Four Reasons Why (Even Fairly Good) Modern Print Comics Can Seem A Little Bit “Generic”

A few hours before I prepared this article, I ended up reading an actual honest-to-god paper comic (since it was included with a music magazine as a free gift). Not a trade paperback or a manga paperback or a webcomic, but an actual comic book (issue one of “Legacy Of The Beast” to be precise).

The surprising thing was that, although the premise of the comic is really really cool (it’s a comic from 2017 featuring Iron Maiden‘s mascot Eddie), my first thought was something along the lines of “this is a standard modern comic“. Since Iron Maiden are my favourite heavy metal band, I really, really wanted to love the comic but my reaction was just a muted “this is a good, but standard, comic“.

Yes, some elements of the comic’s premise were absolutely brilliant (eg: the hilariously subversive decision to make the comic’s devil-like villain use bland, conservative mainstream conformity as a weapon), there are some cool song references and some of the art looks really cool. But, so much of the comic just seemed… well… generic.

This is something that I’ve noticed often in what few modern print comics (from the past 15 years or so) I’ve read. So, I thought that I’d look at a few of the reasons why modern print comics can sometimes be a little bit on the generic side of things.

1) Lettering: This is a really small thing, but it makes a big difference. Simply put, it often seems like lettering in modern comics is a little bit too “perfect” – almost like it has been done using a computer font rather than by hand.

With lettering, the handwritten imperfections are what really gives it character. The occasional illegibility or “non-standard” characteristics of “imperfect” handwritten lettering show the audience that someone actually wrote the dialogue.

To show you what I mean, here’s a comparison of the “imperfect” lettering from a ‘Tank Girl‘ trade paperback from 1996 and the lettering in part of the “Legacy Of The Beast” comic I mentioned earlier.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] A comparison of the lettering in Hewlett & Martin’s “Tank Girl” with the lettering in “Legacy Of The Beast” by Leon (et al).

When lettering is too good, it often just looks like it has been typed quickly on a computer rather than written by hand. Yes, it’s possible that the lettering has been painstakingly written by someone who has spent years honing their craft, but lettering that is too good will often look like a standard computer font of some kind.

2) Humour/Attitude: What few modern comics I’ve read seem to have a fairly similar “attitude” to them. It’s kind of like they’re trying to be “cool” or “edgy”, but not too much. It’s like a sort of “PG-13” edginess. It adds a bit of attitude to the comics, but it often means that the emotional tone of many comics is at least mildly similar.

I understand why mainstream western comics do this. They need to be suitable for a general audience, not to mention that the legacy of the American comics code probably also plays a role too. Likewise, as similar as the sarcastic humour can often be, it does at least stop the comics from becoming too “grim” or “depressing” or anything like that.

But, at the same time, it also means that mainstream episodic print comics don’t really get as much of a chance to express their own personality in the way that things like webcomics do.

For example, take a look at a webcomic like Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“. The writing style and emotional tone of this comic are fairly unique – Rowntree writes dialogue in a way that seems both realistic and novelistic at the same time, with the dialogue often being slightly more slow-paced and conversational than the average mainstream comic:

This is a panel from “muZeM” by Winston Rowntree (2015) which contains slower-paced and more realistic dialogue.

The comic’s emotional tone is also a strange mixture of serious introspective drama, quirky eccentricity and occasionally hilariously subversive rapid-fire sarcasm.

Even a more “PG-13” version of Rowntree’s narrative style would still stand out from the crowd. Just because a comic has to be suitable for a general audience without being blandly inoffensive doesn’t mean that personality has to go out of the window too!

3) Tools and style: First of all, there’s nothing wrong with digital art. It’s an art form like any other. I mean, most of my own art includes digital elements. Digital tools are quick, versatile and practical. There is nothing wrong with digital art.

But, if it isn’t combined with a highly distinctive and unique art style, digital art can look a little bit too “perfect”. A lot of what makes traditional art so distinctive and unique are the small imperfections inherent in things like paints, inks etc..

When comics feature digital art that doesn’t really contain imperfections, then this has to be compensated for by adding uniqueness and personality in other ways.

This brings me on to the fact that a lot of the (relatively few) modern mainstream comics I’ve seen often use a vaguely similar “realistic” art style.

Yes, this allows for movie-style “immersion” and it allows for visual consistency in comics that may feature several artists. But, one of the things that really makes a comic stand out from the crowd is a more unique (and stylised and/or “unrealistic”) art style.

4) Heroic characters: I think that one of the reasons why I had a somewhat lukewarm reaction to the Iron Maiden comic was because it was basically a superhero comic in disguise. Yes, the comic contained a lot of fantasy elements and a few mild horror elements…. but it was still a comic about one powerful character fighting villains.

This style of story is popular because it’s relatively easy to write. Likewise, if you buy a comic in this genre, then you know what you’re going to see. So, there’s a certain level of reassuring standardisation. But, at the same time, this gets boring.

Many of the best comics I’ve read aren’t about one powerful hero saving the world or anything like that. For example, Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics may revolve around seven ancient deities – but they’re often background characters who appear in more novelistic stories about an assortment of other characters. Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics may focus on one character (and his assistants) trying to stop a corrupt politician, but he’s a hilarious drug-addled cyberpunk gonzo journalist who is at least slightly more likely to use words, gadgets or ingenuity than generic mindless violence to solve problems.

So, yes “heroic character fights the bad guys” storylines are probably one reason why many modern comics can seem a little bit generic.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Why Creative Works Don’t Always Have To Make Sense – A Ramble

Although this is a rambling article about why some creative works can still be good even when they don’t make logical sense, I’m going to have to start by spending several paragraphs talking enthusiastically about playing an old computer game whilst listening to even older heavy metal music. There’s a good reason for this that will become obvious later.

Anyway, as regular readers of this site probably know, I’m going through a bit of a “Quake” phase at the moment. If you’ve never heard of this classic mid-late 1990s computer game before, it’s basically a gothic horror-themed action game where you fight lots of monsters. But, whilst playing yet another level of the game’s “Dissolution Of Eternity” expansion pack, I suddenly realised something…. this game makes no logical sense!

Seriously, you run through a series of random rooms and the game just throws lots of monsters at you. After a while, playing the game begins to take on a strange rhythm- like some kind of bizarre dance that ultimately doesn’t mean anything and is done purely for it’s own sake. For a while, I almost started to feel like I was wasting my time…

…But, then, I found myself in the middle of an ancient Egypt-themed level and my attitude suddenly changed.

This is a screenshot from E2M4 of “Quake: Dissolution Of Eternity” (1997) [an expansion for “Quake” (1996)]. This one level is amazing!

Almost instinctively, I paused the game for a second, went through my music collection and started playing an ancient Egypt-themed heavy metal song by Iron Maiden called “Powerslave” loudly in the background. Then I continued playing.

Iron Maiden’s music suddenly felt just as awesome as it did in the months after I first discovered the band during my early teens and “Quake” suddenly felt just as cool as it did when I’d previously played it during my childhood, my mid-late teens and my early-mid twenties. And I realised that I didn’t give a damn that this game’s story and premise made no sense whatsoever. It was just awesome fun for the sake of awesome fun.

So, what was the point of this? Well, it’s an illustrative example of how (and why) a creative work can still be enjoyable even when it doesn’t make perfect logical sense. “Quake” is just a game about shooting random monsters and “Powerslave” is a random song about ancient Egyptian gods, death, servitude and… pharaohs? I don’t know. But, the experience of playing “Quake” and/or listening to “Powerslave” is brilliant regardless.

These things are enjoyable because they have some underlying element that is enjoyable regardless of whether the rest of the work makes perfect logical sense. They evoke emotions. They provide an experience. They make you spontaneously play the air guitar. They look cool. I could go on for a while…

A good literary example of this kind of thing would be Poppy Z. Brite’s “Lost Souls”. This is a novel that is almost plotless, yet it is one of my favourite novels of all time purely because of things like the atmosphere, the narrative style, the characters and the general “attitude” of the book. On a purely story-based level, it shouldn’t be a great novel. But, thanks to all of this other stuff, it is an astonishingly great novel.

The same is true for art too. A painting or drawing doesn’t have to be 100% realistic or even a depiction of part of a logical story to be impressive. If the artist’s style, the composition, the lighting, the use of colour etc… is interesting enough, then the fact that the picture makes no logical sense or has no deeper meaning doesn’t matter because it is a demonstration of the artist’s technical skill and aesthetic sensibilities.

So, yes, creative works don’t “have” to make sense in order to be interesting or enjoyable. However, this only works if the creative work in question has some other underlying element that is inherently interesting, fun, evocative or fascinating.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (6th June 2018)

Well, I’m still in the mood for making gothic art set in Aberystwyth (and, yes, today’s art also comes in a “non-rainy” version too).

Today’s digitally-edited painting is a piece of art that I had originally planned to make eight years ago (when I was actually living in Aberystwyth).

In early 2010, I was listening to “Sign Of The Cross” by Iron Maiden and the song suddenly prompted a random daydream about a group of medieval monks marching ominously through one of the town’s supermarket car parks (but, a different one to the one in the painting).

I’d thought about making a drawing based on this at the time, but never got round to it. Which is just as well, given how inexperienced I was at making art back then (seriously, here’s one of my drawings from summer 2010), I’d never have done it justice. Plus, the eight-year time gap gave me time to play a cool old game called “Blood” which reminded me of how hilariously melodramatic ‘ominous monks’ can be.

As usual, both the finished version of this painting and the “non-rainy” version are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Aberystwyth – Ominous Daydreams” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Rock In Rio [DVD Version]” By Iron Maiden

Well, since I’m still in something of a musical mood at the moment, I thought that I’d take a break from talking about Nightwish and look at something by one of my other favourite bands – the one and only Iron Maiden. In particular, I’ll be taking a look at their “Rock In Rio” concert DVD boxset from 2002.

This was the very first Iron Maiden DVD that I ever got (my first Iron Maiden CD was either a charity single taken from this album, or the CD bonus tracks on the “Carmageddon II” game disc) and, despite the fact that one of my favourite T-shirts is based on the cover art for this DVD, it was something that I’d forgotten about slightly. It had languished unwatched for years on the shelf above my computer until, during a slight moment of boredom shortly before writing this article, I decided to dig it out again….

Wow! I can’t believe that this DVD is over 15 years old! How time flies!

Rock In Rio” is a recording of Iron Maiden’s set at the Rock In Rio festival in Brazil in 2001.

This was about a year or two after Bruce Dickinson rejoined the band following several years apart from them, and the DVD is something of a celebration of both this and of the beginning of Maiden’s more “modern” phase. Gone is the more falsetto-heavy sound of Bruce’s original time with the band during the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, it is replaced by a slightly louder, deeper and more serious singing style that is synonymous with Maiden’s more current stuff.

Scream for me Brazil!!

Although it probably took place during the tour for Iron Maiden’s then-new “Brave New World” album, Rock In Rio’s two-hour setlist is crammed with classic songs, with only about five songs from “Brave New World” making their way onto the stage. But, since “Brave New World” is probably one of Maiden’s weaker albums (if such a thing even exists), the classics-filled setlist really helps to show the band at their best.

One interesting thing here is that Bruce also sings both old songs that were originally performed by Paul Di’Anno (“Wrathchild”, “Iron Maiden” and “Sanctuary”) and, more surprisingly, two songs from Blaze Bayley’s then-recent tenure with the band (“The Clansman” and “Sign Of The Cross”).

Needless to say, he brings his own unique interpretation and energy to these songs, turning Di’Anno’s more punkish renditions of these songs into something closer to modern Iron Maiden and turning Bayley’s broodingly dramatic performances into something even more epic and dramatic.

Seriously, I cannot praise Bruce’s rendition of “Sign Of The Cross” in this concert highly enough! It is, by far, the stand-out track on the DVD. Perhaps even the definitive interpretation of the song in question. He takes a solemn, ominous, emotional song and turns it into ten minutes of spine-tinglingly energetic passion and menacing quietness.

The Siiiiiigggnnnn Offff The Crrrrooosss!!!!!!

In terms of Iron Maiden’s performance, they are as energetic and enthusiastic as you would expect – with each song roaring loudly through the speakers as Bruce Dickinson runs and leaps around the stage in his usual fashion, whilst the other band members swagger around and have fun.

There isn’t a weak or lacklustre performance during any part of the concert. All of this passion and energy is emphasised through a lot of fast video editing, which rarely lingers on a single shot or camera angle for more than a few seconds.

Of course, all of the movement and quick editing makes getting screenshots for this review a bit of a challenge. But, oh well…

Seriously, if there’s one thing to be said for this concert, it is that the band are having fun. And it is a joy to watch! Bruce occasionally makes amusing comments to the audience, whilst the other members of the band do all sorts of hilariously silly and/or cool stuff, like throwing their guitars into the air. You really get the sense that these are six expert musicians who love nothing better than putting on a great show.

And what a show it is! The stage design, lighting design and filming still stands up to this day! Unlike the more limited concert halls from many of their earlier live videos (and the one time I actually saw them live – at a theatre in London in 2006), the band take full advantage of the extra real estate offered by the gargantuan outdoor stage. Multicoloured lights glow beautifully in the darkness, a helicopter hovers above the festival to provide a few dramatic aerial shots, and then there’s the stage design itself.

Seriously, this is one of the coolest-looking stages that I’ve ever seen!

It is truly epic!

The stage is filled with scaffolding and corrugated metal panels, which help to lend the stage a slightly “dystopian sci-fi” kind of look, whilst also providing a handy climbing frame for Bruce during a few instrumental moments. The backdrop changes several times during the set, varying between art from the band’s albums and a plain black background.

And, yes, Derek Riggs’ awesome cover art for “Number Of The Beast” also makes a welcome appearance too 🙂

Needless to say- later in the set – the band’s mascot Eddie makes his appearance. This time, he’s a giant wicker man filled with pagan-style dancers.

Surprisingly though, Eddie doesn’t appear during “The Wicker Man” at the beginning of the concert, but during “Iron Maiden” (about two-thirds of the way through the show) instead.

Naturally, Eddie also has glowing red eyes too. Because, would you expect anything less?

My only real criticism of this DVD has to do with the packaging. For some reason, the discs are packaged inside a thin cardboard sleeve and held in place by two sticky pieces of sponge. To call this flimsy would be an understatement!

In fact, when I opened this DVD case after quite a few years, both discs almost fell onto the floor and the piece of sponge holding the special features disc in place seemed to be missing. Needless to say, this has caused scratching to both discs and, to my horror, I found that a few moments of the concert disc were unplayable as a result. Likewise, when I put the concert disc back into the case, I had a rather difficult time getting it to sit back on the spongy circle, which seemed to have expanded somewhat.

As for the special features disc, I didn’t really have time to rewatch it before writing this review but, from what I can remember of it, it contains documentary footage of the band during their time in Brazil, as well as interviews with the band etc….

I might be confusing it with another Iron Maiden DVD but, if I remember rightly, one of the cool things I remember from watching this disc when I was a teenager was the fact that it contained a few silly little easter eggs hidden throughout the various menus etc…

All in all, DVD packaging aside, “Rock In Rio” has stood the test of time surprisingly well. It is two hours of pure energy and passion, and it is an absolutely stellar introduction to the band if you’ve never heard them before. If you’re looking for an epic music video, you can’t go wrong with this one! Whether you watch it in one sitting or just skip from song to song, it’s something that can be enjoyed again and again.

Yes, it might lack some of the pyrotechnics and/or background animations that characterise more modern concert footage from metal bands, but it is still pretty much timeless.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least five.

Today’s Art ( 18th February 2018)

Well, it has been ages since I last made any fan art. Not to mention that, despite being a fan of Iron Maiden for over 15 years, I’ve never actually really tried to draw them before. So, the idea for today’s (heavily) digitally-edited painting was something of a no-brainer.

Surprisingly, the most difficult part of making this painting was actually finding a way to fit all six members of the band (plus, Eddie the head) into a single painting.

Since this is fan art, this painting is NOT released under any kind of Creative Commons licence.

“Fan Art – Iron Maiden” By C. A. Brown

Three Reasons Why Combining Two Awesome Things Can Sometimes Be Less Awesome

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this before (I had a sudden moment of deja vu halfway through writing the article), but I thought that I’d look at one of the more paradoxical things that can happen with creative works.

This is when something either directly combines two incredibly cool things or takes inspiration from two incredibly cool things, but somehow ends up being mildly less awe-inspiringly magnificent than it should logically be.

For example, I’m a massive fan of both Iron Maiden and “Blade Runner“. So, you would think that “Somewhere In Time” would be my favourite Iron Maiden album.

After all, Derek Riggs’ ultra-detailed cover art for the album is inspired by “Blade Runner”, there are a couple of sci-fi themed songs on the album (with the opening track being one of Iron Maiden’s best songs) and, when the band originally toured the album during the mid-late 1980s, they apparently played the “Blade Runner” theme on the PA before each concert.

Yet, it isn’t quite my favourite Iron Maiden album (that title probably goes to either the criminally under-appreciated “Virtual XI” or possibly to “The Book Of Souls). Sure, “Somewhere In Time” would probably appear in my top five or top ten Iron Maiden albums, but it isn’t my absolute favourite.

So, why can combinations of awesome things somehow end up being slightly less awesome than they “should” be?

1) Creativity isn’t maths: This one is fairly self-explanatory really. With something as subjective as both the creator’s imagination and the unique tastes of each audience member, creativity doesn’t exactly follow logical mathematical rules.

Merely adding two cool things together won’t always produce something better than either thing for the simple reason that it depends a lot on how those two things are combined and how the audience expects them to be combined. In other words, everyone has a slightly different idea of what makes something awesome – and they will focus on these elements when either creating things or being a member of the audience.

For example, one of the reasons why I don’t consider “Somewhere in Time” to be my favourite Iron Maiden album is because it really doesn’t focus that much on the philosophical themes or the cyberpunk atmosphere in “Blade Runner”. Then again, the album is Iron Maiden’s interpretation of the science fiction genre, rather than my own interpretation of it. So, it’s going to be different.

Once again, creativity isn’t maths. Merely adding two things together won’t automatically produce something even greater because creative works are made and consumed by humans rather than machines.

2) High expectations: This is also another self-explanatory reason. When you hear that something has combined or taken influence from two of your favourite things, then it’s only natural to expect it to be the best thing in the world. And, even if it’s just as good as one of the two influences, then it’s still going to fall short of the impossibly high expectations that you have about it.

Going back to “Somewhere In Time”, it’s a very good album. In fact, it’s one of those great albums that doesn’t contain a single “bad” song. But, because it presents itself as being Iron Maiden’s version of “Blade Runner”, I kind of expect it to be twice as good as I would ordinarily expect an Iron Maiden album to be. And, given that I already consider this band to be perhaps the best in the world, not even they could surpass themselves to that extent.

So, yes, hearing that something combines two of your favourite things can sometimes create unrealistically high expectations that can lead you to look down on things that, on their own merits, would otherwise be considered great.

3) Crossovers and Canonicity: Although this isn’t a problem with original works that take inspiration from two great things, it can be a problem with “crossovers” between your favourite things. Basically, as cool as crossovers are, they often carry less dramatic weight than each of their component parts do.

The reason for this is simply to do with canonicity. Basically, because a crossover consists of characters from two completely different fictional “universes” meeting each other, there usually has to be some kind of convoluted explanation for it. Likewise, it’s not usually considered to be an “official” part of either story. As such, there can’t really be any significant character or plot developments in many major crossovers.

So, if the characters from two great stories happen to meet during a crossover film, comic, novel, TV episode etc.. then it will often be more like “Hey! These characters have met each other and gone on a fun self-contained adventure!” rather than a more complex story like the one you would find in either individual thing.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Some Experiments With Graphic Design (And An Exclusive Fan Art Painting)

2016 Artwork Thoughts About Graphic design article sketch

Although art and graphic design are two fairly closely-related subjects, I’ve usually focused very heavily on the “art” side of things.

However, one night, I was in the mood for making some fan art and – after a while – I decided to design some mock cover art for a “single” of one of Iron Maiden’s more obscure songs from the 1980s ( a bonus track from “The Number Of The Beast” called “Total Eclipse“).

I’d originally planned to post this on here in one of my daily art posts (on the 8th January, to be precise) but I eventually decided against it for a variety of reasons.

So, I thought that I’d look at this picture in the context of an educational article where I “dissect” this picture and talk about the basic graphic design tricks that I used, in case they’re useful to you.

First of all, here’s my mock Iron Maiden “single cover” for “Total Eclipse”:

"Fan Art - Iron Maiden - Total Eclipse" By C. A. Brown (After Derek Riggs and The Sisters Of Mercy) [ Since this is fan art, it will NOT be released under any kind of Creative Commons licence].

“Fan Art – Iron Maiden – Total Eclipse” By C. A. Brown (After Derek Riggs and The Sisters Of Mercy) [ Since this is fan art, it will NOT be released under any kind of Creative Commons licence].

When making this mock cover art, my major influences were both Derek Riggs’ classic Iron Maiden album artwork from the 1980s (for Eddie himself) and also the cover art for the “Temple Of Love” single by The Sisters of Mercy (for the composition of the background).

In other words, although I created a distinctive and different work of (fan) art, it was heavily inspired by other artworks that have been proven to be successful – but without directly copying them.

One of the first design decisions that I made when making this painting was to mostly use a consistent blue/orange colour scheme (with some black and white parts too).

Not only are blue and orange a pair of complimentary colours and a pair of warm and cool colours, but they’re also frequently used in movie posters too (as many articles about the subject say, once you see this you can never un-see it). So, to make an attractive piece of cover art, I used a tried-and-tested colour scheme that has been proven to be successful.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE]

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE]

So, I guess that the first thing to remember with graphic design is to use techniques that are known to work, but to also put your own unique and original “spin” on them too (eg: so that they aren’t boringly derivative and/or blatant rip-offs of anything else).

As for the band name at the top of the painting, since the song in question is about a solar eclipse, I thought that it’d be a lot better to make the text look like it was “eclipsing” something by digitally adding blue lines (again, it fits in with the colour scheme) to the far right edges of each letter.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE]

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE]

The band name is still fairly recognisable, but – through a simple design choice – it also reinforces the theme of a solar eclipse. So, I guess that the thing to remember here is that even “small” or “basic” parts of your design should compliment the picture as a whole.

Well, I hope that you found this picture dissection interesting 🙂 Sorry that it was relatively superficial, but although I’ve seen lots of great examples of graphic design in the past (as has everyone, they’re literally everywhere) this was one of my first attempts at a graphic design exercise.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂