Friday, August 21, 2015

More Optical Allusions

Three years ago, I posted a few pictures that I mistook for other things.  Since then, I'd felt that there were a few images that were missing, and decided to keep a collection of them for further investigation. Misunderstanding what a picture is conveying is hardly anything new.  When seeing something unusual that falls outside of our knowledge, we build on our previous perceptions to bridge the gap.

Kazu Kibuishi's Copper is a webcomic that has some critical appeal, even though it's never really warmed up to me.  But I was familiar enough with the character design to feel that it was replicated elsewhere:

If you looked at an early edition of Brian Michael Bendis' Fortune and Glory, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at an extreme close-up of a one-sided dialogue of a dog and his nose, rather than the edge of an eyeball and a telephone receiver.  Unless you were familiar with the scene in question, you'd have no idea what you were looking at here, which is usually the case for first-time readers.

While purveying online archives of newspaper comics, I found out that I didn't start to seriously keep my collection of Sunday comics until Garfield replaced Heathcliff and Superman, neither titles which previously held my fancy.  It's somewhat amusing to think that the commercial fat cat grabbed my attention better than the competition.  In a sense, Garfield helped fuel my comic addiction, and it was all because of this:

However, while I saved the Sunday that had this particular Garfield, I didn't make a habit of keeping Sundays until several weeks later.  That could be because I was continuously perplexed by the last panel, which made it look like Odie's head had suddenly converted to an exploded popcorn kernel.  It took me years to understand that I was looking at the dog upside down and backwards.  Also, Odie's never shown this unusual position before or since, which only compounded to the confusion.

Another instance would be a classic Calvin & Hobbes moment where the bratty kid touted a poem titled "The Dad who Lived to Regret Being Mean to his Kid".  (I'm just sorry I don't have the Sunday comic variant, which had "Barney"'s shirt coloured a shade of blue, making the thinly-veiled expy less obvious)  What wasn't entirely evident upon first reading was that Barney's nose (represented as a black dot on his face) and originally shown on the opposite side from the Sunday page was rapidly forgotten in the context of the 2nd panel with no other character sheets for comparison and contrast.  I always thought that Barney in the 2nd panel was shown with one eye, which would be a kind of artistic license, similar to having badly-spelled backwards letters alongside childish drawings.  However, if seen closer, you'll see that the "eyelid" is actually a unibrow with half-closed confident eyes.  This subtle detail was completely lost with newspaper reduction, and even book publications.

Haphazardly rushed sketches can make it difficult to tell what's going on, and nowhere is this better reflected than on the rough drafts of One-Punch Man where some pages can be hard to understand, due to wonky perspective and shifting viewpoints.

When seen from one angle, you see the profiled face of a horned monster making an unsubtle threat.  When seen from another angle, you see a largely smiling devil, stretching his three-fingered palm towards the foreground.  Not unlike seeing a young woman and an old lady, or a rabbit and a duck in the same drawing.  In this instance, it was two different monsters with similar (but different) features.

This wasn't just limited to comics, but also applied to Videogames themselves.  My first instance was the classic lineup of Nintendo titles at someone else's house, from The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros.  At the time, I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at, and couldn't multi-task the control beyond using the control pad and action buttons simultaneously.  Because of my lack of dexterity, I was constantly running face-first into Goombas, who for all intents and purposes, looked like faces that were crawling on their mustaches.

Did I also mention that the TV set was in black and white?  (I was flabbergasted when I saw Nintendo action on a large colour screen years later) While my Videogame skills were still in its infancy, the cartridge owner had more practice, and was able to make it all the way to the first castle, past the fire-breathing dragon, touching the magically glowing axe on the other side (which didn't hurt), making the bridge vanish behind them, making said dragon touch the sudden lack of ground underneath his feet before plunging to a fiery death.  After which, the plumber would move on to the next room to meet...

If you said a Mushroom Retainer, you obviously read the instruction manual.  To someone who had only the hint of fantasy atmosphere with a castle setting and climatic battle, you could forgive me for thinking that this figure was anything but a wounded knight waiting to pass on his dying message to his savior.  If you don't see a fully-armoured man cut from the neck down, with an unusually large Medieval helmet over his frame, you've missed out on alternate interpretations on a large scale.  (The "helmet" would extend beyond the mushroom hat, down to the outstretched arms, to the retainer's "vest" which would be another mistaken mustache of its own)

This was perfectly understandable, because Videogames were venturing uncharted territory with their intuitive dream logic that made perfect sense to children, and were absolute gibberish to adults who couldn't control the characters with their clumsy fingers.  Not to say that everything was entirely obvious upon first sight - many players of the first Legend of Zelda were lost trying to find the elusive 7th and 8th dungeons without outside help, bombing and pushing everything in sight, never knowing that the cryptic advice in the 6th dungeon was a clue.  (Let alone burning trees with a candle that only worked once per screen)  And good luck trying to complete the 2nd quest without help.  Fortunately, there were informative players guides from the (now-defunct) Nintendo Power magazine, which pointed the direction you'd need to go to complete the game to your satisfaction.  The later dungeons were left mostly unmapped, but at least allowed us the joy of discovery once we figured out where the damned entrances were.  There was also a teasing image of the final boss, The Evil Ganon, who in the instruction manual, was drawn as a highly detailed question mark.

So when we finally got the chance to see the BigBad ahead of time, we had no idea what we were looking at.  Rather than the image of an overly large pig, we were seeing a wizard with a pained expression with bat wings.  Later, I found out that what I thought were Ganon's eyes was actually his nostrils.

Another easy mistake regarding Ganon's face was in the less than popular sequel, where he would show up after you easily lost your lives due to poor hit control.  Rather than seeing a pig nose underneath his eyes, I saw what amounted to an extra-large frown instead, which made him look more threatening.  Even now that I know that it's supposed to his nose under there, I still can't help but see it as a mouth.

This isn't limited to my perceptions alone.  A Deviantart artist pointed out the surreal appearance of one of Link's iconic villains, Agahnim.  This was because the pixelated area of his tightly contorted mouth was overshadowed by the detailed folds of heavy clothing.  Some high-detailed graphics can render the essence of a drawing, but this is one instance that could use some drastic reprogramming.

Once I got used to the imagery of Videogames, I was unconsciously seeing their Japanese influence, even as I remained ignorant about their country's origin.  One such instance was the weirdly titled Kabuki Quantum Fighter, which showcased the popularity of long/large-haired drama archetypes.  From there, it was easy to make the mistake of seeing Area 88's retitled game logo for something else.

One of these is the head of a flaming unicorn, and one is the head of a smiling demon.  Can you tell the difference?  Looking over these scans, I've noticed that I've frequently mistook limbs for mustaches, necks for mouths, and noses for eyes.  I take it people out there aren't so easily fooled.


Monday, August 17, 2015

A Family Here

First published in RAW magazine in 1989, Richard McGuire's Here was an unique take on showing the progression of time within a fixed place, having various panels represent certain events that happened in the past.

This simple concept was later expanded into a 300-page colour comic, showing all kinds of minor events and similarities between time periods.  From mothers handling their babies to Halloween costume parties to exercising for fun, there are universal commonalities that are eternally prescient.  One of my favorite scenes is where a man is scraping away two layers of wallpaper at the same "time" that another man is papering over the old pattern.

Much like the 6-page draft, the updated Here manages to remain fascinating which is a remarkable achievement for a book without a plot.  There are minor instances of some timelines having continuous progress between the ages, but they're rare enough to stand out on their own.  The largest discrepancy would be at the beginning where a woman in 1955 enters the room, muttering aloud to herself, "Hmm... Why did I come in here again?" and then on the last page, picks up a photo album (another instance of captured moments in time) and answers "Now I remember."

While Here was a brainstorming influence on cartoonists to think outside the box (while ironically being confined to a single box), the inspiration for this may be less than obvious.  Part of it could've been from stories that Ben Franklin's son's house was just across the street from Richard McGuire's childhood home.  Another being that prehistoric dinosaurs and now-extinct creatures roamed the very land he once resided.

But another unintended influence could've very well been from Bil Keane's Family Circus.

While normally a well-drawn pastiche of mundane family activities and zoomed-out maps of Billy's dotted routes, there are also the lesser known instances of memories and ghosts occupying ancient realms where daring boys and girls wound up achieving accomplishments that everybody feels were done for the first time ever.

What McGuire improves upon is not just looking into the past, but also into the future, or at least potential futures that could very well happen.  Also, his viewframe is not limited to any one character, but ranging from the formation of the Earth to at least three centuries from today.

It's easy to find comparisons between common events.  It's far harder to make connections between events that happened ages ago, and finding similarities between them.  All these Sunday comics showed up long before 1989, so whether they wound up having an influence or not is entirely subjective.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Sideways Throwaway Panels

Everybody who's read Sunday Comics pretty much knows about the concept of throwaway panels, usually occupying the abovehead space of the strip, right next to the title page.  However, there's another aspect of throwaway panels that is much less known - the panels right next to the comic.  This is something somewhat different from the title box that would show alongside the strip for the rare newspapers that would bother to show this extra expanse of space.

One of the earliest examples I could find was Ponytail by Lee Holley, a former assistant to Hank Ketcham of Dennis the Menace fame.  As such, it holds a certain kind of nostalgia in certain comic circles.

As you can tell from the samples, Ponytail shows the exploits of a boy-crazy teenage girl before worthy competition replaced the demand for fluff entertainment aimed at girls.  When the King Features Syndicate editor notified the creator of the lack of demand for his product, Lee Holley quietly retired in 1989, being content with the run he'd done.

Finding the extra panels is quite easy - you'll notice that the panels on the far left are of larger and squarer consistency compared to the rest of the comic, which have a more varied selection of restricted dimensions.

Somewhere along the way, it was calculated that it would be far more productive if the rest of the Sunday strip was structured similarly to the throwaway panels, which would cut down time spent on structuring the joke.

What surprised me was how little the panels added to the overall experience, and how much they ruined the flow of a strip.  Most of them were little more than building up and reinforcing facts that were already evident.  In fact, one could remove the panels entirely, and be left with a better comic.

For your convenience, I've superimposed several Marvin comics with the missing panels, so you can judge the results for yourself.

Comic fans may complain about decompression when it's handled improperly; having a story that would've naturally been told in one issue be expanded into four-six issues, with events extended over the course of half a year.  When done well, decompression can build suspense, foreshadow future events, and have character development. When done badly, decompression winds up with expanded content that don't improve upon the material already present.

This could be a reason why there haven't been any excessive collections of Marvin - an extensive collection would show the obvious holes evident even as Tom Armstrong was improving his craft.

Even in later Sundays where taking advantage of the extra space was used, there were still instances where some panels could afford to be scrunched up or removed entirely per the newspaper's preferences.

The latest batch of Garfield strips have been condemned for being excessively lazy, with some strips having too much wasted space, and some minor alterations were done to improve them.  In fact, that premise was there practically from the start.

If you go back to the early Sunday strips, going from a typical 6-panel format, you'll be surprised at how well they still work if the 1st and 4th panels are removed.

And in the rare instances where those specific panels are essential, others can be substituted just as well.  Garfield's saving grace was that those extra panels were amusing enough to stand on their own.

What other comics out there work just fine without those extraneous panels?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Unité 9, the Canadian Orange is the New Black

In an ever-increasing TV market where competition for dominance of audience attention is a high priority, adapting long-term serials (Game of Thrones) or high concept premises (a notebook that kills people) are used to increase market share.  Another under-utilized but successful feature is to have an episode that explores a theme that's Ripped from the Headlines.  Some shows manage to take this further, and base their premise on that very controversial subject, since it'll be fresh in their audience's memory, and people are starved for any meaning behind said issues, because people relate more to stories than dry facts.

A running background subject on DaVinci's Inquest was the lack of police competence on the Pickton Murders (before he was finally caught)  The Good Wife was created as a response to a devoted woman standing by her husband, Eliot Spitzer, despite his infidelity.  Likewise, Unité 9 was borne out of a response to Karla Homolka, a Canadian female serial killer.  When she was convicted, there were complaints that she seemed to be enjoying her captivity, and having what amounted to a good time.  To people outside, they felt that she should've been deep in misery and not yuking it up, despite her imprisonment.
Danielle Trottier had the idea of doing a series on a women's prison after reading a report from Louise Arbour, on the Commission of Inquiry into Certain Events at the Prison for Women in Kingston 13. She then took five years of research, particularly by regularly visiting the penitentiary in Joliette. She met several inmates, "intelligent, sensitive people, extremely generous in the change process."  It's no great secret that Unité 9 is based on the Joliette penitentiary.

Marie Lamontagne, a teacher and a widowed mother of two girls has been sentenced to jail due to her attempted murder on her father.  In addition to seeing Marie deal with a side of the justice system she's remained willfully ignorant about, we also get to see how her family deals with having their sole living parent in jail.  Saying they're upset about the whole thing is putting it mildly.

As a former schoolteacher, Marie Lamontagne is less naive than Piper Chapman's wide-eyed innocence, which can become somewhat annoying at times.  Even so, Marie is still shocked at the extent of the prison system, which no previous knowledge could possibly prepare her for.  Orange is the New Black is more of a comedy than a drama, and Marie is shipped off to Lietteville instead of Litchfield, a minimum to medium security prison, with Max and Solitary holdings for high-risk troublemakers.

Men's prison shows like OZ, are claustrophobically limited within their prison walls, but women's prisons have the advantage of showing life outside the walls.  We see interaction of the guard's home life, as well as the prisoner's family reactions.  Unité 9 primarily devotes time to a singular unit, housing up to 6 women, with occasional snippets into Unit 7, the hardcore drug dealer group.  The focus may be on a smaller group of inmates, compared to Orange, but the emotional baggage is just as heavy, if not heavier.  (Be sure to expect a lot of emotional crying)

In some ways, its amusing to see the similar parallels between the two shows, and how they handle them.
A typical American sentence can go all the way up to 150 years to life (served consequently), while the maximum sentence one can get in Canada is 25 years, giving at least the prospect of an "out" rather than dangling false hope before the inmate's eyes.

While criminals are kept in a secure location, it's recommended that they fill their days with worthwhile activities.  Whether it's sewing men's underwear in the sweatshop, doing yardwork / cleaning duties or handling the commissary, even if such menial chores may not always be up to their intellectual capability, the important thing is to keep busy.  The biggest threat to their mental well-being isn't time, but boredom.

The most remarkable and striking feature of Unité 9 is how different Canadian women's prisons are from American ones.  Where American prisons are built around intimidation and punishment, Canadian prisons are built more around the principle of rehabilitation.  These facilities are built around the premise that the women criminals need to understand that what they did was wrong, and that their actions have consequences.  In fact, you could call this a plainsclothes prison.  Usually, the general mandate around prison is that you're supposed to wear one kind of uniform to remove all sense of individuality.  But in Lietteville, you're allowed to bring in 35 items (socks, shirts, pants, shoes, underwear) for the duration of your stay, whether it's for six months or 25 years.

They're also given a limited budget for cooking food, which is to be shared with the rest of your residents.  As a result, most prisoners opt for cheap meals consisting of pasta, chickpeas and rice, which isn't very nutritious or healthy.  Furthermore, if you show signs of rehabilitation, you're allowed to go out with an escorted guard, who'll be wearing plainclothes to help the prisoner around so they'll get used to the idea of getting back into the world they've been away from a long time.  If the prisoner shows further signs of improvement, they're allowed to go out via unescorted leaves, provided they come back to the prison on time.

In an Olivia Goldsmith book, Insiders, one of the fallacies that's pointed out is that Men's prisons are built around the premise that when released, they're not allowed to have outside contact with people connected to crime.  But with women, they're wired differently, and are less likely to be repeat offenders.  When they're released, chances are that the women prisoners will have little outside contact, and the support system they've developed inside the prison may be more reassuring than the people outside.  Depriving a woman of social contact is like keeping a flower from water and sunlight.  It'll shrivel away and die, otherwise.

In fact, the interior of a woman's prison is very unlike the cold sterile walls of an American prison.  Our first glimpse of a woman's cell looks more like the interior of an apartment than anything else.  There's the main room, with a kitchen, dining table, rooms for the individual prisoners, a bathroom and a washing room.
It's like a small community than anything else, and there's a panic button (as well as an intercom) in case things get too overheated, and the guards can come anytime the alarm goes off.
"Don't need 'em.  They're in our minds.Sometimes they seem lacking 'cause we end up forgetting we're in prison,
but there's always someone to remind us we're really here."
The lead character was surprised at the conditions as well, telling her daughter (with a pay phone inside the unit/apartment yet!) that it was nothing like the prisons seen on TV.

What's also surprising is the amount of interaction between the prisoners and the guards.  The general consensus is that guards are supposed to keep the prisoners in line and under control (as outlined in the Stanford Prison Experiment), but there's a certain amount of camaraderie and companionship that borders on respect.  If there are any valid complaints, they'll be given consideration, and there's guidelines to help make the transition run smoothly.  Not that it's all smooth sailing there.  Guards who are more accustomed in men's prisons who are transferred to women's prisons (due to work shortages) aren't used to the amount of interaction involved, and may be more comfortable keeping the prisoner / guard hierarchy separate.

Unité 9 follows some of the same themes as Orange, such as electing an Inmate-Committee President, and holding a concert, but the way they build up and prepare for those events changes on an episodic basis. Events take their time in playing out, and scenes will often shift to show other developments happening elsewhere at the same time.  It's very much of a slow burn.  Yet despite juggling multiple simultaneous plots simultaneously, there's never any confusion as to what's going on, despite the lack of expositionary dialogue.

And then there's the warden... oh boy, the warden.  Normand Despins borders somewhere between domineering and consolidating, being firm but fair.  He always says he has no time for complaints, yet always manages to listen.  (Whether they come from the guards, chaplain, parole officer, or the prisoners themselves)  As long as they make their argument compelling, he's willing to hear them out.  He'll support some recommendations while tearing down others for renovation and upheaval.  He'll consider the best available choices, but prefers to toe the bottom line.  He wavers between being an Obstructive Bureaucrat and a Reasonable Authority Figure.  It's just Marie's bad luck that he's implementing his Zero-Tolerance policy from experience in Men's prisons (due to complaints that Lietteville is too lenient) the same day she's being arraigned.

Another high selling point is the amount of natural dialogue and varied facial expressions among the women, giving a kalediscope range of emotions between the cast.  Very often in American shows, there's a high amount of philosophizing and speechifying in dialogue to make a point.  In Unité 9, things are shown factually and in a naturalistic roundabout way, showing you the events as they occur, and having no agenda present.  The fact that it's written by a team of three women also helps keep the relationships believable at a relatable and identifiable level, rather than showing a failed and broken prison system, filled with hierarchies and power struggles.  In fact, Unité 9 is closer to the book version of Orange is the New Black than the show, where Piper managed to make friends in prison and keep her fiancé.

In Orange is the New Black, every episode ends with a flash of orange before fading... to black.  Whereas with Unité 9, every episode ends, not with a cliffhanger, but the desire to see what happens next.  The next episode opening continues from where the last episode left off, and the brief snippet before the title credits (lasting just under a minute) gives what would normally count as the cliffhanger.

I am interested in seeing EVERYONE'S progress, and don't feel disheartened if I don't see someone for a long time, because I find pretty much everything that happens to be immensely immersing.  From the brief snippets of the prisoner's contact with life outside to the guard's office politics.  And the multiple meetings - meetings with staff to discuss various prisoners' behavior and potential improvements, to inmates meetings with psychologists, parole officers, and priests.  Not to mention that the prisoners can get shuffled around without a moment's warning, and their reactions to being locked up in Maximum or Solitary is different for each personality.  No two encounters are exactly alike.

In fact, Unité 9's only complaint could be the low number of racial diversity, but that's also an example of Truth in Television, since the prison it represents also has a 90% white prisoner rate.  An online discussion of the show delved into some interesting facts:

IRL there probably wouldn't be many native/metis women in that specific penitentiary - years ago, Corrections Canada set up healing lodges for native women to cater specifically to their needs. They are still incarcerated, but there is an emphasis on using First Nations culture and practices to help in rehabilitation"  It seems like that wouldn't be enough beds to mean that there are no Aboriginal women in other institutions though, right? Like, considering the proportions.
Update: I found a report from 2005 with the ethnic breakdown of women offenders in federal institutions in Canada, this is so interesting - the federal women's institution in Quebec (Joliette) only has 2.7% (2 people) of its population as Aboriginal women, where the other institutions are all much higher - the lowest is 11% for GVI (Ontario), 17.5% for the Atlantic and 34% for the Pacific region, and they just go up from there for the Edmonton institution and the ones in the Prairies (one federal, one psychiatric, one healing lodge). Wow.
So, yeah! Having a prison show elsewhere in Canada without Aboriginal women would be a lapse of varying severity depending on where you are - but for Joliette (where 90% of inmates are caucasian, whoa) this does make sense.
P.S. In 2005 there were ZERO Black women in the federal psychiatric institution, the Edmonton Institution for Women, and the Fraser Valley Institution for Women (and the healing lodge). So basically no Black women in federal custody West of Ontario. Wow. This has been a very intriguing report.
There have been plans for an English remake, which would be cast in Kingston (Ontario) rather than Quebec, which has a higher POC rate, and different crime rate.  The only other French-Quebec show to be adapted to English was the cop show 19-2 (No relation to Car 54 Where are You?) which focuses more on settling domestic disputes than solving mysteries every week.  Though the second season (in both languages) opens up with a strong contendor with police procedure and post-traumatic stress during a school shooting, which was inspired by actual cops affected by the Dawson College shooting.  So far, there's been a creative difference of interest in the production, which wanted to cut the number of episodes from 24 to 12, which would drastically cut into the tension and buildup.

Only the first two episodes are available online via Vimeo, and it's doubtful how long they'll stay there.  There used to be a Youtube account that had English subtitles, but the user was later banned, and there aren't any available downloads that aren't related to The Unit, the show about Super-Secret operators.  Your best bet is to rent or order the DVD series with its (high quality) subtitles intact, or start to learn Québecois French, knowing that religious sayings such as sacrament, câlice and tabarnak are swear words.  Despite its length, watching the later episodes of Unité 9 don't feel like a chore, and viewers are actively anticipating the outcome of the 3rd Season's finale resuming next month... but I'll refrain from revealing any spoilers.
A page from Peter Bagge's Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story
The only other worthy Women's Prison show worth watching I'm aware of is Wentworth, but I haven't seen any of it to judge it worthy, though from general descriptions, it sounds close enough to Unité 9.  Any show about Women's prisons that makes lesbianism the least interesting aspect earns high marks in my book.