Strange Animals 17feb2019: Only It’s Got Pictures

A bit scattered this week. I’m finally back in my own house and slowly getting back in tune with things, but it’s Sunday, and Sunday’s always weird, because it’s the one day of the week I don’t plan.

I spent half of today watching the Umbrella Academy tv show and the rest writing notes on a story idea I had while watching the Umbrella Academy tv show. (It started with me thinking, “Shutter is a bit like Umbrella Academy, isn’t it? I wonder what else is a bit like Umbrella Academy.” and went places from there.)

I also wrapped up the regular weight of my first custom font for a client based on their hand-lettering. OpenType lets you do a whole lot with a font, and for the last year or so, I’ve been trying to strike a balance between going overboard on OpenType features and killing myself with the work and simplifying the font too much and risking it looking too digital. This one has three versions of every letter that get automatically substituted and a gaggle of ligatures that emulate hand-lettering tendencies a bit more directly.

Quite happy with this, and ready to start rendering italics and bolds and so on. If you or someone you know is in the market for having a custom font made from their hand-lettering, feel free to hit me up for pricing and timelines.

One

I paused the Umbrella Academy show after the second episode. I’ll return to it, and I’ll probably enjoy it, but it also just made me feel like reading the book again. It’s quite nicely made, but it still feels like it has ironed out the rough edges of the comics, and not always to good effect.

I was texting a friend while we both watched it, to compare notes, and I realised that it felt like the Marvel Cinematic Universe to me. There was a lot of work done on making the world feel grounded and real, but in doing so, a lot of the weirdness was stripped out. (I know that out there in the real world, a gun-toting raccoon and a talking chimpanzee are strange things, but let’s face it, comics has a much higher tolerance for the bizarre.) “They always tone down the weirdness,” my friend replied, speaking of comic-book adaptations.

The comic is probably as emo and broody as the tv show is, but it’s leavened by flashes of genuine bizarreness. And bizarreness is usually funny, as this panel from the comic illustrates:

So I’ve been thinking about mediums and what they’re good for. There’s the bit that emerges out of the financial aspect – comics are cheaper than film or tv, so a lot of things that would be thrown out of the latter just in case they are bad ideas can be retained in comics, sometimes to their detriment *coughhotclawscough*.

But also, the static nature of comics, and the words-plus-pictures thing means that you can make people dwell on stuff they’d otherwise pass by in film (because it’s not static) or in prose (because it’s all words). So you can code a lot of information in a small space and not worry about the reader missing it. From another Gerard Way comic:

That’s an entire story in a single panel, and every bit tells – the words, expressive yet precise, and the art, down to the colour of the sky and the planet with rings on it and the creature on the cliff.

So unlike in tv, where if they just showed you this and moved on, you’d just be confused and unable to take in the next bit of information, in a comic, you can look at it however long you want and digest it before going ahead.

A while ago, a friend of mine gave me something to think about: “Prose is good for interrogation, and comics is good for proposition.”

I’ve been thinking about this, and whether it’d be useful for me to think of comics this way, and I realise this is what it means to me – you can’t chew over a thought for an extended length in comics like you can in prose, but you can make sure that everything on the page says something, and you can use that to make the reader ask the questions you want them to ask.

Two

On sale this week with my lettering are The Long Con #6 and The Long Con Vol. 1, both from Oni Press, and by Dylan Meconis, Ben Coleman, E. A. Denich, M. Victoria Robado, and edited by Robin Herrera.

Other than that, after a fairly long time in the works, mainly because of my laziness in figuring out what I actually wanted to put on it, my website has been updated. Pune-based designer Sahil Khan redid it from the ground up, set up a Jekyll instance so I can use static pages and GitHub and feel like a proper nerd even though I’m definitely not one, and it looks nice and has everything I will prospectively need in the coming year. We’re still working out a few minor design kinks, but it’s mostly exactly how I wanted it to be. The ‘Fonts’ and ‘Writing’ sections are yet to be filled in. I have plans for those, though, which will unfold in the coming year.

For now, I’ve populated the site with my portfolio and reposted a few old essays on the blog. The idea is to have this newsletter and the blog be my twin abodes on the internet where everything that matters lives—I’ve written before about how Twitter’s impermanence can be frustrating when it comes to putting work online. So the newsletter will be the weekly update mode, where I’ll tell you about whatever’s going on that week, including, say, new blogposts, and the site will be where you can see all of that in a static form, including stuff from the newsletter that demanded a more permanent status, and it’ll also be where you’d actually have a reasonably complete index of what I’ve done and what I do.

Take back the internet and all that.

Three

I’ve talked before about how I’ve found it difficult to write comics that don’t feel sparse in some way or the other, and I’ve been trying to make my way through the problem. And this is the crux of it – you can’t write words in a comic like prose or like tv dialogue.

Writing like prose would cover up way too much of your page in text, and tv dialogue would need way too many pages for it to remain interesting. (There’s of course the Bendis workaround of ping-ponging balloons, but it’s very specific and of debatable use outside Bendis’s own work.)

But beyond just the words, getting a comic script right is difficult, because, as I showed you above, there’s a lot of information behind what is to appear on the page. There’s a lot you need to know in order to get things across with specificity in a single image and a small number of words.

When you write a story in any medium, you’re juggling a bunch of things simultaneously – the voice of the description, the voices of the characters, the inner states of the characters, the trajectory of the scene, the purpose of the scene within the larger story, how the environment reflects all of these things. This is why a lot of writers make their way through these one at a time – outline a scene, then write out all the dialogue, and then write the actual scene.

Comics make things complicated because you have to figure out which things go into the words, which into the image, and which are just implied for the reader to pick up on as they can.

So I’m trying to experiment with a comic script I’m writing at the moment. It’s a six-issue mini-series, and it’s a bit far into the future if it becomes reality, and it is intended to be fairly information-heavy.

To make sure I have all the information in front of me as I write the script, I’m writing a prose version of every scene before I get to the script. By doing this, I’m trying to divide the task into two – the prose version tells me what happens, and the script will be how to present this. Even in the prose, I’m trying to imply visual representations to myself, but I want to leave the actual work – choosing the actual moment of each image, how it’ll be laid out and paced – for later.

In doing this, I’m gaining a new appreciation for both mediums. Prose lets you put in so much non-visual information – how a character feels, where they came from, something from their past that they thought of now for thematic reasons – all of which will play a part in the comic without actually being in the comic. Comics, on the other hand can be really formally weird while still reading incredibly smoothly, which lets you do a lot of work in very little space. For example, here’s some writing from the very beginning:

Nina feels her daughter shudder. Then something happens – as if an illusion breaking, her daughter flickers, there, not there, there again. Nina holds her daughter tight, feels the child’s erratic heartbeat under her fingers. Not to let her go – that’s the only option.

“I don’t like that,” little Elise says, stable for the moment. “It’s scary.”

There is a pocket of world without network. It exists physically – a nuisance – but I have wanted quiet, and quiet it is, a gap in consciousness.

“What’s scary?” Nina asks. Her daughter turns and hugs her, holding on to her. Nina doesn’t know if little Elise understands what’s happening, but she’ll hold on to her. Little Elise will be fine.

“That something good could have happened…” Nina can feel Elise’s voice quavering as she says this, a signal making its way through interference.

And I land. Disguised. Uncomfortable. There is not enough to space to quite be.

But there I am. Real, for the moment.

Nina tries to hold on, but Elise is going, Nina’s grip passing through cloth. Nina tries to scream, but there is no sound. The only sound is from Elise. Elise is no longer there.

“But then something else happened instead.”

The bold parts are a different character’s internal narrative running through this scene and creating thematic connections between what happens with Nina and Elise and things that’ll be relevant later. In prose, they read as interjections, and you’re not sure who’s “speaking” them, and they actively interrupt the flow of the scene.

In the comic, they’ll have a caption style of their own, and when the character later appears, and the captions comment on the scene that’s actually occurring, it’ll be a trivial task to make the link retroactively affecting the beginning of the book. Even without that information, from the very start, it’d be clear to you that this is a character’s internal narration. And finally, in the actual comic, Elise’s final two lines would be in adjoining panels, without four paragraphs separating them as they do here, and they’d read a lot closer in time as a result.

This is just one way of doing this, of course. Another way, as my Isola cohorts Brenden and Karl do it, would be to create an outline, and then work out the entire issue visually, redoing the layouts till you’re happy, and write an “idiot’s version” of the dialogue so you know everything necessary before it’s drawn, and then edit the dialogue down to just what really needed.

It’s all just different ways of getting the information in front of you so you know what’s going in. Basically, I’m trying to be more responsible with my comics-making, and to remind myself that you can’t and shouldn’t try to get it right all at once – you can whatever you want as long as, in Neil Gaiman’s word, you “make it look like you knew what you were doing all along.”

Four

My recommendations in this newsletter tend to be things to consume – comics, tv, music, books – but I’m changing it up for once, and I’ll recommend an app. The one I’m writing this in – Ulysses. (It’s a Mac/iOS-only app, though, so if you’re on a different OS, you can skip this one.)

I’ve always been one of those writers who spends a lot of time not writing. When I was a teenager, I wrote in Microsoft Word, and I wasted more time changing up the typefaces and layouts than actually writing. Even after I switched to Markdown, I’ve spent a frankly shameful amount of time looking for the perfect writing app and the right monospace font to go with it.

For years, I wrote in Scrivener, which is still an app I admire from a distance. Especially once Scrivener introduced syncing with external Dropbox folders, I could write anywhere and get it into Scrivener.

Except that once or twice, I lost some writing because the app didn’t sync properly with my folder, and also, Scrivener does zero things to make your text look pretty. Because of which I started writing outside Scrivener (usually in text files with iA Writer or Folding Text) and using Scrivener only as storage.

That meant my writing was a lot more scattered than I would’ve wanted, and in too many different formats.

Ulysses, to me, does everything right. For one thing, the way it syncs means that if it finds conflicting copies, it’ll let you check through them instead of just replacing one with another on a coin-toss. I like the font options and how you can just import any font you like into the iOS version as well (unlike most iOS apps). And finally, I like that I can basically have everything I’ve ever written in one place.*

* I’m not kidding about this. I’ve imported pretty much everything I’ve written over the last fifteen years into this app, including comics, short film scripts, finished stories, unfinished stories, book reviews, blogposts, and random articles. The only thing that’s not here is my virtual notepad, which is still maintained in Apple Notes.

Ulysses has great organisation, lets you pick icons for different sections of your hierarchy, and lets you archive stuff and forget about while not actually losing anything. It also seamlessly imports from HTML, rich text or plaintext and also lets you export into those formats as you need. And its spotlight-style search feature means that you can open sheets by remembering random words rather than having to remember the title/filename of everything you wrote.

The only downside I can think of is that Ulysses moved to a subscription model last year, but it’s $40 a year and includes all the apps, so if you write with any real frequency, it’s worth it.

Five

Here’s something I added to the commonplace book only a couple of weeks ago, from Benjamin Percy’s book on writing, Thrill Me. I wasn’t impressed with the book itself – it’s a good read, but I don’t know if it’s a very useful guide to writing (your mileage may vary). I did like this, especially the last bit:

You’ve got to write every day as if you were clocking in for a job. Or if not every day, then damn near it. If you’re not disciplined in your production – if you’re writing only when the mood strikes or when a deadline looms—then naturally you’ll be more protective of your work, so that when it comes time to cut, your saw will tremble with hesitation. But if you’re producing reams of pages, you’ll be less resistant to revision, because you know it won’t be long before another load of timber comes down the road.

Because I’ve been that writer – hesitant to pull out the weeds from what I’ve written because it feels too precious, and I want to be more comfortable being the “iceberg” type of writer where what you see in the final product is only a small portion of everywhere you wrote for the piece.

Filed under #writing and #advice.