Refining the setting for the graphic novel

If you’ve read some of my past posts you might recognize a wee bit of angst about the locale of my graphic novel. Originally intended to be Hong Kong 150 years from now, I toyed some with Tokyo, then finally settled on Manhattan. No less than two days later I read that the new screen adaptation, live-action redux of Akira will not be set in New Tokyo as in the original story was conceived in manga form in 1982 (the anime film was released in 1988), but rather in “New Manhattan”? Weird but probably to be expected from Hollywood. There’s all sorts of controversy on this already in that George Takei (of StarTrek fame) is lobbying against Warner Bros. casting a white guy in the lead role. (I wholly agree. How lame.) And… even though all this takes us off point, I have to throw in the very cool poster from the original 1988 fick.

Anyway, to add further complications, Akira’s release date is probably 2013 which is precariously close to my own launch date. Now, I am not being oh-so-arrogant to assume that my meager GN will make any impact in the market place or will run the risk of competing in any way with the movie, but it’s the principle of the thing. I mean, how can my book be set in New Manhattan, too?  Thinking about this, it seems I am putting way too much import on whether the physical locale needs to have a specific 21st century counterpart. By establishing a specific city I am inviting the audience to scrutinize the environments for telltale 20th century remnants or landmarks, which is not the point and could even be distracting. The solution? I’ve settled on a large North American metroplex, probably east coast which will probably be more like William Gibson’s sprawl from Neuromancer. The fact that it’s New Asia, and it’s in North America is plenty to swallow… so hopefully this little hurdle is behind me.

Other news and graphic novel status report

This week I’m taking some Mudbox classes. We’ll see if this can become another tool in the toolbox.

I have partially designed seven characters. Two are complete and I am satisfied with their clothing and gear. I have set an aggressive schedule to complete the detailing on the other five by end of August when I hope to introduce my main cast. There are about a dozen more characters, but they are more or less, extras so they shouldn’t require as much effort.


Stay tuned.

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A graphic novel about culture, design and transhumanism in the future

And you thought this blog was about writing a graphic novel.

Anyway, I’ve just returned from holiday, I have been virtually free from the computer for nearly a week. I finished two books, started a third, and did a lot of mental tweaking to my story.

Without tipping my hand (too far) to the plot of my graphic novel (since it is not 100% solidified), I can say that it has always dealt with ramifications and implications of a somewhat transhumanist future, a world where scientism rules the day. As the prologue to my screenplay states, “Scientific advances have enabled the manufacture of life-like robots. Known as synthetics, these robots are found in all walks of life and can be virtually indistinguishable from humans.” Some of my key characters fit this description and even my humans are considerably augmented, enhanced and amplified.

While my story includes a fair amount of mystery and action, I never intended the read to be one dimensional. I hope to thread some thought-provoking themes and opposing ideas into the mix. This is especially relevant in lieu of the fact that my paper, the whole design fiction aspect of this project, is an examination of the design culture relationship. What we design will affect our culture and vice versa. What happens when we are able to design and create near-humans? What will we teach them? How will we use them? What capabilities should they have or not have? What will separate our future, synthetically augmented human sons and daughters from their purely synthetic counterparts? What role will ethics play in this future drama? After all, there is no science to ethics.

Meanwhile, all of these questions seem to be surfacing around me in our current cultural environment as we see a flurry of discussion about Kurzweil’s optimistic singularity and Vernor Vinge’s less than optimistic predictions of that same technology gone astray. In fact, Kurzweil has even enlisted Michio Kaku, Deepak Chopra and a host of other “thinkers” and, of course the mandatory celebrities (no doubt for their scientific insight) for a live discussion on the topic that will be coming to a theater near you.

I guess this means my novel is timely.

I’ve also done some additional thinking on stylistic texture and setting, especially in light of the fact that recent press releases have put the locale for the upcoming screen adaptation of Akira in “New Manhattan”. Hmmm.

More on that later.

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Defining Design Fiction

Now that Design Fiction is firmly at the core of my thesis and the undergirding of my graphic novel it is also one of my Google Alerts, along with Concept Art, Futurist, Comic Book and Graphic Novel, among others. And while it doesn’t generate quite as much buzz as these other topics I get at least one daily link of interest. The most reliable source of regular info would be Bruce Sterling’s Beyond the Beyond, Wired Blog. I think Sterling’s “design fiction” draws a wider, more inclusive circle. His features would include any focused narrative that makes a product or idea real or at least to gain in Julian Bleecker‘s words “cultural legibility”. On other sites I’ve seen project leaders, or design teams referring to the snippet stories of their UI or product concept as their “design fiction”.

Then there is David Kirby’s spin on the idea. Evolutionary geneticist and science lecturer Kirby calls these props “diegetic prototypes” (Kirby, 2010:1) and that design fiction, particularly in filmmaking,  becomes a purposeful, almost manipulative device to create acceptance of a concept or idea as some kind of future product placement.

Indeed, crafting a story around an idea, service, or product in a narrative context makes it appear more logical and coherent. In this respect most of the prevailing interpretations venn with Bleecker’s ideas of design fiction, but Bleecker’s vision seems to require a bit more than just a brief story or vignette — as does mine.  I think we would prefer more of the cultural context and a bit more drama surrounding the idea or product. As Bleecker says, (forgive me if I’ve used this quote before) “We can put the designed thing in a story and move it to the background as if it were mundane and quite ordinary — because it is, or would be. The attention is on the people and their dramatic tension, as it should be.” (Bleecker, 2009:37) Thus, design becomes that invisible collaborator with culture in making life seem as real in the future as it is real for us now. Bleecker adds, “A particularly rich context, a good story that involves people and their social practices rather than fetishizing the object and its imagined possibilities — this is what design fiction aspires to.” (Bleecker, 2009:27). I agree.

Of course, nobody’s definition is wrong and Sterling’s wider circle is a good thing. It brings more people into the conversation and more discussion on the topic. This is good.


Bleecker, Julian. 2009. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction.

Kirby, David. 2010. The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development. Social Studies of Science, 40/1; 41–70, February 2010.

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Artistic style. Graphic novel.

Now for the style discussion.

There are so many fabulous art styles for storytelling out there and there is a rich history of masterful execution. I’m going a different direction (and perhaps down a dark alley). As I have alluded to in prior posts, I will be using CGI for the core of my graphic novel visualizations. There isn’t a lot of precedent here, though there have been attempts. While I would not want to say that past attempts have failed, I think it is safe to say that hand-drawn comics and graphic novels still account of the vast majority of books out there. I have to draw a clear separation between computer assisted imagery and full CGI, however. First of all, computer assisted imagery in the form of digital painting is extremely common, in fact, the league of master digital artists out there is, in my mind, unapproachable. I can’t even begin to list their names but a trip to the CG Society, Concept Art World or Concept will give you a taste of the lofty realms these guys inhabit. Even though I will likely be employing the digital tablet and employing lots of post production enhancements, I will be generating all my character imagery and settings in 3D wireframes. Even though this is not unprecedented either, it is fairly unusual since it is so time consuming and expensive to do.

The magic, however, is in the final rendered image, and software greatly influences this. Different rendering engines produce a different look and feel for the art. The trick is to suspend the reader from saying “this is CG” throughout the whole book, which frankly, most of what I have seen does exactly that. But please, I do not disparage these attempts as many of their images are stunning, but it doesn’t take much to break the bubble and this makes my task all that more daunting.

On my site you can see some attempts at this styling, though I don’t necessarily feel that any of these examples is quite on the mark (at least right now), though some of them are close.

I have two clear objectives in my style: 1. cinematic feel, 2. realistic detail.

The style of my art is going to be ultra important, so I’m going to keep this thread alive. In an upcoming post I’ll note what some of from the world’s comic book scholars have to say about the issue of style.



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Predicting the design future.

Are futurists really breathing rarified air? Let me explain. I believe it’s possible to be so in tune with the forces of society and technology that you can be “near-future” accurate but, let’s face it, it’s still guessing. I’m not a futurist and I’m not looking to disparage anyone who is. As a profession I’m certain that legitimate futurists are a bit like designers. We immerse ourselves in the landscape of the problem. If we’re designing a better mousetrap we are learning everything we can about every mousetrap ever built, everything we can learn about mice and the technologies and processes that may affect that objective. That’s the design problem, our challenge. In my eye, if you’re a really good designer, you’re also going to ask, “What if?” and that would include the question, “Why do you have mice?” and “What if you didn’t have to trap mice to begin with?” When you start down this road, you’re bypassing the deterministic mindset of most business, government, etc. that assumes a specific future and a limited vision of what could be. So I’m sure that good futurists, are thinking the same way. “What if?”

Looking at a recent blog from author and futurist Jack Uldrich quoting from a new book by Dan Gardner, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, And You Can Do Better , Gardner says, “the experts who were more accurate than others tended to be much less confident that they were right.” I haven’t read the book yet but, I’m guessing that the best futurists are going to have a healthy appreciation for the unexpected, the ambush that changes everything and that means that they are never going to be “sure.”

This is sound logic for why one of the designer’s many hats needs to be that of futurist. It also supports the notion of design fiction as fertile ground for exploration, either as curriculum or practice. As with designers, the best futurists and other consultants are probably those who leave you with more than a new design, prediction, or plan; they leave you with a better way to think as you move forward. That’s a lasting contribution.

Next post: The style dilemma.

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Future design 2.

Thought I would venture into some futuristic rambling on the world of 2159 — with less philosophizing this time. I see one of the most dramatic changes for design will be that there were be less hardware to design. Think about all the hardware we use today that we will likely have no use for in a hundred plus years. Things like cell phones and laptops will be unnecessary since you will be able to either receive data directly to the brain or simply tap into the data stream at will. It’s likely that we will also have the technology to augment the human body to “see” information directly on the retina, convert electrical impulses from our brains into words or text and transmit them without ever opening our mouths. Science is already musing on this calling it techlepathy. So things like phones, keyboards, mice and remote controls will probably fall by the wayside long before the setting of my story.

For my characters, I’m banking on technology to have cracked the body’s electrical data code so that transferring information can be done through a simple fingertip device to a tablet or card that will display it.

Speaking of displays, if we have the ability to see information and entertainment on our retinas, will we still want to see it “out there” in front of us? If we can think our phone calls, will we still want to speak? I’m guessing yes on both counts, since even with today’s technology some things we still like to keep analog. We still like to see friends face to face, listen to live music and turn the pages of a book. I think there will always be a place for the analog world.

This would go for furniture as well, the chair has been around for centuries and designers have a fascination with reinventing it. I predict this will not go away either.

All speculation, of course, but it becomes increasingly evident that just about everything we do today we will be doing differently far into the future and that includes sleeping, eating, entertaining and repairing ourselves. This is something that I’m working on staying cognizant of as my characters go about their business.

Most design fiction discussions lean toward near-future scenarios, but pursuing a farther future more aggressively challenges the design-culture interface dynamic.. You can help but wonder how the culture will change with the advent of these augmented realities and head tripping technologies.


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Designing the future.

“Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century.” [1] But that’s not the kind of futurism I’m talking about. “Futurists… or futurologists are scientists and social scientists whose speciality is to attempt to systematically predict the future, whether that of human society in particular or of life on earth in general.” [2]  Though many futurist predictions have come to pass, it seems to me pretty iffy business and at the rate that things change the singularity may be not be such a wacky idea after all. There is a Wiki definition for the singularity, too. A comfortable definition could be the point at which technology becomes so advanced; predicting what will come next is impossible.

Of course, I am not a scientist or sociologist by training but I am a designer, and in many ways, designers are expected to call upon science and social science whenever they are designing. We are designing for people and society, after all. As a designer, if you’re not thinking that way, well, you should be.

So, like it or not, designers called upon to be some kind of a futurist. In my current pursuit of a dramatic design fiction, I have to ask myself, “What will design be like in 2159?” It’s more than a century away. Who can know? The answer is: part science, part design, and part fiction.

As I have argued, design and culture are inextricably linked, synergistically influencing one another. They will be producing and affecting one another whatever utopian or dystopian future you can imagine. Hence, some of my future design will be the result of speculation on a particular scientific thread, that if it remains connected, might produce something that functions or looks a certain way, and some of it will inevitably be done for sheer effect or mood (at the end of the day, this is dramatic story). Some of it will be garish or ugly; conditions that will probably not go away no matter how advanced we become.

Ah, but therein lies the drama. Good and evil are more than tenuous threads that you pull gently into a possible future — they are (in the British sense) bloody cables. Take it to the bank. There will be stunning achievements and dismal failures. While we will make beautiful things, solve epic problems and ease great suffering, not everything will be bright and shiny, sleek and effortless. We will also invent unimaginable horrors, new ways to sin and profane our creations.Regardless of how far our technology advances, the human condition remains more or less steadfast through the centuries.

As a Christian, I believe that we are created in the imago dei: the Image of God, that design, is a kind of divine inheritance from the Master Creator to the design pupil. But we live in changing times. The master narrative that I live by is very much under fire right now. Who knows? In 50 years, it may be outlawed. How will that affect design? One of the questions you stumble over when designers ask, “What if?”

I guess the designer has to be part philosopher, too. I’ll hit on the more nuts and bolts side of future design in another post.

[1], [2] Wikipedia

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