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December 02, 2008

This Week's Comic -- And It's Origins, In Excrutiating Detail

This week's comic:  News of the Times:  Kinich Ahau Index Down 340

For no good reason, I thought I'd try explaining how I came to one of my comics, in awful, obsessive, pointless detail.  If, after years of never explaining your work, you decide to explain it on a blog, why not go too far and explain far, far too much?  Seems like the right thing to do.

So, I hatched this experiment while I was writing this week's comic, and it does seem like a good one to try this out on because it's somewhat complex, and it did involve a lot more conscious planning than most of my comics do, including research.

So, I see that my first notes for this week's comic involved the "corporation as a cult."  My idea was that we worship corporations as the givers of life and bread, but they're ephemeral entities, like gods or spirits.  You can see in these notes that I wrote:

926 original notes

"serve the spirit"
"feed it money"
"do things you wouldn't otherwise do"
and then "Aztek," because the idea of sacrificing something (bailout money) so that the gods will stop being "angry" popped into my head.

I put this down, and then started again another day.  I recall trying to think of a general humor comic strip that would have nothing to do with anything topical instead, but my mind kept coming back to bailouts.  I thought I might do something about the auto industry asking for bailout money, and you can see at the top of this page I started brainstorming a little bit about that, trying to get a foothold on that issue by writing down a few words:  "cars, Detroit, Henry Ford."

926 rejected draft

But my mind wandered back to the idea of sacrificing to the gods/corporations.  I must have thought about South American civilizations because I had just seen Apocalypto, the Mel Gibson movie about the fall of the Maya civilization.  And a comic came to me:  a direct analogy between the story in the movie and our response to the economic crisis.

In the movie, a peaceful tribe of jungle-dwelling Mayans are attacked by a vicious group from a Mayan city.  Men are bound and forced to trek to the city, where they are to be sacrificed atop the steps of a great pyramid to appease the angry gods.  The implication is that the civilization is dying and in its death throes it goes to greater and greater lengths to round up and sacrifice people in a futile attempt to stop whatever economic or agricultural forces are causing its collapse.

So in my version, the title panel is "Apocalypto, the Dying Days of a Civilization."  In Panel 1, there is a guy in our time, in our culture, minding his own business, I thought maybe on a bus.  Panel 2:  He's suddenly captured by two guys in suits.  Panel 3:  He's tied by the neck to a pole with other captives (as in the movie), and he asks, "Where are you taking us?"  Panel 4:  He is forced up a giant Mayan pyramid, asking "What's going on?"  Panel 5:  At the top of the pyramid, a "priest" (perhaps wearing some combination of Mayan headwear and a corporate suit) says, "Oh, corporate entities and banking [? can't read this word -- it's been too long since I wrote this, days ago] who have fed and clothed us these many generations..."  Panel 6:  The priest grabs the guy by the ankles and holds him upside down until money and coins fall out of his pockets (this only works in silent movies and comics).  "We offer another sacrifice so that you will once again shine your light upon us."  Panel 7:  With the guy on the ground, the priest asks a guy at a computer terminal, "Anything?" and the computer guy responds, "Dow down 250.  Still no CP market."

The idea was that our economic priests are sacrificing the commoners' taxpayer money to the gods of corporations and financial institutions, just as the Mayan priests sacrificed commoners' lives to the gods of the sun and rain.  And the dark view of this comic is that both are futile, desperate and irrational (certainly an exaggeration of my own view).

It's very rare that I get this far with a draft of a comic and then don't use it, but I didn't like this one for a very important reason:  It's far too dependent on a knowledge of a relatively obscure movie.  Now, I knew this as I was writing it, but I thought it would be a good exercise to see where fleshing out the idea would take me.  But even if I might have liked how it turned out enough to overcome this weakness, I didn't have a Panel 8 (it's blank), and I didn't see a strong punchline on the horizon.

So I put it down, and returned to it later.  Now I thought that maybe I should have the analogy go the other way.  Instead of showing (mostly) our society and how it can be like the Mayans', I though maybe I should show (mostly) the Mayan society and how it can be like ours.  The problem with this approach was that I had no idea how I could tie in the idea of corporations worshiped like gods.  But I decided to jot some notes down and see where it went.  It seemed to fit easily with a "News of the Times," so I went with that format.

Unfortunately, I used a computer this time (I sensed it would be text heavy), so I don't have earlier drafts or notes.  As I revised and honed my notes into six panels, I simply revised the document.  But I remember that I did start with the second panel image of three farmers coming to the capital asking for sacrifices to save their struggling industry, just as the big three auto manufacturers came to Washington asking for bailout money.  Then I thought of various bits and dialogue that I could mold into a cohesive comic.  I also recall that once I thought of the bit about the end of time occurring in 2012, I knew I'd use that as the "punchline" (or, more accurately, as the ending joke) because I thought it was strong and it's a bit of a curveball, deviating from the conceit used in the previous panels.

Well, I liked what I had enough to know that this was going to be my comic.  The notion of our worshiping corporations like the Mayans worshiped their gods wasn't really present in this version, and that was the whole reason I went down this path in the first place, but clearly it was replaced by many other interesting analogies, so I was happy with the result.

Once I had something resembling a six panel comic, I knew I had to do some research.  For example, I had to replace the "[God] Index Down 340" so that I had the actual name of a Mayan god.  I also knew that once I did some research, I'd get some additional ideas and maybe some good reference pictures.  Good old Wikipedia and the results of Google searches were somewhat helpful, but I wasn't getting enough information.  I was concerned because the collapse of the Mayan civilization was at the center of the comic, and yet web info was not giving me a clear understanding of why or how it collapsed.

I thought I'd take the very unusual step of actually getting my hands on some books on the subject.  A library search showed that there was a book in the NY Public Library System on the fall of the Mayans, The Fall of the Ancient Maya by David Webster, but the closest branch that had the book in stock was across town.  There was no way I could arrange or even justify taking a couple of hours to go get this book on a tight deadline.

But that afternoon, when my wife and I took the kids to get their flu shots, she announced that she needed to pick something up from a store... that was a couple of blocks from the library branch.  Kinich Ahau was smiling upon me.  I got the book, and a couple of others:  The World of the Ancient Maya by John S. Henderson, and The Maya by Michael D. Coe.  An embarrassment of riches.

I spent an hour finalizing the text for the comic on a laptop in a coffee shop while I waited for my daughter at her fencing lesson (yes, fencing -- I'm training all my kids in ancient combat arts, so that they can protect me).  Leafing through the Webster book, I was able to get a sense of some of the various explanations for the Mayan collapse, including agricultural disaster, earthquakes, war, and religious and superstitious causes.  Most of these simply confirmed the track I was on, but I hadn't thought about earthquakes, and I ended up referring to that in panel 3.

Here are the leftover notes in the document that I wasn't able to incorporate into the comic:

-  "Something to show that appeasing the gods equals appeasing the corporations"  -- Well, as noted above, this was an overarching concern with the approach I ended up taking.  And this note was at the bottom of the text throughout the writing process, to remind me to try to get that in there.  And it was never erased because I never did fully realize it.

-  "Delicate balance of sacrificed children, rain and maize."  -- Didn't get this "delicate balance" phrase in there.

-  "Nothing’s wrong with the system."  -- I wanted to satirize those free-market fundamentalists who continue to insist that the free market works, it was just abused by some bad apples.  But there really wasn't room for this even if I had come up with a way to analogize it to the Mayans.

926 script

Now I had the text (which I printed out and later wrote some notes on, seen above), and I began to compile visual references for the art.  The books were helpful, but I really ended up using only three main references, from a Google images search:

-  A National Geographic article had a picture of a Mayan city that you can tell was used extensively for my opening shot in Panel 1.

-  Many of the costumes and were taken from these examples of Mayan art.

-  And I found these city and street scenes very helpful.  I basically used the people in the top picture for my Panel 3.

I penciled the comic, and here is what it looked like with only the first panel inked.

926pencil news - kinich ahau

If you compare the script to the final text (and if you're insane enough to have read this far, you might actually have done that), you'll see that I changed a line in Panel 2.  Originally, I had the yam farmer saying, "Yam production will be better than ever, and with it will go our civilization."  I was trying to show the farmers, like U.S. auto makers, making the case that as their industry goes, so goes the nation.  But the line was more accurate than it was funny.  As I was drawing the comic, I realized I hadn't made any reference to the fact that wars are a contributing factor to both civilization's falls.  I had to fit it in somewhere, and that was a far better point to make than the one about the auto maker's self-importance, so I replaced the line with, "We must not forget that our yam yield is vital to our war effort" (making a connection to the auto makers' claim that their industrial might is critical to America's national defense).  I figured that if I was going to have an unfunny line there, it may as well serve a better, more important analogy.

Also, if you look at the script for Panel 5, I have two options for Eagle Claw's dialogue:  "But isn't it wiser to sacrifice it to Hun-Nal-Ye and let the benefits trickle down to the commoner?" and "But isn't it wiser to allow the nobles to use it for ritual feasts and sacrifices, and let the benefits trickle down to the commoner?"  I liked the second one better, because it's a funnier, more direct attack on the trickle-down theory of tax breaks, but I suspected it would be too long.  I had left it in the script so that I could see how much room I had when I was penciling, but I did decide to use the first one for space reasons.

So, penciled, inked and corrected/finalized on the computer, the comic is next sent to my editor at Universal Press Syndicate, the estimable Greg Melvin for review.  He can not only save me from the occasional embarrassing typo-type error, he also sometimes saves me from substantive errors, or jokes that are unintelligible.  It's amazing having someone that smart and savvy as the strip's first reader.  But his only comment here was pretty inconsequential:  he suggested that I put a hyphen between "fifty" and "year" in Panel 3.  Fine -- and out it went.  Here is what the comic looks like in black and white (which is how it is sent out to most print clients):

926 news - kinich ahau

Next, the black and white comic goes to Universal's colorist, the amazing Brian Whitmer.  Normally, he'd color the comic, and send it to me.  I'd then make some changes, and then the coloring would be done.  But in this case, he quickly sent me the following note:

"do you have a web site or image source I can use for the current strip....i would like to get the Maya references authentic....cheers, b"

I realized what a huge job I'd dumped on Brian, with very little time.  He can't just slap some color on a sofa and a shirt -- he's got to color Mayan pyramids and costumes.  So I emailed him back:

"you know what.... i think i should do this one myself...
it's a good question, and I do have sources, and it would be
complicated to get them to y ou, so i'll just tackle it.
THANKS and have a happy thanksgiving!"

I colored it, using the references as my guide.  The colors came out brighter and bolder than I usually like them to, but the Mayans did apparently like their bold greens.

And there you have it:  the full story of this comic, in more detail than anyone could want.  I was going to list the songs on the playlist I listened to while I penciled it, but unless there's a huge groundswell of support for even greater, pointless detail, I'll leave it at this.

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