Patterns in Comics, ideas from life drawing experiments

There are visual and verbal ideas, in comics, the visual is often dismissed because there is almost no grammar or language to discuss it. But comics are a combination of the visual and verbal. Verbal fabrications are the way we construct much of our consciousness, here’s one.

Put a green next to blue.

While you can write a thousand words to describe it is ultimately impossible to capture it in words because it works with a different part of the brain. To discuss comics with my self, I want a vocabulary that forces me to think about that different part of the brain.

I want a language for myself to make comics that are alive not the same old same old. When teaching Flash and HTML I learned about pattern languages, a vocabulary of solutions that programmers use as a generalized starting point for many of their problems. It gave me a way to explain what the heck a data file meant in relationship to their cute animation. It was a language of ideas and solutions that could give you a starting point for writing specific code.

Since comics are the most complex art form, developing a language to understand what that blue and green are doing next to each other is important to my growth.

“Pattern Language” are comics just narrative dressmaking? 

The programmers swiped the idea of a pattern language from the architect Christopher Alexander whose 1977 book “A Pattern Language” first introduced it. Alexander looked at architecture and cataloged a set of solutions to problems, abstracting them out to principles that could be combined in various ways to solve building problems. As Wikipedia puts it “A pattern language is an organized and coherent set of patterns each of which describes a problem and the core of a solution that can be used in many ways within a specific field of expertise.”

Understanding the pattern language for code gave me a clear view of the principles behind many of the ideas such as “Model View Controller” that dictated how much of the web interacts and what designers of the web have to work with.

In Buddhism, you start with learning the pattern “The Four Noble Truths”. One, there’s stress. Two, clinging to things is what causes stress. Three, the way to end it is the 8-fold path. Four, is the eightfold path, another pattern in itself, it’s right view, right resolve right speech, right action right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhism A pattern language to take away the stress we live with.

A pattern language gives you a way to work with principles in complex situations and develop new solutions by how you combine them. Buddha solved the problem of doing the dishes, hopefully by creating my comics pattern language I can solve some of the problems of doing comics.

The secret to drawing like Barry Smith, Jim Lee, or Richard Diebenkorn and dating hot chicks.

A few years ago (26 actually), I had coffee with a cute babe from life drawing class. Both of us had read Sir Kenneth Clark’s Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance. The book was a catalog of how Rembrandt had studied and mastered ideas from the Italian Renaissance and we went on about poses, light, and dark and composition for a few hours. Eventually, I got to see her library from Jackson Pollack’s drawings, Tin Tin and a “A History of the Comic Strip” by Couperie and Horn, which I hadn’t seen since my high school library, among a pile of others. This was long before the Internet existed, so I had to marry her to get a hold of that “Comic Strip” book, obviously.

All artists swipe from other artists if Rembrandt did it I’m pretty sure it’s okay for all other artists to do it too. When you swipe you can copy the surface or learn the ideas of what the other artist is doing. When you began to use their solutions in different ways that is when you are subconsciously developing a pattern language out of those other artists. What Sir Kenneth Clark is did was establish patterns Renaissance artists set up and how Rembrandt used them.

The secret to dating hot chicks? Find one who has read all the same books you have. But when you marry them the problem is the duplicates of all Rembrandt, Picasso, and Herge books you have.

How do you speak Comics?

Verbal fabrication is how we use words to control our minds and understanding what we are doing. But if there is no defined vocabulary for comics shaping my thought, visual swiping, and working from your gut. So I’ve spent ten minutes a day cutting up life and sketchbook drawings into four-panel pages as an easy social media post. It’s to see how my life drawing would feel as a comic. But it’s all working on my gut based on whatever visual knowledge that has developed over my years of looking. In writing text for the posts, I saw a set of patterns for myself to play with.

By writing out tweets like Scale jump between panels, or Bands that use solid black shapes as directional lines to control eye flow, I have a verbal fabrication that I can use to dirct visual fabrication within the page. The challenge is to integrate the visual fabrication into the narrative stories I’m working on.

Comics patterns have existed for a long time

All comics, of course, start with Jack Kirby, the 4-panel grid is obviously a pattern that Jack for many years. Legendary Marvel editor Jim Shooter used an old Kirby comic to teach his $1.98 storytelling lecture. While he didn’t use the “pattern language” vocabulary he did lay out the fundamentals of “Full-Figures in Action” and Fore-Middle-Back as a way of being clear in storytelling. Kirby also used “Foreground in” using perspective and design to suck the reader into the story. It was often it was followed by Foreground out when the story exploding out at you when he wanted a dramatic scene. “Scale jump” is also a pattern Jack often uses, jumping from full figures to close ups.

Each of these can be used to do fresh exciting work like Kirby’s or ignored and look like much of mainstream comics output.

The future of patterns in my universe

The goal is to build a list of patterns from my life drawing comics and other’s work. This takes study thought and practice with doing comics. This blog needs a Comics Patterns Wiki to list the patterns.
Links

Software Design Patterns

The first WIKI or nerds aren’t just for comics

Jim Shooters Lesson on storytelling

The basics of storytelling

Wikipedia on pattern languages, a good overview of Alexander’s ideas and plenty of discussion

The bloody story of preening maniacs fighting over control of ancient Rome. Adapting into 200 pages of thundering expressionistic comics. For sale in print here!

Cleveland’s Mondrian, is it Comics?

Looking at Mondrian I’ve often thought, “he’s the greatest comic book artist ever”. On Twitter Alan Haverholm (@haverholm) has started claiming many modern paintings as #comics. It’s delightful to have someone else claim Modernism as comics. When he posted a Mondrian grid with lots of squares done in very light values of the standard red yellow blue pallette Mondrian uses, as a #comics. Without thinking I responded #notcomics and said: “Mondrian’s work always comes down to icons for me”.

He didn’t get it. I’m not sure I get it either, so here are some thoughts to think this thru.

I’ve puzzled over this Mondrian at the Cleveland Museum of Art puzzling over why it doesn’t feel like comics to me.

What holds a comics page together as a visual unit that feels different then Mondrian’s grid-based paintings? Mondrian has put his color rectangles at the edges, making your eye move around the central white icon. For each rectangle to make sense they have to be seen in relationship to the others. Certainly not being a sequence makes it not comics. But then I’m not sure sequence is a defining part of a comics page.

The black “gutters” are zips, the weight of each one is set by the others. The thick black bar between the blue and white rectangles by its thickness takes on an identity of its own as almost an anchor of the whole composition. The bar at the bottom of the two red rectangles also take on its own identity and makes you look at it’s two parallel zip.

Despite the immaculate craft of Mondrian’s painting you can’t pull out and make any one rectangle be a “panel”. You have to hold the whole painting in your head as you look at it and can’t fall into any one panel for the meaning in the panel. I think there are two different relationships between parts of a “paintings” and “comics”. In paintings, it’s the relationships between all the parts. In comics, it’s the framework holding all the parts together. But there is still a relationship between all the parts.

So to make a Mondrian into a comic there needs to be a visual framework to allow you to compare the red and blue squares. But what he does is ask you to hold them in your head together in a relationship with the black lines as parts of this relationship, not just a framework.

Next a page from my Martian Manhunter to look more at these ideas.

An Artists Eight Fold Path

Buddha wants everyone to be happy. He can’t make you rich, famous, sexy or pain-free, just happy. Buddha gets that pain happens, emotional intellectual and physical. But then I make it worse in my head, that’s suffering. When I stop making it worse and just deal, that’s being happy.

Us artists, we gotta express our sufferings. My angst should pour out into what I make. I’m supposed to “suffer for my art”. I think I’m, special because I express my suffering. I ignore how my suffering hurts others.

Meditation is a practice in how to experience pain(emotional or physical) and let it go. There is a delight in popping the zits of day to day existence. But I can repeat forever how “The Man” screwed me to myself. But to focus on the breath and just the breath, I have to be in the moment, not in the past or the future. My breath is here as I type. My kid not doing his dishes is in the past. I’m not smart and can only handle one thing at a time. So I have to let “dishes” or the breath go. So meditation is my practice in letting go of bad shit and paying attention to what I’m doing like writing. It works, when I can do it, now I’m trying to do it with my art too.

Making art is a practice too. I have to study, each drawing or writing session is just like sitting in meditation. But I worry as much about paying the “rent” as making work. The “rent”, “The Man” and life has often stopped me from making work.

So I’m swiping Buddha’s Eightfold Path. I’m writing an Artists Eightfold path to drop all the shirt and make art. There’s no fame, no fortune not even how to draw well promised it. The only goal is to make work and be happy.

Navel-gazing at 30 Year old Ink Stains

Making art is about continually judging what is right. So in excavating old work is there any point in looking at it again? Well, when your headspace is filled by past events, fabrications and hungry ghosts that you don’t want to feed anymore, probably not.

But Daniel Vozzo once from DC Comics posted a color chart from the 80’s when the color in comics was a hand done process involving codes, little old ladies in Connecticut, and some luck. Then a request for a re-creation of the last page of Martian Manhunter (a series I had draWN colored) came over the Internet. It was shocking how much I liked the work. See those hungry ghosts are rather large with nasty tentacles that have torn at mainstream comics career.

In the middle of that career, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

I did a short strip in an anthology with friends about being diagnosed with MS. It ended with a plea to support the Single-Payer initiative on the ballot that year in California. We got a letter that said, “sorry but that’s not the appropriate subject matter in comics”. So at 31, the comics community, my body and the medical professionals basically said “you’re not appropriate”. They all said, “there is the ice floe, see ya!”.

But I lucked out, the Multiple Sclerosis, while at times crippling, is down to some chronic pain and the normal aches of old age. At 31 most people are healthy, by sixty even the finest of athletes, have aches creaks and cracks. It’s just the norm for everyones life now.

Now looking back at Martian Manhunter, there are some failures, and some neat ideas too. Age, time, a whole lot of meditation, has stuffed all the ghosts from the past into the closet. So now it’s time to find those good ideas.

Mainstream comics is factory work, a writer plots, artist pencils, another inks, another colors. I was weird that others had a hard time inking my work, and I was pretty sure they couldn’t color it right. The editor Andy Helfer let me color the work myself. But covers were more important and had to be done in the “office”. Weird kids like me weren’t allowed to color the cover, that would be wrong. When I came into the office in NYC to deliver the pages the color drone was mumbling at Andy about what a terrible cover this was and he had no idea how to color it. Helfer made a huge leap to let me color the cover because I seemed to be the only one who could make my own art work.

I had used diagonals swiped from Russian Constructivism and combining it with life drawing based inking was really the foundation of what would be my work. Now it’s seeing that color, knowing it should be simple, the buildings one color, flames another, details don’t need to be picked out in color. Let the big structure determine the color, not the need for silly rendering and tiny highlights.


Abstract Kirby 4 cover thumb

The finest comics I’ve ever done exploring the fundamental things that make comics comics. Now with fancy four colors added into the mix, the tension is can the flat hard colors defeat the evils of cross-hatch and the washes of watercolor lapping at their edges. Or some such bullshirt, I like these. Please buy them here, Abstract Kirby 4 on Amazon.