Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ooow! My face!

My face hurts!

No, I haven't ended up in another comic artist smackdown. This time it's entirely self-inflicted.

I've spent the day drawing roughs for Hamlet, specifically the harrowing "closet scene" where the Dane confronts - and harangues - his trollop of a mother. This involves drawing a lot of angry faces - for example, this:

It seems to be pretty common ("Ay madam, 'tis common!") among cartoonists that when we draw a face, we can't help assuming precisely the expression we are drawing. I've tested this out by trying to draw one kind of expression while setting my face in another, and the result is a lot of terrible facial contortions in both places: the picture comes out looking all wrong, and my face starts twitching desperately in the manner of John Howard during the recent "great" debate (ugh!).

So of course I go with what works, and wear the faces as I draw them. Problem is, after doing nine pages of roughs today, in which Hamlet runs the gamut from indignation to rage through to extreme revulsion and back again, I've had my face set in those very attitudes for literally hours. If the wind were to change at some point today (and remember, this is Melbourne), I might have ended up looking permanently like this:
Not pretty. Not comfortable either. Imagine the terrible wrinkles I'm going to have after 350 pages of this... and that's just the roughs! That thing in my hand, by the way, is my Pentel Aquash brush pen - and it's the greatest thing since the invention of ink. Just thinking about it smoothes those lines right away.

I wonder just how common this "face mirrors hand" thing is. Talking with other scribblers recently has made me realise that many of the techniques and experiences and quirks that I assume are almost universal are in fact different for each person. For example, the other day I heard about a cartoonist who says that he is never surprised by how his work comes out. This is almost inconceivable to me. I am constantly surprised by ideas and forms that emerge while immersed in a picture. So I wonder - does everyone make the faces they draw? Are there people who can conjure up a lively, meaningful expression on the page without simultaneously doing it themselves?

And do cucumber slices on the eyes really work?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The inexhaustible variety of life

I'm taking a break from writing an article which is really giving my brain a good wringing. See, I've been invited by a magazine - whose main audience is journalists - to write a piece about, you guessed it: Graphic Novels. This is a task that I approach with extreme caution, and, I must admit, with a slight sinking sensation. That said, I also don't want to miss an opportunity to show "our thing" in the best way I possibly can, especially when the audience comprises the very people we hope will embrace, understand and write insightfully about it.

As a regular reader of Mr Campbell's blog, I know that this topic is a minefield. But the Bug is (relatively) unafraid! Let's see what I come up with... and whether my mate Campbell tears me into small strips afterwards, and then "does what he can to make the strips miserable" (with apologies to Raymond Chandler - see here for more quotes). I'm optimistically hoping that we'll all be happy with the result.

So I'm taking a breather from this arduous task, and thinking about another adaptation of The Great Gatsby which came to my attention recently, and which I would dearly love to see. It's a theatre production by a New York company called Elevator Repair Service, titled "Gatz" (which is of course Jay Gatsby's "real" surname). This is what their website says about it:

James Gatz - that was really, or at least legally, his name.

One morning in the low-rent office of a mysterious small business, one employee finds a ragged old copy of The Great Gatsby in the clutter of his desk and starts to read it out loud. And doesn't stop.

At first his coworkers hardly seem to notice, but then weird coincidences start happening in the office, one after another, until it's no longer clear whether he's reading the book or the book is doing something to him. . . .

6 hours long and with a cast of 13, Gatz is by far ERS's most ambitious endeavor yet — not a stage adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel but a verbatim reading of the entire book [my emphasis], accomplished by the staff of a small office in the midst of their increasingly bewildering business operations.


A verbatim reading of the entire book! In this mysterious office context! Extraordinary! The actor who plays the protagonist of the play actually knows the entire novel by heart. This fact alone thrills and amazes me - partly because it evinces a truly Gatsby-esque level of passion that I wholeheartedly admire, and can certainly relate to. But on top of this, the play sounds really fabulous - and it's certainly snared excellent reviews.

I've had a lovely exchange of emails with a member of Elevator Repair Service, John Collins, who is (of course) a huge Gatsby fan. And I'm delighted to report that he gave my adaptation of Gatsby an absolutely glowingly huge rap, and said that it moved him to tears. Beam!

Of course I am thrilled that the book resonated with someone as passionate and knowledgeable about The Great Gatsby as John. John has travelled far deeper into Gatsby geekdom than I have, and knows not only one version of the book but various drafts and edits inside out (whereas I was content to stick with my Penguin edition with the great intro by Tony Tanner, and certainly couldn't recite even that). One interesting snippet that he shared with me was this one:

Towards the end of chapter 2, when Nick is looking out of the window at the close of the tawdry drunken party with Tom and Myrtle and their friends, he imagines another observer looking up at them from the street. He says "And I saw him too, looking up and wondering". Apparently in one version of the text this reads "And I was him, too..." - and this was later corrected by the publisher. But in the context of the next sentence, I can't help but wonder which is the right word:

"I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."

Oh, the gorgeousness of it!!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Whoops! Forgot to mention...

...that I'm giving a talk about Gatsby tonight in Melbourne at the North Fitzroy Library:

North Fitzroy Library,
240 St Georges Road, North Fitzroy
6.30 pm
Bookings essential, please call 1300 695 427

...and also participating in a panel on adaptation as part of the Latrobe University / Eltham Bookshop "World Matters" program this Saturday 27th at 10.30 am. Here's the program for the World Matters festival.

And this time I'm going to tie my data stick around my neck.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Carne viva

Well, check this out! This is a still-throbbing tattoo that was applied just yesterday to the right arm and shoulder of punk DJ, wrestling commentator, sometime Vampire MC and all-round firecracker the Fabulous Sebastian. I designed it for him only a couple of weeks ago, and here it is already, en carne viva. Wow.

I've only know Sebastian for a short time, but he has quickly showed himself to be the human incarnation of a devilishly raised eyebrow. An irresistible conversationalist, and a very fascinating creature indeed. So when he asked me to design a tattoo for him, I almost tripped over my nibs to get to the brush pen and have at it.

The request was for a skull. He's already got a very different-looking skull on the left arm, courtesy of Devil's Candy designer Eva Collado. I'd shown Sebastian a couple of my preliminary Hamlet pictures, and he liked the twisted black lines of Hamlet's "hair", so I decided to incorporate a variation of those lines into the design. As it turns out though, the lines in the tattoo design are very different to anything I'd envisaged using in Hamlet. However, I like them so much, that I'm thinking up ways that they might be incorporated into the book. The brush pen lends itself perfectly to these delicate swirls and mid-curve kinks, and I found that it led my hand quite unexpectedly into a whole new style. This is what the first version looked like:

When Sebastian showed it to the tattooist, he was told that the very fine "white" areas within the black would not work well. Apparently tattoo ink spreads in the skin over the years, so very small spaces tend to get eaten up by the black. I needed to get rid of some of the tiny white dots (a pity - I like them), and Sebastian also asked me to add some more curls at the sides of the skull, so that the design would wrap around his arm more.

To do this without the risk of messing up the original drawing, I laid a sheet of tracing paper over the top and did the new lines on that. My new Pentel fountain brush pen came in handy here, as its ink is waterproof and sits nicely on the tracing paper (the Chinese non-waterproof ink in my Pentel Aquash breaks up into beads on the surface). I then scanned the new parts, made a couple of small changes and added them to the existing scanned image, so the result looked like this:

And that is pretty much how it went onto the arm - apart from the enlarged tears which Sebastian said reminded him of prisoners!

It does look a little bit different when it's wrapped around a three-dimensional body - and it gives me the absolute shivers to see it there, on a living canvas! I have warned Sebastian that next time I'm up in Sydney, I'm going to take so many photos of him flaunting the tattoo that the ink is going to fade under the flash-bulb onslaught.

So, we're all happy. Sebastian has offered himself as my Muse (and there is some sort of resemblance to the Dane, I have to admit), and I've offered to design as many tattoos as he wants to bear. He's already asked me about starting on a second one...

I'm hooked. How could I say no?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Folio Folio Folio!

Picture the Bug standing in the bright Brisbane morning, suitcase in one hand, paper bag of books in the other, with tears rolling out of her goggly eyes...

Why is this sleep-deprived scribbler crying?

Well, she doesn't want to leave (a) Brisbane, (b) her buddy mister J, and (c) Folio bookshop.

Folio (80 Albert Street, Brisbane) is the workplace of said mister - when he's not busy being a world-famous wrestling cartoonist and wrestling announcer. And after spending an hour there, I am convinced that the place defies the laws of physics. SO MANY amazing books... As I browsed (trying not to lick the merchandise) the shop seemed to unfold into more and more dimensions of wonder... To give just one example, there is an entire section of visual "source books" - volumes full of copyright-free images for artists to use as they will. For the last ten years my Dover Animals book has been a constant companion, providing inspiration and anatomical guidance for everything from squids to seahorses, and even my beloved papier mache bat:
Folio not only had the animals book (though I noticed that it was tucked behind the counter, on hold for some lucky customer) but volumes full of art deco fabric cuts, 19th century mechanical devices, Victorian decorative effects, flowers, costumes... Oh, the joy of it!

Me, I was in the market for a slightly different kind of source book. My graphic adaptation of Hamlet involves a lot of plants and flowers - mostly weird, creepy, carnvorous-looking ones. And I needed a book of old-fashioned botanical illustrations from which I could draw inspiration for those plants. The art section of the shop had some lovely books on botanical illustration technique and history, but none that were quite what I wanted... and then, up above the counter, I saw it...
The Taschen 25 Book of Plants. It's an enormous (and very heavy) hardcover book, 442 pages long, full of beautifully reproduced colour plates of German botanical illustration. The style of the drawings is lush and slightly creepy - all those fingery roots and grasping tendrils and snapping flower-heads... Exactly what I need. And only $75 ! A bargain, I reckon. I love Taschen books. The smaller, but also very beautiful, book of Piranesi etchings that I bought last week is also one of theirs.

One hour in Folio was definitely not enough - and seemed to whiz by unnaturally fast (even by bookshop standards) in the shop's time vortex. Not wanting to miss my plane (and so become a complete "graphic novelist" cliche), I tore myself away from the shelves, scooped up a copy of Shaun Tan's The Arrival as an "arrival-into-the-world" present for new baby nephew Ethan, and got ready to say goodbye.

And this is where we find the Bug, standing outside Folio, sniffling a tearful farewell to the shop and, more importantly, to her wonderful friend mister J, with whom she'd had so much fun watching wrestling DVDs and talking over cups of tea until 2 am that morning.

I'm such a sap.

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Handbag??

Last night I did a talk about Gatsby at the Avid Reader bookshop in West End, Brisbane. It's a gorgeous shop, run by the equally gorgeous Fiona and her lovely crew (special thanks to Anna Krien and Ben), and I had a wonderful time.

The experience was all the sweeter for the fact that it came after an extremely stressful day. I am usually a very organised person. I am also not generally much interested in handbags (unlike my buddy Scootergrrl). But in a brief lapse of judgement when packing on Wednesday night, I decided to transfer all my girly junk from one handbag to the other. All dandy... until two hours into my (delayed) flight, I realised with a sensation not unlike unexpected turbulence that I'd left my data stick - with my Gatsby presenation on it - in the Other Handbag. Cue Lady Bracknell. It didn't just look like carelessness - it looked like a fkn disaster!

There ensued a epic scramble to convey this enormous file (100mb) from a handbag in Fairfield, Melbourne, to a data stick in Brisbane. This involved getting my neighbour to break-and-enter (well, sort of), after which our internet, then hers, failed. She took the stick to her husband's work (is this going beyond the call or what?) where he managed to upload the file to the publisher's ftp site (which took 2 hours) after which the wonderful people in the IT department of my work very, very kindly downloaded it for me and sent it to Brisbane. This entire process took almost seven hours. During which time I also had to do a full day's work at the office. At 5pm on the dot I had my presentation on a borrowed data stick, and I needed a drink.

I left the office, still a bit goggle-eyed and quavery, and who do you think was standing just outside the building? In a beautiful bit of Brisbane serendipity, I almost fell over my favourite cranky bastard, Eddie "thanks for roning" Campbell, patron saint of forgetting stuff when you catch a plane, along with his lovely wife Anne.

Eddie and I then walked to the Avid Reader, where the wonderfully calm and friendly atmosphere of the shop instantly smoothed the day away. I was really tickled that Eddie wanted to attend this talk. We've presented together a few times and both enjoyed it very much, but I've never done a solo presentation with my sometime sparring partner in the audience. Anne had previously said that if she were doing the talk, she'd have him removed from the room before it began, so I have to admit to some trepidation. One mention of the words "graphic novel", I feared, might send him into a frenzy of objection and correction - or worse, he might just look at me from the back row with that pained rictus of horror on his face.

But no. I was very happy to note Eddie nodding in agreement and smiling throughout the talk. Afterwards, over a much-desired glass of pinot gris at a lovely West End bar, he said "That was great. You talked about your book without saying 'graphic novel' once, or getting into the whole business about what these things are called". Well, of course! It's not a topic that I tend to talk about anyway (!), but with Eddie in the audience, well, I'd have to be completely stupid to venture into those waters!

A particularly delightful aspect of this event for me was that it was held outside on the back porch of the shop, in the balmy Brisbane evening. The audience was friendly and enthusiastic and gave some great feedback. I was especially touched by the super-excited reaction of the charmingly-named Lucia Bee of the Somerville School, who asked me if I'd like to be their writer/artist in residence for a few days next year. You bet I would. I love Brisbane.
PS - also received this lovely review recently. Beam!

Saturday, October 13, 2007


This post is a little overdue - it's a few weeks now since I promised Paul Macdonald (of The Children's Bookshop in Sydney) a few pictures of Daisy Buchanan as I first drew her... eight years ago, as a dirty, dirty bird. So, apologies, and here is the story of Daisy's evolution.

Daisy Buchanan, as she appears in my adaptation of The Great Gatsby, looks like this (on the left). She's fluffy, gleamingly gold-and-white, delicately - maybe even precariously - balanced and full of charm:
Of course she's also selfish, careless, and morally bereft. Which is why my original idea was to draw Daisy and her cohorts as dirty creatures, showing the prickles, the grot and corruption underneath their glittering surfaces. My first character drawing for Daisy looked like this:
As I played around (obsessively) with my needle-fine crow quill nibs, Daisy got more and more elaborate:
...and also less wire-haired and dirty-looking. Her feather-fuzz acquired a more sparkly feel, and her head became rounder and more coiffed. A dirty Daisy just didn't seem quite... right. The more I thought about the book as a whole, the more wrong my original idea felt. A character like Daisy had to look beautiful, I realised, because allure, glamour and the glittering surface of things are so central to the world that Fitzgerald immerses us in. We need to experience that world and its privileged stars as gorgeously alluring, even as we see the emptiness, callousness and corruption beneath the polished skin. Making Daisy a dirty bird was not only going to be heavy-handed and obvious, but it would destroy the gossamer cloak of glamour that Fitzgerald spreads out for us over his Jazz Age tragedy.

So Daisy got even whiter, even more soft-and-sparkly...
...and her accessories got excruciatingly detailed. The motif on that armchair took forever to draw!

The problem with this incarnation was the face. It didn't have the scope for the subtle expression, suggestion, flirtation and emotion that is so important in Daisy's character. Daisy has to be able to seduce you with a tilt of her eyelashes, ensnare your sympathy against your will with a shy bite of her underlip, and betray you with a smirk. This strange creature's face, with its feather-rimmed eyes couldn't do that. I decided that Daisy's face had to be drawn with fewer lines, and with features far more capable of a range of subtle expression.

It was in the process of drawing the roughs for the book that Daisy really assumed her current form. I was drawing the characters very simply to plan the book out, and these lightly-cast forms and faces just appeared so much more lively and expressive than the extremely laboured original character drawings. Here's an example from right at the start of the roughs:
And as you can see, Daisy ended up looking very little like all those painstaking preliminary drawings, but instead took her final form from the quickly-pencilled roughs. I ended up doing the final drawings with a much sturdier steel nib than the little crow quills, and simplifying the characters a lot. The result, I think, is much more inviting to the eye.

So, could I have skipped all the bother (and the many, many hours!) of the original drawings and gone straight to the simpler forms? I don't think so. My inky gut tells me that all that initial extravagance was necessary, even though much of it was ultimately discarded. A couple of weeks ago, Shaun Tan and I got to discussing this very thing - and it turns out that he does something similar when developing an idea. Shaun explained that his initial drawings are often wildly "out there", detailed and extravagant, but that as he develops the idea, the visual elements are wound back to a less extreme form, one which works better, with greater possibility for engaging/communicating with the reader.

And hey - if it's good enough for Shaun Tan, it's sure as hell good enough for me!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

brush pen + wrestling + comics + brisbane... it has to be good

Yippee! My new brush pen with ink cartridges (Pentel GFKP) arrived from Will's Quills in Sydney today. I'm still enjoying its less fancy sister, the Pentel Aquash, too. Mmmm... Very big thanks to Matt Huynh who put me onto this shop, which specialises in nibs and calligraphy brushes.

A bit slack with the blogging this past week, and we can blame that on mister J and the Fabulous Sebastian, whose emails are truly a force to be reckoned with. In between emails, I managed to turn 33 and the Big Squid turned 40. Food played a large part in our celebrating.

The next week includes events of all flavours:

Friday 12 October, 8 pm (in Melbourne)

The fun continues at the Aggressively Strange Fables exhibition, at North Bazaar, 222 High Street Northcote. North Bazaar is a great bar with good beers on tap, comfy chairs, pizza, and some very, very fine drawings on the walls.

This Friday night, the inimitable Bernard Caleo will chair a session about the new bloom of graphic novel publishing in Australia. His guests are the wonderful Erica Wagner, publisher at Allen & Unwin, cartoonist Bruce Mutard, whose book The Sacrifice is due out next year, and me.

Last Friday night, Bernard chaired a session on animation, where we were treated to some wonderful works by Pick Nick, Kirrily Schell, David Blumenstein and Mandy Ord. The films were spectacular (and sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes hypnotic), the conversation was scintillating, and Mr Caleo suffused the whole event with his characteristic warmth and enthusiasm. So I think this week's session will be fun too.

Sunday 14 October - all day (in Melbourne)

On Sunday, Station Street Fairfield goes carnival. This is our local shopping strip, and they turn on a fantastic street festival. Fairfield is a very food-oriented kind of place (for those not familiar with the area) and the eating side of things is well taken care of.

But the BEST thing about the fair is, of course, the wrestling! The past two years they've had a ring set up in the middle of the street. Dodgy costumes, trash talk, outrageous moves and hilarious commentary - it had me grinning like an idiot for days, and not-so-secretly wishing that I could do that. And not just on the page.

So I won't be in the ring this year either... just watching wistfully from the sidelines and trying not to drop souvlaki all down the front of my top.

Next week - Thursday 18 October, 6.30 pm (in Brisbane)

The lovely people at The Avid Reader bookshop have invited me to do a talk there about The Great Gatsby graphic adaptation.

The address is 193 Boundary Street, West End. I'm looking forward to this, because I love going to Brisbane, and the bookshop is, from all accounts, excellent.

Monday, October 1, 2007

This Is Not Art - Newcastle rocks out

Ok, before I forget, here's a link to Chewie's photos from the Sydney Kinokuniya gig.

I'm just back from Newcastle, and the carnival of delights that is the This Is Not Art festival (TINA). Once a year, Newie is overrun with crazy Young People - scribblers of all kinds, zinesters, music-merchants, performers, ranters, thinkers, bloggers, electro-gadgeteers, spectacular costume-wearers, and every other flavour of artist and fancier you can think of- and the result is... kaleidoscopic. Sadly, I took very few photos - too busy having fun.

This year TINA was organised by a very talented crew (Tom Doig, Nic Low and Kelly-Lee Hickey were the big three, I believe) who packed the program with an amazing array of fabulous stuff. Just as exciting was the social buzz of the fest - at every turn you end up bumping into old friends or making new ones. In amongst some much-needed aimless drifting in the sunshine, I caught some great panels. A real stand-out was one called "Untold Stories", featuring (among others) super-author Anna Funder (of Stasiland fame), super-sharp-penned writer/journo Anna Krien and super-dooper artist and writer, Shaun Tan.

Speaking of whom, in the photo above you can see Shaun and me, revelling in an exhibition called Taking Eye-Candy From Strangers. It was in a little shopfront-turned-gallery, packed with amazing comic art, much of it painted directly onto the walls, and I believe we are pictured having a good laugh at a piece by the highly talented Pat Grant. Shaun is speaking, which generally means that he is saying something fascinating, and opening up a previously undiscovered door in his listener's head - in this case mine.

Shaun and I did an "in conversation" panel on Friday, titled A thousand pictures tells a million words, and I found it a fantastic experience. It's quite rare that Shaun and I get to sit down for an hour together and have a proper talk, because we're often both rushing in seven different directions at once. So it was a real treat to have this chat, and share some thoughts about the interaction between words and pictures, the structure of strips and pages, language, suggestion and symbols and the process of working on a long, long graphic novel. I always learn something when I talk with Shaun, and this was no exception. We had a friendly, appreciative crowd, and the conversation felt almost as natural as if we were just yakking together over a cup of tea.

There was a very healthy cartoonist contingent at TINA, including such luminaries as David Blumenstein (whose latest Nakedfella comic is so hilarious, I made a complete fool of myself reading it in a cafe), Jo Waite, Pat Grant, Matt "Stikman" Huynh, Leigh Rigozzi, Sarah Howell, Ben Constantine and Mel Stringer. The promised event involving a comics jam with images projected live onto a wall never happened, but there were plenty of opportunities for impromptu jamming. Must admit that I didn't draw much at all. Mostly I was just chilling out after a pretty hectic few days!

On Saturday night the phenomenally energetic Tom Doig hosted the "Mega mega launch" in which 30-something (that's number, not age) participants launched their book or other baby into the world. I gave Gatsby its second launch, without any tears this time! The Mega mega launch was a great event, and it was fabulous to see how enthusiastic and generous and encouraging the TINA crowd was. Everyone got lots of applause, and there was a feeling of genuine celebrations of works of all shapes and sizes. Fuzzy warm glow all round - which pretty much sums up the mood of TINA.

Sunday was the zine fair, which is shorthand for "massive festival of cool art stuff on trestle tables". The zine fair was spread out in the park, with a stage for music, lots of picnicking on blankets (TINA was amply supplied with delicious vegie food at all times) and... zombies! Oh, joy! Those who know me, know that I looooove zombies. Those who don't, check out some of my zombie comics here. And here are a few of the stylish Undead, out for a day in the park:

And thank YOU, nurse!