Author: Nick


Frictional Games

I like sci-fi horror and the initial videos of Soma looked really cool. But while I was excited to play the game, I was also wary. Frictional games are hit-or-miss with me. I liked Penumbra: Overture and Penumbra: Black Plague had some great moments, but Penumbra: Requiem was a disappointment and Amnesia struck me as overwritten and silly rather than scary. So when I started Soma I was worried. I didn’t like the voice of the main character, Simon Jarrett, at first and the set-up of the game seemed like a mash-up between the other Frictional games and BioShock. Yet when I talked with my first robot who didn’t know he was a robot, I realized that this game had more going on. As Soma progresses, it provides a story that is surprising and thought-provoking. And, remarkably, it all fits together logically. So many games sacrifice logic to make game mechanics work. For instance, in Soma you get to hear the final moments of dead characters. In many games, you get this information through journals which beg the question: how did the character write this if they were dying? In Soma, the moment is recorded by a black box that everyone has embedded in their brains. Why your character, Simon, is able to access these black boxes is likewise made clear. While not all elements of the story are spelled out for you, you can piece them together through reflection.

Soma screen cap

The story is the real strength to Soma. It’s what draws you in after a slow start and what addicts you and keeps you wanting to play even though the horrific environment makes your stomach churn. Yet as the game goes on, another element comes to the fore: Simon’s relationship with Catherine. Catherine is Simon’s guide through the world of Soma. And instead of being a simple computer construct or a manipulative puppet master, Catherine is a three-dimensional person (metaphorically speaking) full of flaws. As Simon and Catherine encounter horrors together a bond forms between them . This is not some hasty romance, but a friendship between two people alone and afraid. They support each other, but also yell at each other and get into arguments. This very human relationship at the center of the game both adds depth to what you experience and underscores the themes the game is exploring.

Soma screen cap

Basically, the game questions what makes us human. Is our consciousness part of our human bodies or can it survive outside our flesh? And if so, at what cost? And if we entrust more and more of our safety to machines, what will it mean if those machines don’t understand the humanity they are trying to preserve? I have read some reviews that have panned these questions and felt they were too overdone. But I liked them and found their placement in the game to fit really well with what was going on. And I appreciate a game that attempts to make me think as well as feel.

The other main criticism I have seen of Soma concerns the monsters in the game. Some found them disappointing or too repetitive in how you overcome them. While many of them can be dealt with by simply moving slowly and quietly, I thought the various monsters were delightfully creepy. They all had different behaviors that made them feel unique even if, in effect, all I was doing was crawling around to avoid them. While the monsters created some pulse-pounding moments, the creeping dread that permeates the rest of game is the main horror in Soma. This dread is created by the environment, especially the sounds. Yet it is largely conveyed through the story itself, the tale of what happened and what people had do do, what you, as Simon, have to do, and the realization that the only glimmer of hope is a hazy reflection of humanity. It’s a dark game, but dark in an existential way. How many video games can make that claim?

Soma screen cap

Overall, Soma won me over and drew me down into its depths. I love horror sci-fi, but I’ve found many horror sci-fi games either frustrating to play (Alien: Isolation) or full of incredibly obtuse puzzles and cringingly overwritten characters (Stasis). Soma is a well-thought-out work that provides you with an immersive experience that that gives you plenty to feel as well as think about.

choosing a nib holder

pen holders

There are many different kinds of nib holders out there, especially if you start to get into antique models. But which one you use mostly comes down to personal preference (the two on the right are the ones I use most often). Even so, there are a few things to keep in mind. (I am only considering straight pen holders here, by the way).

Size. Will the nib holder fit your nib? This is the most important thing, but it’s not too challenging. There are, roughly, three main nib sizes: the large, like the Brause 76, Zebra G, Leonardt 30, and Gillott 404; the medium, like the Brause 511, Hunt 100, and Easterbrook 356; and the small tubular nib, like the Brause 515 and Hunt 102. Most holders will fit the large and medium sizes or the small tubular sizes. Most the ones you come across fit the large and medium sized nibs, so the only size you have to make sure you get the right holder for is the small tubular nib.

Material. Personally, I hate holding plastic. It just doesn’t feel right in my hand and if it’s hot the holder gets slippery. So, I always look for wooden nib holders. I also have a metal nib holder for my small tubular nibs. It has a nice feel, though I have a rubber sleeve on mine since the rough metal at the end sometimes rubs against my finger in an uncomfortable way.

Shape. A lot of nib holders swell towards the nib end and I prefer this to a perfectly straight holder. In addition, some nib holders will have a bit of cork near the end, which makes holding them more comfortable.

Weight. This isn’t a big deal, but overly light nib holders just don’t feel as solid to draw with. This is the man drawback I found with the e+m antique style pen holder. Obviously, you can only check weight if you get to try out the holder in a store.

Mount. This is what I really want to discuss here. The question is: how does the nib attach to the holder? This is a matter of the proper size; you want to a mount that will fit your nib. But this is also a matter of feel. If the mount isn’t snug, then your nib will wiggle a bit and affect your drawing.

prong mount pen holders

Most nib holders you will find use the kind of metal prong mount shown above. The e+m, General’s, and Koh-i-noor pen holders all use this kind of mount. Basically, four metal prongs hold the nib against the inside of a metal ring. This works okay at first, but I have found that the prongs start to weaken fairly quickly. You can see this on the right above. In this case, dried ink on the nib holder actually helps keep the nib in place. This isn’t an ideal mounting mechanism. The ones on the e+m pen holders haven’t worn out for me yet, but they are also new holders. So we’ll see.

plastic ring pen holders

The other mount that you tend to find these days involves concentric plastic rings. The nib slides between the rings to rest snuggly in the holder. This mount fits larger nibs really well. The Tachikawa holder (right) supposedly fits small tubular nibs also, but I find that it doesn’t do so very tightly. It works best with larger nibs, like the Zebra G. The holder on the left is a really nice rosewood holder by Ken Altman. I use this one with my Leonardt 30 for lettering.

wooden pen holders

Some wooden nib holders will just have holes cut into them for the nib to slide into. If the nib is the correct size, then this makes for a very solid feel since the nib is directly against the holder without any metal or plastic acting as an intermediary. The holder on the right is a rosewood carrot shaped holder. The one on the left was an oblique holder which I took the oblique mount out of. The resulting hole fits a Brause 511 perfectly (this is what I draw with almost exclusively).

rosewood holder with brause 511

All the above holders are for large and medium sized nibs. For the small tubular nibs, you need a more specialized holder.

tubular nib holder

The one I have is metal. The nib slides in between the prongs and then you turn the collar to tighten the prongs. The result is that the nib is held very tightly.

So far, the nibs I’ve shown are the kinds of ones you could find in a brick-and-mortar store or on-line. But people have been writing and drawing with dip pens for a long time. So many kinds if nib holders have come and gone over the years, and sometimes they come up for sale at various antique stores on-line.

metal collar pen holder

One style of mount that you don’t see anymore is the metal collar. Basically, it’s two curved pieces of metal and the nib slides between them. This kind of mount works best for medium nibs like the Hunt 100 and Brause 66ef.

This next kind of mount I’ve encountered only once.

czech locking mount nib holder

The nib slides into the mount and you depress the lever. This pushes metal arms against the underside of the nib, locking it in place.

This is a really cool mechanism, though I find that the lever rubs a bit against my ring finger as I draw.

And last but not least, I wanted to mention something I heard about a long time ago. You can use the cap of a Pitt artist pen as a nib holder. It only works with larger nibs, though.

Pitt pen as nib holder


There is a really nice guide to nibs and pen holders at Jet Pens.

Comics and Narration by Thierry Groensteen

Comics and Narration
Thierry Groensteen
trans. Ann Miller

I picked up this book having struggled with The System of Comics translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. While I loved the direct analysis of that book, much of it was difficult to understand. Part of that was just due to reading theory; it takes some time to get into someone else’s mode of thought and terminology. But part of it was due to the stilted sentence structures and odd choices of words. So I was surprised to find Comics and Narration so readable. Sure, there were complicated ideas and I had to slow down and even reread passages at times, but by and large the book was engaging. I even found myself charmed by the tone, something I would never say about the previous book. So this begs the question: did Groensteen’s writing get better or is Ann Miller a much better translater than Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen? My French is too elementary for me to know for sure, but comments Groensteen has made on-line (see comments here) point to the latter. Melissa Loucks and the writer at Critical Takes also think this.

That being said, this book is an extension of The System of Comics, so a working knowledge of that book is necessary to engage with this book. One drawback to that is that it makes this book feel like a series of appendices more than a solid entity at times. Still, Groensteen’s ruminations of narration and rhythm are insightful. What I always appreciate about Groensteen is that he grounds his theory in an analysis of actual texts and his ultimate goal is how his theory can be practically applied to actual texts.

Like Barabra Postema, Groensteen states that a single panel “can evoke a story” (23). Yet he sides more with Scott McCloud in further stating that a single panel cannot be a narration, since, by definition, a narration needs a beginning and an end. Still, he discusses comics relationship to time and that sequence creates a sense of time and that the gutters leave space for the reader to fill in. This may not sound like anything new, but Groensteen breaks things down even further into shown, intervened, and signified. These categories indicate the level of engagement of the reader. The shown is what is exists in the panel or “that which the monstrator displays to us” (37). The intervened is what the reader assumes to have happened between panels (38). As Groensteen implies, the length of the intervened can create rhythm. He offers a page by Jason (on page 150) in which the intervened is mostly just the back and forth between two characters talking, while the last panel offers a longer intervened time. So the final panel introduces a new rhythm, and so a new scene. Lastly, signified, as I understand it, seems a bit like connotation. It is when what is shown is not literal, but figurative. The image alludes to an idea or feeling. We might call this a visual metaphor or symbol. The example Groensteen uses is on the cover of the book and on page 49. In it, Jimmy Corrigan turns into a child while talking to his mother. Neither is he literally a child, nor is his mother literally standing next to him. Yet the conversation evokes these feelings and memories for Jimmy. This idea that Jimmy is remembering a previous time with his mother and therefor feels childlike and helpless is signified by the images (39). Groensteen’s overall point with this is to give us a new way of ascertaining “artistic achievement” (41). Stories that simply show and in which the intervened is simple to deduce from the shown are more simplistic works. Works that engage the reader further and make us try to understand the signified are more complex works.

As I quoted above, in this book Groensteen employs the terms monstrator and monstration first coigned by André Gaudreault. I’m excited by this because I too have taken to using monstration. However, I avoid the term monstrator, because I want to get away from the linguistic obsession with who makes the utterance. For me, narration is what is told and monstration is what is shown. I don’t care who the narrator is (unless it’s important for the story). Groensteen, however, is concerned with enunciation and so the monstrator decides what to show and the monstration is the effect of that decision (86). Furthermore, Groensteen makes the monstrator a subset of the narrator. For him, the narrator is the “high[est] enunciating source” (94). The narrator then selects what is told and what is shown, in the roles of the reciter and the monstrator. So Groensteen’s theory is couched firmly in structuralism. While I personally don’t wish to use these terms, they do allow Groensteen to theorize about the various roles the two play, which he discusses on pages 90-95.

The other major theme in this book, which I briefly mentioned above, is rhythm. Groensteen mostly discusses panel layout, but also considers how words affect rhythm. While I liked this, I wished that he had gone further. Layout creates rhythm of course, but so does the relative visual density of the panels. So does the amount of time in the intervened. As I showed above, Groensteen hints at this possibility. Again, the fact the Jason chooses to end his page with a panel that implies a longer space of intervened time creates a change in rhythm to the end of the page. If Groensteen didn’t say this explicitly, he pointed the way. In other words, he has invited us to continue where he left off, which is one of the great gifts of well-written theory.

Overall, I’m glad this book exists. First, it proves to us English readers that Groensteen can be an accessible writer. It also gives us new modes of analysis and jumping off points for our own theorizing. Comics and Narration is both useful and inspiring.

making a real crow quill

For years I had thought it would be cool to make a crow quill pen out of a real crow feather. As it turns out, one of my neighbors takes a walk every early morning and feeds the local crows. My wife told him about my interest in pen-and-ink and my desire to try out some crow feathers. So this man very kindly collected feathers as he made his morning rounds. Every week or so another package of two or three feathers would be left on my porch. In a short time, I had a tidy little collection.

crow feathers

I have been holding onto this collection for a few months now, continually telling myself that I should get to making some pens. Well, the holiday season gave me the proper impetus and I finally got around to making some.

The instructions I followed came from here and here. According to these directions, the first step was to prep the shaft. To do that I had to scrape off some of the loose detritus and strip off some of the lowest barbs. At first, I tried scraping off the barbs with my knife, but I found that wasn’t very effective. I discovered that I could simply pull the barbs off with my fingers.

pulling off barbs from crow feather

After the feathers were cleaned and stripped, they were ready to be tempered.

crow feathers

I tempered my feathers in an old cookie tin filled with sand that I heated in my oven. I think now that a deeper tin, such as a coffee can, wold probably be better.

crow feathers in sand

After the sand cooled down, the feathers were ready to be cut. I ran into a lot of problems at this stage. The shaft was easy to crack and sometimes slits cut into it would run in odd directions. I found that I couldn’t cut perpendicular to the shaft with any downward pressure or the shaft would crack. I also discovered that I had to use the sharpest knife possible. So I cracked off the old edge to my utility knife and continued with a fresh blade. This made things proceed a lot more smoothly.

A cracked shaft on an early attempt.

By about the third feather, things started to come together and I wasn’t simply mutilating the shafts. Finally, I was able to get something that resembled a quill.

I still have some more feathers to cut and give as gifts. Still, drawing with some of the ones I made hasn’t convinced me to shift from metal nibs. The metal nibs are just some much stronger and more reliable. Still, using a real feather quill is fun and there is something romantic about it. Almost everyone who sees one wants to use it.