Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Death of Hope

Most of my life has been dedicated to storytelling of one kind or another. I’ve had my finger in a lot of creative pies, including animation, live-action film, theatre, comics, prose, improv and sketch comedy. I love them all, of course, and I’ve focused more exclusively on one or another at different times in my life.

The one I love the most, and the one that really broke my heart, is animation.

When I was in my teens, I had three great interests; writing, drawing and acting.

The Rescuers is one of Disney Studios
most underrated post-Walt Films

One fateful night, I took a date to see Disney’s The Rescuers. About twenty minutes into the film I finally managed to get my arm on my date’s shoulder, and was able to concentrate on the screen for a bit. That’s when a few important ideas began to filter into my dense teenaged brain. Somebody had to draw this stuff! They drew characters, and made them act, and told stories! It was like an explosion in my brain. Everything I dug rolled into one amazing medium.

After high school I attended the exceptional animation course at Sheridan College in Oakville. I really threw myself into that course, worked very hard, and dreamed of working for Disney one day.

But, as we all know, reality and dreams seldom correspond perfectly.

I came into animation in the early 1980’s, which was a very bad time. It was a sort of perfect storm of negative energy for the animation business.

I also made a few incredibly poor choices.

First, some truly evil ad executive realized that you could create a series of animated advertisements based on toys and run it as a TV series. Shows like He-Man, Transformers, Pound Puppies and Care Bears exploded onto the Saturday morning programming schedules. Second, some frugal financial genius discovered that you could farm out your actual animation to Korea and Taiwan and cut your bottom line significantly.

Mok, beautifully animated for Rock and Rule by Robin Budd

Thirdly, for many years Toronto’s Nelvana Studios had been making wonderful, animated TV specials. But, after the failure of their feature film, Rock and Rule, they fell on hard times, and decided to do a bunch of “toy shows”. The first was Strawberry Shortcake. I had done some in-betweening at Atkinson Film Arts in Ottawa, but I needed work badly. I did an animation test and a layout test for Nelvana. I guess my animation test wasn’t too spectacular. (I didn’t find Strawberry Shortcake very inspiring.) However, they liked my layout test and offered me work in that department.

Here’s where I made a very bad decision.

I said yes.

While working in layout, I was doing nothing to improve my limited animation skills. I liked the money and the freedom that came with it, and like any young man, I wanted to prove to my parents that I could make a living. So I spent a lot of years working on toy shows, mostly Care Bears, which can really stomp on a guy’s love for the medium. Later I got fed up with layout, but by that time all the actual animation was being done overseas. There were very few opportunities left for animators in North America. To escape layout I flipped over into storyboarding, and did that for a few more years. Storyboarding has served me well, but by that time, I’d forgotten everything I knew about animating.

So near, and
yet, so far.

I had a few decent opportunities, like a brief stint with Bluth-Sullivan Studios in Dublin. Unfortunately, my ability to make good choices failed me again, and I foolishly left the job for all the wrong reasons. I had a tantalizing close call where I almost got to work on the original Bruce Timm designed Batman series with a Toronto company called Lightbox. Unfortunately they couldn’t work out a deal with Warner Brothers, and I was left high and dry. Later, I worked with one of my heroes, Ren and Stimpy creator John Cricfalusi on The Ripping Friends. I thought this might be a turning point in my animation career, but the show came off badly and John was... well... let's say, challenging to work with.

That was pretty much the last nail in the coffin of my hopes for animation. By then animation was primarily being produced by young business school graduates rather than by people who learned the medium in the trenches, and computer animation was taking over from classical animation. Sadly, I have no digital animation skills whatsoever.

After 15 plus years in the business I had never worked on anything I was proud of, or thought was any good, or wanted to show to anyone. I gave up, focused my creative energies on other forms like comic books, improv and sketch comedy, and let the dream die.

But, I sill love the animation medium, which I think is one of the most expressive, adaptable and engaging in the world.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Seeds of Obsession

Where does obsession begin?

Let’s explore my own fixation on comics, and it’s origins.

Like any kid growing up in the sixties, I read lots of comics. I’ve mentioned I was  a fan of the TV western called Fury, so I remember snapping up a lot of western comics. I also read lots of typical "kiddie" comics, like Archie, and Bugs Bunny, and several titles from Harvey Comics. Once again, I received my impetus from TV. They were running the Casper cartoons, so I read the comics of course, and by association I became interested in Hot Stuff, the Harvey title about the mischievous little devil.

At age five or six, I wasn't really a collector yet, but I was very attached to my comics. As happened to many collectors when they were kids, mom cleaned up my room one day and chucked out all the comics I’d been stacking on one corner of my book shelf. My mom only did that once!

I pulled the freak-out tantrum of all time.

I was absolutely outraged. 

After that, I guess you could say I was a collector, though only in a casual way.

I remember three comics from that first decade of my life that made a huge impact, and set the stage for my superhero obsession.

When I was about six years old our family got to spend a weekend at the cottage of some friend of the family. I discovered a stack of comics there, and amongst them was a fat, collected version of several Lee-Ditko Hulk stories from Tales to Astonish. Ol' Greenskin's first encounter with The Leader. I think there was a Kirby origin story thrown in there as well. The comic had no cover, so I've never been able to track down the actual item, but I remember seriously digging it.

I really wanted to take it home, but my mom drew the line at stealing other kids comics.

Around the same time I remember going nuts for Action Comics #365 with it's awesome Ross Andru cover of Superman being shot into the sun. I also remember Issue #78 of the FF by Lee and Kirby. I spent hours staring at the splash page of the team leaping out of Sub-Atomica, and spent hours more utterly fascinated by the Thing's dramatic transformation back into Ben Grimm.

But, the book that really did me in was Incredible Hulk #150. I was 12 by this time, and I was really ready to become completely obsessed with something. I thought it was going to be cars and motorcycles, but this single, fateful comic steered me in a much nerdier direction. One day, for some reason, my dad bought a short stack of comics. I have no idea why, but I found them sitting there, on his dresser, waiting to pounce on me. I don't recall what the other comics were, but that Hulk # 150 really grabbed me. I think because it had a motorcycle gang in it, and I totally dug choppers, and because it resonated with that earlier Hulk experience. But, what ultimately tweaked my tiny little brain is this scene, Written by Archie Goodwin, and beautifully depicted by Trimpe and Severin of the Hulk ripping out the side of a mountain with a girl perched on top. 

What? He ripped out the side of a mountain? Holy Crap! 

Oh Baby!
I was completely in awe
of the unbelievable power
of the Hulk!

I couldn't believe it. It's still one of my all-time favorite comics.

That self-same day I sallied forth on my trusty 10 speed bike and searched out more Hulk comics at all the local convenience and drug stores. I quickly found issues #149 and #151. This was the first time I put together the whole idea of issue numbers, and continuity. I vowed right then and there to obtain every single issue of the Hulk. 

That was the moment I became a collector.

That was the birth of my obsession.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Cyber-Hurt

It’s imperative these days for an artist, or any professional really, to have a presence on the web. For me this is an increasingly frustrating challenge. My last year at Sheridan College was the first year they offered a computer graphics course, so I just barely missed the digital wave.  (Not that I would have had the foresight to hop on my surfboard anyway.)

So, I have very little facility with computers and the strange digital world to which they connect us. I have neither the training to create my own web site, nor the funds to hire someone else to do it for me. This leaves me with these blogs, and art-based web hosting sites in which to showcase my work.

For some time, I had a bunch of my artwork up on a site called ComicSpace, which was great! It was super simple to navigate and post artwork and messages. I never had any trouble managing things there, in spite of my cyber-ignorance. It was marvellously idiot-proof.

But, ultimately, the site changed hands and was completely ruined by its new Ant Overlords. What had once been a simple little community of professional, semi-professional and wannabe comic artists became forever tainted. No longer simple and easy to navigate, thousands of postings lost, all hope destroyed.

Since then, I have been looking for an alternative art host, with little success. I have tried DeviantArt, where I was unable to upload anything successfully, and where there were no step-by-step instructions on how to do so. (Or, at least, none I could effectively decipher.) A recent attempt at posting on ConceptArt seems to be only marginally more successful. I’m still unable to fathom how to best navigate the site and I can't seem to view my work the way I see the work of others displayed. As far as I can tell, the art of every member on the site has been put on the same huge page of thumbnails, with no way to look anyone up by name, or alphabetically, or by subject matter. It’s just a sea of tiny pictures out of which you randomly click one to see the art. Amidst the vast numbers, I was unable to find my own entry.

Even posting here on this blog has been frequently frustrating.

I’m certain most of this is due to my own ignorance, and that any ten year old can probably make the site sing and dance, but there you go. Then again, if ComicSpace was so easy, why can’t these other sites create a simple straightforward interface?

I dunno, but it’s driving me nuts!

Anyway, here are some pencil drawings I wanted to post on these sites, and apparently failed to do so. I hope you like them.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Historical Document #1

A piece I created for Mark Innes's
graphic story collection

For me, words and pictures have always been a team.

            The first thing I did the moment after I learned my letters was read a story, the second thing I did was write a story of my own, and the third thing I did was add pictures to my prose. I created spot illustrations for my stories at first, but after I discovered the wonders of the comic book, I immediately began telling my tales in sequential arts form. 

            My addiction to film and television was forming at the same time. There was a TV show about a boy and his horse called Fury, to which I took an immediate shine. I loved the show, but it was never enough for me, and I created pages upon pages of my own comic book stories featuring Joey Newton and his noble steed. Each page lovingly crafted on multi-coloured sheets of newsprint from a big pad with cartoon faces on the front.

In the beginning, I was certain I would grow up to be a writer. This was primarily due to an enterprising mother who had me reading from grade school primers long before my entry into the hallowed halls of education. It was secondarily due to a very encouraging fourth grade teacher in Port Rowan Ontario, one Mrs. Knowles, who once made a big fuss over a story I wrote. In keeping with the western theme of my Fury stories, I fulfilled a short story writing assignment with a little yarn called Jomia the Indian Boy. (Yes, yes, I know, but political correctness had not yet seeped into the culture in 1968.) In the story Jomia is separated from his family on a hunting trip and ends up trekking across the plains to find a whole new tribe to take him in as their own. I’m not certain if I was having issues with my own family on the day I wrote this, but let’s ignore the sub textual probabilities for now.

My teacher was very enthusiastic about the story. She typed it up, along with a few others, and bound them in construction paper covers and neatly printed the titles on the front. (I still have the darn thing and its one of my most coveted treasures.) The stories, and other work by students, were displayed for a parent’s open house at the school. When my Mom and Dad arrived my teacher positively gushed about how much she liked the story.

I really took the affirmation to heart.

I decided right there, at age eight, that I would be a writer. 

However, I rarely wrote a story that didn’t include a drawing, which was my other great passion. Goaded on by a “Draw This Pirate” art school ad in a magazine, I started drawing and never stopped. However, while in senior public school in Tillsonburg Ontario, another teacher made an indelible impression on my life. He passed by my desk one fateful day while I was scribbling out a picture of The Incredible Hulk, and blithely commented; “Hey, that’s not bad, have you ever thought of doing that for a living?” Heck no, I’d never thought of doing that for a living! In that very moment, with the capricious daring of youth, I shifted lanes from writing to drawing as a career path, and continued merrily on my way.

Many encouraging art teachers followed and I never once hesitated in my new direction.

Still, my passions remained the same, and even though I went to College Avenue Secondary School in Woodstock to take their exceptional art classes, and later studied classical animation at Sheridan College in Oakville, I never stopped writing. Short stories, ideas for comics, and later a lot of sketch comedy and short plays. I even made a few bucks with it from time to time.

It’s only recently that I’m trying to get back to my prose roots and see if I can really be a writer. If it’s not too late, of course. There are several reasons why I’m doing this now, but I’ll enumerate them at another time. Right now I’m just trying to get back in the groove with some short stories, a few TV and film scripts, and a novel that I’m pounding away on.

In the meantime, enjoy the remaining pages of my story for The Comic Eye.