Friday, 30 October 2015

Happy Halloween

A very rough & ready all-ages slapstick Halloween comic created with the Electricomics toolkit is available for your viewing pleasure online. The art took about 4 hours in total, in case you're wondering!!

The Ipad app URL is (Sorry, bit of a mouthful to type!)


Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Seen through a glass (a bit darkly, I suppose)

Happened upon this strange window display on the way home from work the other day. Very strange and beautiful.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Working Inside The Box

This is a reworking of the talk that I gave at the Digital Comics Symposium at University of Hertfordshire, UK on 14 October 2015. Big thanks to Daniel Merlin Goodbrey for hosting, to the Electricomics team, and everyone else who contributed to a great day out.

The theme of the talk was constraints and creativity, based on my own observations of using a highly digital workflow to create traditional page-based comics.

When talking about digital comics, we often state that constraints have been removed - we can now animate, use sound, make "pages" as big as we like or abandon the "page" completely, add non-linear storytelling structures (even generate the pathways dynamically), etc. The sense of freedom can be dizzying.

Technology, Economy, Time

I gave an overview of the constraints facing print-based comics, based on the technology available to them, and how these were worked with (note "with", not "against") creatively. Constraints shape the creative process, from the 4 colour CMYK printing process helping to shape the storytelling, from brightly coloured superheroes with recognisable colour signatures to the long-held prejudice that colour comic art was superior to black & white because of the higher physical production costs.

Technology exists as one point of a triangle along with time and money, of course. Time and money are huge constraints in comics, and in any creative activity. Technology is often not enabling new approaches per se, but rather enabling them to be done in a quicker, or more cost-effective way. And, regardless of the impact of technology, creatives often expend considerable effort figuring out how to do things quickly or cheaply (usually because the alternative is not to do them at all). I'm into creating comics primarily in order to tell stories.

Capturing nuances of facial expression and gesture, which requires considerable artistic talent, is a big part of storytelling, but that's the extent of my interest in visually recording the human form. I can draw passably well, and capture a reasonable likeness repeatedly, but for me, the use of digital photography and photo-manipulation were adopted as a technology that let me get on quicker, and dispense with a lot of the drudge-work of drawing. Initially at least - where I've ended up by adopting those techniques isn't where I expected to be, as you'll see.

There's a whole "science" of productivity and efficiency, starting with the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor. His Time & Motion studies broke down repetitive actions into their constituent parts, and tweaked them individually. Taylorism in it's pure form is no longer a thing (it survived 40 years, at most, from 1890 - 1930's), but his legacy survives.

I find myself timing and measuring my actions when making comics. I know how many pages I can turn out a month, how long it takes to do a single drawing in a particular style, how many panels I can produce in an evening, and so on. And, on the whole, I find that recording and measurement rather irksome to my creative process. A big part of me kicks against these economically-imposed constraints.

My main assertion here is that it doesn't have to be that way. Constraints and creativity aren't enemies, and this is the case in at least two ways.

Virtuous Circles

The first one is rather prosaic. My standard workflow, with a given technique, is to do it manually, tweak and refine the process, and then, when I'm happy with it, commit it to code as a plugin. (I use GIMP, and write my scripts in Python. If you use Photoshop as your tool of choice, that can be automated using Javascript in a similar way.) Once a technique is scripted up in this way, I can apply it more effortlessly, and quicker, without having to let the setup stages get in the way of my creativity. Doing an appropriate amount of Taylorist measurement and reflection helps me fly further.

Self-Imposed Boxes

The second synergy between constraints and creativity goes deeper. Looking across a lot of stories that I like, I find that the artists involved often voluntarily adopt constraints. Here are a few, picked from comics, film, prose, etc. - I try hard not to restrict my comic making influences to just other comic creators. So, a few examples.

David Mazzuchelli's "Asterios Polyp" uses the CMYK printing process in a very deliberate way, assigning different colour schemes (and line styles) to each character - Asterios is blue, angular and geometric, whereas his partner Hana is magenta, and defined by softer, more blurry-edged cross-hatching.

In Ray Fawkes' powerful graphic novel "One Soul", 18 different life stories, from different locations through time and geography, have their life stories told. Fawkes sticks to a 3x3 panel grid throughout, with each life allocated a particular place in the double-page spread. The stories build up alongside one another, and the page gradually goes dark as the characters die.

In Peter Greenaway's film "Drowning By Numbers", the numbers 1 to 100 appear, in order, somewhere in the elaborate sets. Completely incidental to the (rather bizarre) main plot of the film, it's possible to watch the film as a sort of arthouse "Where's Wally", follow the story, or do both.

In Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee & Cigarettes", the entire film is made up of short vignettes in which assorted characters meet up to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. The unusual combinations of famous actors ad musicians playing warped versions of themselves, and repeated motifs hold things together in a strange way. (both Tom Waits and GZA from Wu Tang Clan are, in their semi-fictional forms, skilled medical doctors as well as musicians, for example.)

In Jon Sladek's short story "A Game of Jump", a tale of murder, lust, betrayal and insanity is told using only the 700 words defined in an old Ladybird dictionary for children, to startling effect. Randall Munroe of XKCD performs a similar trick with the diagrammatic "Up-goer 5", describing the technical functions o the Apollo 5 rocket using a very limited vocabulary.

Richard McGuire's "Here" shows the same scene from a fixed viewpoint, spanning thousands of years of history, and interleaving the different time periods within floating "windows" to build up a historical tapestry of a particular room in a house. (FWIW, I disagree with the second review entirely, I don't see anything in the book that can be read as an urgent ecological fable. It's a mirror, I think the reviewer may have seen her own very valid concerns reflected back at her.)

Poetry is full of formal constraints - especially rhyming poetry, in t's multiple forms: sestinas, habbies, quatrains, sonnets, haikus and limericks. (Yep, limericks. Poetry might be sen as a rather serious business, but sticking to a rigid set of constraints can be fun too.)


These are all what I'd call "formalist" constraints (and I'd describe my own approach as very "formalist") - let me explain what I mean by that. Here's the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:
Full Definition of FORMALISM. 1. : the practice or the doctrine of strict adherence to prescribed or external forms (as in religion or art); also : an instance of this. 2. : marked attention to arrangement, style, or artistic means (as in art or literature) usually with corresponding de-emphasis of content.
Often, I'll get the starting point for an idea from some specific external form, rather than from a specific story.

"Tell an entire life story in one page" (I ran this as a challenge on the Millarworld forums several years ago, and had a huge and varied response)
"Tell a story using cut-ups of paintings by a famous (out of copyright) painter"
"Divide each page horizontally, and tell two parallel stories along the top and bottom, which bounce off each other in interesting ways"
"Tell a story composed of several interwoven narratives on a broad topic (e.g. 'problems') coming up with the topic first and writing the stories to fit afterwards"

The definition has a point, that a formalist approach can overlook content, and there are plenty of formalist exercises out there that end up rather dry and shrivelled, and other online definitions are rather more damning of formalism in this regard. I try not to fall into this trap - I do want to tell meaningful stories too - it's just a matter of pedalling a little bit harder in the right places. (My success rate's probably better than 50%, if I'm honest. Sometimes the content's played second fiddle to the form.)

Technology & Improvisation

This was a talk delivered at a symposium on digital comics, so I wanted to round off by coming back to digital technology, and the initial assertion that it had an impact on the non-creative constraints of the time & money variety. In my own work, this was the biggest initial draw of technology for me, as I said.

Experience has proven otherwise, however. Taking photos of people as a starting point has influenced my work in quite different ways.

  • Working with screen-caps from youtube etc. (as I did initially, to try the techniques out), I have no control over the movements/gestures of the people, so made up stories around the available images.
  • Working with other real-live people, who were investing their time for free (notably my collaborators at Kendal Community Theatre), it didn't feel right to turn up with complete scripts and work through them, but to work with them on the day, and create stories from that.
  • Much of the video that I recorded was of people talking (there's also a fair bit of action/dramatic conflict), so I gravitated towards a "talking heads" style.
  • Having "talking heads" on the page helped me to come up with the idea of split pages as a way of introducing more visual elements into the story.

I've developed a style here that's quite different from most comics I've seen, and one with a lot of potential and variety, that I feel I could spend at least a couple more years exploring.

I'm therefore tempted to conclude that the boundary between practical and creative constraints is somewhat artificial, or at least, we have a degree of choice in how we view the constraints under which we work, and turn them to our advantage.

A short video demonstrating my current workflow for turning photos into comic art, at high speed, can be found here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Experimental Comics by Karrie Fransman : Brief Review

I managed to sneak off from my incessant improv antics at Lakes International Comic Art Festival yesterday for long enough to see Karrie Fransman discussing her work, and experimental comics in general, with Mary Talbot, in the sober setting of the Kendal Town Hall council chamber (complete with working gavel and a not-at-all sinister portrait of the Queen!).

Fransman's best known for her graphic novels "The House That Groaned" and "Death of an Artist", the latter of which I've discussed elsewhere. She made a very good point that the approach she took to that book - of narrating via multiple fictional voices - is relatively common in literature, but completely unexplored in comics. And there's a lot of this unexplored territory out there, excitingly.

She also talked us through a number of her other, smaller experiments in form, including

(Her website appears to be having some intermittent issues right now, so I've provided links elsewhere. Check out, I'm sure it'll be back on its feet soon.)

The big takeaway from the talk, for me, was a reaffirmation that comics are in their infancy, and that there is plenty of uncharted territory to explore. Karrie's doing a great job at charting some of this, and does so without sacrificing the fun element (her humour is often quite dark, but not far below the surface). I came away feeling challenged to up my game as a formalist, which is great.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

9 lIves performance by Dave McKean : Brief Review

Just a quick few notes on Dave McKean's "Nine Lives" performance at Kendal Comic Arts Festival last night. If you ever get a chance to see this, I recommend doing so. It showed previously at Sydney opera House, no idea when/where it'll ever be on again. It's a live performance by McKean and his musical collaborator Iain Ballamy. I reckon it'd translate to DVD, but I may be missing some subtle jazz nuance here...

McKean is a powerful creative force. He can draw and paint beautifully, and tell stories that touch the raw core of human experience, particularly in the way he approaches grief. Turns out he'sa good musician and composer too. Above and beyond these, the restlessness of his style, the continual experimentation, is what makes him stand out. At it's best (life #3 stands out as a highlight, the experimentation was so intense, moving from slapstick stopmotion with live actors, to close-up shots of nature, to some beautiful composition of the three characters at different distances, to a full-on drawn animation with camels by Edweard Muybridge, and so on - my senses were reeling, in a good way). Some pieces were less successful (I felt rather flat regarding the last two, maybe I was worn out).

If you're familiar with his "Pictures that Tick" books, you'll recognise a few. "His Story" and "The Coast Road", both amongst the strongest from those books, are beautifully reinterpreted for film/music here. Two borrow from the film Luna, and are also welcome additions to the mix.

So, powerful, intoxicating and deep, on the whole. It wasn't perfect, but it would have been a safer, lesser piece of work if it had been. McKean can do polished, but is at his best exploring the rough edges, as here. Bravo.

UPDATE: A more detailed piece on 9 lives, from an earlier performance, including names of the 9 stories, here, courtesy of Bleeding Cool.

Improv Corner

A huge thanks to everyone from the Lakes International Comic Art Festival who's stopped by at Improv Corner today, to play with tape measures, glowing eggs, cards, old vinyl records, and that sort of thing - or just to chat. Great fun meeting you all.

A couple of quick pictures from the 30GB of video I captured today..

Friday, 16 October 2015

Kendal Ahoy!

I'm heading up to Kendal tomorrow to do three things:

  • run Improvised Comics corner, in the lobby of the Brewery Arts
  • promote/sell my new book "Voices of the Other Day"
  • drop in on my exhibition "What Is Home?" at the Foyer Cafe / YWCA Kendal


If you want to join in some crazy / unpredictable / deep & meaningful fun, find me in the lobby of brewery arts. I have a glowing cosmic egg, sticky labels, and lots of bandages this year!


If you want to buy either of my books, I'll have copies with me in Improv corner, 72pp full colour US Letter for only £6 each, or £11 for both. 
The smaller book "What Is Home?" (40pp half-letter) is £4, all proceeds to YWCA Kendal, and will be on sale at the clocktower, and at the Foyer Cafe exhibition.


The exhibition covers 7metres x 2metres of curved glass, with approx. 80 comic panels, and is readable from the inside and the outside. You ain't seen nothing like this before!

The Foyer Cafe will be open this weekend, and selling comic-themed cakes.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

How to find Kendal YWCA - a mythical songline

To all seekers of my exhibition at Kendal this weekend, tread these steps from the Brewery Arts Centre, which is centre of all things Comic Art Festival-y (apart from those that are not).

Note, when using the photos as a guide, remember that buildings make better landmarks than people or pigeons do - as the latter may have moved since the photo was taken!

Stride forth from Brewery turning left/north-ish/uphill

This building was cursed for centuries with not being called "The Clock Tower", simply "The Town Hall". Ask a local where the Clock Tower doth lie, and they will pull a Face of Bemusement at you. Many riches lie within, purveyed by Sir Stephen of Holland and others, but pass it by for now if partaking of this quest.

Pass the Glazed Arbor of Unknown Significance on your left

And this soldier chap, who isn't very talkative. (Head down this street if pursuing Mike Medaglia, Gareth Hopkins, the Postcards, and several others...

If you approach this Unruly Boar, you've gone too far. Turn right immediately,...

...and scurry down this narrow pass before he gores you! 

Emerge into a most pleasing vale, wherein a tree ringed once by a Bench of Restfulness sits.

Pass through the gate, though the way is neither straight nor particularly narrow

Step across the back of the Would-be-a-rainbow-serpent-if-rainbows-were-black-white-and-yellow

Pass a Tall Tree (that doesn't go "Ni") 

go down this road (sorry, I'm running out of steam now...)

Behind this hedge lies a semi-circular crossword-comic hybrid of wonders!

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Digital Comics Symposium

I took a trip to Hertfordshire today, to attend, and speak at The Electricomics Symposium. Unfortunately, I had to leave early, but what I did see was absolutely amazing. Big thanks to Dan Goodbrey, Leah Moore and all at Electricomics and the Uni for putting on such a quality event.

Quick summary/overview:

Keynote from Electricomics team:

  • A giant, pre-recorded Alan Moore addressed us from a video feed on two giant screens
  • Leah Moore gave an overview on the formation of the project
  • Dan Goodbrey gave a great roundup of digital comics' rich history prior to the arrival of the iPad. (Dan's been doing this stuff for years before it was fashionable!)
  • Ed Moore, Giulia Alfonsi and Sean Gannon of Ocasta Studios discussed the code, design decisions and the inevitable compromises (expertly chosen, IMO) in getting the project out of the gate.

Liz Dowthwaite spoke about her research on the community and economics of WebComics, from her ongoing PhD research. I was struck by the fact that these webcomics exist outside of the superhero bubble in terms of target audience - the utopia I've been babbling about already exists. Interesting side by side comparison of Patreon and Kickstarter too, with some numbers (that I didn't write down). WebComics seem to do rather well on both platforms.

Prof. Vitor Blotta from University of Sao Paolo, Brazil, discussed two comics in his country that are addressing social injustices in a powerful way. (We also discussed afterwards cases where comics can be used for evil too!)

Zak Waipara, from New Zealand, described his engaging transmedia project (motion comic, interactive comic, game) aimed at educating about Maori language and heritage. (Zak learned to speak the language as an adult).

Pablo Defendini blew me away with a talk on his CSS framework for presenting semantically meaningful comics, with foreground and background images, captions and SVG balloons featuring real text! Responsive, rescalable to different device form factors too. He has demos online.

Then it was me. Talking Creativity within Constraints. I'll write this up in detail after Kendal. In the meantime, a few links I referred to in my talk:

Then publisher Marcus Pullen & Dr Blair Dickinson demonstrated their quantitative approach to comics, building up heat maps of user activity on a page based on eyeball tracking, pupil dilation (to measure emotional engagement), and direct brainwave measurements. 

I had to leave at that point, so missed two further panels, will catch up on youtube once they're up.

"What Is Home?" : book of the exhibition

My exhibition has been put together as a book (disclaimer: I did it, it didn't just happen), containing re-flowed versions of the strips on both sides of the window, plus a new illustrated two-page story. It's available to purchase online,  and on sale in the Comics Clock Tower (aka Town Hall), and from the Foyer Cafe, where the exhibition runs until Sunday.

Sunday, 4 October 2015



I've just been up in Kendal installing an exhibition for the upcoming Lakes International Comic Art Festival. I was paired up with YWCA Kendal, who operate the cafe & business resource centre that I'm using, as well as providing accommodation for young homeless people upstairs, via Impact Housing Association.

The exhibition tells a number of interweaving stories, centred around the themes of home. I wrote this when preparing the Questionnaire that I used to elicit input into the stories from various users of the building:

Home is an essential human dignity
Home can be a building
Home can be other people
Home can be a state of mind
Home can be a place of safety
Home can be a place in which to grow
Home can become a suit of armour
Home can lock people in - or out

I've been writing and illustrating these stories for the last two months, and it's been a turbulent awful two months for a lot of people, as the refugee crisis in Syria and elsewhere has ramped up to unexpected and entirely predictable proportions. It weighed heavily on my mind while writing around the subject of homes and homelessness. Initially, I tried to focus more on homelessness in the UK, but that didn't feel right either. In the end, I've worked on the universal underlying issue, which is seeing other people as "other", attempting to take away their humanity. We do it because we're afraid.

Main Course

I'm not writing this post to promote my exhibition. I should be working on something else this afternoon, but this won't wait. I need to rant. I read an article just now (thanks to Tauriq Moosa for bringing it to my attention on Twitter - I highly recommend his twitter feed for uncomfortable ethical issues, he does a great job)

So, here's the article. In summary:
- in Hungary, a camera-woman was filming refugees being held back by police
- the line broke, and the refugees ran through, towards the film crew
- the camera-woman panicked, and kicked out at a young girl running towards her
- this was caught on film
- camera-woman loses her job, faces criminal trials, and becomes subject of an internet witch-hunt

While I condemn her actions completely - what she did was stupid, disrespectful and small-minded - my heart goes out to the camera-woman. My heart goes out to the refugees too, of course, what they've seen on the journey this far beggars belief. Oh, and my heart goes out to the police tasked with holding the line, and the one-dimensional saps hurting in their witch-hunt.

We kick out when we see a rabid animal running towards us. We kick out in our nightmares. We stamp on snakes, cockroaches and other vilified creatures. The camera-woman got confused between a small, vulnerable child who's been through hell, and a dangerous nightmare monster. Not an easy mistake to make, you say? Various arms, legs and tentacles of the international media have been promoting that exact confusion for the last few months (google for hopkins cockroach norovirus sun Roszke, just for starters). And it gets under our skin, even the best of us aren't automatically immune to the gradual erosion of common human decency when faced with a barrage of hate-n-crap.

This isn't a new trick, by the way. The US soldiers in Vietnam referred to locals as "gooks" to encourage dehumanisation. The Nazis in Germany depicted Jews as sub-human. Trace the line back out through the twentieth century and beyond, through Machiavelli's advice, backwards into antiquity. (Certain sections of the Old Testament and other early literature probably have some good stuff in this vein?) Demonising the other is part of who we are. (Yes, it is "we" - "they" don't do it, "we" do. Geddit?)

Faced with this barrage of hate-n-crap, we all need to be on guard more than usual to counter the confusion between human and monster. The camerawoman in this story failed that test. She deserves the criminal charges. Being fired? I can't decide. The witch hunt? Definitely not.

Her employers, who fired her, and saw a bad PR event running towards them, kicked her out with a similar reflex. (I can't find out much about Nemzeti TV just now - their website's been hacked, google just turns up variants of this story... so no idea what their general ethos is). They've distanced themselves, for the sake of their reputation. Anyone taking pot-shots at her from the comfort of the internet has also drawn an ethical line between "us" and "them".

Don't believe the hype. Everyone involved in this chain of events is human. And that means everyone's got the capacity to be a monster, by letting fear replace our view of the other person with some demonic image, some nightmare rabid-rat-snake that only exists in our heads.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's old quote seems an appropriate point to end this rant on:

"If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

When (not if, because this is big enough to engulf us all) I'm faced with the split-second choice of whether to kick or not, I hope like f**k I make the right choice, and don't have to face the many internal and external consequences. I don't feel complacent about doing so, and - whoever you are, dear reader - neither should you.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Window Trails

After setting up my own Window Trail, I took a stroll round the lovely town of Kendal to see what else was already in place. Here's my holiday snaps.

I'm excited to be part of this, and thanks to all the other participants for also taking part. Mounting my own exhibition's fun, mounting it as part of something bigger is funnerer.

Farrer's Tea & Coffee featuring Poblins by Jim Dog Art & Anthony Dixon

St. Patrick's C E Primary School doing Oxfam

Andy Poyiadgi's exhibition at Brew Brothers artisan cafe

Soutergate Gallery by RV Projects Group

Turning Point by Independence Studio feature recycling/fair trade superheroes 

Close-up of Soutergate

Brew bros. open late during festival for Tea-n-Poyiadgi connoisseurs

This is not part of the Window Trail, just standard window dec at an estate agents, but I'd like to do a comic that looks like this! (There's some cut-out paper style stuff at my exhibition at YWCA, getting into that look.)

A cartoon fox at white Stuff, where Mike Medaglia will have his exhibition (don't think it's up yet?) Look out for that, it's on sale for charity 

Iridium stationers, feat Gareth Hopkins' original take on "To Kill a Mockingbird", which he hasn't read!

Installation of the Exhibition

Follow up to the Process post from a couple of days ago.

I've been in Kendal today, at the Foyer Cafe run by YWCA Kendal, installing my exhibition (twice! "Washable" glue-spots didn't do the job, so I had to re-stick everything with "extra strong" after they started falling like little autumn leaves. The blobs are transparent, but just about visible from outside - special prize to the person who tells me which panel has the most blobs on it!)

Big thanks to Heather Lindsay, Resource Centre Manager at YWCA, for being available to let me in and help out. Also to Sandra from the festival Comic Art Trail, for dropping by and giving some good advice.

Phase 1 of the exhibition is now done. Phase 2 is in progress, and will be installed first thing Saturday morning before I go to improvise at Brewery Arts.

Bookmarks featuring work from the exhibition are on sale from the cafe, and the art/narratives will be collected into a book in time for the Festival weekend (and hopefully a bit sooner). All profits from these go to the YWCA Kendal.

Lot of glue spots harmed and swore at in the making of this exhibition!

I remember the day I came up with the idea of making a square with a lone panel in the centre - it's Deeply Significant, folks