Friday, December 26, 2008

2008 reading roundup

Oh boy... the new year already... and I have been neglecting the blogging. Blame Hamlet, who has me in his terrible grip and is progressing nicely - I have now passed the half-way mark, and have a mere 200 pages still to do!

Hamlet is also responsible for the much shorter list of Books I've Read this year. Not because the drawing has been eating into my reading time, but because I've spent a lot of the page-turning hours with the extremely hefty (900-page plus) The Masks of Hamlet by Marvin Rosenberg. This is definitely one for the freaks and enthusiasts - it goes through every line and every moment in the play and looks at how different actors, directors, critics and academics have interpreted it, with a focus on performance. It's actually very conversational and readable, and allows a little peek into hundreds of performances that we'd never be able to see in real life. I'm still ploughing through it. But in between scenes, here's what I've been reading for fun:

The Other Boleyn Girl - Philippa Gregory
Holiday fluff which I read in Byron Bay. It was very drawn out and probably quite formulaic (hard to say as I rarely read this genre), but I have to admit - totally unputdownable!

Prochownik's Dream - Alex Miller
I enjoyed this, especially in the way that it explored the creative process of the main character, a painter. It was one of those books where I didn't like any of the characters very much (apart from the painter's deceased father, whom the painter is a bit tediously obsessed with), but the writing was beautiful and the evocation of Melbourne was great.

Heartland - Neil Cross
I met Neil Cross this year at the Perth Writers Festival, and all too briefly. He seemed like a fascinating person, and very modestly described his work as "just writing thrillers". Of course he's actually a superstar. As well as writing books, he also writes for the British TV show "Spooks". So when he told me that his latest book was a memoir about growing up with a very disturbing family - and particularly his sociopathic stepfather - I was intrigued. I haven't read any of the growing mass of "my terrible childhood" books, and wouldn't ordinarily be drawn to that side of the biography section, but I'm glad I read this one. The book was gripping, engagingly written and completely un-melodramatic, though it was certainly quite disturbing. Something that really impressed me was how the writer survived all this not as a self-pitying, "deserving victim", but as a compassionate person of humour and wisdom - and talent. This wasn't just a book by someone who'd had terrible experiences - it was a book by an excellent writer, and that surely makes all the difference. I was impressed by how he could realistically show and examine the reactions of a young child - not of an idealised little angel, but a real kid - to the truly incomprehensible behaviour of the adults closest to him.

Mister Pip - Lloyd Jones
Very good, deserving of all the accolades - and also very horrible. Recounts atrocities in a terrifying clear, simple voice.

Requiem for a Beast
- Matt Ottley
Extremely impressive - see here for more.

King Dork - Frank Portman
Well, I'm in two minds about this one. It was a very entertaining and funny and sharp-witted look at the hideousness of the teenage social jungle. It had a fuck-you smart-arsedness that I really liked, and a wild ride of a plot. But it was also horribly cynical, especially in the teenage narrator's sneering dismissal of anyone who happened to be a baby boomer. Ok, the boomers have plenty to answer for as a group, but the relentless lack of generosity of spirit in this book left a bad taste in my mouth. I really couldn't tell if the intended readership (alienated teens, which I suppose is most of us, deep down) was supposed to look critically at the narrator or to side with him wholeheartedly. I couldn't help feeling that we were supposed to love this underdog unreservedly in spite of his obvious flaws, and that if we should take exception to any aspect of his snotty dismissiveness, then we'd automatically be on the wrong side, along with those contemptible boomers. I do recommend this one though.

With Nails - Richard E Grant
Wonderful! Richard E Grant's film diaries are a fabulous read, even if you have no great interest in Hollywood gossip. The best part for me is of course the chapter on Withnail & I - my favourite film of all time, and the one that made REG's career.

The Hamlet Diary - Mark Kilmurry
An actor prepares for the role and takes us through his process. Interesting adddition to my Hamlet reading.

Archy and Mehitabel - Don Marquis (illustrated by George Herriman)
Gorgeous - an instant favourite. Marquis wrote these poignant and funny and sad little poems as a newspaper serial in the 30s. Archy the cockroach dives head-first onto one typewriter key at a time to give us his musings on life, reports of his gallivanting alley cat friend, Mehitabel, and requests for something better to eat than stale paste.

Tales from Outer Suburbia - Shaun Tan
Another masterpiece from Mr Tan. Love love, rave rave. My favourite is the story called "Erik" about a very little exchange student. Go out and get a copy of this stunning book!!

Justine - Lawrence Durrell
This is a hot contender for the most tedious, turgid, dull and irritating book I've read in years. It was almost as dull as Take a Girl Like You (last year's clear winner), but far more self-important, self-indulgent and muddy in its prose. I will be giving this Durrell a wide, wide swerve from now on.

Hamlet: Poem Unlimited - Harold Bloom
According to Hamlet expert Professor Boom, not only is the play a work of genius, but Hamlet-the-character is a genius beyond Shakespeare himself. Bloom reckons that the character has such a life and mind of his own that he goes beyond his author and becomes bigger, greater and smarter than the man who created him, with insights beyond the author's own. This is a tricky proposition, but Bloom is a persuasive kind of guy - and one with opinions to spare. No fence-sitting multiple interpretations (or "polyphonies", as Rosenberg nicely puts it) for Bloom: he is dead certain about every aspect of Hamlet's character and behaviour. Perhaps a teensy bit arrogantly so! A stimulating read, and good for an argument.

Awakenings - Oliver Sacks
Fascinating stuff, and another reminder about just how fragile and subjective our experience of reality really is.

The Red Shoe - Ursula Dubosarsky
Aimed at kids / young adults, but definitely not a "kiddy book". Written with a light touch, haunting and subtle. Great cover by the fabulous Zoe Sadokierski.

The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard - Dan Best and Eddie Campbell
Fabulous! Wonderful! See here for more.

Moab is my washpot - Stephen Fry
A terrific memoir, very funny and self-deprecating and witty. Stephen Fry is a hell of a smart guy. The memoir covers his school days, just up to the point of embarking on his further studies, and it leaves me wanting to know more. Gives us a peek into the weird, weird world of English public schools. The book is full of little asides where Fry gives us his opinions on all kinds of things, in no uncertain terms.

The City of Falling Angels - John Berendt
A look into the intrigues and mysteries of Venice, based around an investigation into the suspicious fire that destroyed the Fenice theatre. I read it during our visit to Venice, and it did confirm my feeling about the place: that it is a closed city, whose "real life" is completely barred to the unwelcome strangers who come to visit. We felt completely shut out in Venice - even belligerently so - a completely different experience from any other place I've visited.

The Scheme for Full Employment - Magnus Mills
Hilarious! A satire on schemes to keep people occupied and working - no matter how pointless that work may be, and on attitudes to working and shirking. Even funnier when we realised that half the staff at Heathrow Airport appeared to actually be on "The Scheme".

The Ministry of Special Cases - Nathan Englander
Very distressing, but very very good. Brace yourself for this one - it is about young people who are "disappeared" under the dictatorship in Argentina, and their families' endless attempts to find them.

The Broken Shore - Peter Temple
A really goood cop/crime story set somewhere on the rugged Victorian coast. A great plot with a social conscience. The protagonist has two beloved dogs - large black poodles - and I was relieved that there were no cheap attempts at terror involving the dogs being hurt or menaced.

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga
Oooh yes, this was excellent. I loved it. Very smart, and very revealing of the flip-side of Indian society and its economic boom.

The Slap - Christos Tsiolkas
A fabulous read - and extremely close to the bone. I have no doubt everyone will be talking about this one. Set here and now, in inner Melbourne (quite near our place, actually) it starts at a suburban barbecue where one man slaps a bratty child, who is not his own. The consequences unfold through chapters each told from a different character's point of view, and the thing about these characters is that you know them all. Ok, not precisely, but they all show traits of thought and speech and behaviour that you will recognise from someone you know - maybe even from yourself, if you're honest about it. Tsiolkas is amazing in the way that he gets inside these characters and show us feelings and attitudes and reactions that we rarely own up to, but which often lurk inside us. Many of the characters are unlikeable and behave appallingly, but Tsiolkas asks us to suspend judgement just a little and try to see how they got to be that way. Really great stuff.

What Was Lost - Catherine O'Flynn
Another terrific read - I gobbled it up in an afternoon. Evil doings, loss and loneliness and a really skilfully constructed mystery around a horrible English shopping mall. I have an absolute loathing of shopping centres (richly confirmed recently by my third ever - and definitely my final - visit to the Monstrosity That Is Northland) and this book strips the whole edifice bare, showing us the grim service tunnels behind and beneath the muzak and gleaming storefronts.

Two Caravans - Marina Lewycka
A great note on which to end the reading year. This one begins with a bunch of not-quite-legal migrant workers thrown together on a dodgy strawberry-picking job in the English countryside. They are from the Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Malaysia, China and Nigeria, and England is out to use, squeeze, and exploit them - and otherwise pretend that they don't exist. A wake-up call about where our cheap food really comes from - and also a funny and touching story about people just trying to get along and pursue their hopes in a new place and with one another.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

To be, baby, to be!

No, we didn't run off to Paris and never come back - much as we fantasised about such a plan of action. Between the killer currency conversion menacing us abroad and the little creatures awaiting us at home, a spot of absconding was not really on the agenda. The loveliest part about coming home (apart from the truly ecstatic reaction of the Pupster) is that I have somehow managed to retain the relaxing effects of a wonderful holiday. And it's Spring!

Not that this relaxation means any slacking off on Hamlet. Since coming back, I've been working madly, madly, madly on it. And as I've been approaching the whirlpool centre of the play, stuff like blogging tends to fall off a bit. Sorry about that. Thanks to Nathalie for reminding me to post!

So the Hamlet tally is: 181 pages (and four soliloquies) down; with approximately 240 pages (and exactly four soliloquies - three for Hamlet, one for the King) to go. The super news is - I've done The Big One. The most famous piece of dramatic speech ever. "To be, or not to be". The fourth soliloquy - the goddamn Question! Yowie.

It was thrilling. It really was one of the most exciting scribbling experiences I've ever had, if not the most exciting. I spent two and a half days (and by "days" I mean 11-hour marathons) executing the ten pages of the soliloquy - with frequent bouts of pacing, posing, gurning and grimacing, talking to myself, leaping about to let off steam and "yes!"-ing. But this was, of course, the tip of the iceberg. There was a hell of a lot of planning, roughs, notes, reading and so on that shaped it before I approached the final drawings. I'd come up with the basic idea about a year ago, but refined it and rethought it and changed my mind almost as often as the Dane himself, before I finally came up with just what I wanted.

"Performing" the soliloquies on the page is a fascinating process. As always, I want the pictures to add something significant to every phrase, so there is no question of just letting the character pace up and down making faces and gesticulating while he "speaks" the lines. What a waste that would be. There has to be something more - something that unpacks and illuminates and even interrogates the words of the soliloquy.

On the stage an actor can do so much of this with voice, delving into the inexhaustible toolbox of volume, emphasis, tone, modulation, facial movement, timing, rhythm, verse-speaking, inflection, and of course, silences or pauses. Add movement to this, and the on-stage possibilities are limitless. On the page, though, we have neither sound nor real time movement at our disposal. What a challenge!

So what I aim to do - and not only in the soliloquies - is exploit the special devices that are unique to the graphic medium, to achieve a different kind of drama. These devices can be very broadly bundled into two types, which are inextricably linked and overlap: composition (the layout of the page, the character placement, the shape and location of speech bubbles, the way the panels combine and interact etc) and content (including the cool stuff that you can do on a page, but which would be difficult or impossible to achieve in "real life" with its pesky space-time constraints). Tied up with this is my own favourite scribbling activity, which is all about making the structure of the book, the page and the frames themselves part of the storytelling. Characters use or push against the boundaries of the frames, objects (and characters) tumble down the page from one frame into another, and terrifying things menace us from the darkness outside the panel borders. In some instances, turning a page even shows you what is happening "behind" it. Ooh, I love that stuff!

The soliloquy is too fresh and "just-out-of-the-oven" for me to post any snippets here. In fact, I'm even coy about posting a picture of Our Hamlet at this stage. So instead I've posted a little peek at Ophelia being admonished by her pain-in-the-arse father - because I feel bad being such a tease and not showing any of the goodies.

This week Ophelia gets even more trauma as we get into what I consider the hardest scene of the play. The mad, bad, "Get thee to a nunnery" scene. Hamlet and I have to spend the next ten pages or so tearing this sweet Ophelia creature to tatters. Juggling love, disappointment, fury, disgust, sadness, betrayal, desire, judgement, confusion, suspicion, sexual nausea, self-loathing, regret - all this while toying with one's sanity. I am going to have to dig deep for this one.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Away!

Tomorrow we scoot off overseas for a month of marvellous adventures, so things will be pretty quiet here in the Ink Bottle until about mid-October. We leave home and beloved creatures in the capable hands of our good friend Toby.

It is truly a shame that Horace - sporting his new & extremely chic haircut - won't be padding the footpaths of Paris with us and communing with his poodle brethren in their natural environment: the inside of swanky restaurants. I'm sure he speaks with a French accent already.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard

La Bug writes from the feverish depths of a hideous flu crossed with chest infection, and is feeling very much less than amazing at the moment. But in my usual "immediate!-No-this-can't-wait!" way (which is possibly what got me into this mess in the first place) I am compelled to get up for a teensy moment to tell anyone who will listen:

Go and get yourself a copy of Eddie Campbell & Dan Best's new book, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard!

It is absolutely magnificent. Wonderful, funny and moving story. Fabulous characters (the bear is my favourite). Sublime watercolour (or gouache? or a mix?). Layouts that are super-clever in understated ways, and twists that are audacious in over-the-big-top "how did they pull that off?" ways. I loved it. I'm so glad there are books like this in the world.

Ok, that's enough from me. We go overseas in 6 days, and I damn well better get better before then.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Congratulations to Matt Ottley - CBC award for Requiem for a Beast

Congratulations to Matt Ottley, whose powerful book, Requiem for a Beast, has just won the Children's Book Council award for Best Picture Book here in Australia.

Requiem for a Beast tells a wrenching and deeply personal story of a young man who goes outback to work as a stockman, where he tries to come to terms with his family's past, the terrible treatment of indigenous Australians, and his own internal conflicts. The story is told in words and pictures, sometimes separately and sometimes in combination, and also in haunting music: it includes a CD composed by the author, to be played while reading the book.

It's a challenging book to read because of the disturbing nature of the story it tells, and the sense of impending horror that pervades it. But it is not all bleakness - Matt Ottley's glorious oil paintings are a song to the beauty of the Australian landscape, and there is hope for reconciliation, for human goodness, in the story as well. I think it's a hugely well-deserved prize.

But - surprise surprise - the judges' choice has attracted a frazzle of controversy. I haven't followed it terribly closely, but it appears that the complainers are up in arms because the book contains explicit language and themes unsuitable for young children. See this article for example, where a commentator is quoted saying:
"There is no warning. There is nothing on this book which says it contains things that may not be appropriate for children. All there is is the big gold star from the Children's Book Council, which most parents will take as a recommendation".
Now this strikes me as not only silly, but lazy as well. Matt Ottley's book is aimed at adults and older children (who are still children, just not the the smaller variety). It is not aimed at the younger age groups, as any parent, teacher or librarian can tell by simply looking at the blurb, or flicking open any page of the book. But the commentator's assumption is that a picture book - especially if it wins a prize - ought to be presumed suitable for young children, unless clearly indicated otherwise with a big warning sticker on the cover.

This assumption suggests two things to me:

First, an unwillingness to take responsibility when choosing books for one's children. If you are going to borrow or purchase a book for a child, surely you should have a quick look at it first, and decide whether you think that (a) it will appeal to the kid in question; and (b) it is appropriate to their age and level of understanding. If you abrogate this responsibility, it is a bit rich to complain that nobody else picked up your slack by warning you about what was plain to see - if you had cared to look.

Secondly, this attitude suggests real ignorance about the huge developments in picture books for older readers. You just can't assume that all picture books are aimed at littl'uns, any more than you can assume that all TV cartoons are suitable for this audience. Where was this person when The Arrival swept numerous awards in both children's and general book categories?

At the heart of this silly moral panic is something I find particularly tiresome. It's a proprietorial belief that the literary space of picture books is a protected zone solely for young children - and therefore if you dare to "pervert" that space by making a picture book (or one of those degenerate "comic books") that isn't suitable for younger kids, then it is your responsibility to protect them - and apparently their parents - from the risk of stumbling across your "dirty" work.

Too ridiculous for words... let alone for pictures!

Onward Matt Ottley!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

More Melbourne, more books, more Gatsby!


That local comic book hero Bernard Caleo is at it again. Or should I say, he's been at it constantly for at least ten years and shows no signs of slowing. Here's an article he wrote recently for Laneway online magazine about the flourishing of Melbourne comic art: Melbourne, home of the comic.

And since Melbourne has just been named the second ever UNESCO World City of Literature, it seems to be a very fortuitous time for us picture/word lit people to keep pouring ink onto our little Melbourne garden and bringing the produce to market. People are broadening their tastes, and realising that there's room in the lit-city for all kinds of books - not just the word-only variety.

I am further encouraged in my optimism because... Gatsby is being reprinted!! Very exciting indeed. It'll be in the shops next year, all dressed up in another gorgeous cover by the brilliant Ms Zoe Sadokierski. Yippee!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My brush pen has been busy...

Last week I showed a few pages from Hamlet at a conference called "Multiliteracies". I was on a panel with Shaun Tan and Bruce Mutard, moderated by the fabulous Erica Wagner of Allen & Unwin, and we were talking about graphic novels (of course!). Good fun, and as always more ideas than we could cram into the allotted time.

So, now that I've shown a few pages in public, I (finally) feel ready to reveal a tiny glimpse on the blog. Only a tiny glimpse though! Here's Polonius, popping out in our faces.
I'm really pleased with the torn paper - and yes, it is "real" - scanned in a delicate balancing arrangement so as not to squash the little "petals", then tidied and colour-corrected on Photoshop. Oooh, I love doing collage. And even though there are no actual scissors and glue involved here, it's still lots of fun.

There's a fair bit of sitting around waiting for the computer to process some of the larger images in Hamlet. For example, getting my 1200 dpi scans of the black ink-work into the right spot on a 300dpi page involves a 5 minute "transform" process. What's an impatient girl like me to do during such an enormous stretch of empty time? I can't resort to the internet, because that crashes Photoshop during a transform. So instead I play with my biggest brush pen, and fool about with creatures like this:
But more often, I must admit, I'm distracted by other creatures!
Awwwww!!!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Bell Shakespeare's Hamlet

Last night we went to see the Bell Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet at the Arts Centre Playhouse. It was excellent. And after more than a year of being mentally immersed in the play on paper (and on screen), it was a pretty mindblowing experience to see it done so well on stage. I can't stop thinking about it, weighing its interpretations against my own, and interrogating both the performance and, perhaps even more vigorously, my reactions to it.

It was a very intimate edit of the play. The political dimension (including Fortinbras, Laertes' rebellion etc) was almost entirely excised and there were no "lords attendant" except for Osric. It was confined to a tight family drama, but this was plumbed very deeply, and was extremely satisfying.

Even without the political dimension (which I love for its widening of the story and added layer of menace, and which I'm not cutting in my book), Colin Moody's Claudius was the consummate politician. He was brilliant. To my mind, he was the best character in this production - impressive without being bombastic, subtle and smooth and even likeable at first - comb-over, pot belly and all. This makes his evil side all the more chilling as it emerges. He made me think of a capable, clever, charismatic politician whom we trust, but whom we discover - to our distress - has been corrupt all along. I actually wanted him to be as good a man as he initially seemed to be. He was such a real human being, with such an apparent mix of good and bad, that I actually felt sorry for him during his "O my offence is rank" soliloquy. It was a revelation to me, as I tend to imagine the King as much more of a straight baddie, seeing him from the outset through Hamlet's eyes.

As much as I liked Claudius - and liked him against my will - it was pretty hard for me to like Brendan Cowell's Hamlet. And this was also very confronting, because I am quite in love with the character, and also because I identify with him very strongly. Paul Gross's character in Slings & Arrows fulfilled all my Hamlet needs by tapping into those two things perfectly! But Brendan Cowell played him as a very modern spoiled brat pop star type. His cadences of speech were interesting, often suggesting rap rhythms and inflections - a sneering hip hop performance poet - and he tossed them off with physical gestures that called to mind baggy jeans and gangsta attitude, though often this was ironic. I half expected him to jeeringly call Rosencrantz and Guildenstern his homeboys.

Because I am so engaged with Hamlet-the-man at the moment, I initially found it very hard to adjust to a playing of the role that was so vastly different to any of my own imaginings. I had to keep reminding myself that this Hamlet need not be anything like my idea of Hamlet to be a good Hamlet. But I sometimes found it hard to lose myself in Brendan Cowell's super-sarcastic irritating prince. I found him engaging and believable and very funny, and I really appreciated the innovative, interesting, varied, unpredictable and energetic take on the role. But I didn't feel that his woes were my woes. I wasn't entirely with him, as I wanted to be. But then there were some special moments where he hit notes which resonated wonderfully with me. This happened most strongly during the "What a piece of work is a man" speech. The notes played directly into my heart, and I loved it. This is probably my favourite speech of the play, and I'm hard to please on it because I have Withnail's bitter tirade of it so powerfully in my head. But I loved Brendan Cowell's playing of it.

One of my other favourite parts is the first soliloquy - "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt". I didn't love Cowell's interpretation of this, though. At the beginning of the play I felt he was at the height of his petulance and already a bit over-antic, and this turned me off. But I warmed up to him very much in the second soliloquy, and I thought he was absolutely terrific in the "get thee to a nunnery" scene - a great balance of love, regret, fury, scorn, disgust - wounded and wounding all at once. This is a scene that I know I will find tricky to pace and modulate in my book - it has a number of buildups and peaks and I imagine that it's a really hard scene to play well. But he pulled it off wonderfully.

I could go on and on: exploring the differences in interpretation was completely engrossing for me. But I'll limit myself to one more general observation about this Hamlet. As the duel played out and the end drew near, I found myself wondering if Fortinbras was going to appear at the end. I almost hoped not, because I thought that his line about Hamlet, that "had he been put on he would have proved most royal" would be a big fat lie. This Hamlet didn't ever, to my mind, show even a hint that given the chance he would have been a great king. I wouldn't have entrusted my house to him for the weekend, let alone the kingdom of Denmark! So in the end, when Fortinbras did appear and spoke the line, I was left with the feeling that some important notes really were missing in this rendering of Hamlet. I don't think he should be an ideal prince, but I think he needs a suggestion of honour and dignity and princely capability, even if does get all jangled out of tune and harsh.

Hamlet's interactions with other characters were extremely entertaining, especially the hilarious (and endearing!) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - the poor sods - played by Tim Richards and Matthew Whittet. And with Polonius, who was played with the most wonderful comedy - seemingly effortlessly - by Barry Otto. I started to beam every time he fired up - it was like getting a series of lovely surprise bowls of cherries in the middle of your meal!

I also loved the interaction between Hamlet and Gertrude. They didn't flog the whole Oedipal angle (what a relief), which makes it genuinely shocking when he pulls her legs apart and simulates raping her in the closet scene. I felt real revulsion in this scene - partly in sympathy with Hamlet and against Gertrude, but more in reaction to Hamlet and his ugly behaviour. The chemistry between them was excellent throughout the play and never overdone, and Gertrude had a terrific presence. She was a great complement to Claudius, and very subtly played. Marvin Rosenberg (author of the brilliant book The Masks of Hamlet) points out that Gertrude has very few lines in the play, and must use presence, gesture and physical expression to convey her character. I thought Heather Mitchell did this wonderfully. Not simpering or mentally weak, but kind and thoughtful and generous of spirit yet ultimately self-serving, self-justifying and flawed by a moral weakness.

By contrast, Ophelia (Laura Brent) was a rather pale presence. Big Squid, who had not seen the play before and knew the story only roughly, commented that she didn't have a very big part and asked if a lot of her scenes had been cut. But they hadn't - she just didn't impress as being very much there. This sidelining might have been intentional, but I like to think of Ophelia as a bit more central, being tugged in all directions by the men around her. In my book she is a "fuller" sort of character, wrestling with her own sexual desires and inhibitions. Instead of being so prim as to almost deny having a body, I see Ophelia as endowed with perky boobs and a round bottom, simultaneously pleased with her lovely young body and unsettled by all the attention it brings her, the desire it makes her feel and prohibitions and shame that attach to it. Even if Hamlet is 30, she is probably only about 16 in my mind, and subject to all its uncertainty and excitement. None of this was apparent to me in the buttoned-down Ophelia in this production - though there was some promising backchat in her dialogue with Laertes (I liked Laertes too) at the start, and her mad scene was good.

The Ghost, on the other hand, was very much there, though I did find it hard to get used to the fact that the characters who were meant to be transfixed by him didn't face him at all, but faced the audience instead. He was played with real scare-factor, like a decomposing zombie complete with horrible gumming mouth movements, by Russell Kiefel, who also played the Gravedigger and an Ambassador. And when he spoke to Hamlet, he was scary - not in a "whooooo! whoooo!" ghosty way either (none of the "wind in a chimney" that I've been aiming for), but with a harsh, loud, grating voice - with broad Aussie accent. Not only a ghost to fear, but a father to fear as well. There was even a touch of a certain law firm's Managing Partner caught in an angry moment! I had to fight the urge to stand up and cheer at the end of his speech. That was a real highlight of the play.

Another highlight was Horatio. He was perfect. Natural, intelligent, genuine, concerned, a deep thinker but sensible (not fussy) and loyal without being a "master's dog". He was a man you wanted to have as a friend. I did wonder why he was so attached to someone as relentless and annoying as Hamlet, but maybe Hamlet wasn't always like that. Maybe his "transformation" really was shocking and extreme, and back at Wittenberg he had some of Horatio's sense and sympathy and dignity. Or maybe Horatio is just a nicer, more tolerant and accepting person than I am!

All up - a wonderful production. I can't stop thinking about it. I give it loads and loads of stars!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Miracleman!

Oh my squidness, I've just seen the most fabulous theatre production. A two-man show by two very, very talented gentlemen, Bernard Caleo and Bruce Woolley. It's called Miracleman.

Miracleman is an adaptation of a comic book of the same name by Alan Moore (which I confess I have not read), and it's being staged for a terribly short time only at the o-so-Melbourne-hidden-laneway bar, the Croft Institute - which is a work of weird art in itself. The room only seats about 20 people, and it ends soon, so get in quick!

It was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Very funny, touching, exciting, super-clever and extremely engrossing - I was literally craned forward in my seat, drawn deeply into the cut-and-paste, back-and-forth-in-time stories of the very human characters.

Our main man is a somewhat worn and weary journalist who, with the use of a magic word - Kimota! - can become the superhero Miracleman. Problem is, he's lost the word, and his memory of being more than human, although terrifying fragments come back to him in his nightmares. The plot has loads of twists and turns and zaps through time and space at mindwarp speed. There are slower, very powerful sequences too, where we are suspended inside the big questions that we share with the protagonist. What are we, really? What should we do? (ah, Hamlet!)

Bernard and Bruce perform a huge cast of characters, as well as playing and singing the music (beautiful) and doing all the cleverly minimal props and the lighting and sound. And they do all this with a level of energy, perfectly pitched emotion, comic timing and expressive physicality that is really amazing.

One of the things that made me want to leap out of my seat and cheer was the frame props. In some of the rapid-fire "voice over" narrative sequences, the guys used a pair of flat, brightly coloured rectangular frames to - well, to frame characters' faces or bits of the action. They were living, moving (fast moving!) comic book frames!! Brilliant! That is adaptation working for its keep - using the idiom of one form and making it talk in another form, in a new and exciting way.

Super stuff. And you don't even have to be into comics to get it. And it includes a cameo by a giant squid. Truly, I couldn't ask for more.

Details of the show here at Bernard Caleo's blog. And another review (warning - it has spoilers) from Australian Stage Online here (so you can see it's not just me who is raving about the show!).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

What Hamlet really needed:

To be... or not to - Oh you adorable little pupster!!
Right now (when I can get the doggie's tongue off my eyeball) I'm working on Hamlet's encounter with the ghost. And I'm doing all the voices in my head as I work, of course. My invaluable Shakespeare In Production book (Robert Hapgood), which gives you the play together with commentary about how various actors and directors approached each line (so footnotes usually take up three quarters of the page), describes many interesting options used by different actors. Descriptions of the ghost's voice include "deep sepulchral tones", "a graveyard voice", a "spectral wail", "slow, solemn and under", "still seared with purgatorial fires", and - my favourites: "tones [that] seemed to come from another world... without resonance" and a voice like "the wind in a chimney". I prefer a quieter, colder, more distant and imperious dead king who commands Hamlet from a height. No shrieking or wailing for my ghost.

Doing voices is a great challenge on the silent medium of the page. The faces and postures have to do a lot of the work of suggesting the tone of voice, but the shape and position of the speech bubbles and the shape of the words themselves lend a hand as well. One more reason why computerised fonts are generally disappointing in comics - they lack the expression and flexibility of hand-lettered words.

And now I've got to get back to it. Got to work out what "the wind in a chimney" looks like!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Melbourne is such a comics town!

Ok, we have the sort of winters that fill the trains with hideous bronchial choruses, but we also have veritable explosions of comix goodness here in Melbourne (or MelBOURNE, as our American friends call it).

A small sample of recent newslets:

Queenie Chan, graphic novelist, is doing an appearance and signing at Borders bookstore on 25 June - click on the image of the invite to see the details. Queenie has moved to Melbourne from Sydney - a natural progression!

Does two artists make an exodus? Pat Grant has also moved from Sydney to Melbourne. Pat does some of the funniest comics I've ever read, and he's got a new, very spunky website. Check it out here. Pat is also part of the rude-sounding Special Friend Brings Exciting project

Bernard Caleo, the big, big heart (and hair) of Melbourne comics, and editor of the wonderful Tango anthologies, has a new blog dedicated to the local scene. It's called "An Island Art", and it's here. Bernard has also become the roving comics reporter for Triple R radio's art show, as well as appearing on 3CR's The Comic Spot with John Retallick and Jo Waite.

And of course all of us scribblers are here, working away at our little pictures... and trying to keep the heater close enough to defrost the knees, yet far enough away not to dry out the ink.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Tales from inner and outer suburbia...

It's been quiet on the blog front once again, because we've had some drama here at the Bughouse. Our darling pup Horace has a broken front leg, so there's been a lot of nursing going on. It breaks my heart to see the little thing all splinted and bandaged and wagging his tail so hopefully, because all he wants to do is frolic and play - but of course he can't.

Right, better change subject before I cry all over the desk and short-circuit something. That tiny pup is braver than us big humans. He's wonderful. Get well soon, little Horace.

On Friday night Shaun Tan's new book, Tales from Outer Suburbia was launched at Readings bookshop in Carlton. It really goes without saying that it's another piece of brilliance from the phenomenal Mr Tan. It's gorgeous. It's wonderful. It's published by Allen & Unwin (yay!). Go out right now and get yourself a copy. The beautiful cover, designed by Inari Kiuru (Shaun's partner and super-designer) is shown here.

Traveling further back in time... Sydney Writers' Festival came and went - great fun, and very busy. We got to stay at a wonderful spot right under the Harbour Bridge, with water all around - a bit of a thrill for a Melburnian. I did a couple of talks for high school students and two workshops for kids, followed by one longer workshop for adults. I especially enjoyed the adult workshop, because the participants were all so keen and motivated and engaged and talented ! There was a terrific buzz as everyone exchanged ideas (and email addresses) and sketched out some fabulous stuff.

This Thursday I'll be doing another talk about Gatsby at Northcote library. Details of the event are here, or:

Thursday 5 June
6.30pm
Northcote Library
32-38 Separation St, Northcote
Melways Map 30 F8

Righto. Back to pupster and Hamlet now.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Gatsby shortlisted for ABIA award!

Recent good news: Gatsby has been shortlisted for an Australian Book Industry Award for best illustrated book! Yippee! I'm very thrilled about this, because the ABIA awards are voted by an "academy" of booksellers and publishers, who obviously look at the books from within the industry. It is especially exciting to hear that booksellers like Gatsby, because I appreciate that it can be a challenge shelving, displaying, promoting and selling books which don't easily fall into obvious categories - an issue that pops up all the time with picture books for adults. So big warm thanks to those fabulous booksellers, and fingers crossed!

The "illustrated books" category is separate from the children's books categories, and apparently (or so a publisher friend tells me) it tends to include mostly non-fiction books, with the illustrations being largely photographic. Gatsby does seem to be the only one this year in which drawings play a very large role. So it will be interesting to see what happens.

Speaking of pictures, here's a little Hamlet detail of some poisonous morning glory (at right). I'm getting very into the creepy flower paintings at the moment, rolling up the sleeves and splashing around liberal amounts of those acrylic inks. The pics are inspired by illustrations from the fabulous Taschen Book of Plants. Hamlet is cracking along fast and furious, so I'm very pleased.

It's been a busy time generally, with lots of speaking gigs - not to mention puppy training! I'm gearing up for a jammed schedule at the Sydney Writers Festival next week. By all accounts it's a great festival, and the program is enormous. I'll be doing a few workshops and a couple of talks, mostly for the secondary schools program. Should be fun.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

"Graphically speaking"

Yesterday I had the pleasure and privilege of being on a panel at the Children's Book Council of Australia Conference with Neil Gaiman and manga artist Queenie Chan. The topic of our panel was "graphically speaking - the challenges of reading graphic novels", and it flew by all too fast. We each had ten minutes to race through our material at lightning speed, and then a tantalisingly brief few minutes for discussion and questions. So many interesting issues had just started to unfurl when the bell rang (ok, there was no bell, but there was a distinctly school-like flavour about it!) and we had to stop.

Neil talked about graphic novels in general, giving a neat introduction to the form which would have been a great help to the uninitiated. Queenie followed with "Manga 101", which was fascinating. I don't know much at all about manga, so it was very interesting to take a quick tour through the main categories (manga for teen boys, teen girls, adults, kids etc) and note some of the stylistic differences. As she explained, it's not all "big eyes small mouth" stuff. I talked a little about my favourite topic - the adaptation process, the alchemy of words and pictures, and some of the ways that pictures, panels and pages work as narrative devices.

I'm particularly interested in those devices that are unique to sequential art narrative - things like page layouts, the use of frames-as-objects and frames that "talk" to one another in multiple directions. These are things that I'd been working with long before I ever had to articulate in words what I was doing. It was only when I started giving talks like this that I had to sit down and find the words to describe the techniques that came intuitively. Right at the end of our session, in response to a question, Neil explained another of those special things, and my heart leapt to hear it: he talked about the wonderful device of the silent panel. Panels that make us pause and think and question and fill out the meaning for ourselves. Moments that hang and quiver, the way time can stretch and stop. Despite drawing many a silent panel in my comics, and very much relishing this device, it had never occurred to me how particular to comics it is. As Neil explained, you can't get the effect of a silent panel in prose writing - and he's tried! Brilliant!

It was great to meet these two comic stars - one very high in the sky, and one rising. We had much to talk about, and I'm sure these conversations will continue in the future. Invigorating stuff!

Friday, April 25, 2008

We've got a puppy!!!!

Meet Horace, the newest addition to our menagerie. He's a red toy poodle pup. HOW CUTE IS HE??!!

Humans/squids: ecstatic
Cats: curious/contemptuous
Pup: mad with delight and very hard to photograph because he never keeps still!

Awwwwwww!!

(My theory confirmed: cats are all Hamlet, doggies are Laertes. Maybe older dogs could also be Horatio.)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Slings & Arrows

Thanks to my buddy Greg, recommender of good things, I recently had the great pleasure of watching the first season of Slings & Arrows, a Canadian mini-series set in a provincial theatre company beset by more dramas than they ever bargained for.

In season one, the company is attempting to mount their flagship production, Hamlet. Prominent among their many problems is the grudging return of Geoffrey Tennant (the absolutely enormous spunk pictured here), an actor who lost his mind while playing the Dane seven years earlier. He's back to fill the position of artistic director, not to play Hamlet, but in real life he is the truest of Hamlets, antic disposition and all.

Although he's not actually performing the role, his character was the best Hamlet I've ever seen. He was precisely my idea of what Hamlet should be like, with just the right mix of ballsy-ness and sensitive melancholy. Oh, and he's a big hottie. I mentioned that, right?

Anyway, as well as being a rollicking good show to watch, and hilarious in parts, I found it very instructive. It's been said a million times that Hamlet is a role that can never be exhausted and whose mysteries will never be fully plucked out. So I gobbled up this take on the character, and learned a lot from it.

Another thing I really enjoyed was the way the show looked at the enormity of the role, how daunting it can be for an actor, and how attempting to encompass it can drive a person mad. This certainly resonated with me yesterday. Of course I'm playing all the characters' roles on paper as well as directing and bloody well drawing the thing, but without a doubt the hardest part is "playing" Hamlet. The other characters fairly leap from my brush, but I really have to sweat to get Hamlet's expressions, posture and timing right. Having laboured over his first appearance and dialogue with King and Queen for two consecutive days of 12-hour desk marathons, by the end of day two I was feeling pretty wild-eyed and crazy, let me tell you. Fortunately, though, I went easier on myself today and spent the day reviewing and redoing some of that work, to good effect.

All good fun. Whoever said we scribblers were obsessive, eh?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The rest is silence

Well, not quite. But I have been very quiet blogwise the past couple of weeks, and we can thank the Dane for that. I've been madly, passionately - ok, maniacally - absorbed in working on Hamlet, and have barely made time to eat, sleep and otherwise behave like a normal human being. It is cracking along very well, despite the little hitch of my Wacom tablet giving up the ghost and having to be replaced on Monday. I expect the discarded one to return any day now and ask its successor to take revenge on me for killing it.

I'll just pause from my madness to mention that Allen & Unwin are launching Bruce Mutard's new graphic novel, The Sacrifice, on Wednesday 23 April, and it looks like an excellent read. Set in Melbourne in the shadow of WWII, the book deals with war, ideals, family and love. Bruce will appear in conversation with the lovely Bernard Caleo.

Details:
Wednesday 23 April 6.30pm
Readings Carlton - in Lygon Street of course.
Free, but but please book on (03) 9347 6633 or RSVP on Facebook.

Sadly I can't attend, because parent-teacher interviews have been inconveniently scheduled that evening. Damn!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Inky goodness

Hamlet is in progress! I've done eleven pages of the final work (yes, eleven down, 390 to go!) and am so excited about it, I'd work at it 20 hours a day if I were physically capable of doing so. And if I didn't have to go to the office...

I won't show any finished pages here because my illusionist's instinct tells me that until the dove is ready to be flourished out of the hat, I should keep it hidden. Very hard, when I can barely contain my excitement!

Instead, I'll introduce a new favourite product - Pebeo's black "graphic" india ink/encre de chine. Here it is with its perfect partner - a box of fabulous vintage bowl-shaped nibs that I bought on eBay:


The ink was recommended by the very brusque-and-busy manager at Deans Art - clearly a man who knows his ink. I'd complained about the erratic behaviour of my big bottle of Winsor & Newton (my battles with W&N seem to be a recurring theme...) and he seemed completely unsurprised by this report. He tossed this plastic Pebeo bottle at me, saying "this is good stuff, and it's cheap". I didn't actually look at the price, so keen was I to find a black ink that I actually liked.

And I'm very happy to say that this is indeed the goods. Very black, shiny, sits nicely on top of the paper, and with just the right amount of whatever it is that gives it that satiny feel. No bleeding into the paper, and no stickiness. Yippee!

This was also my first try with the new/old nibs from the magic cave of eBay. They took forever to arrive after being caught in a UK postal strike, and then I ignored them for months while continuing my extended romp with the brush pen (which remains my main tool at the moment, as Hamlet is a largely nib-free affair). But it is a pleasure to simultaneously happen upon a superior ink and what seems to be the ideal steel nib! These are large bowl-shaped nibs with a sort of rounded bobble on the upper part of the point, making them slightly less hard and scratchy. They glide, they're not too flexy and they have just the right amount of line variation for my taste. And the best part is, I've got 114 of them! No more wondering if my one-of-a-kind nib will last the distance for an entire book! I used just two nibs for the main drawing work of Gatsby, and after approximately 1,500 drawings, they were both worn away on a very rakish tilt indeed. And by rakish I do mean prone to raking the paper.

In other news, Gatsby has been listed as a "notable book" in the Children's Book Council of Australia awards this year. Lovely! Speaking of the CBC, I'll be on a panel at the CBC conference in Melbourne in May, talking about graphic novels together with Queenie Chan (manga queen) and Neil Gaiman (!!!).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Comic Book Funny

Well, the Hamlet backgrounds are DONE! And have been safely delivered to the wonderful people at Allen & Unwin so they can have them professionally scanned. I also had a fruitful talk with A&U's super-designer, Bruno, to nut out the techno-mysteries of Photoshop modes, colour profiles, scanning and printing. It's a great relief to get these things sorted at the start of a project (well, it's sort of the start - if you call a year's worth of preparatory work the start...) rather than in a state of nailbiting-will-this-work?-horror at the end.

Gatsby was my Photoshop initiation, and as such I had no idea of what kind of pitfalls might open up in front of the innocent scribbler accustomed to nothing more technical than the angle of her steel nib. I did lots of things the long, hard way, and probably took a couple of years off super-editor Jodie's life with the "surprises" that arose when we tried to get my electronic files ready for print. It all worked out in the end, of course, but neither of us needs to go through that kind of suspense again!

So with the backgrounds under my belt, I'm really really looking forward to painting actual characters - in fact, to painting anything that doesn't involve thousands of tiny repetitive patterns, dots, circles, tiles...

In other news, some of us comic types are showing off at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, in a series of panels, live scribbles and exhibitions. It's called Comic Book Funny, it's on for three more Saturdays, and it's free! Here's a short article about it from The Age, featuring Comic Book Funnyman extraordinaire and organiser-of-the-show David Blumenstein, along with this little Bug. Note how I am laughing hysterically in the photo while David just looks cool.

Details for Comic Book Funny:
Saturdays 29 March, 6 April and 12 April - 4pm
Bella Union Bar
Trades Hall
Cnr Victoria and Lygon Streets
South Carlton.

And here's what David says about it:

Stand-up comedy is lovely, but it’s got a Twilight Zone-style mirror world which lives on paper and feeds on ink: the world of the underground cartoonist.

Australia’s vigorous community of independent comic book makers spend their days as clerks, shopgirls, students, teachers, ad artists, animators and telemarketers. By night the spotlight drops onto their drawing boards and their pens and brushes come out to play.

Their work is angry, scatological, satiric, whimsical and just plain funny.

Comic Book Funny is a series of free events presenting the often hilarious, occasionally touching and always purchasable works of Australia’s funniest comics auteurs -- the print analogue to the rest of the Comedy Festival.

Drop by the Bella Union Bar at Trades Hall each Saturday at 4pm and you’ll meet a few more talented cartoonists. See their wares! Ask them questions! Drink with them! Admire their ink-stained fingers!

Featuring Australia’s best and funniest cartoonists: Gerard Ashworth, Neale Blanden, David Blumenstein, Bernard Caleo, Pat Grant, Nicki Greenberg, Ben Hutchings, Dean Rankine, Glenn Smith, Ross Tesoriero, Andrew Weldon and more!

David Blumenstein and Ben Hutchings will be podcasting local comics talk and general silliness during the festival, at http://www.nakedfella.com/blog/.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Trencadis

Here's a close-up of some of the detail from the latest Hamlet background. It's smaller in real life (on an A3 piece of paper), and boy, did those little tiles take a long time to paint!

This picture is, of course, inspired by the amazing "trencadis" (broken tile) mosaic work of Antoni Gaudi. As shown in these snaps taken on our visit to Barcelona three years ago:
(ceiling detail from "marketplace" in Parc Guell)

(more ceiling work in Parc Guell)

(roof detail, Casa Batllo)

Imagine the work of placing all those tiles together on such an enormous scale... passion plus vision plus painstaking process... Contemplating work like Gaudi's is my version of a religious experience.

Sigh! The wonders of Barcelona. I miss it very much. I miss seeing art and architecture like this almost as much as I miss home-cured anchovies and bocadillos con fuet.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Gatsby talk at The Pines Library Thursday 20 March

In all the recent rushing I forgot to mention that I'm doing another library chat-and-slideshow about making Gatsby. It's tomorrow night, Thursday 20 March, at The Pines Library in East Doncaster. The fine people from Angus & Robertson will be there selling books, and there will be snacks, I believe.

Details:
Thursday 20 March, 6.30 pm
The Pines Library
Corner Reynolds and Blackburn Roads
Doncaster East
Bus from Melbourne CBD: number 304

It's a pretty odd time to organise such an event - the evening before the Easter long weekend. But then, my last library gig was on Valentines Day... Soon people will think I have no life.

Actually, it seems quite possible that I've left some vital components of my life on one of the six budget airline flights that I've taken in the past few weeks. All that travel has worn me out, and I'm looking forward desperately to a quiet long weekend with the Big Squid. Ok, with the Big Squid and my acrylic inks.

And they say I don't know how to take a holiday...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ravens and graves

Here's a detail from the graveyard background for Hamlet - probably the most literal of the backgrounds in both colouring and layout. I wanted this set to look bright and springlike, as a foil for the sadness of Ophelia's untimely, flower-strewn death, and also because the brightness suits the gravediggers' comedy routine at the start of the scene. The colours and the shape of the little flowers were very much inspired by that Vittorio Zecchin image from the Thousand and One Nights - and I think it could probably do with even more of the flowers creeping up over the gravestones.

Ravens and graveyards seem to go together in the ominous imagination, so it's apt that I received this excellent news last week: The Great Gatsby has been selected as a "White Raven" for the 2008 Bologna Book Fair!

As my wonderful publisher explained: "This means that it is one of the 250 outstanding new international books for children and young adults that have been selected for The White Ravens 2008 from the thousands of books that the International Youth library in Munich received as review copies from publishers, authors, illustrators, and organisations from all over the world from the last calendar year. The books for this exhibition will be displayed at the International Youth Library stand at the Bologna Children's Book Fair."

Yay!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

An absolute rose

"An absolute rose" is something Daisy calls Nick in The Great Gatsby. It's also what this accidental sculpture made me think of. Pity about my blurry, camera-jiggling flashless photography, but I rather like the idea. It's sitting on my desk, saved from the bin by its rosy appeal.

The ink has been in play this week and I've finished another of the Hamlet backgrounds, but I'm very weary thanks to a bunch of interstate trips crammed into a short time. Hopefully this next couple of days will be a good reviver before I head off once again on Wednesday to go to the Somerset Celebration of Literature - a writers festival focusing on childrens and young adult literature. Should be fun!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Gimme texture!

Today I've been playing with watercolour paints on good quality Arches watercolour paper. I am spectacularly bad with watercolours (although, like all beginners, I have the occasional lucky break) - but I love the luminosity of the colours, and most especially, I love the look of the texture of the paper.

The whole business of stretching watercolour paper is quite fiddly. My first attempts failed, as the masking tape I used to tape the soaked sheets to any portable flat surface I could find (the glass on framed paintings, a rubber cutting board, an old cupboard door and two baking trays!) failed to stick. So back into the bath went all the (very buckled) paper, and I tried again with that unbelievably sticky gummed artists tape. For the record, even that doesn't stick to non-stick baking trays!

Anyway, this morning I attacked a few of my stretched sheets with reckless abandon and painted some big splodgy things that are supposed to be clouds. The results are pretty ugly, though there are little sections that look slightly pleasing. The thing I liked best was that when I scanned one of these sections on my amazing super-dooper new scanner (Epson Perfection V500 Photo... mmmmm...), you could see all the lovely textured tooth of the paper in the scanned image.

This got me thinking about a way to tweak my Hamlet backgrounds a little. Of course they are hand-painted, but they're done on W&N's lovely smooth cartridge - and when scanned, the colours look just a little bit flat. So this afternoon I made my first ever texture to use in Photoshop, by scanning a blank sheet of that beautiful Arches watercolour paper.

I applied the texture to a test scan of one of the Hamlet backgrounds, and - presto! - the result looks like this (note - this is enlarged. The actual image, and therefore the grain, is smaller):


I'm delighted with the effect - it just adds a nice organic touch to the image, and reminds you that it is made of paint on paper. I'll probably play with the direction of the texture lighting a bit, too, and see what looks most natural. Funny how a layer of technological intervention is required to create an organic, "real" feeling of paint, when the original image most definitely is paint on paper!

It's a huge time-eater, this business of tweaking pictures in Photoshop. I actually try and avoid doing it wherever possible, because the temptation can be to massage everything until it either melts into goo or looks terribly artificial. The trick is knowing when to stop - preferably sooner rather than later.

Seasoned photoshop people probably know how to make textures already, but for those who don't (like me until 15 minutes ago), it is super easy:

  1. Scan your textured material, or take a photo. I scanned my paper at 600dpi, in colour, and lowered the brightness a bit.
  2. Convert it to grayscale.
  3. Save it as a psd file.
  4. To apply the texture to a layer in another image, have that image open in RGB mode. Go to Filter > texture > texturiser. In the drop-down of texture styles, pick "load texture" and just browse and find your texture. Then you can fiddle with the depth, lighting etc
Cool! Even a Photoshop puddler like me can do it!

Now I think it's time to put those baking trays to the purpose for which they were intended - I'm going to make a batch of vegetarian pasties!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In the closet

Here's the latest of the Hamlet backgrounds - Queen Gertrude's closet. The photo doesn't really convey the depth of the colours properly - they look richer in real life. Secret internal places, heavy, dripping velvet, muffling, suffocating lushness... these are the things I want to suggest. I also wanted this image to contrast with the cold, calculating-but-vertiginous sense of the King's room.

Call me unsympathetic, but I don't like Gertrude at all. She's sloppy and oozy and easily led. In my more searching, objective moments I wonder why I am quite so harsh on the old slapper. And I suspect that women's cruel judgements of one another may have a trace of insecurity in them: we hate what we fear could be lurking somewhere in us as well.

Compared to the other paintings, each of which took days and days of painstaking patterning, this one was done surprisingly quickly. And I did surprise myself with looser, easier, bigger brush strokes. For this I have to thank the wonderful Terry Denton, children's author and illustrator, and painter, with whom I spent a lovely time at the Perth Writers Festival last week. Terry showed me his sketchbook full of beautiful, loose-and-lively sketches, all splashed with vivid watercolours. They were amazing, and inspired me to set aside a bit more time for playing with colour and wet media. More immediately (because of course I pushed play aside and pounced obsessively onto Hamlet as soon as I hit Melbourne), he inspired me to try a slightly less "controlled" style for Gertrude's chamber. Ok, I'm not exactly flinging the ink about with abandon here, but compared to the extreme control of every milimetre in the other pictures, this one is quite spontaneous! And I enjoyed it immensely.

Here it is at a much earlier stage. I really like looking at work in progress, which is why I've started snapping a few pictures along the way:
In other, much more dramatic and exciting news, my mega-talented cousin, Eva Orner, won the Oscar for best documentary for her film Taxi to the Dark Side. And she called the US government war criminals. She is such a star!!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Being green... and heading out West


Here's the fourth of my Hamlet backgrounds. While this is in some ways the simplest one so far, it was actually quite tricky to do - not least because after a few hours all those circles cease to look like cute little wasabi peas and start to pull weird optical illusion-type tricks on the eyes.

Painting all those dots gave me plenty of time to think about the connotations of particular shades of green. Green is traditionally thought to represent poison - perhaps because arsenic was used to make green pigments. And of course green is the colour of envy. It's the colour of many, many lovely things as well - not least being my first love, Kermit - but for this picture (the King's private rooms) I wanted to choose shades of green that suggested bitterness, poison, scheming, envy and unwholesomeness. So if you feel a bit queasy just looking at this image, then all is as it should be.

Here's a detail, which is quite pretty (but please excuse my blurry flashless photography):

Once again, those opaque acrylic inks amaze me. I originally painted a few other props into this picture, which took me ages because they involved lots of fidldy colour and detail. But I then decided that I didn't like them at all. These inks have such good opacity, and therefore covering power, that I just painted over the top of the unwanted items with my background green, painted some more wasabi peas over the top, and - magic!- you can't even see the joins.

However, after all that, my eyes were doing something very like this:

In other news, on Wednesday this week I'm off to the Perth Writers Festival, which is part of the Perth International Arts Festival. It looks like a fabulous program, and I've never been to Western Australia, so I'm looking forward to it very much. I'll be talking about Gatsby in a couple of sessions for older students in the schools program, and will be on two panels in the general program.

So hand me my party frock - I'm going West!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Doing anything on Valentines Day?

I'm doing a talk about Gatsby at the Port Philip / St Kilda Library this Thursday 14 February at 7 pm. So if you're not going to be sitting in a restaurant buying odourless cellophane-wrapped roses from wandering rose sellers, feel free to join me. The details (from the library website) are:

Graphic novelist talk - Nicki Greenberg and The Great Gatsby

Nicki Greenberg is a comic artist and illustrator who has recently produced an acclaimed graphic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Join Nicki for a discussion and presentation about the process of creating this faithful adaptation of Fitzgerald's jazz-age classic.

Where: St Kilda Library
Date: Thursday, February 14
When: 7-8pm
Bookings: required - 92096655

This is a FREE event

Light refreshments will be supplied

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A massy wheel

Here's a picture that took longer than I expected:
I'm very pleased with it, and especially happy with the perspective. I was aiming for a picture that suggested a certain depth and perspective, but whose elements were not actually "fixed" in space. In particular, I wanted some ambiguity about how near or far each wheel was to the viewer. In retrospect, this idea makes me think of Dali's Galatea of the Spheres:

Now there's a good way to feel inadequate: to view one's work next to that of Dali! Anyway, the detail was a killer, and just got more and more time-consuming. Here's my starting point, when I thought I could knock the picture over in a week:

As with the other Hamlet backgrounds, this was painted with liquid acrylic inks - my new favourite medium - on Winsor & Newton cartridge paper. Very pleased to report that my favourite paper is available once again, through the good people at The Art Shop online. Yay!

And now I'd better make up for all that time that got ground to dust between those wheels, and get back to the drawing desk!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Variety

On Saturday we had the good fortune to trip over the Linden Postcard Show in St Kilda. This is an exhibition of over 2,000 smallish-size artworks which cover every room of Linden Gallery from floor to ceiling once a year. Anyone can enter (for a small fee) and the result is a truly eye-popping variety of work. Prizes are awarded, and I was delighted to find that my mega-talented friend and fellow comic art grrl Jo (Josephine) Waite (no website, but her work is on Facebook) had won a prize for the second year in a row for one of her beautiful insect girl watercolours. Jo's painting will appear on one of Linden's postcards. Congratulations Madame Jo!

The works are all for sale, mostly at very accessible prices. I was inclined to buy something, but was too overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of pictures, and the gallery closed for the evening before I could make up my mind. Many of my favourites (including Jo's winning entry) had already been snapped up, too, within just a few hours of the show opening.

On the variety theme (sort of), last week I received copies of the Canadian edition of Gatsby! The book is published over there by Penguin Canada, and they have produced it in paperback rather than hardback. And it looks fabulous! They've used a slick, slightly glossy paper for the pages (Allen & Unwin produced the book with a lovely creamy matte paper). I had no say in Penguin's design choices, as I have not dealt with them directly, so this was a surprise for me - and as it turns out, a very pleasant one.

Glossy paper is not something that I would have thought to choose - I would have imagined it would be all wrong for the vintage photo album feel. But in paperback format it actually works really well - perhaps because it makes the pictures look so crisp and solid, and makes the pages feel very substantial. When you open the book, the extreme blackness of the black and the vividness of the sepia (colour is more vivid and bright on the glossy paper) really jump out at you. They've also given it a matte cover, which I like very much.

So I am very happy with it - though there is one little aspect that could perhaps have been done better. Some elements of the design on the back cover have been jostled around to fit the marginally smaller cover size, and this looks like it was done in a bit of a rush. Zoe Sadokierski, the superb designer who did the original cover, took the most wonderful care over every aspect of the design, but some of her beautiful work has been treated a bit carelessly by whoever did the rejigging - there are chunky drop-shadows, a "ghost" shadow that has appeared on top of an image, and some odd resizing. I suspect that noone will actually notice these things (especially if they haven't seen the original Australian edition), but it does alert me to the need to keep an eye on such changes! Call me picky, but I think it's important to treat design with care.

Spot the difference:

Finally, before I get back to work on the Hamlet backgrounds, an event coming up this week:

This Thursday 7 February the Belgrave Library is launching their new graphic novel collection, with hundreds of just-purchased volumes available for borrowing. I have been asked to come and launch the collection, and to give a talk about Gatsby and the process of making a graphic novel. Slow Glass Books will also be there selling various comic delights. Belgrave is a fair hike from the city, but for those who fancy a trip, the details are:

Thursday 7 February, 7pm
Belgrave Library
Reynolds Lane, Belgrave, 3160.
Melways Ref: 75 F10 (map here)

Right, now back to work!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bloody Australia Day

Ok, before any of you patriots get yourselves into a lather, I'm not bagging Australia Day. It's just that ours was bloody - literally. Big Squid was engaged in the traditional Aussie ritual of preparing meat for the barbie, when he knocked the chef's knife off the bench and attempted to stop it... with his arm. One ambulance ride, six stitches, a tied-off vein and a tetanus shot later, the Big Squid is fine - but it was pretty scary.

Some hours later, when we'd both recovered from all the excitement, Nurse Bug had a chance to read the lovely review of The Great Gatsby that came out in The Weekend Australian that same day. This is actually the first time the book has been reviewed in a newspaper. It has featured in quite a number of newspaper articles, and has been reviewed in lit/publishing mags, but this was the first newspaper review, and I was thrilled with it. It gladdened my scribbler's heart even more to see that the critic (Cefn Ridout - a comics specialist, I think) didn't start with the "graphic novels - now here's a novelty!" approach, but got straight down to a serious, in-depth review of the particular book. He also looked at Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese, and gave it a glowing rap too. Very happy indeed. Aha - and here's the review online.

In amongst all this I've been hard at work on those backgrounds for Hamlet, which of course are spiralling into ever-increasing levels of detail. Here's the second one:
Big Squid provided very helpful technical input for this picture. In fact, he caught me just in time before I ended up painting helical ice-stairs that were physically impossible. He pointed out that if I wanted them to look as they do, they had to actually be double rather than single helices.

He's a whiz, my Squid. And to celebrate his near miss, we went to see the most appropriate film on offer at our lovely local cinema: Sweeney Todd. Happy bloody Australia Day!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen

No, this isn't a little foray into relationship advice. It's an succinct summing up of the Art Supplies Situation at the moment. Seems that every art gear shop in Melbourne has ceased to stock two of my three favourite products, and most can't even order the stuff in. Naturally this minxlike coyness has me in a towering frenzy of desire for said products.

Magic Color inks, the subject of my ravings last week, are unavailable in Melbourne. I learned this on Monday. Most places have never even heard of them. Fortunately a good substitute does exist - Daler Rowney's "FW" brand of opaque acrylic inks - but they are expensive, and I suspect they may have a greater tendency to clot. Amazingly, despite the obvious wonderfulness of this medium, very few shops stock any opaque acrylic inks at all. Eckersleys (ah, Eckersleys!) in Melbourne is an exception.

Perhaps even more puzzling is the disappearance of Winsor & Newton's "Lana" range of drawing cartridge paper (which is actually no longer called Lana, apparently). You cannot get it anywhere - though once again Eckersley's came through and were at least able to order it for me (though with a wait time of one month!). I am especially keen on their big A3 pads of 220 gsm smoooooth paper. But not only is it unavailable, most shops do not even stock an equivalent product. This is astounding. What do you draw and paint on when you want lovely smooth (but not shiny) creamy paper that is heavy enough to support wet media? What?? The closest thing I could find was a series of bristol-type pads, marketed as "Manga drawing pads". Need I say more...

I know that my relationship with W&N's Lana is a special one, because it survived a terrible betrayal last year. I was on the home stretch of The Great Gatsby. After five years of Lana and I working away together without any assurance of publication, I finally had a contract in hand (not on Lana paper, mind you) and was so excited, I decided to pencil the last 50 pages and then ink them in one big batch. All fired up, I grabbed a new Lana pad and carefully cut out the 200-odd frames to size, serrated the edges with pinking shears, and pencilled them all. When it came time to ink - there is no other way to put this - the shameless skank did the dirty on me: every single page of that pad was defective. Instead of the ink sitting smoothly on the surface, it bled into little spidery hairs on every line. I had to ditch all 200 drawings and start again.

The things I said about Winsor & Newton at that time should not be repeated. But, like a besotted fool, I took Lana back. I love that paper. I haven't found anything else to compare. Call me deluded, call me a hopeless addict, but I really, really want a regular supply.

Four more weeks and my order will come through. Until then, I'll be anointing my remaining four sheets with obsessive application of opaque acrylic inks, and hoping that my coy mistress will be here soon.