December 28, 2008
A good room to work in is a haven, a safety zone, and a refuge where you can reflect on the past, face your fears and look at yourself with serious intentions for minutes at a time. Perceptions, waking thoughts and even your own breaths are all fleeting and transient, making your desk a kind of shrine to remember yourself by.
A good room to work in can also be a shrine to important memories of people and places. I have created many images of my late parents there. When I think about it, I realize how much I hate the phrase "my late parents". In my own small ways, through images on web sites, on my walls, and in sketch books, or by journals or in my fictional stories, I will try keep them alive somehow
Maybe then, my good room to work in is also a meeting room - a place to commune with the people and things that have made me.
October 28, 2008
|The Animatronic Andy Warhol...|
To me, the ideal symbolic merging of creative imagination and technological processes.
My father was an electronics technician for many years. My mother was a performer, an artist. Each of them and their tendencies and backgrounds have influenced me. Although it sounds like a sexist stereotype, my father was usually the calm, rational one - the authority, the controller of my family. My mother suffered from depression - possibly bipolar disorder- alcohol addiction. She could have small bursts of creativity, and be spontaneous, energetic and fun. Dad was the responsible one who kept things running as they needed to. I'm sure that this is where my man-machine dichotomy was formed.
Growing up, I always wanted to know how things worked, and so I would would take things apart to see, only to be unable to put them back together again, and get chastised for "breaking my toys".
All my life, I also loved creativity and imagination. I loved to draw, to colour, and to read picture books or newspaper strips, and to have someone's images and words transport me to another world where my imagination could run free.
Early Ideas of Man and Machine
Since I was old enough to recall, images of human-shaped robots have been a source of fascination to me. When I was four or five, my Dad bought me a fascinating metal walking robot toy. It required four D cells and weighed a ton. Most amazing of all, it walked upright, shuffling forward by sliding its feet one at a time, kind of like a hospital patient in thin slippers. After a few steps, it would stop and doors on its chest would swing open, revealing little guns that would blaze ("rat-a-tat-a-tat!"). After strafing the living room in a 360 degree pivot, it would close its chest and begin striding forward again.
As a kid, I was fascinated by the excellent mechanics of it, and the light-up excitement and cool sound effects. My Dad said he bought it for me at the Rosetown Fair. (Looking back, I figure that it must have been some kind of import from Japan or somewhere. They always make the coolest robot-shaped toys.)
Pre-teen Robot Boy
As a pre-teen, I became a huge fan of the TV show "Six Million Dollar Man". Many of the plots were dumb or a bit predictable, but I was really watching the show to see the electronic stuff that was implanted inside Steve Austin. I wanted to see them roll up his fake skin on that bionic arm and show me the wires and circuits inside. He was a man, but also a machine - a CYBORG ("CYBernetic ORGanism"). I didn't know what Cybernetics was, but I knew that he was a step beyond a human-shaped machine - he was a blend of man and machine under the skin.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a great time to be a science fiction fan. Many science fiction TV shows and movies (most of all "Star Wars") featured at least one android or robot, and usually in a humanistic shape.
My Mom, as a Cybernetic System
In 1981, my mother was admitted for long-term care to the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital. She had suffered permanent brain damage as a result of kidney failure after extreme alcohol abuse. I understood that she had almost died, and that her brain had been irreparably altered. Her memory was altered - memories from most of the past five years were apparently wiped out - and her personality was also different. She seemed a bit more simplistic and direct in her wants and how she expressed them.
By 1984, I had begun to see her as "a broken system" - a burned-out circuit. It was painful and difficult to picture her as a person first and foremost. I loved her in a child's longing, loyal way, but she had never connected with me very well, and I could never recall her speaking more than a few words to me at a time over the years. We never had a discussion in any way. So, in a way, she was probably not humanized enough in my heart and mind, and this remote objectivity and de-personification of her probably served as a convenient screen for me to hide behind. It was probably easier to think of my mother as a broken system than a hurt, scared and lonely woman whom I knew had trouble remembering me and whom I was supposed to love.
The Image of Animatronic Andy
Around 1984 or 1985, American pop artist Andy Warhol was recreated as an animatronic puppet in order to portray him in a "no man show". The image of the robot's pale eyeless rubber face mask layered over the bare steel skeleton stuck with me. It reminded me of my mother's pale, scarred skin, her pure white, short-cropped hair, and her impassable, sometimes blank facial expression. Sometimes, I couldn't read her at all. Occasionally, a prolonged, direct eye contact would be my reward for persevering through a visit with her. It was rare to know if she recognized me at all.
I began to draw images of her face with empty, black holes where living eyes should have been. It has been a recurring image in my head - my internal image of her.
Art School Cyberneticist
In 1985, during my Foundation (first) year of studies at the Emily Carr College of Art, I learned how to use graphics software to create images, and I became a fan of the pixels that made up the images on the computer screen, and a fan of the electronics (or the ideas behind them) that painted the pixels in the first place. I started teaching myself a little programming, and then studying how computers and electronics had been used to create art and interactive, shared experiences.
As I continued to take more of an interest in computers, electronics and artificial intelligence (or "artificial rationale", as my instructor Gary Lee Nova called it, insightfully), I appreciated more about how far A.I. still had to progress, and also how over time, as A.I., robotics, and other technologies progress and converge, we will get closer to building a useful human-shaped helper. This is a big reason why Honda and other major manufacturers have spent so much time and effort developing Aibo and other anthropomorphic, walking robots: they are developing the synthetic Butler's and nursemaids of the future, for an age of Japanese baby boomers.
Throughout my senior years in art school, I studied cybernetics (essentially, the study of systems), and with the help of my classmates and instructors, I developed ways to connect myself even closer to computer graphics by mounting joystick parts on my hands and arms and wiring them into the game ports on Atari 800 and Amiga computers. I wanted to get closer than a keyboard and a mouse, and connect in a more direct way.
And Today...? What Will These Robots Think of Us?
One piece of art that expresses the issues in the "evolving" (hee hee!) of a synthetic race, is "AI - Artificial Intelligence", developed by Stanley Kubrick and directed by Steven Spielberg.
I still think it might be really cool to have a bionic hand, and even cooler to make friends with a robot. Maybe one that's just as interested in me as I am in it. Then, perhaps the "man-machine interface" would be the relationship itself.
October 13, 2008
For how long can you mine old emotional veins - pluck old strings - in the service of creating compelling stories?
This question stumps and almost staggers me. When will I run out of gas, and have nothing interesting left to say? Without that, I'm dead as an artist.
I can't see the future, and by myself, I can't answer this question, but the prospect is scary as hell.
Ironically, why would I worry about this when I still haven't even begun the career as a writer? The first story is yet to be published, and I have little idea how good or bad it is as a work. Maybe it's premature to even worry about this... Maybe. All the same, I've got to go there.
What Strings Can I Pluck?
There are a number of themes I can harvest for telling stories of fiction:
- A life's potential lost because of manic-depression and alcoholism. What is a person worth? What are they obligated to accomplish?
- A father's/leader's loss of control - loss of power and leadership - because of bad choices, age, depression and chronic guilt. Can he redeem himself and his integrity?
- A young girl's sense of betrayal because of physical abuse; the horror of the loss of family security. Can she find security and strength?
- A child torn between loyalty towards one parent or the other, and fear and insecurity towards each of them. Is the child trapped?
- The joy of finding surrogate parents in friends and relatives...
- What do you do when your hero becomes a villain right before your eyes? How can you love someone close to you and hate them at the same time?
- Why do people carry childish jealousy, envy and pain within them throughout their life? How does it affect the people around them?
However, a recent biography gives me some hope for my creative process in the long-term.
The Life of Cartoonist Charles Schulz
Schulz is the creator of "Peanuts", Snoopy and "good ol' Charlie Brown". He's probably the most famous cartoonist of the post-war era. In the book "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography", author David Michaelis illustrates how a man can mine insecurities, painful losses, and personal defeats, and weave them into character traits, phrases and attitudes that can fuel a small world that people in countries all over theworld have visited for over50 years.
Schulz' Peanuts characters looked like children, living in a world of invisible (or at least off-screen) adults, and yet as a kid, I knew that his kids were telling truths in a sophisticated, grown up kind of way. I didn't understand all of it, but looking back, I think there was angst, cruelty, power issues, depression, love, fate, philosophical pondering, and flights of fantasy, all played out with subtlety and intelligence. There was depth and heartfelt emotion.
I think that Charles Schulz built a world for himself in which he could say the things that he needed to say, to express his truths, through the personas of the little people he created. The fact that he was still expressing these feelings dozens of years after the fact, tells me that he had resonant, meaningful things, unresolved meaningful things, to say. That they resonated with such a large audience for so many years tells me that he was very talented and committed to his art.
There are a lot of crappy, shallow daily comic strips being published today - the three panel equivalent of cheap, rim shot jokes. Schulz and other significant artists, were able to get beyond that, and extend what is a very limiting medium into something better.
I think that if Schulz' material hadn't come from a powerful reservoir of personal experience, it wouldn't have been so good for so long. This gives me some hope for my own efforts.
September 12, 2008
1000 sketches of people's faces and the backs of heads on the bus on the way out to Coquitlam to visit my Mother in Riverview. Once, when she wasn't awake, I got a very nice sketch of her sleeping. Slowly, my hand became able to do what my eyes saw. It was a goal that started to give me a sense of control and accomplishment.
Once I decided to apply to Emily Carr College of Art, it became a major obsession. For weeks, I worked on drawings and sketches that might help my portfolio. An older guy named Les Gallus was a practiced illustrator and gave me some advice on prepping my portfolio, plus a little practical tutelage on how to improve a few pieces. He also showed me his portfolio: a collection of slides of 2D and 3D pieces from some art program on the prairies, I think. Les never seemed to have that much interest in actually working for a living, but I never held that against him. He was a super friendly, helpful person, who helped me get a couple of sketches published in the Community Arts Council magazine, and whose advice and support bolstered my confidence. I was scared as hell of going to art school. All I knew was that it had to lead to better experiences than those I'd already had.
When the interview day came, I remember literally walking across Granville Island from my summer job, over into the school's entrance, entranced. My interviewers had been a black haired man named John (whom I was convinced was humouring me - my insecurity at work), and an older, gentler bald man named Dennis, with whom I immediately felt comfortable. I also saw an energetic and slightly authoritarian bearded man in the hallway whom I would later learn was the school's Dean, a gentleman named Tom Hudson.
Weeks (or months?) later, I received my acceptance letter in the mail. I couldn't believe it. At that moment, it was the biggest positive thing that had ever happened to me. I was living with my Dad in an apartment on Hornby Street, although I can't remember if during this time he was home, or if he was in hospital.
I felt like I'd just squeaked through the portfolio interview process, but who knows how. If it's possible, I think I felt simultaneously proud and ashamed of my portfolio pieces - a series of pen and ink drawings and sketches - mostly scribbly portraits of my face and my friends and family, plus a couple of felt pen "pointillist" attempts done in Grade 12. "This art school must have some kind of quota system for taking in new students" I thought later. My East Van neighbourhood felt a long way away. I was 19 and still very, very green in my views.
Being accepted made me want to sketch the people and things around me even more - I felt I needed to prepare myself for a massive new challenge, so I tried to bolster my meager skills however I could. I took a life drawing session down on Granville Island, and blushed a little at the young woman who posed naked while we all scratched away on large sheets of paper. She saw me blushing and smiled at me, so I smirked and blushed some more. Dad would never approve of this, so I never told him. Years later, when I recounted a similar experience in Life Drawing class, he practically lost his temper. "What the hell do you need to draw a naked woman for?!" he almost yelled. "Why not draw fruit!" I almost doubled over laughing at him for that one. My dear old Dad didn't get it at all - not back then. (He got it later, and eventually was 100% on board.)
In what could only have been some subconscious act of self-defeat, I actually slept in on Registration Day! I showed up hours late, in a panicky state, mentally berating myself with every put-down I knew, feeling sure that I had just fucked up the first good thing I'd ever done before even getting a chance to do it.
I wandered around the school for a few moments, not knowing where to go or who to speak with, but soon enough, I saw a familiar face, Dennis Rickett, the older bald English gent who had been one of my interviewers. I explained my predicament to him, and within a moment, I was sitting with two Foundation Instructors, John Wertschek (my other portfolio interviewer) and Sam Carter. Soon enough, they had me slotted into my Foundation classes, and I felt immensely relieved to have my situation sorted out.
Like every new school I've ever entered, my art school smelled unique - vaguely like acrylic paint and freshly cut cardboard. This was the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in September of 1985.
The white walls, blue doors and window frames and lego-like IKEA flooring hinted at a modernism that I wouldn't be familiar with for a year or two. Boys and girls with punk hairdos and black leather jackets strutted together looking like and talking about lifestyles that I was sure were foreign to me.
My first class, on the morning of my first day at Emily Carr was Creative Process, with John Wertschek. It felt like some alternate universe version of homeroom in high school: a bunch of young people blinking at each other across wide work tables, not knowing what to say. This was the first time I saw my classmates, and I could tell I wasn't the only young 'un in the room. John had set his room up with black walls, low lighting, and some nice Chinese paper lampshade hanging low over the massive table in the middle of the room. We did an exercise he called "The Rock Game". Everyone took a turn placing or moving a rock on the table. I didn't "know" what the hell I was supposed to do, but I felt something out of it, or at least I thought I did... I tended to worry about things in my life a lot, but that didn't help you in the rock game. You pretty much just had to do the game. I decided the rock game was very cool.
June 28, 2008
Little People Talking in Word Balloons.
My earliest memories of reading are the word balloons in the Sunday colour comics section of the Times-Colonist newspaper. I remember the smell and touch of the thin paper sheets, spread out on the fireplace hearth in Poppy's house (my maternal grandfather), at 1002 Cook Street in Victoria, BC. I would be laying flat on my belly with my noise an inch away from the paper, poring over every detail - immersed in some abstract world of various levels of meaning. I was engaged by the colour printing and fascinated by the sometimes crappy registration of the colours, which revealed to me the layered process that created the images and words. I read it all with curiosity and conviction, as if it were my personal bible. Many of the words I didn't understand, but I usually could infer the meaning by looking at the pictures.
The little rectangles of the Sunday colour comics, or the even tinier, more cryptic ones in the dailies, portrayed a small, safe world, full of familiar characters in familiar poses, doing and saying familiar things. It was a welcoming, non-challenging world of boxes - like pretty little presents served up by some unseen hands. I knew that the authors, whomever they were, were not speaking to me specifically, but were doing something like talking through their words and drawings. They were telling me their many stories. And from it, there was that same, warm comfort that I had experienced from hearing a bedtime or school-time story: "Oh boy! A story! What fun!"
Occasionally, I wondered who it was who drew and spoke through "Peanuts" (who was "Schulz"?) or "The Lockhornes". When I was five or six, much of the humour, sarcasm and double entendres of more the subtle newspaper strips, like "B.C." or "Rex Morgan, M.D." absolutely confused me.
Ah, Sweet Sarcasm and Scary, Grown-up Stuff
I have that same maternal Grandfather, Poppy, to thank for my becoming aware of other more mature forms of comics. Thanks to him, I got my hands on my first "Mad Magazine" and on Warren monster mags like "Creepy" and "Eerie". These were probably tossed in the trash by my Dad or my Grandmother, but it was the photographer's eye, and even more, the mischievous little boy in my dear old Poppy which brought me those little glimpses of a more daring, more grown-up and less saccharine world. Thanks in part to Mad (and more likely to my parents), I probably called my sister stupid for the first time, and used a disrespectful, sarcastic tone of voice when speaking to her. After this behaviour earned me a few raps on the head from my Dad, the sarcasm didn't seem quite so empowering.
The Warren mags showed me glimpses of men in mysterious space helmets blasting monsters while protecting voluptuous, scantily clad women. Most of this was beautifully rendered in stark black and white line art. The stories felt just a little dirty, and much more interesting and serious than the shallow Sunday funnies.
The darker, grittier themes really resonated with me as I got older. My earliest comic book memory was of a Batman comic that I thumbed through at a corner grocery store in Langley, around 1972, when I was about six. It might have been illustrated by Neil Adams - it was in his era - but the dark tones and sombre mood showed me that little colour comic books could have an adult level and depth of character as well. At the time, I didn't know why they appealed to me so much, but I just knew that I liked them.
Five or six years later, I rediscovered "Creepy" magazine at a local grocery, and knew I had to have it. Over the next few years, I bought "Creepy", "Eerie", "Vampirella" and "Famous Monsters of Filmland" as often as I could, and amassed a collection of 50 or 60 such magazines. After the Warren mags ceased publication in the early eighties, I began collecting Heavy Metal with much the same fervor.
Heavy Metal brought me back to that same mysterious, bad boy feeling that I'd enjoyed years before with Eerie, but this time, I could understand all the stories and the dialogue, and enjoyed it all in luxurious full-colour artwork by artists such as Bilal, Mobius, Corben, and McKie. I collected dozens of these mags too, and occasionally I will still pick one up today.
High School: A Good Place to Study Comics
Later on, to my great delight, I discovered that my high school library carried many hardcover books on the topic of comics and comic artists. I began to learn more about the origins and development of many famous heroes, and some of the culture that brought them into being.
I learned about Superman's genesis as a character, and the mythology of how he came to Earth as a superhuman protector of the world. I also learned about the Fantasic Four, and one of my all-time favourite characters, "Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds". The classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby story arc from the sixties showed me that little colour comics could contain immense scope in their plots, with grandiose and complex settings like alternate realities, and Gods walking the Earth, and abstract, massive-scale themes like the destruction of the world. With vague references to Neitcheism, Religion and Nihilism, the FF seemed to be written for dope-smoking college philosophy students. It was all served up with that blend of pathos, soap opera melodrama and bombastic exposition that characterized a Stan Lee Marvel tale. For pure energy and bang-per-buck, stuff-per-panel quotient, Marvel kicked DC's sorry ass up and down the block back in those days. The John Byrne era of "Fantastic Four", in the mid-eighties, is to me a high point for that series - a high-water mark both artistically and thematically. "THOOOM!" is still one of my favourite words.
The Best Panteon of Gods and Heroes
The more I read comics, the more interesting, god-like characters I discovered. The Marvel and DC Universes each have their own creation myth, and are crammed full with hundreds upon hundreds of beings, possessing varying degrees of superhuman abilities, comprising a vast pop culture mythological hierarchy. It's so complex now, that it makes the Pantheons of Greek or Hindu dieties seem like a laundry list, and has done a lot to confuse and even alienate some new readers.
All in all, I suppose that all this would make pop culture - more specifically comics - my true religion.
Happy I'm floating
Around on my feet now
You make me go dizzy
I'm weak at the knees
I feel like I'm walking
Round ten feet tall
Well you say I'm faking
And I say don't worry
The way that I bubble
There's something in the make
I feel like I'm walking
Round ten feet tall
Right, the chemistry is right
This boy has reached his height
The feeling just goes on and on...
From strength to strength
I'm ten feet long...
I feel like I'm walking
Round ten feet tall
June 19, 2008
Note: I didn't say "popular paperback writer" or "good paperback writer".
Just so you know, you were warned...
Need to catch up? Read Part 1...I am currently stuck at...
14. Here I am, waiting, waiting, waiting...
In late May, I submitted my final, proofread manuscript and my finished cover design artwork and in early June I uploaded related notes and instructions to the Publisher via email. So they now have everything needed to start creating a first draft for me to review and approve.
I have learned that a Printing Technician at the publisher has now finished assessing my materials - probably to see if they can get my draft composed within the 2 hours labour that my Publishing Package specifies. But, progress is happening: I have been assigned my ISBN number. Woo hoo - it's a book.
So, thus far, not much hand-holding through this process as far as I'm concerned (he said, wearing his "worried customer" hat), but now it's *completely* out of my control, so I must wait patiently while other people do their job...
I look forward to the next step...
April 09, 2008
Holy Cheesey, saw-them-comin'-a mile-away Batman! This is a monument to kitsch that makes other kitsch look pretty good...
March 05, 2008
Note: I didn't say "popular paperback writer" or "good paperback writer".
Just so you know, you were warned...
- Get laid off from your day job. Nothing motivates more than the fear of not having an income or a future.
- In 2002, I was laid-off after my employer, a small high-tech firm, ran out of money. Pending new financing (which was never a sure thing), I was back in the job market. After a fairly aggressive job search for the first month or two, I needed some kind of creative project to keep me from going totally loony. I decided to start writing a spoof or parody/social drama of the detective/adventure thriller genre, featuring a cast of low-income, East Vancouver characters. I took structural inspiration from Ian Fleming's James Bond thrillers, which have been a favourite of mine since I was in my teens.
- I started scribbling in a notebook, perched on the side of my bed mornings or nights. I tried to pin down the most significant characteristics of my key characters, basing them on traits from real people in my life. Some traits would be exaggerated to help identify a "type" or class for the character (good guy, bad guy, helper/friend, victim, observer).
- Kinda self-explanatory, but really the most difficult and time-consuming part. I had to just plunge into things on the page and not worry much about structural issues, just to get something down.
- As my story evolved and became more complex, I discovered that I really needed to pin down a time frame within which the whole story would take place. I needed to be certain about which events would be happening when, if they'd overlap or interact, and how long (realistically) each event would take to happen. Basically, my hope is that if this kind of detail is tended to, it creates a foundation of realism that can support more fantastic or less-than-likely situations.
- Whenever I was outside an area of personal expertise - if I wasn't sure about some fact or technical detail (like a detail in some character's past career), I'd find someone I could ask about it. In my case, I needed some terminology, procedures and place-names for a character who had retired from the military. I am fortunate to have a brother with a military background, and who has friends with similar backgrounds. I ended up with more information than I could use, but something of it will be useful in future stories, I expect.
- I started my initial writing and character development back in September of 2002. I got as finished as I could with a "final draft" by February of 2008. That's basically five and a half years of on-again-off-again effort.
- Occasionally, it was refreshing for me to spend a little time researching on the topics of publishing or book design. Almost all of this was done online. I ultimately decided to self-publish, primarily so that I could *ensure* that my novel would see the light of day under my own terms. I visualized a book being created - a physical novel being in my hands at the end of it. As I got more convinced that I was evolving an engaging work, it became easier to visualize it in some kind of finished form.
- Sometimes this was an inspiration. Other times, it was a distraction. Don't take too much time off from writing like this, or the damn thing will never get done!
- I looked at AuthorHouse and Trafford. I selected Trafford because they are Canadian and local to me. You can make your own decision.
- Take a break from it for a few days or a week. Then, read it through and see if you feel the same way.
- I've written enough technical stuff in my career to know that even when I think it's rock solid and has been double-checked, someone else will always find something I missed. I'd much rather be informed of a mistake by a pro on the inside of my project, than by a customer on the outside.
- Read everything carefully, phone or email to ask questions about anything you aren't sure of, and finally, sign the contract, and pay the money to do the self-publishing thing.
- Even at the edge of some burnout on the project, I decided to create original illustrations and a book cover design for my novel. I decided that people may look more favourably upon a novel that has an attractive, engaging and colourful cover. I wanted my book to look different from the other self-published books. I researched source imagery on the web, and got out the pencils, India ink and paper. And a scanner. And Photoshop. But that's just me.
- I have now submitted my manuscript to the Editor, and have begun the cover design artwork myself. I expect to hear from the Publisher before too long, so that I can get a little hand-holding through the rest of the publishing process.
- In a couple of months, I will have a bunch of books with my name on them, and my words in them. I intend to take a good long whiff of that lovely "new book smell" - savour the smell of success. It smells like... victory.
- Who can tell what will happen here. I'll update this later...
From Kevin Kelly's blog:
...the actual number may vary depending on the media. Maybe it is 500 True Fans for a painter and 5,000 True Fans for a videomaker. The numbers must surely vary around the world. But in fact the actual number is not critical, because it cannot be determined except by attempting it. Once you are in that mode, the actual number will become evident. That will be the True Fan number that works for you. My formula may be off by an order of magnitude, but even so, its far less than a million.
I've been scouring the literature for any references to the True Fan number. Suck.com co-founder Carl Steadman had theory about microcelebrities. By his count, a microcelebrity was someone famous to 1,500 people. So those fifteen hundred would rave about you. As quoted by Danny O'Brien, "One person in every town in Britain likes your dumb online comic. That's enough to keep you in beers (or T-shirt sales) all year."
Others call this microcelebrity support micro-patronage, or distributed patronage.