Cartooning Like You Mean It

Cartooning, Teaching & Living – by Tom Hart

First Obstruction: Tom’s response

with 20 comments

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Hi Matt,

I’ve finished pencilling my first obstruction, and am posting it then running out the door. I will post some sketches, notes and other parts of the process later. This was tough!

I’ll say briefly that this was my immediate first idea for a layout, though the content of that initial thought was wildly different. I tried other layouts and then returned to this, then found the story idea.

I’ll add that I’m frustrated that the “bottom” tier might not be a seamless read.

But in the interest of time, I’m posting it. Your ball.

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Written by hutchowen

June 9, 2007 at 12:41 pm

20 Responses

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  1. What is going on there? Having trouble parsing that strip.

    derik

    June 9, 2007 at 2:13 pm

  2. Really?

    Well, crap- that’s what I was afraid of. Have you clicked the larger version? I don’t want to give it away yet, though it should have been clear. I wrestled with that bottom section; I may have to keep hammering at it. It’s close, but I left my drawing table in a hurry this morning.

    Still awaiting Mr. Madden, who is visiting family this weekend.

    Hutch Owen

    June 9, 2007 at 11:07 pm

  3. The image now represents small revisions. I altered the flow of the bottom sequence to squeeze the main character out of there, and add a few more “totems” to guide the narrative. I’m much happier with it, and don’t expect to need this many rounds to get it right. Lucky Matt hasn’t responded yet.

    I’ll post the original image later if anyone wishes to see it.

    I will also post original sketches for this challenge on Sunday. I went through a few ideas and notes before settling on the above.

    hutch Owen

    June 10, 2007 at 4:37 am

  4. I definitely shared Derik’s reaction to yesterday’s version of this strip. The current version is improved quite a bit in terms of the flow and the interaction between the two levels of the narrative, but I still feel like I’m missing something, or maybe the strip’s missing something.

    One thing that confuses me is why we see only Hutch and the birds in the inset panels and why we never see the birds in the bottom sequence. To me that suggests some metaphorical or symbolic reading of the upper, inset panels, like Hutch is imagining the birds, or the birds are stand-ins for the other two characters. But that’s contradicted by the two other characters trying to save him and watching him carried off at the end…

    I think the space/time interaction between the two levels of the strip is much improved, especially what you did with the coffee cup. (maybe you should re-post your previous version so people know what I’m talking about.) As for the stick… maybe we need to see that flying through the air in one of the levels. As it is we have the woman winding up to throw in the lower level, then it is absent for several panels until it appears in the last two panels, upper and lower, lying on the ground.

    The core problem here for me is not the constraint, though, it’s the birds: has Hutch had weird incidents happen like this before? It seems so out of the blue that I’m not sure what to make of it. Is there some metaphor or formal trick or gag that I’m missing here?

    Matt

    Matt Madden

    June 10, 2007 at 2:25 pm

  5. Indeed, as I was setting to ink this, I was thinking of these issues, specifically not seeing the other characters in the top panels. My answer to that is to remove the horizon line in those. (Keep in mind this will be printed at 6 inches wide- maybe it’s my failure of imagination regarding these 20 panels, but simplifying is the only option regarding the top tier.)

    The birds not appearing in the lower is a result of sloppy thinking. I will look again, and if they belong in certain panels (they probably do), I will put them in.

    I imagined the stick as being waved but not thrown. Then dropped. I will clarify that.

    As for the birds, it’s a cartoon. It’s just a cartoon thing that’s happening. It amused me, does it seem too strange?

    For those wanting to see the crummy Saturday morning version, it’s
    here.

    Since you say your main issue is with (the idea of) the birds and, let’s assume I’m on top of these other minor editing issues (which I appreciate) regarding the first challenge. Are you ready to offer the second?

    hutch Owen

    June 10, 2007 at 2:45 pm

  6. To delve a bit deeper into my problem with (the idea of) the birds, : I think it’s fine and good for something weird or unexpected to happen in a cartoony world, but in this case the birds carrying H away doesn’t seem to say anything clever or engaging about either the characters/the world of the strip on the one hand, or the constraint of 20 panels on the other. Having chosen the two-level strategy you use, introducing birds makes sense because of the spatial aspect the panel arrangement implies (ie, something’s going on above, something’s going on below). But I don’t see what the point is of having H carried away by the birds. It introduces more questions than answers, in terms of the story. At the very least it creates a cliffhanger ending and not a “plop!”-worthy gag, which suggests that part of my next assignment will have to address resolving that situation…

    One purely formal idea about the birds and the upper tiers: maybe the upper tiers should “fly away” more dramatically than they do now, so that the last panel is breaking out of the top right corner of the strip…

    About the simplification of the inset panels: obviously size and clarity is an issue, but I’m not sure getting rid of the horizon line will help. What about zooming in tighter on Hutch and the birds? You can generate tension that way by making the first few panels a bit disorienting (as the birds first attack) and end with, say, just H’s feet leaving the top of the panel. Just a thought.

    I’ll aim to get you a second assignment by this evening…

    M

    Matt Madden

    June 10, 2007 at 4:27 pm

  7. Thanks for the comments, Matt.

    I suppose you’re right that the fact of the birds carrying H away doesn’t comment or reflect anything specifically. I suppose I’m guilty of just making something happen and being pleased enough with that.

    Though I don’t think this is necessarily so bad. I often like merely seeing things happen well or interestingly- in comics, theater, film, etc. (I think a lot of minimal creators like myself prefer (or are content with) a minimal amount of engagement with art when in the audience as well.)

    To continue (and to use your words), I’ve also always prefered art that poses questions rather than answers. It really is the thing I want to be responsible for more in my work. I don’t believe there’s nothing in the form that inherently needs to be complete. That said, I have often (continuing from the previous paragraph as well) been guilty of too little for fear of engaging too much. On that continuum of engagement that runs from a dot on a page to a complex murder/sci-fi/genre mystery piece, I’ve always gravitated towards the dot. The danger is in not being engaging enough.

    Maybe that happened here.

    One final word: I HATE “plop” worthy gags- it’s really the thing I want never to think about again if I can help it. (I know I’ll be in trouble confessing anything here…)

    So the lingering question I suppose is: Are my reactions, to what I deem overwrought art, to overly-dense art, to plop-gags, to “answers”- are my reactions to these things providing me with engaging or healthy alternatives?

    Tom

    Hutch Owen

    June 10, 2007 at 4:56 pm

  8. I like the strip — very Eisner-esque. (He used inset panels in “Comics and Sequential Art”, so I associate those with him.) I read the top panels first, then the lower panels, and enjoyed their coming together in my mind. I was left wondering though, why the birds carried him off, and was looking in the lower panels to see if there was any clue to this. I finally did conclude that he was carried off just because.

    I saw Ivan Brunetti speak yesterday, and he was critical of cartoonists who use special features with no real purpose in their storytelling. He mentioned arbitrary full page bleeds as an example. I think it would be nice (though I’m not asking you to draw anything new if you’re under a tight deadline) if the inset panels served the narrative in some way. Matt mentions the last panel itself flying off, and that would work for me.

    When Eisner used inset panels, it was (if I remember correctly) to share some secret information with the reader. Maybe that’s why I was hoping there would be some “key” to this whole strip. But all in all, I like they way you’ve responded to the challenge! Glad you two are doing this!

    David

    June 10, 2007 at 5:14 pm

  9. I used inset panels cause I had no idea how to get to 20 otherwise!

    Maybe there’s another version of this strip out there on Earth 2 where the insets and the longer panels interact in more delicate ways…

    Hutch Owen

    June 10, 2007 at 6:18 pm

  10. Tom, It was very dangerous of you to remind my of your antipathy to PLOP! gags! You may come to regret it but I’ll hold back for the time being…

    I am being overly deterministic (? not sure if that’s the best word to use) for the sake of argument. I agree that good art poses questions and doesn’t offer answers, although on that dot-to-complexity spectrum I’m not as close to the dot as you.

    An example of the “dot” that we can probably both agree on would be some of Beckett’s minimalist playlets. There was a great one in that Beckett on Film series that showed a bum dragging a trunk on stage, and I think he opens it and pulls out another bum and they go through a series of ritualistic actions (dressing I think), ending with the first bum climbing into the trunk and the second bum dragging him off stage again. Or something like that. Little is ventured, nothing is gained, yet it is quite compelling and left me very satisfied.

    I’ll post again soon with the new constraints.

    Matt

    Matt Madden

    June 10, 2007 at 6:26 pm

  11. I’ll say this much, Tom, in case you’re still feeling like you “failed” this constraint or obstruction: the second version of the strip works for me. (It’s a lot clearer, in terms of being able to tell what’s going on, thn the first one.) I also like the way the inset panels isolate Hutch’s struggle, while the lower panels reflect only the other characters’ reactions to that struggle: so it’s not only and upper / lower divide, but a sort of internal / external one, or a personal / objective one.

    And I think Matt may be pressing a little too hard for the strip to have a big meaningful finish, though I can certainly understand the desire to see one. Having Hutch carried away by birds might only be the beginning.

    (Let me suggest a constraint or obstruction of my own for Tom: I think you should continue this story, whatever Matt asks you to do next. Tease out the repercussions of this abduction. You imagined it, and are happy with it; where does it go next?)

    Isaac Cates

    June 10, 2007 at 8:52 pm

  12. Jessica wants me to tell you she doesn’t get this strip at all: she doesn’t get why you can’t see the other characters in the upper panels, she doesn’t understand where the stick comes from and why the woman (what’s her name anyway?) doesn’t throw it at the birds, and she doesn’t accept that the strip can just end with H being carried off. I accused her of being one of Hitchcock’s “plausibles,” which as David Denby recently explained in the NYer are viewers who get hung up on particulars like “how could two birds carry off a leftist bum?” but she countered that she is reacting to her dissatisfaction with the story: you’re setting up an interesting situation but then you’re not following through with it.

    Poor Tom, and it’s only the first strip!!

    Matt (and Jessica on the sofa reading the Sunday Times magazine)

    Matt Madden

    June 10, 2007 at 8:59 pm

  13. Note to Isaac: my understanding is that Tom didn’t intend this as a set-up for an ongoing story, just a stand alone –I want to say gag, but I won’t– strip, and that’s partly what I’m taking him to task for (and Jessica even moreso).

    Matt

    Matt Madden

    June 10, 2007 at 9:02 pm

  14. Tom, for 20 panels, my first instict would be to make a grid of tiny squares. I was surprised (pleasantly) that you stayed wedded to the strip’s horizontal base.

    For Jessica: The inset panels could be an iconographic representation of what happens to Hutch. Or it could be “bird-radar-cam”…?

    David

    June 10, 2007 at 9:30 pm

  15. Oy vey!

    I’ll be posting the inks shortly. Maybe Jessica will approve. The only issue above that I see as being wiggly and weird is there being no other characters in the top tier. It doesn’t bother me- it’s not exactly “Hutch cam”- but it is an isolated view. The elements the camera “isolates” may seem a bit arbitrary, but, well I hope it works in the end inks. I think it does.

    By the way- she’s right about the stick. I omitted that from the top teir of the inks already. Including that was too arbitrary.

    I heard (was it on the radio recently- or did I read it in a review?) David Denby’s description of Hitchcock’s “plausibles”. I agree! C’mon- it’s a cartoon. Characters poke their eyes out, retrieve them in another panel, fart to the moon, drink their way out of beer vats. Here, one got scooped up by birds.

    Poor me indeed!

    Inks to come shortly, then I will get buzzing on #2…

    Hutch Owen

    June 10, 2007 at 10:21 pm

  16. INK!

    My finished inked strip is here. I rather like it.

    Hutch Owen

    June 11, 2007 at 1:15 am

  17. Jim Post-Facto:

    Bravo, Tom. I think the most innovative thing about the whole strip is your initial solving of the 20 panels constraint. I think your concept and the general laying out of the two sequences is really inspired. Unlike some of the other folks, I think the top tier works beautifully. Once we could see that Hutch was there in the bottom tier the top one stands as a great sequence — a whole story actually. Beginning — man walks and birds home in. Middle — birds attack, man fights valiantly. End — birds win and carry off their spoils (later, they will regurgitate Hutch into the mouths of their young. Herein lies the sequel.)

    I think you’ve gotten the bottom narrative to the point where it “hurts” to read — i.e. it’s elliptical and jagged and makes me look hard and try and figure it out — but is definitely an understandable sequence of events, which is just fine.

    Some thoughts:

    I would have started the top narrative so that the first panel of Hutch sipping was moreover the bottom panel of Hutch sipping. It certainly makes sense as it is but I feel pulled backward in time when looking at that part of the strip, as if it was a film with a repeated five second sequence.

    I agree with Jessica’s comments. As opposed to being a stickler or a picker of nits, Jessica is responding as a writer working out a plot. If this event doesn’t link up with that event well or events feel like they fell out of the sky into the narrative then those are things to iron out. That’s all. She’s bringing up story logic. It’s not like she said, “Your three characters seem to be of different socio-economic classes. Would they all be in the same neighborhood?” (You know I love ya, Tom, so imagine me saying the following with a smile). Your nothing means-anything, big fat raspberry comment: “C’mon — it’s only a cartoon” doesn’t apply to the top sequence because it is one of those things that a creator shouldn’t explain and as was said earlier there are other similar examples in other mediums. But if it’s meant to apply to Jess’s other comments — well, see my above remarks (I’m smiling, I am! And remember what Kochalka always says about our tendency to read hostility, etc. into e-mails and posts beacuse there’s no tone of voice). It also may have just been you having some brain/contsraint fatigue which is totally understandable.

    Overall — really great stuff Tom. And Matt — great idea and great coaching and constraining as this went along.

    Cheers, gents!

    Jim Higg

    June 11, 2007 at 3:54 am

  18. Tom,

    The inked version looks really nice, setting aside some of the unresolved issues we have been discussing. The upper inset panels work a lot better as “totemic” representations of the story with the heavy black borders though I confess I’m still bothered by the absence of the other characters.

    I was going to say I disagreed with Jim’s comment about the sipping sequence in the first few panels but now that I read it again I’m afraid I have to agree: in the first upper panel we see the surprise emanata as H notices the birds but then we go back down to panel three and he is looking down, apparently oblivious. I think you should consider adjusting his expression in panel three (below) so that he’s eyeing the birds suspiciously or something like that.

    I love the setting, I didn’t realize they were on the beach. That makes me realize there could be even more linking between this strip and strip #2.

    Finally I should “third” David and Jim in their appreciation for your basic solution of the constraint, it was indeed a good one. I was envisioning something more grid like, perhaps breaking panels in two vertically, but the inset over the tall skinny Herriman-esque panels was a nice solution.

    Matt

    Matt Madden

    June 11, 2007 at 11:43 am

  19. Tom, the inked version looks great. I think your handling of the constraint is skillful and amusing, but depending on what comes next, I have to agree with others about the narrative here. It feels like a set-up for something ongoing, and as a reader I will/would be disappointed if it isn’t. (I haven’t looked at the sketches for #2 yet…)

    derik

    June 11, 2007 at 7:10 pm

  20. I am very much enjoying reading the back-and-forth, as you work through these exercises. I think the end result is great – the thing that bothers me a little is that we almost don’t see enough of that hutch guy at the beginning, so I had to stare for a while to notice where he was gone. I think also that the spacing of the panels could be shifted a little, so it’s a bit slower at the ends and more frantic towards at the climax, maybe even tilting the horizon or zooming in further. That may have made it a little overblown though, so I don’t know. Anyhow, nicely done.

    andrew

    June 11, 2007 at 10:57 pm


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