Learning Sketchbook 21

There are phases where you plateau when you’re developing a new skill, and then there are phases where it feels like you’re just taking off.  After last week’s relatively low output of two drawings (to be fair to myself, the one I spent the most time on did have two figures who are interacting with each other), I upped it to six.  A couple of them are definitely the result of quick drawing sessions, but the last four have felt significantly more dynamic and visually interesting than anything else I’ve done in a while (and I didn’t use photo reference for them either).

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After doing a few figure drawings, I find that I like to reset with a portrait.  It’s fun to work on a face in detail and try to draw out the parts that convey more subtle emotions.  For this week’s portrait I drew Rogue, and I used a photo reference to get the basic shape and expression, but then I elaborated on it with her traditional trappings, like the big wavy hair with the skunk stripe and the green accents.  It’s pretty obvious to me that I rushed this one (from roughs to colors, I did the whole thing in under an hour), and I feel like with some more care it could have turned out much better than it did.

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This minimalist sketch of Daken was another rush.  It’s probably my least favorite of the set, but I think I did a decent job with the musculature on the back.  Drawing his tattoo was fun, especially because its abstractness and intricacy means that there’s no real set way to do it.  Much of my drawing time was spent just looking for good reference panels of his back, which are harder to find than you’d think.  I feel like the proportions of the arm are slightly off, like if he were to lower it down by his side it’d be far too long in comparison to his torso.  Oh well.

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Here’s where my drawing week started to get really good.  The character is Tempus, who I drew during Inktober this year, so I wanted to try to do something different with her.  I think it’s really fun to draw characters having fun instead of just fighting, so I imagined what sort of outfit she might wear for a night out dancing.  There are elements that are still recognizably Tempus, from the tennis skirt to the purple and white vertical stripes on her top, but it’s generally a far more casual look.  I didn’t use any reference for this pose, so I’m actually very pleased with how it turned out.  If I look at it long enough, I think I’m probably subconsciously mimicking the finishing pose from Yuri’s short routine in Yuri!!! On Ice.  I just realized that; no wonder it looks good!  My primary complaint with this piece is that I didn’t really get the angle of the head right, so the silhouette of the nose feels off.  Tempus is white, but I think I ended up making her look more East Asian in the end.  Still, I feel like the gestures are really strong here, from the arm across the stomach to the set of the shoulders (I don’t think I typically do good shoulders).

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This is the high point of the week.  It’s a real delight to periodically draw a character who’s relatively famous in X-Men fandom, and to have such a clear vision from the beginning of what I wanted to do with the picture.  Rachel Grey as Phoenix has gone through a lot of iterations since she first appeared in the ’80s, but I thought it’d be fun to go with one of her less prominent looks.  There was a brief period just before she got written out of the ongoing plot in the late ’80s where she fully embraced Phoenix as her legacy identity (I think this might have been the first time she actually adopted a genuine costume too) where she had this really rad, super simple outfit that was basically a workout leotard with a gold bodice and red limbs and just a hint of styling on the neckline with the stylized raptor head.  She wore gold gloves in the original look, but I’ve always liked the look of long sleeves hooked over the thumb, so I streamlined a little bit.  The pose is probably inspired by stuff like the double page spread in All-Star Superman where Superman’s flying towards the sun.  I think what I’m happiest about is the deeply androgynous look about Rachel here; she was always a gawky looking character before Alan Davis redesigned her for Excalibur, and I appreciated that nonstandard look.  The Phoenix in the background probably could have been done with more care, but I reached a point in working where I was just ready to be done so I could move on to something else.  I still like it a lot (and the shot works in both portrait and landscape orientation!)

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While Phoenix was the highlight of the week, it wasn’t the last thing I did.  This picture of Juggernaut feels very classic to me; I didn’t play with the costume design at all, and I went for a pretty straightforward action pose, but it generally works.  The eyes are too wide set, but there are some range of motion issues with the Juggernaut’s design that can be hard to contend with when you think about him in action rather than as static images.  It was a lot of fun to draw someone with super bulky muscles though; the proportions feel way more forgiving than on someone who is supposed to be thin.

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I really like everything I did with this picture of Wind Dancer (her power is that she can manipulate the wind; it’s very what it says on the tin), but after I finished it I realized that I really need some kind of background to give context.  She’s supposed to be flying, hence the back bend and the arched foot, but because there’s no background there’s the problem of the picture reading like she’s just doing a really bad en pointe (or whatever you call that ballet position).  I tweaked her costume a little bit, but she’s such a minor character in the broad X-Universe that most folks wouldn’t notice.

I have space for thirteen more drawings in my sketchbook, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to fill them before New Year’s (especially because the holidays are going to be so busy with Dad coming to visit).  I’m trying to take a laissez-faire approach to it to it, but I also know myself, and there is definitely the possibility I’m going to mildly fixate on it as we do our usual celebrations.

Life is Strange 2 Log 5

In the day since I finished Life is Strange 2‘s fifth episode, I’ve come to think of my playthrough of the game as sort of cursed.  The first episode went okay, but then in the second I made Daniel so scared to use his powers that the little kid from the Captain Spirit prologue got hit by a police car and likely died.  I found myself idly wondering if I should restart and try to make “better” choices, which eventually turned serious after a glitch caused the game to erase my save data.  When the third episode came out I found out that the developers had built in options to allow a player to partially reconstruct previous choices if there was no save data found, and I was able to carry on with most of my original bad choices intact (I did opt to get Daniel to save Chris just because I felt some definitely unwarranted guilt at getting a fictional character killed).  Things proceeded relatively smoothly from there (I don’t think there were any major avoidable disasters in the third episode), but then I got to the fundamentalist cult in the fourth episode and found myself being a lot more aggressive towards the cult leader for metagame reasons.  The main decision of that chapter revolves around whether Sean risks Daniel killing the cult leader or doing it himself to protect his brother.  I opted for the murder option because I didn’t want Daniel to have a deliberate death on his conscience.

With Episode 5, I expected that there was going to be some major decision making in the finale to determine the brothers’ fate.  What you get instead are a series of attempted choices that seem to serve as a final tallying of how you’ve done influencing Daniel.  My thinking at this late point in the story, and following the lessons of the second episode (the way I originally played it, that is) was that I wanted Daniel to be comfortable with the use of his powers.  I didn’t want another unexpected accident to happen because I had taught him to be cautious when he needed to take risks.  While that was definitely the case, I found that I’d also inadvertently taught him not to be gracious towards people who had wronged him.  In the climax to a surprisingly low-key final chapter, I was a little taken aback with how casually he dismissed the potential injury he’d done to the police officers who were holding him and Sean.  I got majorly spooked, especially after I’d specifically done the murder in the previous episode just so that Daniel wouldn’t run the risk of killing someone himself.  That was clearly a mistake.

The episode culminates with a final choice at the US-Mexico border: surrender to the cops or blast through the barricade using Daniel’s powers.  The invisible mechanic in play is that it’s not just a binary choice; the way you’ve been interacting with Daniel has been influencing his own attitude, and depending on what he’s learned he may agree or disagree with your own decision to various degrees.  In my case, I lost my nerve after the jailbreak.  Daniel caused so much mayhem escaping that I was seriously worried he was going to get some folks killed, so I flinched.  I had Sean choose to surrender, but Daniel had been sufficiently trained to value his and his brother’s freedom so much that he took control of the car and charged us through anyway.  Apparently this is the worst way to resolve everything, because in the chaos of the blockade run Sean gets shot in the neck and bleeds out once they’re across the border.  The internet says that if I’d just gone for it and agreed with Daniel then Sean would have survived and I’d have gotten the ending where they have a peaceful life in Puerto Lobos.  Instead, with Sean dead, Daniel becomes a second rate gangster who spends the next six years slowly escalating the severity of his crimes and their collateral damage as he tries to cope with the grief of losing both his father and his brother and then being stranded in a foreign country.

There is a darkest timeline, and it is my playthrough of Life is Strange 2.

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Typically I’d want to turn over the larger themes of the story as part of my experience of the game, but a lot of it feels so heavy even while I’m thinking about it a couple days after the fact.  There’s some comfort in knowing that I just consistently made very poor choices, but a lot of the immutable story beats still felt like deliberate cruelties to these characters.  Sean’s in a terrible situation suddenly becoming the sole caretaker of his little brother while he’s still just a teenager, and the choices he has to make often strain the boundaries of credulity.  It’s not that any given situation is unrealistic in its small details so much as that the sheer weight of everything bearing down makes you almost want to laugh at how absurdly bad things can get for these brothers.  At this point it feels like it’s just a staple of the franchise that the characters in Life is Strange will suffer because they exist in a world that loathes their existence.  The way that attempts at positive choices came back to haunt me in the early episodes worked to subconsciously teach me a specific perspective the way that Sean’s choices influence Daniel.

I became convinced that this plot tree was built on a false assumption that better choices were possible if you bought into the idea that just being compliant would keep the boys safe.  The brothers were going to be punished no matter what, so when push came to shove, self-protection was going to have to be the top priority.  Any kind or pro-social decision had to be motivated by a belief that it was the right thing to do, not a hope that it might mitigate the harm of the moment.  Clearly I taught Daniel that line of thinking just fine, but when I saw the results in action, I freaked out.  This grand escape turned my perception of the story’s power dynamics on their head; Daniel could kill a lot of people in the course of getting away, and I was afraid of that.  Failing to carry the lesson I’d been teaching him through to its logical end cost him his brother.

When I try to step away from the story and consider the game as a successor to what the original Life is Strange wanted to do, I can see how it’s a much more complex and intricate piece of interactive fiction.  The breadth of possibilities that can play out when you build in a hidden priority list for a secondary character’s decisions you get a lot more potential variety than the simple binary options presented in older iterations of the game design.  Emotionally, I don’t feel so connected though.  I can fully recognize that part of my disappointment stems from specific experience of my playthrough which was plagued with problems both external and internal to the game.  In that light, the ending I’m saddled with feels like an appropriate disappointment.  Of course I got Sean killed and doomed Daniel to an unhappy life; how else could it have turned out with the assumptions I made at the outset?  More interestingly, was my sense of fatalism about the prospects of a couple of Latino boys running from the law a more realistically grounded approach to the story or was it just succumbing to the cynical trap of thinking despair equates with reality?  I don’t really know one way or the other, and I’m not sure I have the bandwidth to see if a different approach to the game as a whole leaves me with a different impression.

Reading “Welcome to the Working Week”

I think the phrase these days when you’ve missed a thing is that you “slept on it” (or something like that; I never presume to fully understand the latest internet slang), and it sort of feels like that with Crowded.  I guess the series has been running for about a year now, and I mostly ignored it because I was neck deep in WicDiv as the comic I was most keenly obsessed with.  Since then I’ve tried to read a little more widely, but I still have relatively narrow tastes (just because I can afford to read some series on a monthly basis instead of waiting for trades doesn’t mean I’m eager to just pick up whatever #1 strikes my fancy), and my general vibe was more deep emotional dives grounded in existential angst.  Crowded, if you’re just going by the elevator pitch, is a satire about the technological dystopia we’ve created for ourselves with a big helping of gunsplosions.  I’ve read the writer Christopher Sebela’s 2015 series Welcome Back, and while it had a strong emotional core and an interesting romance, it didn’t totally grab me.  There are some conceptual similarities between that series and Crowded, and I wasn’t sure I’d find the premise compelling for more than a few issues.  Nonetheless, it kept popping up in my Twitter feed (mostly because I inadvertently started following the series’s editor, Juliette Capra, for WicDiv related reasons), so I eventually picked up the first trade.

Our heroines wielding their weapons of choice. (Cover by Ro Stein & Ted Brandt; Image credit: Comic Vine)

I am now hooked, and I plan to read this series to its end.

Naturally, there’s a pretty distinct difference between a comic series that I will enthusiastically read and one that I will enthusiastically discuss at length.  As I sit here thinking about what to say about Crowded, I find myself feeling the tension between those two mindsets.  Ten minutes in the future everything is just slightly more terrible than it is now except that Janelle Monae has been elected President of the United States and I honestly wonder how much mental bandwidth to spend thinking about all the ways that the rich and powerful have engineered society to fail us in such spectacularly stupid ways.  Every story has its pet issues, and Crowded beats a pretty steady drum about the techpocalypse.  The reason our two main characters, Charlie and Vita, are thrown together is because the concept of regulating something like murder has become so difficult in the face of app-driven crowdsourced slaughter that the government has essentially thrown up its hands in defeat.  I get enough of “people are going to shoot other people anyway, so why bother?” in the real world every other week; the prospect of discussing it in the context of a comic series’s witty observations about the thoroughness of our societal self-own feels daunting.

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Look, if everyone outside the Wendy’s were trying to kill me, I’d hug you too. (Artwork by Ro Stein & Ted Brandt, colors by Triona Farrell, letters by Cardinal Rae)

And somehow despite that trepidation, I’m still eager to explore the characters of the series.  They’re pretty familiar types: Charlie scrapes together a living with twenty different side hustles while being the most obliviously terrible person in the world (there is a reason she’s been tagged with a million dollar bounty, and it’s only partially because of whatever shady conspiracy is happening far in the background of the story), Vita has a tragic past full of regrets and should-have-beens that drives her to be the best bodyguard she can be, and Dog is the adorable internet pet that people have, apparently.  The supporting cast is full of sketches of the most obnoxious types the internet has produced, from the unwashed jerkwad teenagers who treat their computer expertise as a free pass on basic empathy to “Hey guys, how ya doin’?” Youtubers who push the limits of poor taste in pursuit of engagement.  I kind of hate them all, but Charlie and Vita’s dynamic as odd-couple fugitives from no law works to terrific comedic effect most of the time and is deeply resonant as a picture of a couple of lonely folks trying to find some kind of connection in the always online present.

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Charlie, you are the worst and I kind of love you. (Artwork by Ro Stein & Ted Brandt, colors by Triona Farrell, letters by Cardinal Rae)

That idea gets more explicitly displayed with Vita, who clearly hates everything modern with her 1950s sedan (complete with tail fins) and antique house that smells of old people, but it also seems to be simmering under the surface with Charlie as well.  What must it feel like to live a life with virtually no roots and an endless stream of meaningless interactions that get quantified into a 1-5 star rating in some tech company’s database?  These two need each other even if it kills them.  Of course, being basically a buddy comedy, they probably won’t actually die; still, I hope that things get plenty harrowing along the way, particularly since I can only say so much about a bunch of tech jokes.  This first issue, for all its thrills, is primarily just world and premise setup.  Charlie mysteriously finds herself the target of a crowdsourced assassination campaign on the app Reapr, so she hires Vita through the Dfendr app to be her bodyguard for the duration.  If Charlie doesn’t die before the month’s up, then the campaign ends with no payout and she’s immune from being targeted by future Reapr campaigns.  It’s unclear at this point why she specifically has attracted so many backers, but that will just be a fun mystery to tease out for a while yet I’m sure.

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And then there’s this adorable little monster. Everyone needs an internet mascot to help boos their brand. (Artwork by Ro Stein & Ted Brandt, colors by Triona Farrell)

Learning Sketchbook 20

After last week, where I felt like I was underachieving with four finished drawings, I managed to hit an even lower completion count this week with a whopping two, one of which I definitely did not feel lived up to my expectations.  The other one turned out pretty well, and I spent some time on Twitter discussing how my process went while working on it because I tried to be a little more deliberate in deciding what I was doing at various stages of completion.  If you missed that thread it’s okay, because I’ll be recapping it pretty thoroughly (with a few more thoughts probably) here.  So let’s look at some pictures.

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How hard is it to draw a guy flying headfirst towards a brick wall while angled away from the viewer?  Kind of hard, it turns out.  I started on this one the day after Thanksgiving, but then I had to set it aside because the long weekend filled up with holiday chores.  When I got back to it, I found that I really wasn’t feeling it very much.  The angle of the arms really bothered me, and the scale I’d settled on left me with minimal room to do any interesting detailing on the figure.  I think I colored it in about half an hour just so I could call it done and move on to something new.  It’s a shame, because the idea of Cannonball being so happy that he’s turned in mid flight while careening towards a second wall tickled me a lot when I came up with it.  Someday I’ll revisit the concept, but today is not that day.

My primary artwork this week has been focused on a piece with Cyclops and Emma Frost.  I’m participating in an X-Men fanfic exchange at the end of the month (I did this last year and somehow decided it’d be fun to do again), and I got really excited at the idea of doing some fanart to accompany the fic that I end up writing.  This is obviously putting the cart before the horse because I’ve only had the prompts for a week now, and I’m just barely beginning to piece together an idea for the characters I want to work with.  I don’t have a keystone scene in mind, let alone a plot at this point.  What I do know is that folks love romance, and if I can figure out an angle on a specific pairing then I should be able to put together something at least a little satisfying.  In the meantime, I wanted to practice some romantic couples poses, and I figured that Scott and Emma are just as good as any to play around with.

Image source: Lindsay Adler Photography (click picture for link)

This is obviously not a drawing; I decided that it may be helpful to find a reference for a romantic couple, and this was the image I settled on when I was Googling.  Most of the pictures I saw were focused more on the soft romance, but I wanted to use something that was less cuddly and more smoldering.  My conception of Scott and Emma as a couple is that they don’t hug, even in private; there’s no way they’d pose that way for a picture.

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From that photo, I sketched out to the basic figures with a few tweaks.  Scott appears a little more tentative than the reference guy because there’s more distance between him and Emma and he’s not leaning his head so far down to meet hers.  Emma’s maintaining a bit of distance from Scott instead of leaning into him the way the reference woman leans into her partner.  There’s an impression more of Emma leading Scott rather than them embracing, which works great for me.  Once I had the poses in order, I did some rough detailing on their costumes, but I kept shading with the pencil to a minimum since I knew I’d be coloring everything later (the place where it’s most obvious I was adding texture with my pencil was with the hair).

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Once I was happy with the roughs, I went back over all my graphite lines with a black colored pencil to make sure the line definition didn’t disappear when I started coloring.  The effect is very similar to how inked lines look, but it has the advantage of not having as severe bleed through in my sketchbook.  The big downside is that colored pencils are not designed for extensive line work, and I have to frequently adjust how I’m holding the pencil to make sure I don’t have a blunt edge making the lines look blurry.  At this point, I noticed some slightly wonky things with the pose, specifically with Scott’s hand on Emma’s waist.  The palm looks a little short for it to be fully extended, which is why there’s a heavy line at the wrist; I was trying to create an effect where it appears that the hand is bending sharply towards the viewer.

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When I color, I typically begin with accents, shift to colors intended for really large spaces, and finish with skin tones. Here I did the gold trim on Scott’s costume first along with both figures’ hair.  Because his costume is all blue, I took considerable time on Scott.  I managed to get some pretty good muscle definition particularly on his arm and torso at this point, although I did find myself sort of taken with the all white costume with gold trim.  I’m even kind of partial to the white pants with blue shirt look that I got when I stopped to take this progress photo.  For Emma, because she wears nearly all white, I left her coloring for after I was done with Scott.  I did go ahead and shade the inside of her cape though, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t get confused about the blobby space between her and Scott.  It’s really interesting to look at the image here and see how much more depth the left hand figure appears to have compared to the right hand one.

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Here I’ve finished coloring Scott’s costume, and again you can see just how flat Emma looks in comparison without any extra color.  Also, I can honestly say that I have never spent this much time thinking about a character’s crotch as when I was considering how to color Scott here.

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And here’s the finished drawing!  Because Emma typically wears stark whites, I decided to shade with the black colored pencil (in some other recent drawings I’ve used light blue, but it didn’t feel like it would give the right look for this costume).  There’s only a bit of light shading along the edges of masses to convey roundness and in areas of depression like the crease along the hip.  It’s pretty wild to me how Emma’s pelvis shifts from being a sort of uncanny blob before the shading to suddenly looking like there’s a working skeleton underneath there.  For the skin, I very gently applied a red pencil to Emma.  There are some spots on her face that are still totally white, which I’m not sure was the right decision.  I think the effect is to make her face look a little shiny, which seems to me as someone who doesn’t play with makeup like not what she would actually want.  The alternative was to make her look vaguely pink, and I really just need to get some skin tone pencils.  For Scott I used a red-orange, which still  weirds me out; who knew that red-orange colored pencil consistently gives a pretty good approximation of semi-tanned white skin?

Revisiting Final Fantasy X (Part 3)

I think I’m about five hours into my replay (things are going slow), and we’ve hit the point in the story where everyone pours out their complicated dad feelings.  Tidus hates his father, who was a great soccer blitzball player in his own right and then had a second career as one of the guardians of Yuna’s father, High Summoner Brasca.  Tidus didn’t know about this second bit because it happened after Jecht disappeared from Zanarkand ten years ago.  Auron knows what the deal is, but he’s just joined up with the party, and he’s not ready to explain all the stuff about the plot that would really be more interesting for us to learn ourselves.  There are, to put it mildly, a fair number of idiot balls in the air with the core plot in this game, but that’s okay because there’s also soccer blitzball, which is the only ball anyone cares about anyway.

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The stadium is also a ball. Spira just really likes balls, okay?

The thing about blitzball that I find so infuriating is that the blocks of a decent minigame are present, but then they get all ruined by a terrible random number generator.  It’s a given that in any stats based game you need to have a little bit of randomness worked in in order to create tension because perfectly predictable results for each action change the focus.  You’re less thinking about the moment-to-moment drama and more about larger, more complex problems of how to achieve a given goal.  This is the reason I adore Final Fantasy Tactics; the combat system is stupidly rote so that you can make reliable projections at every turn and focus on your macro objectives instead of just worrying that about the result of a single encounter between two units.  The blitzball appears to use a similar system, but then the random element is wildly subjective and seems to almost always break in favor of the AI opponent.  The one time you’re required to play the minigame in the course of the story, you’re put in a position where it’s nearly impossible to win or even see some mild successes.  It’s left a bad taste in my mouth for seventeen years.

Despite the obvious flaws in the minigame (maybe in my 30s I will have the circumspection necessary to enjoy blitzball for what it is, but I very much doubt it) the concept of blitzball serves an important role within the game world.  Tidus’s journey is essentially a stranger in a strange land tale, and blitzball is the one cultural touchstone that his Zanarkand shares with the world of Spira.  It’s how he befriends Wakka so quickly despite Wakka’s many, many unexamined biases.  Tidus has no chance of meeting and ingratiating himself to Yuna and her guardians without this stupid fantasy sport.  More interesting than blitzball’s plot necessity is its thematic heavy lifting.  Spira is a world that exists pretty much constantly on the brink of disaster with Sin just wandering around attacking whoever it feels like.  People cope with this constant threat in a couple of manifest ways, all squarely embodied in our resident team captain, Wakka.

Visually, Wakka belongs to the goofy, earnest best friend archetype that the Final Fantasy series had been using since roughly FFVI (Sabin and Wakka, while they may practice different martial disciplines, are of a type); his hair is improbably styled and bright orange, and he just wears his blitzball uniform all the time.  It’s clear that he has a very specialized set of interests.  In terms of personality, he’s very easygoing on the surface with a predilection for acting like everyone’s big brother.  There are reasons for that related to his little brother Chappu, who was killed in a Sin attack, but we won’t get too deep into all of Wakka’s backstory for a while yet.  He’s completely devoted to two things in life: blitzball and the church of Yevon (the dominant religion of Spira).  His love of blitzball is obvious, but Yevon doesn’t really become apparent until Tidus and the gang get further inland and encounter the larger power structures of the church.  Wakka completely buys into the church’s teachings about the dangers of machina (ancient machines that purportedly caused the original incarnation of Sin) and thus has a severe prejudice against the Al Bhed, the tribe of humans who actively seek out and restore machina for their own use.  That Yuna is half Al Bhed is unknown to Wakka (one of the distinct features of the Al Bhed is their heterochromatic eyes, a trait that Yuna very subtly shares with her full-blooded cousins), and it’s deliberately kept from him by her other guardians because… reasons, I guess?  The implication at this early stage in the game seems to be that he’d abandon her if he knew; the extent to which Wakka considers the Al Bhed to be inherently bad versus their cultural practices is unclear, though real life examples of low-information true believers of fundamentalist religions suggests that he would have some difficulty differentiating between the two concepts.

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Spira, land of deep meditations on the nature of life and also stupid soccer.

I’m digressing from my main point though.  Wakka loves the church, and he loves blitzball.  Both are the key pillars of Spira’s strategy to cope with living with Sin.  The game itself is a just a jazzed up version of soccer (which, okay, soccer’s fine), but its primary function is to give the Spirans opportunities to exist as part of a larger community.  With Sin wandering around as an unpredictable natural disaster, the philosophy of blitzball fandom has developed into a pseudo-Buddhist embracing of the present moment as the only one to enjoy.  I’m hazy on the doctrine of the church at this point in my playthrough, so I don’t recall how much of this is an explicit teaching and how much is just what’s naturally developed in Spira’s cultural milieu.  No matter where it originates, it’s one of the more authentic aspects of the game’s world, and I find myself appreciating blitzball in a new light.  I still don’t know if I’m going to bother to play more of it though.

Reading “9: Self-Insert”

In retrospect, I should have realized that Die was going to take aim at broader concepts of fantasy and fiction than just what you get in the realm of role playing back with issue #3 when Gillen decided to do a Tolkien pastiche that reveled in the parallels between the battles of Middle Earth and the Great War that shaped Tolkien as a young man.  Yes, Lord of the Rings serves as the most obvious fantasy forebear to Dungeons & Dragons and all the RPGs it spawned, but it’s also the common ancestor of a huge swath of modern speculative fiction.  You can’t set out to play with the conventions of story games without also banging into the conventions of story.  The chief conceit of this issue seems like a foregone conclusion in retrospect.

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The Jailer’s kind of scary looking, but I’m into it. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

The cover of the issue highlights the Jailer, whom we saw briefly in issue #8.  Her deal gets explained in a lot of depth in the issue, although just based on the cover I can’t help gravitating towards her visual similarities with Ash.  Both are women in these elegant, vaguely gothic dresses (although the Jailer’s is definitely a little more Regency inflected for obvious reasons), and their peculiar eyes are highlighted as major signifiers of their power.  Ash, as a Dictator, has a disfigurement around her left eye that signals her abilities to anyone who may not be aware, although she keeps it obscured most of the time; the Jailer wears a veil to hide her own eyes that have a strange glow to them.  Given Ash’s comments about the tame Dictators who serve Angria, I at first figured that the Jailer must also be a Dictator.  It turns out that she’s something much more interesting, and now I’m turning over the significance of eyes as a visual motif in several of the central characters.  It can’t just be a coincidence that the Jailer also shares some visual traits with Sol, our party member who gleefully put out his own eyes in order to replace them with the D20s as a marker of his bid for power in the game world.

It’s obvious on re-reading the issue that Gillen is letting the idea of vision and sight do some heavy lifting with the larger concepts he wants to explore with this dive into Die’s background.  The revelation that the game world is simultaneously the fantasy world created by the Bronte siblings in their youth bends the sense of causality around the history of everything that’s preceded the party.  It should be sort of mind bending, but in light of the lore that Gillen’s built into the real world analog to the game, it feels incredibly sensical.  The true nature of Die is still very much a mystery, but I can easily take it as a given that there’s a certain timey-wimey aspect to everything which allows Sol to have discovered a pristine pre-human fantasy world that has also been inhabited for over a hundred years by the creations of four English child geniuses (I find myself idly wondering with the Brontes and Tolkien earlier if Gillen has any intention of exploring the fantasy creations of people from outside England).  Die is a Protean sort of thing in the classical sense; its form fits the wants of its (hosts? guests? victims?) while giving them a snatch of the divine.  Your Die campaign maps just as easily on this thing as Sol’s, after all.  It’s built into the rules.

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Oh, that’s a relief because I’m still trying to figure out what Die is after. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Of course, all this talk of Die’s malleability leaves out the other major theme of the issue: fantasy and escapism are costly things; the price of shaping story is typically unseen until it’s hollowed a person out.  This stuff all resonates perfectly with Gillen’s resolution on The Wicked + The Divine, but then it goes and extends the metaphor of godhood as inviting a kind of self immolation by suggesting that internalized storytelling, while quieter, can be just as devastating.  The Pantheon wreak havoc on everything around them in their quests for redefinition; Die’s shapers hurt only themselves directly but then leave ruins that resonate out to affect others they touch.  We must never forget while everyone copes with the horror of their ordeal inside Die, their families are forced to cope with the sudden wretched absence of people who are fixtures in their lives.  If the book Die plays with the love/hate relationship we all experience with escapism and its effects, this issue leans incredibly hard on the hate aspect.

We can talk about the fun that Gillen has with bringing major figures of English literature into his horror fantasy comic (he does love playing around with tradition and legacy) when we discuss the appearance of the Brontes here, but the broad point, if you’re looking for a tl;dr version of the issue’s assertion, is that the indulgence of fantasy incurs a heavy burden on its connoisseur.  The Brontes one by one succumb to illness that this comic posits had a supernatural cause in the form of Die’s predilection to suck its victims dry.  It’s a compulsory sort of thing that they can’t escape regardless of their own inclination towards or away from Die.  There’s likely a bit of a highfalutin pun buried in there about the nature of mortality, which feels very on brand, all things considered.  Regardless, the Brontes’ attitudes towards Die seem to only inform their relative creative success; the cost of having played there at all seems to be the same regardless of the reward.  There’s no middle ground.

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Charlotte tries to let it all go, but even shutting the world out only delays her early death slightly. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, colors by Elvire de Cock, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This is the great conundrum that we find with the Jailer’s story.  If Die is akin to the creative spark, the drive to build fantasy worlds that satisfy some deep-seated need the real world can’t give us, then there’s no real hope for us.  We either embrace it wholeheartedly and let this material world collapse around us, or we resist it and feel ourselves get slowly worn down by the thing in our guts constantly tugging while we try to keep grounded.  Either way, Die is going to happen.

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Thanks, Charlotte. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Learning Sketchbook 19

Last week was Thanksgiving, so I was actually way busier than normal (stupid holidays).  Given that, this week’s sketchbook update is a little sparse compared with what I wanted to get done.  I only have four finished sketches, which is less impressive given that I’m currently at a point where I finish one from concept to colors in around three hours.  A couple of them turned out really well, and one I ended up abandoning before I finished the coloring because I just didn’t like the concept enough to keep working.  Let’s get to it!

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I’ve drawn Spiral, the six-armed villain from Mojoworld before during Inktober, but this time I decided I wanted to do something a little more interesting than just a straightforward full figure pose.  Spiral’s standard design is full of fiddly bits from her samurai styled helmet to her mixture of partially cybernetic arms to the simple fact that she has six arms, so I wanted to simplify the look enough that I could just focus on some figure and perspective work.  The design here heavily borrows from the Spiral of the Ultimate universe, who is just a mutant with six arms rather than the stupidly complex creature of the 616.  It was fun playing with the proportions of the arms to give a better sense of depth to the picture, although I question some of my choices with what to have the hands doing.  Spiral’s always portrayed dancing, but I don’t have a good mental reference library for hand positions, so that’s why she’s making the Wolf Pack sign from circa 1997.  I was really hesitant to color this picture because the lines came out looking super clean after I was done with the pencils, and I’ve learned that any color at all will instantly make graphite look washed out.  In the past I’ve played around with using black colored pencil to make lines pop in areas that have low contrast colors, and so I just decided to trace all the pencils with colored pencil on this one to keep the definition.  I’m not happy with how fuzzy the lines look, but at least you can see them.  For the rest of the coloring, I worked in two stages, beginning with just light blue pencil to do low lights on the hair as well as coloring the clothes.  It was kind of a cool effect to have the monochrome coloring, but I ultimately decided I wanted to practice doing skin tone as well.  I think coloring skin is the most anxiety inducing part of working on a picture, and I’m glad to realize that the more I just do it the better I get at understanding how different colors in my palette are going to look.  The last thing I want to pat myself on the back for is the fact that I made Spiral look super buff; I feel like anyone who has that many arms and swings a bunch of weapons around all the time should have some good definition in their arms.

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Another repeat from Inktober, Husk is a character who gets really underserved in the comics but who has an interesting concept and character profile.  Her power involves being able to slough off her epidermis to reveal a new layer of skin that’s taken on the properties of pretty much whatever material she wants.  She’s basically super gross deluxe Colossus.  With this one I knew that I wanted to do something besides a generic action pose (everyone draws Husk ripping her skin off), so I decided to highlight the fact that she’s generally just a sweet kid who wants to do really well at mutant school.  Her eventual arc in the comics is to realize she’s not cut out for superheroing and go to school to become a counselor, so it seemed best not to dwell on the punchy parts of her concept.  Where the Spiral drawing was all about sticking to cool colors and was nearly monochrome, I wanted to really emphasize the warm colors in Husk’s costume.  There’s a ton of yellow on the page with a lot of orange low-lights worked in for some depth.  The skin looks a little washed out in comparison, but I’m still struggling to figure out how to get better saturation on skin without running over into unnatural looking colors (also, I need to scan my drawings instead of taking phone photos; the lighting conditions impact the look of the photo so much compared with what I see when I’m drawing).  There’s something slightly uncanny about Husk’s face here; for portraits like this I don’t use reference, and I can tell when I compare it with my reference practice that there’s definitely something off in my proportions that just doesn’t stand out to me while I’m working.  It feels connected to that common problem in comics art where any given artist’s faces tend to look very samey.

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I did do a little coloring on this one, but I didn’t like it enough to bother with a picture, so all I have are the rough pencils.  The concept was Iceman sliding by a boardwalk and making flirty eyes at a cute guy.  The background irritated me because the perspective felt super off.  Someday I’ll practice drawing environments; today is not that day.

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The week’s finished work ends with this figure drawing of Emma Frost.  Emma’s a really compelling character with a lot of complexities that are worth exploring, but the one thing that often gets overlooked because comics are very much biased towards the straight male gaze is that Emma should be doing more with her wardrobe than just being eye candy.  The artists on the Dawn of X relaunch tend to be a little better about this, so I borrowed from the design that Pepe Larraz used in one of the House of X issues.  I’m still very much a novice at clothing, so I don’t think there’s anything particularly spectacular about this drawing (ugh, feet and double ugh, feet in heels).  The figure is slightly elongated through the torso, which is a consistent problem I have when I draw female coded figures in this three quarter perspective.  The texture of the fur coat is okay though, and I really like what I did with the coloring.  I decided to cheat a bit and color Emma as though she’s in her diamond form, which allowed me to stick to mostly white.  It was fun thinking through how to differentiate the shading on her body and her clothes though.

And that’s it for this week!  Now that we’re moving into the major holiday season, we’ll see how well I can keep up with this level of drawing output on top of everything else I’m trying to do.  Is it normal to feel pre-tired a month ahead of Christmas?