Saturday, June 11, 2011

Stopover at Malaysiakini: Of Banned Comics and the 'Hanya Kartun 'Ja' Approach.

Sometimes, living where I do at the present, it's easy to forget that despite all its modernity, Malaysia is still a country run by people who cling on to archaic laws when it comes to press freedom. I stay out of politics mostly, really, but sometimes reminders of this still hits home hard when it rears its ugly head.

Here's some background: There is this thing called the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) which has been in place in Malaysia for as long as I can remember. Our press and media has always been controlled, which is probably why when it became available, Malaysians pretty much took to the web like ducks to water.

However, the transition from web freedom to print freedom still doesn't do so well sometimes. Case in point: Zunar, a Malaysian cartoonist who produces political comics for the online newsite, recently found his books of the same work on the wrong side of the PPPA's ban-wagon.

I have never written a review of Zunar's political comics, but for the time being let's just state first and foremost that I am not a big fan of them.

No doubt he is courageous to come up with what he draws, and openly, but from a comic reader's standpoint, I find most of his political caricatures have the subtlety of a cement trunk driving through a shopping mall. Not exactly to my taste, I like my comics less anvilicious. You know the phrase, "Show, don't Tell" and all that.

Of course, this is my preference, and it doesn't seem to matter for his target audience. Malaysiakini is purportedly an unbiased news site, but it cannot be denied that the majority of its reader base are anti-ruling party. So as long as his comics are critical towards the ruling party, there will be a fanbase who will like it irregardless.

Everyone is entitled to like what they like, of course. But the PPPA (and the people who control it) evidently do not think so. And so... they ban it. With the following reason:

”The contents are not suitable and [are] detrimental to public order."

And then to make it worse there's the whole sedition charge thing.

This a comics/travel/whatever I feel like blog, but one thing it is not is a political blog, so I will not go into detail on what should be obvious (how ridiculous this is), but I will say this really brings to mind of another work of literature/art that was potentially "detrimental to public order".

A couple of years ago, the literature section of a local Malay newspooaper, Utusan Melayu, published a short story called "YB Josephine". I read the thing, it was a "story" of how a "heroic matryr" assassinates a "totally fictional" member of parliament whose description suspiciously resembles an actual member of parliament (opposition side) the paper greatly disliked.

There was a great hoo haah over that back then, but in the end, no action was taken against the paper or the writer of the story as it was all "fictional". The going excuse was "Hanya sastera 'ja" (translation: "It's just literature").

While I may not like Zunar's work, I do believe in press freedom and his right to publish those comics (and retain his freedom after publishing them too). But I'm too much of a realist to expect the PPPA to go away any time soon. Many many things will have to change before that happens. (FYI, any political party who will agree to repeal the PPPA and the Sedition Act gets my vote in the coming elections).

But all for the tragedy, there is a lesson to be learnt here.

A precedence has been set.

As someone might say in the future: "Hanya Kartun 'Ja"

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hotspot #23: So What Happens To Your Comic After You Die?

First and foremost, I apologize for the morbid subject matter. I am absolutely sure it's unlikely this is a topic you want to spend your weekend pondering over.

All that said, we all know we're going to die someday, but most of us don't like thinking too much about it unless an occasion gives us reason to. I'm sure some psychologist out the already has some fancy name for it but I honestly don't feel like going into web search mode right now.

I should mention that this idea first came to me while waiting at a funeral wake, but I never got around to writing about it until now. Contrary to common depiction in popular media, funerals aren't filled with grieving kids and weeping widows. In fact, there is a kind of grim cheerfulness in the atmosphere, and people you haven't seen for 20 years suddenly pop up. Like they say: Weddings and funerals bring people together.

Well that was what was said the other day when I was talking to a colleague about how death comes without warning. Like that old schoolmate who died in a car accident not too long after you guys graduated or your old maths teacher who passed away for cancer two years ago. And then there's always the grim possibility of the Grim Reaper deciding to pay you a visit personally.

But I digress. The hard question today is as the title says: What happens to your comic after you die?

Realistically speaking, I now live in Asia and driving on the road alone is so freaking dangerous that I wouldn't be surprised if it does me in. In addition, I am partial to doing dangerous stuff like you know, scuba diving and playing with fire. That's not what disturbs me. What disturbs me is that should the worst happen, what with my frequent hiatuses, no one would probably realize I'm missing, save the people who know me in real life.

I have to say this does fill me with some alarm as even though I go on hiatus I do have full intentions of finishing what I started, and leaving my stuff unfinished and on eternal hiatus due to creator existence failure is not really what I want to have happen. At the very least I should try and find some way to let my readers know that there probably won't be any more updates or something. The least I could do, you know?

Which brings me to the next question, I am guessing the majority of you guys keep your access passwords only to yourself, and probably do not write them down. So should something (touch wood) happen, would anyone else be able to update your site?

The answer is probably no.

So what kind of contingency plan can a creator come up with then?

It does make me wish that I had access to the typical villain's post-hero defeat's ability to have their evil lair magically collapse around them. Except I probably wouldn't have my website collapse upon itself, but rather, send out a message to someone I trust with a list of my website logins and passwords with a request they post a quick message to update.

Actually, I suppose I can include that instruction in my will too, but any lawyer who sees that will probably think I'm nuts.

But at least that would be something for them to do during my wake. I'm the type who would prefer to have a cheerful funeral. I'd hate to think that in addition to making people sad at me being dead, I'd be boring them too...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Stopover at GoDaddy: I Guess It's Time To Get Moving Again

So I've just renewed my domain for another... well... let's just say I've renewed it for quite a number of years.

Time to start making use of it again... now where do I start?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Happy Birthday, So the White Glove Wins This Round, But Now I Know Feedback is King.

So last year I challenged myself to finish TLS by this time this year.

And sadly, I didn't make it, although in hindsight it was a very conscious action on my part, I simply stopped updating because I hit a block. Although saying just a block was solely the cause wouldn't strictly be true.

Thinking back, the biggest mistake I made with it probably was getting too ambitious, switching to making it in colour and breaking my rhythm. Of course, being sent off to California for months on work didn't help things, but frankly, if I had been still in sync, it wouldn't have stopped me.

The truth is: my enthusiasm also waned because of the well... the slow response regarding my comic.

Although I cannot blame my readers. Let's face it, TLS' site design has an awful and outdated feedback system (I mean, a tagboard... yikes!). And if it's hard to leave feedback or response, people won't. Period.

And this is a problem for me, because no feedback means I'm trying to improve my skills in a vacuum. That's like attempting to calibrate equipment without being able to see to the effects of your calibration. Adjusting your rear-view mirror while blindfolded, or composing a song while deaf (Yes I know Beethoven did it, do I look like I'm Beethoven?). It's hard. It's also disheartening.

To complicate matters, recently I've been more interested in developing my prowess of the written word. In fact I have been working quite hard at my writing, and even if I say so myself, I've been making good progress. Not just on writing, but in storytelling technique as well. It helps that I've been getting some good advice, criticism and response on my writings, so the improvement has been very steady and frankly, phenomenal. I think I've learned more in the past year regarding writing and storytelling than I have for the past ten before it.

And after that long period where I've been stagnating without even knowing it, it's exciting. And addictive. Improvement, that is. I'm improving so much on those aspects that when I see TLS, all its storytelling flaws jump out at me and that practical part of me tells me that I'm making such good progress at improving overall just by doing the writing thing, I'd be a fool to not focus on it now just so I can finish TLS... for the sake of finishing it.

I always did say the reason I do what I do was to improve, didn't I?

I don't want to finish TLS for the sake of finishing it. I want to finish TLS because that's the way it's supposed to end. Properly, as how I intended it.

So I guess if I want to finish TLS, I have two options, continue to soldier on without feedback, or maybe redesign the damn website so people actually can communicate to me what they think of the results.

Both of them are astonishingly daunting tasks.

The former is easier, but the latter has more long term value, because once I finish TLS I will set up a new site for my next project, and I'm going to hit that same problem again.

Guess which one I'm gunning for?

Yeah, I'm slowing down, and going for the option with the longterm payoff while I still work on my writing improvement. Sorry, Daenon, Jaeger and Thorne, but stay frosty, I'll be back when I'm ready. *ducks a shot from angry British mercenaries* OI!

Ps: And yes I realize I owe you guys some updates on my recent travels, what with me traipsing to California, Barcelona, Singapore and Sipadan all over the space of a few months. Next post will be about Sipadan. I've even got pictures!

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Pinging Art #4: A Sordid Confession Where I Admit I Miss The Feel of Pen On Paper

My Dear Wacom Intuos 4 Tablet,

I love you. I really do.

Almost a year ago I brought you into my life to fill the gap which my dear faithful Graphire 2 of many years left, and you have fulfilled and exceeded my expectations. Well mostly.

But recently I have been finding it hard to get my art flowing, and for some reason I keep finding these little scribbles everywhere: On my Post-it note pad at work, on the back pages of presentation printouts, on the margins of discarded documents and the flaps of junk mail envelopes...

The truth is, I miss the feel of pen on paper. You are wonderful for colouring and inking, but your feel is that of a paintbrush, and goddamnit I cannot scribble with a paintbrush. I need the tactile feel and texture of dead tree pulp and the friction of a ink-smeared bearing or graphite stick against it. Somehow when these conditions are met my mood for drawing spikes and while sitting in front of the computer... it doesn't.

Also, staring at the screen all day at work and then coming home to stare at a screen again isn't doing wonders for my eyesight.

I guess I ought to go with what works then.

Never fear, I do not regret my association with you, and you will still be a valued member of amy artistic arsenal. But just not for the rough work. Just think of it as me giving you more refined tasks.

Now excuse me while I go pacify that dratted Canon scanner.

It's been sulking for a year and refuses to communicate with my new laptop.

Maybe it knows it has about four pages of roughs for my comic to scan in.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Stopover at Hong Kong Airport: Reflections of Orange County and Surroundings

After ten hours in one of the new Cathay Airlines planes enroute to Hong Kong, my mind is overcome with one single overwhelming thought.

Whoever who designed the new non-reclining seats need to be shot with a tennis ball machine. And I would aim for the spine just so they would know how they made us suffering passengers feel.

I don't know what they were thinking, but their sliding implementation of “lumbar support” is insulting at best. I gave up trying to sleep and resigned myself to an aching back and grouchy sleep deprivation for another 3 hours. Gimme back the old reclining seats, I'd rather trade in the larger LCD for it.

Grousings aside. It's been a fun few months in the States. I will definitely miss the Californian weather (What's an umbrella? ;) ). I will admit the trip wrecked my comic schedule, but ah well. Can't be helped. Priorities after all.

So since this is partially a travel blog, I should sum up my working trip:

The first impression of LAX I got from the plane was: “Freaking hell... the roads are straight. They're really straight, wide and square.”

Sound like a silly observation, but if you have ever been in a southeast asian capital city you will know what I mean when I find this uh... different. Heck, even London had its share of cramped convoluted roads, but compared to the asphalt twirlings of Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, the roads in Orange County are so... trim and organized and tamed. (I'm sure the locals will disagree, but then they probably never tried driving in Asia... and no, Singapore doesn't count.)

Fortunately the drivers in Orange County are incredibly civilized in comparison, and were fairly accommodating to this poor foreigner who was learning to drive on while her mind was screaming to her as the “YOU'RE DRIVING ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD!”. They even stop for pedestrians. The first time that happened to me while on foot, I wasn't expecting it and was patiently waiting for the car to pass to I could cross the road and into the local Target store. (Standard issue survival measure in Asia, even if there is a pedestria crossing. Except if you're in Singapore because Singapore likes being an exception to every southeast asian rule.) It took about 10 seconds before I realized the driver was patiently waiting for me to pass and he got an apologetic grin before this silly swaku hurried across the road! XD

So what else did I notice about California and America in general? Well, unlike a certain other country which gets katoked by their own government into buying the same locally-made junk car at high prices, there is a very large and wide selection of cars available to the public. Especially the large part; the cars are huge, especially the american make ones. Boy did I not have fun trying to drive those. Maybe I'm just too used to the nippy little things you get at home.

I can see the necessity of the love affair with their cars though. Everything is so spaced out here. I remember my first arrival to the hotel and my discovery that I'd need a traveller's adaptor. So I thought: “No biggie. I'll just head to the local convenience store and grab one.” So I walk down to reception, ask the concierge for the location of the closest shop and was told:

“It's two miles away Miss.”

Cue me going uh... okaaaay. (I didn't have my car then.)

Most people would think we divers are nuts to want to dive in a site that looks like this on the surface. They may be right.

I did have some time to check out the local underwater scene in the nearby Santa Catalina island. Okay, the area is overdived and the water is COLD, but kelp forests are a nice change from coral reefs. If you don't get motion sickness. Which I did. The garibaldis loved it.

Getting ready to jump into icy water so I can look at fish and kelp with some random Polish guy in the background.

And I got to see dolphins. That's always good XD.

I also took some time off to go visit the national parks.

High-speed cameras rock!

Yosemite was gorgeous.

Somewhere in my computer, I have about 100 shots of different waterfalls. I am not kidding about it.

Really really gorgeous- but crowded.

This picture is only here because it's bizarre and looks like some sort of weird advert and only serves to prove the point that I may be nuts.

I did NOT expect to get caught in bumper to bumper traffic in a national park, for some bizarre reason, but as it stands, we did. It was not a fun 2 hour crawl.

Spending your time drawing during the traffic jam is the way to retain your sanity!

I actually like Sequioa a bit more because of this same reason, or at least, the avoidance of it. It was not as beautiful as Yosemite, but it had a desolate kind of beauty all the same, and the trees were huge.

Apparently the biggest tree the world.

And nothing says whoa like blithely strolling down the trail and realizing there's several huge black bears scratching their backs on a tree five meters away from you...

At this point I was hoping that he would ignore us and let us back slowly away.

Best of all, I made new friends, and even met a fellow comic creator in real life. The funny part was that we both didn't realize each other had comics at first and only found out later after we'd been hanging out for a while. Now that was worth traveling that 7k miles for the coincidence XD

Hong Kong International Airport at 4 am in the morning...

Anyway, as I sit in the transit terminal in Hong Kong waiting for my flight to Kuala Lumpur, I can't help but think: As fun as it is to travel sometimes the heart does long for home.

The only saving grace is that they offer really slow free wifi so I can kill my transit time.

Uh... really bad time to mention that I'm leaving in 3 days for London and Spain after this... right?

As an ex-Londoner I'm used to London but this will be my first Spanish trip. Certainly will be something new!

Anyway I am really jet lagged, so off I go to get some shut eye!

By the way, you will have noticed I finally added a Twitter feed to this blog. I'm going to use it for small blurbs and to generally let you all know I am still alive XD.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Hotspot #22: The Thin Veneer Between Art and Science in Good Storytelling

It's been a while since I've really thought (or done anything) about comics theory. Actually I have been lax in the comics department in lieu of my sudden reemergence of interest in the written word. It's a phases thing. I operate like that. Well that and my day job requiring me to travel to a whole different country for months does not help.

Anyway, as I spend hours over my word processor getting reacquainted with the art of telling a compelling story with the aid of pictures such as the comic panel, I have come to realize that the mystery of making a good comic and writing a good story is intricately linked. Oh sure we can yammer all we want about good art and writing in the terms of good characterization and worldbuilding, but frankly all that means jack when you forget the end goal of any form of creative art: getting a message across in a way that the audience enjoys.

The illustrate the example I just came back from the cinema after a marathon movie session: I watched Toy Story 3 and The Last Airbender back to back. That combination? Yes yes I know. My only excuse is that I had free tickets to spend.

Well it was like comparing a pinnacle of storytelling with a pit.

Toy Story 3 was sublime with some surprisingly adult connotations that I'm sure flew over the kid's heads. That's probably why it works so well on so many levels though. It made me laugh and cry and laugh and cry.

The Last Airbender well... felt like it was being in a car ride with someone with an learner's plate on display.

Contrary to popular belief, I do think that M. Night Shymalan did in fact like and watch the Avatar: TLA original animated series. In fact, I think that was the problem, he was too scared of the source material that he didn't dare to take creative control. So he settled for picking out parts of it and haphazardly trying to join them together- without consideration for what it contributed to the overall plot of the story. Shame, as the set and effects looked quite passable at times, but the characters might as well have been sock-puppets.

If I could summarize the problem, I would have said that Toy Story 3 worked because it knew what it wanted to do: tell the last part of the toys' story. It focused on doing it excellently. And it succeeded.

The Last Airbender bombed because it tried to hard to do everything and succeeded in doing nothing instead. You could tell that the film was made with one objective in mind: Cover Book 1: Water from the series and show the world of Avatar. And it did that. Sort of. The problem was that it forgot its REAL objective. And that was convey the overall message of the arc. It also committed the cardinal sin of any kind of movie/book/comic. It forgot it was supposed to tell a coherent story. (And NOT narrate one. Seriously... “They became friends right away.” !?!?!?!!11!)

So much for the failings of the cinema. What does this have to do with our comics?

Well a story told in movie form and comics form still share the same problems. And the problem half the time is most people who make comics don't have a message to tell. As a result you get those stories that start out great but waffle halfway and lose their focus in the end. (Incidentally, yes, I am aware my own comic suffers from this. Nothing says learning like first hand experience.)

And then there's the other side of the plate. Those stories that do have a message tend to be too indelicate about how they tell it, so all we get is a thinly disguised author's tract instead. No one really enjoys that. As with everything it's all about striking a balance.

The hard thing with comics is that as I have probably said a dozen hundred times before is that it is an amalgamation of art and writing. Well that's what most people describe it as. The gist of the matter here is that “writing” is an extremely generic term and doesn't describe much. While art is easily defined, and is an easily classifiable aspect of a comic, writing encompasses a whole different spectrum of things.

To give an example: (I wish I had my copy of “Making Comics” by Scott McCloud on me at the moment, but I am sitting in a hotel in California right now so my library is kind of a few hundred/thousand miles away) you can pretty much tell at a glance at a page how good (or not good) an artist's work is by the recent few pages of their comic. But what you can't really do is tell how good their writing is by the same, unless said artist specializes in single-page long gags. This is especially true for long serial type comics.

Then we get on to the question of what exactly constitutes good writing. I mean I have been shot down in the past for labelling a comic as having bad writing for having a nonsensical plot in a serious setting, and derailing that plot for the sake of characterization. After all, said author took pains to make characters deep and believable, right, so how dare I say that their writing is bad?! (Insert whine here)

On the other hand we also have those stories that have water-proof-at-30m-deep tight plots, riveting action, but the protagonists of the stories have about as much personality as a cardboard cutout. Some work. Others don't. So would you classify that as good writing or bad?

Well I am sure you get my drift by now. Writing is not an easy thing to judge. It goes deeper than that.

The problem with me is that my path in life has put me in the somewhat awkward position that is half scientist and half artist. It's not a comfortable position. On one hand my scientist side tends to prefer rationality and frustratingly stiff attention to detail. On the other my artsy side says screw it, let's just go with what you feel.

So I'm a scientific artist.

A lot of the arts people are of the opinion that you can't be scientific about art. Art is about “feeling” they say. They point at the formulaic approaches some people take to emulate the successes of other comics as evidence art has to come from the heart and not controlled approached and all that.

I call bullcrap on that.

The reason why people copy formulas is because they don't understand. That's why they follow a formula. They follow it because they know it works. They don't understand it. It's like the difference between a tech support operator and an engineer. If you have had to deal with enough tech support people you'll realize that most of them follow a script and resolution chart. Any deviation from the set paths sets them in a panic because it's unfamiliar territory to them and they do not know what to do. Incidentally, and sadly, most sales and marketing people fall in this category as well.

I mean think of your day job. Do you really understand what you do or do you only know what you are supposed to do? It's not the same thing. What most people receive in job training is a series of motions to go through. Most will never understand the mechanics and big picture behind what they do.

The same thing applies to comics. If you really do care about telling a good story, make sure you know what you want to do and how your art works. Sure you can try doing it again and again and leave it to chance to strike a chord, or do it enough times until you intuitively know what is needed to get the reaction you want. But what the latter is doing is simply internalizing the set of rules needed to get you your result.

Or you can opt for the more reliable method: reach for a pencil and paper, and plan the basic foundation in advance, then go over every bit of it testing every link to make sure it belongs and fits together. Then worry about filling it out with fine details later.

Telling a story is like solving a maths problem on paper. It's not that we don't know how to do it, but it's just a lot easier to solve 128 x 512 on paper than in your head...

Without a calculator, Wise guy.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Stopover at Darken: I almost expect to see two of the same character per panel

Well my stint in the US is almost over, I guess I should write about it sometime.

It's a what, a 16 hour flight home? I'll write about it THEN. And get around replying to my emails.

But for the meantime, allow me to distract you with how much I love this page:

Thumbnail from Darken, click to go to actual page.

Hee hee I'm pretty sure Komi could make a board game out of this...