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...