Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Comics?

So I said previously that if there's a running theme among what I have to say concerning writing and characters and all that hub bub, it's that it's important to remember that you are creating a comic book/strip, not real life. What does that mean exactly, and why is it important? Well as it pertains to Dead Meat, as the idea and concept evolved, it went through a couple tonal changes as well. Initially I wanted to bring some grim reality to the concept, as the best movies in the genre did so well, seeing as I didn't know of any comics at that point that did such a thing. Then, someone beat me to it. At the end of the day though I'm glad they did, as it made me reassess my whole outlook on what I was doing, the medium in which I was working, and what I loved about it. I remembered the escapism that helped form the idea, and my love of extraordinary, flawed characters put into tense, extraordinary situations--characters who sometimes do things as utterly fantastic as the world in which they exist.

A teacher of mine once told me a story about a famous comic book creator who was once asked why he chose to work in comics. He proceeded to take a blank sheet of paper, dip his brush into some ink, and draw a circle on the paper.
"See that?" he said, "I've just created a universe. I've created all the worlds, all the people, every little tiny detail down to the color of the wings on the bugs, and it's all come from me." He then dipped his brush back into the ink, and with two movements of his wrist, slashed an X through the circle.
"And now I've just destroyed it."
When you play around in reality's world, you have to play by reality's rules. When you're making a comic, something wholly original, the only rules you have to obey are your own.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Publish? No, I Can't Draw Well Enough

So you've got your ideas, you've got your story, you've got your characters, but what's this thing going to look like? I think if you're an artist, this is where a lot of people get hung up on perfection--I know I did. If drawing is what you do, that's going to be the part you inevitably pay the most attention to, and why not? The drawings are the visual representation of your idea, and will be what grabs a reader's attention at a split second glance, or what makes them say "meh," and walk away. This is a HUGE amount of pressure to be under.

Personally, this alone was probably the main thing that was stopping me from moving forward and creating Dead Meat as a fully realized comic for a long while (well that and money, but that's a topic for a different time!). It was what I spent the most time slaving over, refining, re-working, and mostly I think this was out of fear. My feelings about the whole thing are best summed up in a quote from a hero of mine, Marty Mcfly:

"What if I take the [comic] in and they don't like it, what if they say I'm no good, what if they say 'Get out of here kid. You've got no future.' I just don't think I can handle that kind of rejection."

This is a real easy state of mind to wallow in, and it wasn't until I really took a look around me at other people who were out there producing content. The internet is filled with all sorts of comic strips of vary degrees of art levels from stick figures to fully finished comics from industry professionals, and the only difference between you and them is the fact that they're actually DOING it.

Now that's all well and good, but how do you get that nagging quest for perfectionism that constantly says "it's not good enough. It's not good enough" to shut the hell up? Well I'll tell you: you have to realize that you are going to get better. Even when you've reached "perfection" you're still going to have things to learn and ways to improve, so why wait?

My example for the day is the greatest cartoon show in the history of television: The Simpsons.
If you've ever seen the shorts from The Tracy Ullman Show you're well aware that The Simpsons, in its original incarnation was pretty terrible! The drawings were crude, as was the animation, and everything was just generally unrefined. However, as the show continued, the writing, the drawing and all the other aspects like the world and the peripheral characters grew and tightened up, and even now, 20 years later, production of the show continues to evolve as techniques and tools change with technology.

So here I am, gearing up for the first issue of my comic because I fretted over perfection, instead of being 10 years into my story, with art that continues to evolve and change. This is why the subtitle of this blog says "Just Do It." In the age of the internet which we live in, the only thing that's really stopping you from doing this is yourself. Or, as my hero Marty McFly also said:

"If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything."

Monday, September 20, 2010

These Stories Change Every Time I Tell Them

So You've got your world, you've got your characters, so now what? What's gonna go on in this world? What're these characters gonna do?

As I said a couple posts before, I was first ahead of the ball with a certain genre trend, and now that I've spent the better part of 10 years sitting on my duff coming up with reasons not to move forward with it, I've officially MISSED most of the lucrativeness of that genre trend. As you can probably figure out what trend that is (I'm not going to use the word, as that's part of my approach to the material, as I feel like throwing around the Z word at this point unfortunately garners some schlocky connotations and that's not what I want to associate myself with), you might say "hey, Clay, why even bother at this point? Why not pick a different genre?" Well the answer is, I thought about it, but in the end my story REQUIRED that genre. It wouldn't work without that certain ghastly element, and I feel that's something you should consider with any story you're trying to tell. If you're working in a genre, if you're trying to do more than just capitalize on certain trends, ask yourself what it is about that genre that you find appealing, and more importantly, why is it that your story requires that setting?

For example, there's a certain massively popular comic (and soon to be tv) series that has been praised as the "ultimate" example of its genre, and has become the standard by which all other products in said genre are judged against. However, I think all this praise is rather misplaced, as, quality of the actual storytelling aside, the genre which it has "mastered" and "revolutionized" is BARELY a backdrop and practically irrelevant to anything that's going on with the characters. You could take every event and character in that book, place it in any other "disaster" or genre situation, and have practically nothing change.

On the other hand, take Romero's original Dawn of the Dead. Back before he started getting literal with his themes and messages (has anyone seen the first remake of Night of the Living Dead? Is there anything worse than when the girl practically looks in the camera and says "they're us?"), he let the genre he chose (invented?) speak for him. Instead of just using them as a throwaway disaster scenario or an excuse for gore, he actually makes the walking undead work as satire. Look at the creatures independently of the humans moving the story along for a second. In his original Night of the Living Dead the creatures are intensely frightening, as they are this approaching, unknown force that assimilates everything in its path. In Dawn, however, he takes the same monster and skulks them mindlessly toward the consumer mecca of a shopping mall (which was a relatively new concept at the time). Though they're still there to eat people and cause chaos, their main purpose is to act as a commentary (ugh i hate that word, but anyway) on what Romero saw as a mindless generation of consumer-driven people who spend their all their time wandering aimlessly around shopping malls. That specific concept doesn't hold up if you switch in vampires, or werewolves, or Frankensteins, or Aliens, or pod-people, or anything other than what he chose.

In regards to Dead Meat I struggled for a while getting to a point where I felt that the genre in which I chose to work became crucial to my story. Initially it was just an excuse for massive, splatter-filled, escapist violence, but as my characters evolved into more than just gun wielding maniacs, the genre turned into something that was crucial to the story I wanted to tell. Its first incarnation saw my team of heroes wandering the landscape of the walking undead as a sort of Ghostbuster-esque team of hunters who were called in to take out any pesky ghouls who wouldn't stay dead. This concept, while fun, could exist in practically any genre situation--just the fact that I likened it to Ghostbusters in order to describe it shows that the genre isn't crucial to its existence. Its next incarnation was more of a Mad Max-y post apocalypse situation. Again, not essential. Then I added a girl and her younger brother as the central characters who encounter my group of guys in a Wizard of Oz-type manner. See the trend here?

Now I'm not saying any of these concepts are inherently bad, or even that I haven't held on to certain parts of them along the way, but it wasn't until I worked out the current incarnation of my story that I felt the genre finally became CRUCIAL to the story I wanted to tell.

What did I do to make it that way? That would be telling! You'll have to read Dead Meat to find out!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Quite the Character, Aren't We?

So today I want to talk about characters. This isn't "how to create characters," or a step by step process to creating them, but more of a discussion of how the definition of characters you've already created can evolve over time, and how this is something that should be embraced--as long as it's a step forward and not back.

The characters in Dead Meat have changed quite a bit over time, but the one thing that has stayed constant is their basis in friends of mine in the real world. After our viewing of Dawn of the Dead, these good friends of mine were part of the "wouldn't it be cool if..." conversation, so naturally the immediate reaction for me was to base these characters on all of them. This is a fine idea, and a great place to start, but in order to let these characters grow, you have to, as I said in the last post, use this as a jumping off point for something new to emerge.

I find it fairly easy to spot when you're trying to "write your friends" as opposed to writing characters--this usually entails bad jokes, bad dialogue, and references that no one by you and yours will get--and I am guilty of it myself. After creating the characters, who at this point WERE my friends, I started writing a blog that was a serialized, prose account of the "origin" of these characters and world. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with this if you want your audience to be limited to those in the know, as mine was, but if you want to expand your audience and turn these caricatures into real CHARACTERS, you have let some of that stuff go.

For an example, I'll use the character of Greg. I pick Greg because at the time, I didn't really know what to do with him as a character. Upon his creation, Greg was just another fictionalized rendering of one of my friends: he was part of the team, had his unique character props of six-shooters and cowboy boots, and he flew a helicopter. Aside from that, his presence in terms of the story, was pretty inconsequential and not really any different from any of the other characters. Even his design was pretty boring, in that he was just a dude in a button-down shirt that he wore open. He basically just looked like a normal, real-life guy.

Then I remembered (and if there's a running theme in my discussions of writing and characters and whatever, it's probably this) that I wasn't writing real life--I was writing a comic book. The very first change that I made was I took him off of the team of guys. The second, and probably the most important change, was I put him in a three-piece suit. For SOME reason, after that change the flood gates opened, and the characteristics of Greg as he now exists in the story came oozing out. I say oozing because as soon as I put that suit on him, he turned into a slimy, nasty dude. He became a womanizer, a murderer, and all-in-all he became a total self-centered BASTARD.

Now, this is NOT AT ALL what my friend Greg is like in real life! He's a great guy, and one of my closest friends. However, once again, I'm not writing real life, I'm writing a comic book, and that means that I can take this mold of a character based on my real life friend, scoop out all of real-life Greg from the inside, and use that mold to create a character who lives as a part of the world I've created, and not as one who was just inserted there.

Also, one last thing: if you're basing characters on friends or whatever, don't be afraid of them getting mad when you turn "their characters" into horrible people or someone that is clearly not "them." Those characters AREN'T really them, and besides, if your friends have the same sense of humor as you they'll probably love it and still just be psyched they're "in" a comic book or movie or other fictional venue.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

So How'd This Whole Thing Start, Anyway?

So, as I said in the previous post, all of this was started by George Romero's movie Dawn of the Dead, specifically this scene:

Now, obviously Romero is trying to make a statement about American culture and its obsession with violence or something something something, but clearly as 16 year olds all we took away from it was "man, it would be so cool to go around hunting the undead," because hey, we were 16 year old Americans obsessed with violence!

That being said, it was the inspiration of this movie and the fantastical, post-apocalyptic dreams of a group of teenagers that led me to sketch up a bunch of characters the next (or possibly even THAT) night, sparking a concept, and ruining the margins and rear sections of school notebooks for years to come.

Now, the topic of inspiration is a tricky one. Growing up in the age of Puff Daddy, Quentin Tarantino and the Simpsons, one can very easily be of the mindset that appropriating someone else's creative ideas is ok, as long as you cite your theft as an "homage," or "inspiration," or "influence." Many times in the history of Dead Meat I have made the comment "do you know where I got that from?" or something to that extent, and I think it's an approach to creativity that has become all too prevalent these days. In reality, for those of us who aren't Quentin Tarantino or The Simpsons ( I'm looking at you, Diddy), this approach is just a cover for bad writing, or bad art, and really shouldn't be encouraged.


I believe there is a difference between straight up ripping something off, and using it as a jumping off point to create something new and original. Director Francis Ford Coppola says:

"A number of images put together a certain way become something quite above and beyond what any of them are individually."

This applies to the notion of inspiration and influence absolutely. Having influences and drawing from them, even on a very very literal scale, is how we, as artists, grow and progress. It's not a matter of what influences you draw from, it's HOW you draw from them and use them to find your own voice in what you do that is original.

Next time: more on the process of character creation and evolution

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Looking out the airplane door before I jump

I know all creative people have ideas. Good ideas, bad ideas, ideas that we only like parts of, ideas that we give away to others, and that we keep close to the vest and refine. We re-work it, we re-write, re-draw, re-think, going over details and plot lines, compositions and formats until we reach a point in that we believe it's complete. It's done. It's ready to be put into production.

I also know that, as a creative person, that level of perfection will never come. The nature of being a creative person is to be your own harshest critic, and no doubt you will go back and look at changes you made the day before and already be dissatisfied with them. You'll continue in this cycle, and nothing will ever move forward.

Dead Meat is one of those ideas. 10 years ago I saw Dawn of the Dead for the first time. 9 years and 364 days ago I came up for the basis of what would (will?) become Dead Meat. I was ahead of trends that I've now missed, but I've stuck with the idea because I believe in it. I've brought it before the attention of a few comic book publishers, I've published short stories based on its characters in Heavy Metal Magazine, but ultimately I've never REALLY done anything with it. It remained stuck in the idea stage mainly because I believed that producing it as a comic was something I couldn't do by myself.

Finally after all this time I'm going to produce the book myself because in this era of the internet and digital media I CAN do it myself, and this blog is dedicated to following that process. I'll cover the entire evolution of Dead Meat from its original incarnation up through how it exists currently, and into its publication as an online comic book. I'm jumping out of the airplane, and whether or not I have a parachute has yet to be seen.

I invite all of you out there to follow me as I stop worrying and learn to just DO it. Because if I can, that means you can too.