Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Rosetta Phoning Part 1

NOTHING FITS was one of my favourite discoveries of last year. Starting life as an webcomic it made the transition to print with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign. Combining hover cars, shirty, aggressive young woman, clones, mummies, Egyptian gods and talking rats it blew you along its slipstream, delivering with all the appeal and wit of a cheeky punk single - think Buzzcocks or The Undertones. Finishing the volume you were left wondering what would come next from it's two creators Mary Tamblyn and Alex McCrone. 

For writer Mary the answer is Rosetta Phone, a new webcomic she has developed in close association with her good friend Bethany Hughston. Drawn in a bright, attractive, fine line style it combines a humorous time travel narrative with a creepy cosmic undercurrent. Rolling out at the rate of a new page every Wednesday morning it marks a highlight in my working week, normally in the bleary early morning as I'm rolling to work in the cozy confines of Auckland public transport. 

Mary and Bethany were good enough to agree to take part in what turned out to be a lengthy interview with Factional. Here is part one of three. 


Factional: What are your respective origin stories? And what lead you both to comics?

Bethany Hughston: I don't really know how to describe it honestly, it wasn't really some cool lightbulb moment. I got into art and drawing at a young age because my mum was an artist and my older sister and brother were both creative as well, my sister as an artist and my brother as a writer and musician, and our parents were very supportive. I also went to schools that had a leaning towards the arts and stuff.

I got into comics really early! My brother was a huge comic lover, especially of Tintin, and when he outgrew his massive collection of Tintin comics, I got them. And I read them cover to cover and really got into telling stories visually, and by the time I was in school maybe at 15 or 16 I discovered webcomics and read heaps! I started drawing and doodling my own stuff, like just comics about my friends and things and then eventually into full on webcomics when I was 16-18 and I've been doing them ever since.
Rosetta Phone planning sketch

Mary Tamblyn:  I never liked art when I was younger, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt and I wanted to be an archeologist or forensic detective. I didn't actually start drawing till about Year 4 or 5, when I met Alex Jones (AJ), who was mad into comics and making his own little comics about his characters. He'd put them on the class book shelves and everyone would read them during silent reading. I started to draw, mostly animals, which then led to making Rayman fan-comics with my cousin. We did these for a couple of years, they were... very unique. They soon stopped being about Rayman and more about our own characters we made along the way.

We had compulsory art at Intermediate and High School, and I had really good teachers for that - while I had really bad teachers for science. This made me way more invested in drawing and creating. I wanted to be an animator. I continued making short comics, with the characters that then went on to become a part of Nothing Fits. I was never that into comics, I was more into novels: staying up into the small hours reading most nights at Intermediate and High School. I'm still... regrettably, not very good at reading comics. Art School makes you hate everyone and everything and really apathetic at actually reading anything. I'm getting better at it though. So I only really got into comics because of AJ and only continued with them because of Alex McCrone's interest in them. Finding ComicFury as a webcomic host got me more into comics, and meant I met a bunch of really cool comicy people.

Fac: Webcomics seems the most natural step for young cartoonists to take now days, I presume that is where you guys met.

Bethany: Yeah both me and Mary met through webcomics and through Comicfury.com, I'd already been on there for a while and I had established a name for myself with two comics I wrote in high school which had become really popular on the site. Mary and Alex came onto the scene in 2012 I think, and I remember seeing Nothing Fits and really liking it and telling some friends of mine to go read it. We started just generally chatting on the forums and the then website exclusive chat which was just a bunch of artists and writers talking to each other about nothing, and then we got each other's Facebook. We were only talking about this the other night trying to remember how we even started talking to each other but it was something along the lines of a mutual friend of ours wanted to talk to me more but was nervous so Mary volunteered to show support. Eventually we realised we got on really well and exchanged Skype info, and since then we talk and webcam frequently, we've met up and traveled a bit. And we plan to do much more of it!

Mary:  I must admit that coming to ComicFury I did feel very threatened by Bethany, just because she was very well known and popular, and yes, I was very jealous of this. It's embarrassing to say this, but I initially hated her. However, as she said, once we got talking one on one, we became close fast. I love her intense and in depth world's she has created and her utter dedication over the years to stick with them. She is a better writer and artist than I am, comics wise, and a very good friend.

Fac: What do you think is the most important thing about entering that world?

Mary: Webcomics are the quickest and easiest way to get your work out there, and getting almost instantaneous feedback is very rewarding. Also means you aren't stuck in a void of creating without any viewer feedback for the process of creating the work - which can take years.

Bethany: I don't know, really, it's hard to say. A positive and safe community is really important when starting out, and he web provides near instant feedback for your work, which is really important for growth. ComicFury was great because it was just a bunch of normal people who happened to write or draw comics, and everyone was willing to give people a chance! There wasn't any nastiness or mean spiritedness and everyone was always willing to help and listen to others. That was really important to me starting out, because I was so scared that people would hate me or hate my stuff and I would be hounded for no reason. So having a positive environment to post on was great!

Rosetta Phone detail
Mary: Also, a  good, clean and easy to use website layout is key. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it needs to be functional. ComicFury has a number of default layouts that work well, which is a bonus for people who are new to webcomics. They also have a bunch of great people willing to help improve/fix layouts if you need help (which is actually how I met my boyfriend, ha ha, he made the Nothing Fits website for me... actually him and Bethany worked on making the Rosetta Phone one too).

Fac: Do you think it is a nurturing environment? When I wrote my review for Nothing Fits I went and looked at the ComicsFury site and was amazed by the community that seemed to grow around the comic, it seemed like a really healthy environment to produce work in.

Mary: ComicFury was really welcoming, apart from my initial stupidity and jealousy, but at times it can be toxic. Most of my toxic interactions weren't surrounding my comics themselves though, but happened on the forums, mostly during political/social issue discussions. Which are heated topics in any art community.  

The most important part about coming into these communities is knowing the difference between subjective and objective feedback. A lot of critiques thrown online don't come from people considering things objectively, rather just their personal opinions (and often come from people with hardly any more experience than you have yourself). It's also important, as it is a way of getting direct feedback from viewers - to listen if you do something wrong (unintentionally being racist or sexist for example), this platform allows you to amend and fix things, because its not printed, and its not set in stone, you can make up for your mistakes. Webcomics are a great place to experiment and evolve your art making and story telling skills, and quite often you can see a clear difference from when you started your comic, to where you are now (vast improvements usually). Really, it's just a great way to get your idea out there right now without having to stall, and redo your comic forever as your skills get better, you can just grow with the story.

Bethany: I don't know, really, it's hard to say. A positive and safe community is really important when starting out, and the web provides near instant feedback for your work, which is really important for growth. ComicFury was great because it was just a bunch of normal people who happened to write or draw comics, and everyone was willing to give people a chance! There wasn't any nastiness or mean spiritedness and everyone was always willing to help and listen to others. That was really important to me starting out, because I was so scared that people would hate me or hate my stuff and I would be hounded for no reason. So having a positive environment to post on was great!

I also think it's really important to speak with artists and writers of all different ages and backgrounds and just be around them and see how they all work, just to figure out where you stand and what you like and what you can learn from them. That's why being on the forums and hanging around and participating was so beneficial for me, I got to learn so many things and I got to share my own ideas and knowledge without worrying about being attacked or made fun of.

Read part two here

Read part three here

Follow the progress of Rosetta Phone here

Friday, 15 May 2015

Deep Beats: A Review of Jillian Tamaki's SEX COVEN in Youth in Decline's Frontier #7

Kelly Sheehan: In 2004 I attended a concert that was part of a festival devoted to experimental music and sound artists. The performance took place in an old television studio, an environment designed to ensure optimum audio clarity. There were three acts, Francisco Lopez, Charlotte90 with Tim Coster, and Rosey Parlane. Francisco Lopez was interesting, producing a sound like a cathedral collapsing on you in slow motion, as were Charlotte 90 and Tim Coster, serenading with pleasant electronic squiggles and blips. Rosey Parlane was something else altogether. Just one man illuminated by his PC, his set started with the blips and squiggles familiar from the previous act. Slowly, very slowly, new sounds were layered over the top, each addition still clear and precise. The sound, the noise, began to settle on the listener. After a while it felt like there was a great psychic weight pressing down. Your sense of self began to give way, to crumble and dissipate, and very soon there was only a small nugget of you left in the middle of a great, swelling, oceanic cacophony. Just the you that was listening and nothing else. No thoughts of drinks after, or leaving for India in the next week, or what you are going to do for a job when you returned in six months time. Just sound. It was what I imagine it is like to teeter on the brink of enlightenment or death. After a time the sound was just as gradually eased back, leaving you a little shaken, but awed and grateful.

Reading Jillian Tamaki's issue of Frontier, the monograph series published by Youth in Decline, is not like that, but it captures what it is like to be caught up in discovering something new, overwhelming and possibly dangerous, particularly when you are young and think you are ready to have the foundations of your world rocked or even completely demolished.
Coded messages from Satan.

Daniel Elkin: There's so much going on in Sex Coven, I don't even know where to start. I'm glad you began with your concert experience, though, Sheehan, because it grounds us, gives us some focus, a springboard from which to leap.

Yes, let's talk about the central conceit of the book first. Sex Coven gets its name from an untitled music file that was uploaded anonymously in the mid 1990's, which was then found by a user on a music-sharing site who renamed it Sex Coven and continued to share it. It gained traction, went viral, spawned a cult following, spawned intense public outcry, and there the story begins.

Sort of.

“How to define a wordless, six-hour atonal drone? A sound so profound that each chord shift feels like a new tear in the Universe? Sonic mindfuck gets close.”

With this, Tamaki kind of echos what you were talking about when you were describing Rosey Parlane's performance. Now imagine that experience for six hours. That's what this thing is. It spawns a new sense of possibility because it shifts you in the experience of it.

We're sense making beings, after all, right? Our brain seeks patterns even in chaos. When faced with disorder, in some sort of self-preserving way, we fool ourselves into finding structure, and, in this, perhaps, is the moment of visceral artistic enlightenment found in participatory art. What makes Abstract Expressionism painting and Experimental Ambient music powerful is the emotional state it elicits, not the particular “beauty” of the piece itself. Here, it is the experience of creating the pattern, recognizing what you make it out to be – for all extents and purposes an a priori understanding – and then completely grokking that.

Powerfully individualistic.
It's powerful stuff because it's individualistic.

When you do the work to have an emotional response to art, you are the owner of that experience. Authentic emotions are precious in a world where we are so often sold how to think about things, where outrage is manufactured, enjoyment is a science, and attention an algorithm. And nobody latches on to this more than young people, especially when their peer group embraces it, especially when they see that their parents don't understand it, even more especially when their parents fear it or hate it.

Tamaki captures all of this in her book. The intensity of the reaction to the music and the ritual it inspires are all laid out with fervor and excitement. Tamaki knows the proper moment to abstract her art to convey this ardor, and when to focus on minutia in order to set context and further her story.

But in all honesty, this phenomenon is almost secondary to the other things that Tamaki is exploring with Sex Coven. Ideas of social history and building community are really what I think Tamaki is scrutinizing here.

Sheehan: As much as Tamaki is examining these things it is a retrospective examination. This is as much a comic about people, and the world, moving on as it is about the excitement and personal growth that happens with discovery in youth. I loved the end of the book where the past ends in the present and the realities of running an alternative community 'free' from the burdens of modern life begins to settle on the individual concerned. The exchange between Raven and Furbaby towards the end of the book neatly encapsulates this as it does the tensions and habits that underlie the dance which an relationship involves. It's a dance that as it winds to a close always involves one step forward and two steps back. Running on default, like some background program.

Comic minutiae.
A much bigger story hides behind the short piece that Tamaki presents us with and I think this is a large part of why we both responded to the book. The minutiae of the scene I have just described has a heavy pull for me but so does the final three pages as Raven reflects of the end of the life we have just witnessed. She's back in the world now and the compromise that this involves while often trivial are always around, pressing in from moment to moment. But are they better or worse that the slightly sinister presence of Rob? Rob who does not have that many skills when it comes to being In Real Life.

At the same time the backstory which makes up the first three quarters of the narrative is appealing. That detail, the slightly strange, mystical, experience of listening to the SexCoven mp3, the discovery of the Data, the metamorphosis of an internet community into a sex cult, has the feel of world building, of the creation of a mythology but really, it seems to me, to serve as an elaborate backdrop to the exchange between the 'real' people.

Elkin: “Moving on” and “back in the world now” are apt descriptors for much of the meat of this book, Sheehan. Thanks (again) for pointing us in the right direction.

The final panel of the book sums up this theme perfectly. The resolution of that moment would seem profound if it weren't such a reflection of the daily compromises we make every day of our lives, a concession to the “really fucking stupid rules” that corral the chaos of existence in order to maintain social order, predictability, stability (or is it “Community. Identity. Stability” in this Brave New World in which we live?).

Yeah. I know. There are always those among us, though, who try to live their life without having to make these sorts of compromises, visionaries and luminaries who have latched on to something and have fancy notions of creating an Arcadia. They see undulating ideals of what could be. They have dreams and, the bold among them, try to make this place on earth.

Failed constructs.
But, alas, the history of humanity is littered with failed utopias after all. Unfettered by the constructs of the deadening effects those compromises inherent in religious and/or political expediency, human nature comes to the fore. Self-interest becomes the guiding moral principle, which, when folded into the greater goal of the pursuit of pleasure or a higher state of consciousness, only leads to the elevation of the cult of personality, the subjugation of the others in the herd – people are taken advantage of, the goal is lost, pettiness or perversion prevail.

No matter what deep beats provide the soundtrack.

And those who were part of whatever it was, those there who held out hope for something better, are the one's who feel the loss of the dream most profoundly. They stumble back bleary eyed to re-integrate into the world and start making all those small compromises that we all must make in order to live next to people, selling another little piece of our soul along the way.


“Do you still believe in SexCoven...? Even after you left the ranch?” What sort of answer can Raven possibly give other than, finally, putting out her cigarette on a service plate.

You can pick up a copy of Frontier #7 directly from Youth InDecline Press

Daniel Elkin writes about comics and other things (but mostly comics) on his blog, Your Chicken Enemy and tweets a lot about sandwiches.