The Joy Of… Alternative Mainstreams

The day before I prepared this article, I happened to hear about a couple of long-running BBC radio shows (one of which had been running for more than sixty series!) that I’d never even heard of before (which have possibly inspired more popular TV shows on the BBC). This intrigued me because radio seemed like a totally separate media ecosystem with it’s own traditions, history etc… that runs parallel to the more well-known one on television.

In other words, it was an alternative mainstream. I vaguely remember finding something similar whilst playing a low-budget computer game called “Retro City Rampage”, which also references well-known indie games in a similar way to how it references well-known films, old “mainstream” games etc.. This made me think of the idea of there being a “mainstream” for indie games, and how interesting this would be.

However, a better computer game-related example of this type of thing would probably be games in the hidden object genre. Although it’s been quite a while since I’ve last played a hidden object game, this is a genre that is pretty much never mentioned in mainstream gaming media, yet it pretty much has it’s own ecoystem – with big name publishers, smaller developers and long-running series (eg: “House Of 1000 Doors”, “Twisted Lands” etc.. ). It’s like an entirely different gaming culture that exists in parallel to the more well-known one.

Then there’s music. I remember hearing part of a fan recording of an Iron Maiden concert where the lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, went on this absolutely brilliant rant about how their music is never played on the radio, how it doesn’t appear in the most music magazines etc… and yet they still have literally millions of fans, because people can make up their own minds about music. It made me think about the contrast between the mainstream mainstream and alternative mainstreams.

Because Iron Maiden is, quite rightly, one of the most popular heavy metal bands out there. They were the band that introduced me to heavy metal and, even in the days when online shopping was still a relatively new thing, you could always find their CDs in even the most mainstream of high-street record shops. This made me think of the idea of a more meritocratic mainstream, where (like with heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden), popularity is determined entirely by quality and musical skill rather than celebrity.

Then there’s the TV show “Eureka”. This is a sci-fi TV series set in a secret town in America where all of the country’s top scientific geniuses live. One of the interesting things in the show was how it would reference real 20th/21st century scientists in the same way that famous historical figures etc.. are usually referenced.

Although this idea isn’t entirely new (it reminded me a bit of an old episode of “Sliders” where academics are treated like famous sports stars), it made me think about how fame in certain spheres rarely translates to fame in the everyday world. In other words, it made me think about alternative mainstreams again.

So, why are alternative mainstreams such a fascinating thing?

In addition to all of the stuff I’ve mentioned about how they often tend to work differently to the actual mainstream (eg: they can be more meritocratic, they can be less commercialist, they can be more tradition-based, they can place emphasis on different qualities etc..), there’s also the intriguing idea of these things quite literally “hiding in plain sight”, like some kind of secret parallel culture or something like that.

But, more than all of this, alternative mainstreams are fascinating because they show us how culture works. They hold a mirror up to “mainstream” culture and allow us to see which parts of it developed “naturally” and which parts of it were due to celebrity, advertising etc…

Finally, they are also reassuring because they show us that “the mainstream” isn’t the only mainstream out there. That, hiding in plain sight, there is a “world” where bands gain popularity purely on musical merit, where low-budget 2D games can be popular and where well-known programs can run for over sixty series.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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Creativity, Subcultures And Fandoms – A Ramble

Although this is an article about making art, writing fiction etc… I’m going to have to start by talking about music and fashion/clothing for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later. But, if you don’t have time for this, then just skip the next five paragraphs or so.

A while before I wrote this article, I ended up reading some online articles about something that I’d seen a few times at concerts/festivals but didn’t know the exact word for. I am, of course, talking about heavy metal “battle jackets”/”battle vests”, which are covered in band patches. No two are the same, and each one is a reflection of the wearer’s musical tastes.

Even though this made me curious enough to make a fan art painting of what my ideal battle vest would probably look like, it also made me think about my relationship with the heavy metal subculture too. But, first, here’s a preview of the fan art painting I mentioned:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 12th October.

Although I had a lot of fun making this painting, I suddenly found myself wondering if a battle vest was “too metal” for me. I mean, I wouldn’t think twice about wearing an Iron Maiden/Judas Priest/Cradle Of Filth etc.. T-shirt, but a battle vest seemed like a totally different thing.

Even though heavy metal is one of my favourite genres of music (and has been for over fifteen years), I felt strangely uneasy about the idea of ever making or wearing something that distinctively showed me to be the most absolutely dedicated of metalheads.

Why? Because metal is one of several genres that I absolutely love. I’m also a fan of songs by several punk bands, several gothic rock bands, a couple of electronic musicians, a couple of rappers, an indie band or two, a few acoustic musicians and even (dare I say it?) a few pop musicians. In other words – if I like a song, musician or band, then I like it. If the music is good enough, genre doesn’t matter.

But what does any of this have to do with creativity?

Simply put, having a wider range of interests (simply by following your own instincts about whether something is good or not) is essential for both creativity and originality. If you only take inspiration from things in one particular genre, then your creative works won’t be as distinctive as the things that you really love. Why? Because true originality comes from taking inspiration from lots of different things.

Following your own instincts about what you enjoy, rather than rigidly sticking to just one genre, also means that you have to think more critically about your own sensibilities. In other words, you have to look at what all of your favourite things have in common. Once you’ve learnt this, you can use this knowledge to improve your own creative works and make them distinctively “yours”.

To use an artistic example that I’ve used many times before, almost all of my paintings from the past couple of years feature high-contrast lighting and/or chiaroscuro lighting. My usual rule is that at least 30-50% of the surface area of each painting should be covered with black paint. It results in art that looks like this:

“The Lost Room” By C. A. Brown

“Launch” By C. A. Brown

But, how did I learn this rule? Simply put, I noticed that a lot of things that I thought were cool followed it.

These included things as diverse as heavy metal album covers, various computer and video games, old horror novel covers, the film noir and cyberpunk genres, 1980s/90s films (in several genres), historical paintings, various comics etc.. So, looking at a range of different “cool” things can help you to refine your own style and make your creative works more original.

To use a musical example, one of the qualities that I love in music is lyrical sophistication (eg: clever rhymes, good metaphors, interesting vocabulary, humour etc..).

This is why I really love various songs by Cradle Of Filth (heavy metal), Tinie Tempah (rap), Suzanne Vega (acoustic) and Bad Religion (punk). All of these musicians share this one quality, even though their music sounds extremely different. So, if I ever had the musical skill to write a song, then it would probably include this quality.

As cool as subcultures are and as cool as it might be to just focus on one genre, don’t let this restrict you! Following your own instincts and understanding your own sensibilities is much more important for your creativity than fitting into any one subculture, genre or fandom.

Of course, because the universe loves irony, one of the main themes in many subcultures is rebelling against conformity. Seriously, it’s something that metalheads, punks, goths, retro/indie gamers, hipsters, horror movie fans etc… all have in common. So, try to actually take it seriously.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Using Fake Subcultures To Make Your Comic Or Story More Interesting

2017-artwork-fake-subcultures-article-sketch

Although this is an article about a really interesting storytelling technique that can help you to make your audience more interested in your comics and/or fiction, I’m going to have to spend pretty much all of this article discussing and dissecting a single TV show because it contains the best example of this one technique that I’ve ever seen.

During the week or two before I originally wrote this article, I’d started rewatching some DVDs of the first few series of a TV show called “Hustle“. If you’ve never heard of this show before, it’s a BBC comedy/drama show that focuses on a group of con artists who live in London.

In every episode of “Hustle”, the main characters pull off some kind of large con, heist and/or scam which usually involves an almost Sherlock Holmes-like level of complex thought, a large number of magic trick-like plot twists and a lot of comedy.

Anyway, the reason why I’m mentioning this show is because of the way that these characters are presented. Whilst the show quickly gets the audience on side by showing that they rigidly follow a rule of “you can’t cheat an honest man” (eg: they only steal large amounts of money from worse criminals, corrupt people, arrogant aristocrats etc..), it also does something much more interesting too.

It presents con artistry as a kind of subculture. The characters all have their own slang (eg: they refer to themselves as “grifters” etc..), there are occasional references to the “traditions” and “superstitions” of being a con artist, they seem to know a network of other “good” criminals who are all fairly similar to them, they have a strong attitude that “it isn’t about the money” and often seem to treat their activities more like a sport than anything else etc..

Of course, even a cursory glance at a newspaper or news site will show you that this is clearly artistic licence. Most real con artists either seem to be located in countries with more lenient internet fraud laws/extradition laws, or they seem to be sneaky and unprincipled opportunists who prey on the vulnerable, or they just seem to be ordinary people who happened to find a dubious way to make some quick cash, or they are members of vicious organised crime gangs, or they are motivated by unglamourous things like poverty rather than by “the sport of it”.

And, yet, if “Hustle” had more ‘realistic’ main characters, it wouldn’t be a very entertaining show. It would be an extremely depressing one. The show works because it creates a fictional subculture surrounding a slightly “mysterious” part of real life.

The show isn’t actually a show about scams, heists and con tricks, it’s actually a show about friendship, teamwork and the power of the intellect. If all of the main characters were stage magicians or private detectives instead of con artists, it would still be just as entertaining to watch.

One of the reasons why obviously fake subcultures work so well in TV shows is because they tap into several basic parts of our minds. For starters, they help us to feel a sense of belonging by showing us an interesting group of people who we’d probably like to join. Since we get to see a lot of their adventures, their conversations and their history, we get to feel a vicarious sense of belonging. In some small way, we temporarily feel like we’re associated with a group of people who have been designed to be likeable.

Likewise, many of these “fake subculture” TV shows (“Supernatural” and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” spring to mind too) often hint that the main characters are only a small part of a much larger subculture. This is designed to provoke the audience’s imaginations and to make them wonder what the rest of the “world” of the show is like. This is the sort of thing that prompts people to write fan fiction or, even better, to come up with actual original things inspired by the shows in question.

Plus, by hinting at a larger subculture, it also briefly makes the audience what the real world would be like if such a subculture actually existed. After all, subcultures are a thing that actually exists – and the best ones usually aren’t “mainstream”. So, by showing something similar to the real way that subcultures work, it makes the audience wonder if the fictional subculture could actually ever exist in the real world.

Yes, fake subcultures can be unintentionally hilarious/ laughably stupid when they’re done badly. But, when they’re done well, they can be an extremely useful tool for making your audience more interested in the story that you’re telling.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Musical Subcultures, Belonging And Art – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Subcultures and art

Well, for today, I thought that I’d ramble about the role that musical subcultures can play in being an artist. This was mainly prompted by some interesting news stories that I read earlier this year about the reactions to the plans for an official celebration of punk music in London this year.

A lot of people thought that such a celebration “wasn’t punk”, but my initial reaction to it was more along the lines of “Cool! Punk music is finally getting some recognition. Now, where’s the celebration of heavy metal?

To say that I have a complicated relationship with the punk genre would be an understatement. It was actually the very first “cool” genre of music that I ever discovered when I was a kid in the late 1990s. This was, of course, near the end of the wonderful (but brief) time when American punk music became sort of mainstream. Although this instantly led to me becoming a lifelong fan of The Offspring (and later to discover other great punk bands too), I’ve kind of had a sporadic relationship with the punk genre.

Thanks to discovering the heavy metal genre a couple of years after I first discovered punk, punk music has always been something that I seem to go through phases of listening to and not listening to. It’s still one of my absolute favourite genres, but whenever I’ve met people who are into punk music, I always feel like I’m “not really punk” by comparison. And yet, the punk genre turns up relatively often in my art (albeit mostly in subtle ways, unlike this painting):

Yes, I added myself to the background of this painting, but I'm probably the least punk person in it ("Days Of The Angel" By C. A. Brown)

Yes, I added myself to the background of this painting, but I’m probably the least punk person in it (“Days Of The Angel” By C. A. Brown)

I had the same sort of reaction when I finally discovered gothic rock during my very early twenties. Despite the fact that I’ve been interested in the horror genre, to varying extents, for most of my life. Despite the fact that I almost always wear dark clothing. Despite the fact that I was reading H.P. Lovecraft when I was seventeen. Despite the fact that Billy Martin/ Poppy Z. Brite is my favourite author. I still don’t really call myself a “goth”.

Because I was somewhat of a latecomer to gothic rock, I often still don’t really consider myself to be “really a goth”. This is especially true whenever I’ve met people who are actual goths. And, again, quite a lot of my art tends to be slightly gothic. Even when I’m not planning to make gothic art, my art can still have a slight gothic look to it. Like this:

"La Chanteuse" By C. A. Brown

“La Chanteuse” By C. A. Brown

Ironically though, I’ve never had this problem with heavy metal music. As soon as I bought my first Iron Maiden CD, I was a metalhead. Whenever I’ve met people who are into heavy metal, I’ve never really felt like I’m “not really a metalhead”. Whenever I’ve been to metal concerts, I’ve just felt like part of the audience. Metal seems to be a surprisingly open-ended subculture in many ways.

And, yet, when it comes to making art, heavy metal imagery doesn’t really turn up as often as it “should” in the art that I make. In fact, my art often tends to include more punk and gothic imagery than heavy metal imagery. Even though there’s a good chance that I’ll be listening to heavy metal when I make most of my art, it still doesn’t actually turn up in my paintings and drawings as much as punk/ gothic imagery does.

I guess that, in a way, this is because subcultures are about more than just music. I mean, both the punk and goth genres have a surprisingly rich and accessible visual tradition. Gothic artwork is more about the levels of gloominess in a particular picture and the actual content of the picture (eg: settings, clothing styles etc..) – it doesn’t matter whether a picture is realistic or cartoonish, if it contains certain elements, then it’s gothic art.

And, since it looks really cool, most of my art tends to include gothic elements. Even if this is only the fact that my art tends to contain bold contrasts between light and darkness, this is at least partly a gothic thing. It’s also inspired by other things too, but it can still look fairly gothic too. Like in this painting:

"Behind The Wall" By C. A. Brown

“Behind The Wall” By C. A. Brown

Likewise, thanks to the DIY tradition of punk (something I really probably should know more about), punk art is meant to be slightly stylised and unpolished. It’s the eccentric artwork in a “Tank Girl” comic. It’s a cynical political cartoon. It’s a type of art where you can include hilariously grotesque things (eg: zombies etc..). It can be detailed or undetailed. It has to be at least mildly rebellious. Best of all, when combined with science fiction, it turns into the cyberpunk genre – the coolest sci-fi sub-genre of them all.

It’s an absolute joy to make art in this genre, especially when I don’t think that I am. Like in this very 1990s punk-influenced picture of some zombies that I made a while ago.

"Fake '80s Movies - Zombie Quad Bikers 2" By C. A. Brown

“Fake ’80s Movies – Zombie Quad Bikers 2” By C. A. Brown

Or one of my many 1980s/1990s-style cyberpunk paintings:

"Cityship Bridge" By C. A. Brown

“Cityship Bridge” By C. A. Brown

Heavy metal art, on the other hand, is often highly realistic. It’s a really awesome genre of art, but to make “proper” metal art (that could grace an album cover), you need to be able to paint or draw in an extremely realistic style. I am at least a few years away from being able to do this. Yes, I’ve made heavy metal-themed artwork, but I don’t know if I’d say that any of my art is truly “metal art”.

So, I guess that what I’m trying to say is that there is more to most modern subcultures than just music. When it comes to making art, there are probably a lot of other factors that will influence what kinds of art that you make. Trying to fit yourself into one genre will probably limit the kind of art that you make. So, just make the kinds of art that you think are “cool” and if anything from your favourite musical genres appears in them, then this is a bonus.

At the end of the day, you’re probably going to make the kind of art that you think looks cool. So, just make it and stop worrying about musical subcultures.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂