Saturday, October 13, 2012

Going To The Underworld...

I guess I should mention the afterlife really quick, and then run. Before you throw your characters into the afterlife, either temporarily or permanently, you need to make some very basic decisions. These decisions are: If it is punishment/reward/both/neither, how long characters will remain there, what the rules are, and what its purpose is in your story. Let's deal with the last first, and then proceed in the normal fashion.

A sojourn into the afterlife needs to be a momentous event. It should not be chosen just as an interesting background, but because there is an actual reason for it. If the characters are living, the obvious reason is because they need advice from someone long dead and standard summoning just doesn't work, or there is an item or material they need for a special plot-needed item; they need to have a really good reason to be there. It can also be a reward of sorts, such as seeing a long-dead hero or relative in order to work things out. If the characters are dead and they are exploring the afterlife, there needs to be a reason, such as exploring the idea of final chances or to take a look at their lives, that they have yet to pass on to their final reward.

Once you have determined that, you need to decide if the afterlife is a punishment or reward, both or neither. It can be just way station on the way to another location, or way to deal with things before the person can rest, go to the next stop, be reincarnated, whatever. There just needs to be a reason for it to exist within the cosmological framework, and it needs to work with the purpose you need it for. Keep in mind that if the characters are living, it will serve as a preview of their own fates, and what they are ultimately fighting for, so keep that in mind as well. It needs to be more than just another place or you are just wasting it; it is sort of like using a tactical nuke to take out a fly, and that's just stupid.

It also helps if you decide how long the dead stay there. Sometimes it can be the final resting place after a single life or when enough reincarnations have happened, or it can be very short, like a depot as the souls wait to go to their next stop or must do something in order to leave. You can give them an actual time limit, a limited time, or somewhere in between. That time limit, if you have one, must be enforced somehow, so that's another consideration.

Once you have decided all of that, you just need to define what the rules are. It can be its own world, a parallel world of sorts, or even the regular world, but the rules of how the characters may interact with it needs to be defined. There is even the option of having the spirits interact with the real world but having their own world, making you need two sets of rules. The big one is whether or not the characters can be killed or not, and if so whether or not it is a permanent death or just an inconvenience.

Once you have thought all of these things through, you can start thinking about writing, but at least you have a better idea of what you are doing.

The Proper Use and Abuse of Ghosts

Ghosts are being abused, and this needs to stop. Although ghosts can make for some great comedy, they can also make for an even greater literary device. And since it is the season for a few scares, let's discuss how to spice up your ghosts.

The classic ghost is a great bogeyman. When used as an elemental force rather than an actual character, the ghost can make a great element in a mystery or a horror story. The ghost can scare the characters onto the right path or punish the transgressor of a crime in grand allegorical style. When used as the girl who helps solve the case and then disappears at the end of the case, it can add an a-ha moment. Make sure you end the twist, but don't oversell it and it can actually work.

However, the ghost also makes for a great symbol of change. A lot of people seem to concentrate on the Death card as being final, when in reality it is a sign of change. Ghosts can be used in the same, to show a definite changing point. I know it's a bit schmaltzy to use ghosts as helping the living adapt to change, it nonetheless works really well in the right story. I definitely suggest avoiding the other side unless you have a mythology built as travels to an ultimate resting spot doesn't usually work all that well, but they do seem to work decently as coping mechanisms.

[Yes, I'll be handling the afterlife on its own terms, just not right now.]

I would suggest you keep ghosts to their minimal powers: telekinesis, phasing through walls, possession, and possibly flying and teleportation, as well as invisibility, and possibly some form of fear-based attack. They also have a limited number of weaknesses, such as can't penetrate some mystical substances and cannot penetrate magic circles and salt barriers. Writers tend to get into trouble when they add to what ghosts can do for the sake of originality, but a ghost's power in a story isn't based on its actual abilities but what it symbolizes; remember that and you will do fine.

What I am trying to stress here is that a ghost as a character should be avoided unless it helps the story. The best of Neil Gaiman's characters is Death; the reason for this is because she is used sparingly. When she shows up, she does what she has to do and then goes right back into the woodwork. She's a brilliantly realized character, but she actually gains in literary utility because she is not over-used; she makes for a brilliant character to underscore a point when she makes an appearance, and that's exactly how you should use a ghost. A ghost should pass through your story, make an effect, and then disappear...

Monday, October 08, 2012

Why Illustrators are prima donnas.

Before we get too far into this, understand that I mean no disrespect to illustrators. I appreciate how much work they put into projects, that it takes a full day to create a page, on average, and that is a day of work and stress. However....

There's two parts to this rant. The first is that writers are every bit an artist as an illustrator. The problem is that somewhere along the line illustrators got called "artists" and the name stuck. I'm obviously not saying that illustrators do not deserve to be called artists by any stretch, just that so do writers. Writers are usually the ones that are responsible for what you read, as we establish a lot of the rules that a universe is based, from the rules of science (or magic, depending) as well as the various relationships between characters and organizations. The twists and turns that you enjoy are because the writing, not because of the illustrator.

As an illustrator, you need to keep in mind that comics, like film, are truly best when everyone is collaborating. This is not to say that the jobs need be kept separate; there needs to be some overflow between the two. An illustrator with a cool costume design should be able to con the writer into including the character, just as the writer should be able to suggest a cool idea for the artwork. There needs to be a certain flow between the two. This includes the inker and letterer, to some degree, where they are present, but in general the majority of decisions should be between the illustrator and writer.

[This is not to say that there are not a lot of great of writer/illustrators, especially when it comes to webcomics. I'm just trying to point out there are differences between the two crafts, and that a writer/illustrator who does an incredible job really deserves a pat on the back.]

I am also starting to really hate that writers are basically considered second-class citizens when it comes to the art community. It's just weird to me that the reason that most comics succeed or fail is because of the writing, and yet I'm willing to bet that people can name more illustrators than they can writers. I understand why, especially when you realize that writers tend to be introverted and illustrators tend to be extroverts; guess who's more fun at conventions? Worse is that you get the occasional illustrator that forgets that everyone serious about their craft goes to school, tries out new things, and gets degrees; not saying that writers don't brag as well, it just seems more obnoxious from an illustrator, or that a writer has to show that they've taken a class or two. The problem is that people can only judge by what they see, and writers tend to be ducks versus the swans that are illustrators.

By ducks I mean that there is a lot going on that you simply don't see. When you see a page of written script, you don't see the reams that a writer has done as for as figuring out how things work in the universe, and setting things up so that things work. If the illustrator has done research so that he can pull some really cool stuff off, imagine the research that a writer has done; odds are that some of the research that the writer has done gets shown to the illustrator. The writing process is entirely different than the drawing process; it's most research, make notes, and then decide how you want all of that information to manifest as script. Sure, any writer can do more pages of script in a day than an illustrator can, but that doesn't mean that I'm doing less work.

Put in a slightly different way, an illustrator needs to know what Captain America's appearance is and what he represents to get it right. A writer needs to know his entire history, his friends and enemies, hist rogue gallery, and a lot of trivia about Cap. This is not to say that an illustrator gets off easy in this, just that the information required to do the job right is entirely different, and I'm not sure how many people realize that.

The bottom line is that sometimes it gets irritating to be a writer because we get no respect. I keep seeing people that think that there is no room in comics for people who write because comics are visual; they apparently have no clue how much writing is needed to make a great comic great, and only look to the artwork. To those morons I would humble submit that they really have no clue how much the two crafts influence their enjoyment of a great comic, and that each requires respect for their contribution to the comic. I just wish some illustrators wouldn't forget that...

How much should you pay for art?

Something I'm sort of tired of seeing is that illustrators should be payed like plumbers. Why?

The problem is that illustrators think that they need to be paid. How much should you pay? The quick version is: It depends. Assuming a reasonably new artist, you should pay about $100 for a page (8.5"x11") of black & white art, or $250 for colored, regardless of medium. That assumes a piece of art that is finished; if it's just the rough art, where someone else needs to ink it, more like $50-$100. On the other hand, if you want the person to letter it, add $50; lettering may only take a few minutes, but there is some serious graphic design skills involved. So, assuming a full page of art, a person should be charged $50 to $300 minimum. If, on the other your project is bigger or smaller, pay appropriately; a full comic (assuming 20 pages) is easily in the neighborhood of $2000 to $5000, while a quarter-page (4"x5" or so) should be $25 to $60. For a seasoned artist, or even a famous one, that number really starts to escalate, so that keep that in mind.

However, that's the quick version. Here's my problem: An illustrator is not a plumber. A plumber does something specific that you need done, and without which life gets very complicated very quickly. Try not taking a shower for a week or realize that you cannot do something as simple as keep your house clean because of a lack of water. I need water; I don't need art. More to the point, if the plumber does not do his job, I can sue him and he is likely to get fired. However, an illustrator is hired in the hopes that he will do the job and make the comic come alive; an illustrator is hired on speculation of his doing a great job, whereas a plumber isn't. This should not be offensive to illustrators; art will always be based on how people like it and not how they do it as long as someone continues to like it. Seriously: If you saw a plumber pull out anything but a snake and a wrench and start working on your pipes with a large club, how long would that plumber be in your house? So stop with the plumbers and illustrators analogy; I get that illustrators need to get paid. But that's the only thing they have in common with plumbers.

The other problem is that writers and illustrators look at things differently. Screw the education factor; I see one more illustrator complain that he should be paid because he has a single Masters degree I will seriously debate putting out a hit on him. If you compared writers to illustrators, you would quickly find that writers have taken more classes and picked up more degrees than the average illustrator; most illustrators have pretty much just the art degree, whereas writers usually have a degree in something else, and then have to go back to school for the writing classes.

The problem is that writers are used to doing on spec. Illustrators are truly fortunate; they can find someone hiring, take their college work in a portfolio to the interview, and possibly get a job where they are paid for what they are told what to make; that is, you have a contract for work. "Spec" is where you put a year plus into something and hope someone pays you; let's just say there is a reason authors love print on demand. It gets worse when you realize that, in order to get some of the best writing jobs, you need to go through some pretty weird hoops. Try to become a decently paid screenwriter; in order to get paid even scale, you need to write AND get paid for a motion picture script (or equivalent, such as four half-hour shows) before you can join the Writer's Guild of America, and you have to do this in an industry where to have to be a WGA member in order to be able to even write a movie script. The same applies in a number of industries, such as comics. Getting paid is cool, but pretty much optional for most writers.

Now keep in mind that there is a part of us that think this "if you're going to make it in an industry, you need to be known outside it first" mindset applies to all artists. Ergo, we have no problem looking for illustrators stressing that this can be great exposure; if we're doing something for exposure, and that's how we get into the industry, why shouldn't you? Making the case for us is that this is how the comics industry actually works; you need to draw a decent comic before someone in the industry will take you seriously. There are exceptions, such as Kubert grads, but in general you need to show you can do a decent comic before someone takes you seriously. Now, if you happen to be one of the few decent writer/illustrators out there, this is not a problem, but if you're just an average illustrator you're going to team with a decent writer in order to create that decent book in order to be taken seriously; you can't just put something together and hope, because if the writing sucks, they'll likely toss the book quickly, and there goes your chance. The logic is pretty basic: omics are still dependent on the story, and great artwork only gets you so far. If you can't put together a decent book, which means a decent story, then the artwork, no matter how great DOES NOT MATTER.

So...where does that leave us? Oh. Right. Illustrators need to get paid. But...there can be times when you need the exposure in order to show that you can draw a decent book if you want to be a comic book artist, and a free job MAY do that for you. So, when you are presented with a writer looking for free art, debate it. Only if the story really grabs you should you go for it. IF (Note: Big if, not a little one) you decide to go for it, bargain hard for half the profit, and then go for it. But don't get into the habit; do it once or twice, and then stop. I mean, you do need to get paid, right? Right.