Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Head Trauma, Lost Girls, The Steve Geppi Museum, and More... Well, Actually, Wednesday AM Musings, and Nothing More

I showed the Center for Cartoon Studies students the trailer for Head Trauma last night to launch the evening's activities, and looks like their appetites are up for writer/director Lance Weiler's appearance at CCS next Thursday.

Of course, the CCS students will be getting privileged peeks at material along with privileged time with Lance and yours truly. I've no idea what Lance is planning, but I'll be bringing in some of the original art Dan and I worked up for the filming, in part to show them there was no actual, readable tract entitled "Nothing But Grief", but rather a prop mockup with wraparound cover, a handful of pages with actual new content, and the rest was dummied up (with pages -- never onscreen -- from the Jim Woodring co-created Jack T. Chick tract parody minicomic "Jesus Saves", which seemed appropriate). Like so much of cinema, it's all "smoke and mirrors," really, with the comic tract that coheres so completely in the context of the film into a tangible comic actually being composed of various bits and pieces, some drawn months apart.

George (Vince Mola) at the phone booth, about to find -- the comic tract. Staging this discovery in the phone booth was my suggestion, based in part on my own discovery of fundamentalist Christian literature tucked into phone booths: it's a tried to true tactic, hit 'em when they're vulnerable! Hmmm, what to do as phone booths become an artifact of the 20th Century?

The photocopy-created "Nothing But Grief" prop was originally prepared for the summer 2004 shoot involving the protagonist George (Vince Mola); the rest of the interior pages which appear in the film, as George reads and rereads the comic alone in his dead grandmother's abandoned (and genuinely creepy) house, were drawn much later, primarily by myself (pencils, inks and typeset lettering), based on extensive phone conversations with Lance and my own screening of the rough cut of the film. In the end, there was (and is) no hands-on hard copy of a real minicomic; it's as ethereal a creation as almost everything in movies, its almost-tangible illusory reality created by careful composition while filming and calculated editing decisions. Thus, Lance makes fragmentary components of a non-existent comic -- panels, pages, portions of both -- appear to be actual parts of a seen "whole," e.g., the prop minicomic. In movies, seeing is believing, but there was no need to address anything but the components necessary to the illusion.

This gave us enormous freedom to create and recreate the comic piecemeal, and to order as Head Trauma organically grew from the original script and initial shoots into the film it is today. Part of that freedom was nurtured by the absolute autonomy Lance maintained as filmmaker: sans studio umbrellas or constraints, Lance was free to elaborate, improvise and do whatever was necessary (if affordable) to re-compose particular elements of the work-in-progress, expanding upon resonant concepts/imagery as time, budget and availability of talent permitted. Since Dan and I were available throughout the production and post-production process, Lance knew he could call for the creation of new panels or pages none of us had imagined in the summer of 2004 when shooting began; since the only immutable aspect of the minicomic were the covers that Vince handled during that summer shoot (and at least one interior shoot later), Lance, Dan and I were free to rework and refine the interior pages as Lance needed. The audience would, in the end, see (via insert shots of the panels and pages) what George/Vince was "reading" without seeing the actor actually interact with anything but the original prop -- front and back cover and dummied-up interior pages -- and the sky was the limit on what, indeed, those interior pages harbored.

Portion of a panel of "Nothing But Grief" art, pencilled by Daniel Bissette, based on one of Gustave Dore's Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven illustrations, and inked by yours truly. This was the second panel Dan drew up; not everything we drew made it into the film, BTW.

Part of the freedom afforded by such truly independent filmmaking is based in part on donated efforts on behalf of many creative collaborators and partners, and in this case, Dan and I were indeed donating our time and effort. It was worth it for the marvelous learning experience, and by his very nature Lance made that education an ongoing source of creative pleasure: we were made to feel part of the creative process, urged to offer suggestions which were actually listened to and integrated into the whole. We weren't creating just a prop to be handled and disposed of: the tract was a character in the film, and by being asked to contribute more than a mere prop, being made part of the entire process of fleshing out the Head Trauma concept and script into as potent a cinematic experience as possible, Lance solicited much more than originally suggested. Free to create new panels specifically tied into filmed images that resonated with the viewing of the two rough edits I screened, my own storytelling chops and imagination were being brought into play -- and that was fun!

More on Head Trauma this week and weekend --

-- but don't forget, if you live in the southern VT, NH or northern Massachusetts area, Head Trauma begins its week-long run at Brattleboro VT's Latchis Theater this Friday night!

I'll be there Friday & Saturday to introduce the film and field audience Q&A, and Lance will be at the Latchis in person one week from today, on Wednesday, September 13th.

It's a film worth seeing at least twice, so plan on catching it -- and us! -- twice, if you're so inclined.

The complete edition of Lost Girls is a revelation, in part for the absolutely unprecedented showcase it provides for Melinda Gebbie's stunning color art. I was always a fan of Melinda's work, dating back to her pen-and-ink s&m comics stories in the underground women's comix; I got to know Melinda a bit during the final year or so of Taboo original run, and was often frustrated by the fact that what I saw in Melinda's originals seemed so ill-served by the (top-end) color reproduction we achieved in the Tundra/SpiderBaby volumes of Taboo featuring the initial installments.

The slipcased, three-volume signed & numbered edition, already sold out! Still, the mass-market edition is available and already going into its second printing.

That has been handsomely redressed via Top Shelf's impeccable production and printing, but also by something impossible to achieve back in 1991: now seen and savored in the context of the full scope of Lost Girls, Melinda's art is finally being seen as it was always meant to be seen: in its entirity.

This is one of the unavoidable drawbacks of serializations of any graphic novel: after all, Art Spiegelman's Maus never cohered fully, even upon publication of the first volume Maus I, until it was a completed work, and there's no cheating time. Ten years is ten years, and when that's the necessary duration of the creative process, nothing can compress that necessary work into fewer years, however hungry the creator(s), publisher or potential audience.

(To reference another recent key work, having now read and re-read the book with ample emotional rewards and surprises with each revisit, I simply can't imagine reading Alison Bechdel's masterful Fun Home in serialized form. Alison's novel is just that, a novel -- and the same is true of Lost Girls.)

It is one of the unsung and essential aspects of the creative lives behind complex, intricate and compelling graphic novels like these that the creator(s) have had to sustain an incredible amount of discipline, focus and vital enthusiasm for the project at hand for literally years -- and often against enormous real-world odds and consequences.

I have no idea, really, how Melinda sustained her energy and income in the fifteen years it's taken to bring Lost Girls to fruition. I've nothing but boundless admiration for her accomplishment, and the actual work itself: it's ravishing (often literally!). As I am finding out as an instructor at CCS, and seeing in younger creators like CCS associate Robyn Chapman (who is at least two years into work on her own graphic novel) and what I've seen of the upcoming biographical graphic novel series James Sturm is collaborating on with skilled artists like Rich Tommaso, this is a skill and scope the new generation of graphic novelists are cultivating from the get-go -- but it's a skillset that was pioneered by the graphic novelists of the prior generation of creators, including Alan and Melinda (among many others, going back to Jack Katz and The First Kingdom in our lifetimes, with predecessors among the woodcut graphic novelists of the early 20th Century, who often invested years, too, in single works).

Bear in mind, too, the serialization of many graphic novels is an economic pragmatism at work: serialized and published in installments, creator(s) and publisher(s) are able to enjoy steady income, as well as the non-tangible but still vital benefits of ongoing feedback as the work unfolds and is read. Melinda enjoyed neither of those benefits. Since the demise of Lost Girls's serialization venues, she has worked, essentially, in secret, the chapters underway unseen by all but those in Melinda's immediate circle.

It was more than a Herculean effort: those mythic labors were, after all, finite and presented enormous variety. Hercules got to flex different muscles, travel and tackle very different labors. Melinda, while working her palette in many inventive ways (each of the three key characters, and each of their sexual exploits -- real and imagined -- have their own distinctive color and textural schemes), was still working with the same physical parameters of the page (that damned rectangle! How well I know its boundaries and expanses myself!) and basically the same tools. She could work with them in different ways to different ends, but still, you get my point. Part of the challenge inherent in undertaking a work like Lost Girls is the necessity of retaining a coherent approach and style while creating and nurturing imaginative variations of that visual universe -- without unraveling the tapestry. Melinda does so in spades, and it's impossible to convey the incredible warmth, energy and life force radiating from the page -- the paltry scans I attempted to post fail miserably. You have to see the work for yourself.

One other thing I want to mention this morning, too, is the link few will make to another forgotten landmark in Melinda's career that predated her beginning her collaboration with Alan on Lost Girls. Melinda was on the animation team that brought Raymond Briggs's magnificent graphic novel When the Wind Blows to the screen as a feature, working for months on that project in the late 1980s. Melinda once told me how important that project was to her, how everyone on that team felt they were doing something vital and worthwhile -- and it's hard to look at the clear evolution between Melinda's black-and-white comix work and the splendid color work on Lost Girls without speculating how that development was influenced by her share of the work on When the Wind Blows, intepreting Briggs's characteristic pastels & color pencil work to animation.

One thing is for certain: those naysayers who expressed dismay about Lost Girls during its launch in Taboo (some of the letters were truly unkind) are eating their words today. Melinda has proven herself more than Alan's equal in their fecund collaboration, and Lost Girls is among the essential graphic novels of the decade.

Thanks to pro screenwriter, Dartmouth professor and fellow WRIF (White River Indy Film festival) board member William F. Phillips, this September 6, 2006 New York Times article came to my attention this morning, "Museum of Steel: Cartoon History in a Single Bound."

Reporter George Gene Gustines (GGG!) writes from Diamond Dist. head honcho Steve Geppi's home city Baltimore:

"If Steve Geppi has his way, his new Entertainment Museum will be a cultural institution that children must be dragged out of rather than into. And his idea of children does not mean 12 years old and under... The 16,000-square-foot space takes up the second and third floors of the former Camden train station here, whose main floor is home to the Sports Legends at Camden Yards museum. Geppi's Entertainment Museum celebrates the colorful characters and collectibles that have emerged from comic strips and comic books since the late 1800's. Its packed displays -- of movie posters, animation cels, action figures, board games, advertisements and more -- chronicle the evolution of these characters, often reflecting the periods of American history from which they emerged.

Mr. Geppi, 56, who owns Diamond Comic Distributors, the largest distributor of English-language comic books, is also the proud owner of every artifact on display. "It's really fun showing this to people," he said. "It's the only time I get to see my stuff."..."

Gustines paints an evocative verbal picture of the museum's layout: "Most rooms are organized by the era they chronicle, but two rooms stray from that pattern: one will rotate exhibits that highlight a particular artist or theme and the other is devoted to comics that tell "A Story in Four Colors," as the placard over its entrance declares. This room traces the black-and-white beginnings of comic-strip characters like The Gumps (1917), Winnie Winkle (1920) and Little Orphan Annie (1924), before moving along to the pulps and a large collection of Big Little Books.... The collection of comics is boldly colorful, wide-ranging and presented alphabetically within each era. It begins, appropriately enough, with Action Comics No. 1 (1938), the first appearance of Superman. It ends with more contemporary comics, like the gimmicky Superman No. 75 (1992), which chronicled his apparent death and was distributed sealed in black plastic, and the more somber 9-11 (2002), whose proceeds were donated to relief agencies. In between are comics that commemorate the first appearances of Captain America, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Hulk, She-Hulk and Wonder Woman.

Like many of the artifacts on display, most of the comics are valuable and kept safely behind glass. But a video kiosk helps circumvent this drawback. Visitors can view
Action Comics No. 1 or Superman No. 1 (1939) on a monitor. People can navigate each page with "back" and "forward" options. The presentation uses Mr. Geppi's vintage copies, so the experience feels authentic: the pages are yellowed with age, the original advertisements are included, and the monitor shows the rise and fall of each page as it is "turned." Kiosks are placed throughout the museum, each with an interactive offering appropriate to its location...."

Whatever my own misgivings about Diamond and its role in comics history, kudos to Steve for pulling this off, and I'm certain this will outlive the previous (noble) efforts to sustain comics-related museums (thankfully, a few have survived).

In any case, Congrats to Steve Geppi, and -- CCS roadtrip in the offing!