A Meditation on Being

What is will be what was,
Though yesterday was what will be.
What you hope will be
Must first be what isn’t.
There is no gain without nothing.
There is no loss that is not nothing.
The person I thought I’d be is now a nothing
That belongs to someone who is not.

20th Anniversary of Litmus Test 10

After my first mini comic Jack Face came out in July 1996, I started my ongoing title, Litmus Test. This is was my training ground and I did all kinds of stories in this title which I would photocopy, staple together, and try to sell. With issue six, I made a huge leap forward in my art and storytelling. Yet it was issue ten that I was the most proud of.

This issue contained two very different, but self-contained stories: “Holiday Phone-call” and “Kit Kaleidoscope in the Carnal House.” The first was based on my grandmother and so, while expressionist in certain aspects, was a real-life piece of fiction. The second was the second appearance of Kit Kaleidoscope and so existed in a silent world full of fantastical characters. Yet both stories were similar in the fact they both came to me almost fully formed.

I was really proud of this transition that I created for the two stories.

According to the inside cover of Litmus Test 10, it was published in October of 2000. I’m not sure this is accurate, because the notes on the back of “Kit Kaleidoscope in the Carnal House” state that I finished it in November of 2020 with a parenthetical remark that says “a month late.” So I think I intended to have Litmus Test 10 done by October but didn’t quite make it. Still, I’m using this October to recognize that this comic came out twenty years ago.

Holiday Phone-call

While I had a clear vision for this story, as is common for me, it took me a few tries to get something I wanted.

It took me three tries to get the first page.
And three tries to get page three.

According to the notes on the backs of the pages, I started “Holiday Phone-call” on January 9th of 2000 and finished it by August 14th. I was proud of how it turned out and I received some positive responses for the work. While I think the story is a bit thin now, I still really like how I handled it visually. And since it is based on my grandmother and her house, I’m so glad I drew it. She died not long after this story was completed.

Kit Kaleidoscope in the Carnal House

This is probably the most Angela Carter-inspired of the Kit Kaleidoscope stories. It’s not included in the Kit Kaleidoscope collection because it is the most fantastic and doesn’t sit well next to “Kit Kaleidoscope and the Mermaid in the Jar.” Also, I don’t like the story as much as I once did.

It may be hard to see, but it says “Angela Carter” on the cover of Kit’s book.

Still, at the time I felt like this story was a major accomplishment. It was the longest wordless story I had ever taken on. The beginning is concerned with a slave auction and figuring out how to depict the auction wordlessly provided a big challenge. Yet I really liked figuring out how to do it and I realized that I found the struggle to be rewarding. Along the way in the auction, I included some fun references (or “easter eggs,” if you wish).

I put Bill Clinton in the group of slave buyers.
And I had Kit “pay” the auctioneer with the marbles from “Kid Kaleidoscope and the Tale of the Seven Marbles” from Litmus Test 3 and the yo-yo from Kit Kaleidoscope Goes to the Masked Ball.

I started “Kit Kaleidoscope in the Carnal House” on March 14th of 2000 and finished it on November 22nd. So yeah, it was late for my self-imposed October deadline. It didn’t really matter since I just needed it done in time for the Alternative Press Expo, which wasn’t until February. Still, at 32 pages, “Kit Kaleidoscope in the Carnal House” was one of the longest stories I had ever done, next to Jack Face.

So as I said, I felt like when I put these two stories together that this was the strongest statement I had made for my art yet. Litmus Test 10 also had the best cover I had ever done on a mini. Mostly, I just had plain photocopied covers. But seeing all the fancy things people did at the APE, I felt that I had to try a bit harder. Yet I didn’t want to spend too much money. At the time, I had purchased my first color ink jet printer. So this is what I used to make the cover. For the inside back cover I included a pastel self portrait along with a scan from something I had written about myself as a kid. As it turned out, the statements made by the six-year-old me basically applied to the twenty-seven year-old me. Twas ever thus.


You can get a pdf of the full run of Litmus Test through Gumroad.

The Last Guardian redux

So yeah, I’ve been playing more video games during this global pandemic, remote teaching, constant fires, nihilistic political world we’re in.

Recently, I played the 2018 remake of Shadow of the Colossus. I was mildly disappointed by it. For one, I just don’t think you can ever recapture the wonder of the first playthrough of the game. But I also didn’t like parts of the graphics, especially the faces. The rocks and sky were amazing, however. And maybe I’m just letting time put a nostalgic halo on my memories, but it really felt like the camera and controls were worse than in the original.

So that took me back to The Last Guardian, the game I bought the PS4 for. I was also originally disappointed by this game (as I wrote about before). Looking back though, part of that was due to the years and years of expectation. Well, now that I’ve let that go and am also playing this game in a world of social distancing, my feelings for the game have gotten much warmer.

What really got to me this time was Trico and the relationship that develops between this creature and the boy whom you play. It just struck me how incredibly detailed and realized Trico is. His movement, his sounds, all of it just bring a sense of life to the game. Often I would switch off the game, pet my own dog, and see the similarity in his reactions to those of Trico. It was uncanny. And then there is the bond that develops between Trico and the boy and the fact that the game lets you accentuate that bond by having a command that allows you to pet and stroke Trico. Again, maybe it’s due to social distancing, but this felt warm and life-affirming.

The other thing that stuck out to me this time was how much this game is about letting yourself ask for help. So many times in this playthrough, I tried to get my character to free himself from situations on his own. I would try and try, and start to get frustrated. Then I would remember and call Trico. And the big dog-bird-cat would come over and release me from my hard-headed obsession with self-reliance. And again, maybe it’s the time we’re in, but this felt right, like a lesson that I needed to learn.

Also, looking over my previous review, I made a mistake about the controls. I thought that you had to hold the triangle button down to hold on. Maybe I made this mistake because I was coming out of Shadow of the Colossus where grip is everything, but as it turns out, holding is automatic in The Last Guardian. The boy does it any time he’s near something that he can latch onto. So I didn’t find the controls quite so frustrating this time around. They are still not always perfect and the camera is often annoying in tight hallways (though not as much in the Shadow of the Colossus remake). Still, I wanted to append my previous critique.

So overall, I like this game much better. It has its faults, sure, but it’s a wonderfully realized world with an incredible companion that you get to snuggle. Such a great game choice in this pandemic world.

Panel: top and bottom

Rudolf Arnheim states that in an artistic space, “dynamics [vary] with direction” (30). Or to put it another way, location in a comics panel implies meaning. In the Famous Artists Cartoon Course Lesson 11, the instructors point out that the placement of a horizon line in a panel can affect the sense of depth and mood in a scene.

What’s interesting here, is that, for me, in each successive panel the figure seems to get nearer even though he doesn’t change in size. And if you think about it, this makes sense. The lower I am as a viewer, the more I will be near the eye-level of the figure. So the horizon will drop. If I pull away and up from the figure, the horizon line will likewise rise. In other words: close = low horizon, far = high horizon.

But this tends to work more generally. Forms that are lower in a panel appear nearer than those that are higher in a panel.

And again, this happens even if the forms are of the same size.

This also applies to weight. As Arnheim points out, gravity has taught us that objects are pulled downward. Therefor, forms that are higher in a panel will seem lighter. Ones that are lower will seem heavier.

The hot air balloon in the left panel is flying high and free. The one on the right seems to be running out of heat and so descending.

This also applies to potential for movement. Arnheim again is helpful: “the potential energy in a mass high up is greater than that in one low down” (30).

The ball in the left panel seems more precarious. The one on the right seems less likely to move. In both panels, it’s the same ball. The only difference is its placement within the panel.

Okay, to sum up some of the relationships that top and bottom placement in a panel can imply:

  • far – near
  • light – heavy
  • energy – inertia

A related point to all this that Arnheim mentions is the study showing that when most people try to bisect a vertical line they place the midpoint higher than it actually is. Arnheim refers to several art pieces that look balanced but are actually not centered in order to deal with this perceptual issue. I don’t know a direct application for this, except, as Arnheim shows, that if artists want balance in their work, they have to take such visual biases into consideration.

Panel: left to right

The idea that comics have greater clarity when composed with the reading direction in mind tends to be widely understood. Almost all books on comics creation mention this. For instance, addressing English readers, Robyn Chapman points it out in her book Drawing Comics Lab: ” your images themselves should reinforce the left-to-right movement” (39). Still, while this is a commonplace observation, it has profound implications for comics design. So I want to gather a few considerations here.

Lesson 11 of the Famous Artists Cartoon Course mentions the importance of reading direction, especially in reference to the placement of word balloons.

The first panel is obviously a mistake. The second panel makes sense, but seems unnecessarily muddy. In general, things read easier if the characters are arranged in a panel in the order that they speak in, such as in the third panel on the top.

If we think of a panel as a segment of time, then it makes sense that earlier actions happen on the left and later actions happen on the right. As Brian McLachlan says in Draw Out the Story, “something happens on the left side that the right side reacts to” (74). If we reverse that order, then clarity is lost.

Here we have an image of a monster throwing a ball through the panel. The action of the throw is on the left. The effect of the throw is on the right. The cause and effect follows the reading direction.

Now, let’s flip the composition.

Sure, you can still understand what is going on, but it looks weird. Since the panel is read from left-to-right, the effect happens before the cause.

So the time order in a comics panel only makes sense if it follows the reading direction. I think this is pretty obvious. There is a fairly clear “wrong” and “right” about the images so far.

Yet the reading direction also creates a very strong connotation of movement. As Jessica Abel and Matt Madden point out in Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, “the way the eye moves through a panel can suggest physical movement” (157). In other words, since our eyes are moving left to right, left to right movement is ascribed to figures facing or pointing that direction.

So actions that take advantage if this are clearer and seem more powerful. In this panel below, the left-to-right movement helps reinforce the flight of the javelin.

If we flip this panel, we still get the idea of an athlete throwing a javelin, but the action isn’t as strong. To me, the javelin just hangs there. This is because it is working against the reading direction.

Likewise, if a figure sits at the left of a panel and looks right, we assume that they have someplace to go. The panel offers them a place to enter into and the reading direction gives us the movement.

However, if placed on the right and still looking right, the figure now looks as if they’ve moved across the panel and are now leaving.

And if they are on the right but look left, they seem as if they have stopped and are looking at something in the panel.

So the reading direction has a larger implication on design than may be initially assumed. Basically, when characters face left instead of right, or when large shapes block the right side of the panel, the overall flow of the panel can be hindered. Chapman mentions this: “even still objects such as a face, a hand, or your character’s eyes can benefit the reading flow if they’re drawn pointing to the right” (39). So keeping the reading direction in mind isn’t just about clarity of time or cause and effect, it is also an element of composition.

In Art and Visual Perception, Rudolf Arnheim uses Raphael’s Sistine Madonna to point this out.

The panel on the left shows the original composition. The composition has a strong upward diagonal movement, emphasizing Mary. Yet, when the composition is flipped, as it is on the right, the large figure that was on the lower left now dominates the lower right. Arnheim claims that “he becomes so heavy that the whole composition seems to topple” (34). The figure draws our eyes down and he faces inward, blocking the left-to-right movement.

When I drew this panel for Lounger, I was wanting the reader’s eye to flow out to the right. The idea was that the character, Jack, was lost in his own thoughts. They trail away with the clouds. The direction of his gaze accentuates this.

Now, if we flip this panel, the meaning changes. The clouds seem to be blowing into Jack and our eye stops at him. He looks into the panel, encouraging us to keep our gaze there. It’s as if he’s come to a decision or is realizing something. This is his moment of revelation.

So how the panel is composed in reference to the reading direction connotes meaning. Try flipping any panel or image and see how its meaning changes.

However, it’s not as if having figures move right-to-left is always wrong. The reading direction doesn’t just connote movement, it connotes ease. Left-to-right movement seems easier. Right-to-left movement reads as more challenging. In Art and Visual Perception, Rudolf Arnheim states this:

Since a picture is “read” from left to right, pictorial movement toward the right is perceived as being easier, requiring less effort. If, on the contrary, we see a rider traverse the picture from right to left, he seems to be overcoming more resistance, to be investing more effort, and therefore to be going more slowly.

(35)

So this insight can be used to accentuate meaning in a panel.

In this panel from Lounger, I had the butterfly enter from the left. It is carefree, and so it moves with ease from left to right. Jack, however, is not carefree. So he trudges from right to left. His whole entrance into the story pushes against the reading direction and is meant to connote his mental state.

Arnheim points out some other interesting ideas from painting and theater. He claims that a theater audience habitually looks stage left and expects characters to enter from that side. So characters that enter from the right seem more conspicuous since they defy expectation (35).

Arnheim goes on to say that this can also affect reader identification. If left-to-right movement seems easier and we naturally want to move our eyes in that direction, characters that enter the stage (or, in our case, the panel) from the left are more easily identified with since they conform to our preferred eye movement. Characters that enter from the right are in opposition to the reading direction and seem more naturally antagonistic. Arnheim points out that “in traditional English pantomime the Fairy Queen, with whom the audience is supposed to identify, always appears from the left, whereas the Demon King enters on the prompt side, on the audience’s right” (35).

So let’s recap what we have when we consider reading direction:

  • clarity
  • panel flow
  • cause and effect
  • time order
  • implied movement
  • connotation of ease/difficulty
  • reader identification (protagonist/antagonist)

So yeah, remembering that readers read English from left-to-right seems pretty obvious, but it has many effects on the success and meaning of a panel.

As maybe you noticed, I’m only talking about the single panel here. Things can get even more complicated and nuanced when you start placing panels next to each other. I’ll save that for another time.


works cited

Abel, Jessica and Matt Madden. Drawing Words & Writing Pictures. First Second, 2008.

Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception. University of California Press, 1974.

Chapman, Robyn. Drawing Comics Lab. Quarry Books, 2012.

Goldberg, Rube, et al. The Famous Artists Cartoon Course Lesson 11. The Famous Artists Course Inc., 1956.

McLachlan, Brian. Draw Out the Story. Owlkids Books Inc., 2013.

Tachikawa Jet Black ink

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m always on the quest for the perfect black ink. So I bought a few inks from JetPens along with some other things I needed. And– BAM– I found an incredible ink: Tachikawa Jet Black.

First off, as the name implies, the ink is satisfyingly black. Yet you can say that about a lot of inks. The thing that immediately blew me away about the Tachikawa Jet Black was how smooth it was and how thin the resulting lines were. Many inks are a little recalcitrant or a tad gummy. I personally find this annoying when I want to get working. I like immediate flow and that’s why I’ve always returned to Speedball Super Black. But Super Black has a tendency to feather on certain papers. Tachikawa Jet Black doesn’t feather at all. At least not on any paper I’ve used it on yet. More than that, it keeps its integrity and so allows for thin drawing lines.

The other thing about it, is that it comes in a cool bottle. The interior has a rounded bottom, so there are no corners for the ink to hide in. I haven’t gotten to the end of the bottle yet, so I can’t attest to how well this works, but it seems like a really clever design. Also, it follows the Japanese tradition of having a slogan in English that is grammatically correct, but… odd. Not something a native speaker of English would be likely to say. “World starting from the pen.”

Overall, I am really impressed by this ink. I’ll keep using it and see how it holds up over time. Sometimes the behavior of inks weeks after I open them changes my feelings about them. We’ll see. But for right now, I love using this ink. It’s so easy to draw with.

the pros:

  • deeply black
  • smooth flow
  • allows for thin lines
  • does not feather on any paper I’ve tried
  • well-designed bottle

potential cons:

  • slow drying time
  • builds up on nib – requires consistent cleaning

Here’s the JetPens link.

Someone to Watch Over Me

I’ve had this idea for an autobiographical piece for awhile and I’ve been trying to develop it. Yet as soon as I think I have a handle on it, things spiral in other directions. And in the end, I feel like there isn’t so much a story as there is a catalogue of details. I also worry that the tone will start to sound like a teenager complaining about his parents. Lastly, I’m not sure I want to deal with the potential personal ramifications of doing this story.

Given all that, I’ve decided to stop working on “Someone to Watch Over Me” and sit on it awhile. But here are the first two pages that were completed.

This story isn’t necessarily dead, just this version is. I have many works that I had an idea for one year and got around to many years later, such as “Icarus.” Or I completely gave up on several times, but then finally moved forward on, such as Lounger. So we’ll see.