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Via Smithsonian magazine, here’s the Earliest Known Artist’s Studio.

An abalone shell recovered from Blombos Cave and a grindstone covered in red ochre. Image © Science/AAAS

Call it an early artist’s studio or a primitive chemist’s lab: Last week scientists announced the discovery of a 100,000-year-old paint-processing workshop in a cave in South Africa, where early humans stored paint mixtures in shell containers. The finding demonstrates that our ancestors had some basic understanding of chemistry and a capacity for long-term planning at this early point in our species’ history, the researchers reported in Science.

As you all know, “anatomically modern humans” have been around for about 200,000 years. But until recently, it was thought that we didn’t become “behaviorally” human (ie. having culture and art and stuff) until 70,000 years ago. Finds like this extend the human story farther into the past.

For a sense of scale, the beginning of Western civilization is often set at the invention of cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia, a mere 6,000 years ago. But by that point, the story had been going on for at least 94,000 years.


For the first time in 20 years, there’s an ongoing Shadow series, now written by Garth Ennis. I was looking forward to it, it’s been in my pull for five months, and it’s kind of magnificent.

Aaron Campbell drawing the Shadow

Ennis is doing two main things here: First, he’s showing us the Shadow in the 1940s, so he’s a little more experienced than the dark avenger we see in his usual 1930s milieu. This also brings him square into WWII, which makes sense. In his world, the Shadow is the most amazing man who ever lived. It’s funny to think he’d spend his whole career running around Manhattan worrying which grotesque ethnic stereotype stole the Van Der Fluegel Ruby.

The second thing Ennis does is mix powers and backstories from different interpretations of the character. One of the things that makes the Shadow so mysterious is that he doesn’t have a canon origin, or even a canon identity: he debuted in the pulps and the radio around the same time, and had a different origin in each. He had a couple of layers of origins in the pulps, and each comic book incarnation has felt free to invent a new backstory. Ennis has made some surprising choices.

Ennis’ Shadow draws most heavily from the I-was-a-white-Mongol-warlord origin of the 1994 Alec Baldwin movie, with a hint of Howard Chaykin’s 1980s take. In terms of characterization, I was afraid it’d be like Ennis’ Punisher: a serial killer starring in his own book, but with a fedora. He seems to be sticking close to the classic interpretation, with some purplish pulpy prose. There’s also a dollop of Chaykin — of course the Shadow is sleeping with his “friend and companion, the lovely Margo Lane.”

In terms of powers, he’s using the classic power set from the comics (hypnosis, blending into shadows), but he seems to have added the power to “becloud” minds from the Archie Comics version. I did not expect to ever see the Archie version again, under any circumstances. Ennis has added a vague ability to “see fate” and the macabre ability to hypnotize the dead and dying.

The Shadow now hypnotizes the dead and dying

To the longtime fan, the oddest change is the characterization of Margo Lane. The Margo who debuted on the radio was a typical girl sidekick, sometimes saving the day but oftentimes in need of rescue. The Margo of the comics has generally been more of a brassy, tough-as-nails broad. Ennis’ Margo Lane is clearly suffering from PTSD.

Margo Lane suffers from PTSD

And who could blame her?

The other thing is that the Shadow doesn’t laugh much. To a longtime fan, that’s just weird.

I haven’t said much about the story yet. The Shadow is racing across the globe to prevent Imperial Japan from getting an element for a super-weapon, opposed by a wily old Japanese criminal from his past. It’s taking way too long to get where it’s going, but Ennis is taking the opportunity to throw in some pretty serious history about the Japanese occupation of China. I’m enjoying it.

I think the art, by Aaron Campbell, is speaking for itself here. The Shadow’s been drawn by Eduardo Barreto, Mike Kaluta, Howard Chaykin and Bill Sienkiewicz; and Campbell’s holding his own.

Color me skeptical about the new Green Arrow show, which I guess is premiering tonight on the CW. But the other day I saw a neighbor kid with a bow and arrow pretending to be him. So I dunno, maybe the thing has legs.

On the other hand, he might have gotten Green Arrow from the Brave & the Bold cartoon. And he is kind of a weird kid.

But here’s hoping it’s good and brings a few more people into our little subculture.

I needed to marinate in the juices that was The Mix for a couple of days. Drink in the academia, the art, and receding hairlines. The major thing I take away from it is the question, why isn’t Columbus a bigger comics town? That seemed to be the question posed in interview by Robert Loss and on the Indie Comix panel that Caitlin (from the Cartoon Library) moderated.  Hell, even today it was mentioned on the Comics Reporter. By all rights, we should be. The cost of living is significantly cheaper than Chicago or New York.  Our local economy’s fairing better than most metropolitan cities, despite the crappy economy. Life doesn’t suck in Columbus. Believe me, it took me five or so years out of art school to realize that. You can set up your homebase here, and travel to cons in Chicago, Baltimore, Bethesda, and or New York. Granted, the major drawback for a creative is looking for work in graphic design, or advertising for say a firm or company: the market’s flooded. It doesn’t mean you can’t start your own company or freelance for clients outside Columbus.

I was able to see both panels with Chris Ware. There was a ‘keynote’ Friday night that was more like an informal talk with Ware. Jeff Smith and the entire Cartoon Books staff was in attendance. Saturday he was part of a panel on contemporary life in comics. When I got there, it seemed more like a continuation of Friday’s keynote. I wasn’t complaining, I wanted to hear more from Ware. I went and checked out the exhibit of Ware’s work that’s still up in the Canzani Center main gallery. Make a hard right as you pass the ridiculously big Red Riding Hood installation.

The crowd was a mix of college professors and students. It was a modest attendance for most of the panels, save the keynote address which was of course, free. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there’s a growing number of English college departments taking comics seriously. In that I mean there are college classes now where professors assign Watchmen or Fun Home along with Ulysses or The Invisible Man. CCAD’s Robert Loss teaches a course dedicated to graphic novels. Makes perfect sense for an art school. I’d love to see this grow and expand into sub-series of courses for cartoonists. Enriching the comics illustration class that I  took back when I was a student.

CCAD is moving forward with plans for next year’s Mix. To be a part of it, it’s a bit more complicated than being in a convention panel. You have to submit a resume, and an abstract (synapsis) of what you want to talk about in one of the panels. Artists, creators, and or writers are all welcome.

So the Mix started today at CCAD in Columbus: a series of workshops & panel discussions about comics. Technically it began last night with a panel discussion on Maus. As of now it appears all the workshops are filled up. Yay. There is a registration charge (cover) of $50 for all three days (except for the Chris Ware talk which is free).

Click here for the full schedule.

  • Friday I’ll be on the Indie Comics Spotlight panel. The panel runs from 4:15 – 5:30pm at the Canzani Center.
  • Saturday, I’ll be participating in the Authoring Comics panel. That runs from 12:45 – 2:15pm. Also in the Canzani Center.

The Chris Ware keynote speech begins at 7pm Friday with a reception to follow. Officially his new book drops this week, and of course it will be at the Mix pop-up shop. I’ll have some merch there as well.

Robert Loss, the Mix organizer & english professor at the school, runs a comics blog. The Comics Reporter ran an interview with him today. Sounds like the school is up for making this an annual event which is really cool.

See you there.

So here’s news that the Apple is no longer supporting the iPad 1, 19 months after they stopped selling it. So if you bought an iPad two years ago and planned to keep your comics on it, it’s time to shell out another $499.

I reckon you could go for a Kindle or a Nook, but I’m not sure about the rights issues. Or maybe you could store them on the cloud. I need to research this.

I feel like digital comics have to be the future, but they gotta work out details like this. In the meantime, I’m still analog. My dead-tree comics have no DRM issues, hardware requirements, or downloads. They’re plug n’ play!

They’re also taking up 10 square feet of floor space in our spare room, but that’s a different rant.

For a wedding present, I got us season tickets to BalletMet. We try to catch a ballet once a year or so. And, y’know, it’s been kind of great for my comix.

This would land you on Escher Girls.

First, ballet is a completely different way of telling stories. Comix are a hybrid of words and pictures, but ballet tells the story with only visuals.

(This doesn’t work perfectly as narrative – ballet is better if you already know the story, and it seems you can express any emotion by leaping into the air. Ballets tend to be pretty decompressed, story-wise. They spend a lot more time on scenes that might involve dancing; ie. the super-long celebration scene at the end of the Nutcracker. But it really shows what you can do with only body language.)

We saw BalletMet’s Dracula a few years ago, and damned if the lead dancer didn’t pull of a live-action version of a Kelley Jones comic.

Comix is also concerned with finding the right dynamic pose, and so is ballet. The dancers are trained to hold the heel just so, or the hand just so, and get exactly the right line between the shoulders and the hips.

Contrast the ballet to the poses you see on Escher Girls. Many of the poses are almost possible for ballet dancers, although you still have to account for ribcages and the limits of the spine.

Finally, ballet shows the geometry of the human body. Drawing the body in motion demands a good understanding of where the joints are and how they interact. If you lift this foot in a kick, the opposite hip will drop this way. If you raise the arm to strike, the other shoulder will move like so. Ballet dancers have tremendous control over their entire bodies, showing exactly how the pieces can move.

The best thing for comix is to bring in things from outside of comix. If you want another view of human anatomy and body language, you can’t do much better than a trip to the ballet.

I recently read Get Jiro!, the “foodie” graphic novel by chef and travel show host Anthony Bourdain. I wasn’t familiar with artist Langdon Foss’ work prior to this, but really enjoyed it. Here’s a splash page depicting a busy kitchen in one of the antagonist’s many corporate restaurants:

Foss has that clean line style down perfect. His work reminds me a lot of the late, great Seth Fisher.

I’ve only contributed one other time to Panel’s contribution to Flash Fiction. Clocking in at 332 words, here is my second attempt. Bonus points to anybody who can guess what this is really about.


He woke up. He had no idea where he was, who he was. Only vague memories. There was a bottle of pills on the nightstand. He took one, and stumbled out the door into the hall.

The halls were dark and the corridors were labyrinthian.  A lightbulb flickered once on the ceiling  and he thought he saw a shadow. The shadow took on a ghostly aspect and he knew somehow it was the spirit of someone he didn’t want to remember. He turned and ran, not knowing where he was going, just knowing he must find the exit.  He knew he was being pursued, could feel the spirit’s malevolence close behind him. He entered a room and popped another pill. There were more ghostly shadows here. They all felt so familiar, yet so hostile. The hate that emanated from them was suffocating. He turned and ran. The darkness pursued him.

He managed to duck into an alcove and popped another pill. There was a door directly behind him and opened it and entered, unable to control his own actions. The darkness followed. It was a small dilapidated lounge. On the bar sat a small shotglass full of dark liquor. Without thinking he drained it. The ghosts vanished. He shivered, took a pill and left the room to explore the corridors again.

He stumbled blindly through the musty halls.  He stopped again to take another pill.  For the pain.  He could feel a new presence directly behind him.  His memory stirred and for a moment he knew her. Then it was gone, but the emotions remained. Not hate this time, but profound loss  and despair. The shadows embraced him. He opened his arms and welcomed this new oblivion. All of the pain disappeared. There was nothing else.

He woke up he had no idea where he was, who he was. Only vague memories. There was a bottle of pills on the nightstand. He took one, and stumbled out the door into the hall.

So … a week or so ago I submitted a flash fiction story to a flash fiction website. Two days ago, I got a rejection email.

Thank you for submitting your story, “Working Man.” Unfortunately, we have decided not to publish it. To date, we have reviewed many strong stories that we did not take. Either the fit was wrong or we’d just taken tales with a similar theme or any of a half dozen other reasons.

Best success selling this story elsewhere.

And it occurs to me … I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a rejection letter before. I have sent samples of my work to Marvel and DC, and I have submitted nonfiction essays for other websites. I never heard back on any of those pieces. I think this is the first time I’ve gotten an actual rejection letter.

I self-publish most of my stuff, so there’s never really a question of rejection. I don’t have any editorial process other than my personal taste and the Panel critique.

I move enough books to feel decent about my abilities, but I’m not exactly setting the indie comix world on fire. I always assumed that was because of lack of hustle, but I guess now I should consider the possibility that I’m not as talented as I thought.

Nah, it can’t be that. I’m going to assume I lack polish, and I just need to get out there and pitch some more. Some people I know have whole walls devoted to rejection letters, and they’re doing pretty well. I just need to rack up more rejections of my own.

Animated Kirk says: Press on!

Animated Kirk

I tend to view writing as a series of trade-offs. I’m speaking specifically of genre fiction, which relies as much on craft and deliberate calculation as it does on instinctual artsiness.

First is the trade-off between “interesting” and “realistic.” A slice-of-life narrative will aim for “realistic;” ie, man puts bread in the toaster. A genre piece will go for “interesting,” ie., the toaster is possessed by demons and attacks man.

The second trade-off is “didactic” vs. “ambiguous.” I perceive a constant tradeoff between over-explaining things and leaving things too vague. Other trade-offs are “dark” vs. “light,” “shocking” vs. “predictable,” etc.

A handy tool for calculating these tradeoffs is the TV show “Weeds,” which just had its season finale this weekend. The show centers around a suburban California mom (Nancy) who gets into the pot-selling business, navigating the dark underbelly of crime through a combination of wits, white privilege and amazing legs. My wife and I saw the first 4 seasons of Weeds around the time my daughter was born, and it’s a fun way to pass a few hours.

The show will take the more “interesting/didactic/dark/shocking” option 9 times out of 10. During various season finales, Nancy has become pregnant by a drug lord, watched her youngest son kill a rival, burned down a town, and been shot in the head.

So as we watch other shows, we often ask what Weeds would do. With “Mad Men,” this is seldom predictive. “United States of Tara” will choose the Weeds option occasionally.

This isn’t to say the Weeds option is a bad choice. It’s often the right choice, depending on what piece of genre fiction you’re doing.  But the Weeds Test is a useful tool for clarifying what your options are and what they mean, writing-wise.

What tests do you have for good fiction?

I finally sat down last week and started drawing. I haven’t drawn any new Downs since the Gordon Lightfoot/HP Lovecraft mashup (“Terror in the Dark”) nearly two years ago, although I’ve contributed to the Panel anthologies.

Blood on the dance floor

Naturally, I’ve set myself up something at the outer edges of my abilities, a big establishing shot of a nightclub. I have the room mostly set, and now I just need to draw in 50 or so spear-carriers and ink the dang thing. And then do the other five pages.

It feels good.

It’s time for another edition of Panel:350, our foray into flash fiction. This one weighs in at 350 words exactly, including the title.

Have I posted this one before? I wrote it a while ago, then forgot about it.

Law school was over, but the bar exam was looming. Brady was dating that girl from the chemistry lab.

“I know it’s creepy, but the human trials have gone great,” Sheila said. The beige pills looked tiny in her hand. “They make you remember everything.”

He rolled the tablet over in his palm. He’d barely gotten through Contract Law, and Trusts had nearly killed him. If he could just get through the bar, Dad had the connections to set him up. Would Sheila make a good trophy wife? She was a little brainy for him, but she had a way of anticipating his needs.

“OK, sure. Shit. Give me a glass of water.”                    

The next night’s study group went awesome. Marbury vs. Madison. US vs. Interstate Bakeries. Citizens United. They rolled off the tongue. His study partners gaped – they’d only seen him do the bare minimum.

“What’s my secret? You just gotta relax.”                     

Exam day came. Brady held his shoulders straight as he walked into the exam hall. The carriage of a senator? Maybe. He paused to run a finger along the fluted marble columns … the rasp of marble under his index finger … it reminded him of the scraping of a match …

… lighting bottle rockets in plastic army men …

… GI Joe’s arm half sticking out from under the bed … mom finding his stash of porn …

… the taste of Jenny’s sweat … scented candle … accusing eyes …

… eyes of a dead bird, on the sidewalk …

… terrifying pain as his knee scraped on the sidewalk …

… blowing his shoulder at the state wrestling tournament …

… shitting his pants in the school gymnasium …

Brady never took the bar. Six months later, he was crashing on Sheila’s couch. He guessed she felt guilty for giving him the pills, but sympathy went only so far.

“You could probably take the bar again,” she said, her voice taking a judgmental edge. “The drug’s got to be out of your system.”

“You don’t forget a thing like that,” Brady said.

We’ve featured Mr. Aja here before, but it never hurts to see more of his work:

From The Immortal Iron Fist, published by Marvel Comics.

Welcome back to Panel 350: Panel’s ongoing series of flash fiction. To make up for my logorreah last time, this edition is only 348 words (including title).

“You need another token to look deeper in the archive.”

Kaden clicked “OK,” and Facebook took another of her virtual tokens. She peered further into her grandmother’s albums, trying to figure out why grandma kept giving her the fish-eye.

Kaden’s grandmother had always seemed less than hippy-skippy about her relationships. There was always a tightness around her mouth anytime Kaden brought home new partners.

To someone of Kaden’s generation, it was completely normal, but she knew things weren’t always so enlightened. Kaden’s mother never addressed it completely, but she’d dropped hints over the years about grandma’s old-fashioned ideas. She couldn’t ask grandma directly, but here she could look back on grandma’s whole life.

Here was grandma with a flip-style phone, here was grandma paging through a print magazine, here was grandma drinking from one of those red cups that were banned now. Here was grandma with a massive Honda, here was grandma wearing those thigh-length boots that were back in style now.

“You need another token to look deeper in the archive.”

Kaden sighed. Her last token. If the answer wasn’t in 2012, it would have to wait.

Here was 2012, and the third photo she saw nearly took her breath away. Here was grandma, waving a sign that said “Marriage is a man and a woman.” Her mouth was curled into a sneer of anger and fear, a snarl that seemed aimed at Kaden herself.

Kaden always assumed grandma’s problem was that she kept becoming the junior partner in polyamorous triads and quadrangles. Her mom disapproved of that – it was a submissive, and she always got burned when a primary parnter got jealous. Kaden figured she was only 35 and had plenty of time to get ready for a “real” relationship.

But this – grandma was an old-school bigot. The kind old lady who made her lemonade and hummus was a straight-up bigot. Sure it was in the past, but – she’d never look at grandma the same way again.

Kaden choked back tears, and wished to goodness that there were some way to forget childish indiscretions.


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