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Articles, essays and opinion pieces on comics, writing and anything I happen to be thinking about.

In an earlier blog post, Manga and Reality, I covered what relationship the ever-present label “manga” has to reality, and I wanted to expand on it with a problem that’s been bothering me for a while. You could read it through again, but it’s pretty bloated with personal material about my own relationship to the term, so here’s an overview (partly paraphrasing from John Agg’s blog post Ruskin Explains Manga):

Many people use the word manga to describe a particular style of drawing, or a particular form of comic storytelling. However, the actual existence of this style is just as debatable as the existence of any other art style when you attempt to set a description of it in stone. Every book that someone decides as being in the manga style differs in some significant way from every other book that they describe the same way. Many of those books will include features which, if they occurred in other books, would not be considered manga at all. Yet many of them will share recognisable features that inform a general sense of “manganess” that that person will recognise when looking at certain images. It is this that people identify when they refer to a style or comic as being “like manga”, “manga influenced” or “a bit manga”.

Having just finished Freakangels, I’m in a delicate position with my work; my career is still quite young (I’ve only been self employed for 6 years) but having published 6 volumes of Freakangels, along with The Tempest and 3 shorts (over a thousand pages of comics) I feel like I’ve got a reasonable amount of experience behind me.

I’m now in the process of looking for new work, taking on commissions and working on pitches. It’s really exciting and really nerve-wracking all at the same time, but the one thing that is cropping up over and over as a theme in everything I’m dealing with post-Freakangels is “what am I worth?” It’s a bloody hard question.

As much as art is a career to me now, it’s been a hobby for much longer, and there are plenty of people around me (both at conventions and online) whose work I respect that do comics or illustration for pleasure or in their spare time. It’s a tricky industry to find work in, even if you’re talented, and I feel lucky to be in the position that I am – coming off the back of a long and popular series for which I was paid enough to live on, even in the middle of a recession. On the other hand, illustration (under which I include comics) is my job – it’s a skill I’ve developed that I’ve devoted my life to, invested my education in, and pursued full-time. There was just as much effort involved in earning the money I have as there would have been in any career.

Only one week after promising to Blog every Monday morning, I’ve already failed! That didn’t take long. So here’s a Thursday afternoon blog instead, and Thursday afternoons are superior to Monday mornings. It is known.

So anyways, up there is a convention sketch that I just got round to colouring! It’s a piece drawn in the quiet moments of the convention to use as an example when people asked about what finished sketches might look like. Convention sketches touch on an uncomfortable topic that I’ve been meaning to blog about, so this is as good an opportunity as any! A lot of people (probably the majority of sketch collectors) ask artists to draw licensed characters. On some occasions I’ve accepted fan-art commissions, and on some occasions I haven’t, knowing at all times that it’s technically illegal to do so.

I’m currently working very slowly on an idea for an original long form comicbook, and have been for good long time now! It’s fleshing out piece by piece, but the going is tough since this is completely new ground. I’ve written in a totally amateur capacity for most of my life so I’ve got plenty of half-baked theories about constructing narrative and writing characters, but it’s with comicbooks that I’ve had my most substantial professional experience… and the only comicbooks I’ve ever written have been very short. The hardest part beyond letting the characters do their thing and keep their breathing space in the plot has been tackling the portrayal of an invented culture. I’ve been pursued by the nagging feeling that there’s lots I’m not thinking about and even more that I’m taking for granted.

So, and for some perverse reason I find this really exciting, I decided to do some research! The first place I went was Anthropology, a discipline that a month or so ago I knew next to nothing about, but that informs the writing of one of my old favourites (Ursula Le Guin, who I’m sure everyone who knows me is sick of hearing about), and one of my new favourites (Carla Speed McNeil, whose Finder series is one of the most original and absorbing pieces of comicbook storytelling that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read)!

A bit of googling later and I found this podcast of a lecture series held at Berkeley on the History of Anthropological Thought by Rosemary Joyce. I’ve literally just finished listening to the last lecture, I can say my mind is properly blown! I haven’t had the chance to read any of the course material, but even without that context, it’s a lecture series so packed full of insight and knowledge that I feel like my way of seeing the world has both crystallised and been shoved spinning at the same time.

A debate on twitter a few days back along with various reactions I’ve seen around the web has got me thinking about artistic method.

You can trace the history of drawing, painting and various forms of representative mark-making back a long, long time, and it’s a history that you can look at in a number of different ways. You could analyse style, compare content, think about materials or method, but it seems obvious that all these things affect each other deeply and in practice (if not theory), are inseparable.

What I’ve been interested in though is materials, tools and methods, because the development of computers and the internet have set off a massive and sudden proliferation of the ways in which it’s possible to create a piece of artwork. I’ve been considering that this, along with a number of other relatively modern changes (over the last few hundred years), has deeply unbalanced the ways in which both practitioners and non-practitioners regard the creation of art.

I’ll use the word tool a bit vaguely as a stand-in for anything an artist uses to achieve a finished result. It could be a brush or a camera, a piece of paper or a screen, or even a new way of learning or observing. Roughly speaking, every time a new “tool” is introduced to the artist’s tool-kit, some new result is possible, or something along the way gets easier. The introduction of a tool can make an earlier method of production convoluted or difficult by comparison, but rarely does that tool fully replace, or make redundant that which it “improves” upon. I think this is critical, since it means new tools and methods are used right alongside old ones, and with that range of practices comes a range of mentalities, both enduring and new. That isn’t to rank them, or claim that they evolve (in the weak sense of “improvement”), just to say that all these attitudes and practices exist at the same time, and often in conflict.

This video┬ácalling for diversity in comics has been doing the rounds lately and obviously getting a lot of reactions, which is pretty inevitable since it’s deliberately provocative stuff. It seems like the most common reactions are along the lines of…

“yeah, I get what you’re saying, but do you really have to insult a genre and all the creators involved in it, just in order to get your point across?”

“practise what you preach, why is a creator working on indie superhero comics calling for ‘diversity’ when he doesn’t provide it?”

“instead of pointing out flaws in the industry, highlight qualities and strengths instead!”

…all of which have a point. But no matter how much I agree with these reactions, I also can’t help agreeing with the video! It also has a point, and no matter how crudely made, it’s an important one. If you strip away everything in the video except for the statistics, you’re left with a very odd truth: Comics is a storytelling medium capable of depicting pretty much anything, and telling pretty much any story in any genre to any audience, but almost all the money in English language comics is funnelled through two publishers who publish essentially one genre, distributed by one distributor to a niche audience through specialist stores.

Take a minute to really think about that. Forget how we got here and what’s keeping us here and see where we are, and it’s jaw-dropping. It’s like a fucking huge elephant in the room… everyone can feel it, but many are reluctant to talk about it, most likely because they’re friends with it.

The major hurdle in coming to fully appreciate this odd picture is assumed superiority or moral high-ground. It seems that by campaigning for more diversity, you’re doing the “right” thing, and putting down all those people doing the “wrong” thing: superhero comics become the enemy, as does everyone who works on them. The implication that’s hard to avoid is that anyone who aspires to work for DC or Marvel or superheroes in general is poisoning the industry, and if people calling for diversity really think that, then no wonder there are so many people reaching for a contrary opinion when they hear someone being loud about it.

But I really don’t think that’s right: it’s perfectly possible to want something different without actively hating how things are. Diversifying doesn’t necessarily make things better (that’s a matter of opinion), itjust makes things bigger, which means that more people with different tastes can find something they love in comics.It’s possible to admit that DC/Marvel have a stranglehold on the industry whilst acknowledging the hard work and success of other smaller publishers, and the good work that comes out of the big two. I hope it’s also possible to make noise about this issue of diversification without pissing creators off, or pissing over their personal tastes.

Seeing this video and the reactions to it has made me come to a tipping point. I don’t want to piss anyone off, but I do want to support the message. The comics I like reading and the comics I want to make fall outside what is currently lucrative, but I’m going to give it a try anyway, and I want to encourage other people to do the same, even if it leads to us all going bankrupt!

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a student called Andrea, who was interested in knowing both how to get the most out of her art course, and what it’s like being a professional artist. The answer I wrote ended up being pretty huge, so I asked her if she’d mind me posting it up here for others to read. It’s an interesting subject, and the two questions are very closely linked if you actually want to turn your art training into a career. I guess I haven’t really had a very long career yet, but perhaps it helps that my memory of Uni is still very fresh in my head. Here’s a slightly edited version of my reply:

Can’t sleep at all, might as well blog!

How to define and discuss quality and maturity or lack-thereof in writing (comics, novels, films, tv, whatever) is something that has always fascinated me and caused me endless frustration. It’s almost impossible not to drag in personal opinion and tastes, and of course, I (along with most everybody else) just happen to think that the things I enjoy most are the things with the most quality and creativity.

I really get a kick out of sharing entertainment I love with people I like, so it can be especially disheartening if something that I consider to be of really high quality is met with a lack of enthusiasm. It makes me question both my taste, and my definition of what “quality” really is. It’s always with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation that I recommend a story to someone! So, with all this turning over in my mind as usual, I posted on a thread on Whitechapel about Sci-Fi TV shows, and found some thoughts coalescing in a far more coherent way than usual! I’ll try and put it down here before it leaks out.

I guess to start with, we need to establish what exactly is being measured when we talk about “quality” or “maturity”. I think the first thing that occurs to most people is whether they found the story enjoyable and engaging, and this is a good starting point, since most disagreements seem to spring straight from it. It’s pretty obvious that everyone enjoys different things, and that some incredibly popular pieces of entertainment are also disliked by critics, whilst less popular things can be branded as incredible storytelling. It’s easy to have a disagreement with someone about say, whether Harry Potter is actually well written or not, and give up all hope of ever establishing what “well written” actually means beyond the ability to string a sentence and a plot together coherently. Some people like Harry Potter and think it’s well written, some people hate it and think it’s poorly written, some people have never read it and still have an opinion, and I’ve even met a few who have read and enjoyed it, but openly call it poorly made. They can’t all be right, so it’s tempting to stop right there and say that there’s no such thing as “quality” in fiction beyond the ability to master the basic tools of the trade to the level required to satisfy the majority of non-professional consumers.

During most of my life I’ve struggled not only with my art, but with how I identify myself and my art. I’ve been through various phases of influence, but I discovered “manga” at around the age of 13 or 14, and promptly fell in love with it… or at least the idea of it. I immediately started watching it, reading it, drawing it and attending conventions celebrating it, but at the time I never really thought coherently about what it was. Its technical meaning aside, here are the things that I now realise I associated with the term:

  • comics from Japan
  • animation from Japan
  • games from Japan
  • illustration from Japan
  • a general style of drawing found in all the above
  • an unfamiliar type of storytelling
  • a web of exciting new cultural associations and imagery (mostly Japanese)
  • a community, both online and at conventions
  • artwork created by others from the manga community
  • a hobby: I created my own “manga” influenced by the community, style and culture I had discovered
  • a profession I aspired to

All that under one new and exciting word! It was obviously a satisfyingly complex and obscure label for the adolescent me to identify myself with, and these elements quickly fused inside me as both an artistic identity and a sub-cultural group to which I could belong. This mangaphile-me still exists – fundamentally so, since its artistic element became the foundation of my career, and its social element was a part of the circumstances that allowed me to become close to my partner, Kate.

This has been brewing for a while, and the recent announcement of yet another new Silent Hill game has pushed me over the edge. Silent Hill 2 is perhaps my favourite game ever… it’s by no means perfect, but there are so many facets of the game that I love. Every element of the game supports every other: the environments, the characters, story, gameplay and game structure, are almost all interlinked and meaningful in ways both obvious and subtle. This is a game that tells a story, in every way that it can.

So for me, gaming isn’t about cinematics, or stats systems, or combos, or physics systems, or clever control schemes, or addictive mini-games, it’s about immersion. If any of the elements I’ve just listed contribute to the player’s immersion, and support the overall shape of the game, then they belong. If they’re implemented clumsily, or to fulfil some ideal that dictates how a game should be, rather than how this game should be, then they jar, like poorly matching parts of a jigsaw puzzle. I hear a lot of developers and critics talking about “choice”, and “in game freedom” as if that’s all that makes a good game. It’s like they seek to make a game the ultimate Role-playing experience, an open environment with a particular theme where the player acts as a free agent, making their own choices and “being” a different person. It sounds great in principle, but it’s not really that simple, even if such a game of infinite choices existed.