Learning Kanji

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Ever since I was small my grandmother has had a glass cabinet filled with Japanese dolls and figurines. I used to spend hours at her house, memorising the shape and colours of each one, fascinated by how beautiful they were. Sometimes my grandmother would let me play with the tiny porcelain frogs that sat there. The green glaze sat darker in the crevices and they were so beautiful and delicate to me.

My diet has always included the staples of rice and nori, usually with a healthy serving of furikake, which was nicknamed ‘sprinklies’ in my house. We’d ration them like treasures because Napier didn’t have a Japanese food mart, so our supply would come in care packages from my aunt who lived in Auckland. When our local supermarket brought in a Japanese shelf to the international food aisle we were overjoyed, and we could have an entire serving of furikake per meal instead of a tiny hint, and I’d eat nori in sheets as a snack.

I had a Japanese doll in a Kimono. The fabric was a beautiful blue and her hair was so soft. I could never tie her obi quite right after I foolishly undid it, and her hair ended up with a kink in it that would never quite flatten. Plastic katanas, lone copies of ongoing manga anthologies, cassette tapes of nursery rhymes, a small and ratty popup book with Japanese I couldn’t read. This was my exposure to Japanese culture as a young child. I was fiercely proud of it.

At the same time I hated the things about my own face that in part came from my Japanese heritage. My dark hair and eyes caused me constant anguish throughout primary school,  where I desperately wanted pretty blonde hair and lovely blue eyes. I cried a lot. As a teenager the dark hair on my body made me feel anxious and ugly. The thick strands blended into a forest across my forearms, reminding me that no matter how much I plucked, shaved, bleached, waxed or stripped, the truth of my other-ness would seep out again, exposing my very DNA for anyone to look at.

I found comfort in the language. Japanese is so beautiful to look at, and it felt like a big hug to learn. I was connecting to a part of myself. They say you carry the experiences of your grandmothers within you. I know it’s meant in a scientific statement relating to significant trauma being read in your DNA, but I like to pretend there’s something poetic inside me, like a compass needle that pulls me towards magnetic north. When I am learning Japanese I feel it tug.

I am grateful to the times I have spent learning Japanese, but the experience in a New Zealand classroom always felt strangely artificial to me. The language is cut up into chunks that didn’t make sense to me and called curriculum. My own knowledge of Japan and Japanese-ness was brushed aside and discarded as irrelevant in the context of the classroom. What I knew was small and inconsequential and not Proper Japanese Stuff. I learnt the language in the same way my white and English-speaking classmates did, and this little bit of exposure created an imperfect filling to connect the fragments of Japanese I knew from my own life.

I have only visited Japan once. A month in Hokkaido in January, staying with my aunt. I was sixteen and freshly diagnosed with depression. I didn’t know much of anything, but those few weeks helped cement something in me that has stayed solid ever since. Just little things in the eyes of anyone else, I’m not sure I could even properly describe it. I’d use images like kotatsu, tatami rooms and the soft un-sound of proper powdered snow. I found something there, in between the sushi and shu-creams and television shows. It’s a little space that was empty before, but afterwards it knew that there was a piece of me that belonged to Japan. Not just as a part of my heritage, but as a part of myself.

My life is in New Zealand, and I’m not sure if I will ever be brave enough or lucky enough to live in Japan like I imagined I would at sixteen. However, I am still connected and just because I might never call the land home, the culture is still a part of me. My time working in a Japanese-run sushi shop helped me to connect my life in Wellington to Japan, exposing me to Japanese language in a practical setting for the first time in my life. I found a lot of my clumsy cut-up school Japanese flooded back to me, and I was able to understand quite a lot more than I imagined. By the end of my time working there I was proficient at understanding enough Japanese to make and sell sushi. Since then I’ve tried to be more active about what I expose myself to and connect more with other Japanese diaspora online, or at least quietly listen to them when they post.

I am currently learning Kanji. It makes me happy in a way that I can’t quite explain in words. It’s that little ping, heading me towards magnetic north. Having a mixed racial identity can be confusing, especially if like me your cultural marker points have been thin and spaced out. I have been lucky to have the kind of support that I do, to have white-passing privilege 99% of the time. My anxieties are mostly personal and internal, which is a luxury because I can choose to untangle this knot on my own time whenever I feel like it.

I always assumed that learning and knowing kanji would be an unobtainable dream, something I would never be able to find the time and structure and energy to achieve, even in the slightest. Having the ability to finally come back and unlock this door after so long waiting and wanting to is a rare gift I am grateful for. Occasionally a word I know turns up in its grown-up kanji clothes and something clicks into place in my head. My years of exposure to the word flood back to me across time, from my childhood to know, and I am learning the true form of something that has always been a part of me. In another couple of years I will be able to read kanji, and I am looking forward to further unlocking the doors that I know are waiting for me behind this first one.

Tattoos

Six years ago today I got my first tattoo. I say first, even though it’s currently the only one. However, many others are planned. I wasn’t ever sure tattoo would be a thing for me, but it turns out it really, really is.

Tattoos have many meanings and connotations, and they can range from very personal to broader cultural assumptions about tattoo and people who choose to wear them. I have Japanese heritage. I am a woman. I am a feminist. These things intertwine in a complex narrative to create what tattoos mean for me.

Please note, this is just my own personal story about what tattoos mean. They will and do mean a lot of other things to a lot of other people.

Tattoo and my illness

The story of my first tattoo is wrapped up in the story of my chronic illness. In 2007 I got sick with a bad flu and never got better. Eventually after two years of telling doctors and specialists I was tired, I got a fuzzy diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It was not a fun time. I failed papers and stressed friendships. I was too tired to draw most of the time, which was like losing part of myself. I couldn’t hold conversations because I’d forget what I was saying halfway through a sentence. Eventually after a lot of trial and error and exhaustion I found a mix of rehabilitation that worked well for me, and undertook a slow path to recovery.

Moving  to Wellington was the first major turning point since being diagnosed with CFS. I’d always wanted to live in Wellington, and moving down in October of 2008 felt like a wonderful dream.

I took that moment to get a tattoo, to celebrate the journey I had been on up until this point and to acknowledge the struggles I’d been through to get there. CFS doesn’t leave any scars. I didn’t have anything visible on the outside of me that let myself or others know what I’d been through. A tattoo seemed like the perfect way to give myself a visible marker to point to.

My tattoo is six years old now. The ink is slowly bleeding and fading colour. A part of me wants to get it touched up to improve its shape, but another part of me is happy watching the ink age into my skin. It’s a fixed point in time I’m drifting away from, and I’m really enjoying what that means and how that feels. When I get caught up in everyday things I only have to look down at my wrist and remember the biggest struggle I’ve been through to date, and how I’ve survived it. It’s become a constant comfort, and I’m really happy with that.

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Tattoo and Japanese heritage

For a long time I have wanted tattoos that celebrate my Japanese heritage. It’s been an internal conflict I’ve struggled with for as long as I’ve wanted them. Tattoo is commonly thought of to be associated with Yakuza in Japanese culture, and if I ever want to live in Japan it’s possible I’d run into problems trying to visit onsen or join a gym because of the negative connotations that tattoos carry.

A part of me that has struggled with celebrating my heritage in a way that my family (specifically my grandmother) would strongly disapprove of, not to mention wider Japanese culture. If I want to get something that celebrates Japanese culture and my heritage, why am I feeling compelled to do it in such an un-Japanese way? I’ve been reading, researching and learning as much as I can about Japan and Japanese culture to decide what to do.

While the popularity and meanings of tattoo have shifted a lot in the last 200 years, tattoo is still an undeniable part of Japanese culture. In that last decade tattoo popularity in Japan is slowly on the rise.

Japan inked: Should the country reclaim its tattoo culture? This article helped me to know a bit more about the history of Japanese tattoo, how it is tied with Kabuki and Ukio-e prints, and that its abolition was linked to crushing a rising merchant class, oppressing the indigenous inhabitants of Okinawa and the Ainu in Hokkaido, especially the leading women of those cultures.

In this context I feel like getting tattoos is a powerful positive statement. It is stepping up and celebrating the parts of a culture I am tied to, while in the same way rebelling against the dominating forces that banned tattoo in the first place. These patriarchal attitudes are not ones I wish to subscribe to, and I don’t wish to let my acknowledgement of my heritage be stifled by their oppression. I fight against these attitudes here in the west, why would I not fight them from a Japanese perspective too?

I know my grandma is going to hate them. When I’ve talked to her about tattoos I want that celebrate my heritage she asks me why I don’t just make clothes with the artwork on to wear, why I want it imprinted in my skin. It makes me sad that I won’t be able to make her understand and she will view them as being ugly. I’m comforted here by the fact that most people’s grandmothers probably don’t like their tattoos, and they still get them anyway. And their grandmas still love them anyway. I’m sure mine will forgive me for making this choice.

As Japanese diaspora my connection and relationship to Japan is different to that of someone who has always lived in the country. Growing up in New Zealand there is the acknowledgement of this culture that I live in and am a part of, and what tattoo means here. I feel like getting tattoos will help me to celebrate and connect these two parts of myself, and help anchor me to my Japanese heritage.

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Tattoo and feminism

Go anywhere in the world and talk to almost any person and you will find someone with an opinion about what women should do with their bodies. Women’s bodies are treated as public property. This is why street harassment is culturally accepted the world over. It’s why people have such strong feelings about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. It’s why women have to fight to be able to look after their own reproductive health. It extends to people feeling entitled that women should look and dress in a way that they find appealing, right down to their body shape and size.

A tattoo to me symbolises bodily autonomy. It is me saying that I want this on my skin forever, and it is a choice I am making to do so. It is me reclaiming my body in a very direct way. A tattoo isn’t for anyone else to like. It is for me to show you that this is my body and it gets decorated the way that I want, and you have to deal with it.

My feelings about tattoo and bodies and feminism and racism are better summed up by this post from Margaret Cho.

Tattoo and art

I’m a very visual person and always have been. My life is a song of visual images and it’s always been something I want on my skin. I see other people with their tattoos and sleeves and I love the look of the curls of ink wrapping arms and thighs, framing feet and backs and every possible inch of skin that will keep ink in.

My drawings spill out from me onto a page if I’m lucky, but I also see illustrations written into my skin – like if I just scrubbed hard enough the images would come through.

Tattoo is the closest way I can get to this feeling. And as I get older the picture of what my skin wears is starting to solidify. It hasn’t changed at all for two years.

I am looking forward to filling in this mural on myself, with the help of my tattoo artist. I will get to wear the visual song-story of myself where others can see, and this is so exciting.

Tattoo and aging

Sometimes I think about what will happen if I am covered in sleeves and begin to wish for my arms to be unadorned. Will I miss being able to wear sleeveless dresses and present an air of sophisticated cocktail elegance, especially as an older woman? Will this affect my career professionally, if people see animals curled around my lower arms while I’m trying to talk like I’m a serious person.

But then I think that isn’t me anyway. I can achieve cocktail elegance with tattoos if I want, and my career is sadly more likely to struggle because of my gender than whether I have cats tattooed on my arms. And I don’t (And won’t) let my gender stop me, so why would tattoos ever stop me?

I look at photos of older tattoos and I see a life lived in a skin the owner is happy in. And I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than that.

Heritage as told by colour palettes

The National Library of New Zealand’s done this amazing thing. They have released a series of colour palettes based on book spines within their collection. These colours, captured from sets of books, haven’t been recorded anywhere like this before. It’s a unique curation idea, one that leaves the door open for others to come along and have a play with these heritage colours.

Palette sketch 1

I decided I’d use the palettes as the basis for a daily drawing series. 26 palettes, 26 illustrations.

Usually my work is more painterly, so restricting myself to the 3-5 colours of the palettes has meant I’ve had to stretch my brain into new configurations. It’s helped me to explore colour combinations I otherwise wouldn’t have explored. I’ve been pushed to think of interesting and different ways to create and balance the images created.

Palette 2

I love the end effect. The colours sometimes feel like they’re reaching forward in time from their original timeframes, and other times they feel completely disguised – without the name of the series you’d never know the heritage written into the image’s DNA. It’s an interesting feeling, seeing my drawing style singing out in these colours that belong to another time.

It makes me think what my illustration style might be singing. I wonder if there’s anything in my illustrations that hints and my heritage, the unconscious blocks of the people before me who have helped to build me to where I am today. I’m sure there’s a lot there to read about who I am and my own experience, but I’m curious to know if there’s anything older than that, more unconscious that I am drawn to.

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My thoughts and relationship to the series has changed as each new palette is opened in photoshop. It started as a quick way to get in some daily drawing exercise and a fun way to play with a cool resource. As the series has grown I find myself wondering more about the original context of these colours and what it means for me to be using them to colour my own work like this.

I shape an individual image with its own story each day, but each piece builts on the strength of the series. There’s a subtle hint of conversation here, and it’s become a very fulfilling creative task to expand on it day by day.There’s only a few more left in the series. I have plans for what to do with them once they’re finished, including having them available as prints, a zine, and maybe release some as postcards.

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I’ve had an amazing amount of support for this project. Thanks to everyone who’s liked, favourited, commented and shared the work I’ve been doing on this project. It’s been such a wonderful thing to meet with people and hear compliments on this series, which I’m becoming quite proud of. Even people who quietly enjoy at a distance, you make a difference too.

Print pre-order Knitted Cocoon Revision

Some artist angst

Quite often when I finish an illustration I am unhappy with it. This is nothing unique – just about any creative person you talk to will have similar feelings about their own work. I don’t like to discuss my disappointment about any specific piece because I don’t want how I view my illustration to ruin someone else’s enjoyment of it. Plus, if I did that, pretty much everything I draw would be ruined for people.

This is a thing that I manage, and learn to deal constructively with my disappointment at my own lack of skill. It’s never good enough (whatever that means), but I can use this energy and channel it into making the next thing better. Occasionally a piece niggles moreso than the others, and the mistakes and inadequacies I perceive in it is like having a scratch I can’t ever itch.

Knitted-cocoon

I had this feeling very strongly when I saw my cocoon print in person for the first time (which I sold as a Rape Crisis donation print at the end of last year). I realised that I’d missed out on a lot of the colour and texture I’d wanted to achieve with the piece. This was disappointing to me, because the core concept was so strong and I felt like I’d not done it justice.

Regardless of my personal feelings the print was well-loved and the fundraiser was a great success. I’m so grateful to everyone who donated and enjoyed the original piece, it is still very special to me and it means a lot that you engaged so much with the work. I hope that my original knitted cocoon continues to give you warmth and safety when you need it.

For Shakti

I’ve been wanting to do another print fundraiser for another women’s charity, and Shakti stood out as an obvious choice. I wasn’t sure what image to do for them, and after trying out a few different concepts I came back to my original cocoon painting. The imagery works as well for Shakti as it did for Wellington Rape Crisis, and I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted another go at this illustration.

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Comparing the two side by side I’m surprised by how much my work has grown in the last six months. I am so pleased that this version captures a bit more of what I was originally aiming for. Quite often I feel like my work stays the same or gets worse, so it’s nice to see evidence that I am growing, that what I am doing is working. Re-drawing a piece like this is the clearest way to see those results.

Print donation

$15 of every print sold will go to Shakti. Please read about the wonderful work they are doing for international women facing domestic violence.

If you bought the first print and like this one, please contact me and I will send you a 25% off code for this print ($15 will still be going to Shakti). I have a record of your transactions, so please use the same name/email address as the one you sent to qualify for the discount.

This print will be on pre-order and printed in August 2014. If you require a copy earlier for some reason, contact me as this can be arranged.

If you do not want to buy a copy of this print, please consider making a donation to Shakti through their channels: http://shakti-international.org/donate-to-shakti/

Purchase the donation print

Thanks to Pollyanne Peña for her time and support in helping set this print donation up.

Don’t tell me what to do – Transistor Review

[I’ve attempted to avoid major spoilers, but some minor spoilers are still present in this piece]

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Images from Supergiant Games

I’ve been looking forward to playing Transistor since I first heard Supergiant were making a new game. I was ridiculously happy to find out I’d get to play as a female character. And a female character who isn’t designed purely for men to look at. There’s no panty shots, no high heels or gratuitous poses. Her costume is practical, and her character and motivations are interesting and unique. But after finishing the game I’m left with some heartache. Transistor promised to be something different, but in a lot of ways it fell back onto tired gendered tropes. Transistor to me still feels like a game designed for men.

I feel like I need to put a disclaimer here to say I thoroughly enjoyed Transistor and will fanatically recommend it to any person who is interested in playing. It is a beautifully well-crafted world and story, and the timing and delivery of the narrative showcases some of the best storytelling in games to date. The battle system is new and engaging, and it’s easy to increase or decrease the difficulty to suit your play style. It is easily one of the most interesting and unique titles of the year.

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What I want to talk about here is the way that at times I found playing as Red to be claustrophobic. The structure and shape of the story assumed certain things about Red and her relationships that I found to be shallow and patronising. I found the perspective of the story to be a very male view of Red and her actions. Since the entire game is narrated by male voices (Red has lost hers), this feeling became stronger the further into the game I got.

A mute male character gives an air of stoicism and strength. It is a choice not to talk and engage with you. It gives power to his character that he doesn’t give you words. When muteness is a quality of a female character, it’s often because they have been emotionally or physically harmed. This muteness is often ‘cured’ by the care of a good man, or at least that’s the trope.

Red’s story seems to be trying to subvert standard game tropes. Transistor presents itself initially as a twist on the male revenge trope. This time it’s Red out for answers and possibly revenge. The thing I find odd here is that Red is also avenging violence committed against herself. In the male version of the trope, the man is typically unscathed, free to vent his anger on the violence done to the women (And it’s often more than one woman) in his life. Red still has horrific violence done to her, losing her voice, which is a core part of herself and her expression. The end result is that while Red gets to keep her body, she loses her voice, making her almost as silent as the targeted women in the male version of the trope.

Muteness as a character trait is often used so as to not project a voice onto the player. Link from Legend of Zelda never speaks out loud, and neither does the character in Pokemon. Your half of the conversation is always implied through your action and choices. However, your actions and personality is blank too, for you to fill. Red is obviously supposed to be someone. In my initial playthrough I found it difficult to know who that someone really was.

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The narration in the game is the voice of Red’s lover, talking in the second person to Red. His consciousness is trapped in the sword, and from there he guides Red through the game, offering advice, history and colouring the world with his memories. The city is a rich and beautiful world, but it’s a world shaped by someone telling you what to find special about it. This has a substantially different feel to third person narration in Supergiant’s other title, Bastion. The closer assumed relationship of second person narration places a lot of pressure on the player to comply within the expected relationship dynamic, or to purposefully push against it. She’s running through a world created by her lover’s words, not her own experience.

While Red manages to maintain motivation separate to what her lover wants for her, her story is still unfolding through his voice and direction. This is cleverly used as a key gameplay mechanic, but as a player I found my eyes rolling more than a few times listening to this guy try and tell Red what to do, or got overly sentimental about one location or another that as a player I was visiting for the first time.

This also has the added layer that as a woman in the real world I have a lot of men in my life that believe they can direct me and tell me where I need to go and what I need to do. How I should be safe, how I should behave, what I should value. I can choose to ignore and do my own thing, but it’s a daily battle just to be able to have autonomy doing something mundane like walking down the street. I play games to escape, but the decisions I had to make in Transistor felt a lot like the ones I have to make everyday when navigating my relationships with men in my life.

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Transistor was far more his story, this nameless, faceless man, than it was Red’s. She’s the poster girl, the action, but all her emotions are implied, or conveyed through a few lines of text on odd occasions if you look for them. Sometimes her emotions, her strength and defiance shine through beautifully by your direction of her, and these are the moments where the story is at its most engaging. But still, all of the vocalised emotion is his emotion, with space for you to fill in the blanks as to how Red responds to his feelings.

At the end of the game I didn’t have much of an idea who Red was, apart from the way she was seen by others. Either by the antagonists who were keeping files on her, or through the voice of her lover. This had me feeling pretty claustrophobic as a player. I like to know who it is that I am playing, or have the freedom to invent my own narrative. I feel like Transistor is inviting me to project my own feelings into Red, but then didn’t give me the space to construct the narrative that I want. It gave me a man’s narrative for me instead.

Red’s choice at the very end of the game deeply disappointed me for a lot of reasons. I was hoping for something that left her with a bit more autonomy and control. She managed to navigate her way through an unfathomable amount of danger on her strength, intelligence and skill. I wanted her ending to build on this direction. Her choice ended up feeling hollow and tacky compared to the ending I wanted for Red. The one I had felt like I was playing towards, that her defiance and attitude through my play style had implied for me.

It’s a weird clash. Supergiant as a company are looking to push barriers and boundaries of storytelling in games. They are making gorgeous games with well-polished environments that balance action and narrative, delivered in a unique and engaging way unlike what anyone else is doing. It is a shame that after all that the core story they deliver in Transistor falls back on tired tropes, and delivers a mainly male narrative.

Making your character a woman isn’t enough – the story needs to be hers as well.

Growing Pains – #YesAllWomen

I was lucky to grow up a healthy kid. My childhood scars come from my own turbulent mind, not from my body. I never broke a bone, still haven’t. I thought, with that arrogance that all young children feel, that my body would always be sound. It would grow and be stronger and I would take over the world.

At 19 I experienced an illness more severe than anything in my life. And while I have survived it, I have suffered and it will be a part of me forever. My blood is permanently unsuitable for donation. I’ve knocked myself about. I’ve injured my ankle and knee several times and needed physio. I feel the strain when it’s cold. The nerves in my skin still prickle from a bad rash I had months ago, and that might never fade.

As we age we collect ailments. Parts of us get hurt and won’t ever be the same again. This is something we learn to mitigate in order to keep living. Put less weight on the weak ankle, avoid this activity since it strains that injury. Apply lotions and ointments to skin. Rest more when needed. We live our lives within the confines of our illnesses and injuries.

Misogyny behaves a lot like a disease. We learn very early how to wear its scars. We modify our behaviour once we’ve experienced injuries. We follow the recommended guidelines to keep safe, we feel like it’s our fault when we don’t follow them closely enough, or when they’re inevitably never enough. Like we got these scars on purpose. And most of us most of the time don’t ever talk about it.

The injuries inflicted on us mount up. We might not discuss them all but they live in us forever, like the virus in my blood. An interaction with a foul-mouthed boy as a child. A bra-snap at 12. Street harassment, drunk parties, unwanted touches, unwarranted aggression. Too many to even count. Some of us have deeper scars than others, but every single one of us has scars, no exception. We live with a background radiation of constant fear that male anger will find us. The anger that is directed at us for daring to have bodies and walk around in them. The need to overpower and control us for some invisible transgression caused by being a woman.

These stories are usually heavily guarded secrets, things we hardly even tell each other. Partly because we are ashamed of ourselves, and partly because so many of them are so ordinary, so every day, that they barely register as the horrors they are. We are so adapted to living with the disease of misogyny that we barely see the way it shapes our lives. Or if we do notice, we are ashamed and hide it away.

At times like this we do see it, and it is horrifying. But we will stand together and tell you our secrets, because right now it is important that this information is in the world. We are angry that we have to live this, and that we live it in silence, and that so many of these stories from so many strangers are so so familiar.

You may think it is not all men, but yes, it is ALL women. And that needs to change. We should not have to wear these scars. And they do not have to be the scars that future women wear. We are standing up and sharing our stories, and people are listening. I hope you keep listening, because this is just the first discussion. There is still so much left to say.

Mental health and community

Mental health is tricky. It’s woven into the fabric of yourself and it is a core part of what makes you whole. When you are healthy, this is not something you ever have to think about, the same as when your body is healthy. When you are unwell or suffering illness, your body throws up very obvious signs that you need to take care of yourself or see a doctor. Your mental health does the same, but because of our social conditioning and the stigma around mental health, it is often difficult to recognise and act on the red flags that appear in our lives.

There are many kinds of mental illness that can affect us. Just like with other kinds of illness, no person is immune. Some people will suffer from conditions more severe than others, but all sufferers deserve the right to have their illness treated. I struggled a lot with the idea that I ‘deserved’ help when I was younger. Now I see managing my mental health in the same way I view managing any other long-term condition.

I have been through some very dark times. As a creative person who makes things, we are taught to wear our torture as a badge. Suffering and art, they’re synonyms, right? I hate this idea, it romanticises being unwell. It lets people who need treatment retreat into their illness, and be defined by the boundaries it puts up in their lives.

My mental illness manifests as your standard brand anxiety. It is so completely woven into who I am that I just thought it was a part of being a human until I was in my early 20’s. While I’m still triggered occasionally, I don’t lapse the same way I used to, and a lapse won’t last as long. This has been through learning what my red flags are, and how to manage myself when I notice them. I am able to do this because I’m no longer drowning in a dark depression hole. If that’s where you are, you need to get out of the hole first, which can take some time and effort, but it’s completely worth it. While it is likely one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do, trust me when I say you can do it. You absolutely have the strength to.

I guess in part of where I’ve been, I recognise mental illness very clearly in those close to me. It’s never very far away. I try to be a good friend and share my knowledge of how mental illness works, remind people they are not alone and if necessary give them a gentle nudge in the direction of professional help. Mental health is a personal responsibility, but as a member of a community I can’t let my skills and knowledge sit unused. I can share my story, my experience, my ways of seeing and dealing with my illness. I hope that in some way learning about what I have been through others might be able to make the steps that they need to, and view their illnesses in a way that will help them feel better  about the days ahead.

I’ll write about mental health again in the future, but I just wanted to put some initial ideas down here. If you are suffering, please know you do not suffer alone and that there are places and people who can help you.

In case you need them:

(feel free to let me know of any other good resources available)

How to make comics, Part two – The process of Concrete

This is the second post in a series about how I make comics. Inspired by the recent completion of  my latest comic, Concrete. You can read Concrete here.

Part one | Part two (This part)

The important thing with a comic – even a short comic – is to establish a working environment and system that flows easily from one work session to another. Standardising parts of the process makes sure the continuity of the story isn’t interrupted or influenced by bad process.

I tailor my approach a little for each project. This is the process that worked for Concrete.

THINGS I USE

  • Sketchbook/pencil
  • Intuos5 tablet
  • Macbook Pro 2010 13 inch – It is pretty old now and for some reason only wants to run while having 1 stick of RAM in, so I’m on 4 gigs of RAM in single channel. Which is not a lot of RAM. I close every non-essential thing when I’m working. :(
  • Dell monitor 24 inch.
  • Apple wireless keyboard for shortcut keys
  • Logitech wireless mouse I should include it on this list for some reason
  • Photoshop CS5.1
  • Guide Guide – THE BEST PLUGIN EVAR
  • Kyle Webster’s Photoshop brushes – Buy them here

THE PROCESS

Drafting

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My workflow for Concrete was about 95% digital, but I always always start with paper. Sketchbooks are the birthplace of ideas as well as a practice ground for concepts. Something about fleshing something out on paper really helps to get the ideas and story set and establish flow. No digital tool I’ve used comes close to replacing it.

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Most of my first drafts look like this before I copy them into a word processor (usually Google docs because it’s convenient).

Using Google docs means I have all the text up on the screen while I make thumbnails on paper. Thumbnails are a crucial part of my process. They let me quickly work out timing, composition and pacing, ensuring the story flows how I want. Because they’re small there’s minimal cost to throwing out something that doesn’t work. I usually use a larger sketchbook for these because I like to have more of the comic on one page than my travel sketchbook allows.

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Sometimes I take photos of my thumbnails, but I didn’t this time for whatever reason. I kept the sketchbook on my desk so I could refer to it during the next phase of the project.

Digital set-up

I start a folder for my project. GOOD FILING IS VERY IMPORTANT. I tend to have a comics folder, and each comic has several folders for all its pieces within this. I also make sure to keep my windows organised by ‘date modified’ rather than by name. This means that my newest files are always at the top and easy to find.

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This is also the part when I am going to say: HAVE BACKUPS. HAVE SO MANY BACKUPS. HAVE ALL OF THE BACKUPS. I have an external drive plugged in and my Time Machine backs up every hour, which has saved my butt during the times I’ve accidentally flattened a working file or made it web resolution. A BACKUP WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE ONE DAY. GET IT SORTED.

NEXT. I pick my working file size on the computer. I’m going boring A4 with this one, but if I was to pick  different working dimensions, this it the point where I do it. I decided to bump my working resolution to 600DPI for this one. Partly because I knew linework would play a crucial role in this comic, and partly because I knew that being (mostly) black and white this wouldn’t stress out my poor laptop too much. If I had a more powerful machine I’d work at this DPI all the time. Or probably higher, I’m not sure what numbers the professional kids are pushing these days.

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I set up base guides for this with GuideGuide. 3mm bleed, and then another 5mm to mark working space. This means that any comic panels are printed on this line so as not to come too close to the edges. I have an extra set further in too because the paneling I wanted for Concrete required more white space.

This page is saved as Base comic page.psd, and it becomes the base of each finished page, since it’s all set to go.

But! We’re not up to working from base pages yet, because there’s not enough fidelity in these thumbnails. Also they’re on paper and not in the computer.

Higher fidelity sketches

I save a 72DPI version of my base comic page, and this becomes my base digital sketch page. These get saved into their own folder called ‘test pages’ or something similar. I sketch out each page and save it in this folder.I use a scratchy sketchy brush and not-quite black.  There’s more fidelity here than in the thumbnails, but it’s still quick work to flesh out page and panel compositions, check for continuity, and make sure it sits and feels right.

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Once this phase is complete it’s time to actually draw pages!

Actual page drawing time!

The base comic page.psd gets opened and a new page saved into the new folder ‘comic pages’ This page is ‘page01.psd‘. All pages after this are titled to match.

The scribbly test page gets copied into this new file and stretched proportionally to fill the space. Put the layer to something like 30% Opacity and lock it so that you can’t draw on it or move it at all.

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Draw the page! I tend to have separate layers for text, frames and then 1-2 layers for other lines depending on what I’m doing. Because my brush library is insane I tend to write myself notes about which brush I’m using on a bit of paper so I can remember each time. This time it was one that was smooth and gave me excellent thick and thin line weights.

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I don’t do any shading or colour at this stage, just plod on through getting the text and lines down page by page. I lay down my guides if I need them, usually to help me draw my type straight.

After a while I got into a great rhythm with this system and was able to crank through several pages much faster than I was expecting. The poetic nature of the story and relatively minimal levels of action meant that it was an easy draw. Something with more action and context possibly wouldn’t have the same level of hypnotic flow which I benefitted from while making this project. Still, it might do, I’m not sure!

[there isn’t a picture that goes with this, so you will just have to imagine me making happy noises while pages get made]

I added minimal grey shading to the illustrations after all the lines were done, and tweaked a few elements to make sure that the continuity was correct throughout. The swatch pallet is handy here to track colours and ensure they match across pages. This mattered a lot for Sunshine, with its painterly style, but it’s still good practice here and saves keeping two pictures open and individually eye-picking colours.

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FINISHING TOUCHES

Displaying for web

Concrete was created print-ready, but it’s always going to display online first. I love being able to share my work online for free. Licensing with Creative Commons licenses allows me to share my work in a way that is meaningful to me and lets others create and build on my work if it inspires them. Sharing my work ‘for free’ in this way has only ever been beneficial to me, helping to further the reach of my drawing and illustrating and connected me with other artists. I’m still protected if it gets stolen and used without crediting me.

For Concrete I wanted it to appear nicely on retina displays, so they’re saved to be about 1400px wide.

I hand code the pages my comics go up on. I do this so that I have complete control over how it displays, and so that it loads faster because there’s no CMS or anything that interferes. It means I have control over exactly how my comic looks on multiple devices without too much mucking around. With a page like this even my incredibly old and rusty HTML does the job OK. I’m lucky enough to have supportive flatmates who helped me to brush up on my knowledge and teach me some new cool tricks.

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And that’s where comics come from. Or at least my comics.

Thanks for reading! I’ve still got at least one more part of comic-making I want to talk about, so hopefully that’ll happen at some point.

A story of Representation in two acts

Act 1 – Star Wars and the Fake Nerd Girl

Star was for boys (5 different characters) Star wars for girls (all dresses as Leia)

I drew this today to sum up my frustration with the new Star Wars cast featuring two women, and only one new female character. Analee Newitz wrote an excellent summary of the issue here: http://io9.com/hey-star-wars-where-the-hell-are-the-women-1569357077

Because this piece was a delightful mix of geek culture and feminism it received a pretty unique reception. Most people got the joke and enthusiastically agreed with my sentiment. It’s been one of my more popular retweets, which is pretty great.

As well as the many who agreed with me, I also received a couple of kinds of tweets from men (they were all men) who saw my cartoon. The first was pedantry. How dare I forget Luke’s Aunt (who dies in the first five minutes), That other slave girl of Jabba the Hutt’s (She dies after 5 minutes too. And yep, she’s definitely designed for a kid to dress up as her), or Sy Snootles (ummmm). There was also the mention of women in the Extended Universe who are awesome.

The second kind of response was more insidious. One person said I obviously had never seen the movies. Someone else made sexist comments about how if women made movies they could make them the way they want and that I shouldn’t try to make writers to ‘shoe-horn’ more women in where they don’t fit. Someone else said that ‘everyone knows’ Lucas was heavily influenced by Hidden Fortress , so it made sense there was only one woman. Yeah. Wookiees and robots are all good but more women aren’t. Gotcha.

Both of these approaches are aiming to discredit me and derail the discussion about the representation of women in Star Wars/geek culture, and what that means for little girls. It directs energy towards my obvious wrong-ness and away from the fact that yet another generation of girls get to grow up fighting for the one token ‘girl’ spot on the geek team. I chose iconography from the original Star Wars movie because it is the thing that carries the furthest, but I could have picked almost any western property that includes a branch marketed at children and come up with a similar result. The exceptions being the products targeted directly at girls – Disney Princesses and My Little Ponies to name two.

Little girls deserve more than princesses and ponies. They deserve to be a part of the universes they love. Women invented science fiction and the first super hero. We invented fandom, conventions, fan fictions. Pioneered cosplay. Spend hours on Fan art. We write, we talk, we discuss. We dig deep. And yes, often we critique. That’s a part of how you show you love something. You want it to be better.

Act Two – Video Games and finding a voice

My cousin is seven. She lives in the same city as me so I’ll babysit her and her younger brother from time to time. She loves to draw and play games with me. She is acutely aware of which games I have on my phone that allow her to play as her gender. If there isn’t a girl option she gets annoyed and makes a face at me. There are few things I find as frustrating as seeing a young girl make this face at me, knowing it’d have been the face I made 20 years ago. Knowing that nothing much had changed in 20 years.

I don’t want to live in a world where I feel like no gender advances have been made in 20 years, so I’m collecting together positive examples of change. The lineup of games this year has me very excited. I’m going to get to play as a girl SO MANY TIMES this year. When usually one female protagonist is too much to hope/ask for, four times is an absolute dream.

Monument Valley

http://www.monumentvalleygame.com/

My mother sent pictures of my cousin playing monument valley. It fills me with warm fuzzies to know that she will be able to step into this world through the eyes of Ida.

Playing Monument Valley

Broken Age

http://www.brokenagegame.com/

Vella is amazing. I love how she got the action/adventure storyline. She is the one with murderous intent, who is rebelling against the status quo. Her story reads as a pretty tight allegory of the patriarchy, and the way it is so completely entrenched into society that even when a creature is literally devouring your daughters, you are happy about it.

vella

Child of Light

http://childoflight.ubi.com/col/en-GB/home/index.aspx

This is released today! I am SO EXCITED. Why yes, I DO want to play as a princess in a game that looks like a living watercolour.

I haven’t done a fan art for this yes, but I probably will make some. Yes.

Transistor

http://supergiantgames.com/index.php/transistor/

The trailer gives me goosebumps and the art gives me angry tears, it’s so good. I am in love before I’ve even played a frame. I’m not great at this style of game, but I’m still incredibly excited.

Also, there’s an obvious Klimt influence in some of the concept art. I dig this a lot.

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Conclusion…?

SO Even though franchises like Star Wars are going out of their way to stick to the status quo, and tell girls and women that we don’t belong in geek culture, girls are winning. While misogyny in geek communities continues to try and be loud and discredit the women in their community, girls are winning. Sometimes it feels like an endless struggle. But it’s a struggle that’s worth it. I want to read stories, play games and see movies by and about people of all genders and races. I don’t want to live in this young white male bubble, not when there’s such a breadth of human experience to enjoy.

And the final word of this post goes to The Doubleclicks. I’ve got nothing to prove.

How to make comics, Part one – The emotions of Concrete

This is the first post in a series about how I make comics. Inspired by the recent completion of  my latest comic, Concrete. You can read Concrete here.

Part one (This part) | Part two

Making comics is different from any other craft that I practice. With illustration, singing, writing, knitting, all your energy and creativity is funnelled into a very specific shape. Even tasks that require several disciplines (illustration using colour + line, singing for me usually involves a guitar or ukulele), the disciplines compliment each other. They happen at the same speed and can easily be absorbed together as a whole. They naturally fit together.

With comics I feel like there’s a weird dischord that happens with the elements you try to combine. Words travel at a different speed to images but they have to work together to tell a story. Words want you to rush, and pictures chuck the breaks on. Even wordless comics have to somehow graciously portray time in a medium that is (usually) completely static. It’s like combining oil and water. Comics are story alchemy.

I consider myself a comic artist at the core. This might seem a bit weird to people because I only have three comics up online at the moment. They’re all really short and there’s two years between the release of each one. One reason is a lot of life happened in between each comic. Another is that comics are really hard, and I don’t want to release anything I’m not proud of.

I’ve had pretty severe art block for a couple of years now. Even while I was making Sunshine, I felt like I was battling uphill. It was hard work to make, and so after I finished it I spent time and energy on other projects I found easier (usually knitting). 2012 was a very quiet year illustration-wise, and 2013 wasn’t a heap better. I’ve had a couple of comic projects on my perpetual ‘to do’ pile because I couldn’t easily achieve the storytelling and illustration style I wanted. They have been left there as complex puzzles I haven’t quite worked out how to solve.

I have been busy with other things too. I have learnt to knit, which is one of the most rewarding skills outside of drawing that I have ever come across (I should really write a thing about how great knitting is – it’s so great). I have made huge steps in my non-art career, which I care about as much as I care about illustration and comics. And I have done a lot of thinking and learning about a lot of things. Including what I want to do with my drawing, whether comics really are where I want to put my energy, or whether there’s something else I need to be making (I’d really absolutely love to make games as well).

During the art block time (Which I think I can finally say I’ve cracked now, I hope), every drawing and line was an effort. Even thinking about drawing was an expense of energy I didn’t have. It sucked to not be drawing, but it also sucked to feel like every time I picked up a pencil I was pushing against a strong force, and I just couldn’t get past that feeling. My skills went rusty, my ideas went bland and every drawing I did had a lot of pressure placed on it because it was ‘the only thing I’d drawn in ages’. So it was also inevitably going to be crap.

I still drew commissions and some personal stuff during this time. If you look over the work you probably can’t see the ‘crap’ that I can see. It probably looks like perfectly acceptable illustration work, and probably seems to fit in fine with the rest of what I’ve made. The difference is that there is significantly less of it during this phase. I think I didn’t produce a single new print-quality illustration during 2012 that wasn’t Sunshine.

A bunch of things have changed now. I’ve been working hard to overcome art block. It’s like physical fitness – there’s a blend of active training and a need for rest. I began making sure that I drew every day (or every other day), but more than that, I made sure I had a plan. I outlined the things in my art that I wanted to improve, and I made sure I put some time into practicing those. Key things for me lately have been feet, full-body poses and getting a bit more detail and expression into my hands. I’ve also been working on diversifying the cast of miscellaneous people I draw.

I’ve also tried to minimise the feeling of ART GUILT that I get. ART GUILT (yes, it is in allcaps, ask any artist ever) is the crushing sense of guilt you feel whenever you do anything that isn’t your art. This includes working, cooking, eating, and especially sleeping. ART GUILT happens mostly with entertainment – so for me TV shows, games and knitting get major ART GUILT points, but it also affects me whenever I decide to go socialise, even if I had no real plans to do any real drawing that night. That time COULD have been drawing time and now it definitely ISN’T. It made it hard to enjoy things.

I’m not sure quite how I managed to shut my ART GUILT voice up, it hasn’t been a super conscious process. I think it’s mainly quietened down for me because I am always looking to live a more balanced life. When you are able to eat well and sleep well, when you manage your time well, this angst just sort of slips away. Games, socialising, TV, and general living are all important to me. They help me to relax and to feel like a whole person. They also fuel my art. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the two most recent comic ideas I have had were both because I went out to visit friends.

Now after some time building up my drawing fitness I am able to produce a lot more work a lot faster. My sketch folder for 2014 has 365 items in it already (Compare this to 2013’s 249 or 2012’s 36 items). Even though a lot of this is noise fluff, there’s a lot of value in how much drawing I’ve gotten done. Improving my drawing fitness has meant that I’m now making work that doesn’t feel like a battle. Most of Concrete has happened pretty smoothly. The story showed up in my brain whole, and all I had to do was draw it down. And I was able to do so! That’s some magic right there.

I’m planning to write another piece about the technical aspects of how Concrete came together, but I thought it was important to document my emotional process too. This is just as crucial for making a comic as any amount of technical knowledge can be. To make comics, to make art, you need to work just as much at being a person as you do at being an artist. They’re the same thing, anyway.