Growing A Monster

Posted in Story Collider with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by Paul Swartz

Last fall Lena and I contributed comics to an anthology put together by our friends at The Story Collider. If you’re not familiar with the podcast/live show/online magazine/burgeoning media empire that is Story Collider, you should absolutely go check it out. It’s a great source of science stories, as told by professional scientists and professional storytellers alike (as well as all kinds of other folks). It’s a great show and I’m proud to have done several illustrations for it over the past year.

The short comic below is called “Growing A Monster” and it comes from aforementioned anthology. It’s based upon a story by Erik Hofer, and is all about his adolescent obsession with carnivorous plants. The writing is all his, though I’ve pruned it down a lot. That was the toughest thing about this project, actually. The original audio piece is twelve and a half minutes long, which is a lot to try to cram into a four page comic. I did my best to whittle the story down to its essential plot points and pithiest turns of phrase, but it still feels a little choppy or staccato to me. Hopefully it reads naturally to you (before you listen to Erik’s unabridged version, that is). I’m pretty proud of my drawing here, and am pleased with my ability to adapt to the constraints of a black and white book. The treatment of the text, on the other hand, really gets to me. Someday soon I’m going to have to get serious about lettering. Anyway, heres the comic. I hope you enjoy it:

When the Story Collider gave us the run of their archive it was pretty easy to see which story I’d be working on. As you probably know, I love drawing monsters and, as you can probably guess, I feel a deep kinship to impatient, obsessive, and nerdy kids. I remember being eight years old when the first Jurassic Park movie came out and thinking that it was incumbent upon me to put out a magazine exposing and correcting all the film’s fallacies. In retrospect, I guess it was my first zine. Even in preschool I was always fuming over the ignorance of people who called me a “future archaeologist.” I remember thinking it was deeply upsetting that people who were unaware of paleontology were permitted to teach small children. Naturally, Erik’s story spoke to me.

Copy Cat

Posted in Copies with tags , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2012 by Paul Swartz

One thing that I’ve never done a lot of, in spite of its obvious educational merit, is copying. I draw so slowly that I always feel guilt ridden if I’m not doing something maximally creative. The drive to make a name, make money, and most of all, make something new has usually left me too anxious to draw merely as a means of seeing/understanding other work, or even the potential of the medium. Those were lessons, I figured, that I would have to learn incidentally, as a reader/viewer. This was a hinderance, but one I figured I’d have to deal with, given the relative shortness of life and the geological pace of my art-making.

Today, though, wanting to avoid another rerun, but too tired to conceive of something new, I thought I’d try my hand at imitation and see what, if anything, it did for me. I settled on a simple panel of David B’s, an artist with whom I feel an affinity, given his love of historical subject matter and scrawny, stylized figures. The panel I settled on comes from his and Jean-Pierre Filiu’s excellent Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations.* Specifically, the panel depicts an American assault on a Barbary Coast fort in the early 19th century. You can see the original panel and my color copy below:

I picked this panel because of its simple and powerful composition. I loved the central column of smoke and was eager to see how it might work in color. In adapting the panel, I abandoned David B’s hatching in exchange for my own particular method of applying fields of flat color. As a result, the pillar of smoke is less scratchy and more soft, smooth, and full. It’s definitely an asthetic that I’m drawn to, that I default to, even, but I see how, putting the panels side by side, it’s one that costs me a certain energy and dynamism. In the original drawing, the smoke seams to swirl more, both because the hatching stands in so well for rippling and billowing, but also because its subtle gradients better depict the gradual thinning of smoke as it wafts away from its source. In the same way, the slightly jagged character of his horizon line makes for a simple, but plausibly choppy sea, where as my crisp boarder is goofily inert. If I had to do it again, I’d go with stylized waves like I did in my Lady Liberty or Loch Ness Monster drawings. Still, I’ve got a compulsive commitment to simple shapes and solid fields, so I’ll live with all this.

One particular challenge of trying to render this panel in color** was the assignment of values to various composition elements. In the original, virtually everything is white and a few signal elements (the smoke, the ship) are black. In my rendition, I tried to use different colors and values to differentiate the different elements. Things stayed generally intelligible, I’m proud to say, but there are a few weak points here. The explosion, for instance, loses some of its pop since it is not a great deal lighter than the smoke nor darker than the sky. The cannon, too, is harder to discern. It blends too well with the purple of the smoke and its internal shapes don’t stand out against each other. I tried to use a wider spectrum of values to color the cannon, but that meant using too many pale shades that made it look lighter and sillier, more like rubber than plastic. Finally, the ship’s sails blend a little too well into the sky. Below is a black and white version of the image, highlighting the different values:

Over all, I think this was a pretty exacting copy, at least compositionally. Obviously, the difference in line quality and the addition of color have changed the feel of the piece, but, generally, everything in the panel is pretty much where David B left it. The only exception, I think, is the unlucky airborne Arab. Without meaning to, I really changed the position of his head, arms, and legs. I also drew him completely out of scale. I wasn’t aware of doing any of that, but it makes sense that I did. Loose limbs aren’t my specialty. Most of my characters come out pretty stiff, so even copying a (slightly more) realistically splayed body didn’t work out too well for me. What I was aware of doing, though, was moving the character up and to the left, getting him off of the smoke and the explosion. I also did something similar with the cannon-cleaning/loading Q-tip looking thing (tired, no time for research!). I’m not sure it all worked out. Even with heavy haloing and overlapping, David B’s drawing doesn’t feel cramped. Mine meanwhile, seems a little too stiff and clean. Also, the guard’s foot makes for a pretty rough tangent, as it curves so neatly with the swell of smoke behind it.

No matter the strengths and weaknesses of the copy job, this was a pretty fun exercise that really deepened my thinking about compositions and the sources of energy/movement in a panel. I might be doing some more of these in the next few weeks, so look out for the Swartzification of any number of other artists!

* I picked this book up at MoCCA last year and can’t recommend it enough.

** Why add color? There’s a story I like, whether it’s apocryphal or not, about the Yiddish theater. There was allegedly a Yiddish-language edition of “King Lear” that bore the legend “Translated and improved by…” I love that. No matter how strictly you’re trying to copy something, and no matter how perfect that thing might be, it’s just impossible not to tinker with it. The addition of color is my attempt to translate and improve this picture, I guess.

Olympics

Posted in Short Stories, Writing with tags , , , , on October 10, 2012 by Paul Swartz

Here’s another piece of short writing I did recently. This one is for everybody out there who thought the last one lacked a certain cruelty or crudeness. I wrote this a few months ago (during the Olympics). It’s a response to a general “Olympics” prompt, but also to the Lolo Jones quote featured below. I remember reading this quote and being blown away, basically, by her assertion that avoiding premarital sex was the greatest challenge she’d ever faced. I don’t exactly doubt her, but it’s interesting. I mean, some people are more athletically inclined than others, but nobody just falls into the Olympics. It’s a lot of work. On the other hand, there are millions of people who effortlessly, if incidentally, fall into a life of celibacy. In fact, there are people so good at not having sex that they just can’t stop not having it, no matter how hard they try. In this scenario, I imagine novice-virgin Lolo Jones leaning on the advice of one such “natural.”

PS – If anybody’s curious, the Patterson-Gimlin Film is the famous footage of Bigfoot (or whatever).

***

“I just don’t believe in it.” Jones said. “It’s just a gift I want to give my husband. But please understand this journey has been hard. There’s virgins out there and I want to let them know that it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Harder than training for the Olympics. Harder than graduating from college has been to stay a virgin before marriage.” – Lolo Jones, Olympian

“the Olympic Village is one big sex fest.” – The Huffington Post

***

“ESPN Magazine’s” own Tiana Robinson sat down last week with Randall Bowson, mentor and coach to Olympic runner Lolo Jones. While Bowson is a coach, he’s certainly not what you picture when you hear the word, and he’d be the first to tell you that he doesn’t know a thing about running. Randall Bowson is Jones’ abstinence coach, and he’s the best there is.

So, Mr. Bowson, what qualifies you to be an abstinence coach? Are you some kind of clergy?

Oh, God no, Tiana! I’m just a portly Libertarian who loves Civil War reenactments and hates his mother. I learned very young that I have great natural instincts when it comes to not having sex. I’ve always known how to deploy patchy facial hair, pewter dragon pendants, and baseless arrogance with incredible effectiveness.

Wow, that’s a pretty unique skill set. Our readers are probably curious, are there any comparable challenges in the sporting world to guarding one’s virginity?

If I had to compare virginity preservation to any other sport, I’d say it’s a little like running a marathon. My feeling is you’re not taking either one seriously if you don’t just go to the bathroom all over yourself from time to time.

Well said. Now, I hear that the Olympic Village is just one big bacchanal. What was the last thing you said to Jones before she went jetting off to London?

What did I tell her? I told her that she was walking into the lion’s den. I said: “This is going to be your biggest challenge yet, OK? This is gonna be fuckin’ Arizona State on the Thames.”

Was this a particularly tough gig for you? How was Jones performing when you two started working together?

From the minute we met it was just obvious that she lacked the basic fundamentals vital to sustained success.

Can you be more specific?

Well, for starters, girl couldn’t leer to save her life. She was just living in her peripheral vision, which is a crutch you have to put aside if you’re serious about a sexless youth. I told her “Lolo, nobody ever failed to get laid without a great 1,000-yard stare.”

How’d she take that? Did she rally, or did she sulk?

Oh, she was game, yeah. We experimented with all the different styles and techniques, trying to figure out which one was best for her.

For the benefit of our readers, what are the major schools of leering?

Well, on the one hand you’ve got what we call the Continental. The Continental is all about extended, unwavering eye contact. You’ve got to really learn to weather the dry eyeballs with this one, because a blink will just completely restore your credibility. On the other hand, we’ve got the Western Style, which is basically just a shameless stare straight to the genitals.

And which has Jones ultimately gravitated towards?

The kid’s a champion; she mastered them both.

So, is a good leer insurance against pre-marital sex?

It’s part of a solid foundation, yeah, but it’s not the be all and end all of a vintage virginity. It’s crucial that serious competitors develop a new walk. Something that says either “mentally deficient” or “emotionally disturbed” should do the trick. Walking with your head hung low and your hands thrust deep in your pants pockets is for rookies. Serious contenders shoot for the shirt pockets, armpits, or underpants. Or, you could go a different route and just get a unicycle or rolling backpack. Those have been some very successful strategies on the college circuit.

That sounds exciting. I’m guessing you guys have put a pretty ungainly walk together, huh?

Oh, yeah, we’ve worked up something pretty special. I just sat ‘Lo down with the Patterson-Gimlin film and pretty soon she was swingin’ those arms like a champ.

Look, coach, you’re the expert, but a lot of this stuff just sounds a little conservative to me, a little self-contained. I mean, what about a more aggressive strategy? Do players ever really just throw their social ineptitude and poor hygiene in would-be lovers’ faces?

Look, everybody, in every sport, says that the best defense is a good offense, but there’s just nowhere that’s truer than in the world of sex-avoidance. You never get a second chance at a first impression, so it’s key that you generate some jarring and abrasive catch phrases like: “Oh, yeah, ladies love the Ferret!” and “Girl, I’ma get all up in you like a tapeworm!” Or better yet, put them on a T-shirt so they blare non-stop, 24-hours a day. If you can’t find anything sexually aggressive and viscerally disgusting, I’ve learned that shirts with unlicensed versions of cartoon characters spouting religious or political propaganda do the job just fine.

I think that last thing went right over my head. Can you give me a hypothetical example of what one of these T-shirts might depict?

Hypothetically? Something like a picture of the Wizard of Id asking “Where’s the birth certificate?” Something like that.

And you’ve got Lolo Jones wearing a shirt like that?

Oh, God no, but I’m not giving up! When Lolo and I started working together she was wearing all these sporty shorts and tank tops. In the past year, I’ve gotten her to trade in her sports bra for a homemade cape and a vacation Bible school T-shirt.

Wow, that’s really impressive.

Thank you.

So, we’ve talked a lot about how to train your body for a prolonged virginity, but, coach, there’s a entire psychological/intellectual dimension to this process too, correct?

Yeah, that’s exactly right. This isn’t just a physical challenge, it’s a mental one too, and you want to be engaging with media that will get you and keep you in the zone. Christian romance is good, high fantasy is better. Just get out there and devour big, thick fantasy books in public. If you can find a book whose cover features the word “Magick,” a pun, and a drawing of lusty centaur, then you’re hitting what we call “The Trifecta.” It’s also important to be incredibly condescending when talking about these books, as if they weren’t written for children.

So, it’s safe to say that attitude is important here?

For sure. Attitude is important, yeah. When Lolo first came to me I had to lay some tough love on her – had to just level with her and tell her that her attitude was crap. She was bubbly, you know? She was flirty, and open, and vulnerable, and just radiated charm. Nothing about her demeanor said “Don’t chance sex with me, I’d be inept, clingy, and maybe a little dangerous.” I taught her that she could really find her sweet spot where most adult virgins live, at the nexus of visible arousal and blistering scorn. She didn’t like that at first, but I just got real with her, you know? I told her “Look, this isn’t a Olympic medal, this isn’t a Harvard diploma. This isn’t something life just hands you. It’s something that you have to earn.

If you could give your protégé just one more piece of advice, what would it be?

Knock it off with the whole sports thing. It’s just the worst thing a would-be virgin can do to her body.

And how about the kids back home who might want to abstain? Any advice for them?

Name your genitals.

OK. Name your genitals. You heard it here first.

Cartoon Cossack

Posted in Russia In a Bag with tags , , , on October 8, 2012 by Paul Swartz

This cute little Cossack is another sticker from my “Russia In A Bag” set. He looks like he’s in a rush and so am I, but I’ll be back with some writing for y’all on Wednesday!

PS – The horizontal orientation of this drawing means that it’s displayed pretty small here. You might want to click on the image for a better look at it.

Ivan the Not So Bad Once You Really Get To Know Him

Posted in Russia In a Bag with tags , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2012 by Paul Swartz

Here’s the next offering from the “Russia In A Bag” series I’ve been working on. I originally conceived of this one as a drawing of Ivan the Terrible, but, as a belated bout of Googling just revealed, it really isn’t. The actual Ivan, if the pictures are to be believed, had a much bushier beard and eyebrows than I drew. Anyway, the good news here is that, seeing as this is some kind of off-brand (and therefore not so monstrous?) Ivan, he’s less likely to gouge my eyes out to prevent me drawing any other tsars.

I’m pretty proud of this picture, but I really hate his hands, especially the one on his chest. It just blends in way too well. I also wish the purple popped more against the black. I tried using a brighter shade, but it was a little loud, and it tended to reduce the image’s contrasts too much. This version is kind of the (still underwhelming) best of all possible worlds.

Anyway, I hope you guys like this one, as I’ve got another hirsute avatar of Russian masculinity all ready for you next week!

Until then, enjoy this poor approximation:

If you ever make it to the Museum of Russian Costumes in Rostov Veliky, do avail yourself of the opportunity to “Try on clothers and make the picture.”

“Countdown to New Year’s” or “The Experiment Escapes”

Posted in Short Stories, Writing with tags on October 4, 2012 by Paul Swartz

As I said on Monday, I’ve been doing more writing lately and, inspired by Lena’s example, I thought I might dedicate some space here to prose as well as pictures. Some friends and I have recently formed a creative writing club/circle and what follows here is a short story I wrote as an outgrowth of one of our prompts. The idea one week was to write as story with either of two titles: “Countdown to New Year’s” or “The Experiment Escapes.” Here is what I came up with:

Countdown to New Year’s or The Experiment Escapes

“Don’t say it’s stupid,” Scott seethed, pacing. “Say it’s not for you, that it’s not your kind of thing.”

“That’s true, it’s not my kind of thing,” said Tracy, tersely. “It’s not my kind of thing because it’s so stupid.”

“That is so ridiculous. The Experiment Escapes is, like, the smartest movie to come out this year. It’s not OK for you to drag it through the mud just because you don’t get it.”

“Oh, so it’s not OK to call the movie stupid, but it’s OK to call me stupid?”

“I’m not calling you stupid,” sighed Scott, in a voice that implied he now was. “I’m saying you don’t get the movie. It’s hard sci-fi, Trace. It’s not immediately accessible. If you’re not a film critic, or a scientist, there’s going to be a little work involved with this one, but it’s worth it. It has a lot of really interesting stuff to say about the military industrial complex, gender politics, evolution…”

“Really? Because to me, it just looks like a bunch of naked women running around trying to kill a giant squid.”

“Look,” sighed Scott, “there’s a really conscious Greco-Roman aesthetic to this movie and the nudity is just a part of that. The characters work for the Olympus Corporation, right? And their ship, “the Persephone,” is, like, all full of white columns and stuff. It’s super interesting. I mean, most sci-fi universes are all silver jumpsuits, but why? Aren’t we just as likely to look back in time for our inspiration? Besides, there’s no full-frontal – they really had to tone it down for the R.”

“OK, but why are they all women?”

“There’s actually a great in-universe explanation for that. The Olympus Corporation used to employ male crewmen, but they didn’t hold up well on long voyages and usually ended up raping and killing people. Women just made for calmer more cooperative crews. And, if I can anticipate your next point, the widespread lesbianism is a totally plausible adaptation to – “

“No, apparently you cannot anticipate my next point, because my next point is: If you already know every tiny fucking detail about the movie, then why do you even need to see it?”

“Oh, yeah, because we have no idea what happens in Countdown to New Year’s! That movie’s a total fucking inscrutable black box!”

“At least it’s relatable! At least it’s an actual human story!”

“And a movie about man’s indomitable will to survive isn’t?”

“No, a movie like that absolutely would be. Unfortunately, you want to see the one about an astronaut-raping squid instead.”

“OK,” Scott snapped, flinging his arms wide and momentarily blockading the nearby Pinkberry, “Countdown to New Year’s is a bullshit movie!”

“Why? Because it’s funny? Because it has heart?”

“No. Because it’s an obvious, paint by numbers romantic comedy! It’s a meet cute, New York in autumn insult to everyone’s intelligence.”

“You know, it’s not that simple. It actually follows a lot of different, intersecting stories. There’s the guy with the Muslim girlfriend, the woman with cancer, the dad who – ”

“Right it’s a Golden Corral of a movie – a shitty buffet where you can get lots of different stories in tiny, mediocre portions. And it’s cynical, Trace. The movie studios talk about four quadrants, right? Young men, old men, young women, old women. When you’re making a movie you want it to appeal to as many – ”

“Yeah, I get it Scott! I know about the quadrants! And do you know what, Scott? You’re right: I bet Countdown to New Year’s is a so-so movie. I bet it’s forgettable. It’s not the smartest movie around, but it seems sweet, it seems funny, and it’s got the girl from “Cattycorner” in it and I like that show a lot. It just looks like a fun, relaxing, date nighty-y kind of movie. That’s why I wanted to see it. It’s not a violent, three-hour slog. It’s cute. It won my vote with cute, Scott.”

“Well, my movie is the smartest movie around. You may not be willing to make that claim, but I am,” said Scott, striking a pose of all-in fearful resolve that would not look out of place in a painting of a nineteenth century naval hero. “And if we’re dealing with so great an intensity gap that you don’t even think – ”

“You know what? I don’t care. See your fucking movie. I’m leaving.”

“I will see it. And I’ll see you at home.”

“Will you?” asked Tracy, very, very rhetorically. She then shoved her hands into the front pouch of her sweatshirt and walked briskly down the block. Her flip-flops slapped against the pavement as she walked; non-committal shoes for a woman with a firmly made-up mind.

“Fine by me,” Scott thought later, taking his squeaky seat in the back of the theater. “Tracy will come around,” he thought (but didn’t really). “I’ve defended this movie enough today anyway, now I can finally enjoy it.”

But he didn’t. Almost immediately there were problems. For one thing, all suspense was thrown out the window when, 10 minutes into the movie, a close up of an ancient alien carving clued the audience into exactly what the monster was going to look like. For another, android doctor Cato’s description of evolution actually included the word “progress,” which would be laughable if it weren’t so infuriating. Finally, the camera work was so shaky that Scott found himself waging his own desperate struggle, this one against nausea and dizziness.

Things just kept getting worse. About 70 minutes into the movie the survivors of the crash are taken in by a mysterious group of desert nomads. In their tent, Navigation Officer Artemis Kane complains to her lover, Octavia Jones, that “you can’t trust these people.” “…Nor any other,” says Jones who, secretly under the cephaloform’s sway, then whirls around and stoves in her beloved’s head with a bolt thrower.

Watching that scene, Scott was surprised at how hackneyed it was. “Has the writing in these movies always been so bad?” Scott was suddenly very thrown off, both by the clumsy writing and by the strange guilt that the scene had kindled within him. He squinted at his faintly glowing watch. “Less than halfway through!?” he thought. “That can’t be right…”

At the end of the movie, “The Persephone’s” lone survivor, lieutenant Hippolyta Torres finally manages to lure the cephaloform behind the downed ship’s one functioning engine. In a gruesome flash, the creature is sucked into the roaring turbine and reduced to a spray of besuckered confetti. With the twin suns of Helios rising behind her, Hippolyta basks for a brief, beautiful moment in her hard-fought victory. Her perky breasts are splattered with blood and motor oil, and soon she will bury six dead friends in the sandy soil of this desert world, but at least she is alive. Then her expression begins to change. First it sags and then it falls as she shrieks in horror. Suddenly the audience can see what she sees; all the tiny pieces of the monster’s body writhing, sprouting tentacles, growing rapidly into a thousand new squids. It is only now that the audience truly understands the terrible nature of “Project Hydra.” The hubris of the Olympus Corporation is now laid bare and mankind’s future seems very dark indeed.

Everyone is chagrined and surprised to see that Hippolyta’s is but a Pyrrhic victory. Everyone but Scott, that is. Because Scott Matheson, as of this very evening, already knows everything there is to know about Pyrrhic victories.

Ra, Ra, Rasputin!

Posted in Russia In a Bag with tags , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2012 by Paul Swartz

Ra, Ra, RasputinHey again, everybody! After nearly a year’s hiatus, I’m back, lured largely by WordPress’ map-happy stats displays. (did you know you can see the countries where your hits are coming from? Did you know they use a heat-map-style display that color codes the countries to show you how many hits they’re giving you?) Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been waiting a long time to play with something like this.

It’s not just the maps that have me blogging again, though. It’s also the insecurity. I’ve been drawing (and, increasingly, writing) these last 12 months, but my work has taken on kind of a tree falling in forest quality. I’d love to show you guys my stuff and know that it makes a sound.

I’ve got a few old projects to put up that will help catch you up on the year I’ve had. I also have a few new, in-progress projects that I’ll be working through publicly here. One of them is a new set of stickers that I’m tentatively calling “Russia In a Bag.” The Rasputin drawing up above comes from that series.

I did a lot of talking about Rasputin with students this summer, as some of them are (kind of inexplicably for pre-ironic elementary schoolers) big fans of that Boney M. song about him. It turns out the only thing harder than telling the Rasputin story without any of the sex is translating lines like: “There was a cat that really was gone.” Not that that line’s inappropriate, just goofy. Just try explaining what a “really gone cat” is to a bunch of earnest fourth graders.

Thinking about it now, I’m pretty sure I actually first learned about Rasputin from the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine.” So that’s weird. American kids of all stripes, in all places and times, seem to be learning about Rasputin through song. I wonder if any other historical figures get the same treatment?

I’m not really sure what to say about this drawing, other than that I thought a purple, Russian themed drawing would be a good first post back. It says, “I’ve been gone for a bit, I’m still the exact same person I was when I disappeared.” I actually have several versions of this drawing, some of which I might post later for commentary. Initially, he had Kaa the snake-style “hypno” eyes, but for some reason I changed them to the pinprick pupils for this post. Also, I really wanted to do his eyes in yellows for a complimentary colors thing, but, weirdly, the pink just seems to pop way more, even at the same value. Anyway, I might show some of the other versions, or even add a body later. Finally, I know that his nose is penis-y and that he’s basically got boobs for eyes, but it’s Rasputin, so I think it works.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for tonight, but man am I excited to be posting again!

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