Sunday, December 14, 2008

Marvelous Tales: Making Comic Book Editors

The post “Diamonds Always Shine or Reviewing Art Submissions by the Ton” generated some interesting responses.

I’d like to expand a bit on the reply I made to Roy Richardson’s comment. Roy teaches comic art at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Atlanta. He wanted me to expand on how editors at Marvel were hired and why a few of them seemed ill-suited for the job.

Keep in mind that my comments generally refer to the period I was on staff at Marvel (1983 – 1996). The comics market grew substantially during most of that period. The editorial staff expanded accordingly as Marvel increased the number of publications it produced.

During that time, there was also a fair amount of staff turnover. So, the total number of people who were part of the Marvel editorial staff during that period was quite high – many dozens.

Also keep in mind that, despite the problems outlined below, the majority of those who served on Marvel’s editorial staff during my time there were, for the most part, good people doing a good job. There were only a relative few I’d classify as being highly unprofessional. Those relative few either didn’t possess the necessary aptitude or skills or had substantial negative attitude and/or other personality issues.

From the early 80’s on, most of Marvel’s editors were promoted up through the ranks of the editorial department. *

Some assistant editors transferred in from other positions and departments within Marvel. Occasionally, someone on Marvel’s staff would recommend a friend for an open assistant editor position.

Many Marvel editors began as high school or college interns who worked at Marvel for school credit. Ohio’s Antioch College seemed to always have students interning at Marvel. Antioch was the alma mater of Marvel’s president at the time, Jim Galton. Over the years, a number of Antioch interns ended up on Marvel’s editorial staff including Marie Javins, Sara Tuchinsky, Andrew Perry, Kevin Somers and Polly Watson.

The better interns were considered as candidates when assistant editor slots opened up. The best of those assistant editors became associate editors and, eventually, were promoted to become full editors. (Sometime in the early ‘90s, Marvel added the associate editor title as an intermediate step between assistant editor and editor.)

This was, in general, a good system. It meant Marvel’s editorial staff had a nice mix of experienced vets who could oversee the development of new editorial staffers. The new editorial staffers brought new enthusiasm, ideas and aesthetics with them.

In addition to whatever day-to-day hands-on experience the assistant editors acquired in the editorial office they worked in, they attended weekly classes for assistant editors. Executive editor Mark Gruenwald ran those classes. He sometimes had guest speakers present to the class (including Tom DeFalco, Bob Budiansky and me.) When Marvel added the associate editor position, I oversaw the training classes for that position.

Mark’s classes helped a lot of people grasp of the essential skills needed for the job. For those assistant editors assigned to work in offices run by an editor who lacked some of the essential skills, Mark’s classes were a godsend. Despite the training safety net provided by the assistant and associate editor classes, things occasionally went wrong. Here’s how—

-As Marvel and the comics industry in general grew through the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Marvel had to expand its editorial ranks to accommodate the additional publishing workload. A few people were promoted before they were ready due to the need for staff expansion created by the growing market. Some of those who were promoted before they were ready would have made fine editors if they had been allowed to grow and hone their skills at a lower editorial position.

-There was also a mistaken assumption that anyone who made a good assistant editor would automatically evolve into a good editor. People were sometimes promoted beyond their level of ability or comfort. Each position up the editorial chain (Assistant Editor, Associate Editor, Editor, Group Editor, Executive Editor, Editor-in-Chief) had additional creative and management responsibilities attached to it. A good assistant editor didn’t always have the aptitude to climb that ladder successfully.

-There was a period when then EIC Jim Shooter decided that he wanted to bring in some “blank slates”, non-fan boys that he could train to do things his way. This approach yielded disappointing results for Shooter and everyone else. In a somewhat related approach, during the early/mid ‘80s, DC hired some experienced prose novel editors with the idea that they could be trained to become comic book editors. Editing a visual storytelling medium is very different from editing prose (and vice versa). I don’t believe any of those editors lasted very long in the comics field. That doesn’t mean this approach couldn’t work. It just means that the candidates should have been screened for having an aptitude for visual storytelling.

-Most of those who joined the Marvel staff were comics fans, sometimes highly opinionated and naive comics fans. With experience and maturing over time, their love for comics could be combined with best practices and professionalism. Occasionally, someone came on staff with a naive know-it-all attitude and never woke up to the fact that they didn’t know it all.

-Some otherwise great editors had their sense of aesthetics stuck in an earlier time period. There were a lot of people who got into the business during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s who maintained their late ’70s aesthetic sensibilities as the world, and the comics audience, changed around them. Ideally, an editor should be aware that the audience’s aesthetics are changing and ride that fine line between being contemporary without trying to be too trendy.

-Except for the latter part of Shooter’s reign as EIC, it was actually pretty hard to get yourself fired from Marvel's editorial staff. I witnessed one editor repeatedly exhibit gross dereliction of duty. That editor was “taken to the woodshed” by his superior many times over an extended period before finally being fired. I too was reluctant to end anyone’s editorial career, so I have to take the heat for not pulling the trigger quickly in a couple of situations. I had to be pushed hard by one editor’s long series of professional and ethical blunders to finally put that editor on probation, a probation the editor ultimately failed. In another case, an Assistant Editor showed such bad judgment, unethical conduct and insubordination that I should have quickly axed him/her. However, the assistant’s pleas, and the support of that assitant's supervising editor, stayed my hand, allowing the assistant to repeat the offenses.

-Some editors were very strong in certain skill areas and almost useless in others. Someone could be a great plot and dialogue editor but couldn’t give an artist useful feedback on how to execute clear visual storytelling. Or, they might have great creative editing skills but were weak when it came to managing teams, projects and schedules.

Again, I want to make it clear that, out of the many dozens of editorial staffers who worked at Marvel during my time there, there were relatively few who did not do their job well.

Marvel also was blessed with a high number of exceptional editors and I was blessed with the opportunity to work with many of them. Marvel was a fabulous place to work and the vast majority of us working there couldn’t have asked for a better job or, during the latter ‘80s through the early ‘90s - the Hobson/DeFalco era, a better corporate environment to work in. We loved what we did and enjoyed hanging out together during and after work hours.

Marvel editorial and bullpen staffers often hung out outside of the office. In this shot from the late ‘8o’s, a group of us are enjoying an afternoon at Ralph Macchio’s pool. From left to right: Jack Morelli, Ralph Macchio (hidden inside of the inner tube), Eliot R. Brown, Carl Potts, David Wohl, Danny Fingeroth, Belinda G. (Mark G’s wife at the time), Walter Simonson, Mark Gruenwald, Louise "Weezie" Simonson and Bob Budiansky (Also pictured are Ralph’s sister and nephew)

*Shooter hired some editors from “outside” Marvel around 1980. By outside, I mean they did not work their way up Marvels’ editorial ranks. They were hired as full editors. These included Denny O’Neil, Al Milgrom, Louise “Weezie” Simonson, Larry Hama and, in 1983, me. Denny had a long editing and writing resume in the comics business. Al and Larry, both artist/writers, had served short stints as editors at DC. Weezie had been in charge of editorial at Warren Publications (Creep[y, Eerie, Vampirella) I’d spent a lot of time in the advertising biz which, combined with my limited comics creative output and endorsements by several key people, impressed Shooter enough for him to ask me to join the staff. There were also a few cases of former Marvel assistant editors leaving staff to work freelance for a while before returning to become staff editors. Bob Budiansky and Danny Fingeroth come to mind.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Out of the Box: Stereolithography

Stereolithography is one of several rapid prototyping systems that product designers use.

A 3D modeling program is used to build a virtual model of a product or part. The 3D file directs a pair of UV lasers in a vat of special resin. Wherever the lasers meet, the resin solidifies. A physical prototype of the model is created layer by layer.

Although stereolithography was introduced by 3D Systems back in the late ‘80s, the process still looks like something from a science fiction film.

Different resins have different properties. For instance, some resins are more flexible than others.

Many manufacturers use rapid prototyping models to create molds for everything from kitchen appliances to car parts.

I used stereolithography to create prototypes of a fishing lure design, The prototypes helped me refine the lure and I was eventually awarded a utility patent on the design.

Another rapid prototyping system uses ink jet technology to spray material and build up a physical model in layers.

It’s conceivable that in the future, as the range of resins and materials increases, stereolithography and other rapid prototyping processes will begin turning out finished products.

Recently, inkjets were used to spray living tissue (including stem cells) to create a functional two-chamber heart – how’s that for a finished product!

Imagine wanting a specific plastic product. Instead of driving to a store or waiting for an online order to arrive, you go online, download the product’s 3D file and have your own stereolithography machine “cook up” the part for you.

If needed, you could also customize the 3D model before building the part. Perhaps you’d want to shave off a corner in order to make sure the part fit just right on a specific irregular surface.

If you lived in a remote location, far from stores or FedEx/UPS/DHL delivery routes (Alaska? Tahiti? The moon?), you could not only create your own products, you could build your own replacement parts. Say the drive belt for your vintage Kirby vacuum cleaner breaks. Assuming you have the right resin, you could get the proper belt’s 3D model online and build a replacement part. You’d be back to sucking up dust devils in no time.

Could this be the next big app?

Well it’ll be a long time before stereolithography machines are priced low enough to be affordable to the masses. Perhaps, things will progress along the lines of Kinko’s. Printers and copy machines were once so expensive that few individuals and small companies owned their own. Kinko’s filled the niche. Now that’s no longer the case, Kinko’s deals mostly with large copy orders, oversized printing and offers other services that have yet to become affordable to the mass market.

As the technology and range of resins progresses, maybe the number of stereolithography service bureaus will expand Kinko’s-like, filling the need for consumers until the technology is affordable and small enough to go into their homes.

Your thoughts?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Diamonds Always Shine or Reviewing Art Submissions by the Ton

When I was trying to break into the comicbook business as an artist, I was frustrated by the responses, or lack thereof, to the submissions I mailed to the various editors. My submissions consisted of Xeroxes of story pages and character pin-ups.

I couldn’t see it at the time but my drawing was weak and the visual storytelling even weaker.

In some cases I’d get no response at all from the editor. Others would eventually send a “thanks but no thanks” form letter that contained no information on why the work wasn’t up to snuff, or what I could do to improve it.

That’s not surprising. Editors are generally very busy and are under no obligation to give detailed responses (or any response) to unsolicited submissions.

Years later, I joined Marvel Comics’ editorial staff. Due to the frustration I experienced when I was mailing samples to editors, I decided to respond to every submission I received. The office I inherited contained a large stack of unopened submissions, so I started there.

Envelope after envelope after envelope contained samples of very weak work. However, in that stack I found Art Adams’ samples.*

It was like going through a mountain of coal and finding a diamond.

Adams was the first of a number of talents I discovered in the submissions that poured into Marvel daily.

Since many of the submissions had similar weaknesses, I worked out a set of response letters to cover most situations. The letters were easily customizable so each response could be quickly tailored.

The responses basically thanked the artist for making the submission, told them that they needed to do a lot of work if they wanted to have a chance of improving to a professional level. The letter then outlined some drawing exercises to help them improve. The suggested exercises varied depending on what weaknesses the samples showed.**

The letter also recommended that the artists go to their library or otherwise try to hunt up these books:
For drawing skills—
-Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
-Successful Drawing by Andrew Loomis (Also released under the title Three-Dimensional Drawing)

For visual storytelling techniques—
-The Five C's of Cinematography by Joseph V. Mascelli

When Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics - The Invisible Art was released, that title was added to the list.

There are Amazon links to all of these tiles along the right side of this blog.

Years after I left Marvel’s staff, artists still come up to me at conventions and express thanks for the drawing exercise and book recommendations they received when they sent submissions to Marvel.

My office became known as the place to send your samples if you wanted to get a response. So, the number of unsolicited submissions increased dramatically.

More mountains of coal with the occasional diamond mixed in.

I was careful not to tell artists of even the weakest work to give up drawing, even if I felt pretty sure they’d never be good enough to be hired.

Some editors and established artists sometimes bluntly told would-be comics artists to give up drawing and go into some other pursuit. A menial job (digging ditches, pumping gas) was often suggested as an alternative career.

These harsh reviewers had an interesting rationalization for their approach. Supposedly, if the would-be artist had the determination needed to improve his/her work to a professional level, he/she would get mad at the insulting remarks and try their best to prove the reviewer wrong.

That approach can work with some personality types but not others. It’s very possible that some extremely talented artists with very meek personalities were emotionally crushed by such comments and gave up drawing. In such cases, a more nurturing approach would have been more productive.

Insightful constructive criticism combined with targeted drawing exercises and research suggestions should do the trick for most personality types.

When Barry Smith (aka Barry Windsor Smith) began drawing comics for Marvel in the late 1960s, his work looked extremely amateurish to me. At the time, I thought that Smith would never amount to anything and would probably disappear from the scenes as soon as Marvel found someone else who could hold a pencil. Smith, however, continued getting assignments from Marvel.

Over a year or so, Smith’s work didn’t improve much. He finally kicked into high gear when he was assigned to the Conan comic where he rapidly developed into one of the better artists of his generation. The change in the quality of Smith’s work was amazing.

A lump of coal turned into a diamond. (Or, a very rough diamond that needed time to get polished.)

Smith’s dramatic example makes it almost impossible for me to tell an artist of even the weakest work that they should give up their dream of ever drawing professionally.

Instead, when confronted with very weak art executed by an under-motivated artist, I’d tell them—
-The odds of him/her making it to a professional level were extremely poor.
-Their only chance of reaching that goal will require hard work every day for years.
-They must decide if they have the dedication to put in all of that hard for just a small chance of making it.

Sometimes a little bit of knowledge is worse than no knowledge. This is true when reviewing art samples. One editor in particular comes to mind. He’d been observing me giving reviews at the Marvel’s booth at the San Diego Con and picked up on some catch phrases I used. He then began reviewing portfolios at the other end of the table I was sitting at.

As I continued to review portfolios, I occasionally heard snippets of what the other editor was saying to the artists lined up in front of him. At first, it sounded like he knew what he was talking about. I was pleasantly surprised because I’d never known this editor to have a sense of visual storytelling or any drawing knowledge. (How he came to be a comicbook editor is another story.)
However, when I stopped to observe him more closely, it was clear that the editor was using my terminology and phrases out of context, giving the artists some confusing and very bad advice in the process.

The young artists had just been given criticism and advice by a Marvel editor and I was worried that they might not know enough to dismiss the editor’s bad advice. So, I memorized the faces of some of these poor artists and later tried to track them down and “deprogram” them.

The work involved in reviewing and responding to all of the submissions the mailman dropped of daily was considerable, but then so were the rewards. Many talented diamonds turned up. Helping people to improve their work and begin successful careers was very satisfying for me.

I wonder what would have happened to my own artistic progress if someone had responded to my early submissions with solid criticism, advice and reference.

As always, your comments are welcome!

*I showed Art’s samples to my assistant editor, Ann Nocenti. She had been working on a new character and was looking for an artist to work with. Ann and Art eventually produced the Longshot limited series that helped launch both of their creative careers.

**I’ll go into some of these exercises in a future entry.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Marvelous Tales: Halloween in the Comicbook Biz

I was going to get back to visual storytelling or design this time around. However, I ran across some old Halloween photos and since that time of year is upon us, I thought I’d share them now.

During most of my years at Marvel Comics, there would be a Halloween party in the office. Many of us would attend in costume. Mark Gruenwald was a major force behind these office events. The photo below is from either 1985 or 1986 when I was an editor. I’m in my Alien Legion costume. With me is my fabulous assistant editor at the time, Pat Blevins. Pat is dressed up as a bunch of grapes!

Pat Blevins, Carl Potts

Pat is the wife of the very talented artist, Bret Blevins. Both Bret and Pat are among the nicest people on the planet. I enjoyed working with both of them a lot.

During the ealry 1980s, when Bernie Wrightson lived near Woodstock, NY, he hosted an annual Halloween party. Much of the comics community attended.

The shots below are, to the best of my knowledge, from Bernie’s Oct. 1982 party.

Bill Sienkewicz and Al Milgrom

Bernie Wrightson

Walt Simonson, Roger Slifer, Marv Wolfman

Belinda Gruenwald, Mark Gruenwald, Ralph Macchio

Joe Chiodo

Carl Potts

Howard Chaykin

???, Al MIlgrom, Len Wein

Louise "Weezie" Simonson, Ann Goodwin, Judy Milgrom

Leslie Z., Brent Anderson, Bill Sienkewicz

Marv Wolfman, Jo Duffy, Dave Cockrum

Friday, October 17, 2008

Marvelous Tales: Steve Ditko

It always baffled me as a kid when people told me that could not tell the difference between the art styles of various comicbook artists.

To me, most of the artists creating the comics that I devoured had very distinctive styles. How on (or off) Earth could anyone not see the difference between the styles of Neal Adams, Alex Toth, Joe Kubert and Jack Kirby?

Apparently, if it’s in a comicbook, a lot of people see through invisible filters that render everything into a homogenized Roy Lichtenstein-esque aesthetic.

When I was reading early Marvel Comics, the work of Steve Ditko really stood out and inspired me. He co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, my favorite Marvel characters.

The great Spider-Man #23 cover

Ditko’s work was like no other comics creator at that time. For the most part, his characters were not idealized in their appearance.* The everyman-who-can-be-identified-with-by-anyone look for Peter Parker that Ditko created helped Spider-Man comics attract legions of empathetic readers.

Steve’s characters moved in unique poses and with unusual gestures. Spider-Man swung and leaped just like a Spider-Man should and Doc Strange’s spells were cast unique hand gestures.
Doctor Strange on the defense.
He created a fantastic visual language for casting magic spells that is still emulated today.

Steve’s philosophical beliefs were as unusual as his art style. As the 1960s progressed, Steve became more and more entrenched in Objectivism, a very strict and uncompromising philosophy championed by author Ayn Rand. These beliefs are a major reason why Ditko left Marvel at the height of his popularity.

By the time he left Marvel, Ditko had stopped giving interviews, signing autographs or attending comics conventions. When I moved to NY about a decade later, I figured I’d probably never get to meet him.

However, around 1978, Neal Adams convinced Ditko to attend one of the monthly gatherings of NYC-based comics community that Neal hosted at his midtown apartment. It was there that Jim Starlin introduced me to Steve. I was pretty much tongue-tied but must have not made too horrible of an impression since Ditko occasionally stopped by to visit me when I became a staff editor at Marvel. By that time, Ditko had been back at Marvel for a number of years.

Ditko had some rules about the jobs he’d consider during the ‘80s. He wouldn’t work on stories featuring Spider-Man or Dr. Strange, the characters he rose to fame on in the early ‘60s. He also wanted to only work on stories where the heroes didn’t have major flaws or weaknesses (hard to do since that described many of Marvel’s heroes!).

One of the jobs Ditko agreed to draw for my office was in the first issue of What The--?!, Marvel’s self-parody humor comic. Ditko had drawn short humor jobs in the past so I asked him to do one for our first issue. He was up for it as long as only villains were the targets of the jokes – Ditko felt making fun of true heroes was not appropriate. So I asked Mark Gruenwald to write such a story parodying Secret Wars. He did so (under a pseudonym) and legendary comics artist John Severin agreed to ink it.

During his occasional visits at my office, Ditko would talk at length on a variety of subjects but he’d really get going if the conversation turned to politics or philosophy. He was indeed a true believer in Objectivism and that belief seemed unshakable.

In the late ‘80s, Ditko told me that, when he quit Marvel in the ‘60s, he didn’t turn in two Dr. Strange stories that he’d plotted and penciled. My jaw hit the floor.

This was amazing news and I urged (begged) Ditko to bring in the story! He politely declined, saying he didn’t want the pages to ever be published or copied. I told him that I’d be happy to look over his shoulder as he flipped through the pages/ That way the pages would never leave his hands, but he still declined to bring them in. Since then I’ve fantasized about what those pages look like and what the story was about. I wonder if I’ll ever find out!

Also during one of his visits to Marvel, I asked Steve to sign a page of original Creeper art I’d bought at a convention years before. His reaction that day and a few weeks later when he returned to my office were very memorable. If you want to hear that story, it’s at the end of the audio recording of a panel on Ditko that author Blake Bell moderated at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con. Blake’s recently published hardcover book, Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, has already gone into its second printing. Anyone interested in Ditko needs to check it out.

You can access the audio recording of the Ditko panel on Blake’s website on all things Ditko right here.

On all levels, Ditko is a unique creator who has the courage of his convictions. I can’t help wishing, however, that he’d relent about keeping those “long-lost” Dr. Strange pages under wraps.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Ditko and his work – and if you’ve had your own personal Ditko encounters, please share them with me!

*As stated in the San Diego panel, some actors look, to me anyway, like they were drawn by Ditko with a broad nose, strong jaw but short distance between mouth and chin. David Duchovny is one of those actors.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Composition, Layout & Design: Types of Balance

As a general rule, positive space in a picture is composed of the items or subjects depicted within the picture’s frame (people, vehicles, buildings, etc.).

Negative space is the area not occupied by positive space items (often backgrounds like sky, simple landscapes, etc.).

Artists and photographers can arrange the positive and negative space in their pictures to emphasize the picture’s storytelling and to create interesting compositions.

The two main terms describing how subjects are arranged or “balanced” within a picture are “symmetrical” and “asymmetrical”

Symmetrical balance is where the subjects are arranged so that they are in the middle of the picture frame or are even distributed throughout the frame.

The subjects in a picture with asymmetrical balance are distributed in an uneven pattern.

Here’s another way to think about balance in a picture - imagine the bottom of the picture frame as the surface of a see-saw or teeter-totter with a fulcrum under the middle.

Now imagine all of the subjects in the picture frame falling straight down onto the surface of the teeter-totter. If the teeter-totter stays level, you have symmetrical design. If the teeter-totter drops to one side, you have an asymmetrical design.

Keep in mind that the further away form the center/fulcrum an object is, the more downward pressure it will exert on the teeter-totter. So, a large object near the center of the frame might be counterbalanced by smaller objects positioned farther to the opposite side of the frame.

Symmetrical designs often impart a feeling of formality, stiffness or solemnity. Asymmetrical design can impart a very wide range of feelings.

There is a sub-category to asymmetrical design – the seemingly oxymoronic “balanced asymmetrical design”. This is where the subjects are arranged asymmetrically within a picture but would still not cause the teeter-totter to tip.

It’s good to be aware of these types of design balance when producing photos, illustrations or sequential media (comics, storyboards, film, etc.) If you are producing sequential media, it’s usually a good idea to mix the various balance types in order to get keep things visually interesting.

These panels by an un-credited Chinese comics artist show great design. It’s easy to see the positive and negative space in these frames! The frame on the top is asymmetrical design while the one on the bottom looks like it could be asymmetrically balanced.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Unnatural Selection in San Diego (No, this doesn’t have anything to do with Comic Con)

Human impact on the natural world is often negative — overpopulation putting a strain on natural resources, global warming, pollution, the extinction of numerous species, etc.

Would it surprise you that man’s activities have also made some of Earth’s creatures “smarter?” (Or, probably more accurately, conditioned them to act in ways we consider as being smarter.)

A prime example of “educated” wildlife can be found in the lakes that surround San Diego, CA.

San Diego may have the most “intelligent” largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) on the planet! This is due to the “unnatural selection” that the bass population has experienced through human activity.
An aggregation of largemouth bass

Bass are not native to California. They originated from North America’s east coast and the southern states. Bass were planted in California waters well over 100 years ago.

The lakes around San Diego are generally small but deep with gin-clear water. They receive a tremendous amount of “fishing pressure” (meaning a lot of anglers spend a lot of time fishing these lakes). The fish in the San Diego waters see a lot of different lures and baits dangled in front of their noses.

Most San Diego lakes were stocked with “Florida strain” largemouth bass. Floridians are naturally harder to trick into biting a lure than the “northern strain” of the bass. No one knows why.

The long-standing record for largemouth is 22 ¼ lbs. Many anglers think that the next world record bass is swimming in one of the San Diego lakes. In fact, we know that’s the case — a few years ago, Mac Weakley caught a 25+ lb. behemoth at Lake Dixon, a small body of water north of San Diego. Since that fish was not caught according to International Game Fish Association (IGFA) rules, it was not eligible to become an official record. Weakley released that fish back into Lake Dixon.
Mike Winn holds the 25.1-pound bass caught by his friend Mac Weakley on Dixon Lake near San Diego, CA.

The gargantuan size of San Diego’s fish keeps a steady stream of anglers visiting the area’s waters. Fishermen try new techniques and ever more realistic lures and presentations to get the wary fish to bite. Some of these techniques work well for a while. Then, the bass population seems to wise up and the effectiveness of the new techniques fade.

One of a number of highly-realistic “swim baits” used to mimic the rainbow trout that are stocked in San Diego’s lakes during cooler months. Rainbows are a favorite bass dinner item.

As noted in another blog entry, bass that are caught and released back to the water seem to learn from the experience. Perhaps they retain an association between what they were doing (attacking a lure) with the resulting experience of being hauled out of the water, unhooked and returned to the water. They tend to avoid making the same mistake again.

Bass are regarded as a fairly intelligent group of fish, as indicated by the high degree of mobility their eyes have in their eye sockets.

Due to the fishing pressure over the years, all of the more easily caught bass around San Diego were either harvested for the dinner table or caught and released.

This left the less-easily caught fish to reproduce, creating generations of fish that became increasingly harder to fool by anglers. These hard to catch fish grew very large over time.

Unlike colder parts of the country where the water “gets hard” during the winter and cold-blooded bass greatly reduce their activity, the bass around San Diego grow year round in their moderate environment. These bass get easy calories to grow on during the winter when their lakes are stocked with rainbow trout. The trout, raised in hatcheries, are “naive” and are easy prey for the voracious largemouth bass. So, instead of experiencing little or no growth during the colder months, San Diego bass get larger.

The water in the San Diego lakes is very clear, allowing fish to easily spot fishing line and notice differences between their natural live prey and lures. To test how sensitive bass are to fishing line, some anglers tossed live night crawler worms off a San Diego lake’s dock. The bass sheltering under the dock would rush out to consume the wriggling food. The fishermen then threaded virtually invisible 1# test clear monofilament fishing line through a night crawler and tossed it off the dock. There was no hook on the line or in the worm. The worm wiggled just like the others crawlers but the bass refused to touch it. Somehow, they either saw the line or otherwise sensed that there was something different/unnatural abut that particular crawler.

The intense fishing pressure may also prompt the bass to use their senses in different ways than they might normally.

Some years back I was fishing on Lake Miramar near San Diego and the bass were chasing schools of baitfish just under the surface of the water. There were splashes all around my boat as the bass charged up to engulf the shad trapped against the water’s surface.

I was surrounded by other boats filled with fisherman. These anglers were casting a wide variety of baits at the schooling, feeding bass but the fish refused their offerings. Even in the midst of a feeding frenzy, the bass seemed to easily tell the difference between their live prey and the variety of lures being tossed at them.

I plowed through my tackle box, trying a number of different lures before finally tying on a Snag Proof Minnow. This is a soft plastic lure with a hollow body.
A hollow Snag Proof Minnow

I chucked the Snag Proof Minnow and jerked it erratically, like a fleeing and disoriented baitfish. Wham! One of those genius San Diego largemouth bass fell for it. I reeled it in, took it off the hook and slid it back into the water. I repeated this sequence many times while jaws dropped in the boats around me.

Many of the other fishermen were throwing more realistic looking lures than the Snag Proof Minnow, yet the bass refused to bite their plugs and bashed mine. Why they behaved this way was a mystery to me for some time.

Years later I spoke of this episode to Ken Cook, a professional bass tournament angler who used to be a fisheries biologist. Cook thinks the bass have senses in their lateral line that we can’t comprehend. The fish may possibly be able to sense (similar to sonar?) whether their potential prey has an air bladder inside of it. Baitfish have air bladders but most lures are solid plastic, wood or metal. The Snag Proof Minnow, however, is hollow, possibly mimicking the air bladder of a real baitfish.

Rationalizing how a fish senses and reacts to things is probably a foolish exercise. However, Cook’s guess sounded viable to me — so much so that I’ll usually include a void space in the lures I use when fishing in heavily pressured waters.

Our fishing pressure has made the San Diego bass “smart”. This is “unnatural selection” in action.

Okay, we’ll get back to something visual storytelling or design related next week.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Team Management and Development (or How the Baseball Farm System Model Worked In the Comicbook Business)

During my time as a line editor at Marvel Comics, I was responsible for the production of five monthly comics along with a variety of one-shots, graphic novels, annuals, limited series, posters and other projects.

Each of the comics titles had a five person creative crew (writer, penciller, inker, letterer and colorist).

If an ongoing monthly title was on schedule, it would have four or five successive issues in various stages of production. While the latest issue was being prepared to go to the printer, the following issue was being inked, the one after that was being scripted and the one after that was being penciled. At the same time, the next issue in the pipeline was being plotted.

In professional baseball, the “big leaguers” play for the major league team (let’s use the NY Mets for an example). Each major league team has three levels of minor league teams: AAA (New Orleans Zephyrs), AA (Binghamton Mets) and A (Brooklyn Cyclones), Each minor league team plays in its own league against other teams at the same level.

As a general rule, as young players improve, they move up the ranks from A league level to AA then AAA and finally to the major leagues. The AAA level is usually where the most advanced minor leaguers play, along with those who have struggled in the major leagues and have been assigned to AAA to hone their skills or get back in shape after an injury.

At Marvel, I viewed those creators working on my monthly titles as my big leaguers. These were the pros who could be counted on to turn out quality work on a regular basis.

The AAA team consisted of talented young creators who had been in training for a while. They produced stories for annuals, fill-in issues, pin-ups and other projects.

The AA crew consisted of creators with raw but obvious talent. They were usually found by going through mounds of unsolicited submissions or during portfolio reviews at comicbook conventions. These artists were paid low rates to work on six-page stories as training exercises. The work they produced was not meant for publication.

Single A level creators were those with very raw talent. It was hard to tell if they would evolve into an employable talent. In addition to a letter outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the submitted work, I often sent these creators Xerox copies of two (then) out-of-print books that contained a wealth of knowledge:*

Successful Drawing by Andrew Loomis (Also released under the title Three-Dimensional Drawing) (Available as a PDF here.)

The Five C's of Cinematography by Joseph V. Mascelli

If the submitting artist had the drive to make it, they would devour the drawing and visual storytelling information they received and send in a new set of much improved samples. Those who did so successfully usually made it to the AA level.

AA talent needed to be trained in three primary areas—
-Visual storytelling

Many of the artists trying to break into comics had never worked at any sort of job. They often drew only when the muse struck them. They didn’t even know what it was like to work on a schedule at the local McDonald’s, much less produce quality art on a periodical schedule.

Waiting for the muse to inspire you before getting your pencil in gear doesn’t work when you’ve committed to producing a 22 quality pages of comicbook art every four weeks!

So, when I handed the plot for the six-page training story**, I asked the AA artists to set their own deadline for the delivery of their storytelling layouts. That date could be days or a month away. However, whatever date they set, they needed to meet that date. If they could not be relied upon to meet their own deadline, how could they be trusted to meet deadlines set by others?

If the layouts came in on time, I’d go over them and sketch out ways to improve the storytelling on overlays. The artist would then set another deadline for when he/she would deliver the finished pencils.

Those who did well creatively and professionally were slated to move up to the AAA team.

Sometimes artists would come along who were good enough to start at the AAA or even the major league level. Jim Lee, June Brigman, Larry Stroman and Jon Bogdanove come to mind.

If a creator working on a monthly title left to take on other projects, or ran into a problem producing on time, I usually had a quality replacement in AAA that could be used to temporarily or permanently replace the departing artist.

In some editorial offices, the loss of a monthly creator initiated a competition with other editors for talent. All too often, talent-hungry editors tried to lure away artists from other editorial offices within their own company.

I had no qualms about trying to lure talent away from another publisher. Starting a tug-of-war within Marvel for talent often caused counterproductive friction.

However, when another Marvel editor needed an artist and there was a good match between the talent and the project, I’d suggest someone from my AAA pool. I’d rather have the AAA artist working for Marvel regularity than remain stuck in my AAA team, or have the artist take on work from other publishers.

A number of artists who began their careers in my office were eventually lured away by the siren call of the X-Men titles. These artists grew up reading and loving the X-Men. That combined with the creator royalties the high-selling X-tiles generated made a call from the X-office hard to resist!

I must admit that I felt some pride when much of the X-line was being created by talent I mentored. Those creators included Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Scott Williams, Larry Stroman, Jon Bogdanov, Steve Scroce and Terry Shoemaker.

Would running a comicbook editorial office with this system work these days? Aspects of the farm team system should still hold up.

My biggest concern is that there is little “forgiveness” in today’s comics market.

When Jim Lee started out on Alpha Flight, he was already a very good artist but he was not yet the polished pro he turned into within a few years. In the ‘80s, sales on monthly comics were high enough to support the development of a new artist over the course of a year.

These days, comics sales are lower and the fans expect a high degree of professional polish right out of the gate. If today’s smaller audience stops buying a title because the artist isn’t yet polished, the title will probably be cancelled. If Jim Lee were starting his career right now at the same creative level he had on his first Alpha Flight issue, the book might not survive long enough for him to turn into a star.

There are probably many other businesses where the baseball farm system model, or a variation, would work very well.

* Marvel Publisher Mike Hobson negotiated agreements with the original publishers of these books so that we could make copies for training purposes. The Five Cs… has since been reissued in paperback. (See the Amazon link on this page.)

** The 6 page plot most often used for art training was “Double Vision” written by Tom DeFalco. At one point I had a pile of Double Vision stories drawn by many different artists. I’m not sure what happed to that stack or pages. It would be fun, but probably embarrassing to some of the artists, if all of those try out jobs were published together!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Marvelous Tales: The Secret Origin of the New Universe (A bit of behind-the-scenes Marvel lore, along with a thought on branding.)

Interest in the history of Marvel Comics’ New Universe line of titles seems to be in the air. I’ve recently heard about several people seeking more information on the origins of the line.

As an editor at Marvel during the birth of the New Universe, I can tell you that it was not an easy labor.

Sometime during a 1985 editorial staff meeting, then Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter announced a new publishing event – the New Universe* -- to help celebrate Marvel Comics’ 25th anniversary.

What Shooter proposed at that meeting differed substantially from what eventually emerged.

Here are the conditions he initially established for New Universe projects—
-They needed to be new properties
-They could not have any connection to the Marvel Universe
-They could cover any genre or time period and did not have to share continuity with any other title in the New Universe line.

The editors were informed that any solid concept with commercial potential would have a reasonable chance of being approved.

Celebrating the anniversary of the Marvel Universe with a publishing event that ignored the Marvel Universe seemed rather odd to me! It didn’t seem to bother Shooter.

Around this time, my writer on Doctor Strange, Peter B. Gillis, approached me with his idea for a science fiction series set in the future. It focused on an ever-changing band of short-lived super-human fighters who defended Earth from an alien horde.

I teamed Peter with top artist Brent Anderson and Strikeforce: Morituri was born. The concept was quickly approved by Shooter, becoming what was supposed to be the first title in the New Universe line.**

At that early point, there was no hint that Shooter would take a very heavy editorial and creative hand in the New Universe.

Gillis and Anderson began work on the book and I was very happy with the results.*** After some weeks had passed, I became aware that Shooter was calling New Universe editorial meetings that I was not being invited to.

I visited Shooter’s office to see what was going on. The EIC informed me that he’d decided to alter the concept for the New Universe, making it a group of interrelated titles anchored in a shared universe that had no connection to the Marvel Universe. These books would have a very limited “fantastic” element to them and focus on how the characters responded to that fantastic element.

Shooter was now up to his eyeballs in the development, creative work and production of the New Universe titles. There was also a growing negative mood around the office from many of those working on New Universe. Shooter often overturned the creative decisions of the line editors causing much consternation for the editors and their freelance creators.

So, when I was informed that Strikeforce: Morituri was no longer a part of the New Universe, I was relieved. Although, up to that point, Shooter had not interfered with our work on Strikeforce: Morituri, Gillis and Anderson had heard rumors from other freelance creators about Shooter’s disconcerting involvement with the New Universe. So, the Strikeforce: Morituri creators were as pleased as I was to be back in the “old” Marvel Universe.****

My biggest concern about Strikeforce: Morituri leaving the New Universe was making sure the book got promoted properly. Much of Marvel’s marketing resources for the year were focused on the New Universe, This could shortchange the marketing efforts for non-New Universe tiles coming out during that period.

Bet you wish you had one of these ultra-rare 3D New Universe countertop displays!

The New Universe was previewed for the fans in a dedicated room at the 1986 Chicago Comic Con. The walls were covered with art from the upcoming titles. I watched the reactions of the fans visiting the room. Few seemed impressed. The main bright spot for the fans was John Romita Jr.’s Starbrand art.

So, Strikeforce: Morituri was launched in ’86 under the Marvel Comics imprint and any association with the New Universe was forgotten.

Whether or not Strikeforce: Morituri took place in the Marvel Universe was left somewhat ambiguous.

Strikeforce: Morituri went on to have a decent run from ‘86 to ’90, and, at one point, was optioned for a TV series by Sci Fi Channel.

The eight titles that made up the New Universe also launched on ’86. The line lasted until ’89, almost as long as Strikeforce: Morituri.

When Shooter was fired from Marvel in ‘87, the New Universe line was revamped. Some of the creators involved in the changes truly wanted the line to succeed. Others seemed more interested in getting their kicks by sinking their claws into Shooter’s baby.

If the original concept for the New Universe had gone forward, I wonder how it would have fared. Marvel may have missed a chance to break new ground and establish new genres in a growing marketplace it dominated.*****

What’s old is new again. In 2006, Marvel did celebrate the 20th anniversary of the New Universe by having NU characters appear in a series of “Untold Tales.” Warren Ellis and Salvador Larroca then revamped the NU concept and came out with the sucessful “newunivresal.”

The New Universe name always bothered me. Using the term “New” as part of a title or brand is a bit awkward. While putting “New” in a blurb on a product often helps it get some initial attention, you can’t keep the “New” on the packaging forever. Assuming that you plan for the product to be a success, how do you justify the “New” when you’ve been around for years? If the New Universe had been in continuous publication for two decades, a 20th anniversary for the “New” Universe would have sounded even stranger than it did.

It’s better to use terms like “new” and “improved” in temporarily blurbs on a product instead of incorporating them directly into the brand name. Otherwise, on some level, it seems like there is no expectation that the product will have the longevity needed to outlive its newness.

*Among the staff editors at that time were Archie Goodwin (in charge of the Epic Comics line at that point) Tom DeFalco, Mark Gruenwald, Louise “Weezie” Simonson, Ralph Macchio, Bob Budiansky, Larry Hama and Howard Mackie. (Apologies to anyone I left out.)

**I recall considering another Gillis concept about the medieval Crusades but can’t remember if that project was submitted for consideration as part of the New Universe.

*** Whicle Portacio made his first appearance in a Marvel comic as a penciller in Strikeforce: Morituri #1 where he drew several pages of a comicbook-within-a-comicbook. Up to that point, Whilce’s professional work for Marvel had been as an inker.

****I did eventually end up editing one New Universe title. Kickers, Inc. had the dubious distinction of being the latest title at Marvel. The series creators, Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, had left the series early on in its run due, at least in part, to Shooter’s heavy-handed involvement. Since the books in my office were on schedule, Shooter told DeFalco to inform me that I was the new editor of Kickers, Inc. and I was to get it on schedule ASAP. Making DeFalco force feed me DeFalco’s own now-corrupted creation was a pretty severe move on Shooter’s part. I felt bad for Tom. I did get the book on schedule just in time for it to be canceled (along with several other New Universe titles).

*****Marvel’s Epic Comics line was doing a lot to expand the genres and subject matter that the company published but Epic didn’t get the promotional attention from the company that the Marvel titles did. Most of Epic’s titles were creator-owned. The company saw little reason to pour marketing resources into titles they didn’t own and fully control. This is a faulty line of reasoning and the subject of a future blog entry.

NOTE: A number of you have sent in great email comments. If you feel comfortable doing so, instead of emailing me directly, post your thoughts in the comments section (link at the end of this post) so others can see the brilliance of your insights.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Frame Formats and Visual Storytelling

Whether you are producing a single illustration or a panel that’s part of a comicbook sequence, the way you format/frame the graphic can dramatically affect your viewer’s response.

The format and size of the frames in a comics sequence can affect a viewer’s perception of mood, time — and the importance of a panel’s content

When a relatively large comics panel is preceded or followed by smaller panels in a sequence, it’s implied that the larger panel contains the most important or more dramatic information.
See below.

We read sideways, left to right. So, long horizontal panels can give the impression of a slow pace due to the relatively long distance between the left and right panel edges. See below.

Thin vertical panels give the impression of a fast/staccato pace due to the relatively short distance between the left and right panel edges. See below.

Of course what the panel contains can dramatically affect the sense of time! See below.

A tree viewed over the course of the four seasons certainly slows down the sense of time, even in thin vertical panels that normally indicate a fast reading clip.

Please add your thoughts on this subject.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Design Metaphors

When working on complex design projects, it’s helpful to have a design metaphor to hold the creative work together and make sure it stays focused on the project’s goals.

The trick is to come up with a “universal” metaphor that resonates with all aspects of the project. Trying to “shoehorn” a project’s creative elements to fit a flawed metaphor will usually generate disappointing results.

When I was Sr. Creative Director at AGENCY.COM, I had to come up with design metaphors for several large and complex projects. That responsibility was exciting — and a bit scary!

Whether you spend ten seconds or ten weeks generating an idea for your project’s metaphor, if it’s right for the project, you’ll know it. You’ll wonder how an obviously perfect solution hadn’t occurred to you right off the bat — it’ll almost seem self-evident.

Some design metaphors show up blatantly in the visual design of a project. Other metaphors are so subtle that they are invisible to the causal observer. In those cases, the metaphor helps the design team keep focused and on track. To the end user, the project will just ‘feel right”.

One giant project I worked on was an intranet/extranet system for Omnicom’s DAS group of marketing companies. DAS is more of a confederation than a federation. There are dozens of independent companies in the DAS group, each with its own branding, clients and resources.

Omnicom wanted an intranet/extranet system that every DAS company would participate in while retaining each company’s brand identity. Each company would—
-have the freedom to choose their level of participation in the intranet/extranet system.
-be able to leverage the combined contacts, specialized knowledge and other resources that the DAS group contained.
-choose which modular features and functions to include on their site.

It wasn’t easy coming up with a design metaphor for a project where dozens of individually-branded companies — each using a different mix of features and functions — would come together to share and leverage resources.

After much brainstorming, research and head scratching, I thought a DNA metaphor might fit the bill. Each company is a chromosome within a larger organism (DAS). With the chromosomes communicating and working together, the DAS organism becomes greater than the sum of its genetic parts.

There we no double helixes in the design. This was a case where the design metaphor helped keep the designers focused as they worked on all the parts of the project. The only visible nod to the design metaphor was a very subtle digital DNA readout pattern in the background of the style guide’s main visual.

A Style Guide was created to help the Omnicom/DAS companies customize the Intranet / Extranet System.

Several years ago when I was consulting for Acsys Interactive, I worked on the pitch and redesign for the Victorinox/Swiss Army site. In that case, the design metaphor was the result of a group brainstorming effort.

We ended up with one of those ideas that should have been obvious from the start.

Everyone knows about Swiss Army’s knives with their multiple tools that can be pulled out and then tucked back out of the way. Swiss Army’s clothing and luggage also contain handy hidden tools — items that you might not be aware of until you’re exploring your new purchase back home.

For instance, hidden in one pocket of a Swiss Army jacket I bought was a retractable keychain with a small LED flashlight attached. Another pocket had a compass secured with a tether.

So, the Acsys creative team decided the Swiss Army site should reflect the company’s products with handy tools that appear when needed then recede out of the way. The company’s perennially popular multi-tool knife became the metaphor.

The result was a successful and award-winning site.

If a design metaphor that rings true can not be found for a project, a solid and clearly defined design direction may have to suffice.

Recently, at a NYC UPA (Usability Professionals’ Association) event, Molly Stevens from Google’s NYC office talked about the use of design metaphors.*

Stevens found the advantages of using design metaphors included—
-Placing context around a domain
-Non-experts can understand better
-They can help extend an idea
-They're fun.

Disadvantages of metaphors include—
-They can be too rigid.
-They don't always match up 100%.
-The metaphor might not work across cultures (e.g., a U.S. style mailbox doesn't work in the U.K.)

Please post your thoughts, or any good design metaphors for this column!

*Thanks to usability consultant Susan Fowler of Fast Consulting for allowing me to crib off her notes!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Map Orientation in Visual Storytelling

Most sequential visual storytelling media frame their visuals in rectangular formats — usually in horizontal rectangles.

The audience has grown up looking at rectangular maps with North is at the top of a map, South on the bottom, East to the right and West to the left.

Viewers of visual storytelling media have this map orientation stored in their subconscious and creators of visual stories can use it to their advantage.

If it’s important to your story that the subject is traveling in a specific compass direction, you can position he/she/it in the frame to reflect that direction. Doing so will resonate with the map orientation in your audience’s head.

For example, cinematographers and directors of old western films usually showed wagon trains moving West with a right-to-left bias within the frame – echoing the western direction of a map.

(If the wagons gave up and headed back to the East, the directional bias of the wagon’s movement would change to left-to-right.)

All shots in a sequence — long, medium and close-up — showing a wagon moving west would have the right-to-left action bias.
A neutral shot (Frame 3 in the sequence above) is where the action moves directly towards or away from the viewer. Neutral shots can be used in a sequence with an action bias that goes in any direction. However, when using a neutral shot, it is best to establish the action flow bias before the neutral shot and then reestablish the action’s bias after a neutral shot.

Note that in the case of Panel 3 above, even though the horses are neutral (moving directly away from the viewer), the dirt path they follow bends from left-to-right, maintaining the sequence’s action flow bias.

This topic is related to the larger issue of action flow continuity – the subject of a future post in this series.

Have thoughts on this topic? If so, please post it in the comments.