Saturday, August 31, 2013

UNREAL CITY (the comic strip)

A couple years ago I did a very short lived strip (five installments) for Seattle's Stranger newspaper. Here's the first installment:

Having the opportunity to do a regular strip for the local newspaper would have been a dream come true for a lot of cartoonists... but it wasn't for me. I think when I got the offer I cried myself to sleep wondering what the hell I was going to do. I woke up the next morning with the idea of a contract killer who kills the wrong guy. Out of remorse he tries to protect the guy's sister- who wants nothing to do with him. It seemed like a really mainstream idea- something I would write for someone else. But I needed an idea for a strip so I went with it.
I had done a strip before called Snar-fled, a throw-away Garfield parody. I knew this strip would end up taking all of my time so I wanted to do something that felt substantial- something like Twin Peaks the comic strip. I had this ambitious idea of turning Seattle into a bizarre city that was like a glitched video game. It would be a continuing story where each installment would feel like a non-sequitur. Suffice it to say, the strip did not work out. What I should have done was stick to something simple and throw-way, but I've never learned how to do that type of comic.
The writing on this comic feels forced to me and not terribly good. The problem was that I wasn't trying to be a comic strip artist, which is it's own discipline all together. It's very difficult to get something satisfying across in just four beats. A full page is more my rhythm. It's the rhythm I've learned from years of reading comic books. I pulled the plug after just five installments. Still, there were some decent ideas floating around in there that I'm sure I'll end up using (and have already used) for other things. One of those things is the title: Unreal City, which I'm using for my current project.
Anyways, here are those other strips, warts and all.
 I wanted the main character, Elroy Bass, to have an unlikely design. Something in the spirit of Elliot Gould's version of Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, or like how Moebius used this curly red-haired Donald Sutherland-looking guy for Missippi River. Elroy Bass also shows up in my story Echoes into Eternity.
Elroy's sidekick was a gay Scandinavian driver from Ballard named Bjorn Bonde. He would be Watson to Elroy's Holmes, and like Watson the story would be narrated from Bjorn's point of view. One crazy idea I had was that Bjorn was narrating the story from some bizarre state of limbo somewhere in the future.
The villain was a bizarre character in the Dick Tracy tradition. The Man Who Walks Backwards.

And speaking of Twin Peaks (David Lynch's influence on my stuff is pretty obvious), my roommates took me to the REAL Twin Peaks for my birthday this last May. The perspective on the first picture is distorted to accommodate the Café sign.


  1. "Freeze or I'll shoot" ?
    Is that what he's saying?
    Yes! I'm glad to see this stuff on here. I think if you didn't have to draw it, you would have had way more fun coming up with this story. The possibilities of where this thing was going to go still excite me. But I remember how torturous it was for you.
    That fucking pattern on the floor is so great.

    1. Yeah, that's what he's saying. I had a scene planned where Elroy would try to decode a voice message left by The Man Who Walks Backwards.I wanted to do something like one of those old Steve Canyon strips where they would leave a clue for the reader to figure out and then answer it in the next installment.
      This strip was painful to do for a lot of reasons. The main reason is that I felt cornered into being a comic strip artist, which isn't really what I wanted to be. Those four panels where like prison cells! With a comic like this you need to feel absolute freedom, which I absolutely wasn't feeling. True, my drawing style IS labor intensive. I truly cannot help myself. It's how my brain chooses to solve visual problems. "This floor needs something..a crazy pattern!" Once I see it that way it's hard not to see it that way. I could have powered through it if the format wasn't so restrictive. But there were some cool ideas in there and revisiting this stuff does rekindle some of the old flame.

    2. Oh, I guess I should remind anyone reading these comments to check out Dustin's continuing strip.
      I'll have to mention it in my next post.

    3. Back when you were working on this and we were talking about it, I was actually inspired by the idea of the short form restriction. You know, every idea I have ends up feeling to big and I end up putting off doing any of it. The idea of breaking it down, making just four panels be a product, or just a page. It makes things easier and it means you can get the thrill of completion much sooner. The fact that I'm doing Sagittarius A* and Amnia Cycle is because of us talking about this Unreal City stuff... Although, four panels IS really restricting. I'm not sure if I would want to just do four panels.

    4. Comic strip frames don't have to be restrictive, it's all about your frame of mind. I think restrictions can being freeing when they take a weight off your shoulders, like doing something in a small chunk rather than a big one, or like how working in a genre plugs in story elements so you can worry about other stuff.
      If you look at the strips I did, even though they're unconventional you can see that I was very conscious of how it broke down as a strip. I was trying to make The Best Comic Strip in the World- something that would hold up next to Milton Caniff or something. That's a problem if you're not trying to be a comic strip artist in the first place. I was still trying to make a graphic novel and the strip format was one more headache I didn't need. If I just would have approached it as telling a story, and damn the format, maybe it would have worked. It wasn't until after the strip that I realized I should focus on short stories. I treat short stories as if I were doing a graphic novel. I think I'll be ready to tackle a graphic novel after this book.
      I've been thinking about the attitude you need to have to see a project through...