Cartooning Like You Mean It

Cartooning, Teaching & Living – by Tom Hart

Posts Tagged ‘linefield

Tsuge in French

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PART 1 of an article in progress.

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There is a book by Yoshiharu Tsuge that I have never read, called in French- “L’homme Sans Talent” -The Man With No Talents. I’ve seen it in French and its original Japanese. My French being awful and my Japanese non-existent, I have barely penetrated this world, but I am absolutely obsessed with this above image and what I can read of the story. I’ve gone to friends’ houses, I’ve sought out this image so I can just stare at it, like a 3 year old transfixed by a scary doll or damaged stuffed animal; I’m obsessed with a simulacrum of a human.

I stare at it. Who is this man selling stones? What brings a cartoon man to this point in his life? Why is he lying like that, in that strange position, and composed of those scratchy short lines? I gaze at this drawing and try to answer those questions on my own. I look, ask and imagine. And then I realize: what Tsuge has created with this simple panel is a space in my heart for a new story to appear.

And when I look at this man without talent I know one thing, because my spirit knows about a story: that some other character or object or beast from this same linefield will intrude upon this character’s world and story. Some other beast must emerge to confront in a new way, this scratched, sketched-out man. It will probably be some visual and immediate thing, but it could come from his own memories (full of other creatures and things, no doubt) or his own concerns- newly manifest from the alchemy of his own thoughts. A beast in spirit, a beast-thought. But something will emerge from the linefield to become story.

Forcing myself through this story, in a new language of lines, light and shadow and little (computerized) French squiggles, I’m propelled to slow down and immerse myself in the meaning. I’m in the perfect frame of mind to take in artwork: immersed in form and content, slowing down, perceptions open, looking for meaning. This new language IS the linefield. The linefield is about finding meaning, sometimes found whether you search for it or not.

Trying to read Tsuge in French is like trying to read Rege in english. Puzzling and troublesome, yes, but something is shimmering and calling out for attention, suggesting meaning where you might have thought you just saw a drawing, a doodle, or an tiny unimportant foreign word. In Rege’s Against Pain, or in a slow-moving master work translated into a unfamiliar language, every millimeter seems to speak.

The first story (or chapter?) begins on page 5 of the volume itself (I’ll use that method of numbering from now on) and is a title page. Along with the title, “Le Marchand de Pierres”- we see a landscape in a ceramic pot. The shine and man-creafted shape tells us it’s ceramic, but set in there, a landscape of streams and crevices and plateaus, is it a rock? Atop that, the silhouette of a man (I think, from the broad shoulders) in a hat, seated still. Is this a real landscape and a normal sized man? Or a small rock and a tiny, tiny abstract person? Anyway, it’s totemistic- it’s inviting us into the story.

Page 6- Our man, lying down, on a rocky beach landscape, beneath a tarp, stones for sale to his right on small boxes and shelves. Behind him, a sign in Japanese on a pole, a bird in flight, silhouetted. The next panel zooms in and flips our view of the sign on the pole. Thus, are we looking from the sea shore? Are we the bird in flight? It stretches time or space, maybe both, doing this. On the sign: “stones.” My struggle to read the computerized French caption is minimal: I became a seller of stones. But at the start of that sentence, does “pour finir” mean “finally” or “in the end” or even “in order to finish?” Each incarnation means something new: resigned in the first two possibilities, or something more willful in the third.

Panel 3 of this page- a close up of the stones. Suddenly they are higher in contrast, and differentiated from each other. Some are splotchy, some textured with thin gradations, some lumpy, some smooth. A price adorns each rock. Everything depicted in the story up til now sits there stock still, solid, a heavy, deadened part of some otherwise transient (ocean, river currents, wind currents) landscape.

Page 7, a giant silhouetted crow with a berry or stone in its beak rests on a wooden pillar. These pillars line a road to the back of the space of the panel. The atmosphere in the sky and/or water is troubled with lines, but the crow is unbothered. In the text, the man says he tried other things- some sort of cartoonist, some sort of photographer, nothing worked. Man is bothered, nature unmoved.

The man is viewed closer and closer, seeming more like the first vision of him we saw. He has read some books on selling stones, it doesn’t cost anything to begin such an endeavor, he thought it was a good trade for him. Our last view is presumably his view, looking onto a small marshy area of reeds, plains and water.

Action begins on page 9 (page 8 sets us up to see the giant river-landscape he is on). As our man prods and beats and pokes at stones, he tells us he’s going to do this well, and deciding this, he was given the idea for his project. It’s the last two panels here that are riveting. Panel 5, where the text about him getting his little idea, the man is on a little jetty or wooden plank. It’s precarious- he’s careful, on the edge of his world, and maybe his understanding. An idea is forming. The next panel, “My project”, as the man shuts his eyes and looks serene, a silhouetted train thunders by above his head, on a bridge over the river. The effect: “It’s risky, but a powerful idea.”

We’re fully in this man’s world now. As his lines and shadow assemble to re-form him panel after panel, he makes his way through his new chosen profession.

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Written by hutchowen

February 11, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Drama vs. Poetry Part 2

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Drama vs. Poetry Part 2

(This post seems to have been written and unposted. It dovetails well with my recent post about The Linefield, so I’m posting it now.

I recently saw The Day I Became A Woman, an Iranian film by Marzieh Meshkini (written by her father, Mohsen Meshkini), a film in the three parts on the theme of womanhood in rural Iran. This and another play I saw the same week, Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill both remind me of my initial instincts as a storyteller, or as a non-storyteller, let’s say.

The Day I Became A Woman features three separate stories, with the gentlest of “story arcs” in them at all. In part 1, “Hava”, a young girl conspires during her last hour as a child (before she turns 9) to play in the dirt with her male friends. After she turns 9, she must don the chador, and hide from male attention. Indeed, the entire section involves Hava playing her last hour away. Part 2, “Ahoo” features a woman in a bicycle race. Her angry husband rides up on horseback, demanding she put a stop to her evil ways. He divorces her (while still on horseback), and her older family members and then members of her tribe all  ride up to her demanding, requesting she return to her man. Finally, in the distant final shot,  her brothers come and put a stop to her pedaling, and take her away. Part 3 “Hoora”, an old woman buys a bunch of furniture and appliances she never had, arranges them on the beach before putting them and herself all out to see on makeshift boats.

When I began writing stories, or when I began consciously doing so anyway, after “Hutch Owen’s Working Hard” I wanted as LITTLE STORY AS POSSIBLE. What I wanted was character, poetry, poetic image, images, internal surprises.

I found it!

I found it!

I tried my hardest to chase this dream in New Hat, and The Sands. In New Hat from 1994, also a three part story, my main concerns were contrasting rhythms and formal structures, and crashing sequences of narrative which may or may not relate to the others. Part 1 of this book was the most like this movie, I think: a man gives a last diatribe before being stoned to death, and then we see a local daydreaming belltower operator rise up and do his job. it’s probably my most successful small piece of storytelling. It meant little specifically, but raised lots of emotions legitimately and put them all in the same frame.

The Day I Became A Woman doesn’t feature the same range of simplistic emotion; instead it features more human characters, deeper insights to the human heart and the societal mind, both things I was shooting for.

A continuum all these works vacillate on is Drama vs Poetry. Drama is the manipulation of characters and events in opposition with each other. In its most extreme, it is superficial and distancing: tired action movies about good guys and bad guys. In it’s best examples, characters are deeply drawn and communicate, questioning and exploring the themes of the drama both in their behaviors and thoughts.

Poetry I would argue is the single image designed to provoke or evoke other impressions and ideas in the mind and inner eye of the audience. Poetic image is created using the images of our society: people, places, and time etc. At its most extreme and superficial, it is cloying, simplistic, Hallmark cards and childish posters. At its most astute, it uses hints of drama to offer up enough action, enough motion and opposition between the characters and other elements to suggest worlds within the audience and to allow meditative space within them.

I have spent most of my career thinking of this continuum, and have spent most of time WAAAY believing in the far end, toward the poetic.

I was never the kid in rock bands, never the kid reading or writing sci-fi. I was spending my adolescence in the bath tub listening to Brian Eno’s Ambient music and traipsing around the woods trying to resonate with what I found there. In one wooded area around me, there was an old living room chair, rotten and stained. I never once imagined who might have put it there. I never thought til now that there might be a story behind it, that there could be long dramas behind the decision to abandon this furniture, and the action of getting it there might have been something one could image, watch or engage with. All I wanted to do was allow it to make me feel something.

The simpleton’s response to the world: how does it make me feel?

So my earliest stories and sketches were light on drama-as little as I could get away with, with as few specifics as possible. This was often unsuccessful, as you could guess.

Learning the tools of dramatic storytelling has been fun but a lot of work. The instincts were never within me very well.  Every correct dramatic instinct I did have was stolen from Star Wars (see “Hutch Owen’s Working Hard.”) As I began to learn the tools, I tried to create stories and characters that were unique, with believable inner struggles and outer problems. (I was maybe most successful with this “The Road to Self.”, though Banks/Eubanks was a valiant try.)

Still, I believed that this was all training to go back to attempting to create the poetic image, the story that exists outside of specific narrative, and in a an internal landscape in the viewer.  But I still tried to learn the tools of drama, and to this day I tell my students to write over the top. To imagine the murder, the betrayal, the villain, and then to write down if need be. To tone down the drama once the extremes have been entertained and rejected.

I forget who drew this

And some 10 years or so since beginning this experiment (I would say since I closed the book on The Sands – wildly unsuccessful, though fun) I have yet to reattempt the piece where poetic image is the main core of the story.

Artists who do this well: Tsuge, first and foremost, though his peer Yoshihiro Tatsumi does it well also. In  Western comics, I always though Anders Nilson was getting there (though I haven’t finished his Big Questions). Ben Katchor, obviously, Ron Rege, Chris Ware. As others come to mind, I’ll post them here.

I have dozens of notebooks and boxes of index cards all vibrating with the potential to be that next poetic comic. So what am I doing doing comic strips?

Soon or maybe never: Part II. What I am doing doing comic strips, Top Girls, and how form can be the poetry. And note to younger self: why on earth wouldn’t “poetic image” involve DRAWING?

Written by hutchowen

January 13, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Navigating a Linefield

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The Linefield is a word I have been looking for for 20 years.  I’m using it partially to  describe the visual mark making and image making that gives much of a comix’s feeling to the reader. It’s not the “art!” If I hear one more person commend “the art” in a comic I’m going to key somebody’s car. Art is a word that encompasses much more than the visual conveyance of ideas, which is usually what people mean when they say it.

The linefield is much closer to what they mean.  It’s the drawings of the character and character of the drawings, but it’s also the reading and navigating experience, and it’s the soul of the creator poking through to the material world like buds and weeds through a sidewalk. Shards of the creator’s intention and confusion (because who isn’t confused just being alive?) making it’s way to wall, papyrus, cloth, paper, screen.

The linefield, while visual, isn’t just describing the visuals. It’s also the complete synergy of mark-making with narrative intent, whether it be dramatic or reflective. More about that below.

In fact, I don’t know entirely what linefield means. I think in the case of a word used to describe an emotional and subterranean action you are involved in, you are perhaps better off not being able to entirely nail it down.  (Like a sufi chasing the meaning of Allah, I have been chasing the linefield and I never find it, I never look it in the face, I just like it when it and I are close by. )

Ben Jones' Thaz- "story?" "art?"

Ben Jones' Thaz- would you separate "the art" and "the story" here?

Why do we create art at all? Partially because our senses are wrong, our perceptions are limited. We need art to refocus what we see, and allow us to create other pathways to experience our world. The linefield is that new pathway. It describes a visual record of a creative experience incorporating elements of drama, poetry, mark-making, dance, acting, imagining, crying, celebrating and just about every verb a human is capable of.  But in our medium, comix, and for the sake of this exploration, I want to focus on the first three as helping us define the linefield: mark-making, drama and the poetic reflection.

The mark-making in a comic is what has traditionally been called “the art.” (I’m keying that teal Buick right now.) It’s a simple word to define. We call it style, drawing, etc. It often combines the ability of the artist to convey our concrete world into 2-dimensional representations,  with a sense of exaggeration or emphasis that distorts to a psychological and emotional effect.

Drama and poetic reflection (shorten the latter to “poetry”) I think are the two poles of what has traditionally been called “the story.” (That will really get me on a tear. Separate “art” from “story” and I’ll key anything in sight.) Drama refers to the dynamic tensions between personalities in opposition. Characters wanting something different. Poetry, for me in this instance (because the word is extremely malleable), refers to the impulse to reflect deeply and slowly and to allow space for reflection. It tends to hamper drama unless that reflection is being used to inform dramatic decisions (see Hamlet.)  (And for more on “poetry in comics” see my post here.) (And more tomorrow, too.)

Somewhere mashed around these three ideas, lies the linefield. You can’t talk about one with the other two, and maybe it’s best to discuss all three at the same time.

In my favorite comics, and even many I don’t enjoy reading but respect, the linefield can be a powerful new manifestation in my ordinary world. Gary Panter has one of the most powerful linefields you will see. In his best work, you ARE Jimbo, walking his denuded landscape, navigating the hatches and lines of his apocalyptic, commercial, anti-commercial, historical limbos. The linefield in Jim Woodring’s comix shimmer and constantly spin off into new characters and visions. E.C. Segar’s comix did something similar; sweat, desire and ferocity spinning and shaking off from the linefield into weird compact myths about giant birds and witches, injustice and hamburgers.

The list could and will go on and on. The best artists in this medium have made marks and drama and poetic reflection their own. I’ll explore those creators in time,  but I want to start with a look at the linefields of Yoshiharu Tsuge, Ron Rege and Jack Kirby.

Tomorrow, an old unpublished post furthering drama vs. poetry, then later in the week, Tsuge, Rege, Kirby.

Written by hutchowen

January 11, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Cartooning Like You Mean It

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In 2009, I am dedicating this blog to “Cartooning Like You Mean It.”

It is about the art of cartooning as a method of self-expression, a way to figure yourself out and untie your own knots (Leonard Cohen), a way of cartooning stories characters, situations and stories as if they was burning to get out of you and you didn’t even know til you noticed the cinders.

“The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth.” – William Butler Yeats

(To which I would add: “Or Mars.”)

This is about burning off your influences- the unconscious styles and other people’s languages that you’ve inadvertently stolen from while learning- and getting your own soul out there on the paper in ink, color, lines, scratches and wiggles.

Herzog- “ My belief is that these dreams are yours as well. And the only distinction between me and you is that I can articulate them… It is my duty because this might be the inner chronicle of what we are, and we have to articulate ourselves–otherwise we would be cows in the field.”

You are your own earthly project. You are some sort of bizarre combination of individual sensations, reactions and history, explosions and whispers. Don’t use someone else’s language. This is about finding, forging and refining your own unique voice, story and code.

It’s about getting your stories out that are inspired by your own experiences, passions and lifeforce.

But even more importantly, letting that lifeforce emerge from your own creation. Reversing the cycle, letting your work create you. Discovering the depths of your self through surprising yourself through work.

Brian Eno, from his diaries: “What part of myself have I discovered now?”

You must allow yourself to be surprised. You have to allow yourself to not know what will come next, to not be always in control, to not plan everything. This is cosmic stuff- can you allow the spaces of your spirit to be filled with something unexpected?

Milan Kundera: The novel is a counter to the “noisy foolishness of human certainty”

Don’t be certain. Be open and be curious. Arm yourself with pens and brushes and a knowledge of story structure and visual techniques. Read these books:

Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
The Empty Space by Peter Brook
Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
What It Is by Lynda Barry
On Directing Film by David Mamet
Story by Robert McKee

And then set out.

(images from Vaughn Bodes RIVERMEAT.)

Written by hutchowen

January 5, 2009 at 1:52 pm