Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dot dot dot

I've had a week off since the office closed for the holidays, and it's been a huge novelty for me: eight whole days with few real demands on my time. This has been my chance to do something that often gets squished out of my hectic schedule: play. By this I mean play with different arty media, experiment, mess around for an hour here and there, without trying to cram as much of a project as possible into each day.

I must admit though that my "play" has been quite directed. I've been experimenting with different styles and different media for my Hamlet backgrounds. My initial idea was to paint large-ish canvases with acrylic paint and use them as backgrounds, but I've now tossed around other ideas involving watercolour, colour pencil, drawing in Photoshop, and finally, liquid acrylic inks. The backgrounds are looking far less realistic and much more textural and strange as I go along... and I'm enjoying the process immensely. I'm especially excited by the way little dots or other tiny patterns of colour seem to vibrate with vividness when placed next to other colours.

Here's a sketchbook sample done with Aquarell pencils (no water), inspired by pointillism:
When I tried to scan this, I discovered just how appallingly useless my scanner is - so this is a photo. Come new year, I'm getting a new whiz-bang replacement scanner (rubs hands like a fly).

And here's the thing I've been working on today - some little patterns in liquid acrylic ink. The brand isn't called Magic Color for nothing - it's brilliant stuff, and fantastically opaque.
The paler pink consists of hundreds (maybe thousands?) of tiny little concentric circles painted with a 0-size brush. Took me hours, and of course it is nowhere near finished yet. Ah, joy! Is it any wonder I have eyes like a tarsier?

As of 3 January we are off on holidays for a couple of weeks, so I probably won't blog again until later in January. Happy new year, all, and may 2008 bring you many vibrating colours!

Monday, December 24, 2007


Whew! The Big Squid's present is finally finished, just in time for Squidmas. And here it is - a papier mache armadillo.

This was a tricky beast to construct. Its body was made of a rectangular bit of styrofoam with hoops of wire to make the shape of its back. The head was a cone of stiff paper stuffed with scrunched newspaper, and pulled in with a pair of buttons sewn on to indent the eyes. The tail is a spiral of wire stuffed with paper, and the legs are pieces of cardboard cylinder (from toilet paper rolls). Feet and ears are heavy cardboard, and the toes are made 3D with plasticene. All this was held together with masking tape before beginning the messy business of the papier mache. I did the first few layers using PVA glue and newspaper, but subsequenly found that flour-and-water paste dries harder and is easier to use - though it is quite disgusting to touch. Mysteriously, my container of hygienically boiled paste also began to ferment after a day and started to smell like old beer... but fortunately the finished product is clean and dry and smells sweetly of acrylic paint.

The armadillo is only my second papier mache beastie. The first was my bat, which I did a couple of years ago:
It's been fun playing with the acrylic paints again, and I'm hoping to spend some more time over this holiday break experimenting with acrylic, watercolour and coloured pencil to try and pin down the right media for my Hamlet backgrounds. Right now I'm thinking of very strange, otherwordly "sets", and moving away from the original, more literal scenes... but we shall see...

Well, happy holidays all - and if I don't blog before new year's eve, here's wishing you much inspiration, happiness and fulfilment for the year to come.

Friday, December 21, 2007

2007 Reading Roundup

For the last four years, I've made a list in the front of my diary of all the books that I read during that year. Looking back on these lists is a real pleasure - it brings back a particular kind of memory of the "texture" of the year. It reminds me of the reading experiences that tickled my brain, sparked ideas and furthered interests, but also of what I was doing and how I was feeling at the time.

So although the year is not yet ended, and I may squeeze in another book yet, here's my 2007 reading roundup - in the order in which I read them. Don't worry - there are no spoilers.

Tourist Season (Carl Hiaasen) - Holiday fluff picked up in Apollo Bay. Ok, fluff with shards of glass in it, but fluff nonetheless.

Take a Girl Like You (Kingsley Amis) - Teeth-grindingly dull, irritating and horribly dated. I kept on hoping it might get better, because I loved Amis's Lucky Jim so much. It made me laugh uncontrollably. No such luck with this one though.

The Ancestor's Tale (Richard Dawkins) - Love love love. Rave rave rave. This book is a "backwards journey" through evolution, showing how and when we humans link up with every other living thing on earth. Last year I read The God Delusion which was a life-changing book: I was already an atheist, but The God Delusion made me want to stand up and be counted. The Ancestor's Tale is all science but is no less engrossing.

Hamlet (William Shakespeare) - I've been reading this repeatedly throughout the year - of course!

Will in the World (Stephen Greenblatt) - excellent book about Mr Shakespeare. Very little is known about the life of the Bard, and much has been written about the little that is known. This book is fascinating because it builds up a picture of what English life and society was like in Shakespeare's time, and then muses on how Shakespeare himself may have experienced it, and how this experience may have shaped his work. Imaginative history, and extremely engaging.

The Secret River (Kate Grenville) - gripping, revealing, evocative and pretty damn horrific.

Rumpole Rests His Case (John Mortimer) - the Big Squid is a huge Rumpole devotee, and swears by a dose of him for relaxing the frazzled brain. Especially timely after reading The Secret River.

The Arrival (Shaun Tan) - Love love love love. Rave rave... Genius.

The Patron Saint of Eels (Gregory Day) - this book made me groan - and not in a good way. I thought it was sentimental, heavy-handed, tedious and obvious. Nice cover (I am very partial to eels), but what a spectacularly annoying book.

Men and Cartoons (Jonathan Lethem) - Have to admit I can't remember a whole lot of this collection of short stories. I am a fan of Lethem's novels though - especially The Fortress of Solitude.

Black Swan Green (David Mitchell) - Mitchell's Cloud Atlas blew me away when I read it last year, so I had to turn up the receptors a bit for this more low-key, straightforward story. It was very good though, and the adolescent narrator's voice was extremely authentic - as was the meticulously remembered early 80s setting. The recent film This is England reminded me of Black Swan Green quite a bit. A terrific, wrenching film, incidentally.

Old Filth (Jane Gardam) - wonderful writing, some unexpected twists, and a fascinating glimpse into the lives of "Raj Orphans", the children of well-to-do expats sent "home" to England during the war - a place that was not home to them at all.

We need to talk about Kevin (Lionel Shriver) - a huge book, which has come back to my mind many times. It is highly contentious, and forces the reader to take sides, whether they want to or not. Brings out our judgemental side, and then (hopefully) makes us question it. Very powerful. There was an aspect (which I won't go into because it would spoil it) that made me feel that as a reader I was being seriously manipulated - an experience I don't like - but I'd still definitely recommend this one.

Notes from the Teenage Underground (Simmone Howell) - this is a "young adult" book sent to me by my editor at Pan Macmillan. I haven't read YA fiction since I was in my early teens, and find it hard to comment on it. This one seemed pretty good - aimed squarely at teen girls with arty/rebellious leanings. Wonder what I would have made of it as a teen?

Gravity (Scott Gardner) - YA fiction aimed at boys: drinking, responsibility, what to do with your life etc. Not my style of book - I was more a Catcher In the Rye-reading kind of teen. (Ok, that's the last of the YA stuff for the year).

Let the Right One In (John Ajvide Lindqvist) - Ohhhhhhhhh I ADORED this book! It's a horror story with vampires, but emphatically NOT of the world of cloaks, chalices, castles and all the other cliched accoutrements of fantasy. I will declare my bias right away - I hate fantasy novels. Anything with a wizard, a dragon, an ancient curse, a magical book, or a goddamn ring in it in it makes me want to go on an elf-stomping rampage. But this book is set in the grimy, super-realistic setting of a dormitory suburb in Stockholm, and the vampire is a dirty-looking little girl, the object of desire of a paedophile... Oh, and it's a love story too. A brilliant book - funny, hideous and so close to the edge you wonder how the hell Lindqvist did it. I can't wait for the movie - it'll be a scream.

Hotel Babylon (Imogen Edwards-Jones) - Total waste of time. Not even worth criticising.

The Brooklyn Follies (Paul Auster) - Big thumbs up - really enjoyed it.

The Bay of Noon (Shirley Hazzard) – I think Shirley Hazzard is great. Her writing reminds me of a wonderful watercolour painting where the artist makes it all look free and spontaneous – lots of luminous washes and subtle hues.

Happiness (Matthieu Ricard) - Life changing! I read it twice, making lots of notes. Ricard is a French super-scientist turned Buddhist monk. He explores scientific and Buddhist philosophical analyses of happiness and sets out some very useful meditation exercises for training your brain to promote wellbeing. I find the techniques extremely useful. My mate Andrew once told me that Buddhism was almost exactly the same as Cognitive Behavioual Therapy - and this book does draw many parallels. Highly recommended. Good for the life of the mind, and not faith-based at all.

Dead Europe (Christos Tsiolkas) - very disturbing and confronting. This book made me want to meet the author and ask him a lot of questions. I needed another dose of Rumpole after this one. But instead I read...

The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger) - Wonderful! Amazing! Where did I put that box of extra-special superlatives? An instant favourite book, which is a big call.

The Fate of the Artist (Eddie Campbell) - I read this in a rush, as I was due to meet Eddie for the first time that week, and didn't want to arrive in complete ignorance. It was a bit unnerving to meet a person after just having read about various intimate details of his life! Bittersweet-funny. I especially liked the adaptation of the O Henry story at the end.

From Hell (Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell) - Part 2 of my preparatory reading. Took me a good while to get into this - I initially found it very hard to read. An amazingly detailed, meticulously researched and creepy book.

The Black Diamond Detective Agency (Eddie Campbell) - I really enjoyed this. Gorgeous painting in gouache, and a rip-roaring story.

Pyongyang (Guy Delisle) - Fabulous fabulous fabulous. I loved every frame. This is Guy Delisle’s cartoon diary of a few months spent in the ultra-weird world of the North Korean capital city. A revelation. Funny and shocking and very sharp and true.

Unpolished Gem (Alice Pung) – memoir by Melbourne lawyer and writer, about growing up between two cultures and experiencing the pressures of both, set in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. Alice Pung was in hear early 20s when she wrote this – impressive.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon) – another instant favourite. You’ll think I’m just a big tart when it comes to favourite books, but seriously – it’s been a good year. Chabon is absolutely brilliant. Love love love… more love…

Shenzhen (Guy Delisle) – great stuff – though Pyongyang was even better.

After the Snooter (Eddie Campbell) – a little insect tells me this isn’t the last we’ll hear of this creature.

The Question of Hamlet (Harry Levin) – a slim volume packing huge insights. Excellent commentary, and invaluably helpful for my Hamlet adaptation. Yay for eBay, where I bought it.

Othello (William Shakespeare, adapted by Oscar Zarate) – an excellent cartoon adaptation. The faces reminded me a bit of Japanese masks – especially Iago. Rises wonderfully well to the drama and passion of the play. Some really nice layouts, and no annoying flashiness.

American Born Chinese (Gene Luen Yang) – I quite enjoyed this, though the interweaving of the “spiritual” monkey tales with a Christian bent didn’t do it for me. The slice of life parts were good though.

Understanding Comics (Scott McCloud) – I’d managed to put off reading this for years, and finally got down to it. Good stuff, which wouldn’t have seemed at all contentious to me until I encountered the Force That Is Campbell. It didn’t change my life, but then, I already do comics.

King Lear (William Shakespeare, adapted by Ian Pollock) – I’m still in two minds about this adaptation. The drawing style is wild and very creepy, and I like it a lot. But I think the interaction of the characters, and the “acting and direction” plodded a bit. My friend Greg described it as “claustrophobic”.

Rooftops (Mandy Ord) – see here for more.

Shakespearean Tragedy [part only] (A. C. Bradley) – apparently this used to be the standard school text for studying the Tragedies. Written in about 1909 (I think), it’s pretty stodgy stuff.

Persepolis I and II (Marjane Satrapi) – Great stuff – ashamed that I hadn’t read it sooner. It left me wanting to know more, more, more about the details and consequences of many of the episodes.

Modern Hamlets and their soliloquies (Mary Z Maher) – Fascinating. Again, an invaluable tool and a great prompt for looking at the character of Hamlet from different perspectives. Glad I read it when I was already well into the roughs though - it might have been overwhelming otherwise!

Now reading… The Human Mind [and how to make the most of it] (Robert Winston) – fascinating and thought-provoking popular science of the lighter, easier-to-read variety. Enjoying it very much.

So - any recommendations?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

From the control room

Well, my eyes are stretched completely out of shape and my hand is squinched up into a little claw, but I've done it - I've finished the roughs for Hamlet! The roughs come to 347 pages (all pencilled and inked!). The final work will be a bit longer, as there are a few parts I need to rework, but for the moment, I can end the year knowing that the roughs are sorted!

The last 13 pages were a killer - literally. This is where the Queen, the King, Laertes and Hamlet (in that order) all kick the bucket in tragic style. Hamlet took me more than five hours to die... it's no wonder I'm wrung out!

So, for a bit of recreation, here are a few photos of my drawing room (no, not a place for English ladies to take tea - I mean my little studio). I'm always fascinated to peek into other scribblers' workspaces, so I hope that if I post mine here, I might receive a few links to pictures of other people's messy desks, decorated walls and overflowing shelves...

Here goes:
Desk #1, where I draw. As you can see, no angled drawing board or ergonomic chair. I like a hard wooden chair to sit on. This is actually my first ever desk, which I must have got at age 6 or 7. Dad stuck a larger top on it when it became apparent that, even as a kid, I needed plenty of space to strew my mess over.

The enormous folder in the front is the Hamlet roughs. And at eye level on the wall is that lovely picture of Ginevra King.

Much-needed shelf space for all the odds and ends that don't fit into the bookcase.

The mysterious newspaper-pasted thing at the bottom is a work in progress, which I hope to complete before Squidmas. It's a large papier mache armadillo - I'm planning to give it to the Big Squid as a present. It was supposed to be a surprise, but you just try hiding a great big armadillo from your beloved... Actually, when Big Squid accidentally saw it he thought it was a pig - so there is still a small element of surprise involved.

And a couple of things from the walls...

Daisy with a lot of "test" nib strokes... and coffee! I love looking at roughs, tests and scribble pages, and try to hang onto as many as I can.

Here's part of my collection of saints, martyrs and other iconic-looking types. Bernini's Saint Teresa in Ecstasy (top left) is my favourite. In the middle and just to the left you can see that great tragic character, Withnail, as played by Richard E Grant. Sigh... Is it possible to watch him do Hamlet's "what a piece of work is a man" speech and not get a tear in the eye?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I tell thee, churlish priest -

Here's a snippet of one of my recent rough pages for Hamlet. It shows Laertes at his sister Ophelia's burial, pleading with the priest to give her a decent funeral service. The priest refuses, on the basis that Ophelia's death was "doubtful" - ie, she may have committed suicide.

In a subsequent panel we see Laertes lose his temper (just for a change) and tell the "churlish priest" that "a minist'ring angel shall my sister be when thou liest howling".

Noone really knows what Shakespeare's views on faith and religion were, but from his writing he doesn't appear to have been vociferously religious. Given England's merry-go-round of changes from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again that characterised his century, and all the attendant persecution of whoever wasn't on the right side at any given moment, I can imagine the clear-eyed Mr Shakespeare looking on and judging religion to be a terrible - and not very funny - joke. Though I would also accept the charge that I am at least partly projecting my own views onto him!

In any case, the priest in this scene gets no sympathy from Shakespeare. And I had a lot of fun with his portrayal as a dessicated, haughty-looking thing, obsessed with form and dogma and deaf to actual human suffering. Because my little creatures are actually actors playing the parts of the characters, I also decided to give the priest's role to the same actor who plays the second clown or gravedigger, just for a bit of fun. The gravediggers appear in the pages immediately preceding the funeral scene, so the rapid switch from "straight man" clown/workman to supercilious priest is all the more amusing. In rough form the gravediggers look like this:

The first gravedigger (who gets all the best lines) is partly inspired by my husband, the Big Squid. I like the idea that he is the only character in the play happily untouched by tragedy. But for the record, the Big Squid does not have three eyes, and is far more handsome than this!

Speaking of Hamlet adaptations, my mate Greg Gerrand, googler extraordinaire, recently sent me a link to yet another manga-style adaptation of Hamlet. Happily, it is better than the one that is out in the shops at the moment. The "Self-Made Hero Manga Hamlet is pretty horrible. It's set in the future/in space, which wouldn't necessarily bother me in itself, but I really cringed at how brutally it chops up the text. And the art... well, it's pretty ugly. Here's an excerpt from a review:

[the reviewer compares one of Hamlet's soliloquies with the chopped version in the Manga edition, and then writes:]

Shorn of the allusion to classical antiquity and the scathing critique of Elizabethean actors, Hamlet’s speech has been reduced to an action plan for gauging Claudius’ guilt. It’s a fair gloss on this very famous soliloquy, I guess, but one that misses the beauty and richness of Shakespeare’s language.

Perhaps these editorial decisions would be less distasteful if the artwork was well executed. Alas, poor Yorick, it’s awful. The panels are a jumbled mess; the characters’ appearances vary considerably from page to page; the figures are posed without regard for anatomy or proportion; and the backgrounds are virtually non-existent.


By now, I’m sure there are a few librarians, educators, or high school students who are reading this and thinking,
This woman just doesn’t get it. These books make Shakespeare accessible to students who might otherwise find the material too daunting. But to be useful as pedagogical tools, adaptations must illuminate an aspect of the original that’s difficult for modern audiences to understand. In the case of Shakespeare, it’s the language, not the basic plotlines, that poses difficulty for most readers. If your illustrations for, say, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech simply show him looking pensive, then you haven’t added anything of explanatory value to the original. [my emphasis - NG] Shakespeare is especially tricky in this regard because so much of the action takes place off stage. Reaction and reflection lend themselves nicely to soliloquies, but are difficult to capture in pictures. Students would be better served by renting a good filmed version of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet than reading these manga treatments, as a film not only shows us what’s happening, but allows us to hear the emotions and sentiments behind language that sometimes confounds modern ears.
I absolutely agree with this. The enormous challenge of adapting Shakespeare in illustrated form is to allow the incredibly rich language to sing, as it would on stage, and then to add something more in the visual interpretation - something that draws out the meaning of the words, conjures up ideas, and explores the allusions and echoes in the language. And of course, you want the characters to be personable and believable in themselves, in their emotions and in their interactions. This is a big ask - it's like mounting a stage or screen production, but with the huge limitation of being restricted to ink on a page, without the benefit of sound or real, continuous motion! To mention just two of the challenges, timing must be handled carefully, and layout and transition are extremely delicate juggling acts. There are, of course, ways in which an illustrated adaptation allows greater freedom than a stage adaptation, in that the "special effects" that you can add (showing what is happening inside people's minds, for example) are limitless. I am finding the process absolutely fascinating.

The new Manga Hamlet by Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja looks better than the Self-Made Hero one, from the few pages shown on this website. I must admit that the manga aesthetic is not really my cup of tea, but the art in this adaptation is definitely more appealing than the Self-Made Hero one. And the text seems to be less badly butchered. I'll be interested to have a read when it comes out.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ord Ord Ord!

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Mandy Ord's graphic novel, Rooftops.

Rooftops is published by local independent publisher Finlay Lloyd - and much kudos to them for doing a brilliant production job and presenting Mandy's beautiful work so well. The book is in an unusual format - not quite as wide as the usual paperback - which allows it to fit nicely in your hand, almost giving it the feel of a guidebook. And in a way it is like a secret guide to the Melbourne CBD, where most of the story takes place. Mandy's one-eyed protagonist scoots past landmarks big and little, from under the ground to high up above the rooftops, and her inky brush lingers on wonderful architectural details, giving them a chunky black, texture-filled feel.

Mandy is, of course, the queen of the mostly-black image (for those unfamiliar with her work - imagine a sort of woodcut effect, but done with a brush), and in this book the space around the panels is black too - an effect which I love. Far from looking claustrophobic, busy or gothic, Mandy's work always jumps off the page fresh and engaging and full of life, and this is no exception. Great cream paper and lush printing means that the black is really black too. Mmmmm....

The story is a curious one, dancing around questions of coincidence and what we make of it. In his joyously theatrical launching speech, Mr Bernard Caleo described coincidences as "the knots that tie the universe together", and those mysterious tangles are at the heart of Mandy's book. Don't worry - it's not mystic mumbo jumbo (Mandy also illustrates for Australian Rationalist!) but more a musing on the mysteries of connectedness - especially connectedness of the imagination/intellect.

A large slab of the book involves conversations between Mandy and her buddy Greg. Greg is rendered so extraordinarily true to life, that I was actually quite distracted by the unnerving accuracy of the portrait. As a result, I feel like I missed some important nuances in these parts of the book. This is no reflection on Mandy's storytelling - rather a compliment on her ability to capture a person on the page. So I think I need to give the book a few more readings so that I take better note of what is going on in these sections. I'd be really interested to hear how others (who don't know Greg) read these parts of the book.

All in all - recommended! And exciting, both in its own right and as another manifestation of non-comic publishers in Australia embracing the graphic novel form. Yippee!

While on the subject of mega-talented Melbourne artists, I've recently been enjoying the gorgeous blog of designer and crafty lady Sandra Eterovic. Since Mr Campbell's blog is "resting" at the moment, I've lost my favourite regular blog read - but I think I've now found a replacement. Sandra posts lots of pictures of her beautiful illustration and other art projects (textiles, collage, paintings, sculptures, drawings etc) and takes us through a little of the process of making them, including lots of pics of the various source materials that have inspired her.

Fabulous. More, please!