31 December 2009

Crap year capped by a great movie

In 1999 the movie The Blair Witch Project came out fuelled by hyped generated largely via the internet courtesy of a clever and creative marketing campaign, turning the low budget “mockumentary” into the most profitable movie ever made in terms of how much it cost to make versus the mega bucks it raked in.

Several people found it scary, but many people criticised that the movie wasn’t as scary as the hype made it out to be. At the time I was working at a cinema and I too was caught up in the hype, and even though I was generally impressed with the film and found it scary to a certain degree, I wouldn’t rank it as the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.

However, a decade later, upon seeing Paranormal Activity, I came to realise perhaps why I wasn’t as scared out of my mind as I should’ve been. Blair Witch was set in a wide open forest, and although it had its fair share of scares, like the scenes in the tent, it was somewhat diminished by its outdoor setting, and a lot of what was supposed to scare you was mainly the psychological state of the characters and how they reacted to strange things that began to occur.

We see them filming stuff that was left behind for them to find that freak them out, and we see them running away from something menacing. Although those things are scary to a certain degree, a lot of people sometimes tend to overrate the psychological scares, praising it as way scarier than actually seeing the real thing. Although that is true, you have to at least see something, which Blair Witch doesn’t offer really. The opposite end of the spectrum, seeing the blood and the phantoms in all their glory, is also not scary, and that’s why I appreciate that Paranormal Activity situates itself in the sweet, chewy centre, showing something while showing nothing at all.

I’m kind of surprised that nobody thought of this idea earlier, and that it took someone exactly ten years after Blair Witch to come up with it. A guy called Micah lives in a nice house with his girlfriend Kate, who has a history of being visited upon by beings from the spirit realm, and Micah takes it upon himself to discover how true her claims are by having a video camera film them while they sleep, to see if anything happens.

And therein lies the genius of the setup: spooky things happen in the enclosed environment of a house, a much scarier proposition than in a big forest, which makes this movie much creepier than The Blair Witch Project. So there are no discovering of rocks outside a tent or finding someone’s ear or weird symbols hanging all over the place. We see doors moving, sheets moving and… I don’t want to spoil it by saying any more than that in case you haven’t seen it.

And don’t be fooled into thinking you can catch it on DVD because it’s all video camera footage anyway. Paradoxically, the best place to watch this movie is on the big screen in a cinema filled with willing participates as that just adds to the atmosphere and it’s fun to hear the people around you freaking out as everyone sits watching the screen in absolute bladder bursting suspense as to what’s going to happen next to this poor couple. I literally felt the hairs on my neck stand up with each scare and giggled along with the audience each time a new scene started showing the couple sleeping in bed moments before something happens.

This didn’t feel like a movie as much as it felt like an experience, something that gets you truly excited about going to the movies and getting truly caught up in what’s happening on the screen and leaving the cinema feeling that you’ve watched something really special. For a long time I was becoming jaded with the films that has been coming out, especially this past decade where I can’t think of any movie that has really stood out for me in the way that a film like The Matrix stood out for me (again) ten years ago in 1999 with its innovation and great ideas.

On the same day I watched Paranormal Activity I also saw the movie Invictus, and although I enjoyed watching it considering how relevant it is to me as a South African, the whole time I felt like I was watching Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon instead of Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar. That kind of thing takes you out of the experience.

In contrast, Paranormal Activity had no stars, which is why I could so immerse myself in the fictional tale. If I had my way, I would want all films to star excellent actors who are unknowns instead of film stars who I can’t help recognise as film stars, thus taking me out of the experience. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but not often.

Of the films that attracted my attention this year, Paranormal Activity is the best, followed a close second by District 9. But within the genre film category, Paranormal Activity might very well be my favourite film of this decade, right on the eve of the next decade, which I hope will bring us more films that truly captures the imagination with its innovation and sheer passion.

31 August 2009

My (unbiased, I promise) verdict on District 9

I was well aware of the hype and buzz surrounding District 9 going in, and what that usually does is fill me with dread. Because more often than not, the movie does not live up to the hype and typically leaves me going, “uh... huh…?” when the credits roll. The Dark Knight was a case in point last year, possibly for me the most overrated movie of all time.

And I was expecting that with District 9. That’s until, of course, I found myself at the end of movie wondering why I wasn’t having that feeling, after which I then escaped out of the cinema’s emergency exit for the purposes of research on my current project. (But that’s a story for another day) It wasn’t as if I was sitting there happy about the film or anything, I just didn’t feel disappointed like I usually do after I’ve watched films that are hyped this much. I thought, could this be a repeat of what happened recently when another much-hyped movie, Slumdog Millionaire, surprised me by being as good as what people said it was?

Then again, I just came from watching GI Joe with exactly that same neutral feeling, but before it ended I had already decided that GI Joe couldn’t really have been better (it could have been worse) than it was because for those kind of big, franchise, tentpole, US summer-type movies, nothing really original can come from it because those movies are made by committee and focus groups and 100 screenwriters so the best you can do is just make the most visually kick-ass movie you can that doesn’t annoy you with too many glaring inconsistencies or pseudo-smart convoluted plotting, all of which GI Joe manages to pull off. For all its visual creativity, however, I didn’t much care for GI Joe.

But then I kinda let District 9 play back in my mind a few times just to make sure if it was all hype or if it was actually good, and when I didn’t find very many reasons for what was wrong with it, I came to the conclusion that this must have been a darn good movie.

Not that I was biased about District 9 either. To be honest, I actually cringed the first few minutes listening to the South African accents because I was so used to expecting such hyped-up movies to come with American accents. To me it initially felt strange and awkward, but as the movie went on I started getting used to it. What helped with that was the many funny moments in the film which softened me up a bit. Also, concerning bias, even though I watched a movie like Jerusalema twice, I really wanted to like it, but found it really didn’t do much for me. I felt an all too familiar feeling that the whole rags to riches gangster film has been done before, and that movie didn’t bring anything new besides the stealing-of-buildings part, which was a gimmick that just came and went.

District 9 on the other hand was quite unique. You can argue that the concept of aliens interacting with normal human society was borrowed from the movie (and tv series) Alien Nation. But whereas Alien Nation’s angle was post-Apartheid integration, District 9’s angle is Apartheid separation. But the way it breaks new ground I think is what happens to the main character Wikus. If you see it as an Apartheid allegory, then what happens to Wikus is something that could never have happened during Apartheid, which is an angle that no other similarly-themed movie that I can think of has taken before and which makes that last shot of the movie all the more moving.

But the other unique aspect of the movie is the sharp contrast of the high-tech visuals within the harsh slum conditions, which no other sci-fi movie has done and which no other Hollywood movie would ever even have considered because in America and Europe there just aren’t any slums as bad as we have, and what reason would there be to set a high-tech sci-fi movie in a slum? That idea alone is worth making the movie.

If there was one tiny flaw in the movie (**SPOILER ALERT**) then it was the thin slice of cheddar stuck between Wikus and Christopher’s (the main alien) relationship when they parted ways.

But that’s just nit-picking. District 9 is a phenomenal achievement and deserves all the praise it’s getting. I look forward to seeing it showered with accolades when awards season rolls around early next year.

30 July 2009

The significance of District 9 on the South African movie landscape.

I think this is shaping up to be an exciting year for South African stories expressed via film. Later this year we’ll see the release of probably the most important film to come out of South Africa based on events surrounding the 1995 Rugby World Cup (won by the Springboks) titled either The Human Factor or Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Matt Damon as Springbok captain Francois Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as THE LEGEND Nelson Mandela. (Would love to see the scene where Freeman hands over the trophy to Damon)

But before that one we’ll see the release of a movie that is definitely something we’ve never before experienced in South African film history: a film without fake American accents, set and shot entirely in South Africa, with no overseas stars and undoubtedly the biggest budget ($30 million) of any previous film and yet it is amongst the genre films coming out this year that is receiving the kind of buzz comparable to the release of a Hollywood movie made by James Cameron or Stephen Spielberg.

That movie is called District 9 and it has been setting the internet abuzz with anticipation due largely to the involvement of Peter Jackson, but also due to a very intriguing trailer that has gone viral since its release a few months ago. And now after seeing the movie, websites such as Ain’t It Cool News and Chud are singing its praises, even going so far as to say that the special effects are better than that of another hotly anticipated sci-fi movie coming out called Avatar by the King-Of-The-World™ himself James Cameron.

Well, that has to be seen to believed, but in the mean time it’s great that for the first time in a long while I’ve been this excited by a movie, and local one nogal! The movie tells the story of aliens (the live-long-and-prosper kind) landing in downtown Johannesburg and are met with resentment and hostility by the locals, forcing government to round them all up into makeshift camps, a scenario which is eerily similar to the incidents of xenophobia we’ve experienced recently, something which I guess was a lucky accident for the filmmakers as it will make the film all the more relevant. Well, for us South Africans anyway.

For Americans and others it will be just another kick-ass sci-fi movie, and perhaps much more if early reports of just how great this film is are to be believed. Apparently the director and co-screenwriter of the movie, Neill Blomkamp, made a short film involving the same scenario, and upon which District 9 is based, called Alive In Joburg, and it leaves me wondering exactly where does one get to see films like these as they are hardly ever publicised and never EVER shown on TV where they should be, and I’m such a sucker for a sci-fi premise set in the real world.

So I wish this film all the success of a bona-fide Hollywood sleeper hit ($40 million opening weekend States side??) and I’ll definitely be the first in line on opening weekend. Try and stop me you local haterzzz! (yes, you KNOW who you are, don’t pretend!)

09 July 2009

Why was he the King Of Pop?

With Michael Jackson’s very emotional memorial service this past Tuesday now behind us and with his fans gradually beginning to come to terms with his passing, I’ve been considering a lot about what perhaps could have been the reasons behind the phenomenon that was Michael Jackson, and I have come up with some theories that I’ve been mulling over ever since I learned of his death.

The legend that is Michael Jackson and the unprecedented support that has been showed towards him throughout his life and in his untimely death is, in my opinion, the result of various factors coming together to create a so called ‘perfect storm’. All the right ingredients were present at exactly the right time and they were all mixed together to create the legend of Michael Jackson, which is probably why this may never occur again within our lifetime.

The ingredients, which you’ll probably find separately in other people, go roughly as follows:

  • A great singing ability
  • a great dancing ability
  • the tragedy of a cruel father that put undue pressure on him to perform and thus sacrifice his childhood which resulted in his love for children and was also probably the cause of his supposed asexuality, which thus had an influence on how he was perceived by the public
  • not fitting in with his peers and feeling like an outcast, which could have given him extra motivation to use his unusual abilities to gain respect and love from the public
  • being in the precise moment to have met other talented collaborators like Quincy Jones who helped crafted a groundbreaking commercial crossover album that would propel him to superstardom across all races
  • being the black underdog in the white orientated landscape of pop music and culture
  • his eagerness to always be different and innovative
  • having the personality that despite all his hardships never made him bitter and rebellious and always maintaining his shy and soft-spoken nature, which made him seem vulnerable and caused people to be protective of him.

I think if you were to take just one or two of these factors out of the equation Michael Jackson wouldn’t have been as big as he is today, because a lot of these factors exist separately in various other people but all these strands somehow conspired to converge all at once into the person known as Michael Jackson.

That’s my two cents on the matter, and if anyone has any thoughts and opinions about this I’d love to know what you think.

01 July 2009

Cape Town Book Fair and the search for graphic novels

People sure love their books

I know I was supposed to post this a while back, but better late than AWOL.

Last month I attended my first ever book fair, the Cape Town Book Fair. Yes, it may seem strange for an author who has released a book to have not been to a book fair yet, but there’s a lot of things that’s strange about me and how I got to create a graphic novel, so let’s just say that the normal rules don’t apply to me and leave it at that for now.

South African superstar author John van der Ruit signing his latest 'Spud' sequel
As a graphic novelist, the one thing that struck me about the book fair, aside from there being a whole lot of books, was the obvious absence of graphic novels. And that was disappointing considering the rise of popularity of the format globally. The only significant graphic novel presence was the Readers Den booth, which is a comics shop in Cape Town.

When I spoke to the guy in charge of the booth about why he thought there was such scant graphic novel representation, he gave me the typical response about South Africa always being behind the times, but then he also filled me in about how the book fair organisers had supposedly planned some kind of focus on graphic novels but were unable to secure significant sponsorship from the book industry.

Something I stumbled upon that I found quite interesting was a booth that featured, amongst other stuff, graphic novels based on classic novels such as Jane Eyre, Frankenstein and a few Charles Dickens books plus some graphic novel adaptations of William Shakespeare plays as well, all by a publisher called Classic Comics. I can’t exactly remember who the booth belonged to, but the graphic novels were merely amongst the many other publications they distributed in South Africa, so it wasn’t their main area of focus. But it was nonetheless quite exciting to see such revered work being translated into the ‘disposable’ format of comics.

I have to admit, for most of my time at the fair an all too familiar feeling came over me: that I was an outsider, a stranger in this world of literary types. There still seems to be this notion that real books is all about words only, and that if it contains pictures then it must be for kids. I feel a bit disappointed by a large majority of South Africans that in this world of the internet and global connectivity that they still have this outdated and elitist view of graphic novels, as if it cannot approach anything close to real literature.

The only graphic novel/comic presence at the fair was the Readers Den comics shop

When you consider what literature fundamentally is, which is the expression of stories, ideas, emotions and humanity via the words of an author, why do we continue to assume that pictures (the same pictures when framed in an art gallery is revered) cannot express those same stories, ideas, emotions and humanity when integrated with word balloons?

So I guess the journey to enlightenment continues. Who knows, maybe next year. We can only pray.

26 June 2009

It is a sad day that Michael Jackson is no more

It is sad because to me Michael Jackson was not just the super famous pop star with mind-blowing singing and dancing skills that had me and the world mesmerised as a child, he was also a true artist in the sense that he was a creator, pioneer and storyteller.

For him it wasn’t just about music, it was about an experience, which means that the one thing I’ll always bemoan is that my circumstances never allowed me to go to his live show when he was in South Africa in 1997. I always made myself feel better by saying that I’ll catch him on his next visit when his promoting his next album, which I assumed would happen with his 2001 album Invincible. But that never materialised.

Then he disappeared off the scene and got caught up in child molestation accusations, which seemed to drag on forever and threatened to end his music career. But when he was acquitted, I was satisfied because it meant that he could focus on his career again, then I started hearing news that he’s working on new material with artists such as Ne-Yo, and then I got excited because I thought the man’s creative juices is flowing again and he’ll soon be delivering that one-of-kind, entertainment experience that only he can. And what was even more upsetting was to learn exactly how hard he was busy preparing for that comeback and how he and his crew seemed genuinely excited about what they were preparing for. I have no doubt it would have been nothing short of magnificent.

Because truth be told, he was the only one around in the current music industry that could pull off true spectacle and something that never failed to make you sit up and take notice, because you know this is Michael Jackson and his genius brain is going to get to work in giving you something special that nobody else can quite pull off. You know he’s going to rope in the biggest and best talents in the business, and they’re going to get to work to produce spectacular stuff.

Because Michael Jackson is a storyteller, and as a storyteller he doesn’t just create music, he creates an adventure, and that is what I was keenly awaiting from Michael Jackson, because there’s simply no one else that can produce spectacle and excitement on the scale that he can pull off, even if it was something like the song and video for You Rock My World.

When they say that Michael Jackson’s passing is the end of an era, it truly is because the music world has changed so much since his heyday. Much of his legend and aura was brought about by the fact that he sold so many albums and spent so much time on the pop charts and will forever have the biggest selling album of all time, Thriller.

Today we don’t get wowed anymore by album sales, because albums don’t sell anymore, and nobody has really been so great that they’ve blown up the charts with three or more consecutive albums. It seems that Michael Jackson is the latest victim of the curse of legend, where it seems that if you’ve become a once-in-a-lifetime legend, you’re destined to die before your time, just as was the case with Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley and Princess Diana, and leave the world looking around thinking what just happened and why don’t we have more of them to fill the void.

I was looking forward to at least 10 more years of MJ magic because creativity never really dies. In a way, Michael Jackson inspired me as an artist because he created both spectacle and substance; both the pyrotechnics and the moments that gave you pause and inspired you. And that’s pretty much what I try to do as well, to deliver the message all wrapped up in a pretty package. The artists of today either do the one or the other. He did both. And that is a huge gap in the showbiz industry that will most likely never be filled in my lifetime.

Rest in peace, Mr Michael Joseph Jackson - 29 August 1958 – 25 June 2009.

14 June 2009

Why was I wired for art?

This is one of those rant/vent kind of posts so if you don’t like that sort of thing then steer clear.
Cristiano Ronaldo

I have beaten myself up about that question many times before, but in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo netting a ₤80 million transfer in the midst of a crap economy and me driving past a man on the freeway waving a red flag to caution traffic, I found myself again asking the same old question.

Why art? Why not football, or office work or agriculture or waving red flags to caution traffic?

Because when I looked at that guy waving the red flag, I asked myself, is that guy happy with what he is doing? Maybe not, but there’s also the possibility that man is delirious with joy, that he finds happiness and joy not by being in any specific profession, but by just having a job. His happy just to be working, whatever job it may be. That may seem like a pearl of wisdom kind of statement, but I’m just not getting it.

Bro with red flag

I can’t just be doing any kind of job. I’ve done that before and I felt a kind of misery that was a few shades away from suicide. I vowed not to do something I’m not completely into, which is why I quit that job and launched myself completely into my graphic novel passion project, hoping that this may be the beginning of something new, a rebirth, a revitalisation!

But alas, now I’m realising maybe that’s all a myth, those mantras of ‘live for what you believe’ or ‘follow your bliss’ or any one of those gurufic platitudes. Except maybe if you’re Mark Zuckerberg and you’re on the verge of creating a social networking phenomenon, or if you’re Cristiano Ronaldo. Because it seems that stuff only really matters if it has to do with something that people care about, like Facebook or football.

But if it comes to something like art, nobody cares much for that, not your regular, everyday folks anyway. Doesn’t do anything for them, they’ll kinda pat you on the back for doing it but they’re indifferent to it, rather focussing on the more relevant stuff that everyone else around them is focussing on.

Unless of course they suddenly hear of a sensation that came out of nowhere that everybody is talking about (Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, The Dark Knight, Paris Hilton, etc), then of course they’ll pay attention. Why? Not necessarily because it’s the best thing since bubble wrap, but because everyone else is paying attention. Only THEN do they stop and listen, not perhaps try and investigate the truth within themselves about whether something is good or not and championing something that’s worthwhile instead of jumping on the bandwagon.

But I digress, because this has all to do about what’s relevant, and whether you’re fortunate enough to dig and be passionate about working in an industry that is relevant in the world today, something that truly matters to people and which consumers have absolutely no choice but to pay for because it’s a tangible object or it’s a service and you can’t steal it off the internet, or else they would have.

It makes me wonder what my life would be like if I was big on something other than art. *sigh!*

Soon, a post on my first Cape Town Book Fair (my first book fair EVER, actually!)

13 June 2009

Thoughts on Terminator Salvation and its ties to Project H's future

Just watched Terminator Salvation and I thought it wasn’t near the travesty most critics were making it out to be. As I was watching I thought, ‘okay, so when is this going to get bad like Die Hard 4.0 became’, but I just kept on watching and thought that it might go off towards the end, and even though it did, those faults weren’t to the film’s detriment.

The critics seemed to be comparing it to the first two films that were basically chase/stalker suspense thrillers, but this is a different genre of movie altogether – warfare of the post-apocalyptic kind where a band of human resistance fighters battle artificially intelligent terminators who see mankind as a threat and want us to sleep with the fishes (bada-bing!), a scenario that was envisioned via brief glimpses in the first two movies and then initiated in the third.

I wasn’t really too thrilled about Terminator 3 because it followed the same chase movie motif as the previous two cracking films and thus was a just a poor imitation, although it was redeemed by its unhappily-ever-after ending. Salvation was a refreshing change of pace for the franchise and was good despite several gaping plot holes, stuff that just didn’t make sense and plenty of ‘yeah rights!’

It may not have been great but I loved the dark ideas and themes expressed in the movie (like the origin of the T-800s and harvesting flesh from humans) and the potential it may hold for future instalments (it would be cool to see the origin of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 liquid terminator.)

Where the film really excels is in the staging of the actions sequences. I think Michael Bay-hem can learn a few things from this guy as how to film chaotic action scenes that is engaging and not confusing. The action scenes were really well executed, exciting and all-over-the-show but somehow still coherent. Needless to say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen won't be on my must-see list, unlike, of course, the much-awaited Avatar (Cameron's, not Shayamalan's).

From what I’ve read Michael Ferris and John Brancato’s previous script drafts had an altogether different flavour from the one that was filmed, and some of the ideas proposed in those previous drafts did seem more appealing than what was eventually filmed, including a totally different ending which I won’t spoil here but it seemed like it would have really blown the roof off the Terminator franchise and would have been very shocking to hard-core fans but a very exciting way to breath new life into the mythology compared to that very silly ending at the moment.

Terminator Salvation was one of the few movies where I was willing to overlook its staggering flaws because the film as a whole managed to make up for it with sheer kinetic energy and post-apocalyptic woe.

The Terminator series echoes other film franchises like The Matrix films and Star Wars with its resistance angle, and this is also the direction I intend taking my own Project H in, except that the battle by necessity must be more ideological than physical because the villain cannot be killed physically, but it will also eventually progress into a physical battle when certain other plot elements come into play.

If it ever happens, it should be good, something not really seen before within that genre, some new and exciting ideas to play with.

09 June 2009

Q&A: In the crime fiction spotlight.

The only way I'm going to win this thing is with baby steps, that hopefully lead to bigger steps. I just scored myself one of those baby steps, a Q&A with yours truly on the crime fiction blog Crime Beat, a blog that grew out of the soaring popularity for crime fiction or thrillers in South Africa lately, a market with potential that has never been tapped because we first had to get over the baggage of the past (bad old Apartheid). But now the slate is (kind of) clean.

Now we just need to get people on the graphic novel band wagon so that the world may be united as one! Anyway, here's an excerpt of the interview. Catch the whole thing here.


Last month a crime graphic novel hit the bookshelves - Project H by Brandon Carstens – a first in the local krimi genre. As graphic novels are increasingly taking on a ‘respectable’ position in the book world, it is disappointing to learn that Carstens had to self publish as no local publisher is thinking along these lines yet. Let’s hope that is set to change. But until then here’s a glimpse into the world of Brandon Carstens.

Crime Beat: As the new kid on the block tell us a bit about yourself? Are out a Capie by birth or by inclination?

Brandon Carstens: Born and bred on the Cape Flats, the quiet kid who always kept to himself while drawing to pass the time. Films also become the comfort for me that was denied by my lack of suitable friends, but even as I gained friends growing up I was always drawn to the magic of movies to get me through lonely times. It was most likely all of this that sparked my imagination to tell stories, although one can never really know for sure where these things come from. After graduating with a graphic design diploma I decided perhaps I wasn’t up for that kind of thing quite yet because my head was full of these crazy dreams, so I did odd jobs while I worked on converting said dreams into said book.

Crime Beat: Your work is saturated in the emotions of the Cape Flats, the drug problems, the gang problems and, of course, as in all lives, the quiet moments of reprieve. As angry as your social critique is, you are at pains to give both sides of the community.

Brandon Carstens: I think because I live on the Cape Flats myself I am able to provide the perspective of both sides, but also I need for people to understand that of all the negativity the Flats produces, it is also able to create the kind of optimism that shines through all the gloom and give hope and encouragement, and I’m hoping as a result of the work I’ve created I can encourage a different opinion of the Cape Flats. Yes, there are people living there that are lazy and unmotivated and look for excuses to commit crime, but there are also people who desire to move beyond their circumstances, and there are people that have so much more to offer than what people expect, and I think Project H is an expression of that. But having said that, Project H also has its cautionary moments to reflect on that goes beyond crime and poverty, so there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

Crime Beat: Now before we go any further let’s look at the form you’ve used. The graphic novel has not yet gained much popularity among local writers and illustrators despite Bitterkomix and a host of graphic novel workshops. What made you venture into the genre?

Brandon Carstens: It was definitely a risk on my part because of the huge lack of awareness of the format in South Africa, and it weighed greatly on my mind introducing my first book into a market place that has yet to grasp the concept of the modern graphic novel and how it’s slowly losing its juvenile stigma globally. So I knew the odds were stacked against me, but it’s the only way I knew how to tell this story. I would not have done a prose novel justice as I don’t consider myself capable in that area, but drawing is something I’ve been capable of since childhood, and it seemed the perfect solution to use illustrations as a vehicle to express these ideas and stories that was yearning to come out. With Project H I’m hoping to ignite the notion that graphic novels are great for telling any kind of story, and I was excited by the opportunity to tell a genre story that is accessible to a lot of people, a story that is hopefully intriguing for readers and will have them itching to unravel the mystery as they would in any other mainstream thriller or mystery.

(Read more over at Crime Beat)

03 June 2009

Step 5: Trying to sell the damn thing!

So this is where I find myself today, a few months after my so called ‘soft’ launch on Facebook in February, with the tough task of trying to sell books to people who don’t seem to be getting it yet, how cool and awesome graphic novels are and how it has the potential to reinvigorate reading for a large amount of people who have long since lost interest, or who find it difficult to read but still wish to do so.

But also for people who do read, I think graphic novels offers a wonderful opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on what reading can be, and that a good graphic novel still provides the essentials of good fiction: a gripping story with engaging characters that gets you all excited and chatty.

Of all the advice I’ve researched about the requirements for creating exposure for one’s book, the thing that gets mentioned most often is the need to have some sort of web presence, a face to represent your book on the internet. And for me that meant having a website.

And this is where I had to channel MacGyver again (see Step 4), because not only did my budget allow for absolutely no wiggle room to pay a web designer to create my website, I didn’t want this to be just any ordinary book website with the typical book synopsis, author bio and cover shot. I wanted the website to be a total immersive experience into the world of the book, which meant creating unique content exclusive to the website that revolved around the universe the book is set in, all conceived in the style of a news website, and all created by myself.

Which meant becoming nothing less than a hands-on control freak.

The thing about me is that at heart I’m so much of an artist, and up to that point I’ve been so absorbed in artistic considerations and concerns that I didn’t really have the desire to get to grips with technology. I’m not a Luddite, and indeed in the past I got excited by all things tech, but I’ve recently realised that I don’t really want to get too deeply involved in technology than is really necessary to advance my art.

But having no choice in the matter, I decided to teach myself to create a website from the ground up, which meant a lot of back and forth and trial and error and throwing my hands up in the air with the inner workings of html and css. And so together with my previously established skills in creating graphics, I went about creating a whole website from scratch. (hand-coded the damn thing from Notepad for goodness sake!)

But having a website by no means guarantees that you’re going to create awareness for your book, because now there are also such things as Facebook (which both I and Project H is on), Twitter (my life is not that interesting) and MySpace (forget it, my eyes hurt just thinking about that site!)

And even if you’ve exhausted yourself getting all that sorted, it still doesn’t mean people are even going to care about your book let alone buy one, which I have painfully discovered. Not only is there such a lot of stuff out there vying for people’s valued eyeballs, we’re dealing with a graphic novel here, something that is unfamiliar to people, and you know how people like stuff they know, which is why the Brad Pitts and the Hollywoods will always make billions and your Slumdog Millionaires just have to settle for, well, a measly million. (Maybe should’ve called it Slumdog Billionaire)

Promise, no sour grapes there, it’s just the way of the world, right? Yep.

Of course, one of the key factors in creating awareness is media exposure, and considering that having a no-string budget meant advertising was totally out of the question, the only other option for me was free publicity via reviews and interviews, which entailed sending out a bunch of press releases to a bunch of editors and crossing all fingers and toes hoping that they’ll be kind enough to respond to little old me.

Because as a first time graphic novelist you’re at the mercy of fussy editors who in their infinite knowledge decides that people don’t really want to hear about graphic novels, not until the overseas media taps on their window and tells them it’s okay. I tip my hat to those forward thinking editors and gatekeepers (hi Mike) who actually keep their eye on interesting overseas developments like graphic novels and are excited by innovation and want to expose audiences to things that are off the beaten track.

And to prove my point about the apparent lack of local interest, I had to send my book halfway across the world to score my first review on the US website Ain’t It Cool News. If there’s any South Africans reading this who wish to move graphic novels forward in this country, can I ask that you try and get as many people to read this review as possible so that we can perhaps start getting people to realise that if someone from overseas has enjoyed it, maybe they will too. What a concept, hey?!

Here’s the link to the review: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/41194#4

I have also since scored myself two radio interviews, which I think went quite well, but neither of which really resulted in any kind of significant traffic to my website. So the revolution continues to expose graphic novels to the masses and blow this thing wide open. Who’s with me?

29 May 2009

Step 4: Post-production and preparing for the printers (a.k.a MacGuyver phase)

Why is it also known as the MacGuyver phase?

Because when I was chained to my desk for those couple of years drawing, I was unaware of how much effort and money I really needed to get almost 200 pages of art print-ready. Or perhaps I was in denial, but either way the pages needed to be scanned, cleaned up, laid out and converted into a print-ready PDF.

But during the drawing process I was far away on a cloud being blissfully unaware, smiling and daydreaming about books rolling off the presses and floating off into bookstores like a scene out of Harry Potter.

Okay, so denial had me in a choke-hold there, and when I phoned for quotes about how much it would cost to get all those stuff done by the people who do them stuff, denial released its grip and I coughed my lungs all over the floor! IOW, I had no choice but to channel my inner Richard Dean Anderson.

So instead of having the pages drum-scanned and cleaned up all nice-like at a repro house for a small fortune, I had to be resourceful, which meant inquiring if I could actually do this myself somehow, and if that would be a wise move or would it mean my book ended up looking like green and yellow sputum.

I was told that going with the repro house would be the best thing for my pages as their drum scanners are of a higher quality and their people also clean up any stray marks and broken lines on the pages. But I was also advised that since my book has no greyscale art and was strictly line art, I could conceivably get away with using a home scanner set at a high resolution, between 900 – 1200 dpi, but then I had to do the clean up myself, a very laborious process which is the reason why many folks (with rich uncles) end up going with the repro people.

But, at least there was hope, so all I needed to do was brace myself for a couple months of scanning each page in three parts (A3 pages, A4 scanner, oy!), stitching them together into one page and spending hours photoshopping the pages into a shiny sheen.

And I have to admit, I was quite pleased with the way it turned out - I dare you to compare the original pages with the scans and find the scans wanting (yes, admit it, I’m a genius!).

All that was left was laying each page out in Freehand and finally creating an EPS file that the printing company would use to convert into a print ready PDF.

Yes, I said laying each page out in Freehand, as in the vector-based drawing software you use for creating logos and such. Look, I couldn’t get my hands on the typical layout software like In Design or Quark (don’t ask why) and necessity being the mother of no choice, I went with what I had available. But hey, even though it meant more work for me (yay!), to my surprise it actually ended up working, barring one or two computer crashes. (okay, several!)

And if that wasn’t enough, after all my researching about book covers and people advising that not only shouldn’t you design your own book cover but you should ask a professional cover designer and not just any graphic designer, I went and gave them all the finger and decided to actually create (all by myself) my own book cover.

And guess what, I don’t think anybody else would’ve done a better job than the author who knows his creation better than anyone else and therefore knows what the most appropriate image would be to convey what the book is all about. I think it was a job well done thank you very much!

Having said that, however, don’t EVER do what I just did there! Rather ask a professional cover designer to do you it for you. I’m sure as hell going to next time because I’m not going through that again. I think that experience shaved a few years off my life, I swear.

Finally, I have to give all due props to Arthur Attwell over at Mousehand for answering some of my more challenging questions about how to get my book print-ready. It’s just good to know that there are still some people out there who’s got game.

So with my entire book scrunched up into an EPS file, I sent it off to the printers and waited like a child on Christmas Eve for that first book to arrive.

Next time: Trying to sell the damn thing!

22 May 2009

Step 3: The Drawing

I think it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t write a ty
pical comic or graphic novel script. My script was written in the format of a film screenplay, from which I then did thumbnail page breakdowns.

The reason I think this was a better way to do it was because a film screenplay is more versatile and streamlined for general reading than the more technical and dense comics script, and I wanted to get feedback from people on a script level where changes could easily be made before embarking on the more permanent illustrating phase, and to me it seemed that a screenplay would be far easier for people to read than a normal comics script.

Also, having it in the looser film screenplay format instead of the rigid, panel-for-panel comic script format made the process of page breakdowns more fluid, allowing me to play the scene out like a movie in my mind and then pick snapshots that will then become panels. I think it makes for a better flow of action to make all layout decisions at the thumbnailing stage than at the scripting stage. For me the script is more suited to plot structuring, scene setting and dialogue, which should be the main areas of focus.

Illustration was draining as hell, the longest and most exhausting phase of the entire creative process. But my sheer passion for this project and dogged determination to hold it in my hands as a completed product shepherded me through this laborious task.

This is where I was grateful for the drawing (particularly life drawing) instruction I picked up during my graphic design course. But because this project was so important to me, I felt I needed to deepen my understanding of all aspects of my craft, and that included a more intensive study of both perspective and anatomy, of which I immersed myself in via several books on the subjects.

Once I had a competent grasp of anatomy and perspective, I was ready for battle, so all that was left was weapons acquisition and training. Since I knew I’d be going old school on this project, my arsenal included, amongst others, a dip pen (for lettering), sable brushes (general inking) and technical pens (hatching).

I always read of rookies being intimidated to ink with a brush and therefore tended to avoid it, but I knew that mastering this much-favoured tool amongst old school professionals would result in a better quality of line and therefore a richer final product, so I relished getting to grips with this often unpredictable apparatus.

But above all my most treasured tool, and perhaps somewhat controversial amongst certain artists, was the digital camera. I used it at every opportunity and I believe it was invaluable in completing the book without me going certifiably nuts! To me, the most important thing that I wanted to capture in Project H was absolute authenticity, whether it was capturing the locations in accurate detail or depicting an authentic manner of movement in the characters.

Instead of fussing over getting a pose to look right, I just shot the pose with the digital camera and instead concentrated all my energy on the most important aspect: good visual storytelling. So for me, the camera was a means to an end, i.e. to visually communicate the story, which was vital above all else.

Plan B, of course, would have been to take a few years to develop the skill and confidence of an accomplished draughtsman, spending my time drawing projects I didn’t want to do so that I can eventually gain the experience to draw my own book without the need to supposedly ‘cheat’. Nothing wrong with that really, and pre-digital cameras I probably would have had no choice. But I think it’s a bit unfortunate that there are certain artists out there who think that a tool that would radically improve their storytelling ability would also be considered cheating.

For me, the art is a means to an end and not the end itself, which I think is probably part of the reason why comics cannot lose the ‘stink’ for most people. Because when all people see are muscle-bound, spandex-wearing superheroes in confusing and pseudo-creative layouts, they will always consider comics not worthy of serious consideration.

Those who criticise the use of digital cameras in comics art may argue that it results in stiff and overly fussy illustrations, and they may have a point, which is why I don’t think it’s a good idea for artists to rely too much on the camera. You still need a good foundation and grasp of fundamental drawing principles such as anatomy, perspective and composition and the camera should only be used once these fundamentals are properly in place. A digital camera cannot, and never will, turn a bad artist into a good one.

Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun but also quite a challenging experience running around Cape Town photographing locations, especially since I had to sometimes squeeze myself into awkward angles and positions to get the shots exactly the way I wanted them, not to mention taking my camera into one or two dodgy locations and also having to click-and-run to get certain shots I didn’t quite have the permission to get. Hey, whatever it takes!

So, after all the reference photos had been collected and the entire book had been storyboarded, I set about spending the next two years plus with the not-so-simple task of illustrating Project H.

Next time: Post-production and preparing for the printers (a.k.a MacGuyver phase)

08 May 2009

Step 2: The Writing

Like I mentioned before, I don’t consider myself a writer, but in order to have the story of Project H actually make any kind of sense when it was completed I had to get to grips with the craft of writing and all that goes with it. And that meant books on writing.

I have to admit that reading (long form work, like novels) didn’t come as naturally to me as it should have. Call it the result of a terrible upbringing, a bad education system, the lack of vegetables or Double Dragon, I used to find it somewhat of a drag. But that’s until I actually found myself with a story to tell, and I felt this story was just too damn important for me to be a slouch in the technical department.

So I’s went and gots skillz!

My heart belonged, and always will, to the silver screen. It’s what I blame for managing to just about scrape through tertiary education barely clutching my diploma. So when this deluge of stories began raining down from Heaven (literally), one of my hobbies became screenwriting, which I totally and seriously immersed myself into, right down to the requisite three-hole punched paper and the brads needed to bind them. And just ask anyone in Hollywood, if it ain’t got brads, we ain’t reading it. And if you don’t know what the hell brads are, then flippin’ google it, and good luck trying to find them in South Africa as readily as you would in the US.

Needless to say, getting my hands on those brads were the pits!

Well, when I said screenwriting became a hobby, it was perhaps the wrong choice of word because I was unemployed at the time, so it technically became my non-paying job. Screenwriting helped me to get to grips with craft of telling a good story and what it takes to get an audience to be like putty in your hands.

In theory anyway. To actually get to that point you need talent, a good story and the will to craft it, and then craft it, and then craft it some more, and then do that another twenty times, put the thing away, come back a few weeks later and do more crafting.

Like I said, your audience need to be like putty, which means they will start out human and will morph into putty, and craft is what enables the process of puttyfication.

But for some reason I felt I needed to learn more about craft beyond the discipline of screenwriting, which is how I found myself (during my lunch breaks away from the crummy job I had no choice but to work at) sitting inside the nearby bookshop and reading books about the craft of writing novels.

Yes, as in them regular ol’ prose novels. Even though I knew I wasn’t going to be writing a good, old-fashioned novel, I felt that I would greatly benefit from the insight those books had to offer regarding stuff like characterisation and dialogue, and so I tried to absorb myself as much as possible in what lessons they offered up. It was a well rounded education which I thought made Project H so much the better for it.

What I learnt is that no matter what the writing discipline, having a good story to tell is of paramount importance, not how wonderful you can put words together or how pretty you can draw. There are different ways to express a great story, and many different kinds of people to express it, not only those who fit the archetypal (snobby, highly-educated, witty, etc) notion of a writer.

But I definitely take my hat off to prose novelists and the sheer talent and craftsmanship they possess to string words together in such a way that you can’t help but turn the pages until the very last. Well, the good writers anyway. The rest need to go to a place where you need a license to write, and then have their licenses irrevocably revoked!

So after I felt I had soaked up enough education, I chained myself to my chair in front of my then brand new computer, uninstalled Need for Speed: High Stakes, cranked up the word processor (thanks Bill) and started writing Project H.

Next time: The Drawing

03 May 2009

Step 1: The Idea

I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. I was born on the 1st of July 19 … okay, maybe we should skip ahead to what’s really important – the genesis of the crazy, insane, totally stupid notion that a normal, average guy could create his own graphic novel without having any substantial experience in writing or drawing comics and not having published anything before in his life (unless you count the movie reviews I wrote for the college paper.)

So why would I embark on something that promised nothing other than copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears, not to mention several large helpings of prejudice and mammoth spoonfuls of outdated notions from which I have yet to reap any benefits, if ever?

Good question - and something I don’t completely have the answer to, because if I did I probably would’ve done what I usually do – hit the snooze button and pull the covers over my head. I don’t think any sane person would enthusiastically leap out of bed with a smile on their face and brave the big nasty world if they knew the result would be a large and embarrassingly obese zer0!

The only possible explanation that springs to mind is one Honda commercial and that classic (and often covered) song The Impossible Dream.

Not only did I have to face the task of creating this totally new thing out of thin air, from a blank page, with no prior experience whatsoever, but I had to convince people to take a chance on this strange thing they’ve never even heard of before called a graphic novel. I can’t begin to explain all the gasps and clasping shut of children’s ears I've experienced when I mention to folks what it is I’m peddling. But hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself here…

This is probably a good time to mention that as far as writers go, I’m not one! Although I wrote the story, I don’t really consider myself a writer. If there’s a title I feel more comfortable going by, it’s probably that of storyteller. A writer to me conjures up images of really intelligent, sophisticated, witty people who always seem to be quoting other intelligent, sophisticated and witty people. Unlike those writers, who were born with pens in their hands and dreamed of one day having their name on a book like their favourite author, I had no aspirations to be a writer.

I was over there just minding my own business, when out of nowhere I just became overwhelmed with all these stories - sometimes ideas, but many times fully formed plots - that used to come to me usually in the middle of the night on the coldest night of the year when I was unable to switch the light on to write the stuff down because I shared a room with someone, so I had to go into the damn cold kitchen or bathroom.

And that’s (more or less) where Project H began - as this story that refused to let go of me until I got it all out of my head and onto paper (the little bastard!) But looking back, it was probably the most electrifying period of the entire process, the rush of excitement of all these heady ideas and characters and situations, moulding them scene by scene into this living, breathing and complete story bound together within this thick stack of paper where before there was nothing but an idea.

There’s absolutely no experience like it in the whole world (so I’m told).

Next time … The Writing.