Category Archives: Graphic Novel

What happens when designers ask, “What if?”


If you follow this blog then you know that, last year I decided to leave my corporate job and a 30 year career as a professional design practitioner and go back to school. There were a lot of motivating factors, but most exciting was the idea of pursuing what happens when design is integrated on the “epic” level. By that I mean, when design is firing on all cylinders, not just great communications or great product design, but holistically woven into every aspect of a company. Whether, in reality, they fit this description, Apple is the company that comes to mind.

As I settled into academia, I began to hone in on a thesis that would embrace the notion of epic design. Pull this thread with me…


Design and culture

It doesn’t  take a great deal of thought to acknowledge that culture produces design and, in turn, design influences culture. Invention, information, entertainment, transportation, medicine, you name it, they’re all floating in a soup that produces a culture of expectation and more invention. The cycle repeats.


Design and narrative

Reach into the soup and pull out one of those ingredients and you will also find a story attached to it. Where did it come from? Why did it take this form? How did it come to be? What were the conflicts? Who was involved? When did it happen? All of these combine into some kind of story narrative. Ultimately, everyone and everything has an origination story. At the very least there is a master narrative that gives context to us and all the things that surround us.



How might a designer explore this design-culture relationship in an unfettered exercise of creativity? How often does the designer sit down and ask, “what if?”

What can we learn from examining the design-culture relationship in the purity of the hypothetical. I decided that the answer was fiction: to create a story in the future where everything has changed except for the human condition, and to produce this work in a visual prototype — a graphic novel.


The discussion

That’s the premise. I have a particular interest in what designers think, but also anyone  anyone who creates future narratives, graphic novels, comics, movies, art, but also anyone who thinks about what could or should happen next? How does a movie director or screenwriter come at it? A novelist? A futurist? A photographer? A production designer? A game designer? How would you approach it in any profession? What do you think of this exercise? Are you already doing it? Take a few minutes and think about it. How can creativity contribute to future scenarios and what do we take away?


I invite you to join the discussion. Some suggestions: Leave a simple comment, a paragraph, a paper, a link to further study or related topics. Leave your comments below and let’s see where this leads.


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Finding Meaning Survey Results

concept design

As promised, I am passing on the results of my survey that many of you participated in via Survey Monkey a few weeks ago. I did not get nearly as many responses as I had hoped for. It was the week before finals and a lot of people here must have been too busy to to get to it before it expired. Thus, far from conclusive, it satisfied the assignment, and as with all research, it just leads to new questions. Herewith, the executive overview. The whole idea was to test comic scholar Scott McCloud’s assertion from Understanding Comics, that readers have more difficulty “filling-in” the gutter (the gap) between panels (the frames) when the artwork is more detailed. He also says that people identify more easily with a cartoon figure than a realistic figure. I found this somewhat hard to swallow, so I set out to test it. As you know there were two, very short stories; one in cartoon fashion and one using CG renderings. Essentially, they were intended to tell a similar story.

The first question asked participants to tell what happened in each story. There were various responses for each, but for story 2, the realistic one, people were able to read much more detail into the character and his predicament. In question 2, participants were split equally on which story seemed more “real”. For question 3, story 2 was clearly the winner in conveying more emotion. It was also the preferred story to “continue reading” for question 4, though there were a fair number who would like to have read both. If you’re into the nitty-gritty details on every question you can download my project summary report via this link.

While I didn’t put Scott McCloud on notice with conclusive research, I got enough of a response to at least put his theory in the “subjective” category. Thanks to all who participated.

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The Karate Kid and the graphic novel

14 books into my graphic novel research for winter quarter, I have read commentary and analysis on form and mechanics, layout and design, aesthetics and narrative from comic critics, film critics, academicians and philosophers. I have studied the works of WIll Eisner, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, and Frank Miller — just to name a few. And then there are the contemporaries, Scott McCloud, Dave Gibbons, Howard Chaykin, Moebius, Mike Mingola, Enki Bilal, Alex Ross and that’s just scratching the surface. There are literally hundreds on the list of comic artists who’s work is not just important for their unique style but for their contribution to the story. While critics and analysts may not agree on much when it comes to the art form of the sequential narrative, on one thing they to seem to converge: the art is a combination of sequential art and written narrative, more of the former and less of the latter. In this regard then it is the work of these prodigiously talented comic artist s that told an enormous part of the stories of Superman, Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy, Watchmen, Hellboy, The Spirit, Batman, Spiderman and more. Sometimes they wrote. Sometimes they drew. Sometimes they did both. What is clear is that these artists propelled the story, captured the essence and defined the emotion that the writing could not capture — and wasn’t intended to. These artists were, in large part, the true driving force behind the art form that has bent and twisted itself into what we now see as graphic novels— not to mention the continuing world of comics themselves.

Today there are dozens of new and unheralded talents creating the new forms and conglomerated genres that make up the category of sequential narratives; good and bad. So what does this have to do with my own quest toward a graphic novel? With eight books to go this quarter, I find myself chomping at the bit — like the (original) Karate Kid — wax on, wax off. I’ve been taking copious notes. I’ve made a good start on my annotated bibliography, written several reports and even established a few of my own theories along with a sizable list of what I want to try, the beginnings of an outline, I know the rules I want to break (or at least bend), and the parts of the envelope that I want to push. Now, like the aforementioned Kid, I can’t wait to start kicking something.

But I know, discipline is good and basking in the light of the masters never hurt anyone.

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Inspiration and the graphic novel

Inspiration comes in many forms. This week I have spent slammed by the flu and fever. Today was probably my most lucid. Perhaps that has something to do with it. At any rate, I am reading David Carrier’s The Aesthetics of Comics and though a touch on the academic side for me, I may be grasping (fully) for the first time the true integration of the word balloon and the image. Scott McCloud and David Carrier are in agreement: they are one. To my friends who may casually follow my blog from week or month to month, I’m already introducing jargon that is foreign but now very much a part of everything I am doing; these are conventions, the constructs of the comic medium. Carrier, who spawned this inspiration writes, “Awareness not just of the words balloons contain but also of their purely visual qualities is part of our experience of comics.” In other words, in the comic medium, the visual style of the word balloons may carry as much subtle narrative as the picture. This pushes hard on the notion that several typefaces may have to be designed for this comic, not only for the world in which my characters inhabit, but also in the way they speak. Surely, the audio of comics is part of the design of each panel. The “rat-a-tat-a-tat” of the machine gun that sweeps across the panel is integral to the image. Thus, audio becomes a visual cue. Should each character have their own typeface? Is this too disconcerting for the audience? I think not. From what I have seen the graphic novel reader probably scores a 10+ on the visual literacy scale.

Stuff to think about. The saga continues.

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Journey to the graphic novel

What a circuitous route we travel. Here I am, middle aged, back in school and kind of doing what my brother and I did in 2nd grade… reading and drawing comics. When I think back now to the days when we used to pour over the latest Sgt. Rock comics with art by Joe Kubert, Mad Magazine, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, I really am getting back to some kind of primal calling that’s been with me for some time. In fact, I can track this whole visual narrative idea to several spots in my life where it has just surfaced, it would seem, on its own. Remembering back, comics, and the whole comic style played a pretty interesting role in my life. For example, just recently I remembered trading comics frames back and forth with Larry Mound in elementary school. Larry, usually the more creative one, would pen a frame from a comic and secretly pass it to me. I would pen the next frame and back and forth we’d go. I think we were 8 or 9.  Then all the Army comics my brother and I collected and, of course, we would create our own. Over the years, come to notice, I’ve always had this affection for the frame to frame design style that had a filmic look to it. Graphic Design was my field of study but I quickly broadened out to designing everything including advertising and television. That led to copious storyboards for television commercials that I directed. Then back in the 80’s I developed this single-panel cartoon called the Bacon Strip which I did for the Domino’s Pizza restaurant chain. Later, I moved into the 3D realm, fascinated by the whole CG thing including Siggraph in the early 90’s. Then I taught myself 3D. First, Strata 3D then Power Animator (the precursor to Maya), then a host of others. Following that there were the numerous attempts at writing a novel and one that actually went to 27 chapters. Most others didn’t even get past the first few pages or an outline.

Anyway, rendering in 3D became my passion and then I unknowingly made my pilgrimage back to visual narrative through my admiration and fandom of great concept art. Finally we are at the convergence of it all in the form of a graphic novel. Pretty interesting to look back and see how it all ties together.

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