Learning Sketchbook 5: Frustration

So I had that set of drawings of a woman in the last sketchbook, and I thought they were pretty good for what I know.  I was feeling like I wanted to do another run at hair that should move around a little, so I decided to do the head of a Black guy with relatively short dreadlocks (it is never far from my mind that many white artists tend to have difficulty with nonwhite features, so I’m trying to think about that and force myself to practice those features in my own sketches).  The results of this set are mixed at best.  Let’s take a look at them.

As has become my habit when I start on a new character, I began with the front facing portrait (maybe this is standard on character design sheets, but I’ve not been looking at those in a very critical way up to this point).  The first thing that immediately jumps out to me with this face is that my proportional symmetry is off.  If you draw a line down the center of the nose, you can see that the right side of the face is a little wider than the left.  I think that’s a result of uneven circles in my base shapes before I fill in details, which probably just requires more extensive practice.  There might also be an issue with how I’m dividing the head before I begin; I sometimes skip doing a center line, and it shows in the finished product.  I generally like the texture of the hair here, although I’m not sure the volume feels three dimensional enough.

Following up on the front facing sketch, I did a three quarter.  I think this is probably the best of the set in terms of how the facial features look, although I’m not sure how I feel about the hair.  It looks a little bit too much like a helmet, which I’m guessing would be improved if I had done a little bit more to add noise on the edges of the hair like individual locks lying out of line with the general shape.  Some things have changed in the proportions, like the lips being set a little closer to the nose and the mouth being a bit narrower.  I generally like the look, but I’m definitely side eyeing myself for not maintaining consistency of the features from one angle to the next.  We’ll see that even more strongly in the next one.

This one was another experiment with drawing the hair in motion, which looks generally okay except that I ended up making his head sort of cone shaped because I lost track of the angle on the center line (you can see how the part in his hair doesn’t curve back and the rear locks seem to be anchored way higher than you would expect).  Because I am apparently addicted to doing Too Many Things in my practice, I decided to try shading this one as though it were lit from below.  I’m not sure how well that worked.  Besides all that, the mouth makes me really sad in this one, mostly because it feels totally detached from the rest of the face.  I need to do a lot more practice with how other parts of the face stretch and smoosh when the mouth is doing things.  At least this one sort of looks like the second drawing, which is good because, well.

 

I don’t think I’m happy with this one on any level.  The hair’s texture isn’t at all consistent with what I did on the earlier sketches, and the face doesn’t look anything like the other ones.  I think I was trying to draw a smirk, and I ended up with… something.  The nose has also changed shape with the rotation, which I’m pretty irritated about.  There was some experimentation in this sketch with the cheeks, and while I don’t think it was totally successful, I can at least say that it looks like there are some muscles doing things under the skin around the mouth.  They’re probably not human muscles, but there you go.

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Reading “The Wicked + The Divine: 1373 AD”

The long and short of this issue is that people tend to be messed up in a lot of ways, and any religion that takes bodily mortification as a central tenet is going to exacerbate those messed up tendencies.  Maybe it’s my own history showing a little bit (that does tend to happen from time to time when I read and think about things), but the sorts of abuse that this issue’s Lucifer takes on herself from all sides feel particularly heart wrenching.  There are lots of ways to do fundamentalism, but they all seem easily recognizable for what they are when you’re no longer in it.  The deeply embedded self loathing tends to give it away.

The more I think about this cover the more I find to love about it. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this final period issue plays with the iconography motif that’s always been a central element of The Wicked + The Divine‘s visual aesthetic.  Framed in the imminently recognizable tradition of Roman Catholicism, the cover has Ananke and Lucifer presented in stained glass in the respective roles of penitent and absolver.  This is roughly what happens inside the issue, except that Ananke predictably lacks all remorse and Lucifer (cathartically) offers no absolution.  The story’s primary beats are caught in a single glass panel, much like how you would see depictions of significant events from the life of Jesus in a cathedral with the key points of each scene distilled down to a few key details that serve as visual touchstones for the stories the audience would have heard many times before.  There’s a nice connection in this cover between the modern comics medium and its sequential art forebears (what are the Stations of the Cross but an old comic and The Wicked + The Divine but a pageant of suffering leading up to the deaths of gods incarnate?).  You can even see the same reliance on visual motifs, a necessary component of a medium like stained glass that demands a simplified depiction of its subjects,  to identify characters like Ananke’s ubiquitous mask (which she doesn’t wear at all in this story) and Lucifer’s red eyes.

For a series about gods and how we relate to them, The Wicked + The Divine up to this point has largely shied away from exploring how modern religious believers would interact with the gods as a known quantity.  The one small nod we got in that direction back in the first issue with the fundamentalist assassins turned out to be a red herring, so there’s really nothing beyond this issue that explores the subject in significant depth.  In the premise of the series, which posits that the Pantheon’s world is exactly like ours except that figures resembling mythological gods appear every ninety years, the question of how these incarnations impact systems of belief is left up in the air.  Cassandra’s skepticism suggests that the lack of documentary evidence of the gods’ powers makes it easy for people disinclined to believe in them to ignore the whole thing, but that doesn’t explain what the effects on true believers might be.  This story, focusing on medieval France and a devout Catholic woman, finally considers the Pantheon in relation to Christianity; given Lucifer’s prominence in the historical issues, this has been an open question hanging in the background of each one-shot.  In 1373 it finally comes to the fore.

I never went to a church that did Communion like this, but it’s easily enough recognized. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue begins much like it ends, with an enactment of Communion (or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Table, or whatever particular name for the Christian tradition of symbolically, or metaphysically, consuming the body and blood of Christ you may be familiar with).  The sacrament serves as an introduction to the era and culture we’re going to be examining here; Europe is in disarray as the Black Plague has swept across it, and in Avignon a member of the Pantheon conducts her penance while awaiting her end.  This Lucifer is a Catholic nun, her horns filed down to nubs on her forehead and her place in her order permanently set outside the sanctuary where the diseased rats scurry.  She’s convinced of her own damnation while submitting entirely to the sovereignty of God.  Where every other Lucifer has been a rebel or iconoclast, this one instead embraces her role as the defeated in a larger cosmological game.

What makes this Lucifer so striking is her sense of surety about her own identity, even before she ascends.  In a flashback, the woman comes to Ananke and declares before any other words can be exchanged that she knows that she is Lucifer.  The rationale for this self identification rests on her history: her mother died in childbirth, and her father resented his daughter as the cause of his wife’s death.  The loathing conferred by a grieving parent onto his child became internalized to the point that she actively identifies with the fallen angel.  It’s a terrible backstory, but the internalized self-loathing encouraged by a faith that requires constant self deprecation and supplication to the deity rings true.  When I was an evangelical, there were certain mental gymnastics that I was in the habit of doing as part of the faith practice; in a system governed by the doctrine of utter depravity, it wasn’t unusual to meditate on how unworthy I was of salvation.  Needless to say, this sort of attitude about my own self worth (really, it’s easy to devalue yourself when you have a regular mantra in your mind about your status as a helpless sinner who deserves to go to hell) did a number on me.  Lucifer’s self loathing is of a piece with what I remember about the darker parts of my evangelical days; it’s only in her resorting to flagellation and other physical punishments that Lucifer’s attitude about her own being feels more extreme.  While her final act serves to bring some sort of just punishment, however ephemeral, on Ananke, she spends her final breaths begging forgiveness for the crime of being who she is.

All I’m saying is that this is not that far off the mark from how abusive strains of Christianity make its adherents feel about themselves. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Speaking of Ananke, the version that we see in this issue is probably the most repulsive of the series to date.  I know that all Anankes are more or less the same person inhabiting an endless series of bodies, but this one, with her callous reflection on how she created the Black Plague as part of an experiment with the previous Pantheon and her general indifference at the effects of her actions beyond ruling them as a mistake she’d prefer not to repeat, really angers me.  We’ve seen in the Mothering Invention arc that Ananke is a ruthless killer who only cares about self-preservation, but the way that she inflicts mass death on the world on a caprice and then completely rejects any sense of guilt about her actions makes her deeply monstrous.  The whole point of the issue is to do an exercise in contrasts with Lucifer, who feels guilty about everything, including stuff that she has no control over, and Ananke, who feels no remorse despite her direct responsibility for at least one massive social catastrophe and scads of murders.  These two characters are worlds apart until they unite in an inverted Communion: the innocent devil delivers her corrupted body to an unrepentant sinner and burns the both of them to pure ash.  It’s all very “too much” which is always what WicDiv strives for.

Ananke’s whole thing about feeling constantly out of place and bewildered by the way the world changes is such an old person thing. I know feelings of displacement accompany aging, but I can’t think of anyone who deals with that angst less gracefully than Ananke. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Next time we’ll finally get a break from doom and gloom and talk about the issue with a load of ridiculous origin stories and more than a few excellent jokes (for a certain value of excellent).

It’s happened before. It’s happening again. (Artwork by Ryan Kelly, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

So I Just Saw The Favourite

Between the trailer for Us and watching The Favourite this weekend, I’m not sure I can handle anymore rabbits.

So here’s the deal: The Favourite is a historical piece about the relationship between Queen Anne; her close friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough; and Sarah’s younger cousin Abigail Hill who has lost her noble status due to her father’s indiscretions and comes to the Queen’s estate looking to beg Sarah for a job on account of their family ties.  Anne is a relatively ineffectual queen whom Sarah manipulates in order to act as the de facto ruler while she tries to advance her own interests at court and effectively prosecute an ongoing war with France.  Abigail’s ambition to regain her station as a lady in court leads her to devise a number of machinations intended to draw Anne’s favor away from Sarah and place it on herself.  It’s a story all about palace intrigues and women screwing each other in the interest of attaining power; Anne and Sarah are secret lovers, and Abigail’s accidental discovery of this fact grants her the leverage necessary to begin scheming against her cousin.  Along the way there’s extensive meditation on the deeply weird decadence that the ultra rich engage in, especially in a time when living a life of leisure meant being somewhat bored half the time.

The Favourite Poster

Theatrical poster for The Favourite. (Image credit: IMDb)

Seriously, have you ever thought about the dichotomy between soul crushing drudgery and abundant boredom that seems to characterize the split between the upper and lower classes before?  I think the rich are as weird as they are because they have too much time to not do anything of genuine value while the servant class that supports them has to spend virtually all of their time doing work that yields no creative satisfaction or interest.  In the time period of this film (the early 1700s), we see the ruling class engaging in such absurd pastimes as racing ducks, racing lobsters (and then eating them), and throwing oranges at naked men in wigs as some kind of party game.  To be sure, there are some ahistorical liberties taken with this film (I’m pretty sure no one in the early 18th century English court was voguing to Baroque chamber music), but the sheer absurdity of some of these entertainments feel of a piece with the way that the idle rich continue to this day to come up with ever more creative ways to while away their time because they can’t be bothered with doing something of value like the rest of us mugs.

Anyway.

What’s most fascinating about this film (which goes very, very dark by the time of its third act, although you can see the hints of manic cruelty in the opening scenes when Abigail, fresh off a crowded carriage where a man was openly masturbating in front of her, is tricked into presenting herself to her cousin while covered in stinking mud by one of the servants) is the way that the power dynamics among the three central women constantly shift so that in any given scene the character you find most sympathetic will shift dramatically.  At first Abigail, who has fallen down on her luck, seems the hero as she arrives at court and uses her knowledge of herb lore to make a poultice that helps sooth the pain in Anne’s leg after her gout flares up, while Sarah seems to be a cruel woman who enjoys the power she’s afforded by her close relationship with the queen; Anne seems like a mostly pitiful naif whose affections are entirely subject to the influence of her advisers.  As fortunes shift, we get the sense that Abigail is far less sympathetic than initially thought, while Sarah’s cruel treatment of Anne appears to serve a larger, if not noble then at least more wide ranging, purpose.  By the end of it all, Anne, who seems mostly to be a pawn in Sarah and Abigail’s private war, asserts her own power as the queen, reminding both women that their power plays are meaningless without her support.

Underscoring all the cruelty of the film’s central figures is the relentlessly indifferent backdrop of 18th century England.  The courtiers are all highly untrustworthy (Mr. Harley, who heads up the Whigs as loyal opposition to the Tory government that Anne supports at the film’s beginning, is especially conniving) with their own agendas while the servants and commoners that appear are just as coarse and apathetic to casual cruelty as their employers (the woman in charge of the kitchen notes with more annoyance than anything when Abigail is marched down and stripped in the kitchen to be beaten for acting without Sarah’s permission that if the footman plans to rape her he had best do it in the barn instead of near the food).  This is a world where everyone is largely lacking in virtue; even Anne, who again appears to be the most naive person in the small world of court, is volatile and liable to rain abuse down on the nearest servant at a moment’s notice in order to try to alleviate whatever affliction suddenly pains her.

On the whole, I have to say that The Favourite isn’t exactly a pleasant movie to watch.  It starts off with enough audacity to draw you in as a somewhat grotesque meditation on the depravity of decadence framed around a young woman’s attempt to improve her lot, but the early moments of levity give way pretty rapidly to an extremely dark story about the complex motivations behind relationships that set their foundations on a mixture of mistrust, need, and genuine affection.

Certainty, Doubt, and Epistemic Closure

Like most people these days, I have a smart phone which I treat as an extension of my brain.  One of my favorite activities to use it for (after all the productive things you can do with a smart phone) is to play logic games.  I’m a little bit of a nut for puzzle games where you have a board with a set of defined information, and through sheer deduction and reasoning you can fill everything out.  On the old phone it was Picross and on the new one it’s a game called Tents & Trees.  The skinning’s not really relevant to the core mechanic, which is that on a grid you have preset points that have to be marked with an adjacent spot while meeting established criteria like having a certain number of markers in each row and column while also keeping the markers spaced appropriately apart.  It’s all extremely soothing for me because I know that there’s a solution that I can totally find on my own if I spend enough time looking at all the evidence that the game’s presented to me.

One of the basic axioms I maintain with these sorts of games is that there can’t be any room for doubt when you make a mark on the board.  All possible alternative configurations have to be eliminated first, because probability is never the same as certainty.  Any move made before you reach certainty carries the risk of throwing the entire board off, forcing a restart (perhaps the most generally applicable lesson from these sorts of games is that it’s always easier to reexamine all your assumptions from the ground up than to try to fiddle with individual pieces of a complex system in the hopes that you’ll stumble back on the path towards your objective).  It’s obnoxious when that happens, but it’s also part of the fun of these kinds of games.  The rest of the fun comes from enjoying a quantum of certainty in a small, meaningless action.  We don’t get to have that sort of assuredness in our everyday lives.

All the tents are where they belong. They could go nowhere else.

I’ve been thinking about this sense of certainty as part of a larger context about how we go about making decisions in our everyday lives, and the thing that I keep coming back to is how certainty is so incredibly attractive because it gives our actions a moral weight that they might otherwise lack.  Relatively indecisive people like myself tend to crave this sort of impetus, largely, I think, because it always seems to be lacking.  Doubt tends to creep into just about every major decision I make right up until I reach the point of necessity and find that a time deadline is going to pass if I don’t just make a choice and run with it.  I know that this flaw in my process stems from a lack of personal confidence that gets underlined by the need for certainty.  “Is this the right thing to do?” is a really powerful question if it gets lodged in your head because the answer is invariably on a spectrum of possibility that runs from “maybe?” to “probably?” with a ubiquitous sense of “I’m not sure.”  At least, that’s how it manifests for me.  Some folks don’t seem to operate with that same inner monologue, and I wonder what that sort of mental landscape looks like.

It’s probably just my particular personality, but I wonder about how people who act with certainty avoid the pitfalls of epistemic closure (I’m thinking about this in the context of political and religious .  If your sense of rightness is predicated on a set of assumptions that can’t be assessed for objective correctness, what is it in your makeup that allows you to ignore the worries about getting cut off in a knowledge bubble?  Is it the comfort of that certainty combined with a severe discomfort with the idea of uncertainty?  Is the sunk cost fallacy at play?  Is it just the overweening need to feel like you’re right about something?  These are all things that I can feel some sympathy towards (they’re legitimately tempting positions to sink into), but I don’t get why folks who are predisposed to such attitudes aren’t more worried about getting caught up in the epistemological black hole.

So much possibility on this empty board, but there’s exactly one solution. It’s not like real life at all.

One thing I think is worth addressing here is the distinction between certainty and confidence.  When I think of certainty, I think of an attitude that rests on belief in absolute correctness.  Confidence, on the other hand, is rooted in relying on patterns and trends that are most strongly indicated by the available evidence.  The distinction between the two attitudes is their relationship with new information; being certain can be difficult to shake when bit of information is introduced that contradicts the underlying axioms while being confident allows this new data to be incorporated and harmonized with existing knowledge to produce conclusions that may shift over time.  I think in the short term I think it’s a lot harder to build confidence than certainty, but confidence seems like a paradigm that’s much harder to shake in the long term without simply rejecting all new evidence.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #39”

This issue feels a little weird in comparison to previous issues that conclude story arcs.  There are the macro beats that we’ve become accustomed to with the end of each WicDiv arc: we get a couple of significant revelations, a major question left to be answered, and the status quo of members of the remaining Pantheon shifts to match the developments of the arc.  What’s a little unusual here is just the number of scenes that Gillen packs into this issue.  The structure that he’s used to organize each issue of this arc has been built around two broad movements, one focusing on a part of Ananke’s history and the other pushing the story in 2015 forward.  Unlike in previous issues, where the flashback sequence is front loaded to give more context to the present day happenings, this issue intersperses scenes from Ananke’s final encounter with her sister (we still don’t know her actual name, so I’m going to continue calling her Epithymia) between the present day developments with Laura, Minerva, and Woden.  It’s understandable why there’s a shift in the broad structure of the issue (the reveal in the last section of the flashback is necessary to renew hope in the reader and work towards reversing some uncomfortable implications that are set up by the latest development in Laura’s story), but it makes the issue feel very frenetic in comparison to everything else in this arc.

Yeah, Ananke would totally murder you. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover continues the arc’s ongoing motif of featuring either Ananke or an Epithymia god featured in the flashback sequence.  Here, we get a portrait of the original Ananke in her 4000ish BCE outfit, replete with cow skull mask and vibrant purple eyes.  She’s splattered with the blood of her victims (in a delightful bit of coloring continuity, the pattern of blood splatter in this portrait is the same as when she appears at the very beginning of issue #34 before killing Epithymia) and looks ready to add another to her tally.  This is a very different portrait of Ananke from the one on the cover of issue #9.  The imperiousness is still present (it’s probably just an illusion, but I always feel like Ananke’s looking slightly down at the reader in her portraits), but the blood and the bone accessories make her feel far more immediately threatening than she seems in her 2014 fashion.

I know it’s a big gun, but how does no one notice this? (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

The big revelation for this issue is that Epithymia, in a bid to trip Ananke up at some point in the future, just straight up lies to her about the final rule to be set in their story game.  As she dies, Epithymia declares that if her god ever has a child then the cycle will be broken.  Ananke takes this idea and runs with it, speculating that if the Epithymia god becomes a mother in her own right, then that breaks the maiden-mother-crone cycle, so of course it makes sense.  It also explains why in the present Laura’s being pregnant is a really big deal that brings Minerva to obsess over killing her as quickly and violently as possible.  What we find in this issue is that the decision Laura made last time relates to a number of things: where it seemed like she might be deciding on suicide, what actually happened is that she has decided to reject all of the labels she’s accumulated over the course of the series.  The result is an as yet inexplicable descent from godhood; when we catch up with Laura in this issue she’s shed the Persephone persona completely and also aborted her pregnancy.  That doesn’t change the fact that Minerva is utterly determined to eliminate all possible threats, and Laura almost gets beaten to a pulp anyway by Beth’s documentary crew (Beth, for anyone who may have forgotten because she only shows up sporadically, is an original member of Cassandra’s documentary crew who struck out on her own after she got fired for tipping Baal off to Laura and Cassandra’s location when they were still investigating the judge’s murder), now outfitted with Woden-crafted super suits in exchange for doing the bidding of the Pantheon’s ascendant evil faction.  It’s sort of comical how reckless Minerva is in her machinations; she turns the very obvious power dial on the stun gun Woden gives Beth all the way up to lethal, and I can only assume the reason no one notices the large flashing red light on the side of the gun is because Beth and her crew are not very observant–a pretty unfortunate trait for documentarians in general.

Me too. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

While it gets dispelled as a point of tension here, Laura’s pregnancy hangs heavy over this whole arc (it is called Mothering Invention after all), and there are some complicated things to sort out in relation to it.  Gillen constructs a story where the reader feels invested in protecting Laura’s pregnancy precisely because it seems to be a major threat to Ananke and then he resolves it by having Laura choose to terminate the pregnancy, all before we learn that the whole plot point is a ruse and irrelevant to Ananke’s potential downfall.  In those five pages between Laura explaining she had an abortion and the flashback where Epithymia explains her gambit to her grandson, the reader’s left in a really awkward position (one that Laura herself calls the reader out on because, remember, she’s gone back to breaking the fourth wall in her inner monologue captions).  Laura’s pregnancy was clearly something that Ananke was worried about, and anything that legitimately worries Ananke is probably a positive for the fate of everyone caught up in the Pantheon nonsense, but at the same time we’ve been brought to having an interest in a woman carrying a pregnancy she has only expressed ambivalence about.  Gillen anticipates that there might be some anger directed towards Laura in that liminal moment; he’s been foreshadowing since the beginning of the arc that some readers would be unhappy with the decisions that Laura was going to make.  It all feels like this metanarrative trick to reinforce a political point about the importance of women having the right to choose whether they remain pregnant or not at the expense of the reader, and I’m still trying to figure out what to do with it.  Is it cheap to make this point in relation to a key plot element in the story, especially when the reader unconsciously begins weighing Laura’s agency against the vast history of Ananke’s exploitation of people for her own gain.  There are elements of the Omelas child in the scenario, although in typical Kieron Gillen fashion everything is terrible for everyone and the atrocity only stops (but not really) one (immense) crime in a world that’s otherwise still as messed up as our own.  When it comes down to it, I’m glad that Laura doesn’t lose her agency and the whole thing was a trick, if only because it means that as a reader I don’t have to spend time puzzling over my own moral complicity in wanting Laura to have the child because it means Ananke’s game is done (I mean, I still do because how could anyone resist this sort of question, but it’s all hypothetical in the aftermath).  There are layers and layers to this whole mess.

The issue concludes by calling back to the end of the very first arc when Laura lit that one cigarette in the dark out of nowhere.  This time it’s not just a little flicker of flame; she creates an entire fireball floating in the air.  Keep in mind, this happens after she’s descended, so we’re not dealing with god powers here (at least, not any god powers that have been explained).  For all the messing with the readers’ heads that Gillen does with the pregnancy subplot, the steady reminders he’s been seeding in about how this one thing that Laura did way back when was weird and didn’t follow any of the rules set out by the universe up to this point is nice.  It feels rewarding if you’ve been keeping up with those low key details (and if you haven’t, noticing them after you reach this point in the series is really fun too).  The new status quo for Laura, as we go into the final arc, is one of relative stoicism.  She rejects all of her old labels while wondering what she actually is supposed to be, and along the way gets philosophical about the imminent mortality aspect of godhood (this wouldn’t be a Gillen story unless someone at some point got all meditative about the fact that we die; reflections on aging and mortality are totally his thing and probably a reason I find most of his work so resonant).  Here’s hoping we get some answers to these questions and others in the final arc.

Thanks for reminding me about the evanescence of life, Laura. Geez. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Thoughts on Voltron: Legendary Defender at the End

I missed the boat on Avatar: The Last Airbender.  It was airing back when I was almost out of college and had reached an age where I thought I didn’t have time for children’s cartoons anymore (I don’t recall the exact moment, but the realization that I no longer cared to get up early on Saturdays to watch cartoons came with more of a shrug than anything else).  When I started my first job out of college, which was as a programmer of programs in BASIC that were designed to automatically print out all the pertinent information on various auto dealership contracts and sales forms, I had a few coworkers who, despite being dudes in their thirties and forties, were gaga over this Avatar show.  I had seen commercials for toys and such, but I couldn’t figure out what was so great about the show.  Attempts by my enthusiastic coworkers to explain it to me always fell flat; I couldn’t see the appeal a show targeted at nine-year-olds could possibly have for an older audience.

Many years later, Netflix had the whole Avatar series streaming, and on weekdays when Rachael was out getting groceries with a friend of ours, I would pass the time watching episodes of this show that I had always heard was a total delight.  At first it was mostly just background noise while I’d fold laundry or surf the internet, but gradually I got really into the show.  I was really invested in it by the end of the final season, and I spent the next few years trying to persuade Rachael that, no, it really was as good as everyone said it was (I had flashbacks to the ineffective proselytizing my coworkers had done years earlier).  Netflix didn’t keep the streaming rights for more than maybe a year, and the chance to watch Avatar with Rachael without paying extra money for it passed.

Most of the core cast celebrating a big victory. (Image credit: Netflix)

Flash forward a few more years, and the creative team behind Avatar, having recently finished their sequel series The Legend of Korra (I still haven’t seen that one, although I’d definitely like to) announced they were doing a series for Netflix, and it was going to be a reboot of the old ’80s giant robot anime series Voltron.  Like probably many people my age, I had an inordinate fondness for giant robot shows as a kid, and Voltron was pretty high up there.  One of my daily rituals in elementary school was to record the morning cartoons that played because I had to go to school, and I always hated that I had to leave halfway through the Voltron episodes.  You can imagine how dissatisfying it must be to have an adventure story interrupted halfway through all the time.  I was elated by the news because I’d seen this team’s work before, and now they were going to be doing their take on a piece of nostalgia that hadn’t soured for me even if I knew objectively that the old show likely didn’t hold up to contemporary storytelling standards.

When the first season released, I was gleeful.  Here was a series created by the Avatar creators, and I had a chance to try to hook Rachael into watching it as well.  I put on the pilot one evening, and while I was totally into the opening gambit of a bunch of misfit Earth kids getting dragged across the galaxy by an alien ship, the premise didn’t really resonate with Rachael.  I finished the first season on my own.  It was good enough that I was excited for the next season to come out, and then the next one after that, and before I knew it, new seasons of Voltron were one of the highlights of my TV watching life.

The show started out in the way that most kids’ series begin: there was a lot of high adventure and hijinks thrown together while the main cast slowly got to know one another and learn to work together to fight off the resident evil empire.  These were plucky rebels trying to save the galaxy, a very easy setup to find engaging.  As the show went on, it transitioned from the Voltron paladins being sort of underdogs in the fight against the Galra to leaders of a growing coalition of allied planets that turned the small rebellion into a full scale galactic war.  The central conflict of the series constantly shifted in the later seasons as the focus shifted from defeating the Galra to allying with them to try to establish a non-imperialist galactic peace to trying to stop the big bad of the show’s final season from destroying the multiverse.  All along, the tenor of the show was mostly built around themes of extended warfare and the struggles to establish trust when nothing feels totally safe.  The high adventure, while still present in sporadic bursts, gave way to more of a military drama feel in the final two seasons.  A given episode might focus more on the lives of people who were dealing with the nitty gritty of futuristic warfare and resistance than on the paladins in their brightly colored suits and space magic technology (I, for one, was totally in for every experimental and nonstandard episode the series threw out there).

The show had a mixed record with queer representation that felt really promising initially, and then tapered off into something slightly inadequate.  One of the major twists of the first season is that Pidge, the pilot of the green lion, is actually the daughter of a scientist who went missing after Earth’s first contact with alien life (or something like that; I’m fuzzy on the details right now), and they had been using an assumed identity to get into the military academy where they hoped she might find more information about what happened to their father.  Because of their presentation, everyone just assumes for most of the season that Pidge is a boy, and there’s a whole episode devoted to the rest of the team parsing this new information and then deciding that it doesn’t matter.  The story beats around Pidge’s identity are heavily coded as a trans narrative in the early seasons (one episode where the team takes a break to go shopping in an alien mall has Pidge standing outside two public restrooms that are labeled pink and blue with alien gender icons, unsure of which one to use), but as the series progresses and Pidge reconnects with their family who have been lost in deep space, the gendered aspects of Pidge’s identity recede into the background.  Their family tends to call her by her given name, and the Pidge identity turns into more or less a nickname that exclusively their friends use.

At the same time that the show stops using Pidge to explore gender presentation, it starts to invest more in Shiro’s personal life.  Shiro, who is the leader of the paladins early on, is identified late in the series as gay.  In flashbacks we see that he had a long-term boyfriend, Adam, on Earth who was unhappy with his decision to volunteer for another deep space exploratory mission (the one that would result in Shiro being abducted and experimented on by the Galra for a couple years before his escape kickstarted the beginning of the series).  The positive representation of a gay man as a central character in a children’s show is still a big deal and was a positive step that the show took.  It’s marred by the fact that in a war story that features remarkably few deaths by named characters, Adam is killed off screen during the Galra invasion of Earth that preoccupies the seventh season.  The show walks right into the extremely overplayed and problematic trope of queer tragedy for one of its leading characters.  There’s an attempt to correct this mistake in the denouement of the series finale, but it feels like it comes too little too late with no screen time devoted to working through the story beats necessary for Shiro’s ending to feel deserved on any level besides the meta one where the creators really stepped in it and are trying to make amends.

Spoilers for the ending of Voltron: Legendary Defender‘s final season follow.

The resolution for Shiro points towards a problem that the show generally struggles with in its final season.  When you have only thirteen twenty-minute episodes remaining to wrap up the big conflict established at the end of the previous season while also setting up sensible resolutions for a relatively large cast of characters, some things are going to be lost.  You would expect that each episode would be packed with plot relevant stuff to maximize the time you have available, but even in this last season the creators can’t resist doing at least one concept episode that’s a lot of fun in terms of format but also does virtually nothing to develop what’s happening with the main characters.  This filler feels noticeable when you consider the structure of the season’s final third and realize that if that one episode had been used differently, there would likely have been enough time to expand on the resolution that happens after the final battle in a way that makes narrative sense.  As it is, once Honerva is defeated and the paladins are faced with the problem of how to restore the nearly destroyed multiverse, Allura realizes on the spot that she and Honerva can work together to fix everything, but it’s going to kill them.  There are plot justifications for why Allura and Honerva can do this, but it’s a character beat that feels off somehow.  The season focuses heavily on Allura’s sense of alienation from the other surviving Alteans and pushes hard to establish that she’s veering into self destructive territory in order to stop Honerva’s plan.  Despite those beats, it sort of comes out of left field that Allura has to sacrifice herself at the end.  The only way it makes narrative sense (at least to me) is that the eighth season begins by establishing that Allura and Lance, who have been circling each other romantically for about half the series, finally get together, and since this is a war story there has to be some bittersweet element to the final victory, so why not give Allura the heroic sacrifice, Lance the tragedy of true but brief love, and call it a day?  It’s a tonally weird ending for a series that’s embraced a noblebright sensibility (all the villains get redemption at the end) and a stubborn refusal to kill off any central characters up to this point.  Like, I’m not sure I’m mad that Allura dies at the end so much as confused that the writers felt this was the best way to end their story.

On the whole, I’m really glad that Voltron: Legendary Defender exists.  It’s an exceptionally good action series for kids that manages to explore some mature themes in easy to understand ways, does some really positive things in terms of representation, and tells an engaging story from beginning to end.  The bumps it encounters along the way are disappointing, but overall it was well worth the time I put into watching it.

Learning Sketchbook 4: Faces With Features!

I didn’t do nearly as much drawing over my winter break as I had hoped that I would (I lugged my sketchbook and pencils across the country over Christmas and never opened them once).  It was a combination of having other things going on and lacking the opportunity to sit by myself without feeling self conscious about what I’m doing.  It’s one thing to draw sketches and post them online for folks to look at, and it feels like something else to actually do sketches while they’re in the same room.  I suppose it’s because visual art is similar in a lot of ways to various kinds of writing.  There are a fair few things you have to consider in terms of composition in both art forms, and the work looks pretty ugly at a lot of stages on the way to being finished.  Unlike with writing though, someone can just look over your shoulder, take in the whole work at a glance, and judge what they’re seeing well before it’s ready to be seen.  Sure, I’m a beginner and I’m probably going to be unhappy with a lot of the finished things I produce for a while (especially as I get better and develop a sense of what mistakes I’m making in these early drawings), but that doesn’t mean I want to show unfinished things either.

Anyway.  The point here is to show off some stuff and discuss what I’m learning from it, so let’s get to that.

I spent a lot of time trying to work out how to visualize different facial features at various angles, and after a few mouths on bloated tuna cans, I wanted to put everything together to see what I could get.  It’s been a couple weeks since I did this head (I think I sketched it in a fifteen minute window during my prep period one day at work), and the results are… well, weird.  I was so happy to have done a head that wasn’t completely devoid of interest (look, there’s some shading around the eyes to convey depth! the nose doesn’t look totally flat! the lips… well, the lips could use more work) that I snapped a photo and put it on Twitter.  After a minute of studying my work, I realized that the features looked familiar; the slightly too close eyes, close cropped hair, and pinched mouth evoked someone I try really hard not to think about: Mike Pence.  I made a joke that I’d accidentally drawn the vice president with eye shadow and then didn’t get a chance to do any more drawing until this week while I’ve been enjoying the final few days of my vacation.

One of the gifts I received for Christmas was a book on how to do realistic pencil drawings.  I spent most of Christmas morning reading through it; the book’s geared more towards people who want to draw from photos (not so much my thing, but there’s still a lot of general advice for working with pencils that’s been very useful), and even though I’ve not really taken the time to go back and study some of the stuff in the book more closely, I feel like I’ve picked up a couple bits that are already improving my work immensely.

With the head above, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at adding hair with some asymmetrical features (I got tired of doing bald folks and hair is excellent for covering up ears, which I still don’t really get).  I tried to think about where I wanted to place the light source, which was really useful with the hair in place because once I decided on how I wanted that feature lit, it became a lot easier to visualize what other parts of the face should be in shadow.  It’s not perfect, but it looks much more interesting than ShadowPence.  The other side effect of trying to incorporate more shading is that some of the lines that have constantly confounded me on non-lit faces are starting to make more sense.  The point that every image is mostly about value changes rather than distinct line demarcations helped me think more about what the lines are doing and how they need to disappear as I clean a drawing up.  Understanding this is different from actually executing it well, but I think this head is much improved from the last one.  I liked it enough that I decided to do the same character from a few more angles just to see how I handled moving the hair around.

Not the worst thing I’ve drawn so far, to be sure.  I had a little more space on the page in my sketchbook and I figured I should do one more look for this character, but I wasn’t sure what expression I wanted to go for, so I posted these last few heads on Facebook to do a little crowdsourcing.  Someone suggested surprise, and someone else suggested a big smile, and after thinking about it, I decided to go for laughter.  I still feel like mouths are hard to work with (have you seen how many muscles shape the mouth?), but this is about challenging myself, so what the heck.  I mean, I’m pretty proud of the smirk in that last one.  I also wanted to play around with angles some more, so I decided that this last head would be angled as though the character were hanging her head over a ledge of some sort like the edge of a bed.

Turning the head upside down gave me a chance to play with the hair falling in a different way.  I’m not sure how successful I was with it (I think it looks like the hair is really stiff, which was partly by design and partly because I wasn’t sure how it should look if it were floppier).  The eyes are supposed to be closed, which I think generally comes across, but I think they could be better.  Altogether, it’s not bad.  What really messes with your head though is when you flip the whole image around; I don’t know if that signals that I did the rendering right or wrong, but the whole thing definitely looks weird if you view it upside down.  So that’s fun.