Friday, August 13, 2021

1989: A Transition Year for Drawing Clarissa

This is a sketch of Clarissa James in 1989, and one of the very first sketches putting her in the Ms. Megaton Man uniform that would become her trademark. Originally a minor character from the ten-issue Megaton Man comic book series (issue #4, to be exact), Clarissa became a core cast member with #11 (otherwise known as The Return of Megaton Man #1). After that three-issue series ended, she gained Megapowers of her own in Megaton Man Meets the Uncategorizable X+Thems #1. This sketch was a tryout of sorts to see if her transition to megahero, and specifically a female version of Megaton Man, would work.

It did, so much so that Ms. Megaton Man almost had her very own one-shot at Kitchen Sink Press, publisher of Megaton Man in the 1980s. Currently, she's the star of my prose series, The Ms. Megaton Man Maxi-Series.

Original sketchbook sketch (left), ink on canary-yellow tracing paper (center), and color (right).

What I've done with this sketch is ink and color in 2021. That I can take a drawing this old and do this at all is significant for a couple of reasons (I've done this a few other times). First, it proves that Clarissa was not only a character of increasing and emerging importance in the Megaton Man narrative, but also a transformative character in the maturation of my drawing style. Earlier installments of the Megaton Man saga depicted "civilian" (non-megapowered) characters in a caricatural style that was little more realistic than Megaton Man himself.

My awkwardness with more "realistic" characters was evident in this sequence from Megaton Man #4 (Kitchen Sink Press, June 1985).

 With Return, I sought to make the civilian characters more normally proportioned, like real people. This approach worked best with Clarissa, not so well with Preston Percy, Pamela Jointly, or other more humorous characters. Clariss is right on the very first splash page of the series, and already looks markedly more realistic than her earliest appearance (in which her head is out of proportion to her body).

The Return of Megaton Man #1 (Kitchen Sink Press, July 1988). A realistic Trent Phloog (formerly Megaton Man) and realistic Clarissa James set the tone for the three issue story arc.

It also proved that Megaton Man's costume could transfer to a more realistically proportioned character.

This is another 1989 sketch of Ms. Megaton Man from the same sketchbook session, inked in 2019.

Further, it shows that my conception of Clarissa after this point has fluctuated very little. I adjusted her visor and panty-trunks slightly to conform to her final costume design, which came together shortly after this, and adjusted her left shoulder which was too low. But essentially, my conception of Clarissa has changed very little since.

Ad for the Ms. Megaton Man one-shot in Yarn Man #1 (Kitchen Sink Press, October 1989).

Cover colored with Cel Vinyl paints but never published.

 Finally, inking this sketch shows that I can go back to 1989 and profitably finished old drawings; this is about the limit to how far back I can go. Earlier than this, my pencils are too nebulous and scribbly; the few discarded or unfinished pieces of art I have from earlier in the 1980s can't be inked today simply because my approach has changed too much.

At the same time, discovering the right design for Clarissa James as Ms. Megaton Man was essential for that transition to take place. If I hadn't made this discovery with her and her costume design, I might never have realized the caricatural Megaton Man could coexist with more realistic, even dramatic characters, both civilian and superhero. Characters like Clarissa and especially the Phantom Jungle Girl paved the way to the Bizarre Heroes series, which I self-published in the 1990s, and combined both humorous and dramatic characters.

Read the Ms. Megaton Man Maxi-Series! New prose chapter every Friday!

If you’re on Facebook, please consider joining the Ms. Megaton Man™ Maxi-Series Prose Readers group! See exclusive artwork, read advance previews, and enjoy other special stuff.
All characters, character names, likenesses, words and pictures on this page are ™ and © Don Simpson 2021, all rights reserved.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Who's the Greatest Artist Alive Today? Meet Arne the Android!

I've written elsewhere on the death of drawing; suffice it to say, over the course of my lifetime, I've watched hand drawing go from just about its midcentury peak in Western Civiliation to its virtual extinction in the twenty-first century. Hand drawing (and its offshoot, painting) once appeared in and on everything including newspapers, magazines, hardcover dustjackets, paperback, editorial illustration, advertising, album covers, billboards, signs on the sides buildings, and everywhere else. Except for a few specialty purposes like children's books, comics, and The New Yorker, imagery of the hand has almost completely disappeared as photography and digital technologies have conquered every realm.

This state of affairs is so obvious and by now irreversible that it's not even worth bemoaning anymore. 

However, when I come across some pocket of our contemporary culture where drawing is still vital (and that's never in the fine arts, needless to say), it's worth celebrating.

This morning, I went searching to see various artistic interpretations of Barsoomian flying machines; I figured there must be several illustrators who've offered their take on Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter of Mars series. I came across the work of someone so astounding, I fell into a rabbit hole for over an hour.

Imagine Ralph McQuarrie, Ron Cobb, Jean (Moebius) Giraud, Enki Bilal, and H.R. Giger all rolled into one and you'll have some idea of the imagination of Arne Niklas Janssen, who was born in 1977 (the same year those designers were impacted Hollywood movies like Star Wars and Alien) and signs his work Arne (his company's name is Android Arts).

1977 was the year I began high school and decided I wanted to be Ralph McQuarrie, and later on, all those names. I'm lucky if I have three character designs I'm even happy with, let alone are memorable, but that's not what I most envy about Arne's work. Nor is it the vast array of subjects he's had to have studied (human and animal anatomy, insects, aquatic life, machinery, architecture etc.).

There are lots of artists who can fuse techno and organic influences and invent weird stuff; usually, these hybrid analog-digital artist have some deficiencies and shortcomings. Arne has none of these. But what is most striking about Arne's work is his innate sense of weight, solidity, perspective, and body language, not to mention an incredibly subtle and unerring color sense, all of which allow his work to transcend the more trite Manga and Anime sources that seem to inspire much of his work. Arne's center seems to be in gaming, a world completely foreign to me, but he seems to have spent a good deal of time in Europe's finest museums, too.

Designing open-ended worlds without a narrative in mind is a way of thinking beyond my imagination, although Arne seems to suggest very well though-out scenarios in his texts. But putting his enormous talents to and an "end product" (like cartooning a strip like Arzach or directing a movie like Bladerunner) seems to hold no interest for him. That's just beyond my way of thinking.

I'm not even sure which designs among his various posts are actual (professional) projects, since he labels a number of them "fan art." Apparently, many are just his interpretations and elaborations of primitive, early electronic games from the twentieth century.

But what won me over beyond dispute was this quip on Twitter, which serves as his motto: "Chief analyst and author of several published works and studies closely examining representations of white low-rise panties in classic and modern media forms." This is accompanied by a banner for his profile page: a shot of Sigourney Weaver from the end of Alien in low-rise panties, a motif that seems evident of several of Arne's character designs.

Arne's Twitter banner image, from Ridley Scott's Alien (1979).

I don't know much about Arne; his labyrinthian website and social media suggest only the tip of a massive iceberg (his writing is also error-free and highly intelligent). The first and most apt term that comes to mind is "genius." At least I know where to look if I want to swipe an armored robot or alien in low-rise panties (or perhaps a Barsoomian flying machine).

Images are ™ and © Arne Niklas Jannsen, taken from his Twitter, Pinterest, website and other sources. And it's just a sampling.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

A J.K. Rowling Transphobia Primer (A Good, Old-Fashioned Link List!)

Below is a good, old-fashioned link list of the J.K. Rowling transgender controversy. I built this list for my college students who are reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) as part of a "Coming-of-Age" literature class (they've also read Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and Steven Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, fyi). When I first started posting on the controversy, it seemed to many like only an intercene fandom happening, but the story has continued to have ramifications for the business prospects of the Harry Potter franchise, to say nothing of the real-world impact on the trans community. For my views, see other posts on this blog. - Donald E. Simpson, PhD.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Books Without Borders: Recent Reviews

Updated January 7, 2021.

Since 2014, I have composed a number of reviews for book editor Tony Norman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Here is a running list of the links (all have been for the P-G, unless otherwise noted):

January 5, 2021:
Madelyn Roehrig, Andy, Can You Hear Us? Volume 1 (Winter), Andy’s Figments LLC, $39.95 direct from the publisher; $49.95 elsewhere). Art History, Local (Pittsburgh) History, Culture and Society.

August 2, 2020:
Ronald F. Levant and Shana Pryor, The Tough Standard: The Hard Truths About Masculinity and Violence (Oxford University Press, $27.95). Masculinity; Society; Feminism.

Friday, May 22, 2020 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Weekend Magazine):
Ben Katchor,
The Dairy Restaurant (Nextbook/Schocken, $29.95). Cultural History; Judaica; Graphic Novel.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Clarissa at #100

The Ms. Megaton Man Maxi-Series at the Two-Year Mark 

The Ms. Megaton Man™ Maxi-Series is fast coming upon episode #100, as well as the two-year mark of my posting of a 3000-4000-word chapter online every Friday. I’d like to take moment to reflect on what I’ve learned from the experience so far.
        First, I can’t think of another character in the Megaton Man narrative who could function as the first-person narrator as well as Clarissa James. For one thing, she is a civilian when we meet her, and she occupies a central role among the core cast of characters Trent Phloog (Megaton Man), Stella Starlight (the See-Thru Girl), Secret Agent Preston Percy, Bing Gloom (Yarn Man), Kozmik Kat, and Simon (the son of Megaton Man and the See-Thru Girl). Therefore, the reader can be introduced (or reintroduced, if they read the comics) into the fantastic world a megaheroes through her eyes. Secondly, as a studious student and an impulsive personality with a smart mouth, she has the requisite combination of astute observation, disarming honesty, and sassy impulsiveness to remark on the world of megaheroes with sardonic wit and irreverence.
        No other character could serve this first-person narrator function, nor, I believe, the role of the central protagonist at this point in the Megaton Man universe chronology.
        Trent Phloog, the former Megaton Man, is nowhere near as dim as he was depicted in the original Megaton Man comic books; in the Maxi-Series, he presently works in a used bookstore and even attends classes at the Huron River Community College (the less rigorous academic neighbor Arbor State University). But, while Trent certainly occupies a central position, I felt that he lacked the requisite self-reflection necessary to narrate the story about his world.
        Likewise, Stella Starlight is nowhere near the airhead she was as the See-Thru Girl. Even in the comic books, through the Bizarre Heroes series, she was shown to be sharper than she first let on. In the Maxi-Series, she’s shown to be just as serious a student as Clarissa, and earns her way into a highly competitive graduate program in Conjectural Metaphysics (or whatever I call the program; I’ve changed minds on this several times). But Stella, too, at this point in her life, is blocked for a number of personal reasons, and more importantly lacks the candor and objectivity to function as a good narrator.
        Pamela Jointly, the controversial columnist, would seem the most likely candidate to first-person narrate a story about the real lives of our megaheroes; in fact, in the comics as well as the series, she is writing a book, Megasomething, a fictionalized expose that becomes a bestseller and ultimately a TV show, which in fact prompts Clarissa to respond with her own memoirs. But Pammy is also a professional cynic and a sensationalist, and her perspective on the personal lives of the denizens of Ann Street are therefore highly distorted and commercialized. While we will get glimpses into her writings from time to time, I had no interest in making her version of events the centerpiece of a prose series. Also, in the comics as well as the Maxi-Series, Pammy is only in and out of Ann Arbor and Detroit, and therefore the lives of the other characters, intermittently.
        Secret Agent Preston Percy would also seem a likely choice to serve as a first-person narrator. As Megaton Man’s handler in Megatropolis, he continued to hover over the civilian Phloog-Starlight household on Ann Street and even babysit Simon in both the comics and in the current prose series. As a professional spy, he would certainly have kept copious notes and made objective reports to officials back in Washington replete with sardonic observations. But the idea of a prose series built around such technocratic never appealed to me.
        Still other characters who might plausibly serve as first-person narrators of these events may have the requisite candor and humor but lack a necessary centrality to the main action. Of these, Donna Blank, licensed social worker and the Phantom Jungle Girl, might be the most interesting; but as a Bizarre Hero and something of an outsider to the Megaton Man universe (for reasons that will be further explicated in the Maxi-Series), she is too much on the periphery, at least at the beginning, to tell the story of America’s Extended Nuclear Family. Kozmik Kat, who has played the foil to Clarissa in parts of the Maxi-Series, would be an interesting if unlikely choice as a first-person narrator. But he, too, is also in and out of Ann Arbor and Detroit, and misses witnessing too many events firsthand.
        Of course, there is no reason stories from the Megaton Man narrative need to be told in the first person at all. But right up to the time I jumped into the Maxi-Series, In fact, the idea of using a first-person narrator to tell the story of a universe as far flung as that of Megaton Man and Bizarre Heroes in prose had been unthinkable to me.

The origin of Ms. Megaton Man, from Yarn Man #1 (Kitchen Sink Press, October 1989).

Also from Yarn Man #1, an ad for a planned Ms. Megaton Man one-shot that never materialized, although the story ideas were used in parts of the Bizarre Heroes series.

        When I began this project in the spring of 2015, I originally contemplated a series of comic books or graphic novels taking place following the original on the original comic books. By 2016, when I decided to attempt prose, I chose the third-person voice. I completed one novel-length manuscript and parts of two others using a third-person narrator. For various reasons, I couldn’t find the right tone, and by the fall of 2018 had set them aside. My thoughts turned to drawing a short, self-contained one-shot comic book and perhaps abandoning prose for the time being.
        Being busy with other things, I made no notes or preparatory sketches, but I knew that the comic book I would have drawn would have featured Ms. Megaton Man. In the retroactive world-building I accomplished between 2015 and 2018, I had identified long stretches of time in which an “untold tale” from Ms. Megaton Man’s early career could take place. As 2019 rolled around, the thought occurred to me to have Clarissa James narrate the stories. Suddenly, the prose series was back on.
        In retrospect, I don’t know why the idea hadn’t occurred to me long before. For all the reasons listed above, Clarissa was the perfect character to narrate these stories. She was also the perfect voice for me, and I believe the perfect entry point for the reader. Her unexpected development in the comics, from mere interlocutor-sidekick to Stella in Megaton Man #4 (June 1985) to full-blown megahero in Megaton Man Meets the Uncategorizable X+Thems #1 (April 1989) made her the emblematic character of my own transition from the parodic Megaton Man comics to the slightly more soberly superheroic Bizarre Heroes series.
        When I first drew Clarissa as Ms. Megaton Man in my sketchbooks in the late eighties, I realized immediately that her more realistic proportions would allow her to function in both humorous and dramatic situations; this was a quality she shared with the Phantom Jungle Girl, a character I developed around the same time. Despite their ridiculous names, both were important in my move away from considering Megaton Man merely a parody of other comics and toward thinking of my imaginative universe as a viable reality in its own right.
        Electing Clarissa as the first-person narrator of the prose stories was not without drawbacks. In the comics, I presented her at first as a studious student, skeptical of megaheroes at all. Later, when she becomes a housemate of Stella, Pammy, and Trent, she is shown as having an impulsive nature, jumping Yarn Man when he appears in order to belatedly lose her virginity. She even shacks up with Yarn Man in the Ann Street basement, which seems to cause her breakout as Ms. Megaton Man.
        After this, in the comics she is shown as a rather randy character with an uninhibited sex life and an unorthodox view on life. A late bloomer who goes through a delayed freshman crisis, Clarissa never behaves within the bounds of proper decorum again, at least in the comics. Although her appearances in Bizarre Heroes are sporadic, she can always be relied upon to blurt out snarky comments, inappropriate remarks, and salacious double entendres, as well as the occasionally explicit swear word. She’s brutally honest while seldom malicious, objective yet thoughtful.
        One challenge for me has been in deciding how far to go in revealing Clarissa’s erotic life. While I know she would just as candid in a diary or a first draft memoir as she would be in conversation, that is not to say should would not be more discreet and demur in a text revised for publication, especially when working with an editor and for the record.
        Our culture, as visually permissive as it has become in the age of internet porn, still maintains a rigid distinction between what can be depicted dramatically in visual media like comics, TV, and film, while it has long been more liberal in text and prose. But that’s not to say that all things can be discussed, least of all by a straight, white male writing under the guise of a bisexual black female, let alone accepted by all readers. In the age of cancel culture, I simply take it for granted that for certain readers I will never be able to overcome this apparent dissonance, even if it could somehow be proven I had gotten the tone exactly right.
        Suffice it to say that at this 100-chapter, two-year, three-volume mark, the Ms. Megaton Man™ Maxi-Series continues to be a work in progress, experimental and certainly a learning experience for me. I hope you are enjoying it and will leave a comment on individual chapters or on my social media. Thanks again for your support!

If you’re on Facebook, please consider joining the Ms. Megaton Man™ Maxi-Series Prose Readers group! See exclusive artwork, read advance previews, and enjoy other special stuff.
All characters, character names, likenesses, words and pictures on this page are ™ and © Don Simpson 2020, all rights reserved.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Other People’s Plato’s Caves

The Allegory of the Cave is told in Plato’s Republic 514a–520a. Briefly, it says,

In a cave deep underground, a group of prisoners are chained to a bench in such a way that they face a wall. The only light from the tunnel leading up to the surface behind them projects murky shadows on the wall; these shadows the prisoners mistake for substance, reality.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Fans Didn’t Enable Rowling; Success, Ego, and Power Did That.

I watched part of a YouTube video last night in which a longtime Potter fan basically laid out a thesis that fans have progressively enabled Rowling to become a bigot. This is an interest thesis, with some very small, partial truth to it; but it’s naïve—fannishly so, imagining a closer relationship and more influence on the author than fans actually have.

Friday, September 18, 2020

J.K. Rowling, Aging Face of a Zealous and Growing Ignorance Movement

It’s a shame seeing J.K. Rowling become the face of a hate movement, and worse, an anti-intellectual movement of sycophants whose rhetorical tactics (fallacious reasoning) are on the level of snotty seven-year-olds. “Back up your assertions!” they squeal, while liking people with TERF in their handles.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Conan the Uncorrupted: Pure Robert E. Howard, Belatedly

Two books came in the mail today: The Conan Chronicles volumes I and II by Robert E. Howard. Originally published in the UK in the early 2000s, I must have missed their debut. I still can't figure out if there ever were counterpart editions in the United States, but if there were, they have evaded me.