Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Theo Portraits I

"Really Albert, you can't go through
your whole life being a toad!"
 - Theo

After coming out as a gay man, I began to believe I was possessed by the spirit of a woman from the nineteen twenties.  I didn't take it very seriously and it mostly came on when I was inebriated with marijuana and beer.  But it persisted enough that I attempted to capture the notion in pictures and stories.  In a way, it was a psychosis brought on by a desire for attention and related directly to finding my identity as an adult gay man.

My friend Kathy would laugh and make a big fuss about it when I'd say things out of the blue, like the above statement.  She also encouraged me to dress up in drag, which I'd always skirted with my interest in theater but eschewed in my childhood because my mother always vetoed it as being "artificial" and "stereotypically effeminate".  But in my mind as a newly out gay man, it was less about falsehood or transgressing-my-gender than it was a combination of finding myself suddenly freed from otherwise invisible shackles of sexual, emotional and social repression that I'd grown up wearing in my childhood.

Imagining myself possessed was my way of healing and reconciling my memories of pains I developed socially when my gender and sexuality was questioned at school by other boys.  Possession was also a reflection of stories coming out of Hollywood, but it also gave me permission to be silly and effeminate in front of friends who encouraged me for the first time in my life; when growing up I'd always felt an outsider, even when I was praised for unique abilities. Because dressing up and playing at being sissified was an easy way to entertain, I could indulge again in the sort of play that previously I had controlled and commodified out of fear, a fear that I had no concrete idea what the consequences were outside of my own ongoing experience of isolation, separation and loneliness.

Both my parents had interests in theater and growing up I became involved and shared their interest.  One of the first times I saw a public performance, my mother took me away from a cub scouting event to see a performance at a local theater of "The Fantasticks!".  I was already familiar with the music, my mother loves to sing and taught me all sorts of tunes.  But it was the very idea that this adult storytelling could take precedent over an otherwise boring social event, that I soon realized my desire for acceptance didn't need to come at the price of my own identity.  Somehow I continue to persist, no matter how anyone else perceives me.

The above image (which I named "Theo" after my grandmother) directly references a photo-portrait of  New York heiress, Peggy Guggenheim.  I copied it from a magazine, perhaps Smithsonian magazine, but I really don't remember now.  I loved her odd turban-like hat and the imperious manner of her stance.  The cigarette holder became a signifier for Theo's character in a picture.  Like many gay men, I have always been attracted to strong, powerful women, some of them lesbian, almost always distinctly feminine; but most often they are self-possessed and in control of their situation and life.  It is something I see in my own mother although she remains heterosexually oriented.

The reference to "being a toad", besides the obvious and classic Grimms' fairytale of "The Frog Prince" , I think is related to the famous character in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, but here it is clearly directed at a male counterpart. In my mind, Albert is her brother, but I never did imagine what he looked like.  Perhaps he looks something like a toad.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

THREE, edited by Robert Kirby


THREE #1 by Robert Kirby
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Existentialist realism, that is, the examination of the self in relationship to the environment we create for ourselves is entirely the realm of the self-confessional comic story.  I think since the nineteen nineties when the self-confessional comic book boom really hit its stride, the genre has matured.  I love this type of comic book because it often breaks traditions and challenges readers expectations.  We have come a long way from the talking-head confessionals of the nineties and yet in any story that deals with human emotions, especially isolation, the talking head, where the author and artist both address the reader directly, persists as a dynamic feature of the genre.  So it is always wonderful when a comic book creator works especially hard to avoid the simplicity of talking heads.

Robert Kirby has brought together in THREE, the first issue of his new anthology series, two other storytellers with very differing skills from his own.  Eric Orner is only less familiar than his comic strip character "Ethan Green".  In "Weekends Abroad" he speaks with a personal voice rather than that of his popular "nebbisher" character.  We encounter personal stories that you might hear if you met him casually at a cocktail party. But they are not simply stories to fill the uncomfortable silences between sips of your drink.  Instead he decorates them with scenes and environments that really bring them alive and outside the flat page.  I am pleased to see his art has moved beyond the static and ironic talking heads of his early strips.  In every location his story goes, from the Hebrew school of his childhood to the outskirts of Tel Aviv, you get the very clear sense that he's been there and he's bringing you along with him.

Joey Alison Sayers's, "Number One" takes a different tact and focuses less on place and time, instead opting for relationships.  I have to admit I am less familiar with her previous work, but I did find it quickly online and am pleased I took the trouble to find it.  She has a wonderful sense of humor and she uses that quirkily in her portion of THREE.  The effect is unsettling within seemingly static panels filled more with space and emptiness than detail. This unsettled feeling counterpoints the easy reading of her brightly colored and breezy storytelling.  My feeling after reading is that I just overheard a series of conversations over the fence between a next door neighbor and her hired workers.  Sometimes the most compelling stories are things you'd rather not know about first hand.

Perhaps the most confrontational story in this anthology is editor Kirby's own offering, "Freedom Flight".  His approach to storytelling for me has always been a little self-conscious and here he is elaborating a story he has hinted at before in other strips.  But he does what he can to help you follow the twisty thoughts of his main character with little formal motif-like arrows that repeat like punctuation throughout the telling.  These curvy and staccato, swirling lines echo the same lines that make up the legs, arms and clothing of all the characters. These are pointers to the dissolving nature of the character's relationships.  That dissolution is both isolating and freeing, so much so that some conscious direction is seemingly needed to connect them on the page.

I like his artwork because even in the tiny panels he gives himself to carve out a story, there is a cohesive design that pulls it together on the page.  He also has a keen eye for arresting images.  Molecular patterns that swirl around his main character and then dissolve into shadows and shading on the remaining page, a street map that illustrates an urban neighborhood and then becomes the pavement where his character walks onto the next page, and a handicapped dog missing a front leg that seems to fade away into silhouette and then disjointed pieces, even as his owner enters the panel with even more curvy lines to retrieve him.  I would like to see more visual real estate given to these small visual moments, because they help to frame and arrange the themes of Kirby's stories.

It is challenging to create a satisfying and whole reading experience in only thirty-one pages of a comic book, which is why most superhero comics serialize a much larger story.  It keeps the readers coming back.  When you share that space with other artists it can be distracting and I have to admit the variations between the artists and stories kept me from jumping into reading this volume several times.  But once I did, I discovered this anthology offers far more heart and soul for your money than any superhero comic can.  Ultimately, I think it is well worth the investment and I will be looking out for the next issue with great anticipation.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Some Early Portraits

I'm not ashamed to admit that I played a lot of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons in high school.  In fact, I am glad my parents encouraged me to read about and explore fantasy worlds, despite being fairly starched Mormon Christians at the time.  In the late nineteen-seventies I responded to a newspaper ad for someone looking for others to role-play this game with.  I'd noted similar advertisements posted at the local library, so I assumed it must be the same person and responded to the ad.  This is how I met Clayton and his wife, Terry.  Clayton was originally from Pennsylvania and had played D&D in college.  He had developed a whole world campaign that we played in over the next few years.  The original group of players was a mix of teenagers and adults that grew and expanded.

I met a lot of great people I doubt I would have met otherwise.  One of the librarians at the local public library, Mary, and her brother joined the group and I became fairly good friends with them both.  At one point I made several trips to Cour d' Alene, to visit with them when they moved out of the Sandpoint area.  Mary and her brother were always quite resourceful and developed a dungeon campaign system on 4x6 cards so that any time someone didn't have a campaign prepared she could game master one easily by randomly selecting cards from her file.

Another friend was Darin who fostered some of my interest in comic books and horror fantasy.  He began a campaign based on a gaming system called Chill, where he managed to mix a Lovecraftian inter-dimensional story with the Sanctuary fantasy series with the added feature that each player gained a new skill when in the fantasy part of the scenario.  He also began a comic book store he ran from his apartment by taking subscriptions from friends, which is when I began my comic book collecting.

This is a portrait I drew in 1985 of my D&D character, Aurora, who was a priestess of the Egyptian Goddess Isis.  The drawing is based on the image of Isis in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Gods and Goddesses Manual. Unfortunately I don't remember the original artist otherwise I'd credit them here as inspiring me.  Aurora wasn't my first female D&D character and I did have a few other personae.  There was Naylor, who was my first character and was an elven multi-class character that I hoped to make a ranger.  Only he was killed off by an unfortunate encounter with hellhounds.

Another character I liked playing was my cleric, Balden, who is depicted in the next image with his elven friend, Trevor.  He started off being named Baldwin until I learned that was the real last name of another player, who was really cool about it.  But I wanted him to be unique and I have to admit I named him after the piano manufacturer, so I came up with something different.  I originally wanted him to worship Baldar, the Norse god of beauty, but Clayton had pretty strict rules about which gods and goddesses showed up in his campaigns, so I choose the Greek god Apollo instead.  Unfortunately his new character name brought quite a bit of ridicule from other male players, because they assumed I was referring to lacking hair on his head, which as you can see, isn't how I saw him.

Unfortunately I lost touch with many of these friends when I attended college and then came out as a gay man. I felt differently about myself, but I didn't stop playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  My friend Kathy had played some campaigns in high school and we played a few times together.  I mainly played my character,  Balden, and she played her elven magician character, Trevor.  I guess it was freeing to allow my D&D character to come out of the closet as I had done the same, but for some reason my gaming interest was already waning.  I was reaching adulthood and because I felt even more an outsider, as I'd not maintained any of my previous friendships, I soon lost interest in pursuing fantasy role-playing, preferring the real role-playing we do as adults.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Carmen Miranda

This is closing up my pre-nineties sketchbook. An image that I had to draw after all those versions of Pineapple from Paula and the Purple Rays. It's just another silly doodle.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why Loren and Sylvia didn't become a four-panel strip

These Loren and Sylvia images are just odds and ends I put together while attempting to consider it as a four-panel strip cartoon.

As you can see here, I never got to the fourth panel.  I don't consider myself a very good "gag" writer.

One of the primary concepts for the comic was that Sylvia was angry, but she is angry because everyone around her is unreasonable, while Loren is pretty much the opposite, entirely unaware that the world around him is unreasonable.

I figured Loren would be very introspective, always questioning his inner motives and those of the people around him, as I was when I came out as a gay man.  Sometimes Sylvia was seemingly irrational, saying and doing whatever occurred to her at the time, other times she'd just end up in odd situations because people would be afraid to tell her the whole truth.

In many cases we intended Loren to be a sounding board and foil for Sylvia's outbursts.

The simplicity of the artwork leant itself to becoming a four-panel strip cartoon, but Loren and Sylvia didn't really succeed that way in my mind because the stories we wanted to tell were more complex than would fit in that minimal medium.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Paula and the Purple Rayz

I promised a post about Paula and the Purple Rayz, another of the projects Kathy Sprague and I developed.  We originally devised this storyline as a comicbook, but after doing Loren & Sylvia I realized it would take me more time than I was willing to commit to develop the layouts.  So I suggested to Kathy that we turn the script she'd written into a radio play.  It was a small success at the student run radio station on campus at the Uof I, in Moscow, Idaho.  We invited all our friends to contribute voices for the various characters, deliberately playing against gender to hilarious effect.

I was assigned the voice of Pricilla Syben, the band's manager.  During our first recording I had a mild cold and began to loose my voice, which was perfect for her "Hollywood" character.  Subsequent recordings I did my best to give Prisilla the same husky quality to her voice, which wasn't easy. Over the seven episodes Kathy wrote and produced, we developed a loyal following of listeners, both on campus and within the larger community.

The storyline was pure word play and invention as all the characters had names beginning with the letter "P" (save Cinder Lou), frequenting cities from Prague to Puyallup.  At one of the celebratory parties after an early recording session we asked everyone to bring a food that began with the letter "P".  So there was a plethera of potluck potatoes, pineapples, peanuts, "pork porridge" and Pabst Blue Ribbon.  The basic idea was a mix of Wonder Woman's origin story and Jem and the Holograms, one of Hasbro's attempts to work with Marvel, which also produced the animated GI Joe and Transformers, only rather than the cheesy pop-music you encountered in Jem, we decided the band was a punk garage band.

Here is Paula's mother, Pollytah, Queen of Paradise Island saying two of her most popular lines.  Kathy and our friends would often repeat these catchphrases as if we were the Queen-mother, arm raised and voice modulated in a faux British accent.  These two drawings are not my original designs.  Instead our friend Ari Burns had attempted to copy my style and came up with the Grecian dress and pointy headdress.  She was intentionally aping the Statue of Liberty.  After seeing Ari's version I drew up these two images, based on her design.

It took me quite a bit of drawing to come up with suitable characters. I filled my sketchbook with page after page of just character head-shots.  Here is the villain character, Pineapple in a series of quick sketches, playing with how Kathy described him, a cross between the Cheshire Cat and The Joker from the Batman comic books.

Here are some quick sketches I did for the members of the band, who were all women.  Up in the left corner was a sketch that brought a strong reaction from Kathy, so I labeled it so that I wouldn't use it by mistake.  One of the running gags in the storyline is that anyone listening to the band is transformed, playing off the hysteria in the Sixties that Rock and Roll music was changing the youth of America into sexually liberated fiends.  Here is a quick sketch of Sylvia as if she were a member of the audience.