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?