Sunday, April 25, 2010

In Search Of . . . links to the story

As an aspiring writer, I've sought out any opportunity to work at my craft and find an audience for what my fiction. One of the first places I found for this was the burst culture site, 50 Years From Now, which has sadly become - as the creator of the site said - a virtual graveyard.

It was a place where writers could offer up stories positing what the world might be like 50 years from now (hence the title). It was a collective, which meant that one couldn't contradict what had come before in any of the stories but if one were creative enough it would be easy to carve out a little niche. The catch was, no lasers or crazy sci-fi stuff, and nothing more than 1000 words. With that, I dropped in a short story that stood on its own, then I began a serialized novella, entitled "In Search Of . . ."

I'll save the inspiration for this tale for a later post. But for now, if anyone is coming to this site and wants to play catch-up (the latest chapter is right below this post, but there are ten more prior to that one), the links to the "story so far" can be found below. And I will add to this as later installments are published here. But for now, click below with part 1 and enjoy:

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6
part 7
part 8
part 9
part 10
part 11


Thursday, April 8, 2010

In Search Of . . . pt. XI

The sky was heavy, a steel gray curtain draped across the sky. Mid-November and snow was in the air. Winter was coming early.

Over the past weeks, Keenan Archer had come to think of this front stoop up from the Mount Mariah church as his own. The clutter of trash, the crumbling plaster, the deep cracks along the sidewalk – they were all familiar to him now, comfortable the way an old pair of shoes feel when you slip them on in the morning. He’d been waiting, creating a persona through which he could infiltrate Karen Kaczmerak’s world, observing her habits, talking to people in the neighborhood, bribing when necessity dictated it.

Karen didn’t come out often. And when she did, she always had a big guy with her, Jamal. He was the local guardian angel, looking out for people, helping when he could. He seemed legit, not playing any angles, just embedded into the community. Keenan wasn’t looking for trouble, especially not from this guy. So he sat, and he waited.

It was shortly after ten when Karen emerged from the old church. She had a long, black cloak draped over her, only her lower legs and face visible beneath the heavy fabric. She didn’t look in his direction as Keenan stood up to follow.

Archer hung back, watching from a safe distance. Karen led him through Marcus Garvey Park, over to Malcolm X, and then two blocks down to a hundred-eighteenth. She stopped in front of a brownstone and paused. She seemed to be looking for something, but Archer couldn’t see what that might be. Then, at some unseen signal, she walked up the front steps, taking care to avoid the decay of the aging concrete. Once Karen disappeared, Archer followed.

Inside, the first floor was almost completely dark, bits of gray light peering in from the room on Keenan’s left. He could hear voices upstairs. Letting his eyes adjust, he scanned the stairwell for any rotted steps before making his way into the upper reaches of the building.

On the third floor, Archer found the crowd. The upper hallway was better illuminated – a combination of large gaps in the wall and, he assumed, well placed mirrors within each of the front rooms. Weaving through the knots of people, Archer came to the realization this was a bazaar. In each room a variety of people with tables, or cloths spread over the floor, had any number of items for sale – homemade remedies, old transistors and other electronics Keenan had only seen in vids, maps to foodstores that he knew to be fake, and a myriad of unnecessary baubles.

In one of the back rooms, Archer spotted Karen picking through some jewelry. From where he stood they appeared authentic, but Archer imagined they were only re-appropriated metals or weathered glass. He walked over to the corner where an elderly woman sat across from Karen, her trinkets spread out on a faded red cloth. Karen was kneeling, examining one of the pieces – a necklace with a deep green triangle hanging at its end. Keenan leaned over, scanning the pieces as if he were also shopping. When Karen stood up she bumped into him.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right,” said Keenan, and then he let his jaw slack just a little. “You’re the girl looking for her brother, aren’t you?”

Karen looked at him, puzzled. “Who are you?”

“Sorry,” said Keenan. “My name’s David Janson.” He held out his hand, but Karen refused to take it, taking a step back instead.

“I know Jamal,” Keenan said.

“Jamal never mentioned you,” she said, looking around the room to see who was listening.

“I don’t know him that well. He’s friends with my boy, Jackson.”

Karen glared at Keenan, working her way closer to the hallway.

Keenan spread his arms wide. “Listen,” he said. “Jamal was telling us about your situation one day. He showed us your pic, told us to keep a look out for your brother. Jax knew I used to do investigative work up on the border, asked me specifically to see if I could find anything.”

“Does Jamal know you’re looking?” asked Karen.

“No. I didn’t want to have him getting your hopes up until I had something concrete.”

“Why should I believe you?” Karen took another step toward the hall.

“Why not?” said Keenan. “Jamal hangs with Jackson, doesn’t he?”

Karen gave no indication whether this was true or not.

Keenan continued. “I’ve got no reason to hurt you. If I did, would I try it in a crowded place like this?” Keenan swiveled, looking around at the people milling about.

“Why don’t we start over.” Keenan held out his hand again. “Hello. My name is David Janson. I understand you’re looking for your brother. I would like to help, but it would be beneficial if I could learn a little more about him. Maybe we could get an iced coffee, talk things over? I know this Vietnamese woman, sells it out of her place. It’s fantastic.”

Karen’s brow wrinkled, considering.

“I promise, I won’t bite. Won’t even sit on the same side of the table,” said Keenan, the hint of a smile tugging at his lips. “And I’ll keep my hands where you can see them. No card tricks.” He held up his hands, turned them as if he were a stage magician convincing the crowd of his sincerity.

“Okay,” said Karen. “But, just talk.”

“Just talk,” said Keenan.

to be continued . . .

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Steve Bissette on labeling, censorship and the DC ratings controversy from 1986-87

If you're unaware, Steve Bissette - acclaimed artist for Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing - along with John Totleben, Rick Veitch, and other talented creators - as well as the creator of Tyrant, Bissette's aborted comic about the life of a Tyrannosaurus Rex - has a blog he regularly updates. And recently, he has compiled a 12-part essay on the ratings war of 1986-87.

With DC comics finally surpassing Marvel in market share, for a time, thanks to groundbreaking works from Alan Moore and Frank Miller (Watchmen & Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, respectively), a furor built up around these and other comics over the adult nature of the narratives. With one faction calling for ratings on books (and an extreme branch calling for books with adult material not even to be produced), Moore and Miller, along with a number of prominent creators such as Howard Chaykin and Marv Wolfman, pushed back against this edict for a number of reasons - actions that saw Wolfman fired from DC for speaking out and Alan Moore walking away from mainstream comics.

Using primary sources such as The Comics Journal, Comics Buyer's Guide, personal letters from Moore, et al., along with his personal dealings in the comic industry at the time, Bissette lays out what happened and what it meant for those creators who followed. It's a well thought out, even-handed series of essays that enlightens a time that, for me, the heyday of my comic collecting. Important, not just as an historical document, but also as a warning against ratings (as ubiquitous as they have become). Ratings don't work, and if you think differently, you should read this series from Bissette. Hit the links below:

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6
part 7
part 8
part 9
part 10
part 11
part 12

Thursday, April 1, 2010


For Your Consideration: Scott Morse’s The Barefoot Serpent
By Chris Beckett
FRONT PAGE: Scott Morse is one of the most talented artists working in comics today and many of his creations are contemporary classics. One of his most experimental and ambitious graphic novels is The Barefoot Serpent published by Top Shelf. An amazing piece of art that rewards its audience with each subsequent reading, this is an important book that belongs on everyone’s shelf.
The 411:
Written & Drawn by Scott Morse
128 pages, $14.95
Full color & black and white with grey tones
What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):
Scott Morse is an amazingly talented artist, and in over a decade of creating comics, he has amassed an impressive body of work. One of his most ambitious projects came in 2003 when Top Shelf published The Barefoot Serpent. A unique graphic novel that combines a biography of Akira Kurosawa with a tale of a young girl’s family vacation on Hawaii, this creation is an important step in the evolution of comic storytelling. Rather than presenting these two stories separately as a typical collection, Morse combines them into a single piece. The tale of the haole girl (a term for white children in Hawaiian) rests in the middle of this book while the Kurosawa biography bookends it. To better differentiate these two narratives, Morse paints the biography with lush, vibrant colors formatting it as a children’s picture book while telling the Hawaiian tale as a black and white comic, albeit with Morse’s very individualistic comic book stylings. On the surface, these two stories seem to have little in common other than their settings falling within the greater Pacific Ocean, but a closer reading of The Barefoot Serpent shows that the fusion of these two tales actually proves the cliché of “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.”
Akira Kurosawa is a legendary filmmaker, having garnered tremendous critical praise and won multiple awards for films like Rashomon, Yojimbo, and The Seven Samurai. Despite his achievements, Kurosawa’s life was not easy, and even his success within the film industry was never assured. Kurosawa experienced terrible grief as a young man when his brother Heigo committed suicide. This weighed heavily on Akira, and he felt it imperative that he be successful and make his parents proud. He did not wish to suck them dry as they supported him in his creative aspirations.
Kurosawa eventually realized his dream of directing films and earned a reputation as a very precise filmmaker, and in 1951 his movie Rashomon received the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival. But fame is fleeting, and when Kurosawa joined with three other filmmakers – naming themselves The Four Knights – Akira made their first film. It was a disaster, and like his brother Heigo, he too attempted suicide. Luckily, his son found him and, along with Akira’s wife and daughter, nursed him back to health. Eventually, Kurosawa returned to moviemaking. Epitomizing the hope that was often found in his characters, Kurosawa went on to a long, prosperous life that was filled with great triumphs of artistic merit. Even today, Akira Kurosawa is considered by many film scholars to be one of the top two or three movie directors ever. His movies are instilled with a vibrancy and humanity that is almost unmatched by any other filmmaker’s, and the legacy he has left will live on for many years.
Settled between either end of this biography is the story of the young haole girl. As her Dad sits on the beach drinking Mai Tais and her mother goes off on her own, the girl must fend for herself and embarks upon her own excursion. Coming across a young boy carving a wooden mask, she latches onto him and discovers a reluctant guide. The boy complains loudly, and is chastised by his mother and uncle for his rude behavior, but the two kids eventually warm to one another as a friendship blossoms – one that the little girl needed.
The girl and her family ventured to this tropical paradise in order to escape the dark cloud hanging over them. Unwilling to speak about the tragedy they experienced, they choose to ignore their feelings hoping they might dissolve in the Hawaiian surf. But instead of distractions, the family finds themselves surrounded by their grief. In one part of the island, the mother encounters a dog that ignored one puppy as it walked in front of a moving car and her other pup as it starved to death. On the beach, the girl’s father awakes to an artist asking where his son – which he was painting as he stood beside the sleeping man – ran off to. And the young girl receives a visit from the Night Marchers, ancient spirits that walk the island. The second time the girl encounters the marchers she recognizes one of them as her dead brother. He took his own life, leaving the rest of his family with nothing but questions and a necessity to continue with their lives.
Contrary to the simple animation style that is a signature of Scott Morse’s work, The Barefoot Serpent is a complex and challenging piece of graphic fiction both structurally and thematically. Weaving themes of depression, sorrow, and ultimately – hope – throughout each of the narratives, Morse creates a multi-layered book that is touching and heartfelt. Each narrative thread relates back to the main theme of the book, but Morse refuses to talk down to his audience. He is talented enough that many of the thematic reiterations are hidden upon an initial reading. But when one returns to the book, it becomes evident that those thematic elements were sitting there all along. It is a special book that allows for equal enjoyment upon returning to it, and a more rarefied piece of fiction that is able to expand upon that initial reading with subsequent ones. This is one of those books.
An Interview with Scott Morse:
Chris Beckett: When Akira Kurosawa's brother takes his own life in your book I had to go back and re-read that page a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly. The matter-of-fact writing style you used coupled with your animation-influenced artwork made that particular part of the story very jarring, and consequently it resonated with me long afterward. Is this intentional on your part or is it a happy result of your particular art style juxtaposed with the stories you wish to tell?
Scott Morse: This was completely planned through the aesthetic of the whole book. I wanted the book to feel like a children's book, an old Golden Book, through both design and writing styles, to juxtapose the impact of the issues at hand. With such a heavy issue as depression, and ultimately suicide, at play, I felt it was best to ease the reader through it visually and through the prose. So aesthetically, the reader would feel more comfortable "talking" about it on one level, and experience it through a sort of "haze" on another, much the same way some people react when they're given bad news. The overall effect has proven to affect people as a very jarring experience, unexpected, as a sort of dream that continues to linger through into the bulk of the main fictional story, where it's juxtaposed with the family.

Beckett: What precipitated the choice of using color art for Kurosawa's tale and black and white for the haole girl's tale?
Scott Morse: I mixed it up to strengthen the juxtaposition. It's two stories that interrelate, and I wanted to show where the breaking points were, primarily, but on another level, I wanted to show the lush nature of real life versus the more theoretical "lessons" of the fictional tale. It's a stretch, I know, but aesthetically, I think it helped give the book a different tone than other books offered in the current market.

Beckett: Did you originally think the way in which you told this story, bookending the little girl's story with Kurosawa's tale, would work? Why, or why not?
Scott Morse: I had no idea...I knew it worked for me, and I was trained to believe in your gut instincts. "Selling" an idea of juxtaposition is always a trick, with the built-in problem of convincing the audience that the two subjects you're juxtaposing are at all related, especially to a degree that makes them worth the energy to use as examples. It comes down to a matter of opinion, and a hope that it wasn't too big of a leap for the audience to make. Upon reading various reviews, it appears to have worked on a larger scale than not...certain readers just didn't "get it", and in those cases, I hope the individual stories at least held enough entertainment value on their own to make the book worth it. If they at least enjoyed one of the sections (either the biography or the fiction), then I was at least partially successful.

Beckett: The story of the haole girl is quite intricate, and you reiterate the main theme through what might appear to be tangential incidents when we are introduced to the little dog at the shave ice hut or when we are shown the pond that would not give up its dead. Did you know the whole story of the haole girl before you began drawing it or do you just go with a vague idea and see where that takes you?
Scott Morse: I knew most of it, but certain "acting" scenes kind of wrote themselves. The one scene I surprised myself with is at the end, when the little girl kicks sand on her Dad's feet. Having things like that just "happen" while I'm thumbnailing is the real joy for me. The scenes you pointed out, however, were calculated, and based on research done in Hawaii. Ilio Mai is a real dog living half of each year on Maui, though Ilio Mai's story is fiction. The pond is a reflection of a story my wife and I heard on the Napali Coast of Kauai while visiting an archaeological dig in an Ali'i (royal) bath area, on the beach. Apparently, some archaeologists had discovered a gravesite in this area and exhumed the bones, only to experience hauntings almost instantaneously. They brought the bones back and reburied them, bringing in someone to bless them. The hauntings stopped. This is an especially odd tale seeing as how the Hawaiians never buried their it's unknown whose bones these could have been. The dig took place in 2000, and the bones were never dated, due to the immediate hauntings and need to put them back.

Beckett: What prompted you to adopt the "animation" style you have and how did that develop?
Scott Morse: Well, I've worked in animation longer than comics, actually. I trained at CalArts, and later under Maurice Noble, who worked on the first five Disney features, was Chuck Jones's main designer and art director on his Looney Tunes films, and designed other classics like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Dot and the Line. Maurice's teachings shine through in most of my work. I find the style lends itself better to immediate communication of story than some other, more intricate, styles. This medium is all about communication, and I play with pacing quite a bit in my comics. Animation and film are shown at a fixed rate of speed, whereas comics allow you to linger on still images if you wish. To keep a story flowing and "trick" the reader into experiencing it at an intended rate of speed is a trick I love playing with. So, the simpler the drawing, the less likely a reader is going to linger while reading...but appeal in the drawings is still incredibly important. It's a tough line to walk...

Beckett: Who are some of the artists and storytellers that have influenced you?
Scott Morse: I try to pull influence from everything around wife, my pets, my family and friends, places I visit, things I see. I was trained to base what I do on real life, to exaggerate and milk things for effect. Artistically, I'm looking everywhere...but certain artists that I always come back to include Maurice Noble, of course, as well as Mary Blair, the Provensons, Miroslav Sasek, J.P. Miller, Eyvind Eyrle, Ronald Searle...David Mazzuchelli, Baru, J Muth, Joe Kubert, and of course Jack Kirby. I'm incredibly fond of a lot of the Fort Thunder guys, as well as guys like Souther Salazar and Deth P.Sun. Anything that challenges me to think in a new way.