Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Web and Mini Comix Thing 2009

I have been known to draw comics. I have even published one. I’m not saying they are good comics, but they are undeniably examples of sequential art with dialogue balloons that can not be mistaken for comics.

Just to get the excuses out of the way now, I’ve been working on an overhaul for my comic site for a long time and it’s getting there. I also want to go in to a bit more detail with regards to the things I have learnt through my fiddling with graphics software and to make a mention of all the mistakes I’ve made with format, writing, characterization or the lack thereof and general assistance to anyone who wants to have a go at doing something better. This is all under the ominous heading of “coming soon”, which apparently according to my recent update schedule on my comics, can be anywhere up to eleven months.

I have veered somewhat away from my very short point that I’m trying to make. This weekend sees the return of “The Web and Mini Comix Thing” in east London. If you’re in the area and enjoy comics, the tickets are cheap and the exhibition is at least interesting. I always find the day to be highly inspirational and I frequently come away thinking “I’m going to do it this year! I’m going to churn out high quality comics and nobody can stop me!” before getting home and making the crucial mistake of switching on the television.

Additional Notes:

Maybe this year will be the year I get my act together. The immortal words of Delboy Trotter spring to mind: “This time next year, we could be millionaires” and of course, that way of thinking worked for him, so who knows?

The convention really is a good day. It’s not your traditional convention full of the great unwashed masses rummaging around for that missing copy of Spiderman to complete their collection. At one point I did actually exhibit there and everyone was really friendly. There was of course the one person who was perhaps a little bit too friendly and hung around a little bit too long breathing heavily through his mouth and not saying much. I know that sounds like a clichéd stereotype of my fellow members of geek-dom, and I feel ashamed for repeating it here, but unfortunately, that one actually happened.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Seeing a Life Lived Backwards

A friend of mine has a quote from Kierkegaard that attaches itself to all the emails he sends. Although I often skim over any “clever” quote that someone has as their signature, or at the very least read it and roll my eyes, I’ve seen this one so many times now it’s stuck in my mind: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards". I have obviously resigned this little snippet of philosophy to the back of my mind only to find it resurface the other day when I experienced something that made me understand exactly what Kierkegaard meant.

A few days ago, I discovered a useful little guide on how to set up a GMail account so that it can send and receive mails from a hotmail account. On the face of it, this may sound a little pointless, but for me, this was a good idea. I’ve had my hotmail address since I was about 14 but hotmail and I had a little falling out around about the time the spam hit. Although the majority of people know that I never check my hotmail any more, I do still get the occasional thing there so every now and then I do end up checking it, and the experience becomes a little bit like my shopping trips: I know exactly what I want to get so it’s a process of getting in and getting out as soon as possible. GMail on the other hand has a fantastic interface and is able to reasonably differentiate between spam and emails that I would like to read, so combining this with the necessity of the hotmail address is a perfect solution. However, although setting this up was easy enough, it had an unexpected side effect.

Maybe it was what was supposed to happen, maybe it was an option I accidentally checked, or maybe it was just planetary alignment but my GMail account very slowly downloaded every single email from my hotmail account from most recent to most distant. It should also be worth mentioning that apparently, the last time I cleared out my hotmail address was in 2004.

I saw my life for the past four years crawl past me in email form. Backwards.

At first, as they trickled in I just deleted them or archived them without really paying attention. These were things I’d dealt with fairly recently or things that were going on at the moment or had happened in the recent past, but the further it started going back, the more I waited on each item before archiving it. At first, it was reading the subject lines and involuntarily remembering what was going on back then. Then it was re-reading entire conversations that I’d had at certain points. The overall experience was bizarre, because every time you read something from your past, you are faced with the contradiction of knowing how things eventually turned out and remembering how it felt not knowing.

In life, when we look back at the past, we always remember it with a rose tinted view. It’s unavoidable that nostalgia kicks in and makes us remorseful that things had to change and that things aren’t like the way they were in “the good old days”. I’ll frequently look back at my university days and have to remind myself that although there were some really genuinely good moments, there was a lot of waiting around, uncertainty and general melancholy as well. Viewing your life through emails, you see everything and are reminded of everything, bad times and all.

Although there was a fantastic spree of emails between Fien and I when we first met, going back further saw emails on how an ex-girlfriend and I had split up, a little further and there was the dissolution of Salisbury Road, further still a falling out with a good friend and attached to all of this came reminders of what I was and wasn’t doing at the time which drove home the point that “I could have handled things better”. Hindsight is always a glorious thing, and this is what I interpret Kierkegaard to mean by only understanding life backwards. Although it’s good to see that even after some poor moments I’ve still come out of things ok with the help of good and over all understanding friends, for example all of us from Salisbury Road are on good talking terms even if we don’t see each other much any more, it was still a rattling experience.

I have a different friend who always used to keep an extensive diary, every single email and even wrote up texts into a giant excel spreadsheet. I’m not sure if he still does this, but I could never do this. The way I get through life and the way I think you’re supposed to get through life is by moving on and leaving things behind you. Learning from your mistakes is one thing, dwelling on them is another, and recording them so you can dwell on them later is probably somewhere inbetween.

Although this was a morbidly fascinating experience, I don’t want this to happen again any time soon. It’s not just that life has to be lived forward, it’s that it should be lived forward.

Additional Notes:

I say I understand exactly what Kierkegaard meant, but what I really mean is I think I understand. I asked a philosopher friend once if they knew much about Kierkegaard and their response was something along the lines of “Yes. It’s very strange.” As academic analysis goes, that’s remarkably succinct and to the point.

Just on the off chance that the provider of said quote-at-bottom-of-email scenario is reading this, I’m not having a dig at you for quoting something interesting on your emails, just the general mentality of putting a quote as your signature. It so very rarely comes across as anything but pretentious or nauseating. So long as it’s not song lyrics, I suppose we’re ok.

If the only thing you’ve taken from this post is “hey cool, you can do that with GMail?” don’t feel guilty because that’s exactly what I would think. The guide on how to do it can be found here.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Writing for a format

Over the last few days, I’ve been trying to get my act together to write a script for a TV series that I’d like to submit to the BBC. To anyone that knows me quite well, this is a brilliant sign that I have an essay deadline hanging over me, but regardless, it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, so I thought I’d just try and get on with it.

So far, I’ve struggled. It’s always an effort to just sit down and write, but this time it’s particularly difficult because I’m fighting against a format that I’m less familiar with. Whereas with straight prose one can just type away whatever falls out of your brain, with a script, you have to write it down in short bursts between making sure the format is correct, ensuring that dialogue is where dialogue should be and that scene settings are laid out properly.

The way that a script is laid out is awkward to construct. I’ve tried using the special template called Script Smart that the BBC use, but it’s fussy, and seems to want to put everything in capital letters, which I don’t like. I’m not sure what the best way to approach this is. Maybe it’s better to get everything down on paper first and then format it when reading it through. Regardless, it’s difficult to adapt, although I’m sure it’s just one of those things that you have to get used to. Maybe I’m just putting too much emphasis on the importance of format and I need to just make sure it’s consistent with itself as opposed to strictly adhering to an industry standard.

If I make any significant progress or if I stick with this project, maybe I’ll post some extracts or at least let you know how it goes. I’m actually quite happy with the idea and so long as I don’t kill it with some horrible clichés it could go somewhere.

Additional Notes:

Essay deadline season always makes me laugh. We used to get it when there were seven of us living together; when essay deadlines started getting closer, the house was spotless. We’d all clean things to avoid writing essays, because when faced with ten thousand words about the early reign of Augustus, suddenly the mouldy shower becomes an attractive alternative.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

What Does a Writer Do?

I once asked a writer for some advice on how to improve my own writing and he replied with a question: “What does a writer do?”

When I get asked these sorts of questions, I tend to freeze up. Part of me knows that they’re looking for an obvious answer, yet the rest of me is too busy looking for the less obvious answer to listen. Also, I sometimes just freeze up when someone says something unexpected, or answers a question with a question; A lot of the time when I ask someone a question it’s because I’ve run out of things to say and I want them to talk for a bit. Regardless of all this, the answer that I failed to provide was that “a writer writes”. This should be obvious, and I felt a failure at the time for not blurting the answer out instantly, thus identifying myself as a quick thinking genius deserving of further tuition and that I would forever be a non-writer for not knowing such a basic function of my desired activity. It is probably the best advice I could ever regurgitate to anyone that wants to be a writer.

I always feel a little awkward describing myself as a writer, but I suppose that I am. I could even tenuously describe myself as a professional writer, seeing as I have written comics that have then been sold in a real life comic book shop and even this blog has adverts strewn across it that just occasionally make me a couple of pennies. I can only really see that it’s a confidence issue: Whether or not I chose to see myself as a writer is self perception and dependant on if I think my ramblings class as writing, but I am currently fulfilling the task of the writer in the sense that I am writing. I suppose I could further qualify this by saying I’m an “aspiring writer” or a “trainee writer” or “an out of work freelancer” or something along those lines, but at the end of the day I am still currently a writer, even if I’m not comfortable with that particular label.

Anything takes practice. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to achieve in life, it’s going to need work. With writing, the only way to hone your craft is to get practice at it. I can’t see this as something that you can learn from a book, despite the fact you can almost definitely pick up some useful tips. A lot of tricks can undoubtedly be taught in a class room environment, but any of that should be accompanied by the learn-by-doing-approach. Seeing what works and what doesn’t work first hand is the linchpin of learning anything, and with writing it’s even more significant. With anything creative, you can’t approach it with a strict methodology for fear of it becoming a painting-by-numbers affair. I found this interview with Russel T Davis, the man responsible for the recent Doctor Who reboot as well as various other shows. What makes the interview interesting is the way he talks about what worked and what didn’t work in his earlier projects and it’s very clear that these sort of lessons are not the sort of thing you can learn from a book; you have to see the failure for yourself before you can avoid it again.

Getting on with something that you want to do in this way is not only a good way to develop your skills, but also to find out if it’s actually something you want to do. I love writing and I know that I want to do this. I also know that there are certain aspects that I don’t want to focus on, such as academic writing or technical writing. I think that a lot of people that want to be writers have some good ideas and would love to see them finished, but don’t necessarily like the idea of working on them for hours and days and months. They say everyone has a book in them, but I would say that very few people can get it out of them. On the other hand, I don’t think one should be disheartened if you don’t always feel like writing or get a huge amount of satisfaction out of every single sentence that you write. It takes a lot of effort to make yourself do this sort of thing and even more effort to continuously plug away at a single project. You do have to make yourself do it and fight the instinct to leave it for another day. I feel that you will know deep down if the slight apathy that you sometimes experience when you sit down to write is a genuine dislike for writing or if it’s just part of the general human condition which seems hell bent on making you vegetate in front of the television.

None of this is meant to be a criticism on anyone that may have taken some sort of creative writing course, or followed a “how to write your first novel” book, or anyone that follows any form of code or pattern of writing; anything along those lines will not hurt your writing, I just don’t think you can rely on it. I have a good friend who has done a high level creative writing course and some of the work that I’ve seen of his is good, but it’ll only get better if he keeps on writing.

In closing, a writer writes, so if you want to be a writer, start writing. A good place to start is a blog where you can tell everyone to do all the things that you keep meaning to do yourself.

Additional Notes:

I don’t think the question of “What does a writer do” was an original idea of the writer in question and I think he stole the advice from someone else. A bit like what I’m doing here.

On the subject of labels, I don’t disagree with calling myself a writer on a philosophical “labels box you in” kind of way, but more because I just feel like a fraud saying it.

In all seriousness, if you do start a blog, feel free to post a link to it in the comments of this thread. If I really like it, I might even create a permanent link on the sidebar, but don’t take it to heart if I don’t; it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It probably means I haven’t noticed the comment, forgotten to put up the link, or decided against putting up links altogether.

In case anyone is interested, the BBC Writers room is pretty interesting and might provide the incentive you need to get going, even if the only thing I can really think is "how did a show like 'Robin Hood' or 'Merlin' get a second reading?". I guess some things just look better on paper...

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Film: Watchmen

This film didn’t stand a chance.

I want to qualify that in all actuality, it did better than I expected and is probably as good as you can get as an adaptation of what is very obviously an incredibly difficult thing to bring to the cinema. Not only that, but it was a good film and one that I would recommend to fans of the book as well as people who have never heard of it before. Despite this, there was something that just niggled ever so slightly and there were moments when I wasn’t sure that I was actually enjoying the film.

Watchmen is the big screen adaptation of a much loved graphic novel of the same name written by the eccentric visionary, Alan Moore, a well known writing entity in the comic book world but probably only really referenced to the rest of the world through film adaptations of some of his other works which have, in their making, missed the point or otherwise lobotomized the original subject matter. The story is dark, brooding, cynical, and has such a rich attention to detail as to make the world feel very real and concrete. One of the things I can remember thinking when I was half way through the book for the first time is that it would not only be impossible to film, but that the film would miss everything that made it what it was.

The story follows a team of masked vigilantes that are coming to terms with their forced retirement from fighting crime, set against a world on the brink of nuclear war and inevitable Armageddon in an alternate version of 80s America, with the USA and the USSR squaring off against each other with comparable nuclear stockpiles. The characters are all massively flawed and well rounded with the story being just as much about them and their struggle to fit in to normal life as it is about a pending apocalypse and the book manages to convey massive amounts of detail about them and the history of the masked vigilante in the world as an idea. If it feels like I’m struggling to explain this, then I’m not surprised; it's the main reason I couldn't see the thing becoming a film. The only real way you can understand what I mean is by going and buying the graphic novel and reading it. I’m sure everyone will be reading it on the train at the moment anyway, so no one will laugh at you or think you’re a child for reading comic books, so do it, if only to see what the fuss is all about.

Any book-to-film transition is a difficult one to make. If you’re going to the cinema to see a book that you enjoyed turned into a film, you are going to be disappointed most of the time, because you just can’t cram it all in to a two or three hour film. I am therefore incredibly impressed that for the most part, the background and history and small touches remained in tact and not compromised to any great extent. A lot of the scene-setting was covered by an artfully paced opening sequence, and even some of the smaller details of the book made their way onto the screen if you knew what to look out for.

Visually, the film was stunning. The actors they had chosen were almost identical to their comic-book counterparts in looks, the costume department had remained faithful for the most part, and the look and feel of the world in general was for the most part a faithful reproduction of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Not only this, but the story, for the most part, also remained solid and for the most part I can forgive the changes. You will notice an overuse of the phrase “for the most part”, which is entirely deliberate as there is just something that doesn’t quite fit. The only way I can explain this is the analogy of the “Uncanny Valley” in that the closer you get to something being an exact replica, the more jarring the differences are. Watchmen came so close to ticking every box that the fact that it didn’t ended up resulting in this slight discomfort that I got through most of the film that something-just-wasn’t-quite-right.

I had an issue with the soundtrack. I’m not too sure what it was as there were some fantastic choices on it, it was just that they seemed thrown in for no real reason at points, or thrown in ham fistedly at others to drive home a point. The thing that makes me realise that this was a problem for me is that I even noticed. A soundtrack for me normally sits firmly in the background and is something I only notice the second time I watch a film.

I have to mention the subtle changes to the story. On the outset, it looked like a big change that happened near the end, but the overall effect to the story wasn’t that major, so I can forgive it. I can also see that sticking to the original would have been a lot more work and would have required an extra wing added to the budget, but at the same time I would have liked to have seen it. The penultimate scenes were somewhat of an anti-climax for me, and although they were still visually stunning, they weren’t the stunning visuals I was expecting or wanting to see and in some way, that came across as quite lazy.

I would complain about all the things they missed out as well, but I don’t want to. They missed out small details that flavour the book but that would have taken up far too much time on the screen. Not only that, but some of the small details were referenced for those of us that were looking out for them and I’m still much more impressed by all the things that they did manage to get in.

As far as a “pros and cons” list goes, that’s not very long. They did incredibly well. They did much better than anyone was expecting, of that I’m sure. That it wasn’t quite right is a general condition of anything that goes from book to film or book to TV, not an intrinsic problem with Watchmen itself. The film was good and it’s something I will end up watching again, and I’m really hoping that the DVD has lots of extra special features that bring in more of the book, but there was still something about it that wasn’t quite right. I recommend this film, but if you know and love the comic, know that it will do what every other film-of-a-book has done and disappoint ever so slightly.

Additional Notes:

It's been very tempting to make the "Who Watches The Watchmen?" reference in some clever way to say I have watched Watchmen, but I think everyone that has written about this has probably already done so. For this reason, I just want you to be aware that I thought this and am aware of the clever inherrent pun that lies within and it was a concious choice not to use it.

I find it difficult to offer an opinion on films without spoiling stuff. I’m not sure how you’re meant to do this. I have a horrible feeling I’ve said this before.

There was an incredibly awkward sex scene in the film that probably went on for just slightly too long and showed just slightly too much. I know that makes me sound like a terrible prude, but if you see the film, you’ll probably understand what I mean. It was another moment where the soundtrack made me cringe a little too.

In seeing this film, I also learnt what sort of people buy premiere seating. It’s the people that get confused by the online booking system and do it by accident. I felt positively defiled at the fact that we ended up in premiere seating, which in all honesty, wasn’t very comfortable and wasn’t any different from a regular seat apart from the location in the cinema itself. I feel this is another bubbling rant for another day that would be better directed at Odeon itself than the internet at large, for fear of lumping myself in with other mad ramblers.

UPDATE: I've just read the comment by Becks in my earlier post stating "tis flawed but awesome". That pretty much sums up the gist of this entire post. We'll call that the succinct version.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Money Vs. Imagination

I've been reading an interview with Alan Moore, writer of Watchmen, the soon to be released film adaptation of one of my favourite comics, and at some point he says the following:

"If you haven't got any money, you're going to need lots and lots of imagination. Which is why you'll get brilliant movies by people working upon a shoestring, like the early John Waters movies. People are pushed into innovation by the restrictions of their budget. The opposite is true if they have $100 million, say, pulling a figure out of the air, to spend upon their film, then they somehow don't see the need for giving it a decent story or decent storytelling. It seems like those values just go completely out the window. There's an inverse relationship there"

I've been saying that for years. It's always nice to have an opinion or trend you've spotted reaffirmed by someone you try to take creative inspiration from.

If you think about it, it's true of almost anything. Any film franchise for example that is an original IP in the first instance and has to struggle with funding but later gets a massive budget produces what I call "the Matrix affect". The first film will be very good; the following films will be missing something, despite the huge budget.

Additional Notes:

I'm fairly certain this applies to anything. You don't try as hard if you have more money because there's no point. Contractors working on government projects for example have a tendency to go over budget and over deadlines because they see their funding as being unlimited and it inevitably leads to sloppy results.

Maybe I should apply this logic to my own life and ask for my pay to be cut.

Monday, 2 March 2009

More Excuses

Life is one long opportunity for new and interesting excuses. Due to a busy streak at work, I may not be updating with quite the regularity of recent weeks, but I am still here.

It’s a nice reversal as well, making an excuse to not write a blog so that I can focus on work as opposed to making an excuse to not work so that I can focus on writing a blog.

Additional Notes:

I’m essentially honing my craft at excuses. My comics have been languishing in a “I’ll finish it some other time” state for about six months now. I know I’m bloody minded too, so by saying this, I might actually start working on them again, just to prove myself wrong.