Posts made in February, 2011

4.) The Alchemist

Posted by on Feb 13, 2011 in Blog | 1 comment

Click to read my explanation of what’s happening here.

Here’s my illustration for chapter four of The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. “The Alchemist” tells the tale of Khalid, a Samarqandi armorer whose right hand is chopped off by the Khan when his demonstration of transmuting lead into gold is discovered to be fraudulent. He is rescued from spiraling depression by his son-in-law, the Sufi-minded Bahram (center), and Iwang(right), a mathematically-minded polyglot. They gradually launch an Islamic Renaissance in Samarqand (in the Muslim 1050’s, our 1640s), eschewing the conjectures of the Ancients and constructing a method of empiricism that quickly leads to many discoveries in diverse fields, theoretical and practical. (Of course the Khan is only interested in weapons).

In the scene I’ve depicted, the three of them are walking home one night after a vailiant but failed attempt to measure the speed of light, slightly drunk. When Bahram asserts that the purpose of life is to “make more love,” Khalid (whose scribbly notebooks designate him as a sort of alternate-history Leonardo Da Vinci, with a touch of the martyred Galileo) concedes but adds that it is our duty to Allah to understand His world, in order to love it. Iwang, meanwhile, envisions a mathematics that would measure “the speed-of-the-speed.”

It’s a great chapter, where KSR’s strength for writing that is intellectually stimulating, and not just a relentless emotional roller-coaster, really shines. Sure, there are some beautiful moments of character development, but the most engaging passages are where we witness an old discovery or invention (vacuum pumps, barometers, the telescope, calculus, even nasty things like mustard gas) being made again in a novel way. It reminds me of middle school, when science was in my hands, not in the hands of distant, corporate-funded lab technicians; when science was fun. It’s a chapter I think my scientific-atheist friends could really appreciate, despite the heavy Muslim/Buddhist overtones.

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Kuleshov Komics

Posted by on Feb 12, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

The Kuleshov Effect is a phenomenon in cinema whereby audiences perceive facial expressions differently depending on context. In the 1910’s and 20’s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov designed an experiment that involved a sort of movie collage: A shot of a bowl of soup, followed by the impassive face of handsome actor Ivan Mozzhukin reacting to it; then a shot of a little child in a coffin, followed by Mozzhukin’s face again; finally a shot of a beautiful and seductively dressed woman, and Mozzhukin’s reaction. Audiences praised Mozzhukin’s brilliantly subtle acting, his nuanced expression of hunger, restrained grief, and boiling lust. But as you probably have predicted already, each reaction shot was exactly the same – the same footage every time.

Alfred Hitchcock explains the same phenomenon in this video:


On the one hand, comics artists, and cartoonists in particular, have an obsession with, almost a fetishization of, facial expressions. From the simplest distillation of an emotion into a few carefully-chosen lines, to an elaborately rendered portrait of a distinct countenance, we all seem to strive for the most evocative faces possible. Some people have actually insisted this is the single most important storytelling mechanism for a comics artist, more important even than body language. The ridiculously great facial-expression guide by Lackadaisy artist and comics samurai Tracy Butler has been making the rounds on the internet, and deservedly so. She’s got the art of drawing facial expressions down to a science (or maybe the science down to an art – I’m not sure.)

But on the other hand, comics are not single images like a painting, but an arranged series, like a movie. Because we tell our stories through sequential juxtaposition, *ahem, puts on green plaid shirt and opaque full-moon glasses*, why exactly do we need the perfect, nuanced facial expression every time, when, at least according to the theory of the Kuleshov effect, a perfectly neutral face will do? An incredible amount of emotion can be imparted into a blank face given the context that comics can provide. Sarah Oleksyk took this to its sublime extreme in one of my favorite single comics panels of all time, from book five of her series Ivy:

Here, perhaps the biggest emotional turning point of the entire series is represented a 3/4-rear shot. What is Ivy thinking? Oleksyk doesn’t say. She only asks what YOU think she’s thinking.

Two years ago, when I started this comic you’re reading now, I had not heard the term “Kuleshov Effect,” but I knew I was interested in the comics possibilities of blank, ambiguous facial expressions, and I used them a lot. This was particularly useful since I was still learning how to draw.

I’ve come a long way in my artistic abilities since then, and I like to think I’m capable of much more convincing, expressive faces that are interesting in themselves. But sometimes I worry that I’ve thrown out baby Kuleshov with the bathwater. I try to remember that sometimes, rather than telegraphing emotion so obviously, the right thing to do is to let the reader fill in their own subtext.

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3.) Ocean Continents

Posted by on Feb 11, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

Here’s my illustration for chapter three of The Years of Rice and Salt, in which the Chinese discover the New World. An expedition in the Christian 1620s to conquer a small Japanese port goes astray and is dragged by a current all the way across the Pacific. The survivors eventually dock in what we would call the San Francisco Bay. The relationship between Admiral Kheim and his crew, and Butterfly, a small Miwok girl they adopt to use as a translator, is in my opinion the most touching in the book. Oh, and though Kheim and the Chinese marvel at the unspoiled simplicity of the Miwok, suffice it to say a journey much further south convinces them that not all savages are noble.

Great quote for those of you who’ve read it (context-sensitive, spoiler alert):

Kheim said to [the emperor], “That far country is lost in time, its streets paved with gold, its palaces roofed with gold. You could conquer it in a month, and rule over all its immensity, and bring back all the treasure that it has, endless forest and furs, turquoise and gold, more gold than there is yet now in the world; and yet still the greatest treasure in that land is already lost.”

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2.) The Haj in the Heart

Posted by on Feb 7, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

Here’s my illustration for chapter two of Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt, entitled “The Haj in the Heart.” Most of this chapter is set in the 970’s (the Christian 1590’s) and follows Bistami, a Sufi Muslim from Gujarat, India who is saved from marauding thugs by a friendly tiger and later becomes a personal religious adviser to the Mughal Emperor Akbar (another real historical figure). After he falls out of favor with the emperor and his bureaucracy, he is sent on the Haj to Mecca, and proceeds from thence west (chapter two is basically a geographical mirror image of the east-bound chapter one) across northern Africa. Eventually he crosses the straight of Gibraltar to Spain, where an intrepid group of Muslim pioneers have been gradually recolonizing the abandoned European continent and attempting to recreate the golden age of al-Andalus. It is here that Bistami sits in an orange grove with Ibn Ezra, a sort of proto-proto-scientist, in the scene I have chosen to depict.

A debate arises over why the plague happened. An orchard-keeper proposes the common explanation, that Allah killed the Christians because of their wicked and polytheistic ways. Ibn Ezra differs, noting that many Christians in Ethiopia and elsewhere survived, and moreover that the plague killed many Muslims in the Balkans and southern Spain. Instead, he offers a biological explanation. Since he lacks the language of genetics or evolution, Ibn Ezra uses the human-bred oranges (and the naturally occurring fungus that attacks them) as examples to explain how a new, stronger version of plague might arise through cross-breeding. He argues for a less interventionist God, while still remaining within the realm of orthodoxy.

Shortly after this, the Sultana Katima arrives, a sort of proto-proto-feminist character who gets down from her camel unaided. She leads Bistami and a troop of outcasts further north into “Firanja,” where they found a new city (on the ruins of an old city) and construct a progressive, feminist-egalitarian Islamic theology which discards much of the established Hadith.

I was very excited to read today’s entry in my favorite blog of all time, GURNEY JOURNEY, by Dinotopia-creator James Gurney. If you are reading this now, you should definitely go read that next! It’s about models and photo-reference, and how to use them sparingly, and only in the final stages of a piece, so that the imagination isn’t too stifled by an overzealous adherence to observation. Like many of my friends in the comics world, James Gurney is a big advocate of the 1950’s Famous Artist courses and their mannequin-based approach to constructive anatomy. I was pretty late to this party, but I’m proud that I was able to construct all three of these figures from geometric shapes, only sitting on the floor once or twice to figure out where Bistami’s feet should go.

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1.) Awake to Emptiness

Posted by on Feb 5, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

I’m hoping to do a series of illustrations based around the chapters of one of my favorite novels of all time, The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I am rereading this month. This project is partly to give me a little bit of a break from SNitLoE, which for some reason has been bogging me down a little bit, and partly to introduce myself to new art techniques, like the ink-wash used here. I also want to practice the “illustration-a-day” ethos of Benjamin Dewey, where the point is not for an illustration to be be perfect in every way, but for it to be completely finished in a day. This drawing took me about three or three and a half hours.

The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternate history novel which speculates how the world would have developed without the influence of European Christendom. Some time in the 14th century, a mutant strain of the plague kills 99% of Europeans (instead of the historical 30-60%), effectively eliminating them from history, and leaving China and Islam the dominant powers on earth. The novel traces humanity’s progress over the next seven centuries, all the way up to the Islamic year 1423 (which would be 2002 on the Christian calendar).

But Kim Stanley Robinson, very characteristically, never spells this all out. (Amazingly, KSR is often accused by other sci-fi writers of being prone to “infodumps,” but I think this charge is ridiculous.) Instead, he tells the new history through the eyes of his characters, ordinary and extraordinary people who are only barely figuring it out themselves. The central character of chapter one, “Awake to Emptiness,” is Bold, a Mongolian raider under the conquering Temur Khan in what would be the very early 15th Christian century. Bold takes a wrong turn and heads out into the Magyar plain (present-day Hungary), where he finds villages and entire cities completely depopulated by the plague, their buildings and cathedrals still ghostily in tact.

(Fearing that he has been exposed to plague, the Khan orders Bold’s execution, but Bold flees. He works his way through deserted eastern Europe alone, down through Greece, where, on the brink of starvation, he is captured by Arab slave traders. He journeys with them down the east coast of Africa, where he forms a deep bond with another enslaved person, an African boy named Kyu. They are taken on the magnificent trading fleet of Admiral Zheng He (a real historical figure) to Hangzhou, where they are employed in a restaurant, until Kyu gets the idea… well, I won’t spoil it.)

By the way, I haven’t forgotten about the “alternate history” that’s happening RIGHT NOW. Here’s my 3-minute warm-up sketch of a man whose power-grubbing would give ol’ Genghis a run for his money, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak:

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