Posts Tagged comics
New comic, autobiographical style. I suppose I was going for something of a Linklater-film-y feel to the storytelling. And it’s a Magnolia Cafe story, which is good.
They forgot to make the final boss fight the hardest and most dramatic one.
That’s the simplest way I can sum up why the movie feels “okay” instead of excellent. I loved the beginning of the movie, the way it set its own pace and tone very deliberately, with a long, dialogue-heavy Senate committee hearing — essentially a small one-act play at the start of the movie, carried entirely by the performance of long pages of dialogue. The director, Jon Favreau (whose cameo role extends to an extended brawl of a fistfight with an anonymous guard stooge at the climax of the movie), surprised me again in the middle of the first act by setting up a classic, static proscenium frame and letting Downey and Paltrow tear into their dialogue, uninterrupted by cutting.
So engaging is the well-paced dramedy of Tony Stark’s life that the Iron Man scenes feel like an interruption. It tends to make me think that this really needs to just become a television series. That way, relationship arcs can take a whole season to play out their twists and turns, rather than having to happen in the space of two hours.
It reminds me of a side thought, that I wonder why it is that some of these Marvel movies get propelled with A-list talent, and some of them have to make do with less than stellar actors and directors. For example, the Fantastic Four movies basically used television actors. The guy playing Victor Von Doom could have easily shown up as a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 bad guy. And could easily go back to playing the equivalent now after having done those movies. Why does it seem like the FF always gets treated poorly when it should be the flagship, as it was originally, for the entire Marvel Universe?
Sam Rockwell, playing the corporate villain of this movie, busts out the Guy Fleegman goofball smarm, and at one point trots out the same dance moves he used when playing the villain of Charlie’s Angels. He manages a thing where we instantly know the character is the antagonist, but he’s also a cartoon, and doesn’t seem very threatening. Mickey Rourke is in there playing his role like he’s in an Oliver Stone prison movie, and Rockwell is acting like Daffy Duck. It kind of works because every once and a while in the same movie there’s a red and yellow suit with repulsor rays blowing things up and clanking. Scarlett Johansson is the only one definitely playing a comic book character. As an undercover shield agent, she gears up in a superspy catsuit (nice outfit, btw) and mows down a bunch of guys in melee combat, which I see has been perfected since The Matrix first pointed the way how to do it. The choreography of how she takes the bad guys out is smartly smack on, each move in it a superhero pose. I didn’t quite like the decision to use the Saving Private Ryan strobe-frame effect — in a way, it emphasizes the drawn-pose-ness I was just describing — because I found it distracting. I wanted to see the motion be fluid, not halted. It dampened the awesome for me, which was a little frustrating.
SPOILER WARNING. Spoilers for the end of Iron Man 2 follow.
Getting back to the ending, I thought that the script suddenly started skipping and dropping out, like a signal that was getting lost in noise. The script was good, it was fairly tight, it had a logic to it, and it had just the right sense of humor about when to wink at something preposterous it had just done to move things along. (“Well, that was easy.”) At the end, Iron Man has to deal with an army (and navy, and air force, and marine corps) of remote-drone iron men, as well as his friend in a bulked-up rogue suit, as well as the supervillain Mickey Rourke is playing (the final boss guy). The problem, script-wise, is that in the preceding scene, Sam Rockwell had just berated Mickey Rourke (who was building the fleet of drones for Rockwell) for not holding up his end of the bargain with the drones. But since there was a finished platoon of drones ready to go, I don’t know what he was talking about.
Of course, the end of the movie is 18 minutes of solid action. The problem is it doesn’t feel particularly imaginative. There’s also a little too much in the stew. There’s a lot of spatial confusion, with everything taking place in one Expo park. By the time Tony Stark says, “We gotta lead these things away from the expo park,” he’s been flying with them in chase long enough to be 300 miles away.
He dispatches the drones here and there, then there’s a fairly good fight with the two good guys against a ring of drones. This fight had imagination to it, was well thought-out. For example, they showed a couple of examples of the good guys trying to do the sensible thing and fly out of there, and they were each thwarted by an attack or a grapple. Then Tony busts out something cool, and just before I could mutter it to myself, his buddy Don Cheadle says, “Next time, my advice is use that first.” And then Tony has a response to that, one that videogamers are likely to follow the logic of. You don’t waste your super-bomb, you hold it until it can do the most damage, or a now-or-never moment when you’re overwhelmed.
Then you’re screwed, though, because now the boss guy is going to show up, and you won’t have it to use on him.
Videogames have a lot to teach the movie guys now about final boss fights. This fight should have taken the last 10 minutes of the last 18 minutes of action, with full choreography that told a story and had a beginning, middle, and end. And it should have been tied into the story and the plot and the character development. It has no resolution whatsoever for the character that Mickey Rourke has been playing. It has no resolution for that character vis-a-vis Tony Stark. I don’t know, did they write that and then cut it, or did they never write that?
And there’s always a trick to defeating the boss guy, because he’s just too tough to go down by ordinary means. They did come up with something along these lines, and it was okay. (This is why we leave the theater thinking, “That was okay.”) It just wasn’t really satisfying. It followed too much mess, and it was too short, and it was disconnected from the plot. Rourke should have first taken out Don Cheadle, raising the stakes for Tony Stark, because Cheadle is only there as a result of Stark’s stupid, selfish actions earlier in the movie. You know? And Tony should have figured out something clever to do in defense against those electro laser whips, having already encountered them once and seen how they work.
And, totally, totally, there should have been a deal where the new super power source Tony has created and installed in himself is the key to defeating the super bad guy, because it’s something the bad guy has not anticipated, and it means he’s less powerful than he thought. I mean, if you think about it, it’s weird that they didn’t do anything more with that.
Wait, I just thought of something even more weird. The scene in all the previews and trailers, where Gwyneth Paltrow kisses his helmet and then throws it out of the plane and he dives after it, isn’t in the movie! Bizarre. Instead, we get another scene of puffy Garry Shandling. (He’s good, but gosh he’s puffy these days.) Oh well.
There is an after-credits teaser. As you might guess from various hints along the way, it takes place in the New Mexico desert. I was so sure it was going to be a Hulk cameo (another set-up for the Avengers movie), but it wasn’t.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johannson, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Jon Favreau, and Mickey Rourke.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Will.i.am, Lynn Collins, Dominic Monaghan, and Ryan Reynolds.
The first thing I noted was that they must have been in a little bit of a rush to get the movie finished in time for its first-of-summer-season release (which will creep back to late April or possibly the start of Daylight Savings Time in a few years, at the rate it’s going), because there were no fewer than 14 credited visual effects companies, the last 9 of which were just listed in a bunch, kind of like the “…And the rest” verse from Gilligan’s Island. That’s a lot of parallel processing, but the movie does have quite a lot of explosions and people flying around and sprouting sharp things from their bodies that have to be match-moved and whatever.
Oh yeah, is the movie entertaining? Sure, it was. I certainly have enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s embodiment of the character in the movies so far, and he’s still good at it, although there’s funny ways in which you feel like the first X-Men movie gave you more of the character’s background and psychology through fleeting glimpses and hints than this whole new movie does, even though it’s a full origin story, covering over 100 years (most of them as an opening credits montage).
I never collected X-Men comics. What I knew about Wolverine came mainly from owning his first appearance (in The Incredible Hulk #181, which was the main comic I collected from 1976 to about 1996) and having my brother summarize for me what he knew about it. That the adamantium claws aren’t his mutant power, it’s that crazy healing factor that he has; furthermore, this is the reason that scary people were able to graft adamantium metal onto his entire skeleton and give him indestructable claws. My impression from this second hand retelling, as well as the hints in the first two X-Men movies, as well as a significant amount of build-up in this new outing, was that Logan basically had to be flayed alive so they could do the surgery, with his healing factor keeping him alive and re-growing all of his tissue and muscle as they worked. So, unbelievably torturous procedure.
When they finally get to the scene where they do this, they kind of take a movie cheat with it. They talk it up like it’s going to be something along the lines of the live flaying, and then it’s just a bunch of needles that poke him and a computer readout showing that his heart rate goes to 300, then 0. I won’t spoil the surprise of whether the electrocardiogram line goes from flatline to BIP! BIP! BIP! he’s alive! again. You’ll just have to see it to find out.
Okay, the other thing about not reading the actual comics whence all of this mythology derives is that I don’t know whether any of the side mutant characters are from the comics too or just made up or what. The main one that’s puzzling to me is this guy Gambit. I’ve heard that character’s name before, okay, but that’s it. Having watched this movie and seen him in action, WTF? I have no idea what the dude’s mutant powers are supposed to be, which is kind of stupid. He’s really good at winning card games, then he’s good at throwing cards, and maybe making them look electric-glowy, then he seems to be able to jump and flip around pretty well, and then he has this stupid cane that goes WHOMPH to things, making it seem like that’s a source of power or something, except it gets snapped in two and that doesn’t slow the guy down. Later he has another cane anyway.
I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t figure out who he was, I didn’t care who he was. Maybe he’s a great character in the comics, but he was completely opaque and random to me. I have no idea whether he’s faithful to whatever he is in the comics or not, but I kind of hope not. The guy was also kind of a dick. Wolverine was just about to finally put the claws into a bad dude who pretty much deserved it, and then Gambit came in and whomphed the ground with his cane and the bad guy got away, and as far as I can tell it was none of his goddamn business to do that.
When the opening credits came up, I was cheered by seeing that it was a Donner production, meaning Richard and Lauren Shuler Donner, because those guys know how to make entertaining action movies, like the first two Superman movies and the Lethal Weapon series and all that. Not real deep movies, but they have the power to entertain. Also listed as producers of various types were Ralph Winter (once of Star Treks III, IV, and V) and Hugh Jackman himself. (“If you want me to go through all that again and pump iron for eight months to be beefcakey then I want a huge cut of the take and a producer credit” one imagines him demanding, and receiving.)
Just because I mentioned Gilligan’s Island once already, I’ll do so again by randomly mentioning that Richard Donner’s early directing career includes episodes of Gilligan’s Island.
So, as this light entertainment unspooled, I was for the most part thinking it was a pretty good comic book. Like, some sort of Giant Size X-Men Annual or something, like if I’d read it when I was a kid I would have enjoyed it okay. Thinking more critically about it, there’s very little here that’s original in plotting or detail. Kinda seen this, kinda seen that, kind of saw that coming.
Oh, wait, that’s not exactly true. At regular intervals I was chuckling out loud, or making kind of a “Ha!” reaction to a detail or a line that was unexpectedly clever or cute. If I tell you what they are it spoils them a bit, but, as an example, Wolverine at one point jumps into the ocean from a single-engine aircraft. I’ve seen that before. But instead of going Sploosh!, he skips along the water like a pebble (in a series of painful smaller splats) because of his forward velocity.
The movie ends with a pretty good fight where Wolverine and Qui-Gon fight Darth Maul at the top of a big shaft. Actually given the story I guess it’s more like Obi-Wan and Anakin fighting Darth Maul, but whatever. It didn’t occur to me until this morning, when another reviewer helpfully noted that it was actually Three Mile Island that they were on, that the movie was winkingly suggesting (because of the timeline) that the meltdown crisis that history records was actually because of this superhero fight on top of the cooling towers.
Anyway. Yeah, not exactly new and original, but the movie is directed with snap and a light sense of humor by some guy I don’t remember hearing about before, though he’s probably a young dude. I did have a good time as long as I watched it uncritically, if you know what I mean. It would be easy to chop it to pieces, but a little more fun to go ahead and take the popcorn ride, eh? What the hell, it’s just superheroes.
There were a couple of mountainy locations that I kept thinking reminded me of locales from The Lord of the Rings movies, and the end credits thanked the New Zealand film commission (but also claimed to have filmed entirely in New South Wales, and didn’t list any New Zealand locations).
The main guy apart from Hugh Jackman in this thing is Liev Schreiber, a good actor whom I’ve taken a long time to warm up to. This is probably due to a certain syndrome — namely, a guy who’s a good enough actor to be believable as a scummy guy, and the first role I ever see him in, he’s so scummy I develop a dislike at a subconscious and conscious level for the actor, without exactly knowing why. My brother does this, too. You just kind of associate them with unpleasant feelings. Having realized I do this, I try to give the actors a break and take another look at what they do, and also try to look for movies where they’re just as convincingly playing good guys who give you a good feeling.
This isn’t the first time Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber have worked together, of course. They were also both in the time travel romantic comedy Kate and Leopold, whose modest charms I discovered by being bored one weekend and finding it on cable. In this pairing, Schreiber plays Wolverine’s brother, another mutant with a similar set of powers (nasty claws, bit of a gift for healing quickly) but a much more feral mindset. He’s also got a pair of sharp little pointy canines, which must have made the guy think, “Hey, with fangs like these, I’d better start chewing the scenery pronto!” It does mean that you enjoy the movie slightly more every time Schreiber is there, just because he brings this energetic mania into the scene. The movie does a really lousy job of explaining his actual loyalties and where he fits into a confusing tangle of half truths and misdirections. Near the end he’s yelling at Stryker that he was promised — uh, I’m not sure what. “You promised me it!” is kind of all I remember hearing, and nobody ever quite says what it is. Unless it’s just that he wants an adamantium skeleton, too.
Ultimately, it is completely unclear why they gave Wolverine a metal skeleton in the first place. They give a couple of reasons, then turn around and say those are lies, and by the end the last remaining reason that I heard didn’t make any sense if you went back and thought about events. How could that be the motivation if the other story was also a lie because Sabretooth was really working for Stryker and so — whah? Huh?
Oh well. It doesn’t matter. There are lots of explosions and things getting clawed to pieces, and then explosions. Summer movies 2009 have started, for better or worse.
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.
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.
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:
- Preliminary Page Breakdowns
- Page Layout, Composition and Editing
- Pre-Ink Prep
- Dialogue and Sound Effects
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Next: The Production stage: Inking, Dialogue, and Coloring