Tuesday, April 20, 2010

C2E2 2010: Panelling

Convention panel reports are often a fairly pointless affair, unable to replicate the experience of being in the audience for the publisher announcements or discussions between panelists.  For something like the Vertigo panel which I attended on Friday, it's probably best to read a detailed recaps like the one at CBR or the transcript of the panel at Newsarama.  One could similarly pay attention to Vertigo's blog for announcements and avoid this sort of thing altogether.  There's simply not much to add in the way of analysis (although I was interested to learn about Matt Kindt's Revolver, Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel's Cuba My Revolution, and the upcoming return of Shade the Changing Man in Peter Milligan and Guiseppe Camuncoli's run on Hellblazer, if anybody cares).  I would still recommend attending a panel like this if you're interested in seeing samples of what is coming out or hearing creators talk about their work, but reading summaries of the same from your computer screen just isn't the same.

This was the sort of issue raised at Friday night's comics journalism panel, which was another interesting discussion (to a point; diminishing returns set in around the time the subject turned to "mainstream acceptability", being taken seriously, the low barrier to entry when writing online, and that sort of tiresomeness), but one that probably isn't much fun to read about.  Noah Berlatsky probably has the best take on the talk, one which I wholeheartedly agree with.  As much as I'm passionate about comics, they're really not an especially big deal in the grand scheme of things, and maybe, considering that most of us writing online are doing it for fun, realizing that would be healthy.  I did think Brigid Alverson had some interesting things to say, having worked in real political journalism, as did Johanna Draper Carlson, who has been writing online about comics for about as long as that has been possible.  Also, Caleb Goellner's goofy, laid-back vibe was a good demonstration of why the site he writes for, Comics Alliance, is one of the better comics sites out there, offering lighthearted commentary on the industry and mostly out to have a good time.  So yes, art is worth taking seriously, but it's still usually kind of a frivolous pursuit, and while there are still issues worth considering and stories worth pursuing, who has the scoop on the latest development in Spider-Man's romantic life isn't the huge deal you might think it is.

Another enjoyable panel that probably isn't that interesting to read about was Saturday morning's AV Club discussion of how superheroes can comment on modern life.  I was a bit trepidatious going into it, since the AV Club's comics coverage is one of their weaker areas, but the discussion (between regular writers Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias) ended up being more about movies than comics, and their observations about how the post-9/11 atmosphere was reflected in superhero movies, whether brightly in the Spider-Man films or more darkly in Christopher Nolan's Batman series, was pretty good to listen to, at least from the perspective of somebody sitting in the audience.  The thing about this is, superhero comics have been addressing society for decades, spinning off into fractally precise takes on any and every issue that could be covered, to the point that they've just about worn out what can be done with the genre.  That whole area of exploration is still fairly fresh to film, however, so there are interesting concepts to consider, like whether reducing complex global conflicts down to easily-understandable symbols and having the good guys win unequivocally is morally troubling or worth the catharsis it provides.  That's the kind of discussion the AV Club does well, so while hearing me summarize it might not be worthwhile, I do recommend taking the chance to hear them talk if you get it, or at least reading the content they regularly provide.

So, is this post a waste of time, with panels being a good time to attend but pointless to describe after the fact?  I would hope the final one can be the exception, since I found it a fascinating look at the ideas and motivations of two of the best cartoonists currently working, Chris Ware and Dash Shaw.  The panel was officially supposed to be about creators who are published by Pantheon, with Chip Kidd leading the discussion, but it was really a chance to see the two cartoonists converse, discussing their work and querying each other about styles and techniques.  Kidd did waste everyone's time talking about his upcoming Captain Marvel book (not even a Pantheon release!), which, with its old-school superhero comics excerpts and pictures of ancient memorabilia, is diametrically opposed to the artsy work of his panel-mates.  But once he finished, the other two proceeded to blow minds with examples of their work and descriptions of how they go about making it.

Shaw came off as an especially fascinating figure, one driven to create and follow his muse wherever it leads him.  His latest book is a collection of his webcomic Bodyworld, but he also talked about his previous book, The Bottomless Belly Button, his animated series The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D., and shorter works like illustrations of frat party pictures, and, in what provided an anecdote that was a real highlight of the panel, a short story adapting an episode of the reality TV series Blind Date.

Shaw became fascinated with said show for the way it provided real human moments, how even though the environment was false and the participants were aware of the structured nature of their activities and the presence of cameras, they still said and did things that were inexplicable and compelling.  When stripped of the "humorous" on-screen captions added in post-production, Shaw finds the show to be quite moving, and that was what he was striving to capture in his comic.  Discussion of this story led to a crazy story in which Shaw became obsessed with watching episodes of the show that were catalogued on Yahoo, categorizing them through bookmarks into folders according to moments that he found compelling.  And then, heartbreakingly, he discovered one day that the episodes had all been taken down, and since then, he has been on a quest to recover whatever episodes of the show he can find, asking contacts in the entertainment industry to send any that they can find or searching for episodes on Youtube in a seemingly-futile attempt to reconstruct his precious horde of examples of human emotion.  If possible, at some point in the future, he would like to do an entire book of Blind Date adaptations, and while that may remain a pipe dream for now, he is able to use random Youtube videos to approximate the Blind Date feeling and get inspiration for the composition of his drawings.

Shaw also described some of what he is currently interested in, such as the way working in animation has interested him in breaking down movement into increments and how the time-consuming work of creating the complex painted colors of Bodyworld led him to a more simple, old-school style in which he printed the line art of his work on acetate and painted the colors on the back of the sheets.  He showed the animated "trailer" that he created for The Bottomless Belly Button, which was what started him working in animation, and talked about the attempts to do non-realistic color work, using the colors to capture the emotional feel of the scene, especially when adapting things like Blind Date.

And then it was Ware's turn, and his descriptions of his were were equally fascinating.  His next release will be Acme Novelty Library #20, coming out later this year.  It has actually been finished for four months, but the cloth pattern Ware chose for the spine of the book adds six months to the production schedule.  The issue will be a chapter of the ongoing "Rusty Brown" story, focusing on Jordan Lint, the bully who spit in Rusty's glove (an incident that actually happened to Ware as a child).  He showed a number of pages from the volume, and described how each page shows only a few seconds from Lint's life, stretching from birth through death, in an attempt to get inside the character's head.  In typical self-deprecating fashion, Ware described the story as "woefully pretentious", but it looks to be another amazing example of his skill with the comics medium.  He also showed a cover he did for Fortune magazine which was supposed to be on the Fortune 500 issue.  He accepted the job because it would be like doing the 1929 issue of the magazine, and he filled the image with tons of satirical imagery, like the U.S. Treasuring being raided by Wall Street, China dumping money into the ocean, homes being flooded, homes being foreclosed, and CEOs dancing a jig while society devolves into chaos. The cover (which can be seen here), needless to say, was rejected.  Ware also had some animation of his own to show, a short Quimby the Mouse cartoon done for This American Life, which almost led to work on an animated series for HBO with animator John Kuramoto and the actor Jack Black, but the deal fell through (much to Ware's relief) when the economy collapsed.

When the creators were done talking about their own work, they began conversing about each other's comics, which made for some of the most fascinating discussion of the panel.  Ware and Shaw asked each other converse versions of the same question regarding the production of work; that is, how does Shaw get so much work done, and how can Ware put so much care into every aspect of his comics?  It may be a simple age difference, since Shaw is young and enthusiastic enough to keep trying new things and move on to the next part of his work even if he isn't completely satisfied with one portion of it.  Ware, on the other hand, has settled into his style, knowing exactly what he wants to do, and he slaves over it until it is perfect, although he is never sure if it is any good or not.  He said that the storytelling itself is completely intuitive, but the aspects of it are very meticulous.  In fact, when queried by Shaw about the flatness of his coloring, Ware stated that he wanted to completely remove the human element of the drawing, using the images as "ideagrams" that keeps readers' attention on the comics stories themselves rather than getting lost in the technique of how the drawing was made.  Shaw, on the other hand, was interested in quick and dirty comics-making, citing the recently released Yoshihiro Tatsumi book Black Blizzard as an example of a quickly-made comic that was not an especially good story, but was full of great storytelling.  Both creators agreed that editing themselves was one of the hardest parts of cartooning, deciding what to keep in and what to take out of each story they create.

All in all, it was an incredible, enlightening hour, a chance to see two masters examine their craft and inspire anyone listening with their creativity.  Each new work they release is something to pay attention to, something that pushes the medium forward, and getting to see their minds in action was a treat.  That may be difficult to convey in a description, but hopefully a rough summary is still of interest.  Whatever the case, it was just one example of the excellent comics-related content to be had at C2E2, something that makes me excited to be a comics fan.  I'll be awaiting their next releases, and hopefully appearances at future conventions, with excitement.