Wednesday, July 27, 2016

First Second: Box Brown's Tetris

In telling the story of the video game Tetris, Box Brown went into some deep philosophical territory. He begins the book by delving into gaming theory and asks the basic question of why is it that people play games? From that simple question, Brown spins a crazy story involving art, commerce, creativity, cold war politics and outsized personalities. What would seem to be a simple question (how did a particular game get designed?) demanded a timeline of the history of Nintendo, an understanding of the way world economics used to work in the Soviet Union, and an attempt to understand how and why some games become incredibly popular. For game designers, there's even a sense of trying to reverse-engineer successes in an effort to understand why they become so popular.

The book (and the game) begins with a couple of computer-programming friends in 1984 Moscow named Alexey Pajitnov and Vladimir Pokhilko. Pajitnov posits that rather than simply a way to pass the time, games have a specific psychological function. Brown runs with that idea, even making a distinction between the physical aspect of sports versus games. Early sports may have been a way of recapitulating human competition in terms of survival, whereas games are an expression of the same urge that comes from creating art. Games are a merging of competition and the childlike need to process the world and learn about it by way of play. Play is far from a frivolous process; anyone who's ever observed children playing knows that they take it very seriously, as they transport themselves into a world with particular rules with a lot at stake. In the same way that a work of art no longer truly belongs to the artist once they've finished it and displayed it, so too is a game no longer quite the possession of its designer. It becomes part of the imaginations of those it captivates.

Brown breaks this idea down further, suggesting that games excite the pre-frontal cortex, the brain's executive functioning center. It strengthens one's brain while tricking it into learning through fun. In learning and becoming drawn into a game, it can improve one's higher-order processing and decision-making. Unlike the way we resist rote memorization as a means of learning, learning through game-playing combines the practice necessary in order to excel at anything through repeated gameplay with constant stimulation of the brain in a way that's motivating and pleasurable. Brown does not state this, but one of the arguments of the book is that it's more important than ever for adults to play games that motivate them and not abandon them as childish things.

Brown parallels the history of Nintendo (which started as a card game company) with the history of Tetris' design, because it gets to the heart of development in a capitalistic society vs a communist society. What's interesting is how Brown played up a number of similarities that led to success for both. Nintendo became successful in the electronics and video game markets because of visionary CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi and genius engineer Gunpei Yokoi. The successes came because Yamauchi trusted Yokoi's creativity and ingenuity as assets that would allow Nintendo a leg up in the market. When video games took the world by storm, they hired a conceptual artist named Shigeru Miyamoto to come up with ideas for games and leave it to Yokoi to figure them out. That process led to the insanely popular Donkey Kong, which later led to a huge empire based off of the original game. Video games touched a nerve, as good ones demanded problem solving skills and heightened hand-eye coordination. In a capitalist society, demand is at the heart of profit. Brown goes on to discuss a number of Nintendo's other moves, including conceptualizing handheld games that could travel with the game (that eventually became the Gameboy). The greater the number of platforms available for a game (gaming system, computer, arcade game, handheld device) meant that there were more and more rights to secure, making the process cutthroat at times.

By contrast, Pajitnov created Tetris because he felt compelled. He was obsessed with the shapes, the way they interlocked and how clearing out a row was such a fulfilling feeling. He did it on his own time and simply gave away copies for free, because he wasn't eligible to sell something of his own creation in the Soviet state. The game was such a hit that some businesses had to ban it from their computers because it killed productivity. The genius of it was that by removing violent, genre or competitive aspects of the game, it appealed to an incredibly wide demographic. Licensing the game or the idea of inventing different platforms for distribution never even occurred to him, yet the game was a success, like Nintendo was a success, because the creative talent was left alone to build the game as they saw fit. The genius of Yamauchi was that he recognized that he didn't know everything and instead surrounded himself with smart people that he trusted. 

The second half of the book is a dizzying account of the quasi-legal nature of foreign software companies trying to get the license to the game going up against Soviet bureaucracy at its best. There were billionaires, bullshit artists, and children of moguls going up against a Soviet group that on the one hand was trying to nickel and dime them but on the other didn't fully understand the nature of what they had. The most colorful personality was Henk Rogers, a game designer who got frustrated trying to deal with the man who apparently had the foreign rights to Tetris, so he simply fly to Moscow unannounced in an effort to make a deal. Brown emphasized that the way he barged in was simply not the way they did things in the Soviet Union, but the fact that there was a new, shrewd chief in charge of the game in Moscow made things interesting. There were double-crosses, companies making illegal versions of the game and all kinds of other crazy chicanery. There was even an attempt to get back the market rights when a billionaire made an appeal to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as a federal court decision that decided who had game rights: Nintendo or Atari.

Brown weaves a taut tale with all of these crazy events and synchronicities with his trademark restraint and stripped-down, iconic figures. Yellow is the only color used, giving the whole book an odd, slightly artificial feel that mimics screen time. Brown provides breaks when introducing new players in the story on an otherwise black page, allowing the eye to rest as he tore through the book at a fast pace. That sense of pacing is what makes this history book with deeply philosophical underpinnings so successful. With no real action on the page, Brown made things interesting simply by making the reader's eye whip across the page, trying to take in the story as quickly as possible. It helped that there was tension in the real-life narrative that gave the book a tight second-half structure, as opposed to the more episodic set-up of the first half. The tension between companies and countries about the game spoke to the way that the need to play stimulating games crossed cultures; the demand for the experience is what made everything so high stakes. The book is a success, and more successful than his Andre The Giant book, because with Tetris, Brown found a way to take a popular subject and plunge into its depths while making a number of fascinating connections. In the Andre book, there just wasn't enough there to go deep, and while that "star is unknowable" concept wound up being part of the book's point, the actual execution simply felt like a series of well-told but barely-connected anecdotes. In Tetris, Brown found a way to bind any number of characters to the book's central theme, with the anecdotes providing a climax to key tension points instead of wandering. Brown really stepped up his game in this book, and it's clear he's found an interesting niche in the world of comics. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Foxing Reprints #11: Tom Kaczynski, Vincent Stall, Alex Holden

Structures 1-11, by Tom Kaczynski and Structures 12-23, by Vincent Stall (Uncivilized Books). Of all the small press publishers, Tom Kaczynski's Uncivilized Books best fits my own personal aesthetics. All of his books and minicomics are impeccably designed with a minimum of fuss, creating images that are eye-catching but not overwhelming. Kaczynski's minicomics line is especially interesting, because he's willing to take chances on unusual projects in a low-key, low-risk manner in this format. TheStructures series is a good example. Architecture has always been a key interest of Kaczynski's in his comics, strictly from an aesthetic point of view. The way that geometry plays itself out in a three-dimensional context holds great power and mystery in Kaczynski's hands, and his issue features eleven structures that highlight his heavy use of brushwork and a surprising lack of angularity. That's because each of these structures is "unnatural", "unstable", "incoherent" or else a formation created from nature. Here, Kaczynski involves the almost supernatural power of architecture as a form of incantation in favor of nature taking its course in unusual ways over time; he even winks at his own brush work in "The Tomb Of Jack Kirby", a design with heavy blacks that looks like something out of New Gods.

Vincent Stall takes a different approach. His drawings are unlabeled but very much in keeping with his "king of rubble" approach of drawing backgrounds. Unlike Kaczynksi's remote, monolithic structures that stand the test of time, Stall's structures are broken and decaying, reclaimed in part by their environment or repurposed by those now living there. Stall's line weight is thinner and more fragile than Kaczynski's, which makes sense, and there's also a much more restrained use of blacks. Each of these minis is crisply printed on paper that makes the most of the linework of each artist.

Skyway Sleepless, by Tom Kaczynski (Uncivilized Books).  This coverless mini is a reprint of a Kaczynski story published elsewhere. It takes an actual downtown Minneapolis phenomenon--skyways that connect buildings so as to prevent one from having to brave the hellish winters in that city--and extrapolates it in a noir/aesthetics thriller. Kaczysnki pokes a little fun at some of his more serious stories here as the lead character, a skyway security guard, is confronted by mysterious chalk outlines in the skyway and subsequent people passing out in the outlines. Conspiracy theories, ritualized architectural magic and other supernatural ideas get thrown around, and even though they all wind up being a McGuffin for the real mystery, the ending seems to confirm that sometimes spoof has a way of becoming reality. There's a wonderful spareness to Kaczynski's line here, as he relies on thin diagonal lines, zip-a-tone and his typical lurching figurework. When his characters are in motion, there's a rigidity in their movements that matches up with the backgrounds around them, creating new geometric structures within each panel. His characters are tall and slender and don't lack expressiveness; indeed, there's a touch of Jack Kirby to be found in many of his creations. That expressiveness is balanced by the coolness and reserved nature of Kaczynski's page structure, which is always tidy and balanced even when crazy things are happening. 

West Side Improvements, by Alex Holden (Uncivilized Books). Holden fits in nicely with this sort of urban theme. His own series, Magic Hour, was all about the supernatural in an urban setting. West Side Improvements is a work of reportage originally published in the Syncopated anthology, and it's about the tunnels underneath Riverside Park in New York and the community of artists and homeless who made it their own. The focus is on Chris "Freedom" Pape, a graffiti artist who made a series of elaborate portraits in the tunnels, many of which were visible in the grates above the old railroad tracks. The comic goes on to chronicle the community of artists that grew to work together in the tunnels as well as the so-called "mole people"--the homeless who lived there and who drew media attention when a book was written about them. Amtrak, who owned the tracks, announced that the tunnels would be closed, but not before the homeless were relocated to public housing. This is a thorough, thoughtful take on a forgotten and hidden part of New York, a reflection of the way that the city has slowly snuffed out artistic reclamation of old spaces in favor of corporate reclamation. The art in this mini is less effective printed at a smaller size, especially since so many panels are crammed onto the page. That's especially true when trying to show the scope of the murals painted by Pape. The smaller scale doesn't hurt Holden's characters as much, given that he tends to use a cartoony and minimalist approach in depicting them. The mini does include a great deal of bonus material, including several pages of reference photos taken by Holden.

Monday, July 25, 2016

First Second For Kids: Sturm/Frederick-Frost/Arnold, Reed/Flood, Wicks

Ogres Awake!, by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost. This is the latest in the Adventures In Cartooning! series headed up by the head of the Center for Cartoon Studies and two alumni. Ostensibly designed to teach the basics of cartooning to kids, the trio of artists has also released a series of fun adventure books starring the knight who popped up in the actual instructional books. I had the benefit of my seven-year-old daughter asking me to read this book to her, sight unseen, and she loved the book's humor and sheer "loudness". The book opens with the crisis of the knight seeing a meadow full of giant, sleeping ogres, and the rest of the book is essentially a mad dash by the knight in an effort to thwart the crisis. About midway through, the artists come up with a counter plotline, wherein the knight's clamoring for battle is funneled into the knight helping to harvest food from a garden and chop vegetables, as the wise king beats the ogres by feeding them. The book is chock full of verbal and visual jokes, and Frederick-Frost's thick, brushy line sturdily carries the narrative without being overwhelmed by the book's bright colors. The endpapers, which contain brief tutorials on how to draw the characters and funny poses they can get into, were a particular favorite of my daughter, who loved the natural progression from utilitarian suggestions to sheer silliness, like a horse as a space explorer. It's the rare kids' book that goes all-out in an effort to be simply funny, without worrying about anything else.

Science Comics: Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers, by MK Reed and Joe Flood. The Reed-Flood team's last collaboration was the character-centered romance The Cute Girl Network. Flood's preferred thing to draw is more in the realm of monsters, which makes this clever and page-turning account of the history of paleontology right in his wheelhouse. Kicking off First Second's Science Comics line, each cartoonist will have the conundrum of just how to present their given subject in a way that draws in younger readers. Reed's solution was to create a narrative based not so much on the history and qualities of dinosaurs (although that's all here as well), but rather on the history of how scientists (as well as grifters, hucksters and thieves) have understood and classified dinosaurs. Reed focuses on the colorful personalities that populated the world of paleontology in the early days, like amateur fossil collector Mary Anning (who did not receive the credit due her), arch-rivals Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen (the latter of whom sought to discredit the former in academia), and arch-rivals Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope (whose field teams threw rocks at each other).

Reed didn't separate the book into chapters per se, but rather reset things based on the changing nature of scientific paradigms. Starting off in 1800, for example, it is considered to be a fact that the earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs perished in the Great Flood, and there are no examples of them today. Every reset changed those assumptions dramatically, as science not only became more sophisticated but also started to admit to the ways in which new evidence can shatter old paradigms. Amusingly, that was backed up when Reed wrote a chapter that noted how the brontosaurus never really existed, only to have to add an endnote that said that the bronto's existence had been proven. Flood went to town drawing double-page splashes with dinosaurs but was equally up to the task of drawing historical figures. Reed keeps the narrative going with an arsenal of fascinating anecdotes, both about dinosaurs and the people who discovered their fossils. She even manages to explain some of the basics of geology along the way, thanks to her wit. While there are the occasional funny asides, Reed doesn't overdo and trusts in the narrative. Starting off a series about science that demonstrates how science is actually carried out was a smart move, as the clash between staying true to the scientific method and the human need for certainty is key to understanding paradigm shifts and the ways in which human bias can affect knowledge.

Science Comics: Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean, by Maris Wicks. Wicks had a taller order than Reed in talking about the science of coral reefs. Without a narrative to latch onto (other than the ecological one that essentially amounts to "Recycle and ride your bike!"), Wicks was essentially reduced to narrating a slightly whimsical nature documentary. The essence of that documentary was that despite coral reefs occupying a tiny portion of the earth, they are home to a majority of the earth's biodiversity. Once that point is made, she goes into a basic biological explication of the various phyla that can be found in and around coral reefs, all narrated by a fish wearing glasses. It's page after page of slightly cartoony drawings of sea life with amusing asides, scatological jokes and witticisms from the creatures themselves. The book picks up again when it gets into facts about the water cycle and ecological concerns, which is presented earnestly but without preaching. It's simply a matter-of-fact presentation of facts, one that presupposes a great deal of faith in the reader to do the right thing. A bit more restraint on forcing jokes might have made this a smoother read, though as I noted earlier Wicks was in a tough spot and relied on her storytelling instincts to work her way out of it. It's just that at around 120 pages, the book simply flagged once she started rattling off different species and felt padded.

Friday, July 22, 2016

First Second: Drew Weing

From the beginning of his career about fifteen years ago after he graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Drew Weing stood out from other cartoonists in his age range thanks to his remarkable versatility and skill. He did a couple of years' worth of a diary comic to hone his chops, did some interesting early webcomics experiments (Pup), and had a densely-hatched book published by Fantagraphics (Set To Sea). He co-wrote a kids' book with his wife Eleanor Davis (Flop To The Top) and helped her with her own YA book, The Secret Science Alliance. Despite his facility with the web, Weing is a throwback in many other respects. Fifty years ago, he would have likely been a syndicated daily cartoonist. His art takes its cues more from classic strip cartooning than modern superhero or even alt-comics. He has superb chops as a draftsman but is a cartoonist first and foremost, focusing on character design, body language, and gesture above all else.

His first book for First Second, The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo, is a set-up for a series told in episodic fashion. A young boy named Charles moves to a big city that feels like a cross between New York and San Francisco called Echo City with his family. He learns that his family is moving into a nearly century-old building that his father is fixing up. Weing takes up about fifteen pages carefully establishing the character as skeptical of the whole enterprise and annoyed with his gently needling parents who constantly try to push him into doing new, weird things and encourage him to get rid of some of his stuff. Weing then gives the reader one last piece of information before really starting the story: Charles is a blogger who fancies himself a reporter on "the frontlines of the battle for kids' rights." The agency of children is a key theme throughout the book, especially as the stage for kids being forced to deal with a strange world on their own becomes a dramatic plot point.

When Charles sees a huge monster at his bedside as he tried to go to sleep and his father offered him a "magic wristwatch" for protection, that was a sign that Charles was on his own. From there, Weing expands the cast a bit by introducing Kevin, a fellow kid from the building who mixes eccentricities (he constantly tries to set weird world records) with plot-device usefulness. When Kevin gives him a card for a "monster mediator" named Margo Maloo, that's when the book really takes off. Margo's presence as a hyper-competent, knowledgeable but enigmatic expert is perfectly set off by Charles' role as a stand-in for the reader, and the ideal reader at that: someone who is intelligent but knows nothing about the subject at hand.

From there, the book is simply a series of problems that need to be solved with equal emphasis on the "monster" and "mediator" aspects of Margo's job. She's the ultimate kid with agency, armed with knowledge of how things really are, knowledge that's kept hidden from adults. What Weing does especially well is slowly develop the partnership between Margo and Charles. When introduced to the monstrous troll named Marcus who menaced Charles at his bedside, the conflict is eased when both Charles and Marcus realize they have a common interest in a collectible game-toy. The other chapters address an especially annoying ghost that's captured some unruly teens and then take the reader on a tour on the monster underground: a grocery store for monsters, the monster postal system, a favorite monster bar, where monsters like to hide, etc, all in the name of finding a missing baby monster. To be sure, there's much about the book that follows a familiar formula, but Weing's attention to detail, in-depth characterization and overall cleverness as a craftsman makes this book a genre stand-out. Hopefully, there will be future volumes that allow Weing to flesh out his characters and this world a little more.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Foxing Reprints #10: Dawson Walker

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

2dcloud: Austin English's Gulag Casual

Following up on my recent Minnesota post, let's take a look at one of Minneapolis's finest: 2dcloud. The publisher, Raighne Hogan, is a cartoonist in his own right, but he's made a splash thanks to his willingness to take risks with avant garde, eccentric and boundary-pushing comics. Hogan's put interesting work back in print, printed the work of locals, given homes to more-widely read cartoonists who needed a new publisher, published the work of emerging cartoonists and he's even gone the international route. At the moment, 2dcloud is running a kickstarter in an effort to support publishing some pretty remarkable books. This column closes out the 2dcloud feature.

Austin English is truly a singular cartoonist. While he favors a dense, immersive style that doesn't use negative space in the panels themselves, his style of drawing and his use of color forces the reader to reconsider the rulebook regarding gesture, character design and the ways in which bodies interact in space. To describe his drawings as crude misses the point entirely, because his work isn't a failed attempt at drawing something "normal" or a compensating by overdrawing with a lot of lines for a drawing that didn't look right. Instead, we're seeing shapes and forms entirely from the artist's imagination, and the effect evokes an emotional reaction on page after page, even if the source of that emotion can't be adequately explained. In that respect, English has more in common with painters like Pablo Picasso (warped figures depicting simultaneity of motion and emotions laid bare) or Mark Rothko (with a calculated desire to make color fields evoke certain emotional reactions) than any cartoonist I can think of, with the possible exception of Gary Panter. While Panter's ability as a draftsman is more traditionally refined than English's approach, Panter also clearly approaches his work uninterested in conventional rules and draws to please himself above all else.

The irony of his new collection, Gulag Casual, is that it was clearly pleasurable to draw and mold for English, while at the same time so many of the stories are about being made to feel uncomfortable, even in spaces one once thought were safe. English's comics make the familiar seem strange, the friendly seem threatening and upset notions of stability and sometimes even consensus reality. It's very much a series of stories set in a city, with all of the anxiety that living in a city can bring. Throughout the book, there are unwelcome door-crashers and intruders, people listening in on private conversations and then judging others for the content of their speech, and the particularly unpredictable threat of people who have clearly lost their minds. English taps into the kind of paranoia that someone on drugs might feel, that things are not only no longer safe and familiar, but that the world is starting to actively cave in on you or conspire against you. Everything looks and feels strange as a result.

Consider "A New York Story". This is English's most recent story and the most beautifully drawn, even if the images are warped and odd. Indeed, the image of one character bent over on the sidewalk as he recovers from a verbal thrashing is both funny and disquieting. The story follows someone talking about a person named Melo and then being confronted about what he said by a pair of perfect strangers on the street. That kind of public confrontation in a tight city space is hellish to think about, which is why English zeroes in on that feeling and magnifies it.

"The Disgusting Room", on the other hand, sees English burst free from all restraints as an artist, using paint, fabric, marker, pencil and construction paper to create a narrative of sorts about an expanding series of relationships. This is all about disturbing equilibrium as well as the concept of alienation in tight spaces. The main character seeks to be "good" as she takes on more and more responsibility, only to snap and abandon all of her responsibilities and relationships. It's also a story about mental illness (a running through-line in the book) and its "othering" qualities, both for those who are ill as well as those who are their caretakers.

"My Friend Perry" is all about violations of personal and emotional space as well as the ways in which intimate bonds can be shattered. In it, the main character seeks comfort from his strange and lazy best friend, only to learn that his sister (whom he lives with) has been traumatized by someone breaking into their apartment. This story has English's most expressive figurework, even if his figures resemble lumps and blobs. Despite that visual approach, English draws out fear, anger, affection, paranoia and dread through the ways his figures interact in space as well as his idiosyncratic use of color. "Here I Am" takes that idea of home invasion a step further, as a stranger initially welcomed by a family becomes deranged and threatening, even as English implies that the stranger is imaginary, a metaphor for guilt. Finally, "Freddy's Dead" takes all of that paranoia and strangeness and ratchets them up, as a pair of friends are separated and both wind up hanging around dangerous, unpleasant people they're not sure how to ditch.

The last two stories were done in pencil and hinted, along with the first story, of English starting to slowly refine and gain better control over his style. While "The Disgusting Room" throws the entire visual kitchen sink at the reader with no respite, English starts to focus more on bulbous, warped facial features in his later stories, and there's a strong emotional resonance to them as a result. "A New York Story" also uses negative space in the form of white space around a panel or two on a page, which allowed the story to breathe and encouraged reader identification while still heightening tension. The awkwardness, tenderness, intimacy and tension of human interaction in cramped environments is what English does best, and his evolving approach is only heightening those tendencies.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Foxing Reprints #9: Eric Kostiuk Williams