Life before death

Today marks what would have been the 50th birthday of David Foster Wallace, a really terrific writer I admire very much. He died in 2008.

While he’s usually depicted with his signature bandana (which, the way he wore it, reminded me of Madame Defarge), I decided to draw this image snagged from Amherst’s memorial page. He still looks like a scruffy professor moonlighting as a drummer in a grunge band, but he also looks serious and smart and maybe even a little happy.

For the background, I collaged together scans of books and galleys of his work he’d marked up. Many of these are from the Harry Ransom Center, which now maintains his archive. Wallace was a notorious marginalia scribbler, so much that it appears he’s having a dialog with the text itself. I find this fascinating and beautiful—not simply for the act, but for the palimsest-like texture it creates. The page with the big “TK” on it appears to be an early version of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” one of my favorite essays.

Wallace is largely known for his fiction, but if you’ve never read him before, I’d recommend starting with his nonfiction (like A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again or Consider the Lobster). It’s just as hilarious and brilliant as his novels and stories but probably more accessible to the average reader. His fiction is challenging but worth it, which is why his fans tend to be less of the tepid, “Yeah, he’s okay,” variety and more of the “I fricking love him,” variety. Clearly, I’m in the latter camp.

One thing everyone should read, however, is his 2005 Kenyon College address. Never have I heard the importance of a liberal arts education articulated so clearly, and its core message—to remind yourself: “This is water”—is my daily mantra. Truth is about life before death. It is, indeed.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Wallace.

Writer vs. Illustrator

How one little image causes a War of the Selves

Today I have a new story up on a really terrific online journal called Smokelong Quarterly. What made me doubly excited about this acceptance is that SQ publishes images alongside every story and asked if I wanted to create some art to accompany my piece. Having realized that, aside from a comic or two, I haven’t illustrated my own fiction since grade school, I agreed to a drawing.

The story is a very short tale that takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting. The image I decided to depict is from the first scene, which opens with the line “We find the calf under a pile of busted-up sinks.” What I found interesting in the process of envisioning and creating the drawing is that, while writing, I imagined the scene under a flat, gray sky. But for some reason my illustrator brain saw the whole thing scorched out under a hot, dry, light, so I decided on bright sun with lots of shadows and angles. At the very least, it would make for a more challenging image to create.

Unfortunately, Writer was very attached to her flat, gray sky and got a bit peeved that Illustrator decided to take such liberties—until Illustrator calmly pointed out that nothing in the text actually indicated that the scene happens under a flat, gray sky.

So Writer goes off to brood in her own mental corner. After a while of plotting revenge against herself, she realized that a junkyard scene in the desert felt very, very familiar. In fact, it’s a scene right out of the novel she’s vowed to start revising this month. Inadvertently (or, knowing her, advertently, that plagiarist!), Illustrator had plucked the sun-bleached scene directly from the book and merged it with the story.

Illustrator grins. Writer, it’s time to start that revision. . .

Another project I’ll never finish

For years, I had this obsession with a short story called “Becoming” that I was trying to write but couldn’t. Despite drafting it about 1,000 times, the right ending eluded me, so I thought it might work better as a graphic narrative/comic. I’d had success doing that with another piece I couldn’t end until I drew it and really enjoyed the process, so I thought it might help this time.

I sketched out 24 storyboards and was at the point of making some character portraits when I realized the thing might take years. The panels in my head were such beautifully rendered things—each one in full-color, with ridiculous amounts of detail—that the thought of starting the first one terrified me. Worse yet, this novel clotted up my brain, demanding to be written, so I had to make a choice: spend a few years on one comic that I might or might not finish, or dive into a book that might or might not suck.

I’d never written a novel before but since comics tend to bring out the worst in me (my obsessive perfectionism doubles, given that I’m both writing and drawing), I went with the book. Three years later, I’ve got a solid draft I’m about to revise (since it does kind of suck) when “Becoming,” now renamed “Shark Skin,” has returned to haunt me. So I figured I’d try exorcising it by drawing the first panel. Someday when I’m able to hire a sweatshop of elves who can magically tap into my creative consciousness, I might finish it. For now, I feel better mainly because I simply wanted to design a shark tattoo.

In other news: congrats to trixiepants, who wins a free Facebook portrait! Trixie offered the only comment on my last post, but it was a good one that kicked my brain in the right direction. I’ve now solved my famous faces dilemma and know who I want to draw. Yay! I won’t spill the beans yet, but the results of my scheme will be coming soon.

The famous faces challenge

A belated birthday homage for Mr. Dickens

It’s been a busy few weeks, so I haven’t had time to post though I promise I have been drawing. I completed one more graphite/digital piece to share, but I can’t post it until later this month when it goes live elsewhere on the internet.

In the meantime, I decided to pay a little homage to a great writer. Last Tuesday, February 7, was Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday, and since I’ve been known to gift friends with an occasional digital portrait, I made this. Okay it’s belated, but the man has been dead for 142 years, so I figured he wouldn’t mind.

While the image of Dickens that most often comes to mind is that of his later years, with the grizzly beard and wild hair, I rather like this younger shot from 1850. He was already famous by that time, having visited the U.S. and just completed David Copperfield. By many accounts, he was a handsome-looking fellow and a bit of a dandy, so I thought it might be fun to resurrect him like this in full, dashing color.

Here’s the original image I worked from. It’s a public domain image from Wikipedia.

Clearly, I took some liberties at the details not apparent in this black and white photo. I found myself searching all over the web to figure out his eye color (responses ranged from brown to blue), and what fabrics were used in mid-19th century men’s clothing. Whatever I couldn’t figure out, I gave my best guess.

I call this particular digital drawing process my “Facebook portrait” since it’s a style I began using for social media avatars several years ago.

My first Facebook avatar (October 2007)

Back then, I began with a drawing done with good ‘ole brushes and india ink that I scanned in and colored in Photoshop. Today, I simply trace right in the program, using a mix of raster and vector lines. The Dickens portrait inspired me to figure out fabric textures, which was a good challenge and something I’ll probably work into future portraits. I also want to work more on backgrounds. In this one, I found a historic view of Fleet Street and St. Paul’s that made a nice contrast between the bright, contemporary illustration and the faded, historic photo look. I should probably do something original, but this works for now.

Anyway, my goal is to do a series of famous faces with some sort of fun, random connection. I had considered doing just writers, but that’s too straightforward. Then I thought about famous Georges (for a series called By George!) or Scotts (Great Scott!), but I need something that allows me to draw an equal number of women. I’d love a range of people from different ethnicities, races, and historical time periods—a variety of faces and stories I can tie together with a simple, quirky premise. Like a pun! I like puns.

Feel free to help me brainstorm. Anyone with a great concept and a few good names wins their own, free Facebook portrait.