes you so far.
So, a little more weight. I can take it. That’s my job. Pile some more on. I can take it.
Until I can’t.
Think I hit the wall several times this year. I know I did. Pretty sure I went right through it once. I don’t recommend that.
There isn’t a fix for this (though yes, I know about Deep Brain Stimulation procedures and it’s not applicable at this time). There isn’t a cure. There is only management through medication. And I’ll be honest when I say that this is the worst thing that I’ve had to go through or see anyone personally go through. I say this knowing that it’s worse for my wife and that my best efforts are momentary salves. She still works (and does a hell of a job at it) but not full-time. But it will not get better.
When you see the present, particularly a present that you’re having a hard time dealing with, and you map that onto a projected future, it makes for very grim going. Don’t do this. That said, it’s a hard thing not to do, sometimes impossible. Again, grim going. Particularly when you’re trying to transition to a new medication that works only half as well as advertised, perhaps to get better, perhaps requiring the medication be abandoned.
Needless to say, there hasn’t been much work done. Sure, I’ve been talking about pitches (for comics that may or may not ever see the light of day — that’s a subject for another time.) Pitches are easy, at least the messy and doughy pre-work before you wind it like steel cable taut and without an ounce of fat so that it rings with promise. That stuff is easy to do, almost fun. So what if nothing comes of them, they’re fun, right? Lots of people *pay* to have fun and I get to do it for free. The real work comes from shaping it up and actually writing it. And there hasn’t been the energy or focus to do that. Or the will, to be honest.
Sorry, is this a downer? That’s not the intention here. Nor is it it clumsily (or dexterously) fishing for sympathy. Sympathy I don’t need. Understanding is always welcome. So if perhaps my fuse is short (it is, and probably shortens on a daily basis since the world continues to delight in throwing inexhaustible supplies of bullshit around), then understand that I’m really very angry at things that I can’t hope to control. I can barely live with them.
Does it feel good to get this out? Don’t know. It feels necessary, somehow. Just like the alchemists knew the Black Phase, the nigredo, that’s something that’s got to be worked through. It’s an important, even critical part of the reaction (you know, the one that transforms the alchemist herself, not merely turning lead into gold).
So when I try too hard to make a joke, you know why. Yeah, I shouldn’t use social media as a way to vent (cue me mocking, well everything, on Twitter) but that’s how the cookie crumbles. We work with what we’re handed. We try to get by. Sometimes it even works. But you don’t get the option to punk out, even when you think you really want to.
I’ll try to talk about something more uplifting next week, I promise.
And some say he was never here at all.
That’s a line from a Tom Waits song. He might’ve even written it. But then he said a there was a woman who was harder than Chinese algebra and I guess Stephen King heralded that as a great noir line from an author this year, 2015. So maybe it’s one of those things that doesn’t have an origin at all. It’s just there, y’know?
I’ve been late on updates, yeah, I know. I also know exactly how many of you are dying for them (hint – you don’t need algebra to get to that figure), which is why they’re late. I mean, I already know about all the sludge I’m skating through. And nobody cares about the backstory, right? They only care about the product, not how its gotten to or what kind of process it took.
That’s one of the first things I learned in my time in a pretty awful for-profit-college design course. You’d do the project and before you got to make a presentation on it, everyone else in the class got their chance to say something on it. Granted, a lot of folks didn’t have much to say (sometimes smart, sometimes really abysmally stupid). But you know what? They got to say it before you could step in and explain your masterpiece.
That’s the thing. You don’t get to explain it. You get to make the thing and it gets to be the catalyst for someone else’s experience (even if it’s a humble mock up of a CD cover or a book cover or dummy of a coffee shop newsletter). You. Don’t. Get. To. Explain. It. First. Which inspired both good and terrible habits.
Good habit? Try and make the work as good as you possibly can. Granted, my idea of good and satisfying doesn’t seem to be shared by too many other people. This doesn’t make me special or superior. It does make me a hard sell.
Bad habit? I undersell the work at every chance, because I stupidly believe in my heart of hearts that the work should sell itself. This is, however, completely inimical to the media landscape that we both inhabit and try to shape. When I see people leaning on “My work is X meets Y,” I despair. And not just merely because it’s someone using other work to try and justify theirs. It’s because they’re worried about letting the work stand on its own.
Now we can argue about notions of originality and how much every work (particularly genre works) are beholden to those that came before etc etc. I’m not sure that has to be the first introduction to the work, though. It sure doesn’t have to be the one that leads the solicit or review or back cover copy, but that’s what we often get. I dunno, maybe it’s just so ingrained in us now that people don’t even think about it any longer. Gotta admit, it’s convenient.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST meets THE HOWLING – There. I just did it to the first STRANGEWAYS book. Doesn’t matter if it’s not the slightest damn thing like either of those (other than featuring cowboys and werewolves). But now the groundwork has been laid and you’re all excited to read the book now because it’s as good as these two good things smashed together, right? Yeah, not so much. I guess I’m old because I think it just cheapens everything involved.
All that said, I’ve got those mash-ups hovering around the back of my mind when it comes to describing pitches because the game has to be played. Doesn’t mean that I have to like it.
What does this have to do with yarn? Well, a yarn’s a story, right? And the stories we tell about the story/book/music/movie, those are all things we’re doing to sell that. That’s the branding. That’s the advertising. And those are yarns being spun, ones that don’t really matter all that much. Or shouldn’t. Should be the work doing the heavy lifting, then the class gets to pick it apart on its own merits, and not on what you say about it by way of introduction or end-notes or aphorisms that set it up. All that stuff’s window dressing.
I can get up and say “Well, I chose these typefaces and these elements to reflect the blah blah blah” and it doesn’t change a god damned thing about how the work was received. Would having that opportunity beforehand sway some of my classmates into thinking that the work was amazing and groundbreaking and worthy of full credit? Maybe.
But that’s not an opportunity we really get in real life. We try to influence things, sure. Try to make promises about the work, boost it, make it bigger. But not a word of it is true. The only truth to it is what it pulls out of the reader (which is dependent on what the reader puts into it, but that’s a whole ‘nuther subject, as is the whole matter of branding and expectation and hype)
So, yeah, nobody cares much about the how it’s made (except other artists, oftentimes) so ain’t nobody wants to hear about the struggle or the life outside that puts demands on your time and energy. Doesn’t matter. Not important. So why burden you with it here, right?
That yarn’s not crucial, even when it’s fraying.
No, really. That’s a song title. Right here.
I’m often asked for writing advice, and I try to be respectful in my answers, though I bet I’m not good at that part. The hellish thing of it is that… Well, there’s several.
1) Folks think I’m a potential source of good information regarding their writing careers.
Obviously nobody asking me this has looked at my track record. Because, let’s be honest. My most-read piece is either something that doesn’t have my name (or much of my thumbprint) or maybe “The Teacher” which I wrote for Blizzard Entertainment (that being a strict work-for-hire thing). But hey, I got paid for both, right?
2) Everyone’s got to have their own path. Mine is not one I’d wish on anyone else. And that’s professional life as in writing.
3) There’s a persona out there of writing expert doling out advice (go look up “how to write books” in this, the Kindle age of publishing) and while some of them are fine writers in their own right, many of them are selling self-help stuff. Ultimately there’s only been one of those that I had any respect for and that’s THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield.
And hell, even that one didn’t take in me completely. Still, it’s a good way to look at things. It looks down at the roots of creativity, ’cause everything else is just window dressing.
All that said, I’m still asked for advice. I’ll do some for comics as well if I don’t run out of patience with this.
Keep in mind, you can’t walk into a bookstore and find anything with my name on it. If that’s your yardstick for successful (and sometimes it is for me, I’ll admit it) then this will probably just make you mad. It might do that anyways.
“Where do your ideas come from?”
Any writer I know has gotten this question more times than they want to admit. And it’ll continue to be a lead question on interview packets.
The answer for me, and for just about every writer I know, is “How do you make them stop?”
So here’s a thing. The idea is probably the least valuable part of writing. Sorry. Everyone who comes up and says “Hey, I’ll give you the idea and you just write the book/story/comic/videogame/whatever” is full of crap. You probably know this instinctively. And if you’re one of those people and are somehow reading this? Well, sorry, you’re full of crap.
The idea is a start, maybe something to hang from, grow a crystal around, whatever your metaphor of choice is. But the idea without the hundreds of hours of work? Pretty goddamn useless, right. Sure, if you’re lucky, your idea comes in the form of an elevator-ready pitch and you already have your marketing campaign half-thought up. Great. But the pitch isn’t the movie. It’s not even the basic plot, much less the screenplay or novel.
Truth of it is I have more ideas than I can use. Of course, a lot of them are of interest only to me (but then that seems to be right in line with most of my work apparently, haha). But they’re there. Files and files and files filled with them. Some developed, some just three lines.
“How do you sell a book/comic/story/movie?”
Easy. Write something that someone in a position to publish/promote/create likes. It doesn’t have to be good. It does have to be something that they like. I’m sure there are many very brave editors out there who’d go out on a limb for a work they though personally distasteful if it would sell, but…
I mean, that’s the game, right? Gotta write something that’ll sell. Only lots of stuff that’s published simply doesn’t sell. And sometimes a lot of stuff that is seen as unmitigated crap does sell. But you know what, all those things that didn’t sell at all? Someone thought they were worth picking up and putting out there (sure, a lot of them were self-published, ahem, in this, the Kindle age.)
So yeah, write something that the editor likes. But that’s not a guarantee. Besides, my own work hasn’t paid for its printing costs much less anything else, so I’m really *not* the person to ask.
“What will the editors like, then?”
Damned if I can tell you that. And even if I did, by the time I told you and the work got finished, there’d be a new brightly-colored-object/genre in town.
“Well, what should I write?”
You have to do what makes sense to you. That falls into the whole “everyone’s got their own path” thing above. Sorry if that’s a little too Alan Watts/WAY OF ZEN for you.
Take, for instance, fan fiction. I’ve talked a little on this before, but not too much.
My personal take is that fan fiction is an indulgence (though sometimes a profitable one, just ask EL James and whoever else will have gotten a six-figure deal via filed-off-the-serial-numbers fan fiction.) There’s no story that requires access to previously-existing characters in order to be made to work. If your Superman fights Godzilla story (with Sherlock Holmes having turned to kaiju herpatology in the background) doesn’t work with original characters, then maybe it’s not that great a story? If the frisson of the work rests on the fact that it’s a beloved character (that someone else created or franchised) doing things against type, well maybe that’s not so great either.
For instance. Just watched HAMMETT on Netflix, which is a fictional story about real-life detective fiction author Dashiel Hammett getting himself into trouble in 1928 San Francisco. And while it was a fun little movie (occasionally punching above its weight class in a few ways), I couldn’t help but think that it didn’t need to lean on Dashiel Hammett being the main character. It could have stood on its own two legs (and sure, keep the detective a writer who also writes for the pulps, since that was intrinsic to the story) with an original creation.
But hey, the movie makers probably got some more attention with it starring Hammett, right? Just like fan fiction gets read because it’s about these characters (transformative or not) that everyone already loves. That’s borrowed power, folks. If it’s what you really want to do, then do it. But it’s not a path I’m interested in walking.
The story has got to make sense to you. And that’s everything in it. The setting, the tone, the characters, the plot if you must have one (note I didn’t say ‘genre’ because that’s an imaginary construct — even more so than these other things I just listed.) Even if it’s not a thing that you’d necessarily want to write on your own, if you’re taking the job, it’s got to be something that you can get some kind of hook into. Believe me, if that doesn’t happen, you’re just opening the door for misery. This isn’t “follow your bliss” ’cause that’s something that people who don’t have to live in the real world say all the time to the rest of us who do. But it is an admission that you’ve got to feel attached to what you’re doing beyond the pay.
If your muse tells you that it’s only Superman versus Godzilla, then great, do the best that you can with that. I won’t tell you otherwise.
You have to give a fuck about what you’re creating, because nobody can do that for you. If, like Mickey Spillane, giving a fuck is contingent on paying the rent, then go for it. I do say “giving no fucks” a lot, sometimes I even mean it. But where the rubber meets the road, you’ve got to be the first one who does, ’cause nobody else can do that for you.
I know. The above wasn’t so much advice as it was a diatribe on various subjects that have always bugged me. Psych.
Let’s get to the fundamentals.
1. You have to give a fuck. Just like it says above. Starts with you.
2. Pick a job you can complete. The idea? That’s great. Now you have to make it. Stick with a scale that you can work with. If you don’t get it out of your head (and out of notes stage) then it’s not of any use to anyone else.
3. It will probably be not very good. Don’t worry, but don’t be defensive either. This is not an easy one to get over.
4. Some people will not like your work. Some people will not ever like your work. You will not change their minds. Don’t go trying to.
5. Read the reviews if you must. I don’t. I’ve asked friends for reads of work. Sometimes that went well, sometimes it didn’t. I’ll take the heat for when it didn’t. That’s on me.
6. Work in a group if you must. I’m of the age that submitting work to a writing group for critique carries no appeal. That also might just be me.
7. Things work better when you have a plan, but be prepared to throw that plan out. Write a basic outline. Even better, write up your basic characters first and give them all goals and let them fight it all out to see who wins. I could’ve saved myself many headaches by not second-guessing myself or by letting go when a thing plainly didn’t work. That said, what works for you may indeed not work for other people, or you might need to raise your skill level. Or re-think things. Or decide it was one of those “not very good ones” and learn from it.
8. Don’t second-guess based on your audience. Yes, that’s the easiest thing in the world for me to say, since I don’t really have an audience. Well, that’s not quite true. But my audience is a handful (primarily other creators) at this point. However, this goes back to the being true to the work and yourself.
9. Story is character is setting is plot. All four feed into one another. Sure, any plot can be told in any place with any characters. The trick is to make all four disappear into one piece of work. Assumption is a tricky process.
10. Stop aspiring. If you’re going to write, then write (or draw, or create, or whatever). I’ll be the first to admit that real life steps all the hell over things sometimes, but that’s nothing that can’t be overcome.
11. These are probably out of order. Worrying about reviews is something that happens after you finish the work.
12. This advice may not work for you. I don’t pretend it will. I haven’t packaged it in a Kindle book with a kick ass title filled with optimism and hope that you too will be able to write a kick ass novel in thirty days. (Hint: that is a lie – when I was on all cylinders, I could do a first draft in three months but then I might just suck). But at least I’m not selling you a dream that you could dream yourself.
Want to know the real secret? It’s #1 up there. #2 is a stepping stone to get yourself into a framework where you can take steps and not try to run a marathon the first week. #3 is just simple personal growth. The rest is gravy.
I know. Not much to it. But when that one thing is in line, all other things will follow.
I was gonna go with “Six Act Play” but the other one sounds so much cooler (and is a nice callout to one of my favorite DEFENDERS runs from when I was a kid.)
So let’s talk a little about structure. It’s a thing that I’ve been thinking about, trying to figure out how to structure the first SMOKETOWN storyline. See, since I’m planning on pitching this to an actual publishing house, I’ve got to think about playing in a familiar structural space. Granted, in STRANGEWAYS, this wasn’t so much of an issue. I mostly kept to a 5-6 issue per arc structure.
You have to remember, this was back starting in 2003 when trade collections of monthly comics were only becoming something like the standard. Lots of stuff still wasn’t really written for easy collecting; it wasn’t a primary consideration. Unlike now, where things are still put together in relatively tidy bundles of six issues of material, even if that doesn’t really serve the story. Yes, of course there’s exceptions.
But it wasn’t too long before “writing for the trade” became a shorthand for a lot of fan/critic grousing. Stories were accused of being padded out to fit this formatting, whether they needed it or not. This was also in the time of decompression in comics storytelling (at least in the mainstream), where sequences were given room and space to air out some. There’s both good and bad sides to this. On the good, we got artwork that had room to breathe. On the bad, well, we got single issues of comics that didn’t feel so much like a single issue, but like something that was meant to be nothing more than a chunk of a larger whole. I complained about this quite a bit in the FULL BLEED days. And really, there’s nothing more disappointing than a four-dollar comic book (which was a development that took place at about the same time) that you read in five minutes to sour you on the experience.
So, around that time, the unit of consumption for the comic went from the single issue to the trade. That was how you got a complete storyline. Yes, other sub-plots weave in and out around those arcs to keep interest. But the story moved to a multi-issue format and single issues didn’t really stand on their own. There were creators who worked to make the single issue satisfy (Ed Brubaker on CATWOMAN and CRIMINAL come to mind) but even those creators recognized the limitations of the multi-issue arc as a story unit.
We’re all familiar with the three-act structure. Overfamiliar, really. It’s become the standard for mainstream movie storytelling (that and the Monomyth are really what drives what feels like 99% of Hollywood screenplays these days.) The structure can be a fine thing to work from, so long as it isn’t allowed to become a strait-jacket.
But when it’s shifted to comics, when you map a story onto a six-part serial, the easiest way to do that is to have an act turn at the end of every issue with a wrap-up in the sixth. So you get a six-act storyline. Which is fine, only the pacing gets weird because each act ends up being the same length, making a kind of monotone beat.
Now this is only an issue if you’re working on a comic for monthly serialization. If you’re writing an OGN, you can do whatever you want, so long as you end on page 120 or whatever. And once there was a time that doing an OGN seemed like a sensible thing to do as an independent. That time’s passed. At least for me. I’ve done the going-it-alone route as an OGN publisher.
So now I have to figure out how to structure a story so I can sell it to a publisher. Only trouble is, this isn’t a six-issue storyline. Not without stripping a lot out of it. Which I’d kinda rather not do. It’s a pretty big story. But I’m also looking at, y’know, the reality that I may not get twelve issues to do it. A frustrating prospect. Remember, I’ve already stared that reality down when the first company to publish STRANGEWAYS started melting down before the first issue hit the stands. The first issue wasn’t yet out and I talked to the owner of the company who couldn’t assure me that it would be around to publish the fourth issue. So I pulled it, publishing it myself finally.
We all know how that went.
That said, I’m not sure that a 12-issue miniseries is going to be an easy sell to a publisher. Or for that matter, an open-ended continuing series from an unknown quantity creative team. Maybe two six-issue mini-series would work.
But press in on this a bit and I wonder about the unit of storytelling in comics versus, say, television. We’re in the middle of a longform-drama golden age on television, right? That’s what I hear. The comic’s basic unit of consumption is the single issue, which comes together in an arc. For television, you’ve got the episode, which comes together into a season. Simple enough. Only if you compare the base unit, it’s kinda not fair. 22 pages of comic story versus 44 (or so) minutes of television. Even if you go on a 1:1 relationship of pages to minutes, comics come up pretty short (and I’m not convinced that’s a completely unfair comparison).
This is also where someone comes along and points out that a standard screenplay is 120 script pages or so and movies are a perfectly good way to tell a story. Sure. But movies aren’t comics. Time passes differently on the page. And we don’t watch them twenty minutes at a time, either.
Sure. Any good single issue will stand on its own and satisfy, but there’s a limit to how much can go into one. 22 pages. Just like 44 minutes of a show. Only so much time/plot/event fits into it. But I couldn’t help but think how much more weighty an episode of HANNIBAL or DAREDEVIL felt, compared to single issues of comics I like. Would I like ‘em better if they were able to cover more ground in the suggested serving size? Dunno. I still read a lot of stuff only in trades for the simple fact that I want a story, not a chapter. Changing that now on books that I don’t want to wait for (or want to support in the DM).
So maybe the metaphor doesn’t work one to one. Maybe expectations are different enough from one media to another that I’m just overthinking things. As usual. Still, trying to maintain the balance of structural needs versus storytelling is a puzzle that’s been chewing at me. Much less having to convince someone else to publish the thing.
And something that satisfies me, while we’re at it.
I dance around telling the whole story sometimes. Nobody wants that, anyways. Chop it up, bite-size it, make it more easily digestible. That’s what I keep hearing. Doesn’t matter how clean my prose is, it’s always too oblique, too circular. Or perhaps it’s more like I don’t have the name to haul that weight around, dig? What is James Joyce if not oblique, the obliquest at times? Not that I’d have the grit to compare myself to him, mind you. That’s just an easy name drawn from the hat right here. The hat filled with approved canon.
Canon’s fine, until it becomes the border wall of What’s Acceptable, whether that’s by academia or genre scholars. Once that wall is built, well, it might get built higher as more and more people add onto it, but it’s rare that the border itself is allowed to sprawl into further territories with the unknown pleasures that might be there for the picking. (No, I’m not listening to Joy Division right now, as an aside, but Ritual Howl who are doing just fine.)
But yeah, that’s the trouble. Once those walls are set and the building takes place, they’re not coming down anytime soon. Too much invested by those who’ve spent their lives (consumptive or additive) in studying all the nooks and crannies, the quarries from which the bricks were taken, the quality of the mortar that holds them together, the intricacies of their arrangement and the underlying patterns beneath. The wall becomes the thing. And that wall is something that keeps you in, as much as keeping other stuff out. Gotta maintain purity, y’know. Canon purity, genre purity.
Which misses the forest for the trees and the air between ‘em, the rocks underfoot. Folks don’t want to think about their westerns having werewolves in ‘em, to pick an apparent example (stay away from vampires, too). But for me, that’s as natural as anything. That’s as crazy as saying that you can’t have a noir mystery set in a year past 1950, only stuff before that is pure. The genre isn’t about the setting, but about the vibe you pull off the work. It’s all about the art being the start of an experience, and what that art pulls out of you. I get the same charge out of TOUCH OF EVIL as I do from MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or ROAD WARRIOR (MAD MAX 2 for everyone but the US). But they’re not the same work, though I can read the same kinds of bones at their centers.
They’re all stories. Which has always been the interesting thing to me. Sure, some of the window dressing and genre trappings are fun, and sometimes they elevate themselves to an essential part of the experience (looking hard and with love at you, BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN) but the same *kind* of story could have been told in a different setting and given the same punch. Of course, if they weren’t science fiction films, their audiences (at least at the onset) would have been pretty radically different, right? I mean, that’s how these films were sold, on the basis of genre trapping. Same goes for any of the films that I’d mentioned before, really. Genre is how the thing is marketed. How it’s sold.
We hear all the time about things that “overcome their genre limitations” and that’s a garbage thing to say. All it means is that some viewers took their blinders off long enough to see the quality of the thing within, past the xenomorphs or replicants or-post apocalyptic bikers and what the film was really doing. The only limitations of genre are ones of classification. Which section of Amazon will you find this in? Movie theaters don’t have screens set aside for romcoms, just like they don’t have ones set aside for science fiction. The only difference is how those things are packaged and sold.
Sure I could talk about blockbuster as genre, though it’d be fairer to talk about it as mode, as an aim. Just like superheroes aren’t a genre of comics (or movies now), but a bundled set of (really pretty muddy these days) expectations and color palettes. Oh, and convenient whipping boy for critics. I mean, how could any of these stories have anything of value in them? They’re just about stunted adults punching things and explosions.
That’s as dumb as saying that science fiction is all robots and steampunk and immediately worthy of scorn at best and ridicule as a rule. Fill in your favorite genre/setting fiction here.
Genre is nothing more than flavor, candy coating if you like. It’s the story that matters.
Which is all a long-winded way of me expressing my impatience with selling my work and inability to classify it effectively, or perhaps my refusal to. Probably because I don’t want to be locked down to any one thing. May or may not have mentioned before that I’m an occasional musician (under the name Identify 9 and The Roswell Incident before that.) But it’s nothing I could ever do professionally. Performing the same group of songs over and over? Couldn’t do it. I’d never get it right, nor would I want to, not to mention the whole genre thing in music. I’ve recorded both heavy doom metal and super sparse electronics, Velvet Underground-inspired melt-rock and soundscape. (I’ll also be the first that I may not have done any of them particularly *well* but I’ve been pleased with the work.) Hate being nailed down. Hate doing the same thing over and over. Yes, the difference is all in the variations, heard that.
But getting back to things at hand, this is one of the reasons why I like comics so much. There’s a huge variety (and even sometimes diversity) of work out there, and when you go to the comic shop, it’s all more or less put together. Sure, you get places where there’s the DC shelf, the Marvel shelf and the Everything Else shelf (along with the Adult shelf). It’s the Everything Else shelf that’s interesting to me (even if I can’t read it all, time being what it is.) And please don’t mistake this for my saying “Everything is perfect in comics genre diversity forever and ever amen.” I didn’t say that, nor would I. But what comics has going now is a good start.
Even if I have to figure out what genre to lead with on SMOKETOWN (though I see some other creators getting away with being genre-averse, so maybe I could too.) I guess I could lead with “horror” but I’ve had this talk before…
Back next week.
(And yes, I stole the title for this week’s post from a Neko Case song — only steal from the best, folks. Of course, by saying this, I’ve just borrowed it and broken one of my own rules.)
EARLY NEXT MORNING EDIT – Couple threads I didn’t tie together here.
People often mistake “comics” for a genre when it isn’t, of course, it’s a form. Same with superheroes. They’re a form (as are blockbusters). Any kind of story can be told within that form, though superhero stories are often somewhat limited, primarily because of audience expectation as much as anything else, that and fear of going too far out on a limb, but I’m not here to dissect the expectations of the form and limitations exposed by such a line of thought.
I wanted to observe that since comics are perceived as a small form/genre, there’s a freedom there. To be shelved with or considered alongside other comics, a comic just needs to exist (in theory — of course the practice is trickier). The thought is probably no clearer this morning than it was last night and perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered.
Heads-up warning on two more photosets that I just posted to my Flickr page.
Southern California and Los Angeles, 2013
Featuring visits to Chris Cooper’s studio, the South Coast Plaza, the giant tombstones to the past at the former Tustin air base, the Warner Brothers backlots, a collection of (in)famous vehicles, the original Bob’s Big Boy, and of course, neon.
Orinda, Alameda, San Francisco, 2014
Featuring the Art Deco beauty of the Orinda Theatre, sushi, videogames at the High Scores Arcade Museum and antique shopping in Almeda.
Quick update to let you know that I’ve posted the best of the photos from my recent(ish) trip to Seattle to attend the Emerald City Comic Convention a couple months back.
View the set here.
Tower Theatre, Sacramento CA
Photo from this photoset, taken by me just last week.
THE NEW BLACK
Time for a change. And this is an easy one to make.
Let’s us be honest for a moment. Blogs aren’t something done to build an audience with these days. They’re value-added. So when folks can’t get enough of someone’s work, well, blogging is a pretty good substitute for doing more work.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. If I was in a position where I was using this as a platform to get more readers for my prose and comics, I’d keep on with it. But whatever this is, it’s not that. That’s been true for quite some time, like since the first time I put FULL BLEED on the top of a column page and kept at it for a year and then two years, without pay both times. This, of course, was back in 2003 when it was reasonable to think that a column at a decently-read comics site might actually get some more eyeballs on your comics project (all it ever did was get me nods at Journalista! and others.) Satisfying to the heart, perhaps, but not much in terms of moving the needle.
Sure, I got two books of non-fiction writing out of it (you can go buy this one or the other one at Amazon if you’re so inclined, and most of you aren’t — not a complaint, but a fact.) Still, they’re there on the shelf and they look pretty good with all the Futura bold on the spine. But back to honest, this isn’t a destination on a regular basis for many readers. Nor is this the important work. Hell, it’s not even just blowing off steam. This is talk about the work from just another of thousands of writers out there trying to ply their trade.
But it isn’t the work that matters, is it? I’ve already said a piece or three about comics and what works/what doesn’t. And that’s just for me, mind you. I’m not delusional enough to suggest that because I see a thing and pick on it that it’s a problem for anyone but me. I’ve only ever hoped that doing so would kick a thought or two loose in the reader’s brain. There are, however, more productive ways to do that.
You know, that whole “don’t complain in reply to art, but instead make art” trip. And I’m not able to convince myself that writing say, a takedown of 2014’s GODZILLA is actual art worth spending time on (though I’m awful proud of that title and only wish the move had half its guts). Originally this week’s entry (which should’ve gone out last week) was going to be about genre labeling, but that’s a dead horse and I’m done beating it. I can only do the work at this point. That’s what matters and that’s what’s should’ve mattered.
Just that it was awful tempting to find a back door into my work getting acceptance by going with a column and getting my name on everyone’s lips like that. Didn’t work then, not so much more effective now. Not that it wasn’t fun, either. But things change over time.
So expect a different sort of thing over here from now on. I might even talk process again (but right now the process is in the outlining phase, arguably the hardest thing for me to do, particularly as I haven’t had to outline a new project from scratch for several years) but don’t hold your breath. Much more likely to just post interesting research bits here and there and reblog some stuff that I’ve found elsewhere. But its well past time for the work to do the talking.
Now if someone wants to offer me a paying gig to lob pearls of wisdom into the maw of a waiting populace, well, you know where to find me.
So last week was the whole preview for THE LAND WILL KNOW, right? Yeah, I know. I should keep better track of what goes on at my own weblog, but the fact is that I have Twitter, several Tumblr blogs, a minor Facebook page as well as what goes on here at highway-62.com. I should probably consolidate, but instead I’m moving in the opposite direction and diversifying, or intensifying. Something.
This week has been split between the day job and getting things rolling on the many-linked-projects project I’m calling SMOKETOWN, in particular the chunk of it called MY WINGS ARE BLACK, which I’ve advertised as old-testament horror/noir. That’s as good a descriptor as any. Specially since it’s really treading a whole bunch of other territories, just using the wrath of god as a hook. I mean, who wants to hear that it’s actually about balancing out the Gnostic and Manichean views of the Creation while bouncing off concepts of creation and authorship and mixing in a stew of variously-broken characters who play off one another? Nobody wants to hear that. If you told them that’s what they were reading, they probably wouldn’t want to read it, either.
Well, there’s some who would. But not enough of them. That’s why you’ve got to head-fake with genre dress-up at times.
Okay, that’s probably more harshly stated than it was meant to be, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The best entertainments, much less the best examples of whatever media you choose, are always head-faking. It’s the sugar-coated pill, right? That’s one of the handful of critical tools I grabbed on to in all my college lit-crit and theory studies. Pretty simple. Serve up spinach wrapped in bacon (or kale, whatever) and people don’t know that they’re eating spinach. Dress the story well enough and readers move along with things, even when they slow down just a tad. That whole subtext thing. For instance, you watch THE MATRIX and you don’t realize that you’re being given a Cliffs Notes crash course in Gnostic studies and the dangers of the Demiurge. You’re just watching stuff happen and only sorta paying attention at the talky parts, but enough of that just may get through, maybe even a new idea or two sticks. Maybe the next time a similar story comes along, you’re better primed for it.
I won’t dwell on this too long. In fact, I’m probably done already. See. That wasn’t so bad.
So at this stage of the game, it’s all about the research. As I probably said last week, SMOKETOWN has been kicking around in my head for a long time. Remember, it’s not the ideas that are valuable, but the development and execution. If someone comes up to you and wants to collaborate, saying “I’ve got this great, million-dollar idea and all you need to do is just write it out,” well you just run away. Or stay and laugh. Whichever.
The idea is the easiest damn part. The development is where stuff actually happens, and you get to differentiate your work from the hundred other variations on that same idea that have come along already. See? I told you the idea wasn’t the good part. The idea helps, particularly if you can weave it into a good, snappy title. But the truth of it is that it’s already been done. It’s probably being done even as you sit there and try to make things happen. Trick is to do it your way.
I’ve had the idea and a rough story outline for awhile, some early research, mostly to work the story spine into something that can carry a little weight. Now it’s time to build a world up. In this case, the city of San Angelo somewhere loosely between 1935 and 1945. Where’s San Angelo? Coastal southern California, Los Angeles but not.
Since comics are a vastly different medium than prose, my research has to go in completely different directions than it ordinarily would. It’s 99% visual at this point. Architecture, fashion, faces, atmosphere, everything. Since San Angelo itself needs to be a character in this piece, it needs to be nailed down, or at least enough signposts need to be set up so that Luis (Guragña that is) has what he needs to get there. And since I can’t guarantee he’s had the same experiences/media upbringing that I have, I’ll need to sketch things out.
To that end, I’ve set up an online research library via Tumblr. This may bite me on the butt, but I’m willing to put some time into it. Mostly because San Angelo, if things work out, is a space that a lot of stories will be running around in and through. So it matters to get the bones set properly and early.
Here, you can see for yourself:
You’ll have to go a couple pages in to get to the meat of the research. Up top is a whole bunch of esoterica, which is related, but not the actual setting/space for the story. Go ahead, dig around some. Most of what I found there was as a result of spending time here:
Which is a tremendous collection of both public and private photography/history of the greater Los Angeles area, going back as far as 1875 and right up to the current day. Honestly, I’m in debt to all the contributors here. Sure, I could track this stuff down on my own, but they’ve been generous enough to put time and effort into this, not only putting up the images (or finding them in archives) but making connections and giving things context. It’s not quite as good as having a time machine, but by the same token, it’s not very far off from that.
So, working my way (partially as of now) through this, I’ve pulled a bunch of images of not just workaday Los Angeles, years 1925-1955, but some really unusual and distinctive pieces. There’s pieces that are marked up just for atmosphere, some for nuts and bolts details, some for fashion and others just ‘cause they’re too cool not to look at a second time. The only trick will be to not overwhelm any artists I might end up working with, but if they need it, well, it’ll be there waiting for them.
I’ve got a bit more visual research to do, some in the field of esoterica/occult, but a lot in fashions and the day-to-day look of things. Of course, I’m going to be slippery about the exact timing of things, so there’s some fluidity in fashion. Mostly I just want to get the right vibe caught on the page. Then I’ve got some actual fine art research to tack down. Some of it in Art Deco design, but also I’d like to spend some time on the Futurists and integrate some of that multidimensionality/energy into some of the designs of the fantastic elements that will be part of MY WINGS ARE BLACK. So yeah, I want to do angels as part of this, but I want to have them done in a way that isn’t just a rehash.
Still got my work cut out for me in terms of the story, but immersion in the visual side of things will help give me some frame to hang things on, inspire a setting or two or three and try to get things placed in a way that the location not only becomes an interesting component, but essential to the events of the story. Sure, that’s important in prose stories, but even more so in comics (and a part that often seems to get short shrift, particularly because so many comics take place in an ostensible here and now that shorthands a lot because it’s supposed to be our world.) I’ve always wanted my settings to be crucial to things (something which I didn’t always get a chance to do in STRANGEWAYS, though there were some moments of it). Hoping to make the work now pay off in the first SMOKETOWN stories and for a long time after.
Honestly, I wanted to talk about story weight/structure in comics and television narratives this week, but it got away from me and there’s too much other stuff to do. But this is a subject I’d like to get back to and spend some time on. In many ways, the Netflix series adaptation of DAREDEVIL is a pretty perfect example to look at, how it does some things better than the comics and *why* it can do that because of how the show itself is structured. Let’s just say that 13 episodes of 50 minutes apiece makes for pretty dense individual chunks of story, and monthly 32-page comics issues have a very hard time competing directly.
Oh, one more thing. Ran across (speaking of ideas and originality) an acquaintance’s work this week which, on one level, reads almost exactly like SMOKETOWN. This was frustrating and kinda daunting, honestly. But I also thought about it a moment and knew that he and I (as well as our respective collaborator artists/colorists/letterers) would approach this from completely different angles and ultimately write very different works. Mentioned it to him in passing and instead of laughing or getting defensive about it, all he said was “make it your own” which is all I’ve ever tried to do with anything that I’ve worked on. So that was good to hear from someone not me. Working in a vacuum, as I’ve said before, sucks.
Back next week.