Looking At Genres On A Thematic Level – A Ramble

Although this is an article about making art, making comics and/or writing fiction, I’m going to have to start by spending a while talking about my experiences with listening to punk music. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

At the time of writing, I still seem to be going through a bit of a “1990s American punk music” phase. As I’ve probably mentioned before, this was the first “cool” genre of music I ever discovered and – although I’m more of a heavy metal fan these days – I still find myself returning to it every now and then.

This time round, I found myself discovering a new band or two, buying a few extra punk albums and listening to bands that I vaguely knew about in slightly more depth. This had some surprisingly mixed results (eg: I learnt that Green Day’s “Warning” is actually a good album [and so is “Insomniac” too], I discovered a band called “No Use For A Name” who I should have discovered years ago etc..). But, this slightly deeper look at one of my favourite genres of music completely changed my opinion of it.

Since the very first punk band I ever discovered (sometime in the late 1990s) was The Offspring, I’d always thought that 90s American punk music was all about fun and rebellion. After gradually discovering a few other bands over the years, I still sort of thought the same sort of things about the genre – but I realised that it could also include things like lyrical complexity, gothic elements, shock value, political rebellion etc…

But, after listening repeatedly to several of Green Day’s classic albums and No Use For A Name’s amazing “Making Friends” album. I realised something about the genre that I’d never really thought about too much before. For all of it’s energy and passion, it’s often a genre about failure and misery. For a genre that I thought was all about cheerful nostalgia, intelligent thought and the kind of rebellious attitude that the world really needs these days, it’s actually surprisingly depressing if you actually read the lyrics.

This, of course, made me take another look at some of my favourite punk songs and albums and – yes- this theme also seems to be present there, albeit in more subtle ways. Although the genre still sounds amazing and fills me with nostalgia, it’s become a bit less of a “feel good” genre than it used to be because I now know more about the genre than I thought I did.

So, why have I spent several paragraphs rambling about the punk genre?

Well, it’s because it’s about the importance of looking at genres on a thematic level. This is something that you can often only do if you research a genre as much as you can. Since, the more things (by different people) you see within the same genre, the easier it is to spot common themes.

This might sound pretentious or overly academic but there are some good practical reasons to look at genres thematically if you’re an artist, writer etc…

If you understand the common themes in a genre, then you’ll find it easier to make things in that genre. You’ll find it easier to come up with ideas for stories, comics, paintings etc… since you can ask yourself “if I made something about [this theme], what would it look like?” This is especially true if it’s a genre that you really love, but don’t know how to make things in it.

In addition to this, if you know what the common themes of a genre are, then it’s also a lot easier to include elements from other genres. After all, if you make something that looks like it belongs to another genre, but contains the themes from one of your favourite genres, then you’ll probably come up with something a lot more original that will still be recognisable as part of your chosen genre.

Likewise, studying the themes in other creative works can show you how to include “difficult” themes in subtle ways. For example, if you watch the music video for “Soulmate” by No Use For A Name, it seems like an “ordinary” song about a failed relationship. But, if you actually listen to the lyrics, it isn’t a song about romantic relationships at all. It’s an incredibly depressing song about a life of paranoia, worry, despair etc.. since the “soulmate” in the title is shown to be those emotions rather than a romantic partner.

Finally, looking at the themes of your favourite genres can help you to think about the types of themes that you want to include in your own creative works. Yes, you’ll probably end up doing this without realising it anyway. But, thinking about it more consciously will probably allow you to make your creative works have more emotional impact, depth, complexity etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Three Ways To Make Art In A Genre You Find Difficult

For quite a while, I found certain types of punk art (except for cyberpunk art) to be one of the most difficult genres of art to make.

Although the artwork surrounding American punk albums from the 90s/00s looked really cool, it was a genre of art that I just couldn’t “understand” (even if a few parts of my current art style were learnt from it). Yet, on the day that I wrote this article, I finally made some punk art. Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 5th Janaury.

So, for today, I thought that I’d talk about how to make art in genres that you just can’t seem to make art in even if you really want to.

1) Try a different version: One of the things that surprised me about the punk painting that I made was that it was about a million miles away from the cartoonish (and mostly apolitical) type of American-style “punk album cover” art that I really wanted to make. It was punk art, but it was more like old-school British punk than anything from across the pond. It was a different version of the same genre, which I somehow found much easier to make.

Of course, this is probably because I’m British. Although I prefer American punk music, the political satire in classic British punk music has never felt more relevant in the modern age. Likewise, I also read quite a few reprints of old “Tank Girl” comics during my early 20s. Although I love one version of the genre, it turns out that I’m more familiar with another version. The same might be true for the genre you are trying to make art in.

So, trying a slightly different version of the genre you want to make art in can be a great way to make some art in the genre you love. The rule here is, of course, to go with whatever seems instinctively “right”, even if it’s a bit different to what you might expect.

To use a non-art example, when I wrote a series of cyberpunk short stories for Christmas 2016, I’d expected them to be written using a classic “rapid-fire” William Gibson-style narrative voice. But, for the most part, I ended up using fairly ‘ordinary’ narration, even if the content of the stories was cyberpunk-based. It just felt more “natural” and it allowed me to write fourteen cyberpunk stories in as many days.

So, try a different version of the same genre and you might find that things are a lot easier.

2) Try blending it with something familiar:
One easy way to make art in a genre that you really want to make art in (but find difficult) is simply to mix it with another genre that you are more confident with. By adding elements of your desired genre to a more familiar genre, you can rely on your experience and knowledge a lot more.

For example, most of the punk art that I’ve made in the past has been blended with the horror genre. Since I know how to paint skeletons, zombies etc.. then adding punk elements to this familiar genre of art meant that it was a lot easier to make…

“Punkocalypse” By C. A. Brown [2015]

So, if you find one genre of art difficult to make, then mix it with a genre that you find easy to make.

3) Have more influences: The more research you do into a genre of art, the easier you will find it to make. When you see how lots of different artists have interpreted the same genre, it can give you a few ideas of your own. For example, the idea to make a collage-style punk painting came from seeing the cover art for Green Day’s “Insomniac” album. This album used a traditional photo-montage and I thought “I could make a painting that looked a bit like it could be a photo-montage.”

Likewise, seeing lots of different works of art in the same genre can help you to see what they have in common with each other (eg: what the main features and themes of the genre are) and this can help to give you a greater understanding of how the genre “works”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Paradoxes Of “Subjective” Fictional Genres – A Ramble

Although this is an article about the horror genre, a lot of what I will be saying here can be applied to quite a few other genres too (the comedy genre springs to mind for starters…).

Anyway, the horror genre is a genre that is designed to provoke a strong emotional response in the audience. It’s a genre that can gain it’s emotional power through imagined situations, characterisation, suspense, subtle implication and/or vivid imagery. It’s also an incredibly subjective genre too – ten people can read the same horror novel and all have wildly different reactions to it. After all, everyone has their own mixture of phobias, anxieties and attitudes towards the horror genre.

Everyone has their own personal ideas about what is and isn’t “scary”. Some people like stories that gradually build up suspense and some people like stories that go from zero to abject terror as quickly as possible. Some people like their horror to be “serious” and some people like horror that includes some dark comedy. Some people focus entirely on certain sub-genres of horror fiction (eg: the zombie genre, the vampire genre etc..) and some people avoid certain sub-genres because they aren’t scary or interesting enough.

Yet, the people writing horror fiction can only write what they personally consider to be creepy, scary, shocking and/or disturbing. If they want to write truly great horror fiction, they not only need to delve into the darkest depths of their unique imaginations, but they also need to know what types of horror fiction really fascinate them. Then they need to write the kind of horror story that they would want to read. They also need to be scared by what they are writing, because how can they expect like-minded members of the audience to be scared if they are not?

If you stop writing a horror story because you are just too damn disturbed by it to continue writing, then this is both an extremely annoying thing and an extremely brilliant thing at the same time. On the one hand, it’s a testament to the power of the written word. On the other hand, it’s annoying because you’ve left a story unfinished. This is perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes of the horror genre and the perfect example of how it’s an extremely subjective genre.

In other words, a good horror novel often tends to be something that only that particular author could have written. This is, of course both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the horror genre. When you read a horror story by someone else, you are stepping into the unknown territory of another person’s imagination and you have no clue whether it’s somewhere that you’ll feel at home in or not.

Most of the time, you’ll probably feel “slightly” or “mostly” at home with a horror novel. But, although you might have read the blurb or a few reviews first, there’s no real way to know for certain how you will react before you start reading.

Again, this brings up another paradox. On the one hand, a horror novel by a new author is a fascinatingly unknown thing that could scare you senseless. On the other hand, it might be hilariously cheesy, annoyingly boring or just completely off-putting. Even with a horror novel that sounds like it might be cool, there’s no real way to know for certain before you actually read it.

The horror genre is sometimes derided as being a “cheap” genre. A genre that is below the enlightened perspective of respectable critics. A genre that is often only talked about to other fans of the horror genre. Yet, it’s a genre that most people enjoy in some form at least occasionally. But, some people have a bizarre inherent dislike of the entire genre – sometimes with disdainful overtones. It has historically been seen by some as a genre that is a corrupting or dehumanising influence, and has even suffered censorship in the past as a result.

And, yet, the horror genre relies on humanity in order to “work”. It relies on someone expressing their unique imagination in the best way possible, in the hope that other people will find it an interesting place to inhabit for a few hours. It relies on provoking common instinctive emotions that all humans share in one form or another.

The horror genre is a genre that is about as far from “dehumanised” as it is possible to get! And, yet, this is both it’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness. On the one hand, it can contain immense emotional power and the potential for strong emotional catharsis. On other hand, you might find that you just don’t get along well with the unique imagination of a particular writer, director etc…

Likewise, paradoxically, the horror genre cannot “corrupt” people. In order for a horror story to disturb, horrify and/or disgust the audience, the audience must have pre-existing moral standards. After all, would anyone be unsettled by or fearful of something that they personally consider to be “good” or “righteous”? The horror genre relies on the audience having moral standards in order to work properly!

In other words, it’s a subjective genre. A genre that is, paradoxically, as much about the reader as it is about the writer.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Using Influences From Outside The Cyberpunk Genre In Cyberpunk Fiction

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Well, for this article in my series about writing cyberpunk fiction, I thought that I’d take a brief look at how you can improve your cyberpunk stories by using influences and inspirations from different genres.

This was something that I was reminded of when I wrote this short story that was posted here late last year. My first idea was to write a dystopian story about some kind of police robot, since I’d watched an absolutely brilliant TV miniseries called “Robocop: Prime Directives” on DVD. I was in the mood for some good old-fashioned dystopian science fiction. With heavily-armed robots.

But, before I wrote this story, I remembered an extract from a short horror story I’d read somewhere on “Too Much Horror Fiction[NSFW] a few weeks earlier. Although I can’t seem to find the exact page or remember the author’s name (I think he was the son of a famous horror author), the extract was especially interesting because it was a vampire story that was narrated using just 1-2 word sentences.

This gave me the idea to narrate my short story from the perspective of the robot. After all, this kind of terse, abrupt narration has a slightly “robotic” sound to it. However, I soon realised that I wouldn’t be able to use this exact style in the story because I also wanted to include slightly longer things like descriptive error messages in the story too.

But, the idea of it helped to turn what would have been a generic sci-fi story into something a bit more interesting. By using something similar (but different) to this style, I was able to write something that was only about 400 words long, which told a reasonable-length story and which left enough details to the reader’s imagination to be either chilling or hilarious (depending on your sense of humour).

And this never would have happened if I’d only taken inspiration from the cyberpunk genre.

One of the problems with the cyberpunk genre is that it’s a relatively small genre. There just aren’t that many things in it, when compared to many other genres. It’s a tiny sub-genre of the science fiction genre, whose heyday was 20-35 years ago. It’s amazingly cool, and it’s had something of a resurgence within the past few years, but it’s still fairly obscure. So, taking inspiration from other genres is especially important.

In fact, many of the classics of the cyberpunk genre do exactly that. For example, the 1982 movie “Blade Runner” takes huge amounts of inspiration from old 1930s-50s “film noir” movies. Likewise, the brilliantly distinctive narrative style in William Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy” has strong echoes of both hardboiled detective fiction and thriller fiction.

Likewise, Warren Ellis’ excellent “Transmetropolitan” comic series is very clearly inspired by the unique journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. Plus, the original “Deus Ex” computer game takes a lot of influence from pre-existing conspiracy theories, alongside more traditional cyberpunk influences (like “Ghost In The Shell).

What I’m trying to say here is that, if you’re writing cyberpunk fiction, then you need to look outside the genre for inspirations and influences. In fact, this is true for whatever type of fiction that you are trying to write.

“Unique” and “distinctive” fiction usually just means that someone has been inspired by something that the audience didn’t expect them to be inspired by. So, if you want to make your fiction stand out more, then try looking outside of your genre of choice for inspirations.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Ways To Add Other Genres To Cyberpunk Stories

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Well, for the next article in my series of articles about writing cyberpunk fiction (which were written at the same time I was writing this old series of short stories), I thought that I’d talk very briefly about how to add elements from other genres to your cyberpunk stories.

After all, whilst the cyberpunk genre might have a reputation for only containing grim, gritty “edgy” stories – it’s a genre that is surprisingly easy to mix with other genres.

1) Virtual reality: Just like how traditional science fiction often included fantasy elements by having the characters land on a planet that was still in the middle ages, cyberpunk fiction can do something similar.

After all, most classic-style cyberpunk stories revolve around the characters venturing into a futuristic virtual reality world of some kind. And, just like the holodeck in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, you can use virtual reality settings to add other genres to your cyberpunk story. Just come up with a fictional game or program that includes the other genre that you want to add to your story.

2) Components:
Simply put, one easy way to add another genre to your cyberpunk story is to look at what makes that other genre so distinctive and then try to find a way to add that to your cyberpunk story.

For example, the classic cyberpunk movie “Blade Runner” is probably more vintage film noir than it is cyberpunk. Yet, these two genres go together really well for the simple reason that, although the story is set in a futuristic cyberpunk city, many of the character’s outfits are based on 1940s fashions, many of the locations also feature old buildings and many of the characters’ personalities could have easily come from an old pulp novel.

So, break down both genres into their essential themes etc… and then try to create something new that includes elements from both. Doing it this way will also help you to avoid having elements from each genre clash with each other, or look silly.

3) Look for commonality: Although I ridiculed the fantasy genre in this cyberpunk story, the truth is that it isn’t actually that different from the cyberpunk genre.

Both genres often rely on the main characters having a mastery of uncommon and arcane skills. In the fantasy genre, this is called magic, sorcery, necromancy etc…. In the cyberpunk genre, it’s called hacking.

Likewise, both the fantasy and the cyberpunk genres also rely on suddenly immersing the audience in a fascinatingly confusing imagined world. In the fantasy genre, this world is stuck at some unknown point in the distant past. In the cyberpunk genre, this world is stuck at some unknown point in the distant future.

This was just one example, but if you can find what the cyberpunk genre has in common with the genre you want to mix it with then you’ll probably be able to mix the two genres in a much more seamless way.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

The Joy Of… Genre-Specific Creativity

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Although this is an article about art, comics and fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about music. This is mostly because, a day or two before I wrote this article, I heard a rather interesting song called “Metal Inquisition” by Piledriver that made me think about audiences and genres.

“Metal Inquisition” is a song which heavy metal fans will find absolutely hilarious and non-metal fans will probably find mildly disturbing. It’s a knowingly silly song about a Spanish Inquisition-style group who try to ensure that everyone listens to heavy metal… or else!

And, it’s also the perfect example of a genre-specific thing. It’s a comedic song that is written specifically for heavy metal fans. If you aren’t a metalhead, then you probably won’t get the joke (eg: it’s about heavy metal’s [lack of] mainstream popularity etc..).

There’s certainly something to be said for things that are squarely aimed at fans of a particular genre. For starters, the trouble with making everything suitable for everyone is that, unless it’s done extremely well, it often ends up appealing to no-one.

Unless you are the mythical “normal person” that mainstream cinema, pop music, advertising, gaming etc… exists to serve, then there will be a certain emotional distance between you and the creative work in question. And, well, no-one is that idealised “normal person”. We’re all geeks or nerds in some way or another. We all have preferences and fascinations. We’re all fans of one thing or another. After all, we’re all unique human beings.

Creative works that are squarely aimed at fans of a particular genre acknowledge that uniqueness. They say “some people like this, and that’s cool. Some people don’t, and they should probably find something else“. As such, if you find something that you are a fan of, then it’ll feel more meaningful to you. It’ll feel like something made specifically for you.

This is also useful for creating a sense of community too. After all, if you’re a fan of a slightly obscure genre, then genre-specific things can be a thing which reminds you that “other people like this stuff too!“.

For example, going back to “Metal Inquisition”, the song is such an amazing song for the simple reason that it is a gleeful celebration of heavy metal music (a bit like Saxon’s “Denim And Leather”, Judas Preist’s “Deal With The Devil”, Helloween’s “Heavy Metal (is the law)”, Sabaton’s “Metal Machine” etc… ).

It’s a song that amusingly imagines what the world would be like if heavy metal was the most mainstream genre instead of the least mainstream genre. It’s a song that recreates the feeling of going to your first metal concert and seeing literally hundreds of other people who also like the same music you do. That awestruck sense of actually belonging somewhere.

But, in addition to this, genre-specific things are also awesome for the simple reason that they’re an expression of creative freedom. They show that the person who made them is such a fan of that particular genre that they felt compelled to actually make things for other fans. They show how great stories, films, games, albums etc… can inspire people to create things themselves. After all, you don’t make a genre-specific thing unless you’re a massive fan of things from that genre.

Genre-specific things aren’t “manufactured pop band # 345,237” who were designed by committee in order to maximise sales to the 16-24 demographic. They aren’t “Generic military action videogame #17” churned out annually in order to sell more games consoles. They aren’t “CGI-filled Hollywood Movie # 500,000” with 20% less dialogue to reduce translation costs for international distribution. They aren’t “hip fashion trend #7653” that will empty the wallets of trendy people in London, New York etc… 50% faster than usual.

No, genre-specific things are things made by people for people. They’re the sorts of things that people would make even if they didn’t get paid. They’re things that are made out of love, rather than out of greed. They are things that aren’t “mass-produced”. They’re things that are brave enough to say “if you like this, then that’s great. If you don’t, then find something else!

Genre-specific things are a testament to the power of creativity for the sake of creativity, and to the value of individuality.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Ways To Blend Different Genres Of Art

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I started thinking about blending genres again when I was making a digitally-edited painting that will appear here in mid-late June. Here’s a reduced size preview of it:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 21st June.

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 21st June.

This painting basically grew out of the fact that I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to make an “ordinary” 1980s style painting or a 1980s/90s-style cyberpunk painting. In the end, the painting ended up being a blend of both things. So, I thought that I’d talk about how you can blend genres like this.

1) Use parts of both: The easiest and most obvious way to blend different genres of art is simply to take elements from each and put them into the same painting or drawing. For example, if you’re making a sci-fi western painting, then the easiest way to do this is just to draw some cowboys and then to draw a spaceship or two in the background.

Yes, this approach certainly has it’s limits (eg: it can look weird if it’s done badly) and it’s best done in a slightly subtle way but it’s one of the easiest ways to blend two different genres of art together.

For example, in the art preview I showed you earlier, the man in the foreground is a cyberpunk character (with a trenchcoat, a gadget and cybernetic sunglasses) whereas the woman in the mid-ground is a more 1980s-style character (who is wearing a garish “so bad that it’s good” vintage ’80s outfit). Yet, the background is a much more subtle blend of the two genres.

2) See what they have in common: A more imaginative way to blend two genres of art is to see what visual features the two genres have in common with each other.

For example, both Baroque and Renaissance art use a very realistic style (even if the lighting and the subject matter is slightly different). Likewise, both art nouveau and Japanese Ukiyo-e art use a realistic, but minimalist style. Likewise, heavy metal art and fantasy art often share a focus on both realism and stylisation. Any of these six genres of art could be blended together relatively easily, because they have a lot in common.

Generally, most genres of art will have at least something in common with each other. It just requires a bit of thought and careful study to find what these things are.

For example, the art preview I showed you earlier includes bright colours against a gloomier background. This contrast between light and dark is a hallmark of the 1980s/1990s, but it’s also similar the main lighting technique that cyberpunk art uses. Likewise, both the 1980s and the cyberpunk genre were times when neon signs were popular etc…

Likewise, my decisions about which colour schemes to use in this painting were heavily inspired by the use of colours in a set of non-cyberpunk 1980s sci-fi themed levels for “Doom II” called “Ancient Aliens“, which showed me how multiple complementary colour schemes can be used in the same piece of art.

3) Look for things that have already done it: Generally, if you can think of two genres to blend, then there’s a good chance that someone else has done it first.

Whilst you shouldn’t directly copy any pre-existing works, you can look for general visual features (that aren’t highly-specific enough to be copyrightable) and general techniques, that you can use in new and creative ways. If you’re unsure where the line between plagiarism and legitimate inspiration lies, then read this article for more clarification.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂