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28th Feb 2014, 12:33 PM

Jon, Max, and Mac

An Evening with Chip Kidd and Chris Ware

(photo by Alan Dubinsky)
Jonathan here. Last night (February 18) I spent the night with my deisgner friend Cliff Hansen in downtown Portland, attending an incredible conversation between designer Chip Kidd and graphic artist Chis Ware.
Both Chip and Chris are legendary in their fields, and you know who they are... though you may not know that you do. Let me help with that. Here's a list of books that Chip Kidd has designed and done covers for: Jurassic Park, The Road, All the Pretty Horses, Turn of the Century, Geek Love... you can see more examples here, all you really needed to know was Jurassic Park anyway, that logo is EVERYWHERE.
Chip Kidd also happens to be one of America's biggest comic book fans and is a walking encyclepedia of comic history and knowledge. That, and their longterm friendship, made him the perfect foil for Chris Ware last night. Ware you may know as the creator of Jimmy Corrigan, but he's also done a million other things, including some of the most iconic New Yorker covers in the magazine's history.
Last night's talk started by covering Ware's history in the art form. Chris is soft spoken, to the point where even the Schnitzer's sensitive microphones were having trouble fully capturing his voice. I found myself having to think over every sentence he uttered, reconstructing them in my mind and making sure I had the words right. This made the evening feel incredibly intimiate, as I subconciously took myself off the balcony I was seated on and placed myself next to Ware on the stage, leaning forward to catch every word. So intent was I on understanding him, it took me a while to realize he was gently incorporating his philosophy in with a discussion of his history.
I would summarize Ware's philosophy in four stages.
"do not compromise the art," or "let the art speak in the way it needs to"
Chris said that he doesn't really write scripts, but rather develops the story as he goes, letting the art and characters tell him what comes next. As a result some of his comics have continued for years, such as Rusty Brown, which was begun in 2001 and is ongoing, As these comics evolve, they have taken drastic turns in their direction, often incorporating events in Chris' own life, such as the birth of his daughter. In one memorable spread from one of his works, Chris had drawn a life-size sleeping baby as the spine divider between the pages, using each page to represent life before and after having children, illustrating without words how incredible the transformation is.
"art is a communication between the reader and the writer/artist, creating interactive art"
In one of my favorite moments of the lecture, Chris decried the method of viewing art in museums: "If you don't understand a piece in a museum, you feel stupid and frustrated, like you don't know enough about that artist or his history. It's your fault. But in a comic book, if you don't like the comic or get the point, you just say that the creator is bad." Chris asserted that he prefers this more casual connection that people feel with a graphic novelist, because it lets us be in more in touch with how the art is affecting us—we don't feel obligated by an aristocratic expectation of intelligence to instantly like it.
"art captures the world not as it is, but as we remember it"
If you follow any of the links I've posted to Chris' art, or look him up online, you'll quickly see he's one of the more unconventional artists of our time, contrasting simplistic art with extremely complicated and three-dimensional layouts. Chris explained this as wanting to capture the way we remember things: "As soon as you add detail to something, you are describing the way it is, not the way we think of things. We think in terms of shapes. This is why these characters [Charlie Brown, Tin Tin, Barnaby] are so memorable. They are blank faces with eyes, a nose, and a mouth. That's what we remember first when we think of people." Chris went on to also say that we think in concepts and connections, and that is why he tries to fit so much information onto one page. He believes it mirrors the way we think. He does have a point: as far as non-traditional layouts go, Chris is the king, and looking at one of his spreads does bring up the hectic way thoughts often meander across our minds, in a sort of free association game with whatever subject we are looking at. A further discussion of Chris' effect on the medium can be read at the AV Club's blog.
"Batman may be what gets you into comics, but Charlie Brown is what stays with you"
Another reason that Chip and Chris made such a great pairing on stage is because they are opposites. Chip Kidd is outspoken, loud, and colorful (as you can gather from his fantastic Ted Talk). Chris is quiet, pensive, and almost monochromatic in his lack of expression. Not to overemphasize this, but last night Chip could be said to represent the bright side of comics, everything held over from the golden age: the chipper colors, the bold speech bubbles, the storylines that end with Hitler getting KOed by Superman. Chris, then, is Peanuts: the comic without an immediate punch line, the punchline you have to grow into and learn to recognize and appreciate. Chris' storylines are definitely tragic, but they are accessibly tragic, and this was a point he continually wove in throughout the talk.
For example, one of his biggest Jimmy Corrigan storylines is Jimmy meeting his father, who he never knew while growing up. This is an event treated with utmost importance, but not exactly fanfare, and its resolution is not so much dramatic as it is dynamic. This mirrors Chris' own experience in meeting his own father, an event that took place over three hours at an arranged dinner, and a relationship that was concluded not long after, when his father passed away. "I didn't appreciate at the time how hard it must have been for him to reach out and make that first phone call to a child he had let grow up without him. And before I could appreciate it, he was gone." This is the kind of storyline Chris Ware offers readers: it is a storyline that is about perspective, understanding other people, and finding in them ourselves.

Few of us can relate to Bruce Wayne having his parents killed in front of him and then his decision to go fight crime... we can admire him, even desire him, but we can't really step into his shoes and say we have that perspecitve. However, all of us can relate to Charlie Brown's sighs and having the football continually pulled out from under him. And right now, which truly is the more inspiring story? In a society being racked by a horrendous economic crash, where budget cuts are chipping away at everything from education to social services, where artists and writiers and teachers are living out of the backs of their cars, is not the football analogy more apt? Do we need a Batman, someone who fights crime with billions of dollars and gadgets that we will never be able to use ourselves, or do we find inspiration in the story of the kid who keeps trying, who even through the sighs never gives up, and maintains his dream of one day kicking that football?

28th Feb 2014, 12:23 PM

Jon, Max, and Mac

Working with Designer Cliff Hansen on the Text Crawl

Hello, everyone! Max here. This is what we fondly call our "crawl" for the comic, influenced by the opening titles of Star Wars and Blade Runner. We collaborated with Portland graphic designer Cliff Hansen on this layout.

We basically told Cliff, "hey, maybe we could do something with gears" and Jonathan did a little mock up with some gears framing the text. Cliff took it to the next level, transforming the image into a three-dimensional model using a mixture of InDesign, Blender, and Photo Shop (Cliff is a master of many programs).

Cliff wanted this to have a sense of movement and we think he captured this perfectly. Looking at the crawl, the reader can easily imagine the gears in the background turning as the text is flashed onto the screen by a flickering projector. This feels like a panel that is going to keep moving: we have only a brief moment to read what it has to say.

Cliff sat with us one night and we actually got to see some of the process. All I can say is... wow. Watching anyone who is a master at their craft is an honor, and Cliff is not only a master, but an artist who pays attention to every detail. There is as much deliberation in the placement of every word on this page as there was in writing them.

Keep an eye on Cliff's upcoming work at his website:

27th Feb 2014, 11:50 PM

Jon, Max, and Mac

Independent Women of Graphic Novels—Meeting Gail Simone

"This arc is one of the single best I've read in years." 

"The stakes are at their highest when the Joker is involved... and this is a tale with harrowing, intense emotion."

"Considering Gail's history, it is evident that this incarnation of Lara will not only be rugged as ever, but also complex."

Jonathan here. Tonight (February 26) Max and I were at Things From Another World in Northeast Portland, having the time of our life meeting Gail Simone. If you don't know Gail, then take another look at the quotes above. They are all blurbs taken from reviews of her graphic novels. Gail is a highly respected writer in the industry, and for good reason. She has been an integral part of changing the industry's use of women in storylines.

Gail got her start as a writer by drawing attention to the way the industry throws away its female characters, often through having them killied, raped, or otherwise suffering traumatic indignities as a plot device for a male character to come in and save them. Gail's characters are a direct response to this problem. In her long career, she has worked with and devloped some of the strongest females in graphics, including Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Red Sonja, and now the revamped Lara Croft (in her debut comic book appearance).

This is a very interesting study for me and Max, as one of the things we've always tried to be concious of in Dahlia is how to create a female protaganist who stands on her own, who has to conquer things without the help of her male counterparts, and who can be put in dangerous or vulnerable situations without losing her independence. Tonight, we got to hear Gail's perspective on this. Things From Another World was packed with Gail's local fans, who spent an hour asking her questions about her current projects. Here were some of the topics and Gail's responses.

On Lara Croft

Gail was initially hesitant to work on a character who had been typecast for so long as the busty version of Indiana Jones, and who in the new games initially seemed to be someone who the player needed to save. But then she played the new game and got excited. "She is a much stronger character in the new game. You play the new game and you don't want to save Lara, you want to BE Lara."

Gail played the game multiple times and talked with the writers of the game in order to further develop Lara's motivations. "In a game, the motivations are often to go somewhere to do something to push the game forward. It's more about motivating the player. So you have to translate that a little bit when you move things to a new medium, and you really have to delve into what is going on behind the game."

On Batgirl and gadgets

A guy standing next to me pointed out that Batgirl doesn't use a lot of gadgets. "Well, she isn't Bruce Wayne; she doesn't have his resources," Gail answered. "She does have intelligence and strength, and she has to use that. But also she has an independent streak. She doesn't want to rely on gadgets, because she has this need to overcome her own fears and her own flaws and to prove to herself that she can do that." Gail paused for a moment here and then smiled, adding, "I do think gadgets are super cool, though."

On the process of writing

A couple good questions came up about the process of writing. Someone asked if it was difficult having to write to a deadline, to which Gail explained that she actually usually has a lot of time to prepare her stories. "When I was working on Wonder Woman, I had about eight months notice before writing the issue in which I would go back and read and reread all the Wonder Woman I could get my hands on. I would immerse myself in the world and then when it came time to write, I had all these ideas ready."

Continuing the topic of immersion, Gail was asked if she draws on modern events or headlines to create her plots. "Not headlines, no," she answered. "I'm not big into ripping from headlines. I pay attention to what's going on in the world, the social issues we're dealing with, and I work with those emotions. But the plots come from the characters. I immerse myself in them and learn what their issues and obstacles are and then push them to deal with them."

On the absence of Oracle in the New 52

This has been a big question in the DC world, what with the "New 52" restart of its superhero world. Batgirl's paralysis (a twist penned by Alan Moore in The Killing Joke) which led to her becoming Oracle in the original world has been revamped in the New 52, with the paralysis healed. This has left (as one fan tonight put it) "a hole in the universe." That same fan asked if Gail is planning on bringing back the character. Gail's answer: "Batgirl is younger, emotionally, in this version than she was before. She doesn't know everything, she's still learning. She has the potential to become Oracle, but she's not quite there yet."

The night ended on a hugely positive note, when Gail wrote an extremely beautiful message to me on the inside cover of my new copy of Batgirl: Volume 3 (Death of the Family). It's a personal message, so I won't share it here, but if you're reading, Gail, thank you so much. Whenever I'm feeling any doubt in my writing, I'll read your message.

And that's the kind of writer Gail is. She makes her readers feel strong, and she's put that to great use in speaking directly to a demographic that, a mere twenty years ago, was hardly represented in the industry. She's taken characters like Batgirl who were once little more than bodies in skin-tight leather and transformed them into statements of independence that have less to do with wearing a mask and more to do with being a woman.

Gail's is an ongoing struggle (for instance, Gail is currently one of the only female writers working for DC comics), but she's set a fantastic role model for others to follow, both male and female.