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Not Afraid to Live

This past May, Anthony Sloan, one of my best and lifelong friends, died suddenly. Today, his ashes are being scattered at a sacred place in Utah, on what would have been his 39th birthday. Here is a copy of the words I wrote for the memorial we held for him in Austin.

SONNET 104
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d.
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

When George Harrison died, Paul McCartney simply said, “He was my baby brother.” It was a lovely thing to say, neatly packing into it the strength of the bond, the tender feelings at the heart of it, and a relationship that had lasted since both of them were kids. They weren’t really brothers, but they were.

Now Anthony’s gone, and when feelings of grief started to spike their way out of the numb fog I initially found myself in, that quote came to mind, and I realized I felt the same way. I felt like I’d lost my little brother. Technically, Anthony was older than me (by a month), but somehow there was a way in which he was my little brother, who started out kind of small and puny but eventually charged off on his own, seeking pleasure and excitement, broadening his horizons, always seeming to be in a little bit of a hurry to get to the next bit.

I remember the exact day I first met Anthony. It was 27 years ago at Kirby Hall. We had a fun afternoon outside in the park, playing with gunpowder of all things, under the tutelage of a science teacher named Frank Mikan. We drew shapes and cursive words in the dirt with sticks, and then he poured trails of gunpowder into the grooves. We made sure they all connected, then Mr. Mikan lit one end and we watched it burn the trail all the way to the end. I was best friends at the time with a guy named Mike, and Mike’s sense of humor was such that he just wanted to draw a big nose with an extra big blob of gunpowder at the nostril, so that it would appear to sneeze in a big explosion.

It was this adventure with the gunpowder that made the day stick in my memory, but Anthony later told me to my surprise that this was his “visiting day” at KHS, when a prospective student drops in for a day. Anthony had such a good time that of course he came home saying Kirby Hall looked like great fun, and there he was there from 7th grade all the way through senior year. By the time we graduated, he was one of my best friends, and still is.

I remember that in between our junior and senior years, there was a financial crisis where it looked like Anthony wouldn’t be able to afford to come back in 12th grade. It was resolved by his agreeing to work on the school all summer with Joe, the school custodian and handyman. In particular, Anthony helped give the interior a new coat of paint, paint that’s probably still on the walls of that school even now. Anthony made sure to let us know that while we were slacking around having fun that summer, he was working and painting. He was busting our chops, but underneath that I think he was feeling a sense of ownership and connection to the school that was more real, like he personally had earned the right to be there another year, where the rest of us were kind of coasting in. There was a boost of pride and self-esteem there that would serve him well.

Anthony’s transformation from the small little crushed over guy he was in 7th grade to the confident (and possibly overconfident) young man he was by 12th grade is something I’ve always been amazed by. For years, he had no self esteem at all. Even in a school made up of nerds and misfits like Kirby Hall, Anthony started out on the really far end from being cool. He was short, he wore big chunky glasses, his lips didn’t close over his teeth when they were relaxed, and he nearly had a lisp. He was not good at sports or physical activities (which will surprise people who knew him in recent years), and didn’t stand out academically. Some of us liked to draw, as did my friend Mike, and Anthony wasn’t that great at drawing, either. He could draw one thing, this funny little fish. An Anthony fish.

So even though Kirby Hall was a school where public school misfits like myself could find a home, it was still tough going for Anthony those first few years. I have always had a history of giving people that weren’t considered cool by the cool kids a chance, and I befriended him, and included him where I could.

There was one weekend that Anthony spent at my house. I can’t remember how this came about, because at the time I didn’t think of him as one of my close friends, though I did after that weekend. I think he was originally just going to stay one night, but due to the weather his mother didn’t come to get him until Sunday. It just happens that this weekend saw the best snow fall that Austin ever had in my lifetime, or in Anthony’s. It snowed enough that we could go sledding down the street from my house. We both loved our memory of going sledding that weekend, even though that was just a tiny part of how we spent the time.

I remember we decided to play a board game, and I hauled out Risk, which wasn’t the best idea. It was fun for a little while, but eventually the balance of power tilted in my favor, and made us both miserable. Anthony was rolling lousy numbers in a long streak, and it was basically an inevitable death march until I wiped him off the board completely, but it was going to take another half an hour to do it. Yet there was also this sense that we couldn’t just quit before it finished, there was something kind of dishonorable and pride-wounding for him to accept that, even though neither of us were enjoying the game any more. Then, all of a sudden, I think I made a spastic move and accidentally kicked the board over, scattering all the pieces and ruining the game. We simultaneously burst into laughter, completely relieved that the game had been ruined so we could pack it up and do something that was actually fun.

There also occurred for some reason a bizarre pillow fight where we were both wearing sleeping bags over ourselves, so we couldn’t really see the other guy except to hear him go “oof!” or to hear his crazy laughter. It was incredibly silly, manically silly, completely senseless. Eventually we came out for air, and I remember Anthony had this blazing look of unalloyed joy on his face. I had just been having some fun, but he looked like he was having fun like he’d never had before. It was also like he was trusting me to really be his friend, not to turn around and push him around or be snide with him or put him down, or other things he just looked like he’d endured.

Anyway, that’s the weekend that my friendship with Anthony, that lasted to the rest of his life, was founded on.

There was a later counterpart, almost a sequel, to that snowy weekend. Sometime during college, my parents were out of the country at Christmas and I was alone, so Anthony invited me to spend the holiday in Houston with his father and grandfather. We had another great time together, though we’d discovered more grown-up ways of being silly. He hauled out a typewriter, and we took turns writing a book, one page at a time, riffing on each other and trying to be as entertaining as possible. By that point, Anthony and I had developed a particular comic sensibility together, first through ad-libs and the series of “radio shows” we tape recorded with our friends Dave and Steve. It was playful and of course silly, and often used corkscrew turns in logic that we found to be a rich vein for amusement. We’d invented some characters that were comedic versions of ourselves, some brothers named Birch Tree, Runt, and Clam. One of the archetypal jokes about those brothers was: “Birch Tree is the oldest, although Runt was born first.”

I was Birch Tree and Ant was Runt , and somehow this explains how Anthony was my little brother even though he was older than I am. In another week or so, I’ll be older than Anthony for the first time in my life. If he were around to joke around with, I’d say “Haw haw! Passed you!”.

Anyway, during those six years at Kirby Hall, I watched Anthony grow from awkward and small to grown up and forward-charging. He stopped trying to imitate and copy what the cool kids were wearing and doing (a phase he went through that broke my heart to see), and learned to dress like Anthony and feel darn good about it, to be himself, to find his own voice. He got a car named Fred, a piece of junk that he drove like it was a screaming little sports car. Then he got Spike, a Volkswagen thing that he could literally take apart and put back together. He was no longer diffident, but starting almost to act like an alpha male among our little pack.

Eventually I asked him what had catalyzed this transformation. “I got laid, basically,” he said.

That gave him the self-confidence he was missing. One can look back and see how he might have over-compensated for the lack of it, and come across as a bit of a jerk at times. I’m reasonably sure that if I’d ever roomed with him, like some of my friends did in college, I’d have a whole extra range of opinions about him. But, our lives were always kind of separate, and I can say truthfully that he was never a jerk to me.

There was one time when I said I was curious about the big towers you can see over West Lake Hills, and what was at the base of them. “Let’s find ‘em!” he said, and drove me over to where they stood. The whole time, he was very clearly pretending to be trying to find something that he’d visited on at least one and probably more occasions, like he was groping blindly. He was pretending to be experiencing it the first time, because it was new to me. I kind of recognize it because I’ve gone to movies with people and pretended I haven’t seen it yet even when I have, because then you can kind of feel like you’re sharing a new experience with someone. It’s totally misguided but shows you’re thinking about the other person, so I let him pretend he’d never been there before either. Thinking about it now, two things seem completely obvious: that Anthony would have raced out on his own to investigate those towers, just because they were there, and that without Anthony showing me where they were, I never would have.

Being a writer, I’ve come up with all sorts of fanciful ways to ease the heartbreak of losing my friend and brother. Anthony was asleep when he died, and I wondered, was he dreaming when it happened? What if he dreamed that someone approached him and said, “Well, Anthony. You’re all done here. You can stick around on Earth if you want, or do you want to come and see the next horizon?” After making sure that his friends and loved ones would be okay and his dog would be cared for, I can easily imagine that Anthony would have boldly strode forward, saying, “I’m ready.”

To wrap this up, I’d like to cycle back to where I started. When John Lennon died, someone shoved a microphone in Paul McCartney’s face and asked him to comment, and he said, “It’s a drag.” He was unfairly pilloried for this remark, and at one point in this last month I kind of felt moved to reclaim it as a perfectly legitimate thing to say. I wrote a simple song called “It’s a drag”, which I’m not going to sing because I’m not really a singer, but I’ll read you some of the lyrics.

It’s a Drag
It’s a drag that you’re not here now
It’s a drag that you are gone
It’s a drag that now that you’ve checked out
I still have to go on.

It’s a drag that you’re not here now
to laugh at my best jokes.
It’s a drag that there’s no friend here now
to fix my bicycle spokes.

It’s a drag, my friend, you’ve moved on
but I think you won the game.
For you learned it was love, and good, good friends
Not money, power, or fame.

It’s a drag that you’re not here now
Not for you, but for us, your friends
For you, there’s no drag, just the wind at your back,
on a highway that never ends.

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Art and Tarantino

Art and Tarantino

Thoughts Above and Around Inglourious Basterds

by J. Robinson Wheeler

It’s kind of weird to watch the Weinstein brothers, who are bound together tightly to Tarantino — Miramax was the house that Pulp Fiction built, as the legend goes, and in order to sustain the complete creative control and freedom every artist desires, Tarantino relies on Bob and Harvey to fund and promote all of his films — be crossing their fingers that Basterds would be a moneymaking hit, one their company desperately needed. Even before seeing this movie, and concluding that Tarantino was an Artist with a capital A, I was saying to myself, “Tarantino makes art films.” Yes, he does think about entertaining audiences, delivering payoffs, and so forth (though he will always make the quirky artistic choice if his muse says he must, which is partly what allows me to define him as an artist), but if you look at all of his movies, they’re quirky art films, not pack-em-in-seats blockbusters. He has this huge reputation, still partly from Pulp Fiction — which was a huge hit in one of those concoctions of timing and public taste where something new was embraced for being new, rather than rejected for being new — for being an exciting filmmaker, someone whose releases are highly anticipated. However, I hang around in a film geek crowd in a city with a thriving film-fan culture, so of course it tends to feel to me like his releases are anticipated. Yet, there’s a huge audience out there that is just people who go to see the latest thing at the mall every week before renting it again a few months later on DVD. They are fine with McMovies. Then here comes chef Tarantino with his five course platter of weird foods.

Tarantino’s movies are weird. His tics and obsessions are on full display. He returns to the same wells over and over again, doing variants on the same ideas. He throws in references that even people who have taken film school classes are likely to miss half the time. The violence in his movies is bloody, huge, and gross. His sense of humor is mischievous and geeky and as apt to unsettle and audience as make it chuckle. By all rights, he shouldn’t be as famous as he is, shouldn’t have the clout he does, shouldn’t have the budget to indulge himself that he’s given. It’s pretty shaky to build a career on catering to a small audience of super film geeks like yourself; the economics just shouldn’t sustain it. But he does. And he’s built his career from the ground up, by following his muse and doing his quirky art. There’s no cheating or short cuts, although there is luck.

I remember seeing Pulp Fiction when it came out. I remember seeing it with a big audience. I remember taking my Dad to see it, and he was blown away by it from the moment Amanda Plummer swung that pistol around on her bony arm and screamed profanities, until the lacerating chords of surf music cut her off and the title came up, big and fat and yellow like a young lion pouncing. It was the kind of moviegoing experience where you’ve never seen anything like it and you wanted to shout, “Hot damn!” It was like a slug of adrenaline right in your chest, just like the one Mrs. Marcellus Wallace got, watching Pulp Fiction when it was brand new. It also had the benefit of Sam Jackson as the anchor man, racing the baton home in the last scene. There’s a lot of lowlifes in Pulp Fiction’s gallery of characters, but there’s two who make moral choices: Butch (Bruce Willis) and Jules (Jackson). So the movie ends on this positive note, on this right moral choice. So after taking this long, bizarre ride, you step out of the theater feeling like maybe it was worthwhile, as bizarre and as long as it was. A year earlier, we saw Jurassic Park for the first time, and we were like, hey, dinosaurs, cool. Never seen dinosaurs not move like clunky claymation creatures before, that’s neat, that’s kind of new. Then here comes Pulp Fiction, and it was a new kind of storytelling altogether. Dialogue like that was new. The disordered chronology was new. Seeing someone get an andrenaline shot in the heart was new. Seeing a wad of bills five inches thick was new. And somehow, the public was ready for all this.

Doing something new can get you drummed out into the street and your career destroyed as it’s getting started. There’s been more of a history of that in the history of art than the reverse. And if you do manage to create a breakout success, then comes the burden of following it. Do you have the goods? Can you keep doing it? Will anyone care when it’s not new any more? That’s destroyed quite a few artists as well.

And now I’m sitting here in this all-night cafe pondering Quentin Tarantino’s career and his status as an artist who has managed to keep the conditions alive for creating the art he wants to create, because I consider myself an artist, too. I’m nearly 40 years old, though, and have yet to find much of any audience for what I do. That doesn’t stop me from doing it, it never has — and my inability to stop creating what I consider to be creative works of art, despite all financial, social, psychological, and practical impediments to doing so is part of why I easily identify myself as such. I am quite simply compelled to.

What I grapple with, of course, is what to spend my time working on, which projects to throw energy and time into completing, which to let lie fallow, which to reject, which to play around with until it seems like it’s going in a better direction. Sometimes, there’s something that I just feel like I have to get done, so I do that. Other times I can dither around with a project for years. I can throw everything I have into something that’s totally not commercial or perhaps so self-indulgent there’s no reasonable way that anybody but myself is going to like it. I can scrap things because I am full of endless anxieties about whether anyone will like them or not, or because my strongest suspicion is that they won’t, so I don’t bother. It is very perplexing, most of the time.

When I was a kid and didn’t have much invested in my own ego, I proved to have a knack for writing stories that had an audience appeal. There were all these little ideas I’d scooped up from various places, from things that had pleased me — from comic books and from Spielberg movies and from young adventure novels and such — that I was able to sort of stick in at the right moments to thrill the little audience of my classmates and my writing teacher. By the time I was finishing college, I was preoccupied with delving into my own private angst and finding some way to express it, and pleasing an audience was pretty low on my list of artistic prioirities. Then I sort of moved out of that into a phase of trying to reclaim those earlier sensibilities, but I was still not the best judge of what projects would find a receptive audience and which wouldn’t. My artistic ambitions were enormous by that point.

It’s all still in flux. I still wonder, of course, whether I’ll ever make a movie again, or if The Krone Experiment was it. I was watching Tarantino expound upon his own oeuvre, as he called it, to Charlie Rose, and about how one watches the development of a unique voice over the course of a career. He said something interesting, which is that being a writer-director, as opposed to a director who is happy to pick up scripts written by other people and develop them, necessarily means you’re not going to make as many movies, partly because you have to start from scratch at the bottom of Mount Everest every time, facing the blank page and scratching something onto it that hopefully will be a movie three years later. I am now aware that I may be lucky to make three movies in my life, and that would be better than making one, but it’s too bad I won’t get to make ten or twenty, because I’d be very interested in seeing what my gimmick is, what my voice sounds like, what my themes are that I go back to over and over again, what is a Rob Wheeler movie (or a J. Robinson Wheeler movie, or a John Robinson Wheeler movie — I’m kind of schizo on the whole naming thing right now, which is a whole other deal), and what isn’t. Back when I was making Krone, I remember saying that it would be great if my partner, Ben Pascoe, ended up making a lot of movies on his own, and so did I, so that later we could look back and see how Krone was, indeed, a collaborative mix of two distinct filmmakers. With just the one movie, it’s a little harder to tease out the difference.

Of course, the other thing is, that unlike Quentin Tarantino, I have never exclusively been a film artist. I have lately been making serious plans to take some movie scripts I’ve written, that I might have to admit I will never be able to produce as movies, and draw them as webcomics (serialized graphic novels, basically) instead. I think this is a great idea and I’m very keen to do it, but it’s turning out that drawing comic pages is an incredibly labor-intensive activity, and one of the things I’m slowest at, just as I’m reaching an age where I can feel myself slowing down. So then it starts looking like it’ll take three years to do each of these comics projects, about the same amount of time it would take to make them into movies. The main advantage is economic, of course.

These days, it can cost nearly nothing to make a movie, unless you really want to rent some equipment, pay actors and crew for their time and talent, and need anything special in the way of costumes, props, or special effects. I have a lot of confidence in my talent as a filmmaker, but I have zero skill and experience at raising money. The main trick of doing Krone was figuring out a way to do it without raising any money at all, and I did, but I don’t think I can or will do that again. What I have to spend on any project is my own time, which is a limited resource, and my own energy, which is renewable but also limited.

Thus it does all come down to trying to choose every day which project to invest in. Every now and then someone will poke me with a request to finish something I started that they wanted to see more of, and they probably wonder why I don’t do so. It’s not necessarily that I don’t want to, but when a project cools off, it takes an extra investment of energy to heat it up again, so that, in a way, it’s more expensive than a newer project, which is hot to start with. The energy economics don’t make sense, and there’s no money economics to balance it out.

I’ve drifted far away from Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds, I know, but this wasn’t supposed to be a review of that. It was my own situation that was on my mind, but seeing that movie and thinking about Tarantino and his situation brought it into focus.

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The Rob Show – Mail

The latest episode of The Rob Show is now available on blip.tv. Rob delves into the question of fan letters, and determines that you can’t write them any more because there’s no address to send them to.

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The hilarious, terrifying tale of Super-Hippie

This is from the great local video store (Vulcan Video) that I go to. Purportedly a true story, it sounds polished through frequent retelling over the years, but the end result is great. Scroll down and start reading from where it says:

“It was maybe, like, four years ago,” begins Shivers. “It was a night that some of our more frail employees were working, all the small, terrified, shy folk.”

From the Austin Chronicle: (www.austinchronicle.com)

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The Rob Show – Orange

The latest episode is now available on blip.tv. Music, chat, stories, Apple II Archives, IF game development discussion, assorted ideas, and more music.

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Hello, Professor.

I was eating dinner at Magnolia Cafe during South by Southwest this last March, when I was accosted by two youthful grown women seated in a booth, across the aisle from my table.

“Excuse me,” said the woman on my left. “Are you a professor?”

I immediately knew why she had asked (and was pleased by it), but I said, “What makes you ask that?”

“Because you looked: ” she began, and then launched into a mimed imitation of me, as I look when sitting in contemplation. It was instantly recognizable as me — all of my good friends would have laughed out loud to see it — which pleased me more. She went on to describe this look of focused, “very earnest concentration” that struck her as “scholarly.”

I smiled and said, “No, I’m not actually a professor, but I get why you would make that impression.”

For further study
Professor: One who professes.

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Fallout 3

What an amazing, thought-provoking experience this game was. It’s been months since I finished playing it, but all of the following is still on my mind at the level of detail you see here. A lot of it has to do with what I brought to the experience of playing it, but that’s what’s good about an interactive storytelling medium. It did allow me to bring a lot to it, to find my own story, and play a particular character that I created through the act of playing the game over a long period of (game and real) time.

On October 20, 2008, I started playing Fallout 3. Several months later, on October 20, 2277 in the world of the game, I was escorting a band of freedom fighters on a long and dangerous path through the post-apocalyptic wilds around what once was the District of Columbia, on a symbolic mission to replace the head of Abraham Lincoln on the statue still sitting in its memorial.

October 31, 2277, in the dead of night under a bright moon, I won a community of ghouls the right to live alongside smooth-skinned humans in civilized housing. I could feel the end coming.

I had put the main plotline on hold for some time, determined to see as much of the world as possible. It shortly turned out that the main mission I put on hold some weeks before was the start of a fast-track to wrapping up the game, something I must have intuitively sensed when I decided to deviate from it. Integrating the ghouls was the last thing on my list of private missions to complete as I finished my wanderings.

It was around that time that I stopped leveling up. I’d maxed out at level 20, while still having a list of abilities and feats I intended to get when I leveled up a little more, but there was no more leveling up. I returned to my private residence in Megaton with a feeling of melancholy that was deeper than just this game. Actually, this was all happening to the Lone Wanderer, not to me, but I was deeply immersed in role-playing this guy’s existence. However, I had to separate myself back out of the equation and reflect on my own life. As the Lone Wanderer returned from his travels and put away his saved-up possessions — I had large stashes of food and medicine, extra weapons and ammo, and collections of stuff that could be traded for bartering to buy things. I was saving them all up, conserving resources, for some imagined future need. Some great series of trials that would use up all of these stored reserves. It was the same theory as worrying so much about leveling up, so that I’d be strong enough for some eventuality I was fearing lay ahead. But instead all that lay ahead seemed to be the end of the road. What use was all of this saved up stuff? By the standards of these ravaged peoples of the wasteland, I was dazzlingly rich. I was also rich in karmic terms, so rich that these poor people were giving me gifts from their meager stores every time I came into town.

Having nothing else to spend my stored up wealth on, I splurged on a laboratory workbench. I set an experiment to bubbling that was going to create some new item, and left my home. I, the Lone Wanderer never returned to find out how it turned out. Everything I’d stored for a rainy day was still neatly stored around the house, untouched.

A few days later, I freed an intelligent super-mutant named Fawkes from his cell in an underground laboratory. The date, appropriately enough, was the fifth of November, 2277. There was a trap waiting for me, so before it sprung, I sent away my invaluable, trusted companion, Paladin Cross of the Brotherhood of Steel. She said we’d meet again, and we did not. I looked for her, when I finally was able to escape the Enclave and return to the headquarters of the Brotherhood, but she wasn’t there. The Brotherhood had one more mission for me, and told me to let them know when I was ready.

I led the Lone Wanderer outside to the courtyard, then up onto a balcony deck that had a view of the setting sun. Poignantly, I just let him stand there and watch the sunset. It was the last he’d ever see. Then I played cameraman and did a lot of neat cinematic crane shots starting high above him and sweeping into a closeup on his face, then finishing with his silhouette looking into the distant fading sun.

The next time I played the game, he died and the story ended. As the epilogue recapped his story for me, I saw an image of Lincoln’s restored statue at the memorial, something I’d waited around to see when I brought the freedom fighters there, but they didn’t work on it while I was loitering.

The adventure with the statue head was the emotional and gameplay climax of the story for me and my gruff little wanderer. He had a violent launch into the world. The day he left Vault 101, he shot the father of his dearest childhood friend in the face with a pistol, and he fled as she screamed and wailed over the body. A couple of months later, with stories of his adventures starting to spread around the wasteland, and having worked hard to be karmically noble in all situations — he began to carry around clean drinking water specifically to be able to give it to the decrepit and thirsty, not to drink it himself — he returned to Vault 101. His former friend was in need, and was strangely welcoming. However, when a peaceful resolution of the situation (a parallel to the first crisis that made him a murderer) proved impossible — I tried to find one, tried several different ways, but none worked — he was banished forever from Vault 101, by the woman I suspect he loved.

We’d been to the Lincoln Memorial, cleaned it out of mutants, slavers, and other evils. Stared at the headless statue, wondering at what had become of the head. It was ages later when I came across the people holding the head safe, somewhere in the middle of the badlands. I told them I’d cleaned out the mutant problem at the memorial, and that it was safe to put the head back on the statue. They thanked me and told me they’d meet me there at the memorial, and I saw them head out. I ran ahead and arrived at the memorial, waiting most of a day, many hours after they promised to be there. Where are they?

Time rewound. Different choice. I walked with them a little bit, and they seemed to be on their way, so I jumped ahead again, and they didn’t arrive. I realized, then, that they would not survive the journey unless I protected them every step of the way. Very well.

Time rewound again, and instead of agreeing to meet at the destination, I became their escort. The journey was long and meandering, veering off from what started out as a direct line to the national mall at the river, and curving back into the empty wasteland. Not empty — full of scorpions, mutants, Enclave soldiers, wild animals, and general bad guys of the Mad Max variety. They had to be constantly watched, like children. There was no ducking out for a nap, or to trade in resources, or do anything, day or night, for most of a week, but keep an eye on this small party of people, a beast of burden carrying the statue head, and a dog. I worried that they might never get there, with the route they were taking, but I decided I would keep trying. They walked slowly, too, but that allowed me to run on ahead. I took to looking for high ground, so I could get a better view of what was around the next bend while still keeping an eye on the group, because sometimes danger snuck up from behind or from the sides. I became more and more serious about this mission, and what it meant to make sure none of them were hurt or lost. It required a lot. Patience, and genuine care, and real tactical ability. There were some really nasty predicaments, where danger triangulated.

In the end, with it finally accomplished, I genuinely felt heroic.

Right after that, in the far northlands, I found a hidden forest, where once again I was given gifts, including a special cloak with a hood, hand-made, far from the usual wasteland clothing. My character, who had for some time run around encased in armor and a head-concealing helmet, looking like a soldier-warrior, now looked like a mystic, a bit like a Jedi. I began to play him more and more like what he seemed to be becoming.

So when the last choice of the last mission came, where the Lone Wanderer had to sacrifice himself to save everyone else, it was a pretty easy decision to make. I tried to cheat this death, wearing a full radiation suit and swallowing large preventative doses of Rad-X and RadAway, but when the compartment flooded, that was it for him. It was fitting. It was the end of the story. I wish I could have had him live to see another day, but after everything that had led up to that moment, including taking the moment to let him gaze in silence at his last sunset, nothing else would have been as appropriate.

The Lone Wanderer at sunset

http://pics.livejournal.com/jrw/pic/00002ezt

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A few test posts coming

Time to start playing around with this and seeing how I like it. Upload some old, “classic” material to the subsections, see whether I like blog-posting them or creating whole separate pages for them.

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Relaunch underway

All content on this site is currently unavailable.

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lunchtime score

So I went out to get some lunch today, and I was having trouble deciding what to get. I thought maybe I’d get some enchiladas, but I wasn’t sure. The garden enchiladas sounded good, though — basically spinach filled enchiladas with some onions and red bell peppers and other stuff. I’ve never ordered them because they’re a little pricey for me. So I argued with myself, thinking, gee, the cheese enchiladas are $1.50 cheaper… or I could get a turkey sandwich, that’s even less than the cheese enchiladas…

Then I realized I was just hemming and hawing over price. Okay, I told myself. If you really want the garden enchiladas, get those, but just make sure they’re what you want to eat. But don’t get a sandwich or cheese enchiladas just because they’re cheaper if you don’t want to eat those.

Okay, okay, me, I said to myself. I’ll order the garden enchiladas. Fine.

“Hey dude, whatcha need?” Uh oh, it’s the waiter who always says “hey dude” to me. It always puts me off for some reason even though I go to this place because it is laid back and informal. Maybe he’s a little too informal, I dunno. I order the garden enchiladas and some coffee and he rushes off.

Dissolve to: later in the meal.

I’m partway through eating these spinach enchiladas and something doesn’t seem quite right. I spread one open and realize there’s no spinach in them. I flag the waiter down. “Whatcha need, man?” he says. I say, “Hey, isn’t there supposed to be spinach in these?” He looks at the plate. “Oh, is there spinach in the garden enchiladas?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll have to check.” He leaves my table. I see him grab a menu and look up the garden enchiladas, and I watch as a funny reaction crosses his face as he reads the first words of the description: “Spinach-filled…”

He disappears into the kitchen for half a minute and comes rushing back. “Hey dude,” he says. “Yeah, uh, do you want them re-done, or do you want a side order of steamed spinach, or what do you want?” I was hoping maybe for a discount, but somehow I end up shrugging and saying, “Oh, a side order, I guess. Whatever.” So he nods and rushes off. Another reminder that I need to work on my negotiating skills.

In the interval, a waitress comes by with a coffee pot and we both regard my half-filled coffee mug. “Would you like more coffee?” she asks. “Yes, please!” I say.

A minute later, the waiter is back again with the side order of wet spinach leaves in a little bowl. “Hey man,” he says. “Ah, we’re gonna give you half off the price on the whole order, is that okay?”

“Sure, okay, cool,” I say. Score!

All that debating I did before ordering about whether to order by price or by what I wanted seems to have worked out extra-well after all. I’m not sure there’s any lesson to be learned from this or not. But I chose wisely today, it seems.

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Less Ordinary: Behind the scenes

lo_logo.jpg

Appendix A: The Making of Pages 1-24

First of all, I have to say that writing and drawing this
comic has been the most satisfying creative project of the
year for me. It demanded a lot from me, and that’s partly
why it ended up being somewhat thrilling. Keeping on my
self-imposed schedule (aiming to be done with each page
at 12am each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) was a crazy
high-wire act with a lot of frenzy behind the scenes that
I deliberately didn’t mention was going on most of the time.

I say this because I want people to know that I’m having an
enormous amount of fun making Less Ordinary, so I do
intend to start cranking out pages again soon. Posting this
is not a replacement for that, it’s just extra stuff. And
I have in fact been sketching new pages lately.

The Tools

Currently, I’m using a Sawtooth model Macintosh G4 minitower
from the mid-90s, at a screaming 400MHz with 768MB of RAM. The
computer cost $100, give me a break. The monitor is a huge monster
I got at a Goodwill computer store, also for $100. I’m using version
3.0 of Photoshop, which I got as an extra with a scanner I bought
in 1997 for an incredible $300. It was like 2 feet long and had
heavy solid glass and weighed 8 pounds, and it broke during a
move and I threw it away. But the Photoshop was a full version,
not that LE business, and I’ve never been able to afford to
upgrade it, so I’m still using it. Fortunately, version 3.0 is
when they standardized the PSD file format that is still in use
today. I do have to run it under OS9-Classic (under OS X 10.3.9),
but it behaves well. One limitation that has a significant
impact: one level of Undo only. If I make one stroke I don’t
like, I can get rid of it. If I make a stroke I don’t like and
then accidentally touch a dot of digital ink somewhere else a
second later, I’m committed. Or I have to go back to an earlier
saved version. Personally I look at this as a heroic and very
manly way to work, without all those effete and foppish 99+
levels of Undo people think they can’t live without.

The drawing tools: Cross ballpoint pen (blue medium),
Strathmore sketchbook, Wacom tablet, chair, desk, mouse, keyboard.
09_preink_dlg.jpg
09_final.jpg

The Process

I invented the process of turning out pages of this comic while
doing it, seeking always to make it more efficient. It does end up
being kind of a factory assembly line kind of operation, taking
several weeks to produce the first page, but able to churn out a
page every two days on schedule when it got up to speed.

The basic workflow goes like this:

  • Pre-Production
    • Sketching
    • Scanning
    • Preliminary Page Breakdowns
    • Page Layout, Composition and Editing
    • Pre-Ink Prep
  • Production
    • Inking
    • Dialogue and Sound Effects
    • Coloring
    • Finishing

The Pre-Production phase happens on multiple pages at a time, so
that a whole sequence is prepped for production at one time. It is
more efficient that way, and helps for planning ahead in terms of
storytelling.

Production is one page at a time. I start and finish one page
before even thinking about the next, because it’s all I can handle.

Now that you have the broad idea, I’ll take each step at a time
so I can talk about each part and show some art examples. I didn’t always
save copies of the intermediate stages — too busy trying to get the
page done to worry about documenting the process — but every now and
then I remembered to do that.

Pre-Production

Sketching

The stage wherein I draw several pages of “pencils” in my sketchbook,
in a fast and loose style. I’m aiming to get down the next few pages of
ideas all at once, usually in one sitting. It’s almost like I’m just
jotting notes for what I’d like to do, except that I actually use these
drawings as the basis for the final art. Even though these are much rougher
and sketchier than ink-ready pencils usually are, they are not cleaned up.

This is somehow working beautifully for me. For years, my
main sketching/doodling medium has been ballpoint pen
in an artist’s sketchbook (11×14). I get a really fluid
line out of a ballpoint, and it can sometimes feel
effortless. It often looks messy if I can’t quite get
a line in the right place, because I can’t erase, but
a lot of the time I will draw a breezy stroke that
somehow captures something perfectly — a look on
a face, the body language of someone in motion.

I used to have a very hard time with the fact that I
couldn’t use these ballpoint sketches as the basis for
a real piece of finished artwork. I would have to, at
best, laboriously re-draw the sketches in pencil, and
then ink, and I’d lose that ineffable something that I
really thought the fast first sketch had.
05_orig.jpg
I got a Wacom tablet about three years ago,
but after multiple experiments with it I still had never
become comfortable with drawing with it directly — ie,
digitally “pencilling” — or even with inking over scanned
drawings. However, a lot of other artists digitally ink
over scanned pencils, so I figured there had to be a way
to make it work for me. This comic gave me an opportunity
to experiment.

In fact, it started just as a quick and dirty experiment
I was doing purely for research purposes. I had been planning
to do a webcomic of my own for a full year, and by September
2007 I was very busy trying all sorts of experiments with different
real and digital drawing tools, trying to figure out what
would be efficient and reliable for turning out pages on
a regular schedule. Traditional pencil, pen and ink were
looking good but incredibly slow. I knew I’d be lucky to do
more than one page a week like that, and that just wasn’t
good enough. I had to try doing more of the work in the
computer itself.

So when I got the idea for the first 8 pages, based on a
real-life incident, I figured this was a chance to try out
any techniques I wanted. I drew some fast sketches,
took pictures of them with my digital camera, and pulled
them into Photoshop. I lowered the contrast and brightened
the page, making the ballpoint look faint. I chose one of
the drawings from the page, traced over it with the paintbrush
tool with black “ink”, and hey — I liked the result.
23_orig.jpg

Since then, I have continued to do all the pencilling
work as crazy-fast sketches in my sketchbook, making often
very little effort to draw them cleanly or what you might
think of as being a sound basis for finished work. But
it somehow works! Mostly because I’m finally getting to
work from the intuitive strokes that manage to get the
bold ideas down, because I’m drawing in the way I’m
absolutely the most relaxed, comfortable and confident.
04_preink-1.jpg

04_intermed.jpg
04_final.jpg

Scanning

Getting the sketches into the computer.

As I said, I started with just a digital camera, because
I was scanner-less. (My old scanner didn’t have a driver for
OS X, and UMAX refused to ever make one, for some reason.)
I’d take one picture per sketched panel, several per
sketchbook page, often ending up with dozens of pictures.
I’d capture them in iPhoto and use that to brighten them up
a bit, because the camera was always making the sketchbook
paper come out as 50% neutral gray instead of white.

It eventually became clear that using the digital camera
and was adding a lot of steps to the process of getting them
assembled as ink-ready pages, and whacking those few steps out
of the process was going to be a big time and energy saver.
Anything to make it faster and easier to turn out new pages
was my guiding principle. So, I bought a new scanner, I think
around the time I was working on page 10.
10_NEW_preink.jpg
10_NEW_intermed.jpg
Because it costs a stupid amount of money to get a scanner
that can take an 11×14 image, I have to scan each sketchbook
page in two overlapping halves. At first, I fell back on my old
habit of scanning at 300dpi, but the scanner was especially
slow at this. I realized that high resolution didn’t matter,
because I was resizing the artwork so much anyway during the
layout and composition phase (see below) that the starting
resolution was largely irrelevant. Once again, speed was better,
so now I scan them at 75 dpi. I take the two scans,
bung them together in Photoshop, collapse them into one image
file and save that.

Preliminary Page Breakdowns

Where the sketches get reorganized into comic pages.
I take all of that newly scanned material and make a
preliminary best-guess at breaking it down into 11×17
comic pages in a rough form.

Industry standard art boards for illustrating comic
pages are now 11 by 17 inches, so I decided it would be
smart to use that size of virtual paper, at 300dpi, for
drawing this comic. My sketchbook pages are 11×14, though,
which means that there is not a complete correspondence of
sketchbook page to comic page.

The extra 3 inches vertically are a little annoying to
deal with, actually, because it’s not enough height to
add another row of panels to the artwork, but pulling
all of the panels apart with more room can leave things
looking a little empty. I approach this problem anew for
each one; it’s the initial challenge that gets me engaged
in the activity of deciding what, in fact, will happen
on this page.

Page Layout, Composition and Editing

In this stage, the sketches are treated as mutable
independent objects that can be rearranged on the page,
with an emphasis on the visual flow of the whole page
and telling the story.
08_layout_raw.jpg

It was when I was working on page 1 that I began to see
the potential of working in the digital medium at this early
stage, before I start inking. I can take a sketch for a panel
and combine it with another panel. I can mirror flip a drawing
if it makes the visual flow of the page work better. I can
stretch a small panel to be really large, and I can shrink
or crop a large panel to be small. I can grab drawings I
assigned to future page breakdowns, and I can throw away drawings
completely, because I’ve figured out how to tell the story
without them, probably by beefing up the role of a different
panel. This phase is where I look hard for what I
can cut, that I don’t need to tell the story on
that page. I think it’s strengthened the visual
impact and the storytelling to have made some
bold choices in this regard along the way.
08_p1-3_orig.jpg
08_revisions_dem.jpg
08_OLD.jpg
08_NEW.jpg
The first dramatic breakout was on page 6, which
originally was laid out like pages 1-5, with a lot
of little panels and a lot of dialogue balloons.
But by that point, I’d realized that drawing one
small panel takes about the same time as drawing
one big panel. And drawing two big panels to do
a page takes considerably less time than drawing
four to seven panels to do the same work. And so
when I stretched the second panel (see below) to cover everything
and realized that one image told the whole visual
story for that page — Mr. Glasses’s incredulous
reaction to what was happening on the other side
of the table — I knew I had a lot more storytelling
options than I was originally assuming.
06_preink.jpg
06_OLD.jpg
06_NEW.jpg
Sometimes discarded material is saved
to be used in upcoming pages. Other times, I may decide it
just doesn’t work — there is one sequence of sketches
I did that I liked a lot, but I tried twice to prep it for
inking — spending several hours trying to put the
pieces together — and it never came together as a solid
layout. The layout has to feel firm, because it’s the
foundation level, and something was always too wonky
about this sequence of drawings, and so I had to leave
it out.

The dramatic example of this was the “Timequake” sequence,
which started as eleven pages of sketches, was broken down
into eight pages of preliminary page layouts, and then
ended up being slimmed down and reorganized (one page
decided at a time) to just five pages of the final comic.
lo_0003.jpg
21_color.jpg
22_NEW_preink.jpg
22_NEW_color.jpg

Pre-Ink Prep

This gets everything all set for the inking to begin.

After I’ve got the composition and layout pretty much
finalized, the page is massively reduced in contrast and
raised in brightness. You may not have noticed this, but
the background is never true white, it’s always a very
faint off-white, a sort of yellowish gray. (Only the
dialogue balloons are pure white, which makes them pop
out.) The main point of doing the contrast and brightness
alteration is to make the ballpoint sketches turn a very
faint, light purple that can be drawn over and also erased
by a paint bucket fill with a moderately high tolerance (52).
It can look faint in a thumbnail or zoomed out, but zoomed
in it is still highly legible throughout the inking process,
so that I don’t find myself losing track of the underlying
sketches.

Lastly, the panel borders for the page are set by drawing
with the straight line tool and filling with black ink. I
might still move panels around after this point — some of
a trickier pages require rethinking and tweaking even after
inking has started — but the general rule is that the
artwork and layout are now “locked” and I can move
on to the next task with a clear head and confidence.
lo_scan_0018.jpg
16_orig.jpg
16_color.jpg

Summary

This Pre-Production process is, in my mind, highly analogous
to working on a film: sketching is like shooting raw footage, the page
breakdowns and rearranging of panels is like editing the footage
to a rough cut, then down to the final cut. In movies, you then
“lock the picture” (stop changing any of the editing or timing),
and then you go into post-production to sweeten it all up and
polish it (ie, add music and special effects, do the sound mix,
and so forth). Except, for the purposes of doing a comic book, that next
bit is the Production, not the Post-Production.
11_dialog_fix.jpg
Next: The Production stage: Inking, Dialogue, and Coloring

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on the great boss battles of life

I thought about posting stuff this year a lot more than I actually posted stuff. I guess that’s not unusual, but it always bothers me. I think there was more of a reason than usual this year than in previous years, because for a solid 13 years I had a certain coffee shop I went to that I used as an office, and if I thought of something I wanted to write, I would go there and write it.

2006 was when I lost that coffee shop and had to move on, but 2007 is when I felt the effects of that loss — of not having anywhere to go to work, that would really serve as a workplace for me and my creative projects. The best substitute I found had good coffee and was open 24 hours, but it is really a restaurant, and so has the problem of not really being a good place to hunker down for several hours to work on something, the way a coffee shop can because that’s what it is by design. You’re not putting out the management by sitting there for ages, not really, if they’re running a coffee shop. If you’re running a restaurant, a guy might be taking up a booth that a family of four will order a lot of food and drinks from, and then leave and be replaced by another family of four, and there’s this guy still sitting there. I definitely feel that pressure.

However, after hanging out there for a year, eventually the whole staff gets used to you, and appreciates the fact that, just by plunking down money into their cash register and tipping the wait staff nearly every single day, you’re actually supporting the place more than the family of four who only eats there once and doesn’t return. So they start getting nicer and more tolerant, and go “Yeah, whatever” if you want to sit there for a while.

bullfinch-1.jpgStill, it’s a restaurant, and it’s not the same. I can’t really knuckle down the same way and be productive there, which bugs me. All year I felt off-kilter, and a lot of things went un-done that I wanted to do because I’d be in the mood to get something done, but it’d be a high traffic mealtime at the restaurant, so I’d try and wait for a better time, and by then, the mood or the muse was gone. Life goes on, none of these missed projects were a great tragedy, but cumulatively, they felt like a real drag on me this year, and added to my overriding sense of frustration.

That was one of the major themes this year, at least in terms of my emotional life. I’ve been feeling just absolutely frustrated, day and night, for quite a long time now. Feeling frustrated makes me quick to anger instead of easygoing. I can’t tell you how many times I had a spastic tantrum over something that shouldn’t even have bothered me, because my general frustration level was so high that a minor uptick would make me hit the boiling point. I had to switch from playing active-type videogames to more passive ones (turn-based combat is my new friend) so I would stop exploding into rages. Boss fights were starting to feel like symbols for my powerlessness in actual life to find any traction. When I played Shadow of the Colossus, I invested it with a lot of psychological weight and baggage, let me tell you.

colossus.jpg

That reminds me of something else I was thinking of writing about as a one-shot post, but I guess I’ll conjure some of it now while I’m on the topic. Currently I’m playing this fairly mild mannered and pleasant RPG called Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King, another Square Enix adventure. Late last night, fulfilling a side quest led me down into this labyrinth that ended with a pretty rough boss battle against two giant dudes who could really whale on you, and who had ridiculous hit points (actual amount hidden, but it must have been 2500 to 3000 each).

Have you ever had a really satisfying scrap with a boss? Like, where it’s definitely pretty challenging, but not so overwhelming that it’s impossible? It reminded me almost of the way a classic Jackie Chan fight goes (when he’s fighting the boss henchman dude at the end of a movie). First Jackie has to get beaten down where it looks like he’s not going to win this one, then he manages by luck or by starting to approach the fight differently, he regains his ground, only to lose it again. And then the tide spectacularly turns just when it’s about to be hopeless, and the boss goes down. Well, that’s how this fight went.

dragon_quest_group.jpg

I had four guys against these two, and they killed two of them early on. But one of my guys had just gotten the ability to sacrifice himself to resurrect everybody else who was dead, and one of those guys had just gotten the ability to resurrect with 100% success. So I brought everyone back. Then they killed half my party again, this time both of those guys who could bring people back. One guy, down to about 20 hit points from 250, had a resurrect spell, but it only worked 50% of the time, and it failed 3 times in a row. I was down to a turn where if it didn’t work this time, I was pretty much finished. Meanwhile, the other guy (girl) I had was casting spells that was zapping both bad guys every turn for about 70 points of damage. I just kept doing that, turn after turn.

dragon_quest_frizzle.jpg

On that turn where it was make or break, pow, one of the bosses keeled over dead, and my resurrect spell finally worked. That revived guy resurrected the other guy, and all four characters whaled on the remaining boss with all they had, and he went down a couple of turns later. I was really happy that everybody was alive and in fact in pretty healthy shape when the battle ended. A triumph!

“That was a pretty good scrap!” I said. (Actually, I may first have said, “BOOM! Gotcha, you f*cker!”) It just felt satisfying to have been nearly wiped out and then managed to pull it out in the end. It felt like I had met this challenge with my characters leveled up exactly to the right spot to have the most engaging battle I could have had. I really enjoyed that.

The future is always completely uncertain, but I’ve been feeling an undercurrent of optimism starting to buoy me for the past six months, sort of an antidote to that corrosive feeling of frustration. I’m kind of waiting for my real life to have some sort of dramatic turnaround like this. I’ve felt psychologically nearly wiped out a few times this year, and it would be nice to know that the tide will turn and I’ll pull out some sort of overwhelming victory and get to do a happy dance at the end.

Then I’ll get to look back on the experience, nod with satisfaction, and say, “Hey, that was a pretty good scrap!”

dragon_quest_vista.jpg

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