Monday, October 27, 2008

Marvelous Tales: Halloween in the Comicbook Biz

I was going to get back to visual storytelling or design this time around. However, I ran across some old Halloween photos and since that time of year is upon us, I thought I’d share them now.

During most of my years at Marvel Comics, there would be a Halloween party in the office. Many of us would attend in costume. Mark Gruenwald was a major force behind these office events. The photo below is from either 1985 or 1986 when I was an editor. I’m in my Alien Legion costume. With me is my fabulous assistant editor at the time, Pat Blevins. Pat is dressed up as a bunch of grapes!

Pat Blevins, Carl Potts

Pat is the wife of the very talented artist, Bret Blevins. Both Bret and Pat are among the nicest people on the planet. I enjoyed working with both of them a lot.

During the ealry 1980s, when Bernie Wrightson lived near Woodstock, NY, he hosted an annual Halloween party. Much of the comics community attended.

The shots below are, to the best of my knowledge, from Bernie’s Oct. 1982 party.

Bill Sienkewicz and Al Milgrom

Bernie Wrightson

Walt Simonson, Roger Slifer, Marv Wolfman

Belinda Gruenwald, Mark Gruenwald, Ralph Macchio

Joe Chiodo

Carl Potts

Howard Chaykin

???, Al MIlgrom, Len Wein

Louise "Weezie" Simonson, Ann Goodwin, Judy Milgrom

Leslie Z., Brent Anderson, Bill Sienkewicz

Marv Wolfman, Jo Duffy, Dave Cockrum

Friday, October 17, 2008

Marvelous Tales: Steve Ditko

It always baffled me as a kid when people told me that could not tell the difference between the art styles of various comicbook artists.

To me, most of the artists creating the comics that I devoured had very distinctive styles. How on (or off) Earth could anyone not see the difference between the styles of Neal Adams, Alex Toth, Joe Kubert and Jack Kirby?

Apparently, if it’s in a comicbook, a lot of people see through invisible filters that render everything into a homogenized Roy Lichtenstein-esque aesthetic.

When I was reading early Marvel Comics, the work of Steve Ditko really stood out and inspired me. He co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, my favorite Marvel characters.

The great Spider-Man #23 cover

Ditko’s work was like no other comics creator at that time. For the most part, his characters were not idealized in their appearance.* The everyman-who-can-be-identified-with-by-anyone look for Peter Parker that Ditko created helped Spider-Man comics attract legions of empathetic readers.

Steve’s characters moved in unique poses and with unusual gestures. Spider-Man swung and leaped just like a Spider-Man should and Doc Strange’s spells were cast unique hand gestures.
Doctor Strange on the defense.
He created a fantastic visual language for casting magic spells that is still emulated today.

Steve’s philosophical beliefs were as unusual as his art style. As the 1960s progressed, Steve became more and more entrenched in Objectivism, a very strict and uncompromising philosophy championed by author Ayn Rand. These beliefs are a major reason why Ditko left Marvel at the height of his popularity.

By the time he left Marvel, Ditko had stopped giving interviews, signing autographs or attending comics conventions. When I moved to NY about a decade later, I figured I’d probably never get to meet him.

However, around 1978, Neal Adams convinced Ditko to attend one of the monthly gatherings of NYC-based comics community that Neal hosted at his midtown apartment. It was there that Jim Starlin introduced me to Steve. I was pretty much tongue-tied but must have not made too horrible of an impression since Ditko occasionally stopped by to visit me when I became a staff editor at Marvel. By that time, Ditko had been back at Marvel for a number of years.

Ditko had some rules about the jobs he’d consider during the ‘80s. He wouldn’t work on stories featuring Spider-Man or Dr. Strange, the characters he rose to fame on in the early ‘60s. He also wanted to only work on stories where the heroes didn’t have major flaws or weaknesses (hard to do since that described many of Marvel’s heroes!).

One of the jobs Ditko agreed to draw for my office was in the first issue of What The--?!, Marvel’s self-parody humor comic. Ditko had drawn short humor jobs in the past so I asked him to do one for our first issue. He was up for it as long as only villains were the targets of the jokes – Ditko felt making fun of true heroes was not appropriate. So I asked Mark Gruenwald to write such a story parodying Secret Wars. He did so (under a pseudonym) and legendary comics artist John Severin agreed to ink it.

During his occasional visits at my office, Ditko would talk at length on a variety of subjects but he’d really get going if the conversation turned to politics or philosophy. He was indeed a true believer in Objectivism and that belief seemed unshakable.

In the late ‘80s, Ditko told me that, when he quit Marvel in the ‘60s, he didn’t turn in two Dr. Strange stories that he’d plotted and penciled. My jaw hit the floor.

This was amazing news and I urged (begged) Ditko to bring in the story! He politely declined, saying he didn’t want the pages to ever be published or copied. I told him that I’d be happy to look over his shoulder as he flipped through the pages/ That way the pages would never leave his hands, but he still declined to bring them in. Since then I’ve fantasized about what those pages look like and what the story was about. I wonder if I’ll ever find out!

Also during one of his visits to Marvel, I asked Steve to sign a page of original Creeper art I’d bought at a convention years before. His reaction that day and a few weeks later when he returned to my office were very memorable. If you want to hear that story, it’s at the end of the audio recording of a panel on Ditko that author Blake Bell moderated at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con. Blake’s recently published hardcover book, Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, has already gone into its second printing. Anyone interested in Ditko needs to check it out.

You can access the audio recording of the Ditko panel on Blake’s website on all things Ditko right here.

On all levels, Ditko is a unique creator who has the courage of his convictions. I can’t help wishing, however, that he’d relent about keeping those “long-lost” Dr. Strange pages under wraps.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Ditko and his work – and if you’ve had your own personal Ditko encounters, please share them with me!

*As stated in the San Diego panel, some actors look, to me anyway, like they were drawn by Ditko with a broad nose, strong jaw but short distance between mouth and chin. David Duchovny is one of those actors.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Composition, Layout & Design: Types of Balance

As a general rule, positive space in a picture is composed of the items or subjects depicted within the picture’s frame (people, vehicles, buildings, etc.).

Negative space is the area not occupied by positive space items (often backgrounds like sky, simple landscapes, etc.).

Artists and photographers can arrange the positive and negative space in their pictures to emphasize the picture’s storytelling and to create interesting compositions.

The two main terms describing how subjects are arranged or “balanced” within a picture are “symmetrical” and “asymmetrical”

Symmetrical balance is where the subjects are arranged so that they are in the middle of the picture frame or are even distributed throughout the frame.

The subjects in a picture with asymmetrical balance are distributed in an uneven pattern.

Here’s another way to think about balance in a picture - imagine the bottom of the picture frame as the surface of a see-saw or teeter-totter with a fulcrum under the middle.

Now imagine all of the subjects in the picture frame falling straight down onto the surface of the teeter-totter. If the teeter-totter stays level, you have symmetrical design. If the teeter-totter drops to one side, you have an asymmetrical design.

Keep in mind that the further away form the center/fulcrum an object is, the more downward pressure it will exert on the teeter-totter. So, a large object near the center of the frame might be counterbalanced by smaller objects positioned farther to the opposite side of the frame.

Symmetrical designs often impart a feeling of formality, stiffness or solemnity. Asymmetrical design can impart a very wide range of feelings.

There is a sub-category to asymmetrical design – the seemingly oxymoronic “balanced asymmetrical design”. This is where the subjects are arranged asymmetrically within a picture but would still not cause the teeter-totter to tip.

It’s good to be aware of these types of design balance when producing photos, illustrations or sequential media (comics, storyboards, film, etc.) If you are producing sequential media, it’s usually a good idea to mix the various balance types in order to get keep things visually interesting.

These panels by an un-credited Chinese comics artist show great design. It’s easy to see the positive and negative space in these frames! The frame on the top is asymmetrical design while the one on the bottom looks like it could be asymmetrically balanced.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Unnatural Selection in San Diego (No, this doesn’t have anything to do with Comic Con)

Human impact on the natural world is often negative — overpopulation putting a strain on natural resources, global warming, pollution, the extinction of numerous species, etc.

Would it surprise you that man’s activities have also made some of Earth’s creatures “smarter?” (Or, probably more accurately, conditioned them to act in ways we consider as being smarter.)

A prime example of “educated” wildlife can be found in the lakes that surround San Diego, CA.

San Diego may have the most “intelligent” largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) on the planet! This is due to the “unnatural selection” that the bass population has experienced through human activity.
An aggregation of largemouth bass

Bass are not native to California. They originated from North America’s east coast and the southern states. Bass were planted in California waters well over 100 years ago.

The lakes around San Diego are generally small but deep with gin-clear water. They receive a tremendous amount of “fishing pressure” (meaning a lot of anglers spend a lot of time fishing these lakes). The fish in the San Diego waters see a lot of different lures and baits dangled in front of their noses.

Most San Diego lakes were stocked with “Florida strain” largemouth bass. Floridians are naturally harder to trick into biting a lure than the “northern strain” of the bass. No one knows why.

The long-standing record for largemouth is 22 ¼ lbs. Many anglers think that the next world record bass is swimming in one of the San Diego lakes. In fact, we know that’s the case — a few years ago, Mac Weakley caught a 25+ lb. behemoth at Lake Dixon, a small body of water north of San Diego. Since that fish was not caught according to International Game Fish Association (IGFA) rules, it was not eligible to become an official record. Weakley released that fish back into Lake Dixon.
Mike Winn holds the 25.1-pound bass caught by his friend Mac Weakley on Dixon Lake near San Diego, CA.

The gargantuan size of San Diego’s fish keeps a steady stream of anglers visiting the area’s waters. Fishermen try new techniques and ever more realistic lures and presentations to get the wary fish to bite. Some of these techniques work well for a while. Then, the bass population seems to wise up and the effectiveness of the new techniques fade.

One of a number of highly-realistic “swim baits” used to mimic the rainbow trout that are stocked in San Diego’s lakes during cooler months. Rainbows are a favorite bass dinner item.

As noted in another blog entry, bass that are caught and released back to the water seem to learn from the experience. Perhaps they retain an association between what they were doing (attacking a lure) with the resulting experience of being hauled out of the water, unhooked and returned to the water. They tend to avoid making the same mistake again.

Bass are regarded as a fairly intelligent group of fish, as indicated by the high degree of mobility their eyes have in their eye sockets.

Due to the fishing pressure over the years, all of the more easily caught bass around San Diego were either harvested for the dinner table or caught and released.

This left the less-easily caught fish to reproduce, creating generations of fish that became increasingly harder to fool by anglers. These hard to catch fish grew very large over time.

Unlike colder parts of the country where the water “gets hard” during the winter and cold-blooded bass greatly reduce their activity, the bass around San Diego grow year round in their moderate environment. These bass get easy calories to grow on during the winter when their lakes are stocked with rainbow trout. The trout, raised in hatcheries, are “naive” and are easy prey for the voracious largemouth bass. So, instead of experiencing little or no growth during the colder months, San Diego bass get larger.

The water in the San Diego lakes is very clear, allowing fish to easily spot fishing line and notice differences between their natural live prey and lures. To test how sensitive bass are to fishing line, some anglers tossed live night crawler worms off a San Diego lake’s dock. The bass sheltering under the dock would rush out to consume the wriggling food. The fishermen then threaded virtually invisible 1# test clear monofilament fishing line through a night crawler and tossed it off the dock. There was no hook on the line or in the worm. The worm wiggled just like the others crawlers but the bass refused to touch it. Somehow, they either saw the line or otherwise sensed that there was something different/unnatural abut that particular crawler.

The intense fishing pressure may also prompt the bass to use their senses in different ways than they might normally.

Some years back I was fishing on Lake Miramar near San Diego and the bass were chasing schools of baitfish just under the surface of the water. There were splashes all around my boat as the bass charged up to engulf the shad trapped against the water’s surface.

I was surrounded by other boats filled with fisherman. These anglers were casting a wide variety of baits at the schooling, feeding bass but the fish refused their offerings. Even in the midst of a feeding frenzy, the bass seemed to easily tell the difference between their live prey and the variety of lures being tossed at them.

I plowed through my tackle box, trying a number of different lures before finally tying on a Snag Proof Minnow. This is a soft plastic lure with a hollow body.
A hollow Snag Proof Minnow

I chucked the Snag Proof Minnow and jerked it erratically, like a fleeing and disoriented baitfish. Wham! One of those genius San Diego largemouth bass fell for it. I reeled it in, took it off the hook and slid it back into the water. I repeated this sequence many times while jaws dropped in the boats around me.

Many of the other fishermen were throwing more realistic looking lures than the Snag Proof Minnow, yet the bass refused to bite their plugs and bashed mine. Why they behaved this way was a mystery to me for some time.

Years later I spoke of this episode to Ken Cook, a professional bass tournament angler who used to be a fisheries biologist. Cook thinks the bass have senses in their lateral line that we can’t comprehend. The fish may possibly be able to sense (similar to sonar?) whether their potential prey has an air bladder inside of it. Baitfish have air bladders but most lures are solid plastic, wood or metal. The Snag Proof Minnow, however, is hollow, possibly mimicking the air bladder of a real baitfish.

Rationalizing how a fish senses and reacts to things is probably a foolish exercise. However, Cook’s guess sounded viable to me — so much so that I’ll usually include a void space in the lures I use when fishing in heavily pressured waters.

Our fishing pressure has made the San Diego bass “smart”. This is “unnatural selection” in action.

Okay, we’ll get back to something visual storytelling or design related next week.