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Monday, August 31, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

With the current Friday Challenge being about comic books -- one of my comic books, more specifically -- I suppose it's natural for my mind to turn back to writing comic books. Heck, I even went back and read my columns on writing for comics. The thing is, writing comic books has never been very far from my mind, even though it's been 16 years since I wrote comics regularly.

My desire to actually be involved in a comic book project waxes and wanes, just like any desire. But, starting back in 2004, when I first heard the phrase "X-Men crossed with the Dukes of Hazzard" applied to the Southern Knights, I've found my interest growing year by year. The phrase was given by a movie producer who was looking for something that would make the Southern Knights distinctly "Southern" and different from all the other superheroes appearing in movies at the time. While I could understand the producer's point, the reference to the Dukes of Hazzard was appalling to me.

I watched the premiere of the Dukes of Hazzard. I only did that because the uncle of a girl I was interested in had a regular role in the show. I thought I might score some points by watching the show with her. After watching the show, I told her I thought her uncle did as well as he could with the material he'd been given but I doubted the show would last very long. Perhaps this is why most of the shows I really like last no more than one season while the shows I can't stand go on and on and on. Anyway, six weeks later I met Audrey and was no longer worried about scoring points with the other girl. The point of this digression is that I disliked the show Dukes of Hazzard for many reasons, not least because it perpetuated so many Southern stereotypes. I couldn't stand the idea of my creation being turned into Hollywood's idea of Southerners.

The morning after hearing what the producer wanted, I started thinking about how I might be able to modify the Knights to sort of fit what the producer was looking for while presenting a more accurate picture of the South. In about an hour, I came up with a setting, character backgrounds, general ideas for villains and a very distinctive Southern setting. The setting was the western North Carolina mountains during the depression, the heyday of mountain moonshine and the fast cars the mountain boys used to smuggle the 'shine out of the mountains to their customers, clubs and bars in the cities. For many families, the money they made selling moonshine was all that allowed them to make ends meet, so this was serious business to them. That gave unscrupulous lawmen the leverage they needed to line their own pockets with bribes from the moonshiners or club and bar owners, to whom the lawman would give confiscated moonshine.

I had ideas associated with "revenuers" and other villains and wonderful 1930s pulp technology that I won't go into, but the setting would allow the Knights to be outlaws yet still being heroes while casting the lawmen in the role of villains. I thought I had a great setup, meeting the requirements of "X-Men crossed with the Dukes of Hazzard" while avoiding the stereotypes. I forwarded all of my information to the woman who was presenting the Southern Knights to people in Hollywood. She responded that it was "interesting," though the wording of her response left the exact opposite impression. I don't know if the ideas were ever presented to the producer.

But here's the point of that story. The hour or so I spent working up that setting flipped the comic book writer switch in my brain to "On" and then broke the switch. For the last five years, I've been coming up with comic book story ideas for the Southern Knights, cyberpunk comic book ideas, steampunk comic book ideas, pulp adventure comic book ideas and, of course, science fiction comic book ideas. I'd even like to produce a line of picture books for children done in comic book format because I've seen the positive effect comic books can have on reluctant readers.

This is great, because it's always a lot of fun to come up with and develop new ideas.

This is not so great because I can't find any artists to work on the projects with me.

And here we run into the single worst thing about being a comic book writer -- you simply cannot produce a comic book by yourself. I went over this problem in Writing for Comic Books - Part 1 so won't dwell on it here. What I want to explore is whether it's possible for a writer to produce a comic book without an artist.

In the 16 years since I stopped writing comic books, a lot of software has come out for artists. In my experience, the software for artists generally requires some kind of artistic talent to get anything worthwhile out of it. I've kept my eye on Poser, which is specifically designed to make it easier for artists to create and pose human figures. It seems to be the closest thing to what I've been looking for, but I can't afford to drop $250 on software just to see if it's something I might be able to use. Also, figures created with Poser tend to look very similar, based on what I've read in reviews and seen online.

Meanwhile, there are several software packages on the market designed to make creating comic books easier. The software makes the process of laying out a comic book page, applying textures and lettering the story considerably easier than doing all of that by hand. What it doesn't do is make it any easier for someone like me to create artwork.

General conclusion: until computers can pull images out of my mind, I'm going to need an artist.

So, is there any chance I can use what little artist ability I have to create comics? I usually say my abilities as an artist don't extend beyond basic stick figures. Well, there's a quite successful online comic called Order of the Stick that primarily uses stick figure artwork. And I've thought seriously about trying to emulate what Rich Burlew, the artist, has done here. With practice, I probably could reproduce the level of artwork Rich shows in the first strip.

But both the software approach and the stick figure approach leave out a major component of comic books -- everything else the artist draws besides the people. For instance, if I tried to create a stick figure version of the depression era Southern Knights that I described earlier or the story I wrote for the Writing for Comic Books columns, I'd have to handle stuff like buildings, trees, cars and stuff like that. Stick figure trees might be pretty easy and I could probably swing buildings, but anything other than a side-on view of a car is beyond me right now.

Okay, I'll admit I've tossed out a bunch of excuses why I can't do this. I'll even admit that I could probably swing the stick figure approach, possibly even getting cars right, if I started practicing in my not-so-copious spare time. But I sure would like a way to start writing comic books now rather than some undetermined time in the future. And, honestly, while stick figures work fine for the Order of the Stick, it's not really what I want for my comic books. I want more traditional, realistic artwork for my comic books. And for that, I'll need an artist.

I suppose I could always try my newest idea: comic books without pictures! Do you think there's any chance I could fool readers into believing a short story is really a comic book, just without the pictures?

Yeah, me neither.
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