Monday, December 29, 2014

Silver John (or John the Balladeer)

Back during my pre-Halloween enjoy-spooky-stories period I was also getting into old folk recordings and roots music, and it was the absolutely perfect time to be introduced to Manly Wade Wellman's SILVER JOHN character, which combines the two.  Ive read the first story collection and have tracked down the first three novels, which I'm looking forward to reading as soon as my schedule permits.

Historical Pirates and Rebels of the West Indies!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Revisiting the Scene Puzzle

When it comes to how we approach our work, some cartoonists are analytical, some of intuitive (which is a less clunky way of saying UNCONSCIOUSLY analytical; there’s still a lot of learning and decision-making going on, it’s just internalized).   Most have one foot in the other camp to some degree, but I think that the majority either do things because they feel right and practice and experience and taste let us know whether or not we’re making the right decision, or we make our decisions based on considered principles that we’ve either learned or created for ourselves.  I expect that much of an artist’s self-improvement over the years is based on his or her ability and willingness to lean ever further away from that natural inclination, steadily absorbing the principles of the other side.  

I’m analytical, which I found to be a real boon to my teaching experience.  And I was really excited about teaching a graduate course called “Exploring the Narrative.”

I took this same course when I was in grad school, and it was a train wreck.  We learned… 


Seriously, nothing (life lessons aside).  That’s not an exaggeration.  At a certain point in the class, well past the halfway five-week mark, another student (more outspoken than myself, which isn’t something I general encounter) asked directly “are we going to learn how narratives work?”  When pressed as to what he meant, he, and the rest of us, got more specific:  are we going to learn any principles, any philosophy or technical approach that will allow us to approach narrative with any sort of foundation that we can use to build our stories?  The teacher, irritated, said “Well, I guess not.  No.”  Most (maybe all, but I doubt it, and can’t remember) of the class walked out.  Most of us were absolutely bristling with rage at the refusal of our teacher to familiarize himself with the concepts that he was charged with imparting to us.

I had never read McKee, or Field, or Campbell, or anyone else like that; I didn’t know that they existed.  But I had a belief that storytelling, like anything else, must have foundational principles upon which to build, hard rules from which one could, of course, deviate… but I hadn’t the slightest idea what those rules were, and the class in which I expected to learn them did not deliver.

I was making my first “real” book, Crogan’s Vengeance (soon to be released in a new color version retitled Catfoot’s Vengeance),  at this time, in grad school.  I was doing my best to be analytical about its structure, but I lacked the tools with which to approach it the way I wanted.  So I considered my favorite comic, Jeff Smith’s Bone.  A Bone trade collection was made up of six issues.  So I decided to have five cliffhanger moments and a climax, each at roughly twenty-four page intervals.  That was the extent of my structure.

And so I approached the book more intuitively than I otherwise might’ve.  Luckily, intuitively doesn’t mean thoughtlessly.  I, like most of us, had internalized a lot of storytelling principles through the narratives that I had consumed.  And so the book, while as flawed as anything I’ve done, holds up much better than I would have thought it might given how I was flying blind the whole time.

Anyway, when I was pegged to teach the class a few years later, I decided that it was to be the complete opposite of the class that I had taken.  If there was going to be a narrative course, then by God we would understand the foundational principles of narrative. 

Each year I built up the class (and my own knowledge) a little more, started compiling the best bits from different writers and theorists, delving into as much literary theory as I could and trying to give the students something of a humanities primer (a subject not required by the college, which infuriated, and still infuriates, me… half a dozen required esoteric art history courses but they’re never expected to learn the standard stuff that folks assume you’ve gotten with your higher education), touching on Aristotle’s poetics and Horace and Longinus and Pope and Shakespeare, anything applicable.  We mushed up Story and Save the Cat and Screenplay and Mamet and talked about how Campbell is only applicable when dealing with two of Frye’s five modes of literature and how the Abrams classification of theories is a direct corollary to McCloud’s Four Tribes of Comics and why a teaser intro is a good idea in a genre story and how Galaxy Quest improves upon the Chekhov’s Gun principle and… a lot of stuff.  And man, I loved that class.  I absolutely loved it.  I was lucky to always have enthusiastic, engaged students, but everyone was always at the top of their game in narrative and its undergraduate parallel Scriptwriting.

I feel like one of the most important parts of teaching is making the effort to quantify everything.  To establish rules for why something works.  If it deviates from those rules and still works, then we have to be able to ascertain the reason.  If it follows the rules and fails, we have to be able to understand why and establish further parameters inside which failure is less likely to occur.

This may sound like it’s the easiest way to suck the fun/life/artistry out of storytelling, and it’s probably the mindset that drives the economics of the Hollywood studio system that is so often lambasted for simplifying process down to formula.  But when your goal is to make good stories then you (or at least I) want all the tools at my disposal.  I may not use all of them (and much of my last year has been an attempt to lighten the tool box, to extend the analogy) but I want to have them so that I can make a conscious choice as to whether or not I’ll use them.

 One of the things that I did, for myself and for the class, was to work up a sort of “table of contents” for story structure.  I would change it drastically each quarter, but it’s generally built on the idea of three-act structure, though I feel like the traditional second act is actually three very distinct parts, the first two quarters each constituting their own section and the second half, creating five acts, though not five acts in the Shakespearian format, where the true complications arise in the second act (mine still pop up in the first). 

Anyway, I began to use this in my own stories.  My hope was to eventually perfect it as a model which could be used on all of my projects, shaving off time and allowing me to focus on the execution of details.  Painting a car instead of building it.  I even went so far as to assign page numbers to each stage of the story.  For example, from The Creeps:

Pages 51-59: First minor showdown with monster intertwined with supporting character’s arc
For the first time, the reader sees the monster and there is now certainty of what the Creeps face.  In a monster story, this would kill the suspense – once you see the monster, it’s less scary.  But this is a mystery, so we can now have fun depicting the monster while still eliciting the suspense of its motivations or origins.
The support character is involved in this event, and the encounter serves to highlight the moral need on the part of the Creeps to address whatever problem he or she may be facing.

The trouble with this is that it doesn’t work.  In working out the outline I almost immediately stray from the page numbers and end up omitting large sections, or adding to them.  It might work as a starting point, but if the goal was to eliminate a step, then attempting to composite a universal theory of narrative at the onset of every project means that goal failed spectacularly.

But more than this:  In an effort to trim the narrative fat, I’m losing something.  In a conversation I just had with Tony Cliff (if you want to hear the part in which we talk about this, it starts around 1:12:50), I found that one of the things that I was losing was tangential scenes.  Fun bits, informative bits, sequences that do nothing for narrative propulsion but which give warmth and color to a tale.  But that’s not the big thing.

I’m no longer thinking of scenes.

When I started making books, I would think about the time period, the genre, and the location, and I would think about what scenes I wanted in the book.  I’d write them all down on post-its and put them on a big posterboard and move them around and add bits and pieces until there was a logical progression.  A scene puzzle on a scene board.  And that was it.

I don’t think I consider scenes anymore.  At least, not at the forefront of crafting a narrative. 

And that’s lousy!  I like working towards fun, visual scenes.  Without them, this is a stiff, talking head medium.  And I think I’ve gotten so wrapped up in the mechanics of plot that I’ve been neglecting that the narrative needs to work on a predominantly visual level, and good scenes are visual scenes.  Locale and color direction and staging trump dialogue and emotion every time.  Not that they’re mutually exclusive, but I’ve been so focused on the latter that I’m forced to consider the former in the execution of the pages, making that part of the job a lot more difficult (how do I make this info dump library scene visually compelling?).  If I were going scene-first, they wouldn’t be in a library.  They’d be hanging on top of a bookmobile on its way back from the VA hospital reading a heisted book that they've been expressly prohibited from checking out.  Which of those two possibilities would you remember after you’d read it?

So the conclusion I’ve come to is this, though it will likely change drastically as I attempt its implementation: Don’t write to structure.  At least, I shouldn’t, the way I have been.

Write to SCENES in your initial draft, THEN craft it to fit the tight structure.  There probably won’t even be that much by way of changes, really, and it’ll keep those visually iconographic moments key in your mind while you’re working.

Are there dangers here?  Absolutely.  When something artificially builds to what the creator intends to be a stay-with-you visual scene, you can tell, and you can feel it (as Falynn Koch brought up in class years ago, the entirety of the library characters' storyline in Day After Tomorrow is clumsily intended to lead directly to the boat wolves scene).  And working on hard genre stuff as I do there’s always the temptation – a temptation to which I’ve succumbed in the past – to knowingly or subconsciously borrow heavily from the visual iconography of existing scenes from that genre.  There can be a way of doing that successfully (Gore Verbinski is an example of a guy who explicitly borrows from visual genre conventions but does so in a way that makes the work uniquely his own), but the balance between originality and hearkening is one that has to be carefully struck.  But I think the benefits outweigh the reservations; I’ll be giving the old scene board another go.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

New Crogan Trade Dress

Final cover for Volume 1
For those of you who are Crogan Adventures fans (or members of the Crogan Adventure Society) it probably seems like I've abandoned the series.  It's been more than three years since the last full-length Crogan Adventures book came out, and I haven't posted much Crogan stuff in 2014.

There have been a few reasons for this lack of updates.  One is that I've been working on other projects.  I have a middle reader horror series (The Creeps) coming out from Abrams Amulet in 2015 which I've been writing, drawing, and coloring with the intention of releasing two full-length books per year, and I've been doing animation design work for a couple of TV shows.

I have been working on Crogan stuff, too, but it's been under wraps.  Though I've spoken about our intention to do so casually, we've never formerly announced that there will be color editions released of the existing Crogan Adventures books, and that's what's been taking most of my Crogan attention lately.  Keeping it close to the vest until we've solicited the books was always an intention, and now that it's available for preorder I can come out and give the skinny.

I'll talk more at length about the decision to go to color on the existing books later this week.  It was not made lightly.

Since the books are going to be different, we didn't want there to be any confusion on the part of readers when it came to what they were buying.  So we decided to take the opportunity to make a new trade dress for the books.  I'm working again with Keith Wood, who designed the original trade dress, and we decided to push the books in a more hand-done direction, eschewing type and logo for hand-lettering, as it better fits with the aesthetic of the pages themselves.

I went through a LOT of variations, trying to find one that would work.  The original dress was inspired by the 1990s British Harper Collins trade paperback editions of George MacDonald Fraser's The Flashman Papers series, but I finally felt comfortable enough this go 'round in my own aesthetic that I didn't feel the need to play off of existing designs (though my current cover sensibility owes a great deal to principles that I've picked up by studying the work of my good friend Francesco Francavilla, whose masterful design skills and courage in the employment of loose hand has given me the approbation and confidence to tackle the use of text with a similar cavalarity).

I'd done mock-ups for covers of Crogan's Escape, which I had intended to serialize, and had enjoyed attempting to play with a limited palette.  As I don't think i've posted these before, I'll post them now.  They affected later decisions made.

I really liked the employment of the title anywhere, and considered trying to go this route with the new trade dress.  Series consistency, though, would require a consistent color palette (at least by my reckon), and I didn't like that.  Whatever colors are used on March would be a poor fit with Loyalty, and I expect that dissonance would only grow as new books came out.

One of the contenders was an attempt at highbrow, trying to think what reissues might look like years from now if everyone was already familiar with the content.  For those I thought a monochromatic environmental scene would be the way to go, pushing the sense of place (and, to some degree, the sense of period).

But in the end, character wins out.  After a lot of attempts, I finally hit what I thought might be a good foundation upon which to build the new trade dress:

My thought was that each book would consist of five colors: a consistent off-white, a consistent black, and a consistent tan that would be used on each cover.  Then there would be a bold color for use in the title and to pull focus to the character depicted, and a background.  The uniformity of the first three colors would tie the series together and a flexible template would help keep the designs tight.

You can see Francesco's influence here, in the inclusion of the publisher logo in the upper left corner.  It's an old paperback standard that's started to come into vogue again (other folks besides Francesco, especially those with comic bends, make plenty of use of it, too), and I like it.  When agreed to by the author I think it showcases an acknowledgment that publishing is just as much a commercial exercise as it is an artistic one.  I think I've stated before that my definition of comics includes a clause stating that there is an intention of reproduction, and the publisher logo highlights this.  Thematically, it ties in with my ideology, and I like the aesthetic a lot, too, especially if one is permitted to redraw the logo in one's own hand.

My editor didn't like the inclusion of the logo, and that's fair.  They're the company putting out the book and me putting it on the cover is a little at odds with the creators-first reputation that they've worked to cultivate.  Likewise, we had a lot of back-and-forth about whether to include a volume number.  From a sales standpoint, it would probably help, encouraging retailers to keep the full range of books and prompting readers to fill in the gaps in their collection.  But it might prevent a casual reader from picking up a volume that might interest him or her because it's not the first.  As the books are written with the full intention of making each volume stand on its own, this is an important factor, and one which my editor championed.  As of now, the prominent volume number has been removed, its only remnant a modest nod on the spine, for the ease of cataloguing ones' holdings (my hope is that I eventually make so many as to frazzle those with a collection as to their chronology).  This, too, may end up getting the axe before press, but for now I think it a serviceable compromise between the two notions.

My editor (whom I keep mentioning without identifying, it's James Lucas Jones) approached a lot of retailers, sales reps, librarians, etc, to discuss what would be best for the books' reception: individual titles (Crogan's Vengeance, Crogan's March, etc) or a series title (The Crogan Adventures).  The answer, across the board, was series title, with the individual titles being the names of each respective volume.  Though this tightens the design a bit (I like the freedom of having to revisit the text each time) it is a charming notion, its only obstacle perhaps being that casual reader thing, and maybe award nods.  But the latter is an ego concern that ought to be immediately dismissed.  Another perk is that the series, called "The Crogan Adventures," might finally enter the lexicon of folks who like it; as it stands, folks call it anything from "The Crogan series" to "Crogan's Adventures" to "The Crogan Family Adventures," and any number of other variations.  A fixed name might encourage uniformity, which might bolster easier recognition.  This does, however, mean that my "(whoever) Crogan in" thing no longer works, which kind of bums me out.  I liked that.

I went through a pass of Spines (included are the final cut):

The width of the spine (and estimated width on subsequent books) rendered pretty much all of these unusable, but the basis was there, notably in making the series name go from two lines to one.

Here's the first rough pass at the wraparound: 

I used the roughs as the pencils for the solicitation cover:

And yesterday finished up the final cover and wraparound, still subject to editorial change and notes from Keith:

And I just realized that the West Indies thing on the front cover ought to be yellow-gold, not off-white.  Oops!  Time to edit and resubmit.  Or maybe it's better off-white.  Actually, it's kind of growing on me.

You may have noticed that the title of this particular installment is Catfoot's Vengeance rather than Crogan's Vengeance.  The repeat of "Crogan" seemed a bit much, and I thought that completely departing from the original title might be better for series installments, but James (rightfully) was concerned that, was "Vengeance" not in the title, that readers might be confused and buy this thinking it a new book and not a reissue.  I expect the third book will just be called "Loyalty," and I have no clue as to what the second one will be called.  "March" always felt like a working title, and I'd like to come up with something a little more thematic, as it is, for better or worse, a more philosophical and meandering book than the others.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Over the Garden Wall? Nope, Star Wars.

I've been wanting to draw Star Wars stuff this week, but I've also been REALLY enjoying repeat watchings of OVER THE GARDEN WALL, a truly wonderful animated miniseries with spectacular music.  So I split the difference and drew this.

I also made a shirt, because I guess people like shirts:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Alligator Horses

Happy Veterans Day! Here's a vet drawing for with a fellow from two hundred years ago.

We got our rear ends handed to us in the War of 1812, but were able to salvage a modicum of military dignity solely on the virtue of our performance in the Battle of New Orleans.  Though Jackson's artillery was the most important factor in the win, it was Henry Clay's Kentucky Riflemen that faced the harshest conditions and the toughest odds, and garnered our state with its national reputation for toughness and tenacity bred of rurality and a youthful reliance on the violent arts.

"We are a hardy, free-born race,
Each man to fear a stranger;
Whate’er the game, we join in chase,
Despising toil and danger.
And if a daring foe annoys,
Whate’er his strength and forces,
We’ll show him that Kentucky boys
Are alligator horses."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Monday, October 20, 2014

October Monster Drawing #17: Florida Skunk Ape!

Or Florida Swamp Ape.  Different folks call it different things.  Me, I reckon that, like the monkeys of Silver Springs*, it was an animal (I'm guessing an orangutan, or more than one) left or escaped during the filming of a B jungle picture and set up shop along I-75.  Though I also dig the idea that it's an indigenous species that attacked conquistadors when they came to close to the fabled fountain,  Either way, Pee-yoo!

*yes, I know the Tooey version of the monkey story, I prefer the Tarzan version, anachronistic though it may be)

October Monster Drawing #16: Graveyard Zombie!

After Voodoo zombies held sway in the public imagination, but before virus-based zombies turned the notion into a pathogenic one, the idea of dead folks just gettin' up and walkin' around was at its zenith.  Whether they were just shambling around trying to get people (like in Night of the Living Dead), or seeking revenge against their murderers (like in any number of old EC horror comics), these guys are hands down the creepiest.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

October Monster Drawing #15: Cthulhu

From the truly terrifying 1926 novella "The Call of Cthulhu," by H.P. Lovecraft.  Super giant underwater monster awakened after centuries of slumber.  I can't remember if the book describes it as being green, that's sort of the default color folks generally use when drawing it.  If not, I'm lazy!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October Monster Drawing #13: Hopkinsville Goblin!

These little guys cause all sorts of mischief in my hometown back in the 1950s, and have the distinction of being the cryptids/aliens(?) with the most witnesses to their existence, including police and fire departments. 
The air force investigation suggested that the most likely explanation was that the farms had been attacked by escaped, shaved circus monkeys that had been painted silver(?????). 
UFO enthusiasts have latched on to the alien theory, but I always figured that they were Tommyknockers driven surfaceside by strip mining.

Monday, October 13, 2014

October Monster Drawing #12: Ghost Rider in the Sky

Their faces gaunt, the eyes were blurred, their shirts all soaked with sweat
They're ridin' hard to catch that heard but they ain't caught 'em yet
For they've got to ride forever on that range up in the sky
On horses snortin' fire
As they ride on hear their cry

Saturday, October 11, 2014

October Monster Drawing #11: Genie!

We mostly think of the lovable Robin Williams Genie, but Djins are scary, man.  There have been good spooky ones in a variety of stories, from the original Arabian Nights to Thief of Baghdad to TV's Supernatural to Pierre Alary's Sinbad comic, to which this design probably owes something.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Thursday, October 9, 2014

October Monster Drawing #9: The Grunch!

I moved to Kentucky when I was eleven, but before that I'd lived in Louisiana.  And man, were we steeped in creepy stories down there.  One of my favorite local monsters was the Grunch.  The Grunch has a lot of different names, depending on which parish you're in. Sometimes it varies from town to town.

Story goes like this: You're out driving, you see a goat, you think "hot dog, that goat would make good eating!"  You stop the car, and you're never seen again - eaten by the Grunch.

Don't stop for the goat!

We called it the Grunch, but I had a friend who called it the Vampire Goat, and a teacher that called it the Devil Baby.

There have been a variety of narratives for the Grunch legend, and most of them revolve around a community of folks pressured to leave New Orleans because of some unusual genetic trait - dwarfism, albinism, stuff common enough to occur with some frequency but uncommon enough to cause distress to the population of superstitious pirate descendants.  These folks banded together outside New Orleans.  Now there are a few different versions of how they came to be involved with the Grunch.  One (which I don't like because of how it cartoonizes and demonizes the outcasts) is that after a few generations of inbreeding there's a terrible cannibal kid genetically adapted to living in the swamps and hungry for human blood.  The other popular take is that, consistently oppressed and occasionally attacked by New Orleans folk, the community either 1. prayed to god for OR 2. asked a vodou priestess to give them a guardian.  God or the priestess obliged, and whenever someone travels the road to the settlement intent on doing the outcasts harm, they see the goat on the roadside.

So here's my take on the Grunch: a breed of long-legged (there's fossil precedent for this), tall crested alligator that can be mistaken for a goat in poor light.  

October Monster Drawing #8: Frost Zombie!

Whether they’re just arctic undead that muscle their way out of icebergs or they’re white walkers heading for the wall, these guys are probably pretty cold.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October Monster Drawings #7: Jiang Shi

Today's monster is the Jiang Shi, a kind of zombie or vampire from China that hops around and drains you of your life force.  You can hit the pause button by putting a slip of paper with a spell written on it on its forehead.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

October Monster Drawings #5: Voodoo Zombie!

Long before George Romero turned zombies into brain-eating monsters, Zombies were terrifying for the same reason that they work narratively now: you could be next.

The difference is that, a century ago, becoming a zombie was not a result of death or of being bitten by a zombie, but the active work of a Bokor, a vodou witch.  And it wasn't the dead that walked, but living people drugged into mental incompetency and forced into servitude.  In horror stories, they're usually sent to grab the protagonist (or the protagonist's love interest) for the purpose of bringing him or her to the sorcerer to meet the same fate.

I read Zora Neale Hurston's thing on zombies in Haiti when I was in college, and her subject, the unfortunate Felicia, has always tuck in my mind as the visual icon for voodoo zombies.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

October Monster Drawing #2: Jenny Haniver!

These little monsters will tear the bottom out of a fishing boat and pull you down into the watery depths, but they're also pretty easy to catch.  Fisherman used to dry them out and sell them to tourists in port cities.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Abandoned Troll Design

This was an early pass at a troll design for the next Creeps book, Internet Trolls, basically an alligator head with ears and tusks.  I've moved in a different direction, and as such feel free to share it now!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Ten Books that Stay With You

My friend and former student Liz Enright challenged me to that ten-books-that-stayed-with-you thing.  So here's a handful!

The Hollywood History of the World, by George MacDonald Fraser
Fraser’s critique of period/historical films, how the measure up with real history, how they measure up as movies, and when it’s okay for the former to stray for the betterment of the latter is my moral compass for dealing with historical fiction.

Women and War, vols 1 & 2, by Bernard A. Cook
I was dismissive of the idea of black history month, women’s history month, etc, when I was younger, not understanding why folks weren’t just ingrained into regular history lessons.  It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found the problem.  I’d read probably two or three dozen books about the American Revolution that never touched on the black experience outside of the context of slavery, and it wasn’t until (at the request of one of the editors of my study guide) I went actively looking for that information that I found tons of stuff about the black loyalists, which served as the basis for an admittedly clunky short comic that I did in 2012.  I was really pretty shocked – how was this stuff not included in any of the general histories, many of which were long and expansive works?
The same thing was the case with women in their role in history, especially warfare.  Cook’s encyclopedia is a great jumping off point to many women who did extraordinary things but who are largely ignored in history books, and provides great references and bibliography by which one can find the primary and secondary sources for each entry.

Don’t Know Much About the Bible, by Kenneth C. Davis
The first book I ever read in which the historical, social, and literary contexts of the Bible are addressed, even though content is the book's key focus.  I grew up in an area where biblical literalism (by my reckon an extremely short-sighted theological stance that passed its one-hundredth birthday earlier this decade) held a lot of sway, but which kind of falls apart on critical consideration… or at least, it did for me, and did for many of my friends.  Seeing how the church's interpretation of faith changes radically from generation to generation is what allowed me to keep mine.

The Synonym Finder, by J. J. Rodale
It might be weird to put a thesaurus on the list, but this is one heck of a thesaurus.  The first time reading it gave me a glimpse into the nearly limitless sea of words that I’d always taken for granted.  I know folks who read the dictionary, but the dictionary sucks, it’s like 90% plants.  The synonym finder gives you all the good stuff without the chaff.

Marvel Masterworks vol. 1: The Amazing Spider-Man issues 1-10 (and Amazing Fantasy #15)
I got this book as a kid, probably eight or nine years old.  The crux of Spider-Man’s origin story isn’t the radioactive spider thing, it’s this: He saw a robbery and did nothing to stop the robber.  That robber later kills his uncle, the man who raised him.
That stuck with me hard as a kid.  Inactivity equals responsibility is what I took away from that, and I believe it.  If someone, say, is driving at night without his or her headlights on, and I don’t flash my lights to alert them to that fact, then I am responsible for any accident that they might get in.
Though there’s a hypocrisy to it, this idea pretty much only applies to my day-to-day interactions.  If it were a real driving force for me, I would be somewhere doing something selfless instead of sitting around drawing comics.  I love drawing comics, but it’s not giving anyone fresh drinking water.

Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly
The first nonfiction history book I ever read for fun as an adult (probably 20ish).  Cordingly’s book did something important for me – it argued that our popular conceptions of history are often rooted in fact (in this case, pirates wearing striped shirts or having parrots) that becomes such a part of the stereotype/cultural impression that we begin to think that it must be wholly fictional, a cartoon.  This sort of notion carries to many different periods and identities, and it’s important to keep in mind before stripping away the genre conventions when those genre conventions are often deeply rooted in history.

On Writing and Dance Macabre by Stephen King
I’m lumping these two together because it’s tough for me to distinguish them in my head.  These were the first books-about-making-stories-by-a-storyteller that I read, and they’ve likely had no small impact on me.  I’m a sucker for the applicable criticism memoir genre, and these are two of the best.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
Vowell’s joy in examining both the merits and deficiencies of the puritans of New England underlines something often lacking in history – a gleeful enthusiasm for the subject and a refusal to use said subject to illustrate a stance.  Vowell approaches her subjects as people.  They may be jerks sometimes, but they’re good sometimes, too.  You get the feeling like she’s talking about her relatives, which, in a way, she is.

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
I read this 1885 novel in college and found it to be one of the most propulsive and gripping adventure yarns I’d ever gotten my hands on.  It got me hardcore into late 19th century history which got me into history in general, and sent me on a mad dash to read as many old swashbucklers as I could get my hands on.

See Through History: Medieval Knights
This is a kids picture book that I stumbled across as a sixth grade social studies teacher.  I’d more or less forgotten about it for a few years and when I found it again it served as a reminder that great info can be found in unexpected places.  A score of history books for adults might not yield as much usable visual info as one well-done picture book for kids with a top-notch research illustrator.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

DragonCon Badges

So I drew a bunch of badges this weekend at DragonCon, which is great fun because it lets me stare at people's faces while I draw them. Usually (airports, subway, etc) I have to pretend that I'm not staring at the people I'm drawing. These aren't all of them, but it's a pretty good sampling.

A few people asked me what prompted the badges, and it's because I made one for "Welcome to Night Vale" Carlos costume last year. I showed it to some of my friends and they wanted me to make badges for them for the Night Vale meetup, too. And then they showed their friends and so on and so on. I'd been doing little watercolor portraits and I figured I could just give people a badge with 'em. I only printed up so many of the night vale templates so when I started running low I also started doing from-scratch badges where I drew everything.
Anyway, it was a really fun way to have a little more time with the folks who picked stuff up at my table, and I had a fantastic DragonCon all around. Thanks to everyone who had so much patience waiting in line and for being such a fun and enthusiastic group.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

So I did a Guardians of the Galaxy commission, and decided to color it, because, well, I color everything these days.

I replaced the nine producers on the poster credits with one producer and the eight guys who created the characters around whom the movie revolved. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Henry Morgan

Henry Morgan died 326 years ago today!

Those of us lucky enough to carry around mental images of famous pirates will usually recall Henry Morgan (the famous buccaneer for whom the rum brand is named) in his later years. Portly and dressed in the dandiest of fashions as the lieutenant governor of Jamaica, he seems a far cry from the stories carried through the years of his exploits.
But Morgan was a very physical man, and was a lot more than a pirate - he was a military genius who likely carries as much responsibility for the way things played out in our corner of the world as George Washington.
At a time when Spain dominated everything West of the Atlantic, Morgan (first under Commodore Mings, then to a much greater degree on his own) found chinks in the armor of the Spanish trade monopoly and ruthlessly exploited them.
In his 20s he personally led large bands of men through hundreds of miles of seemingly impenetrable jungle to attack rich Spanish towns, choosing his targets with precision and strategy and rarely losing men in battle, amassing huge fortunes and putting into place a community and methods that would eventually destroy Spain's stranglehold on the economy of the New World, making English trade, and eventually the US, possible.
We can learn a lot about the inevitable dangers of exclusion rather than incorporation from Spain's mismanagement of the Americas under Philip IV and how other societies (including our own) might suffer from similar policies, but that's boring!

Thursday, August 21, 2014


I started watching Supernatural for one and one reason only: Jim Beaver was in it.  
Like a lot of his fans, I first noticed him on Deadwood, and since then he's done fantastic turns on a lot of my favorite shows, including Justified and Longmire. 
Pictures of him in Supernatural kept popping up my tumblr feed, so I decided to give it a go, and am really glad that I did.  It's a terrifically fun show, and one that I've really enjoyed, and its dozens of episodes have been great to watch while I'm drawing away.
Anyway, I figured if anybody merited a poster, it's Jim Beaver's Bobby Singer.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Monday, August 4, 2014

100th anniversary of the 20th century

Hard to believe that World War 1 started a hundred years ago today. Although in theory a century begins or ends with its actual numerical quality, it's cultural impact is rarely so cut and dry. The 19th century really starts in full when the Napoleonic Wars end in November 1815, and the 19th century really stretches on until WWI, whose start - culturally - marks the beginning of the 20th century.
Look at photos of people from WWI. The dress, the hair, etc, they're really not all that different from how a lot of folks look today, whereas a picture from five year earlier seems like a whole different era... because it is.
I'll throw some WWI history y'all's way over the next few days. It's a very misunderstood war, less cut-and-dry than some others, but to me it's extremely interesting because it really does mark that big shift. I mean, you start the war with horses and end with airplanes, in an extremely short span of time. It really is the crucible in which our modern era was forged.
Here's a couple of guys to start off the week, A stormtrooper and a Tirailleur Senegalis.

This is a WWI Stormtrooper. That's right, SW kids, there were real stormtroopers, and they were terrifying. Poisonous, burning mustard gas would be launched into trenches, and then, from the haze, these guys would appear to royally mess you up. To make things even more terrifying, sometimes they'd be riding blanketed horses and stabbing with lances. There aren't many things scarier/more intimidating than a horse in a gas mask.

Here's a Tirailleur Senegalis.  Time in the trenches often lessened sctrictness over uniforms. I had this guy paint the Yellow Kid on his helmet, because he would have been a cultural icon to the folks fighting, the same as someone putting the Tasmanian Devil or Spongebob on the side of a tank.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Shadow Hero

I've gotten terrible about updating my blog lately.  I'm good about my social network stuff - twitter, facebook, instagram - but I forget to do it here!  Sorry.

So I REALLY enjoyed Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero, a new book that First Second Books released this week. It’s an origin story of an existing pulp hero, the Green Turtle, and it’s an engaging, very funny, exciting story. 
There’s some great supplemental material about the original 1940s Green Turtle, the first Asian-American superhero, and the clever ways in which its creator circumvented the publisher’s mandate that he had to be white.
I’m a sucker for books or films that I recognize as being shoe-ins for the I-would-have-flipped-my-lid-over-this-if-it-had-been-around-when-I-was-a-kid stories, and SHADOW HERO definitely fits that bill. There are a few books that I get multiple copies of whenever I run across them to hoard as gifts; this one will join that list.
Anyway, I did a poster!
Liz pointed out that I forgot to put a quotation mark ending after the title on the poster.  oops!  I'll fix that later.