Archive for October, 2008

beginnings and ends

Narrative fiction is so important. Every culture has its own myths, legends, and fables. They tell us who we are and explain life in subtle and multifaceted shades of gray. Stories teach us and they educate us, sometimes simultaneously.

Comic strips are narrative fiction. They tell the story of a character or group of characters in tiny doses. In one to five panels, you get a glimpse of someone’s life. If you read a comic strip for weeks, months, and years, you find that there are similar peaks and valleys to a comic strip character’s life as there are to yours. Sometimes the cartoonist is tired, so you may get a week’s worth of material reflecting that mindset. Other times, the cartoonist is in the zone, and in those wonderful periods you may see some of the best adventures unfold. Snoopy and the Red Baron, Calvin and the cloning device, Opus searching for his mother: these unique stories rival the best storytelling in any medium.

But how important are beginnings and ends in comic strips? In every writer’s workshop you’re encouraged to tell complete stories. It isn’t acceptable to omit a conclusion, and a beginning is as easy as typing the first sentence. In this regard, comic strips seem to work differently from other forms of narrative fiction. Rarely do people pick up from the beginning of a comic strip’s run. Many of the most successful comics of the last hundred years haven’t ever ended. The ones that have, have done so in ways that highlight the conundrum of the cartoonist: how do you end a story that mimics all aspects of life but aging?

Who read Peanuts from the very first strip? Before reprints of comics, there was a good chance that, once the day’s paper had been delivered, that strip was out of sight forever. Most people I know started reading it one day, and if they liked it they kept on reading. That’s how I started reading the comics. When I was seven or eight, it never occurred to me to seek out the very first strip. All I knew was, every day in the newspaper there was one section that was interesting: the comics. I read that section.

Like people you meet in real life, I got to know the characters over time. There aren’t many people you know from birth. The important parts of their life and character are filled in over time. Sometimes they do something very surprising that you never would have expected of them. That makes life more interesting. (Unless we’re talking about murder. I don’t condone murder.)

And what about endings? Comic strips are designed to run indefinitely. You won’t get syndicated if you have an idea that peters out a month or a year into the story. This isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon. It’s an ultramarathon. (As a side note, I’ve been reading a wonderful book about running by the novelist Haruki Murakami. In it he has a chapter about running a 62 mile race. Near the end of the race he achieves a transcendentalstate that he says changed his life forever. I imagine few of us can imagine what Charles Schulz’s frame of mind was for the last ten years of Peanuts, but I bet it was similar to Murakami’s.) Sure, you’ll get a resolution of some sort every day – it’s what we in the business call a punchline. If there is a longer story you’ll get the resolution a week or two from now- longer if you’re reading Funky Winkerbean.
I’m much closer to the beginning of a comic strip than the end. Falling Rock began in 2006, which makes it a little over two years old. A drop in the bucket in comic strip time. I’m not even syndicated yet, so I’m looking forward to a long run once I break in to the majors. After one year, I felt like I got to know my characters. After two years, I finally began writing and drawing them the way they really looked. On my third year, I’m getting into a groove. But who knows what will happen if I can keep drawing Falling Rock? What will it look like in 10 years? 35 years? I hope I can find out.

My first daily strip, The Family Monster, ran for four years before I decided I needed to write more “relatable” characters. That was the consensus of criticism I got from editors and syndicates and professional cartoonists. So you see, comic strips aren’t looked at by their beginnings and ends, but by the lives of the characters in them.

An ending that really affected me came in the bitter winter of 1995. The last day of Calvin and Hobbes was momentous in a terrible way. A friend of mine actually gave me a “condolences” card. Calvin and Hobbes ending felt like a death in the family. Of course, after it ended I realized how important it was to my daily routine. I felt I had so much more to learn, both as a reader and as an aspiring cartoonist. You may take your brother for granted, but when he leaves, you’ve got this hole in your life. Good thing I was too young to start drinking. Just kidding.

To some, that last strip was a letdown. I don’t know what they were expecting. Calvin wasn’t going to get hit by a meteorite. Susie Derkins wasn’t going to see the “real” Hobbes. I thought it summed up what the strip was about without getting overly sentimental. (That didn’t stop me from getting all teared up when I read it, though.) Bill Watterson felt that ending a long-running comic strip was not about creating a change in his characters or their situation. Calvin was 6 from the beginning to the end, and Watterson wisely didn’t change that on the last day. Some people felt that it didn’t wrap things up – what it did was allow you to go back and pick up at the beginning without missing a beat. As it stands, Calvin and Hobbes is a loop, a story without beginning or end, and is all the better for it.

As an anti-conclusion to this post, I’m attaching the first week’s worth of Welcome to Falling Rock National Park for your amusement. I’m amazed at how different they look, especially considering they weren’t drawn that long ago.

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Vivent les Robots de Vendredi!

Les Robots de Vendredi.friday-robot-10-10-08-1

Ils portent des chapeaux et des liens!
Ils mangent du pain avec du fromage!
Ils boivent tous le vin!friday-robot-10-10-08-2

Robots de Vendredi sont allés à la France. Il etait très bizarre.friday-robot-10-10-08-3

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the unfinished masterpiece

I’ve read that every author has three favorite books: the first book, the book they’re currently writing, and the “strange” book. By strange I guess I mean atypical, or something that, after it’s done and published, the author looks back at it and wonders “I wrote that?”

I’d like to add one category to the list: the unfinished masterpiece. This is the book that the author has been working on for years, even decades, but has never completed. It is the summation of everything that author is, a grand statement worthy of parades, literary criticism, a Nobel. That is, if it ever gets done, which it never does. Sometimes an author may take a few notes and keep the bulk of it in her head. Sometimes a rough draft exists on a computer hard drive. Sometimes, like Ralph Ellison, the whole thing burns up in a fire before he gets the chance to complete it (and, why in the world was there only one copy of that manuscript? Can anyone tell me?).

The unfinished masterpiece certainly exists in other arts, as well. Beethoven’s last symphony, Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon movie, Monet’s freaking Water Lilies, the Teen Wolf trilogy…all these exist in fragmentary form, but we will never know the greatness they could have achieved. The world might be a better place today if there were a few more water lily paintings; we’ll never know.

I am not afraid of standing up beside my artistic peers. I will show the world I can start something great but not finish it. I am about to embark on my unfinished masterpiece.

I’ve already started to write it in my head. It will be a graphic novel the likes of which the world has never known. It will be funny, sad, epic, adventurous. It will break all the rules and create a blank slate for future comic artists. My themes will be nothing less than Love, Hate, Life, Death, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. I’m thinking of calling it JOSH SHALEK’S AMERICA. It will be 4,000 pages long once it is done, which it will never be. It will be a bestseller, if I ever finish it (which I never will), and it will be regarded as “Citizen Kane meets Ulysses meets Calvin and Hobbes meets Abbey Road.” I can’t wait to get started but not finish.

As you can imagine, the rewards for not finishing a masterpiece are much higher than for finishing one. There’s not as much work involved. Everyone has their own image of it in their mind, which will be better than anything I could actually write and draw. And it will only be perceived to be better as time goes on. After my death, the legend of my unfinished masterpiece will spread. I’ll be hailed a genius, even if all my published works are less than stellar.

Dear readers, the time to get excited about my unfinished masterpiece is now. I will keep you updated on its gestation right here at this blog, but don’t expect any news for a while, if ever. Just keep checking back, and hopefully my meager words and pictures will tide you over for the inevitable (but really not) masterpiece.

Jason in Spppppppaaaaaaaaaaaaccccccccce!

jason-sadThe year is 2455. There are no more bicycles. Earth has been abandoned long ago because Al Gore or somebody made the planet uninhabitable. Humans live in ships and space stations scattered throughout the solar system. Many things have changed. And yet, some things remain the same.
According to Jason X, the culmination (so far) of the Friday the 13th saga, sex is still the best way to spend your free time. Teenagers – and androids created by teenagers – engage in this rite of passage frequently, generally before they get married. I’m not sure if there are Brave New World levels of birth control, but I’m sure they’re not stuck with sheepskin.
Another constant in the future is Death. Grisly, bone-crunching, face-squeezing, blood-spurting death, delivered by none other than the master of disaster himself: Jason Voorhees.
That’s right kids! Jason was given a gift in the year 2010. He was caught and convicted of murdering over two hundred people. The government tried to kill him, but capital punishment never really took. Jason kept coming back to life. So they tried the only option left: they froze him, hoping that a future society would be able to finish the job. Well, apparently 2455 is not far enough in the future, because Jason has a pretty easy time killing off almost every single member of the hapless ship that plucks frozen Jason from Earth.
Now, the question before us is not, Is this a good movie? It is not, Is this a great movie? The question should be: Is this the greatest movie of all time? The answer, dear readers, is a definitive YES.
Usually, sending the main character into space represents the last desperate shot of a dying franchise. Not so here. Jason X turns out to be a high-water mark for the series, joining Part 4 (The Final Chapter) and Part 8 (Jason Takes Manhattan) as the pinnacles of the Voorhees legend.Jason is a fully formed character, and the makers know exactly what the audience wants. He performs the rarely-seen head squeeze (one of my favorite moves of his repertoire). Kane Hodder, the actor/stuntman who played Jason in the last four Friday the 13th films (except, sadly, not in Freddy v. Jason), makes Jason more than a hockey mask. Like a T-Rex sniffing out his prey, Jason cocks his head to the side before moving decisively. He doesn’t want food or drink – his only need is his trusty machete. Hodder makes you realize how scary it would be to have a huge guy you can’t kill chasing after you. This sounds obvious, but after ten movies, that basic truth can sometimes be forgotten.
Jason X is not without its faults. The character responsible for the thawing of Jason is a greedy, money-grubbing professor. Yes, a professor. Unfortunately his professor displays none of the hallmarks of a life in academia. He swears frequently but with none of the verbal flair of a sailor or pirate. He is obsessed with money and fame. Until someone tells him, he has no idea he has the most notorious villain of the 20th century on his ship (despite the villain being frozen with a hockey mask on and a machette in his hand). Further, he is the anti-presence. Most actors strive to make an impression in their brief flickering moments onscreen. I don’t even remember what the poor guy looked like. It’s obvious from the get-go this guy’s not going to hold up well when Jason comes a-courtin’. The professor does get the best line in the movie, though. “Everything’s under control!” It’s a cry into the ink-black night of space, and only said when the exact opposite is true.
Unlike Alien, that other horror movie set on a spaceship, you don’t get a good sense of the ship’s layout. People run, people hide, but you never know where they’re going. I never felt that tingling claustrophobic sensation, even though that is exactly what the filmmakers were trying for. The ship kept expanding as the characters ran into yet another new room or corridor. The floorplan wasn’t clearly defined in the beginning, so it seemed like the terrified crew could keep running forever.
The ending was hilarious but left me a little uninspired. The problem of “killing” Jason is allowing him to be out of commission for a while, but keeping that door open for a triumphant return. Without wanting to give too much away, I don’t know how they will carry on the series. Freddy Vs. Jason solved that little conundrum by taking place before the events of Jason X – that is, before he gets frozen in the year 2010. But what will happen next? It appears the series is set for a reboot: Friday the 13th is coming to theaters near all of us in February 2009. If all goes well, we could see many more sequels from there, none of them having to get Jason out of the distant future, a long way from Earth and Camp Crystal Lake.
It’s too bad, really. I would have liked to see the continuation of Jason, rather than starting all over from the beginning. We’ve come so far together. I do see the advantages of starting from scratch: we can build him again, but better! Yet, Jason’s baggage is part of his glory. There are certainly some stinkers in the series (Part 5, anyone?), but without them Jason is a little less war-torn. A little less embattled. With a ghoul like Jason, the more sensational the history, the better. Jason, like a crooked politician, needs his past infamies. They are what set him apart from other dark spirits and ne’er-do-wells. So, it is with a heavy heart that I conclude my inquiry into Jason Voorhees. We will see how they treat him in this new Friday the 13th, but we must never forget what has come before.
FDR, during one of his fireside chats, said, “Jason Voorhees is evil, and I have seen evil. Yet this nation, without Jason, is something less than whole. It would be a shadow of a nation, a nation where a hockey mask is just a hockey mask. Let Jason live and kill, not just today, but tomorrow, and forever more.”
Amen, Mr. Roosevelt. Amen.