The webcomics blog about webcomics

Comics Camp: Sunday

I’ll be honest; Sunday started a bit stressfully for me; Pat Race had asked me to give a presentation on the history of webcomics, and I was in absolute terror it would devolve immediately into uselessness:

Hey, Ryan North? Remember when you pranked Wikipedia about chickens? That was great. And Kate Beaton, you did a comic where a duck said “Aw yiss”. That was great, too.

And to be honest, I have to this day little memory of what I actually said. I have notes, mind you, that say things like The first webcomics are about as easily identified as the first jazz or punk songs and (double-underlined) Algonquin Roundtablesque!!

I remember my main thesis being that webcomics (aside from being a useless term, but we haven’t come up with a better one yet) is less a medium of distribution and more of an attitude: creator ownership, minimal gatekeeping, merchandising on the back end for scrappy entrepreneurship. It’s an attitude whose technical and business rules are constantly changing, and whose only constant is the ease of collaboration. Not just between cartoonists, either; I remember this bit:

So one day I leave my offices at Bryant Park in Manhattan, and as I walk by the southern end of Times Square, I noticed a full-sized billboard advertising W00tstock 2.0; it’s portraits of a former child actor/writer, an SFX goofball that blows things up for science, a pair of internet musicians/pirate fetishists, and it’s all been done 8-bit style by a quasireclusive pixelsmith.

If Dorthy Parker got drunk with fewer writers and more sculptors, aviatrixes, and telegraphers you’d approximate the degree of cross-media collaboration you have going on now. Instead, you’ve got Marian [Call] including NASA mission controllers in her shows and Molly Lewis gets hired by quasi-respectable party game designers to write a Christmas song about a Hawai’ian goddess with a flying vagina¹ because why the hell not.

Shortly after that, I shifted away from talking and turned it into a discussion session, getting people to share what they saw webcomics as, where they started, what their experiences were; considering that the room contained the likes of Kazu Kibuishi and Ryan North, it seemed a pretty good course to follow. Fortunately, the invaluable Jason Alderman did his thing and sketch-noted the session²; if you follow his twitter, you’ve seen these before when he attends sessions at various conferences. He doesn’t just take notes, he renders the speakers and finds their key points in real time, turning them into the most beautiful recaps imaginable. When you meet him, demand to look through his notebook, because you will very quickly get smarter on a wide variety of topics.

It was a good time; people went out of their way to thank me for the discussion later, and having the first time slot meant I was able to relax for the remainder of Camp … thanks, Pat! Even better, I got to see the next session, where Jeremy Spake and Georgina Hayns (mentioned yesterday) brought out the puppets and armature they’d shown at the Mini-Con, and really got down to details with us. For 90 glorious minutes we learned about fabrication, the CNC and 3D printing techniques used to construct the puppets³, and had our minds blown by the intricate details. Much more about this down in the photos section. Let me just leave you with a quick thought, though — when the stop-motion needs to look especially smooth, there are variant puppets with multiple limbs or whatever so that, say, an arm can be in multiple places at the same time. It’s the stop-motion equivalent of smear animation.

At lunch, I learned just how different life in Alaska can be; Sarah told me about living on an island approximately 100 km west of Juneau, where a fortunate quirk of geography allows a straight line of sight to a cell tower that provides enough internet to permit a freelancer’s life. She consults on land use and conservation policy, mixed with teaching art and movement. The nearest neighbors are 5 km away, and overwintering is a matter of personal choice and preparation. If the apocalypse ever comes, I want to convince her that I’d somehow be useful to her because she represents my best chance at survival.

Figure drawing took up a chunk of the afternoon, as did various project noodlings. Alderman brought along a little hand-cranked music box mechanism and a set of paper sheets that could be punched with holes to specify what notes would be played; think a very small player piano4. Call punched one of her songs into a strip and then wondered if it was possible to turn that into a Moebius song. Turns out it was, and the very quiet music became nicely amplified if the mechanism was held firmly against the body of one of the many camp ukuleles. Did I mention that there were 40 ukes delivered to Camp, leading many to take up the instrument? Because that happened.

Raina Telgemeier taught about how to present and get paid to do so; Tony Cliff showed how to snazz up those presentations with fancy flying transitions. Dinner featured the most nutritious cut of steak, and my turn at clean-up meant I missed much of the most significant session of the weekend as Cliff convened the Pacific Order of Onomatopoeia Professionals’ First Annual Regional Terminology Summit5 to decide once and for all how to spell certain sounds in comics. Suggestions were gathered, voting was conducted6, and Cliff released the final results [PDF] a couple of days ago. Comics creators, please note that the results linked to are definitive, official, and must be used as shown on pain of looking very foolish.

The last program of the night was the most insanely creative thing I’ve ever been involved in, but I’m going to be purposefully vague; as I mentioned at the start of these recaps, some things that took place at Comics Camp can — should? may? — only exist in the context of the time and place they took place. To delve into them too deeply is to rob them of meaning.

So it was as we gathered to create a musical — a main character was brainstormed, the introductory, “I Want”, villain, and emotional turning point songs were outlined, and we broke into four groups to actually write the damn things. I will show you in the photos section some wisdom from Marian Call, who shared her process for getting that first line of a song written; I think her technique applies to nearly any creative endeavour. Ultimately, I contributed two titles7 and one good line8.

Just about an hour from the start of the exercise, The Doubleclicks started playing the first song and the others followed as quickly as one musician could sit down and the next stand up. I am being completely honest with you when I tell you that more than one of them has been rattling around in my brain near continuously ever since; they are legitimately that sticky. Surprising everybody and nobody, there was a Hamilton-style rap from Pat Race.

I called it early that night, and so it wasn’t until the next morning I learned the anticipated northern lights were thwarted by cloud cover, but Ben Hatke mitigated the disappointment by teaching people how to breathe fire. In case you ever wondered what mineral oil tastes like, about half the Campers can tell you.

Photos

  • Along with everything else, Jason Alderman’s handwriting is extraordinarily neat. Sketchnotes of my talk on the history of modern [web]comics.
  • To start our deep dive in the Laika’s finest, let me note that it’s possible to take a photo where just about everybody’s eyes are closed. From left: Jeremy, Kubo, Kubo’s internal armature, Beetle, George, Monkey, Sarah, Kazu.
  • The puppets all start with an internal armature; here you have a full-dressed Kubo and his internal structure. You can’t see it but it’s got tensioning screws for each and every joint except for the fingers and the jaw. The fingers don’t have metal inside (too small), but are fully poseable. The jaw isn’t jointed, but implied by the shape of the face plates.
  • Okay: faces. They each consist of an upper half and a lower half; they allow for different mouth positions and expressions, and they pop right off. High strength miniature magnets hold the plates in place, and each piece is inscribed with a unique serial number describing exactly what it is. Popping off just the upper face gives access to the eyes and eyelids, which can be individually positioned however you like. Here’s a better shot of the upper and lower eyelids.
  • With the face plates in place, seams are still potentially visible — as here, in the bridge of Kubo’s nose — which are removed digitally. George mentioned that on Coraline, Henry Selick argued strongly to leave the seams in, as an acknowledgment of the physical nature of the stop motion creative process.
  • The models themselves hide access points for tensioning their armatures, and connection sockets for when the model must be supported externally due to posing; in Kubo or Monkey, it’s under clothing or fur. In Beetle, there are little pop-off panels and bits of cloth where joints meet. Monkey’s fur is made from a four-way stretch fabric which has been impregnated with a silicone; it stays where you pose it. Kubo’s hair is human hair, likewise laced with silicone for posing.
  • I’ve over-lit this shot so you can get a good look at the clothing; Hayns said that cloth is a particular challenge because it doesn’t look right at scale without significant effort.
  • Everything on these models is poseable. Beetle’s six limbs can move widely enough to draw his bow, for instance. It’s not a different model or a different bow. We were all very careful in positioning the models, despite the fact that they’re meant to stand up to significant wear and rough handling. There’s just so much care in their construction, we couldn’t treat them cavalierly; they are legitimate works of art and the highest craftsmanship.
  • Figure drawing; the fellow providing that rock-solid five minute pose (!) is Khail Ballard, and you should read his stuff. Ballard also played the lead in that night’s musical.
  • You thought I was kidding about the ukes, didn’t you?
  • Voting underway in the wake of the POoOP FARTS debate.
  • How to get to that first line, by Marian Call. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot.

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¹ The fact that I got to nod at Molly Lewis while saying that last part is a highlight of my life.

² Bonus: preliminary sketches of the library kickoff show!

³ Of which there are potentially dozens of each character — and each animator has a precise preference about how much tension there is in the articulation, which presents design challenges you can scarcely conceive of.

4 A discussion of which led to me holding forth on one of my favorite topics — how Hedy Lamarr used player-piano rolls to defeat the Axis in World War II and at the same time invented frequency-hopping spread spectrum, which makes your cell phone possible.

5 I’ll wait.

6 While I did not make any spelling suggestions, I did exercise my voting rights.

7 The “I Want” song, Proof, and the villain song, Sweet, Sweet Untraceable Cash.

8 Near the end of the first verse of Proof; the music for that song was all Marian Call, the remainder of the lyrics were by her, North, Telgemeier, and Hollis Kitchin, who runs the best bra shop in Juneau. Other groups were headed up by the Webber sisters, Lewis, and Seth Boyer.

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