Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Character Design #5

Sure, it's been nearly a year since I posted Character Design #1, #2, #3 and #4, but what the heck. In preparing to give a workshop on "Designing Distinctive Characters" at this weekend's Alternative Press Expo (APE) in San Francisco, I've been mulling over a topic that I think is interesting but I haven't quite wrapped my brain around, and hope writing about it might help organize my thoughts. I also figure it's unlikely anyone attending the workshop will see this post. But Spoiler Alert!: If you read #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5 in addition to my write-up of the workshop I did at the Graphic Medicine Conference in Chicago, you pretty much don't need to show up to APE at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Today's topic comes out of a life-drawing class I took waaaaay back in college (geez, 30 years ago?!) and changed the way I look at designing and drawing characters. I don't even know what to call it: maybe it's the character's Core or Energy Center. The idea is that every character expresses their personality and pulls their strength from a place that affects how you depict them.

For example, a very emotional character's Energy Center might be their heart: when frightened they clutch their chest, when overjoyed they throw their arms open wide. Everything they do pulls toward or emanates from their heart. A very cerebral character's Energy Center might be his head. Other characters' might be their hips or fists or genitals. A character's Energy Center doesn't have to be within its body. One character can be pulled outward and upward to the stars, another grounded toward the earth. One character always charging forward, another always pulling back.

It sounds arty-farty woo-woo, but I've found this idea useful in very practical ways. Imagine you've got a group of characters standing in a boring line, but each is doing something different depending on their Energy Center. One's scratching her head, another's looking off into space, another's digging her toe into the ground, another's got his arms crossed in front of his chest. That's a much more interesting drawing! And if you depict your characters' Energy Centers consistently--if there's a reason this character scratches her chin while that character crosses his arms over his chest--I think over time it helps build their personalities in ways the reader doesn't consciously notice but picks up on anyway.

At the very least, it cues you to draw something more interesting than you might've otherwise thought of.

So far I've been describing a metaphorical Energy Center, but in some situations it can also find very literal expression in how your characters physically move. For example, the superhero Iron Man flies because he's got jets in his boots, whereas Thor flies by being pulled by his magic hammer. Iron Man is propelled from behind, Thor is dragged from ahead; their postures should look very different in flight. Comic book artist John Byrne once described how, when he drew Superman, he imagined he flew thanks to an extra Kryptonian organ in his chest. Now, Byrne never had to explicitly explain that, anymore than you need to reveal in your story what each of your characters' Energy Center is, but it gave him a handle to distinguish his Superman from all the other flying superheroes crowding the skies of Metropolis.

Byrne's Superman leads with his chest.

I think the more broad and cartoony your work is, the more you can play up the Energy Center idea. In my own work, I didn't do much with it in Mom's Cancer, which was a quiet, realistic story without a lot of physical action or extreme expression. In Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, Cap Crater's Energy Center is in the middle of his big barrel chest, the evil Dr. Xandra's is in his brain, while the Cosmic Kid's is about 12 feet in front of him, pulling him forward into action (without always thinking first).

As I said, I've found that identifying an Energy Center can be a very useful part of character design. If I can figure out how to say it right, I'll try to pass it on this Sunday.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Little One

Just had this cute little Magnitude 2.6 earthquake shudder through my house about 12 minutes ago. Its epicenter was 6 miles north and 3 miles down. No big deal, just a little reminder from the Earth that it's still there. Message received. Life appreciated.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Linked Out

I just closed my "LinkedIn" account. If you haven't heard of it, LinkedIn is a kind of Facebook for business people, ostensibly allowing them to network within their industry, refer clients to each other, assemble teams of experts, etc. I've had the account for four years and never gotten any real benefit out of it, and after receiving an e-mail from them this morning finally said, "You know what, I don't need that in my life." Apologies to the 42 Contacts I made (i.e., "Friends" in Facebook) who just lost mine.

Part of why I dropped LinkedIn is that I really have two careers that don't overlap and I like it that way. I get weirdly uncomfortable when Science Writer World and Comics World collide. I was once talking to a client about photovoltaic interconnection standards when he interrupted to ask, "Hey, did you do that comic book about cancer?" My stammering explanation would've made Porky Pig proud. I like my invisible irrational boundaries clean and high. So one problem with LinkedIn was that it lumped together contacts whom I had no desire to introduce to each other. (I wouldn't be surprised if LinkedIn had some function for sorting them into different groups but, again: more trouble than it was worth.)

Still, for something of so little value to me, it was amazingly hard to cut out of my life! I was fascinated observing myself struggling to push the button. There's some interesting psychology at play.

First, I think people--even natural loners--like to be part of a group. Any group will do. The Greeks considered exile a very harsh punishment. Voluntarily casting yourself out of the tribe is difficult.

Second, it's easier to stay in than get out. Staying in means I delete an e-mail once in a while. Takes a tenth of a second. Getting out means logging in, finding my account information, and navigating through several "Is there any way we can talk you out of quitting?" pleas. Not onerous, but it took a couple of minutes.

Third, I think there's a kind of gambler's fallacy operating: LinkedIn hasn't done anything for me the past 1400 days but maybe tomorrow will be the day it pays off. I'll get a great job offer or hear from someone really cool. One more day, what's the harm? In fact, I probably thought about closing my account two dozen times over the past several months but "one more day" always stopped me.

One of Jerry Seinfeld's oldest, best jokes is about how men use the TV remote control: click click click, blazing through 500 channels because we're not interested in what's on, we need to know what else is on. What am I missing? Maybe something great is happening on LinkedIn right now! Now I'll never know.

I wonder if these social media are more powerful and addictive than we think. I wonder if leaving Facebook would be like cutting off an arm for some people. I wonder if the people who operate and buy and sell advertising on those sites realize that. (Of course they do.) It's strange and funny and frightening how things that didn't exist a few years ago so quickly become absolutely essential.

Still, I figure that anyone with the slightest interest or reason to contact me doesn't need LinkedIn to do it. One of the benefits of having an odd surname is being extremely Googleable (I pity the poor "Steve Smiths" of the world whom nobody can ever find). If any of you 42 former Contacts want me for anything, here I am.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Anticipating APE (AnticipAPEtion?)

The program and workshop schedule for San Francisco's Alternative Press Expo (APE) is now out, and lists me giving a workshop on "Designing Distinctive Characters" on Sunday, October 2 at 2 p.m., just as I said a couple of weeks ago. I like APE. It's a smallish, affordable con infused with an independent do-it-yourself spirit but put on by the people who do the big San Diego Comic-Con, so it's very professionally run.

Workshop organizer Andrew Farago told me 20 or so people typically show up for the workshops. That's a nice size. Out of curiosity, I checked the events program to see what else is happening Sunday afternoon and discovered that my workshop overlaps two spotlight panels featuring Webcartooning Sensation (and object of my secret cartoonist's crush) Kate Beaton and "Guy Whose New Book Habibi Will Win Every Award in Comics Plus Maybe a Super Bowl Ring" Craig Thompson.

This tells me three things: 1) APE attracts great guests. 2) I won't be able to see those guests because I'll be giving my workshop. 3) Nobody's coming to my workshop.

Ah well. I'll do my best for whoever shows. It's a challenge because I'd really like to make it as unlecturelike and hands-on as possible. I don't expect to have any AV support. Just me, an easel, and two or three upturned faces daring me to justify why they passed up Beaton and Thompson for me. I'm already having anxiety nightmares about it. Stop staring at me!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I saw surprisingly little mention in the press commemorating the anniversary of that terrible day, 12 years ago yesterday, when a nuclear waste dump exploded on the Moon and propelled it deep into interstellar space. How quickly we forget. I still miss the tides.

No word from my publisher on my Mystery Project X book proposal but that's all right; I'm knee-deep (that's more than ankle-deep and less than hip-deep) in Mystery Project Y, which I'm also very excited about. They're very different in both form and content, which lets me flex different writing and drawing muscles. I also think I could get Y done much faster than X, so it may zoom ahead in my queue. That's assuming either of them actually flies, which is quite in doubt. If Editor Charlie can't do X, others have expressed interest in publishing it. If not them, maybe I need to revisit webcomics. It worked out all right before. On the other hand, it's a lot of work.

Backing me up on that last thought is this blog post by comic book artist Stephen Bissette explaining why he will not draw your graphic novel for you (hat tip to my pal Mike Lynch for the link). A lot of people contact Bissette absolutely positive that they've got a great idea for a best-selling book if only he would do them the favor of providing the art--often for free, although he'll obviously be richly rewarded when the money truck backs up to the author's door. Bissette's answer is kind but blunt:

* Drawing a graphic novel takes a long time--much longer than scripting one. How will he buy food and pay rent during those months or years?

* You are probably not interested in giving him the share of ownership, rights and control over the project that he'd want to make it worth his while. Even in the best professional arrangements, collaborating is creatively, ethically and legally difficult.

* If he had the time to draw your graphic novel, he'd much rather spend it working on one of his own ideas that he hasn't had time to pursue.

I receive a few e-mails like this. However, I think mine have a different cast to them because they're often from people who've read Mom's Cancer, gone through something similar in their own families, and with the very best intentions want to tell their story in the same way. They mean well, they don't know cartooning or publishing, but they're just aching to get it out somehow. I understand that.

My answer has the virtue of being both sincere and true: I can't tell your story. I don't know you. I wasn't there. Anything I'd draw would be second-hand reporting at best, lies at worst. The only person who can tell your story is you, and if you can't draw then you should find some other way. Writing, photography, video, HTML, collage, macaroni sculpture. If the message is important and true, the medium is nearly irrelevant.

Beyond that, my unspoken answer is the same as Bissette's: I don't have the time. If I did have the time, I'd rather spend it on my own projects (X, Y and beyond) that aren't repeats of things I've already done. There's probably no money in it for me; if there is, it isn't enough to pay me even near minimum wage for the hours I'd spend. I'm sympathetic and charitable, but not a solid one or two years' of hard work worth.

I think the disconnect here is that a lot of people don't realize how difficult it is and how long it takes. "They're simple cartoon drawings! You can bang them out in a few hours!" I take it as a compliment that I maybe make it look easy, but it's not. Mom's Cancer was the toughest thing I've ever done creatively, for obvious reasons. But even on Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, which didn't impose the same emotional toll, I did thousands of hours of work and gathered thousands of pages of research (literally--I have three 500-page binders stuffed with material). Both projects demanded long months of total immersion. You're asking a lot.

I'm not whining--no one's ever held a gun to my head, and it beats coal mining. Just explaining why I Will Not Draw Your Graphic Novel Either.

* * *

Please allow me to draw your attention to two new Web thingies. First, a new blog by Friend O' The Blog Jim O'Kane, whose topics have already included fiddling, trains and 19th Century rocketry, so you know he's my kind of guy.

Second, the new home of the Toon Talk forum, recently relocated to a Facebook Group. Toon Talk was begun 10 years ago by cartoonist Darrin Bell ("Rudy Park," "Candorville") and for a long time was a nice place for pros and fans to meet and talk all types of comics. As sometimes happens, people gradually fell away and the forum became a ghost town. Honestly, I stopped visiting myself. When Darrin's web host wanted $250 he didn't have, Darrin moved the whole kit 'n kaboodle to free Facebook, where it's gotten more traffic in three days than it did in the past 30 months. I know not everyone does Facebook but I think it's a big improvement. Nice people, check it out.

* * *

I'll be visiting the USS Hornet again this weekend. Anybody want me to pick them up anything?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Earth Below Us, Drifting, Falling

A lot of folks are posting new photos from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) that show the landing sites of Apollos 12, 14 and 17. I mentioned them myself on my WHTTWOT Facebook Fan Page (and the NASA link I provide there is certainly worth a look; I particularly like the slider feature that lets you compare old and new photos of the same sites). But Friend O' The Blog Mike "Sligo" Harkins was the first to send me this video that offers a neat tour of the Apollo 17 site.

The LRO, which has been circling and mapping the Moon since 2009, already photographed all of the Apollo landing sites a while ago.
I blogged about it. What's new is that the LRO recently dropped into a lower orbit that allows much sharper pictures showing a lot more detail. It is completely astounding to me that, nearly 40 years after the last human (so far!) walked on the Moon, we've got a satellite up there taking pictures of their footprints.

Nine of the 12 men who walked on the Moon are still alive. I think it would be fascinating if someone sat them down with these photos and interviewed them. Of course they've all been interviewed to death; the difference now is that we could literally trace every step they took: Why'd you stop here? What were you looking for there? Why that route? Why this detour? I'd expect it to dredge up details they haven't thought about since, providing a nice commentary on history by the men who made it.

The Moon Hoaxers--purveyors of the amazingly widespread belief that the U.S. faked the whole thing--have been pretty low-profile lately. Of course the LRO photos would be no problem for them to explain away. After all, they're from NASA. But technology is implacably demolishing the Hoaxers' case. In the short run, those sad, stupid people can make some harmful mischief; in the long run, they're irrelevant. The Truth is Out There, and will be for millions of years after they're gone.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kazu Kibuishi

Karen and I went to the Charles M. Schulz Museum this afternoon to see Kazu Kibuishi, creator of the bestselling Amulet series for kids, the well-regarded Flight anthologies, and one of the sweetest little webcomics ever, Copper. I'd never met him but I know a lot of people who know him. It's a small world.

Here's how small: below is an accurate swear-on-a-stack-of-Bibles transcript of the first words Kazu and I exchanged:

Me: "I'm really happy to meet you. I'm Brian Fies, I did a couple of books called Mom's Cancer and Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow."

Kazu: "Oh! I know Charlie!"

Son of a . . .

"Charlie" is of course my Editor Charlie Kochman, whom I've joked before knows everybody in the business and gets treated like the Godfather at a Sinatra concert when he walks the aisles of Comic-Con. I'd forgotten that Kazu recently signed with my publisher Abrams to produce a new anthology titled Explorer, edited by oh you know who. Still, the fun of everyone I meet saying "Oh, I know Charlie!" is wearing thin.

[CORRECTION: Editor Charlie sez in the comments that Kazu's editor at Abrams is Sheila Keenan, not him. My misunderstanding. I know Sheila. In fact, that's what I should have said to Kazu: "Oh, I know Sheila!" Four days too late.]

Normally I'd hate someone so much more talented, successful and younger than me, but Kazu gave such a warm, authentic, interesting, unassuming talk that I can't bring myself to whip up more than a mild envious resentment. In addition, he and I seem to have similar philosophies about what comics can be and how they should be made (I've said some of the same things in talks I've given) that I almost feel I found a brother. A more talented, successful, younger brother.

Since I was at the head of the line waiting for autographs, we only had a minute to talk. I hope I have a chance to really sit down and spend some time with him someday.

Maybe at Charlie's.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Going APE (groan)


I just firmed up that I'll be doing a workshop on "Designing Distinctive Characters" at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in San Francisco at 2 p.m. Sunday, October 2.

This'll be interesting and, I expect, fun. First of all, APE is a neat off-kilter con: intimate, small-press, undergroundish, literary. Not a lot of Wolverines roaming the aisles.

Second, it was only after I told Andrew Farago (director of SF's Cartoon Art Museum in charge of wrangling workshoppers for APE) I'd love to do it that he revealed there's no AV or projector capability. Nothing but a big pad of paper and an easel. There go all my neat examples and demonstrations. I considered backing out, but Andrew is such a powerfully intimidating figure--he's basically the Bay Area's Godfather of Comics--I didn't have the courage. Still, I like the idea of standing in front of 20 people armed with nothing but my dull wits and a sharp Sharpie; heaven forbid, I might actually have to draw.

Some semi-related disappointing news was announced today: WonderCon, a little sister to the big San Diego Comic-Con that's traditionally been held in San Francisco in the spring, is going to Anaheim for 2012. It got booted from its home at the Moscone Convention Center due to ongoing renovations. I'd just come to regard WonderCon as my comics convention--near my home, inexpensive, and more human-scale than the San Diego asylum--and I'll miss it. Man, I hope it comes back.

(Andrew's actually a nice guy.)

(I don't want to wake up to find Marmaduke's head in my bed, the sheets soaked black with ink.)