Tag Archives: visual narrative

Of “Here”, Chris Ware, and transcendence in the graphic novel.

There are numerous developments that have traversed my inbox this week, so it was a bit of a debate with myself as to whether I would blog about technology or a new graphic novel that is hit the streets this week. Moved by my artistic side, I decided to comment on a glowing review, by none other than Chris Ware, of the graphic novel Here. The “game-changing” graphic novel is the work of artist, illustrator and apparent bass player Richard McGuire.

According to Ware’s review which appeared in the guardian, the idea for the book originated with a short story in the pages of RAW in 1989.

“Across six black-and-white pages, it simply pictured the corner of a room from a fixed viewpoint, projecting a parade of moments, holidays, people, animals, biology, geology – everything, it seems, that defines and lends human life meaning – on to windows of space labelled by year (1971, 1957, 1999, 100,097BC). Birthdays, deaths, dinosaurs. In 36 panels, the universe.”

After putting down the magazine, Ware says, “It was the first time I had had my mind blown.” In other words, in those few short pages, in what was for all intents and purposes a comic, the author was able to transcend time and space by evoking the thought of the reader to probe deeper into their own existence. Ware continues,

“You could say it’s the space of the room, the arbitrary geometry imposed by a human mind on a space for reasons of shelter and as a background to this theatre of life. But you could also claim it is the reader, your consciousness where everything is pieced together and tries to find, and to understand, itself. This is a big step forward for graphic novels, but it is so much more than that. With those first six pages in 1989, McGuire introduced a new way of making a comic strip, but with this volume in 2014, he has introduced a new way of making a book.”


Here by Richard McGuire
Here by Richard McGuire

Wow, what a review, and by a legend no less! I will have to get it this book, but it also made me think—again—about the power of visual narrative and perhaps the power of art in general. I admit that at times i can get so wrapped up in moving my story forward and completing each panel with all the technical 3D gyrations and rendering passes, that I might forget about the potential power of the narrative itself. Ware and McGuire are visionaries in the field of comics and visual narrative. Ware breaks the boundaries of time and space continually in books like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and most recently with Building Stories. He engages readers to stop not only to think but to touch and even to make. This takes the already multi-modal experience that is so unique to comics into new dimensions literally and conceptually.

I believe that the highest achievement of any literary form is to make you think about your world and your place in it—maybe even your purpose in life. Having your “mind blown” seems too lofty a goal, but as I creep toward the midway point in The Lightstream Chronicles, I think about the day when it may be in print, hardbound and laying open while nestled in the lap of a reader. As they turn the page, they pause, look across the silent room—and think.


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graphic novel update: 14 pages

Switching gears from the scholarly side of things to the down and dirty business of cranking out panels and pages. A couple of decisions have come down as a result of my thesis review. First off, the idea of building pages out of sequence doesn’t make sense to me at this point. There was some initial discussion about building things in a non linear format, kind of like shooting a movie and knocking out one location at a time, but my sense is that when you shoot a film, the out-of-sequence shot schedule is based more on economics than anything else. If you have a location shots, it would be crazy to go cart the crew back and forth from one location to another — better to wrap one location, then move to the next. In CG, however, that set or location isn’t going anywhere, and going back to it is pretty straight forward. The biggest challenge is that you’ll forget some item of continuity after a few weeks away from, say, Kristin’s apartment. The second reason to build this in a linear fashion is so that I have the beginning of the book to show should I decide to Kickstart this or post it online. A third reason (though remote) is that I don’t finish on time (perish the thought) and at least I would have a hefty proof of concept to show. So, that’s why I’m building in sequence.

The first 14 pages have been completed, at least to the point where I can show them to some of my trusted confidants for feedback. If this schedule holds, I should be to page 40 by Mid June which will take us to the first major inciting incident and a bit beyond. So, I should be able to have at least that much by Denver Comic Con and Literary Con.

Mixed in with this will be more writing for the June presentation as well as the thesis.

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1100 renderings (give or take)

Some notes on the ongoing production of my CG based, sci-fi, crime-thriller graphic novel: The Lightstream Chronicles

According to the script, there are somewhere between 212 and 230 pages of sequential art that needs to be created for the book to come to completion. At an average of 5 per page, the math tells me that there could be some 1,100 renderings that need to happen. More math: If I hope to complete it this year, that equates to 3.28 renderings per day. That would have to include post production; any Photoshop work that I need to do. But that’s just the rendering part of the project. There’s still dialog and page layout. I could probably do a more exact breakdown, but why bother? It’s huge.

While I acknowledge that this should plunge me into deep depression, I fully expect that some scenes will go more quickly than others. Scenes with dialog, without a lot of character movement and mostly “camera” work (I have several of these) are a “light-once-move-camera-shoot” proposition. I have been on enough live action shoots, however, to know that it’s not that easy. Sometimes lighting a close-up can take hours.

The most time consuming scenes are (and will be) the sweeping establishing shots, like flying over Hong Kong, Sean’s expansive synth lab, police headquarters, and the epic chase scene through the city.

Character Design

So far, all I have published is my character designs, which, so far, are pretty close to final though I have fully redesigned Sean and I have a first pass at Techman.

Sean Nakamura

I realize that, if you have followed the blog for the past year, you already know the basic story and you can glean some insight from the character descriptions that have been posted on DevArt and CGSociety, but even then, this name dropping doesn’t make much sense.

Scenes and proof of concept

For my 5th quarter thesis review, I have committed to completing an entire scene as proof of concept. Perhaps this will go online as a bit of an introduction. The scene I have chosen occurs early in the book where Sean Nakamura, the prodigy designer of synthetic, near-humans, is wrapping things up in his lab. The lab is one of those huge establishing shots that I was talking about and it starts out with a fly-over of Hong Kong with a zoom-in to through the windows of his penthouse laboratory at Almost Human Corporation (AHC). The strategy, thus far, is to build out as much of the lab as possible to focus in on the dialog.  The body of the scene takes place from pages 15 through 19. It would be great to add the big tension scene immediately thereafter on page 20 and 21, but this would require significantly more modeling, so it’s a long shot.

Conceivably, we could have these 7 pages by mid-to-late March. Snails pace. I know. It will get faster. Really.

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Graphic novel, sequential art, comic… It’s a book.

I have an observation that I find continually reaffirms itself. If you study man-made concoction long enough, you will find something to change. It was an unwritten rule from my agency, and design firm days that you should never leave a presentation image up for more than 5 minutes or somebody will find something wrong with it. With a few rare exceptions, that is a good rule of thumb. Unfortunately, when you are working on a project that takes a year to complete you find yourself looking back at past decisions that will ultimately have to be incorporated into a finished work some time in the future. There is no guarantee that a year from now I will like what I see. Already, despite the fact that I labored long and hard over my eight character designs—posting nothing without lengthy inspection and scrutiny— there are changes I know I will have to make. And then, there’s that title. I’ve decided to tweak that, too.

Graphic novel. If you set up a Google Alert for the term, (in quotes) you will get a fair amount of daily chatter. The kinds of books that crop up are more likely to be titles like Habibi, or Blankets, Watchmen, Maus, a Kickstarter project, and that sort of thing. You don’t seem to get a lot of discussion, these days, on whether or not the term is a good one or not. Most people in the biz and in the library system have accepted the graphic novel as probably a longer form than a standard “serial” comic,  and whether or not it is a compilation of several “serial” comics under one story arc into a single, bound novel, it probably steers toward older readers with story lines that are not conventional comic book themes. Since many graphic novels are one-off, stand-alone works, this can be another differentiating feature. I emphasize the work probably because there are always exceptions. With that being said, there is still a certain pretentiousness that accompanies the term through no fault of its own. Some people will use the term because it helps define the book as of the aforementioned types. Others will use the term in an attempt to ascribe some sort of weightiness or affectation of greater worthiness over comic book fare. Alas, there is nothing you can do about that. When I use the term it is to let people know that this is a long form comic.

With all that said, at this point, sticking”The Graphic Novel” into the title of my book now strikes me as dumb, so I’m taking it out. The new title (which I’m still considering a working title) is simply, LIGHTSTREAM Moment of Truth. You can call it a graphic novel if you want and I will still refer to it that way. You can call it sequential art storytelling. You can call it an illustrated novel. You can call it whatever you want, but in the final analysis it’s a story. It’s a book.

I’ve made this subtle change on most of the postings (except for the concept art on my web site, I hope to get to that this week). Changes, changes, changes.

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Concept art for a new graphic novel

It has been about a week since I posted my concept art for the upcoming graphic novel. Thanks to all the encouraging emails and Facebook messages from friends. Response from outside the “circle of friends” has been slow. Possibly it wasn’t such a great idea to slide this out over Labor Day weekend. My rationale for getting this out so far in advance is to get some conversation going about both the project and academic paper that goes along with it. Patience is a virtue. If there was a magical formula for social networking, I suppose, everyone would be going viral, all the time. response has been 99% positive, with some reservations about my 7th character Marie. It’s difficult to explain when you haven’t read the script but one thing you need to keep in mind is that the story takes place 148 year in the future. If you think things have changed since you were in school, think about that kind of time frame. We’re looking at major upheavals in politics, religion, even the human body. We’re grappling with epic shifts in the way people look at the world and their lives, their perceptions, their lifespans, their ethics, their technology, their taboos, and their existential struggles. Even though the story falls somewhere in the sci-fi, crime thriller genre, all of this other is the swirling cultural backdrop that becomes part of the story’s texture. I think it makes a good narrative doubly fun to jump into.

Since posting I have attempted to take care of some other business, like getting ready to teach Design 251 in about 10 days, and general life stuff.

As the production schedule goes, I still have a few characters to tweak and I have been modeling away at more 22nd century props that will be part of my future design world. The next major undertaking is thumbnails for the hundred-some pages that will comprise the book.  I think this is an essential phase. (In fact, I am taking a sequential imaging class at ACCAD in the fall where storyboarding is on the docket.) Putting my people into a sequential narrative format is where the rubber meets the road. Thumbnails will provide a visual roadmap for the project, essentially telling me what I need to render, what will be in each scene and the overall flow of the story.

I hope to have this phase complete, or at least well underway by December so that I can focus on rendering the imagery.

If you have comments on the art or story, (here’s the links again:1. DeviantArt, 2. the CGSociety, 3. scottdenison.com Ultra hi-res images are on DeviantArt which is set up for big files), please join the discussion.

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Design challenges in design fiction

Part of what makes design fiction so interesting is that you have to speculate, an exercise almost unheard of in the traditional practice of design. In fact, after 30 or more years in the profession, most clients would probably concur that the designer has no right to be wrong. Market research, iterative design and prototyping, along with the rigor of the design process should eliminate ideas that don’t cut it or won’t cut it in the outside world. Design, as we know it, is a criterion-based practice. Time, money, market, manufacturing, competition, user analysis/interface, usability testing and a myriad of other forces are what shape, and ultimately mold, the final solution. It is a fact-based, reality-based endeavor. The exercise, if you will, of design fiction, forces the designer — not to abandon research — but to venture forth without the comfort of the conventional design climbing holds, or to create their own. Building design constraints for a speculative future can be approached two ways, through pulling threads of existing technologies and social trends (which seem to be becoming the same thing) or through wild unbridled fiction. The latter carries the dismissive, “Don’t ask me how, it’s just that way”, as something akin to the writer/artist’s artistic license. Hey, it’s fiction. The former blends the brain of the designer and the writer/artist and insists that he or she ground the idea, however speculative, in the roots of some plausible science or social momentum.

Hence, as I begin crafting the visual world for my graphic novel, I find myself struggling with these challenges daily. This summer, I am working on the self-imposed deadline of August 31 to have completed character designs for the eight, key cast members. Each character is posed in a relevant (though not apparent without having read the story) scene from the book. That requires not only the design of the character and the questions of what they would wear, the material, the design, and the function, but also the design of their accessories, as well as the design and construction of the set on which they are standing. The decisions seem endless, sometimes terribly frustrating and enthralling at the same time. The CG workflow, which at this level often distributed between specialists in modeling, texturing, posing, lighting, rendering etc., lies squarely on my shoulders. Since I don’t posess virtuoso proficiency in any of the above, it adds to the challenge. On the up side, I may well be a virtuoso (at something) by the time the project is completed.

I plow ahead, but I am excited to show my progress, and hopefully on, or near to the deadline.

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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. http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journals

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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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The otherly graphic novel. Part 3.

If you’ve been following my progress, (and a few of you have) you know that the screenwriting class from Spring Quarter was an immense help in moving forward my story, characters, plot and setting. All of these beforehand were mere flashes from some strange disconnected dream where I could see a character that looked like this and a villain, a controversial scene, and the makings of a future world — all nothing but ideas. The screenwriting class helped this all to congeal fairly well. Screenwriting however is not graphic novel writing. Though they are both intended to become visual narratives, film has a much different dynamic, driven by a completely different way of advancing the story across time.

Which bring us to the next discussion on the otherliness of comics. I have concluded that they deal with time differently in at least three respects. First, as I have mentioned in the past, film goes forward, that’s it, and unless you have an annoying habit of replaying scenes incessantly, (not exactly what the director intended) you are stuck in forward motion. Even when wielding the remote control, either backward or forward film provides only one moment in time; one frame. So in the first respect film — in it’s presentation — is linear. In the otherly world of comics, graphic novels, what have you, past, present and future are all laid out on the page right in front of you. Indeed, you can quickly move forward or look back to add context or meaning, much as you do in pure prose. Of course, here we have pictures.

In a second regard, a film has a finite length. I’m sure there is some marketing formula that lays out the ideal length for general matinee fare. This restriction is not completely absent from a comic or graphic novel, since a publisher may have similar marketing motivations here as well. But, in the absence of a tight publishing format or serial precedent, the length is more likely to be based on the story than the number of marketable pages and the luxury of continuing to a next issue or installment if the story calls for it.

Finally, there is the restriction of time as in the time you spend with the story. This is related to the first reason but not the same. In the graphic novel or comic, we can linger, which is different than scanning back or forward for context, it is about enjoying or studying an image for its sheer impact or wonder. Yes, you can do this with a remote control, too, but let’s face it; it’s different: primarily because the images on the page are intended as 2D art and not moving photos. This brings us back to screenwriting. As most experienced screenwriters will tell you, the visual and audio are your primary tools. They will tell you to write, “Only what we see and hear.” No one wants to read a lot of exposition in a movie. Save for the introduction to Star Wars, most screenwriting experts will tell you that if you have to write a page of explanation then, at the very least, you are using bad form. Not so in the graphic novel. In this constantly evolving form, you can pretty much do whatever you want. If you feel the need to tell your readers that the world in 2159 is extremely complex, that there is a new world government, bizarre new crimes, technological wonders, etc., etc., then you can do that. You can write “more than what we see.” Sounds become their own challenge, but the burden falls on the writer/artist to find a compelling way to introduce written exposition in an engaging and creative way — or you can read it. The cool part is that you could read it on a memo, or another visual device that adds context and additional meaning to the story.

I will have more on the switch from the screenplay to the story script in the next blog.

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Preparing a paper.

Here’s a new twist, especially for those of you who have never seen me as particularly scholarly. Mastery is something like scholarly but not quite the same. Each requires a level of knowing, amassing some amount of information, expertise or experience. I think you can define mastery as a level attained at which point you are capable of passing it on to others. Scholarly, to me, is more about attaining a level of knowledge and then sharing the remaining questions with others. In scholarly, there is no finish line. I’d like to think there are some things I’ve mastered, but one of the great privileges of becoming a full-time student again is the ability to keep asking questions and to probe the great what if. Who wants to stop at mastery?

So much for the long introduction. At the encouragement of my thesis committee, I have been looking for ways to further the discussion of my thesis topic through symposiums, conferences and the like. Many of these more scholarly venues have a “Call for Papers” that goes out many months in advance of the event to get the latest thinking on issues that would enlighten, inspire or provoke discussion among members and attendees. Along those lines I think I may have found a good match for my topic. The International Design Alliance (IDA) hosts the 2011 IDA Congress. This event is dubbed ICOGRADA. To add to the “I” words, there is Iridescent: Icograda Journal of Design Research, which has extended a list of new topics for this years event. The one that caught my eye was, “Understanding How Graphic Design is Animated through Use.” Part of the description includes this, “Papers submitted under this theme might offer new modes of analysis with which to illuminate the public’s more complex, nuanced and subtle relationships with the emerging forms, methods and behaviors of graphic design practice.” I think the idea of design fiction visualized in a graphic novel might be the perfect discussion for this forum. I have a June 30 deadline. Should be interesting to see where this leads.

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