First art pages and an impending meeting

Just a quick update on progress.

Andrea Potts, my artist, sent the first four pages she has drawn of the graphic novel, and they’re great.  These are just layout pages, more detailed than storyboards but less completed than finished art.  She wanted me to see how she’s visualizing what I’ve written.  She did an amazing job of representing exactly what is in the first pages of the script.

In a couple of weeks, we’re meeting up in New Orleans, so that she can see the town for the first time, to get a feel for it, and I can show her some of the principal locations.  We’re also hoping to hash out some of the storyboarding.

Progress Report 1: Progress on the Project so far…

I Dream in Panels!!!

Last night (9-11-11) I dreamt in panels for the first time.  I was dreaming a story, and it was laid out in picture panels, like a graphic novel.

In the past, I have frequently dreamed stories in movies or in scripts (in fact, that same night, I dreamed of some scenes and changes for my current script re-write), but this was my very first time for dreaming in a panel layout.  I’m very excited by this, and though it is not any form of concrete progress, I feel it is a sign of significant creative, mental progress.

Okay, I’ll calm down now, and continue reporting the more mundane aspects of my progress so far.

R & R: Reading and Research

So of course, I have been reading graphic novels, to get more familiar with the art form.  Some graphic novels come with additional materials, such as development, sketches, proposals, scripts.  I have been able to read and compare the scripts side-by-side with the finished works (also a very handy practice in studying screenwriting – to read the script and study the film made from it.)

I have also done some research – at WonderCon, and while blogging about that and about other aspects of this project.  I have learned a lot about creating and publishing a graphic novel.  Of course I don’t know everything, or even enough, at this point, but I’m forging ahead anyway:

Writing is Re-Writing

I have started a re-write on the script I am adapting into a graphic novel.  It needs a re-write first just as a script in itself anyway.   After that, I’ll convert it into a graphic novel script.  I’m continually learning about graphic novels, reading them and their scripts, so I hope by then I’ll be more competent at making that conversion.

Approach with Caution (or is that Enthusiasm?)

I have decided to approach Archaia first as a potential publisher.  Their books are gorgeous, and for many reasons, they seem potentially like a very good fit for my story.  At WonderCon, Josh Trujillo seemed very enthusiastic about original submissions for their company.

Of course Archaia might not be interested, in which case, I’ll try other publishers.  If necessary, I’ll go the self-publishing route.  I just know that will be a lot more work, and I’d rather find an established publisher to take the project, if that’s at all possible.

Archaia wants 5-10 completed pages (as detailed on their submissions page).  I’ll write those up first and give them to my artist, Andrea Potts.  While she works on the art, I can work on the other components Archaia wants: a logline, one-page synopsis, and cover letter.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I’m going to be doing the lettering for my graphic novel, since Andrea will be busy with drawing, and she doesn’t have any experience with lettering.  At first, I just planned to use a computer font to do it, but in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel, there is a chapter on lettering, in which they show an example:  the same text in the same panel in the same word balloon, one done by hand, the other by computer, in a similar style.  I really liked the hand-lettered example better.  I sort of wish I didn’t, because I think it would be easier to use the computer font.  Oh well.  It’s all part of the adventure.

So I have started practicing lettering, in the comic-book, all-capital,  sans serif style, both in a regular and italic mode.  I print over the alphabet several times each day and sometimes write random phrases and names for practice.  If you have ever seen my hand-writing or printing, this is especially hilarious, because my writing is usually a mess, a curvy, swirly mess.  I have frequently joked that only my piano students can interpret my writing.  Notice I didn’t say they can “read” it; they can interpret it.

Mini-sidebar: And sometimes this seems to be true.  Once I was writing in a student’s notebook while she played, and at the end, I myself couldn’t read something I had just written.   My student tried, and immediately she said: “It says, ‘Even on measure 22.'”  And she was right.  I couldn’t even read it, but she could.  And I was printing!!!

Anyway, now I print in capital block letters in their notebooks and their music, and my excuse is that I’m trying to make my writing neater.  Which I am, they just don’t know the real reason for that.  And they don’t need to, until I can switch jobs.

Grocery lists, house mate notes, memos, phone messages, everything hand-written, everything, has become an opportunity  to practice my lettering.

I find that “D” is my most difficult letter.  It’s tricky to get the straight stroke to be truly straight, and not curvy, like part of an “O.”  Also, perfecting a nice curve stroke is also tricky.  In addition, my normal way to write a “D” is with quite a bit of overrun past the straight stroke in the curvy stroke in both directions.   So I really have to curtail that.  If there’s space at the end of a practice line of the alphabet or anything else, I write additional “D”s, for extra practice.  Strange little things you discover in the process.

Todd Klein Rules!

Another little side-bar: I have developed an extreme fondness for the lettering of Todd Klein.  ( I had no idea before this that one could have a preference for a letterer – an artist or a writer, of course, but lettering?  This is a whole new world for me.)  So of course, I try to make my letters similar to his.  I know I’ll never get mine to look as good, because he’s a master, and he’s spent thousands of hours at it, and I’ll never touch that, but I can aspire.

I was utterly unsurprised to discover that:  “As of 2011, Klein has won sixteen of the nineteen “Best Letterer/Lettering” Eisner Awards that have been given out since the category was established in 1993. He has won the Best Letterer Harvey Award eight times, the first time in 1992 and the most recent one in 2005.”  Quoted from the Wikipedia article on Todd Klein.

I just discovered that he co-authored a book on coloring and lettering, The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics.  (So now, of course, I want one.)

And More Practice

I also discovered in the course of my research that there are more writers than artists in this field.  In a panel I attended Friday at WonderCon, several writer-artists reported with contempt the conversations they had had with people who had “great stories” and “just needed someone to draw them.”  These creators had their own stories to draw, and didn’t want to spend their energies on others’ stories.

I myself have had similar conversations.  Occasionally when people discover I’m a screenwriter, they tell me they have some great ideas for movies, they “just need someone to write them up for them,” as if that would be the easy part.  As if it weren’t a huge undertaking to structure a story properly for a film, fill it out with dimensional characters, and actually write all the dialogue and descriptions.

I may end up continuing to create graphic novels.  I don’t know.  If I do, my artist friend Andrea may not always be available to work on these projects with me, or I may not always be able to find an artist, so I’m practicing drawing, too.  I always wanted to draw better, anyway.  I’m not terrible at it now, but I’m not great, either, and there’s always room for improvement.  Even if I never end up doing my own art for a graphic novel, drawing is still a quicker shorthand for communicating with an artist about what I have in mind.  We can bounce ideas back and forth, and it will help so much if I can sketch more easily.

A Great Little Drawing Exercise from Willy Pogany

Over the years I have practiced drawing off and on; I’ve even been lucky enough to take a couple of classes, but recently I got some books on the subject from Dover Publications (fabulous, fabulous Dover Publications – have I told you recently how much I love them? – oh well, digressing again…)  One of the drawing books I got from Dover is Drawing Lessons by Willy Pogany.  I looked at the first exercise, and I’ve been doing it several times a day, and it’s really improving my sketching.

The exercise is simple, but oh, so effective.  You take a blank sheet and make some random dots on it.  Then you take another blank sheet and try to replicate the pattern of dots without measuring or tracing.  Then you put the second sheet on top of the first and hold them up to the light to see where you’re off and then do it again.  I’ve been doing it with scrap paper that is cut to 1/12th of a whole, 8 1/2  x 11″ page and then numbered 1, 2, 3, and occasionally 4.  I like to do sets of 3 or 4.  It gives me a chance to try to replicate each random pattern more than once.

I have really been surprised at how much that simple exercise is improving my general sketching practice – my proportions, mainly, and my ability to reproduce certain lines of people or objects.

I was really excited by my progress with this, and by using such a simple exercise, even for just a few days.  I hoped the book would have a next step, another simple exercise that built on that one or expanded it, or something else, but in any  case, something direct, simple, effective.

I turned the page.  Did I find another exercise?  Nope.  An eighteen-page discourse on perspective, which is vital, but without any exercises, and then onto a chapter on shading.  (I’m already pretty good at shading – in high school calculus class, the teacher would often borrow my drawing to be the example of the solid for the class, because my shading was so good and made the object so clear.  He also said sometimes if you could draw the solid well enough, you almost didn’t have to do the problem, because the way to solve it became immediately obvious, and he was right about that, at least for finding volumes of solids.)

I’m sure the info in the Pogany drawing book is really good and useful, and I’m just going to have to make up my own further drawing exercises, or look up some others.  Most of the other drawing books I got from Dover jump into more complicated things right away.  Oh well.  I’m sure they will be very valuable as I continue with my practicing.

How Do They Do That?

As a kid, I remember being in awe of those artists who could create and recreate a character in a comic strip.  I tried that when I was young, and couldn’t manage it.  I think it’s amazing when someone can draw a character again and again, and you always know who it is, even though they’re changing all the time, based on the moment captured.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that point.  I may not have to.  Who knows?  But I’m doing my best to prepare, anyway, in case I need to.

Oh, and I just remembered I did draw a little comic for a present once.   I drew people that were known to the gift recipient, who said I had captured them well with just a few expressive lines, so maybe there’s hope for me after all.  Once again, I know I’ll never achieve what the masters do, because they have practiced for so much longer than I, but I will do my best.

And now to reassure my Mom, who reads my blog (Yay for supportive parents!!!)

I’m not letting this practicing for the graphic side of the project get in the way of the writing I need to do, which is my primary job in this adventure.  I’m doing all this lettering and drawing practice around the edges, while my students work in their theory books, or on their compositions (which is much more exciting, of course; I love composing, and I want to encourage it as much as possible).  I do it when I’m on the phone, or while waiting for something to cook.   Sometimes I do it at night to wind down for a few minutes before snuggling down to read graphic novels before sleep.

Although, there is a problem with blogging…

The one thing my mom worried about, and I can’t reassure her on this point, is that blogging does take away time from actual screenwriting.  So my re-write is going much more slowly due to the time spent blogging.

My consolations are these: my manager wants me to have a blog – as part of building my career, and I’m doing a lot of research for my graphic novel project in the process of blogging about it.  (Bonus extra points, I get to connect with other, wonderful bloggers – this is another new world for me – especially the ones who stop by my blog and comment or subscribe.  It is an amazing thrill to have people I don’t know following my adventure, so thanks to all of you out there, as well as to the ones I know.)

And of course, I can’t spend all my time on this.

I wish I could, but I have to work for money, too.  That’s just life.  Someday, of course, I hope to get paid for writing, and then I won’t have my  job and my work: they’ll be the same.

Recently when I came out as a writer to a friend, she assumed I was pursuing this mostly for the money, and while it is true that TV and film writers get paid (when they get paid) more than piano teachers, that is not my main motivation for doing this.  Sure, it’s great to have more money.  But I want to write because I can feel the stories, the images swirling in my head.  I want to share them, and I want to touch other hearts the way mine has been touched by film, and yes, by TV.  Film is my favorite art medium, and I want to create in it, just as any other artist wants to create.  I feel that drive, and I just cannot give up.

Who’s who?

While Andrea’s waiting for me to complete my re-write, she wanted some clues about how the main characters look, so I combed through online pix of actors and actresses which I  sent her to indicate what I have in mind for some of the characters.  (Which reminds me, I need to do that for some more of the characters, to send to her.)

Just today (9-23-11) Andrea sent me the first two preliminary sketches of  two main characters in my story.  They look great, and I found a paint program on my computer to indicate the small adjustments I’d like.   I figured it’s faster to show her what I mean than to use a lot of words.

I sent over my revisions.  Andrea got them, and they’re clear to her.  We have some small adjustments still to make, but what she came up with from my photo input was already pretty close to what I had envisioned.

And then there’s technology…

Andrea and I have also gotten her a new computer, one that can handle the software needed for the project.  Her old computer was giving out last, dying gasps, and could never have handled the art software anyway.

In January, I got a donated laptop from a friend, since my old one (also donated by a friend – I usually cannot afford to buy these things for myself) had finally given out on me.   I really prefer to write on my laptop, and I have a smooth rhythm with that.  Well, it took until just now to get it up and running and usable with my screenwriting program.  I use Movie Magic Screenwriter, which is one of the two industry-standard programs.  The other one is Final Draft.  You can find writers who swear by either one.

[Another side-bar:  Here are two different takes on that debate.  I guess my miniscule contribution to the debate is that I tried to load demos for both software programs before buying.  Within 10 minutes (maybe less), the Movie Magic demo was running, and I was writing with it.  I couldn’t even get the Final Draft demo to load onto my computer; it was so clunky.

In addition, my writing buddy already had Movie Magic, and with it, we could insert notes into each others’ scripts for feedback.  Movie Magic feels smooth and easy and intuitive to me, and I can make the background purple on my screen (more purple is always a plus for me).  I like Movie Magic, but if I get hired into a shop that uses Final Draft, I’ll get that one and learn to use it.]

Anyway…  It was an arduous process.  I had to change over the operating system on the laptop from Linux to Windows, and then install Movie Magic.     There were several snags and detours in all this process, but it’s working now.  And I am so tremendously grateful to my friends, who help me and give me their old equipment, so I have something to work on.  (My desktop was also a gift – from a friend upgrading to a better computer.)  So big, big thanks to all my friends and family who help with everything to make my life work.

Reading list update

Since I last reported which graphic novels I had read so far, I have now also read:

Chicken with Plums, by Marjane Satrapi

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

In the Shadow of No Towers, by Art Spiegelman

The Killer, Volume One, by Jacamon & Matz (in the translation from the French published by Archaia)

Kwaidan, by Jung and Jee-Yun

Maus I & Maus II, by Art Spiegelman

Moon Lake, an anthology created by Dan Fogler

I’ve also started reading Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud.  I feel that I’ve read enough graphic novels now to have a reference for what he discusses.

WonderCon 2011, the third day: Will I ever find the Foglios?

Will I find the elusive Phil and Kaja Foglio before WonderCon ends?

Ever since before WonderCon, I had been hoping to talk with Kaja and Phil Foglio.  They are the creative team that produces the long-running graphic novel series Girl Genius.

When I told a friend about my new project, she suggested I find them at WonderCon and talk with them.  Later, the same friend loaned me her copy of the first omnibus edition of  Girl Genius to read.

And then on Friday at WonderCon, another friend I ran into, who really likes Steampunk, also told me to talk with them.  Well, that proved more difficult than I at first imagined.

The Exhibit hall was huge.  Did I mention HUGE?  And nowhere in the map were the Foglios listed.  Same for Girl Genius.  I looked and looked over that brochure each day.  At night, I searched online and discovered their umbrella name for all their projects is Airship Entertainment.  So I looked for that.  No good.  It wasn’t listed either.

So on Sunday, finding them was one of my top priorities.

As I came into the hall, I was distracted by dinosaurs.  No.  Really.  On the cover of a book.  It’s very easy to distract me with dinosaurs.  Big hint: if you want me to see your movie or read your comic, put a dinosaur in it.  I mean, of course dinosaurs are not always appropriate.  I really can’t see wedging one into Sense and Sensibility, for example, but they’re always fun.

Anyway…

I have questions, and James Walker II at Flesk Publications has answers!

I had stumbled upon the booth of Flesk Publications, and the enormously helpful James Walker II.  While I was lingering over some dinosaur book, he asked if I had any questions.  I told him a million, but I didn’t know if he’d have the answers.  He ventured to try.  I asked him where was a booth for Phil and Kaja Foglio, and he knew – it was just two aisles over, along the same open walkway.

Next I asked him about printers, for self-publishing.  I think he said they use Paramount Printing, in Hong Kong.  He also mentioned Brand Studio Press, and James thought perhaps they had a sliding scale.  I’ve looked over their site, and they mostly seem to publish art books and sketch books by various well-known artists.  In their catalog I didn’t see any graphic novels at all.  The descriptions of the printing and binding of the books sound wonderful:  primarily hardcover, with sewn pages: my favorite kind.

James Walker II told me that Diamond Comic Distributors was a big distributor for comics and graphic novels, and suggested that I could comb their catalog to find big name publishers.  I could look at what they’re already publishing and try to find a good match.  James briefly mentioned that Marvel and DC don’t take on newbies, and I quickly assured him that I had no intention of trying to get them to publish my story.  As little as I know about this whole comic-graphic novel universe, I know that they primarily publish superhero comic stuff, and my story isn’t remotely like that.  Although I believe my story will make a great graphic novel, just of a different sort.

James also told me about SCB Distributors, located in Southern California.  He said their catalog would be better for locating boutique publishers.

In addition, James Walker II advised me to check out The Anthology Project, which has published 2 volumes so far, with up to 21 different artists and their various stories in each one.  He mentioned there was a blog about their publishing, run by Joy Ang.  Their blog does have some really cool animations of the process of some of the artists, showing the art in various stages.  I think it may be worth checking out to see all the different styles and stories.  I think James was thinking I might try to be included in a future volume, or I might learn from their adventure in bringing it to print.

James said that Flesk Publications wasn’t accepting any new projects to publish for about the next 4-5 years.  I guess they must have so many good ones in the queue they don’t have room for more.

When I asked if there were any publishers in the hall that he could recommend, James Walker II pointed to the banner for Archaia.  They looked too big for me, and I told James as much.  He assured me they were a small publisher, even though they had a big presence here at WonderCon.  He really thought I should give them a try, so that became my new goal, after finding Phil and Kaja Foglio.

I thanked James tremendously for all his terrific help, and followed his directions toward their booth.

At last – Kaja Foglio!

When I reached the Girl Genius outpost, Kaja was in the middle of describing her wedding dress to a friend.  Seeing me, she graciously offered to interrupt this to talk with me.  Instead, I encouraged her to continue, as I love costuming, and this sounded beautiful: it was an art nouveau confection, inspired by Mucha, complete with an “Ozma hat,” as Kaja described it, meaning a big flower on each side of her head, as featured in several Mucha paintings.  In the case of Ozma, they look like poppies.  And there was beaded draping on each side of her head in this headdress.  It sounds fantastic.  I wish I could have seen it.  I mentioned a friend of mine had a recreation made for herself of a Mucha gown – to dress as the green fairy.

As with everyone else in this quest, Kaja Foglio was amazingly helpful.  She’s very enthusiastic about self-publishing.  They put out a new page of Girl Genius three times a week on their website, and then they also have printed book versions for sale.

She said they give away everything for free in their webcomic, which horrifies some other writers, but she’s very happy with it.  They have plenty of hard-copy sales (and ancillary artifacts for sale as well).  Kaja said that people say things all the time  like:  “I read it online all through college, and now that I can afford it, I want to buy the books.”  I saw several sales at their booth while I was talking with her.  At one point, Phil put some books in front of her to sign, and Kaja said: “I’m only Italian by marriage; I can’t sign these now; I’m talking.”  (And using her hands quite a bit for that.)

They use Courier Corporation for printing, this is the company that owns Dover Publications.  (I am completely mad for Dover.  I love them, love them, love them, but perhaps I ought to rave more about them on another day.)  Kaja said she really likes working with Courier, because they have good communication, and they notice mistakes.  They really seem to care about the quality and appearance of the books.  It sounded very impressive to me.

Kaja Foglio advised caution in size of print runs.  She said a printer will want to run more copies, because the per-unit cost is lower, of course, so they’ll offer you a better unit price for 1,000 copies than for 600, but she said, if you don’t sell those extra books, they’re tying up money you could use for other things and taking up space in your basement.  Good advice, to be sure.

As far as distribution goes, Kaja said Diamond Comics Distributors is the only game in town for comics.

In terms of the quickest way to get the story out there, Kaja Foglio proposed distributing on the web, as they do.  She said Alexa was a website that ranks websites, so I could find out which ones are popular, and which ones might be best to host my own site.   She mentioned Shutterfly is a good site that is geared toward photography, where you can “create your own free photo and video sharing website with a personalized web address. ”  Kaja said it should be easy to find a place where I can do a starter website, perhaps at Google.  Usually the basic one is free, and they you pay for upgrades.

With the idea of generating additional revenue streams, as it were, Kaja said if I had popular characters, I could use Cafe Press to sell customized coffee mugs and tee shirts and the like.

For marketing, Kaja Foglio recommended Facebook, because she said you can get lots of “likes,” which can show that your work has broad appeal.  She said you can use Facebook to direct people to your website, and to mirror blog posts, so that you can get double duty out of any posts and traffic.

I thanked Kaja so much for all her help and suggestions.  When I asked if it was okay to blog about our conversation, she said of course, and said that links are always appreciated.  So that is what spurred me to learn how to create links here at WordPress.

Kaja likes the freedom of self-publishing, she said no one is going to tell you to use certain characters more, so they can sell more toys.  Kaja was really gung ho about self-publishing, but she admitted that’s because that’s what she does.   And it really works for them.

ARCHAIA wants stories, and at least they’re easy to find.

After talking with Kaja, I strode directly to the Archaia booth.  They were really easy to find, because they were in the same general area, and they had a big logo banner hanging above their booth.

At this point, it was less than half an hour before the end of WonderCon, so I didn’t have much time left.   I looked around the Archaia  booth, scoping out various books.  I had a couple in my hands, when Josh Trujillo approached me to ask if I wanted help.  I explained to him that I want to adapt one of my screenplays into a graphic novel and that I’m potentially looking for a publisher and that someone had suggested Archaia might be interested.

Josh seemed very  enthusiastic about new stories.

He said they are looking for:

Crime.  All-ages Fiction.  Historical Fiction.  Horror.  High-Concept Science Fiction.  He said most of all they’re looking for good stories, and they’re not that attached to particular genres.

In fact, he said they had been talking, and their dream project right now would be a good, all-ages fantasy – a pure fantasy that is the classic, medieval, sword and sorcery style that could appeal to both children and adults.

Josh Trujillo said the submission guidelines were on their website, and that they accept open submissions.  He said to send a .pdf file of 5-10 completed pages, showing the tone and storytelling of my piece.  Of course I was very excited by his enthusiasm and the prospect that they would look at my submission.

Archaia was running a special: buy 2 books and get 3 free.  I thought that was an amazing deal, and I asked Josh’s help in selecting five books that would give me a good idea of Archaia’s range: what they do, and what they might be looking for.

Here are the five he chose for me: Mouse Guard Fall 1152, by David Petersen.  Josh Trujillo said it’s one of their most popular (and I love it).  I had already picked up Artesia, and Josh said that was a really good one to get, because it is by Mark Smylie, who founded Archaia to print his own work and that of others.  Next Josh picked up The Killer, volumes one and two, by Matz and Luc Jacamon, translated from French.  Josh said there was an incredible character arc between the two books, so that the guy at the end of Volume two is completely different from his character in the first volume, but that the change is believable and beautifully arced.  I took both of those books, but Josh suggested I put back Volume two and go for more variety to start with.  I agreed, and Josh perused the books, seeking other good choices for me.

Josh Trujillo  showed me Some New Kind of Slaughter, by mpMann and A. David Lewis; several versions of great flood stories from diverse cultures.  It was especially interesting because I like mythology, and because it was in a different format than most of the other graphic novels.  This one was wide and short, like a film frame.  But on the whole, Josh recommended instead Inanna’s Tears, written by Rob Vollmar, illustrated by mpMann, because it showed their historical fiction, and  mpMann was on the other side of the booth, signing, and Josh said I could get him to sign it for me.  For my last book, Josh chose Moon Lake, an anthology created by Dan Fogler.

Of course, I thanked Josh for his help, and then I checked out.  For $50. I walked away with 5 beautiful hardcover graphic novels: almost a steal.

I went around the booth and found mpMann, who signed my copy of Inanna’s Tears and made a little drawing of a pyramid and a man’s head with a Sumerian-style hat.  I asked him if the 5 for 2 book deal was an end-of-the show special, so they wouldn’t have to pack and transport back so many books, but he told me they had been running that deal for the entire show.  I was impressed, and he said it helps expose people to more of their titles and encourages people to try new stories.  I was really grateful, since it let me go home with a good beginning selection of Archaia’s stories.

Archaia’s books are gorgeous.  Solid hardcovers with lush colors on thick shiny pages.  I will be unbelievably fortunate if  they say yes to my proposal and publish my story.  According to various bits I’ve read about them now on the web, they might go for it.  In their own words from their submissions page:

“One of Archaia’s core missions is to constantly seek out new and exciting creator-owned projects in the adventure, fantasy, horror, pulp noir and science fiction genres that test the boundaries of the comic book medium.”

I just hope they like my proposal when they see it.  I would be beyond thrilled to publish with them.

Book Review: Girl Genius, Omnibus Edition, Volume 1

Book Review of Girl Genius, Omnibus Edition, Volume 1, by Phil and Kaja Foglio.

This volume contains the first three Girl Genius stories: The Beetleburg Clank, The Airship City, and The Monster Engine.  Online there are 11 stories in the series, 10 complete, and the 11th one in progress.  Online, each story is called a volume.

Sparks and Clanks and Constructs, Oh My!

These stories are zany tales set in a steampunk world (Kaja’s own term for the stories is Gaslamp Fantasies) where everyone is obsessed with building machines, but only those possessing the magical quality of the “spark” can create any that work.  A person who has the spark can also be referred to as a Spark.  In this particular universe, Sparks are very rare.

Probably my favorite thing about the book is the alternate language developed for this world, Sparks being one example, clank being another, which means an automaton.   In this universe, clanks often have a sort of spirit of their own, an almost independent will.

I also love the names for things and people.  For example, there are fierce, human-ish mercenaries called Jagermonsters.  They have rows of pointy fangs for teeth and a strong attraction to action, violence, and pain.  A “construct” is a human-like creature that has been constructed (much like Frankenstein’s monster), but lives and acts like a human being.

There is a fabled clan, the Heterodynes, who had many adventures, but have disappeared, and now are merely the stuff of legend and children’s stories.

Agatha Clay, heroine extraordinaire!

In these stories, our young heroine is  Agatha Clay, who attends Transylvania Polygnostic University (motto: “Know enough to be afraid”) and desperately wants to build machines, but can never seem to get anything to work.  At first she’s under the protection of the mayor of Beetleburg, but after an unfortunate accident, she’s on her own and gets swept away to the giant airship castle of Baron Wulfenbach, who rules the land and obsessively studies anything “sparky.”  There Agatha is stowed with some other youngsters being held as diplomatic hostages.  Agatha develops a friendship with the Baron’s son, Gilgamesh Wulfenbach (again with the fun names).  General wackiness (salted with danger) ensues.

Fun facts about Agatha: She seems to sleep-build machines in her underwear.  She’s quite brilliant at working with machinery, as when she fixes Gilgamesh’s flying machine while it plummets to Earth, improving the engine design and pulling them out of a crash path with the planet (potentially ouchy).

Extra! Extra!  Read it for free online!

The entire Girl Genius series is available online for free at Girl Genius Online.com.  Hard copy versions are also available (along with lots of other nifty stuff) at their store.

The Art of the Madcap Adventure.

Overall, I would describe the art style as toward the comic book end of the spectrum, with a simplified and exaggerated style.    Not hyper-realistic, like some super hero comics, but also not simplified and caricatured to the point of many newspaper comic strips.  My experience in this whole field is very limited, so I hope you’ll be patient with my developing knowledge.

The entire book is in black and white, but the style shifts after the first story, The Beetleburg Clank, which is drawn in plain, solid black on white.  The next two stories are shaded and more three-dimensional, as if they were done with some computer rendering program.  I found the 3-D pictures much easier to grasp.  Online, the whole thing has been colored, and is much easier for me to comprehend quickly.  Plus the color is very vivid, very fun.

In studying this artform, I’m studying various ways to signal different modes of consciousness, such as memory and dream.

Agatha’s first dream (found in The Beetleburg Clank) is simply introduced with a caption: Elsewhere, Agatha Dreams.  It is only one page, and the drawing style seems to be the same as for depicting waking consciousness.  There is one panel that has a strange, unreal, geometric pattern as the background.  At the lower right edge of the page is a large head of Agatha, waking up.

Agatha’s second dream (found in The Airship City and described as a flashback {even though she clearly goes to sleep before it happens}) is introduced with another caption: Long ago and far away.  The first and last panels of the dream have a cumulus-like rounded edge on one corner, and they’re the only ones in the book that have that.  The drawing style within the dream seems slightly simplified.  The texture of the backgrounds is not as detailed as it is in the waking reality of the story.  Online, the last panel of Agatha’s first dream seems to lose color on its right half, becoming a sepia-ish gray on gray, quite unlike the normally intense colors of the series.

Agatha’s third dream (found in The Monster Engine) is also signaled by a a caption: Agatha is dreaming…  It is a single page depicting Agatha standing in front of and gazing at a gigantic, vivid clockwork (shaped like a skeleton-key hole)  integrated with the moon and sun and stars.  I don’t perceive any particular difference in the drawing style, except perhaps that the surfaces of the clockwork are mostly solid color, and not textured like a lot of the other objects and backgrounds in the rest of the stories.

Glancing through the book, I can see that it adheres to Eric Shanower’s assessment that 7 panels is usually the maximum for an American graphic novel.  Several pages have 1-5 panels, but generally the maximum is 7.  When there are more than 7 panels on a page, usually there are several smaller panels or some insets, or both.  The shapes and proportions of the panels vary nicely for great impact, from horizontal to vertical, predominantly rectangular, with just a couple of curves thrown in.  There’s very nice use of smaller inset panels for close-ups and transitional moments between larger panels.

I find that the panel shapes that are square or rectangular lend an over-all settled feeling to my experience.  Panels shaped with diagonal borders tend to set me on edge a bit.  I can use that when designing my own work.

Frequent use of diagonals in the panel shapes also adds to the energy conveyed on the pages.  And there is a lot of energy in the stories.  Things and people zing about from here to there.  Strange creatures and machines appear almost out of nowhere.  Partly because of the varied panel shapes, the art really has a lot of verve, which matches so well the dialogue and characters, who seem to shout a lot.  There’s just a frenetic, over-the-top feeling about the whole enterprise, which befits their catchphrase: “Adventure, Romance and Mad Science.”

Disclosure, and props to Kaja Foglio!

Thanks so much to Phil and Kaja Foglio for having Girl Genius online.  It’s great to be able to illustrate what I’m describing.

For disclosure purposes: I got to speak with Kaja Foglio at WonderCon, and she was super-helpful, taking a lot of time to talk with me and share information.  In fact, it is due to her that I figured out how to insert links into my blog posts, because she mentioned that links were always most welcome, and I wanted to oblige.

And now, as your prize for getting to the end of this review: Here are some fun pix in a  Girl Genius Costumes group on Flickr.

WonderCon 2011: the second day, part 3: Chris Garcia recommends Publishers for Graphic Novels

We catch up to our heroine in the cavernous exhibit hall at WonderCon, striding from one informative conversation to another.

Eric Shanower’s table in Artist Alley

After talking with Stephanie Lantry and Carrie Smith, who create and publish To the Power Against, I finally made it over to Eric Shanower‘s table. But he wasn’t there. He was over at the Marvel booth, for a scheduled signing.  I looked over his books, which were beautiful.   This was my first glimpse of any of his work.  There were many issues of the Age of Bronze series, as well as three collected volumes: A Thousand Ships in soft cover,  Sacrifice and Betrayal (part one), both available in hard cover and soft cover.  These are published by Image Comics and are also available at  Hungry Tiger Press.

There were some Oz books.  Eric Shanower is writing adaptations of L. Frank Baum‘s Oz books, and Skottie Young is illustrating them for Marvel.  The first one was there, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  I was more attracted to Eric’s original Oz stories in  Adventures in Oz, which he both wrote and illustrated,  but there were only two copies left,  so I bought one, with the plan to bring it back to be autographed later.

Chris Garcia recommends smaller presses for Graphic Novels (and gives other advice).

My next goal was to find  Chris Garcia, whom my costuming friend had mentioned.  Chris was volunteering at the Science Fiction Outreach booth, into which I had wandered first thing on arriving Friday, after picking up my badge.  Their booth was right near the entrance from badge pickup.  What caught my attention was that they were giving away books.  For real.

I stopped in to talk with a lovely woman there who explained their mission.  When I explained to her my mission in attending WonderCon, she helpfully told me that John Scalzi had serialized his first novel, Old Man’s War  on his website (which is intermittently hilarious, the website, I mean, especially the opening blurb on the canonical bacon page).  That got the attention of Tor Books, who then published the novel.  She allowed as how this was a traditional novel and not a graphic novel, but it was a good example of how to get something out there, and possibly published by another company as well.  She also mentioned that Ryan Sohmer and Lar deSouza had turned their webcomic Least I Could Do into several collected edition books.  I think they were at WonderCon, but I didn’t ever track them down.  I was so busy with everything else.

Since I had been to the Science Fiction Outreach booth,  I knew right where to look for Chris Garcia, and found him easily.  He was quite happy to help me, and was a font of information.

Chris felt that the best small press in the world is Slave Labor Graphics, and said they publish about 20 books a year.  I looked at their website, and they seem eager to welcome newcomers to the field, which could bode well for my project.  Of course I need to check them out more.  They do accept unsolicited projects, and I looked over their submission guidelines.  Chris did say that Slave Labor Graphics mostly publishes in black and white, and I think color would be better for my book, but it’s certainly still a good recommendation, and I’ll be thrilled if any publisher takes it on.

In the realm of smaller publishers, Chris also mentioned Fantagraphic Books.  They seem to be looking for very individualistic visions, steering clear of anything the major publishers would take.  I found their submission guidelines on their FAQ page in the About Us category.

Chris also mentioned Top Cow.   This is an amusing moment in the adventure, because I thought he said “Pop Cow,” (it was loud in the exhibit hall) and I just spent 20 minutes searching online for them, to investigate and link to, before I stumbled upon Top Cow, and its parent group, Image Comics.  Here are submission guidelines for Image Comics.

I read the Top Cow submission guidelines.  At the moment, they’re not hiring writers or looking for original story material.  They  are hiring artists of various sorts, but this is clearly not a possible publisher for my project.  They advise writers to self-publish, saying, “If your work is good a larger publisher will eventually notice you,” and “Publishers are always on the lookout for promising young professional writers.”  Over the weekend at WonderCon, I heard similar advice from various people.

Chris also mentioned two bigger publishers, and he advised that if I wanted to contact them, I should have my manager call.  One was  Vertigo,  which is a division of DC Comics.  I checked them out.  They also are not seeking new writers or original stories, but they are looking for new artists, through their Talent Search at Comic Conventions.  Here are the DC Comics Talent Search Guidelines.   Here is some further info about Vertigo, from DC Comics, and from About.com.  Since Vertigo is not looking for original stories, it seems it is not an option for me, either (even if I have my manager call, as Chris suggested), although my story is in line with the kind of thing they do.

The other, bigger publisher Chris mentioned was Tokyo Pop.   Since Tokyo Pop is primarily focused on manga, and previously-created franchises (like Star Trek and Sponge Bob Square Pants), and they don’t seem to be taking any submissions at this time, they also wouldn’t be an option for my project.

Other Advice – from Chris Garcia

In the realm of studying graphic novels, Chris Garcia also had a few recommendations.   He mentioned that Gail Carriger had written a manga called Soulless, but I must have misunderstood, because this book turns out to be a novel in her  Parasol Protectorate Series, which Gail describes as, “comedies of manners set in Victorian London: full of vampires, dirigibles, and tea. They are Jane Austen doing urban fantasy meets PG Wodehouse doing steampunk.”   Her website is delicious, full of Victoriana and Steampunk, and personality.  (Re: mistaking “novel” for “manga:” Did I mention it was loud in the exhibition hall – especially where I was talking with Chris?)  Anyway, I’m very glad to find her website, because it’s fun, and it may have useful publishing information.

Later update on Gail Carriger‘s manga: There is going to be one!   It’s a manga version of her novel Soulless, illustrated by Rem.   It’s going to launch officially at the upcoming Comic-Con in San Diego, July 21-14, 2011, serialized in Yen Plus, a monthly online  anthology, and as a full book next spring, published by Yen Press.  (I guess I didn’t mishear Chris after all.)

Chris also mentioned Scott McCloud‘s book, Understanding Comics, which everyone mentions (and I ordered right away, when I started this project).  But Chris Garcia was the first one to suggest another McCloud title about the business of comics, by which I think he meant Reinventing Comics, which contains a section on the business of comics and creator’s rights.  I discovered Scott McCloud has another book, Making Comics, that also seems like an excellent resource for anyone learning to create comics and graphic novels.

Chris Garcia told me that I should have only 2 characters talk at a time in a panel, although as I have continued reading graphic novels, I have seen exceptions to this, of course.

He also said I could find examples of comic book scripts in the back of one of the Sandman trade paper back collected editions.

When I asked about his recommendations of graphic novels to study, he said the best was Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse.   It has won an Eisner award and bunch of others.  It got three stars in my notes as Chris talked about it, so I know he really enthused about it.

Another fellow was standing nearby, and now I don’t recall whether he or Chris Garcia also recommended Barnum!: In Secret Service to the USA, by Howard Chaykin and David Tischman, art by Niko Henrichon, and Kill Your Boyfriend, by Grant Morrison, art by Philip Bond and D’Israeli.

Of course, I thanked Chris so much for his time and suggestions, and headed back toward Eric Shanower‘s table in Artist Alley.

WonderCon 2011: the first day, there’s more!

I found some more notes from my first day at WonderCon.

In the small press area of the exhibit hall, I talked with a couple of very helpful folks at one of the tables.  Unfortunately, this was before I started writing down the companies of everyone I talked with and asking their permission to mention them in the blog, so alas, I cannot identify them.  But anyway, I told them of my quest, and they gave me some interesting information.  They mentioned an article in SF Gate about Amanda Hocking, who self-published online and marketed through ebooksellers.  Her work got to be so popular that she was courted by three publishers and made a deal with St. Martin’s Press.

These helpful folks also mentioned an artist website: Deviantart.com, where artists display and sell their art.  They thought that if I needed to find an artist partner for my graphic novel, that might be a good place to look.

When I had been upstairs for the first session I attended,  by Douglas Neff, I had noticed a very long line for Portfolio review.  I asked about it, and someone waiting told me that various companies had a rep inside the room, who would look over artist portfolios and give suggestions.  I thought that was very friendly and helpful.  I also thought, if I needed to find an artist to partner with, that long line might be a great place to start.  I checked the schedule, and the review was continuing on the next day, so I knew I could come back if necessary.

When I started out at WonderCon searching for information, I didn’t even know how the business worked at all.  I didn’t know if publishers accept stories and then pair up the writer with an artist in their stable, as it were, or if artists and writers paired up before bringing a project to a publisher.  I also didn’t know there was so much self-publishing going on.  Even as the first day wore on, I sort of gathered that mostly artists and writers pair up independently, either to self-publish or to submit proposals to publishers.

That night when I got home, I called a dear friend of mine, Andrea Potts, who is also an amazing artist.  She didn’t have much time, so I asked if she was interested in the project, and she said yes.  And then she asked me to tell her about the story a little, just to be sure she would be into it.  I pitched it to her briefly (Hollywood teaches you nothing if not to be brief with pitching).

Side note – for some great advice about pitching, see Ken Rotcop‘s Perfect Pitch, and his DVD, Let’s Sell Your ScriptKen Rotcop is wonderful, fiercely supportive of writers, and truly interested in helping us get careers going.  He worked in the industry for decades; he’s been the creative head of four studios; and he is an award-winning writer himself.  He founded the original pitching event, Pitchmart, which is celebrating its 50th session on April 30th, 2011.  I have attended many times and gotten very positive responses from producers.  That is where I met my manager.

Andrea liked my story, so I didn’t need to return to the portfolio review on Saturday, and I planned on spending all my time in the exhibit hall, gleaning information and resources.

Book Review: Mouse Guard Fall 1152

I love it.  I’ve read it twice, and I really love it.

I promised to loan it to my roommate after I do this review, and I love it so much, I’m going to have a hard time without it for those few days.  Just now I glanced through it, and I love it even more.

David Petersen has created a world where a small band of intrepid mice guard a territory for their fellow mice, protecting their lives and villages.    The world is pre-industrial, with technology about matching that of humans in Europe in 1152.  The Mouse Guard starts by investigating hints of problems and discovers a plot that threatens the very existence of the Guard itself.  I could detail the entire plot, but that would in no way convey the incredible charm of this delightful volume.

The mice make great protagonists.  Not only do I identify with them because they’re furry and cute and mammalian, they have many admirable qualities.  The Guard are loyal and bold, devoted to their purpose and to each other.  We know how incredibly small they are, but they don’t seem to.  They are large of spirit.

Early in the first chapter, there’s a fabulous close-up of one very determined and feisty Mouse Guard as he faces a large and fearsome predator, armed only with his courage and a short sword.  Perhaps that was the exact moment I fell in love with the book; I’m not sure.   But I love the close-up of that undauntable little mouse face.

The art and layout of the book are magnificent, too.

The volume is square, 8 1/4 by 8 1/4″.  All the panels are rectangular or square.  There are no angles or odd-shaped panels, and a crisp white border separates all the panels.  This solid-ness seems to mirror the mind set of the Mouse Guard: they have strict codes of honor.  The borders between right and wrong are clear to them.  On this meta level, the form of the book supports its content extremely well.

Harmony, balance, and symmetry reign over the proportion and sizing of the panels.  Very thoughtfully laid out, facing pages often mirror each other or flip the orientation of the same shapes of panels, such as 3 vertical strips on one page, and facing that 3 horizontal strips.  David Petersen obviously took great care in pacing his story into these harmonious visual rhythms.  Also very well-balanced is the mix of close-ups, medium-shots,  long shots, stable angles and strange angles, all beautifully employed in telling the story succinctly.

The storytelling is compact.  To a much greater extent than I have seen in other graphic novels so far, each scene in this book has only the minimum dialogue necessary.  The pictures really carry a great deal of the action.  There is so much feeling conveyed in these drawings, especially in the mouse faces.  The drawing style does not look at all to my (inexperienced) eye like “comic book art,” much more like lovely illustrations from a picture book.

The color palette is beautifully controlled as well, but never boring.  Over all, the Fall tones are used the most, rich oranges and browns, but there are gentle greens and deep purples as well.   Varying  from scene to scene, the lush color expresses its own rhythm in support of  the story.

Everything about Mouse Guard fall 1152 is so thoughtful, so gorgeous, so rich.  I love the storytelling.  I love the art.

I love this book.  And I look forward to the others in the series, Winter 1152, The Black Axe,  and Legends of the Guard, which won the Gem Award for Best 2010 Anthology.

Off-topic coincidence:  Because I am a fan of history, and an especial fan of hers, I mention that 1152 was the year that Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II, Duke of the Normans, who became King Henry II of England in 1154.  Eleanor was the only woman to be queen of both France  and England (at separate times – first France, then England).

Mouse Guard Fall 1152 is available from the publisher, Archaia, and at many bookstores as well.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am planning to submit a proposal for my graphic novel to Archaia, in hopes that they will publish it.  I think we’re a good fit (I hope they will think so, too), and their volumes are lush and gorgeous.  (Of course, if they don’t want mine, I will continue, looking for other publishers or self-publishing. )

You can read more about their aims in publishing and see what else they offer in their catalog.  (This is a big pdf file, so it may take time to load.)

You can read their submission policy here:   Archaia submission policy.

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