Sunday, April 17, 2011

I see France...

Days Remaining to Next Beer: 336

Early in the wee hours, pardon the pun, and we deplane in Paris like LL Cool J describes in G.O.A.T., tellin’ Spielberg to chill because we’re on a mission to bring the noise to Mime Town. Also, just observed scribing that colourful description that you can certainly know you’ve “made it” when Microsoft’s Word’s spellchecker corrects the spelling of your name, and Spielberg only has one “i” in it by the way, and no silent “Lucas”.

Our cabbie is relying on a GPS more advanced than I’d ever seen to negotiate the narrow twisty streets and cobblestone avenues, to shoot along the busy avenues flanking waterways familiar to anyone as addicted to the Highlander television show as I had been as a younger shade of me, nothing says immortal living like a houseboat on a viaduct with a top deck view of Notre Damde at the hip swell of St. Germaine, the neighbourhood famous for more than a band being named after it just as the huge cathedral is famous for more than hunchbacks.

We slow as the GPS barks orders in French and renders a Tron lightcycle grid of three-quarter perspective of our location with superimposed spheres like the ghosts of Pac-Mans past, present, and future denoting turns, proximity, and destination. I’m groggy from the flight and the early hour, and dazzled by the rain and the amber shades the street lights cast everything in like a sepia tone chariscuro rendering, yet I start when I spot familiar Star Wars merchandise filling a large plate glass window, something familiar in a place so seemingly utterly foreign. I initiated a plan to remember every turn the cab took from that point onward, so that after a rest I could back track to this shop and explore it’s wares. Turns out the challenge wasn’t, as we followed the downward slope of the avenue, aka “rue” and pulled up in front of our narrow, nondescript hotel less that fifty meters from the Star Wars shop. I took this as a good omen as I decabbed and went around to the back to help the cabbie heave our international jetsetter luggage out of the boot of the shuttle van. 

I wheeled our luggage towards the glass hotel door while Lindz settled our fare with the cabbie. He waved at use as thought he’d just dropped us off at the hotel in Delicatessen, a strange look on his face. That had been a French film after all, perhaps our hotel had been inspiration? Who’s to say, I shrugged and made a note to myself to listen for the sound of bed springs. Since we were on honeymoon, I would likely be distracted when that sound happened though. Moving on.

Quick call on the hotel intercom, brief confirmation of reservation conveyed with Lindz’s faltering yet stalwart high school French, and we were buzzed in. Lindz’s French turned out to be an indispensible asset throughout our time in Paris, I’ll mention this now, because while I’d always felt after knowing and dating several multilingual folks in my days that polyglots have unusual advantages in the world at large, this trip and getting hitched to a Canadian informed my decision now that Otis will know French as a start, through immersion and through as much exposure to our pal Celine as she’ll tolerate. Might not be the only language he’ll eventually learn, as I’d love for him to know Swedish, Spanish, Korean, Czech, and Cantonese as well, however I am sure I want him to be able to explore France and get all that much more out of the experience than I could or can. The rest of this account will explain why, though hopefully your forgive how absolutely geeky my reasons are.

We hauled out jetsetter’s suitcases into the lobby, receive a warm, though still sleepy, welcome to Paris and to the hotel. We got our key, a schedule for the kitchen hours in the basement dining room, and pointed to the elevator, perhaps the smallest dangling casket I’ve ever tried to squeeze myself and a bag at a time into. Eventually we ferried ourselves and all our gear to our floor and wheeled to our room, entered, and fell asleep until the sun shone a flashlight though our window overlooking the courtyard the small hotel wrapped around like a letter “G”.

Showered, dressed, and quick trip to the dining room in the basement for a tasty breakfast, then we were out and about, first stop the show with the Star Wars swag in the window. Of course, travel across an ocean to see an exotic foreign land, and the first thing I’m curious about is how different their Star Wars toys are too ours, and further, did they dislike the prequel episodes as much as I do? 

Amazing store, one of the best I’ve seen, on par with the Timeless Toys shop outside Portland where I scored my first 2 foot tall for display only Lego workman, a new girl accidently sold it to me mistaking it for a Lego set that built a replica of the workman. This store had it all, from vintage Kenner to new items I’ve never seen anywhere else, like some of those obsessive toy collector dreams I have where I find an old mom and pop hardware store, remember when hardware stores used to sell toys, and it has a wall of pegs laden with Kenner Star Wars figures, and Micronauts, and Fisher Price, and more Star Wars, including figures never released or entire peg rows of rarities like missile launching Boba Fett, or plastic cape Jawa, or the Camel cigarette mascot aka Yak-Face. I’d wake up from dreams like that so happy until I realize my arms aren’t clutching so many figures some keep falling out of the bushel, and then I want to cry. I may not collect anymore, but the thrill of the hunt will never go away.

Like when I lived in Cincinnati Ohio where once upon a magical time Kenner had built their headquarters. Seemed like everyone had a relative that had worked for Kenner with access to toys for any occasion; so garage sales there seemed like gold mines waiting to happen. There were boxes, bags, bins waiting in garages, on driveways, or sometimes in bedroom closets full of parts, pieces, loose rarities, even the occasional unopened gem. Comic shop regulars spoke with reverent hushed tones about the friend of a friend that bought a long box filled one end to the other with mint on card Empire and Jedi figures from a woman who’s son had grown and moved away, and didn’t care she was selling off his collectables in a garage sale.

I remember hearing that story for the third or fourth time, one variation or another, and trying to picture my reaction upon learning that my Mother had sold off my childhood toys. An I simply couldn’t picture it, probably because my Mom is every bit as sentimental as I am and still had the Steiff owl I’d chewed the toes open on as a tiny child, and while she collects and restores other things like antique dolls that can explode if held to close to open flame, she gets how important keepsakes can be for a child growing up.

I’d drag poor Lisa to every address I’d circled in the paper, every garage sale, every comic shop closeout sale, every basement collector private showroom, and we built a collection that would later largely subsidize our paying rent on time when we relocated to Oregon and one by one all those amazing pieces were sold off on consignment as Star Wars had a market value boom due to the new releases of absurdly buffed and beefy Star Wars figures from Hasbro.

The shop by our hotel blew us away, and best of all things in the show was a two foot tall plush Chewbacca backpack I’ve never seem sold as such in North America. Got some other things too, and had a great time walking around the shop with the owner who had built this collection with his son until one day when the two decided to open a shop together. I don’t know if Otis and I will ever open a shop together, but I certainly aim to play with him with as many toys from my childhood as possible. Currently, we’re trying to track down the old Fisher Price little peg people, the sets Lindz and I had as kids, like the Sesame Street set, or the parking garage, or the barn and silo, the hippy bus or the club house with the merry go round.

Speaking of, if you’ve never read Evan Dorkin’s adaptations of literary classics in comic book form using little peg people, you should. Delightful and extremely faithful to the spirit of the original tomes. I wish he’d done more, like Slaughterhouse 5, Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Red Badge of Courage, Catch 22, or Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

We returned our purchases and let out again into the city. Over the next few days we ate and hiked our way across Paris, revisiting one cafe in particular for their amazing food and desserts, my first ever crème brûlée, so delicious. 

We tried wines, Lindz expertly pairing particular flavours that were harse if sampled alone yet astounding when paired with the right roasted meat, the mixing of grape juice holy water with singed side of animal springing to life inside my mouth like Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia, and I drooled a little.

We checked out the Eiffel Tower of course and avoided the gypsy children with well-folded notes and maps running the “Ask a tourist for advice” scam on anyone pasty and out of town looking.

We gawked as the exteriors and interiors of massive, beautiful cathedrals, and at night the way the lights make the stained glass glow while the shadows cutting into the lines of the architecture hit reliefs of absolute black, quite spectacular. 

In St. Germain, there is an intersection where you can see at least five comic book stores of assorted ilk, and when we explored, there were another dozen within two blocks of the ones we’d initially found. Starting with a large chain bookstore, then the North American style corner shop with toys and a wall of artist sketchbooks, I saw my friend Robin’s book in there, and then into more boutique European style shops, often with evident Tintin statues and toys prominently displayed, or the panda painted characters from Wake, and lads of other characters and titles unfamiliar to me yet clearly popular in France. As we followed the slope of the Rue down towards the Canal and bridge towards Notre Dame, we noticed a comic shop much like the Rocket Ship Comics in Brooklyn that Jed took us too, meaning, a shop that is a gallery for comic book art, pages, and limited run gallery quality artist portfolios like the 415 page one we purchased there that will inspire me for many years to come. 

André Juillard's book is different from typical mass produced artist sketchbooks with slick glossy paper and clever forwards by Ashley Wood, or Omnibus style sketchbooks printed cheaply in black and white on newsprint pulp paper, and different again from the copy machine books artists make themselves at Kinko’s or Staples, sometimes with the cardstock covers, to sell at conventions. The book we purchased is hard bound, thick, and arranged on different paper sorts to emulate the actual paper used respectively by the artist. So the pen and inks are on Bristol and Vellum, the washes and water colors printed on rag paper and thick water color paper, the printed full color pages printed on poster bill card stock and editor proof cold press.  
Basically, it’s the finest representative portfolio sketchbook demonstrating the full range of an artist’s abilities from pencils and composition breakdowns to finished pages ready for lettering and FX. And the gallery had dozens of artists represented, almost impossible not to purchase the whole library. And as we walked out of the gallery, waving and exchanging kind words with the wonderful women / curators that ran the place, I felt suddenly angry. Why is none of this available in North America? It is the French preference for nudity over violence in their comics? Is it the lack of spandex and capes? Not just that though, not just the comic scene and my frustrating inability to fully appreciate it due to my not speaking or reading French. 

My anger came from thinking of all the years I spent with no one to ask or read books about that would get into the minutia of technique or craft. Even now, there aren’t a lot of books and even less institutionalized education for illustration and graphic art, not without going to a massively expensive trade school. Here I am holding a book that meticulously breaks down how a particular prolific professional does what he does, from cocktail napkin thumbnails to finished proofing plates, and does so in a way even a non-French speaker can follow along. Brushed, pen types, nib sizes, materials, all called out, and perhaps with a little help from Celine or Babblefish, I can even read the explanations as to why. True, the internet is bloated with tips and tricks, if you can get past the anime tutorials and WildStorm fanboys. There are some great forums now too, depending on your stylistic preferences, though here again hard to get exacting examples or straight forward foundational features. 

Draw magazine has some really great features, and I wish that had been around when I was a kid. Taschen prints some fun sketchbooks, like the 1000 pages of Coop, or Terra. Scott McCloud’s books on narrative storytelling should be required reading for anyone working in any sort of visual narrative, video games included. As a kid though all there was for learning how to tell stories with pictures like the pros sat inside the cover of How to Draw the Marvel Way.  Fortunately I found a copy of one of the bite sized volumes that together comprised the full Bridgeman Life Drawing lessons. The one I had explained constructive anatomy, and ended up inspiring my Rickets character design later on in college, the one I subsequently sold to Celia Calle. Bridgeman is still my preference for the getting a start with understanding anatomy and how to draw the spatial volumes that comprise it, much clearer and fills in a lot of the steps how to books like the How to Draw Star Wars books seemed to skip between having some bubbles and having a finished, inked character that looks “on model”.

While I lived in Oregon I met an artist named Shane Gline that worked for Warner Brothers on the Batman cartoons. When he worked in LA, he liked to take any artist portfolios or how too instructive bibles he could get his hands on and copy them after hours, 3 hold punch the copies and keep them in white hard cover ring binders. Back in Eugene, he had a closet stacked chest high with all the binders he’d copied / collected / made. I recall finding it a real shame as i leafed through some of them that so much of the content was proprietary knowledge passed from artist to artist from Disney, Dreamworks, WB, Cartoon Network, etc. Content not intended for the public, like model sheets, keyframe sheets, style guides, etc. Side projects never meant for public consumption like Bruce Timm’s collection of topless lesbian vampires or the character art for Alvin and the Chipmunks animated film except if the film were for a Fritz the Cat audience, or Adam Warren’s annual Kinko’s anthology of convention requests and naughty girl art. Content meant to train up hotshot artists, indoctrinate them to the company methodologies, particularly the Disney Bible, a book still supposedly used in part for new recruits, though new technologies have left a lot of the more traditional techniques to collect dust on a shelf or in someone’s closet now.

The Disney Bible is possibly the biggest shame, as it is a lesson plan, week by week, to train animators and artists on how to draw, and then how to draw in a way that would contribute to Disney animation. The first part is the key, that Disney put substance first, then went for style. Anyone can learn to copy a look or style, however someone that really understands foundational aesthetics, composition, anatomy, and color theory can adapt to any style, and further, affect or create new ones. And that’s what Disney of the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s had in mind, and I have a copy of that Bible to prove it. Case in point, monochromatic water is one of my favourite things to draw, it’s soothing, therapeutic. I learned how to draw it from the Disney Bible. Amen, brother, amen. 

While we’re on the topic of lost knowledge, Andrew Loomis also wrote brilliant books during a time when illustration ruled the color print world before color photography came along and replaced it. America’s appetite for style over substance meant that when the illustration work for people that could make things look like real and real nice in a jiffy with carbon, pen / ink, gauche, water color, acrylics, or oils evaporated almost overnight, replaced by photographs, a tool once used more often in house to help illustrators make better, more informed illustrations, that became easier, cheaper, and more expedient to print, and print in color even. Andrew’s books are largely out of print, though thanks to my collector friend back in Eugene, I have copies of a couple key ones. Recently I’ve seen that people have scanned the books and posted them as PDFs on line, which is awesome, hopefully someone will do the same with the Disney Bible, or if I find the time, I will.

Judging from people I know and work I’ve seen & sought out; Europe, Brazil, and many Asian hotspots, the classical training for and institution of commercial illustration never went away. So huge classes graduate every year able to bang out panel after panel of content on par with Mobeus or Dylan Dog or Akira or Wind & Storm or Click! or Ranxerox or Cyber 6 or Vampire Boy or Umbrella Academy. But wait, you exclaim, that last one is an American book, except the covers are by a Taiwanese-American, the interiors by a Brazillian, and the story by a Brit pop rocker. The artists didn’t grow up learning to draw from X-Men, they learned classically, then applied their skills to commercial opportunities. I often wish I’d had the opportunity during my formative years for such foundational illustrative techniques and technical training. I couldn’t afford CalArts or SVA or even Emily Carr. I’m not saying the state colleges didn’t have some great art teachers and learning opportunities, not at all. I’m simply sad the high schools scarcely have real technical art training, and the state colleges I attended did not have technical illustration courses either. 

Most of the most intensive drawing coursework I did was in architecture school, including days in the cadaver lab at the UK medical center drawing pieces of formaldehyde pickled corpses, and many, many more days drawing and redrawing life models of all shapes, sizes, and sexes in a hot upstairs room in Pence Hall while the sun turned the white washed wooden room into a kiln of a sweat box. Keith Plymale, who would later go on to become director of undergraduate studies at UK’s architecture school before heading out to teach at Berkley, remains one of the best anatomy instructors I’ve ever had, and as I remember he liked Bridgeman. And deconstructionism, which lead to my appreciation of same, though not just for architecture and spatial design.

The other anatomy instructor that kicked my ass is crackerjack painter and performance artist named Thomas Anfield, and if you live in Vancouver and want to learn more about drawing or painting, he’s the guy to look up. 

And while Mike Allred said I should start using a brush after scanning through my sketchbook of tentacles & zombie babes, the guy that actually got me to do so through teaching me how too, as well as via the pen equivalent, that fine cat is Steve Rolston, also in Vancouver, and also teaching, though for visual narrative storytelling through comics and storyboarding, since that’s his expertise with his professional projects for various comic book companies and animation houses.

And let me mention my long time friend Jed, because half or more of the panels and plates I’ve ever followed all the way through with have been somehow related to him. The panels I did for his Agent Kae project remain some my best work, and sooner or later we’ll find the time to sequester ourselves and make our long awaited spiritual sequel to a legendary inspiration for us, the Airtight Garage.

All this occurred to me in a flash standing next to my newly wedded wife in front of that gallery comic book store in St. Germaine, Paris, France. And for a moment, I felt angry, or jilted, because I had looked for the training when I was young, scoured libraries for how to books, finding lots of how to draw charcoal nudes from the 60’s, yet finding little to explain volume, perspective, materials, utensils, etc. I’m still a gouache virgin. Still not sure what all the paper weights and presses mean. Still clueless about typefaces or fonts. Still keen to add drop shadows to everything in post for separation.

And while I thought Paris would be devoid of beer, turns out, their beer is excellent, and when you have a 4oo plus page artist portfolio book tucked under your arm and have just perused over a dozen art and toy related shops in a foreign country and the sun is shining overhead and somewhere on the top of Notre Damn there you can sense a hunchback has earned his wings, and you just know you need to find a cafe patio and order their best pint. As fate would have it, that patio sat only one door over.

Like Slade sang, C’est la vie.


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