Tag Archives: comics

My latest steampunk adventures

Last year at Asylum in Lincoln (biggest steampunk gathering in the UK) I spent quite a lot of time stood outside a venue being the signpost, because there wasn’t a sign, and one was needed. While I was doing that, another author at the event asked how on earth I’d ended up doing that. I said I’d offered. This year I’ll be co-running that venue, and Tom and I have had the honour of putting together a team of authors for the event as a whole. How did we end up doing that? Well, in no small part because we are the kinds of people who pile in and do what needs doing.

It’s not about the money, or the glory. Ok, it is a bit about the glory. We were keen to jump in because we want to change what happens around ‘literature’ at steampunk events. Tom and I will not be touring venues across the weekend as part of the author team, we’ll be looking after the Cathedral Centre/Steampunk embassy. If you’re in town, come and find us, it’s not a big building.

It would be fair to say that as things stand, ‘literature’ is not something most steampunks are that excited about, and with good reason. It’s not the sort of thing you can easily engage with when there’s loads going on. It doesn’t grab your attention like art or music, or clothes or devices or just about anything else at a steampunk event. If you aren’t already into an author, you may not be even slightly excited about hearing them read, and you don’t want to go to a talk about how they self published their first novel, and if you don’t write, the standard fayre of talks about how to write books may not appeal. And then there’s the room of gloom – I’ve seen these at too many events and not just steampunk ones. Tables full of books behind which mournful and obscure authors sit in puddles of grumpy entitlement wondering where all their adoring fans have got to.

Of course that’s not steampunk writing, or steampunk books as a whole, and even in the rooms of gloom there are always people worth meeting. This year, Asylum has taken a radical new approach to how it deals with authors. With that as our underpinning,  Tom and I have done a number of things to further change what happens. We’ve brought in more comics people – because unlike books, comics are easy to engage with quickly. We’ve brought in authors who are great performers, we’ve got all kinds of drawing workshops on the go, and the talks are full of ideas and interesting concepts. Around the authors we’ve lured an array of fascinating folk to come and do their thing at the cathedral centre, and I think it’s going to be a really interesting space.

We will be doing some Hopeless Maine stuff – we’re using it as a recruitment opportunity for The Hopeless Vendetta (if you feel a sudden urge to be recruited, comment below!) and we’re taking out a show called Songs from a Strange Island – a mix of material written for the Hopeless Maine project, (like the Hopeless shanty) and things that inspire us (gloomy and magical folk music for the greater part).

I know we’re not alone in wanting to see things change around books and book events. I’ve been having all the same conversations with the people running Stroud Book Festival as I’ve had with many people on the steampunk side. ‘Literature’ turns people off, and often what happens under that banner is dull and self-congratulatory. I want to see more spoken word content. I want to see authors stepping up to entertain and engage people. I want to be talking about books, comics, fat comics, ephemera, writing, and creativity. I want things people can join in with, not the literary on one side and the audience on the other.


Wife of the artist

Last year, will be remembered by my household as ‘the year of the raven’s child’ because mostly what my husband did last year, was draw. There were a lot of 12 hour and longer days, and a lot of seven day weeks of him sitting at the table, and drawing from the moment he got up, right through the day and well into the evening. This is, it should be noted, entirely normal for comics artists at all levels of the business. Long days sitting at the board and no days off, for wages that numerically are the same (not relatively, numerically) as they were in the late seventies.

Art takes time. Back in the 19th century, John Ruskin was protesting about the way in which people were being required to work as machines, but no one really listened to him, and the industrialisation of creativity has continued, and if anything, got worse. I have heard of artists working 18 hour days. I know authors who write at a rate of a novel a month.

For those not caught up in the creative industry, this can all sound fine. Because as everyone knows, doing art and writing books is fun, so doing it all day must be fun and not like a proper job at all. By extension doing it all day every day and never getting a day off is also fun because this is a hobby so you can just keep doing it. Right? I grant you, a bit of playful painting of a Sunday afternoon is fun. Writing a poem on a whim, making up a short story… these are delightful ways to spend some time.  But when your day starts about 7am and you have to hit the board, or the keyboard, and make content for ten hours and more and then get up tomorrow and do it all again… ‘fun’ is not the best description. When you tot up the figures, the chances of making the minimum wage doing this are slim. No one joins the creative industries seeking this, but to be ‘professional’ this is all too often what’s required.

Many comics artists die prematurely. They die in America in part because their low pay does not allow them to afford health care. They die because their sedentary lifestyles undermine their health, and because if you have to spend your waking hours working, then all the self-care things like cooking and food shopping go out of the window.

Such work does not pay most people doing it enough that they can keep a second person at home to take care of them. Fortunately for us, I also work from home. Last year, alongside the various day job things I do (press officer, publicist, editor, professional blogger, occasionally author of fiction and non fiction) I did pretty much all the household stuff. I fought a running battle to make the time to get him outside regularly, to get odd hours of downtime when we could, and to give him some leisure time alongside this phenomenal project.

There were about 200 pages of art in this project. A page a day isn’t unusual for comics, but often a person is drawing, or inking, or colouring, not doing all three. A page a day doing all three, is tough. Tom can do a page a day, but then to go from the drawn image to the finished electronic image takes more time. A comics page isn’t created by just sitting down of a morning and putting down the lines. It has to be planned to get the text onto the page. Often, research is required. There are continuity issues and things that have to be remembered and repeated. The bigger the book, the more of these there are. So alongside the drawing and the toning, there also has to be time for page design, character design, and research.

There’s a really macho culture in comics. It has, for a long time, celebrated the habit of working yourself to death. People take pride in their long, long hours hunched over drawing tables. Anyone who can’t keep up should get out, is the general wisdom. That complicity with the system helps keep the comics industry the way it is. But in the last few months I’ve seen increasing numbers of artists stepping away from this, to talk about the truths of their lives, the human cost of being asked to work like a machine. It’s one thing to suffer for art out of personal passion, another to institutionalise that process. Last year was tough, but we got through it. Tom could have made the choice to push straight into the next big thing and go along with the story about how you get successful as a comics artist. He could have chosen the short life expectancy, and restricted relationships. He didn’t. Having put heart and soul into the year of the raven’s child, he’s eased off, and we’re going to try and find other ways to make this work.

I’m with John Ruskin on this one: We should not be trying to turn people into machines.


How to empathise with imaginary people

Tom and I are co-creators on a graphic novel series. Volume three has just launched in webcomic form over at www.hopelessmaine.com . For various reasons I’d not looked at it much in the year since Tom finished the art. It came as a bit of a surprise to realise how many real people and settings had crept into this one. The first chapter features the church from Purton, Gloucestershire, fellow comics creator Maxwell Vex, and Canadian Steampunk icon Lee Ann Farruga, more real people will be along later.

It is generally held wisdom with comics that the more realistic the people are, the harder it is to empathise with them. Smiley emoticon faces have the power to be anyone, and this can be a great aid to getting people into the story. Cartoons function in a totally different way to realistic representations, in terms of how they affect the mind of the viewer. From a creative perspective, this raises some really interesting questions about whether we want people getting inside or standing outside the characters.

Alongside that is the issue that the less detailed and individual the faces are, the harder it is to have something visually gorgeous going on. Elegance can be had, but not sumptuousness. You can’t have nuances of emotion in smiley emoticon faces either. The words have to do more of the work.

Hopeless is not a story full of ‘everyman’ characters where the idea is that the reader can slot their own life into the gaps. Although that said, a surprising number of people have cheerfully imagined themselves into islander roles, which is part of why more of the people we know are getting into the books. We know this from www.hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com and from reader responses. Despite the specific and individual nature of characters, people can get into this. I have theories of course. I always have theories…

Everyman faces work for simple storytelling. They work for uncomplex emotions. If you want a mix of emotions, you need more face with which to express it. You need eyes that can reshape and lips that can move, and a body shape that can express feelings. It isn’t possibly to convey all of the things human bodies and faces can convey without an image able to hold more of those details in the first place.

I think it’s also a consideration that empathy is not transference. You can feel with a person without feeling that you *are* them. I know that many people come to all manner of things just looking for affirming reflections of themselves, but not everyone does. Some people are happy to look outwards, to consider unfamiliar emotions and ideas, to put themselves in shoes that are not their own. If your capacity for empathy depends on being able to see yourself in whoever you’re looking at, then simpler cartooning is your friend. If what inspires you to empathy is seeing someone else’s humanity, then perhaps more involved art isn’t going to alienate you from the story.


Good art and entertaining

“The list of 55 titles, drawn from 98 official nominations, is presented annually at the ALA Midwinter Meeting. The books, recommended for those ages 12-18, meet the criteria of both good quality literature and appealing reading for teens.”

That quote comes from http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklists/ggnt/2013 and the Young Adult Library Services Association selection of Great Graphic novels 2013. There must have been thousands of potential candidates.
All on its own, that quote would make me very happy. The recognition that good quality creativity that is also accessible and entertaining, should be available, is vital. Dull if worthy books do not get readers excited. Vacuous books… well, I think we’ve established what I think about throw away content. It makes me grumpy. More time spent shouting out the good stuff, the stuff that has content and is also fun and enjoyable, is time well spent, so there’s a list of 55 things that it is well worth waving at teen readers, and people who like teen reads. Do give it a look if you like graphic novels.

We found out about this yesterday, and we found out because we made the list. Hopeless Maine only came out last November, we never expected anything like this kind of attention. It’s startling, and we feel profoundly honoured. We’re also delighted to see Rust and Cowboy – other titles from Archaia – also on that list. Archaia put out unusual books, they aren’t driven by market trends or assumptions about what is ‘in’ this year. They take risks – they took us – and those risks are resulting in kudos and sales. There are enough people out there who want something new and surprising after all. It feels like a huge victory. The comics industry is dominated by DC and Marvel, people in what looks to me like fetish gear, thumping each other. But evidently there is room for other stuff too, and that makes me happy. Diversity is a good thing.

A matter of weeks ago I had run out of hope. The whole business seemed impossible, demoralising, a bit… hopeless. To be recognised as both good art and entertaining is so important to me. I want to do both, be both. I don’t want to write the kind of stuff only a handful of academics could ever be interested in, and at the same time, I don’t want to write the kind of stuff I don’t enjoy reading. I was so close to quitting, because I kept feeling I just couldn’t do it on my terms. 5000 librarians and library workers apparently think otherwise. That’s huge.

I’m in a process of doing some serious rethinking about how, and why, I want to work. I’d reached some decisions that are, in many ways, reinforced by what happened yesterday. I’m not interested in ‘being a professional writer’ I need to do work that is meaningful to me. If I can do that with the writing, excellent. If not, then tutoring, workshops, editing and whatever conventional stuff I can find will be more in the mix. My terms, or not at all. Which leaves me asking the interesting question of what ‘on my terms’ means to me these days. In all the crap and fear and stress, I lost my way. Figuring out what I want is a big part of what I need in place to move forwards. I have some ideas –more on that soon. In the meantime, I just feel a bit vindicated, which was timely, and a lot encouraged, which is helpful.