Saturday, July 4, 2009

True Amphibian Crime Part Two: The Transbay Newt Shuffle

Now that I'm looking at this, I want it on a T-shirt.

Okay, this happened about eighteen years ago. I'm pretty sure crimes were committed, but I'm not au fait as to the laws in question. My late brother Duncan was the provocateur; a then-friend of my brother's and now a close friend of mine, whose nom du caper will be The Hon. Richard Talleywhacker, acted as wheelman. As for my own role...

This was before the missus and I embarked on our herptile fixation -- and the events that follow, I now realize, were the thin end of that wedge. On impulse, I'd picked up a fishtank at a yard sale and set it up with an undergravel filter.

Now instead of stocking it with fish, I had gotten a jar full of pondwater and sediment and poured it into the tank and let it stew for a year or so. There were all kinds of tiny animals in there, water beetles and daphnia and so on and so forth. There was a healthy crop of algea. While there weren't any big spectacular animals, it was still fascinating to put your face close to the glass and watch all the different little creatures going about their business.

So one fine day Duncan tells me I'm going hiking with him and The Hon. Richard Talleywhacker. Mr. Talleywhacker drives us out to Tilden park and we set out hiking around the hills. And that's where I came face to face with temptation.

Tilden has a population of California newts. They are adorable little guys, chunky dark red pups with orange bellies. They lay their eggs underwater in clusters of jelly attached to plant stems.Well, we ran across some seasonal ponds that were drying out, and where the water had receded we found hundreds of egg clusters drying in the sun.

I knew it wasn't kosher to swipe animals from a park like this, but when I bemoaned the fact that all those eggs were going to die, Duncan nagged at me until I gave in. I had some plastic bags in my knapsack; we gathered fifteen or twenty egg clusters and took them home, where I put them in my aquarium.

At first I wasn't sure they were going to hatch -- but they didn't rot. And then one day I went upstairs and the tank was swarming with infinitisimal larval newts. They lived happily off the fauna in the tank for quite a while.

But then quite literally overnight, a select few of the newts grew to two or three times the size of the others -- and there were a lot fewer of the others. Now I have nothing against cannibalism in principal but enforcing it via confinement and starvation seemed a bit unsavory to me. The theme music from Born Free blowing through the open space between my ears, I called Duncan and told him it was time to let the newts go.

"There's no point in letting them go in Tilden," Duncan said. "There's already newts there. Let's take 'em to Golden Gate Park."

Now let me make one thing clear. The geeks who unleashed the salamanders mentioned in The Origin Of Cyclops, the idiots who decided to import all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to the US, the jackoffs responsible for bringing Australian black swans to New Zealand -- that is some heinous shit. Disrupting an environment with alien species is fundamentally noxious.

But San Francisco -- and Golden Gate Park in particular -- isn't a natural environment. If it were, it would be dunes and bunch grass, dry as a bone. But Golden Gate Park is a moist green wonderland with year-round ponds, filled with alien plants and animals. Giving a California native an extra habitat didn't seem like a sin.

It still doesn't.

So The Hon. Richard Talleywhacker and his car were called upon to transport Duncan, myself, and an uncountable number of larval newts to San Francisco. We did the dirty deed in broad daylight. No one dared challange us, assuming anyone noticed we were doing anything. Two ponds were stocked.

I've always wondered what happened after that... but every so often I do a search on California Nets Golden Gate Park. And once, a few years back, I found a one-paragraph story on a news site saying that the California Newts had returned to Golden Gate Park. No more information than that. Since I'm pretty sure that there weren't any newts living in San Francisco before...

I wonder. I wonder...

Friday, July 3, 2009

Not A Bad Workday

What can I say? Insects-as-phallic-architecture are fun! I think that two of these should be plenty for the magazine, though.

So that makes two good work days in a row. Yesterday I blew off working on the illustrations for Swill in order to sink my teeth back into the novel. I revised four chapters, nearly forty pages of manuscript. Now I'm a month ahead of the Tuesday night group and I'm ready to rock when the Monday night group reconvenes. So now I'm a third of the way through the fourth revision.

Today I managed to work another illustration for Swill from concept to finish. (It's the up top there.) I'm getting better and better at working my new set of tricks and it's fun to see how things develop. And now I'm down to four more illustrations before I go. One a day, oafboy. One a day. Then you can do the novel full time by the end of the week.

Speaking of which, I did the fifth revision of chapter one as well, the version that's going to be my submission to agents. I want to revise the manuscript as I get the criticisms, and hopefully it won't take me too long to get caught up.

By handling it this way I can track the novel as a whole in order to make sure that everything ties together properly and that any changes I make in any one section can be integrated with the work as a whole.

Now this first chapter has stuff in it that dates back right to the beginning of the project, back when it was a novella about a haunted garage band. I figured that it was going to be a line edit rather than a real revision.

I was wrong; there was so much red ink on the page it looked as though I'd butchered a guinea pig on the manuscript. It was great -- I hit a new level of skill in omitting needless words and started to see sentences that had been in place for years, that had gone by many readers without complaint, and I say that They Fucking Said Nothing, that they were verbal lubricant to keep my flow of ideas going while I was writing.

And that's the thing. Those words needed to be written -- they just didn't need to be read. The chapter went from nine pages to eight pages and it reads so much better now. Dense with information and yet it goes down quite easily. I'm now in the part of the ego roller-coaster where I'm thinking very highly of the novel. It's a pleasant feeling. But give me another month and I'll be hating it again...

Here's a taste.

“Hey, we weren’t talking about you, man, we weren’t talking about you!”

The kid who spoke had his hands up and his friends looked freaked out. I stopped and blinked.

“Sorry, dude,” I said. “I’ve been kind of going through it lately.” I could feel my tremor starting up – my hands were shaky and there was a quiver in my voice.

Fuck those kids. Soft little overprivileged shits, all lip and no spine. They hadn’t shown me respect. They just didn’t want any trouble. I should have gone for them. Back in my hometown there’d be blood on the pavement by now, probably mine. San Costas wasn’t a city – it was a goddamned petting zoo.

True Amphibian Crime Part One: The Origin Of Cyclops

I've mentioned this before, but the missus's mother is Ruth Leaf, a master printmaker. She once spent a weekend teaching me to make linoleum cuts and I wound up producing a few that I liked before being derailed by other creative concerns. I'm planning on doing a series of them at some point in the not-to-distant future, probably on botanical subjects.

So this Tuesday I ran across something on the internet that's given me pause. It's funny how you can be just cruising along and all of a sudden you find yourself wondering how deeply involved you are in ecoterrorism. I'll provide the link at the right place in the story -- this information has made me decide to publicly confess one of my darkest criminal acts. Let us all hope no one decides it's worth prosecuting me over.

Here's the deal. I am a recovering herptile freak. When I was a child, my mother ran our house as a small-scale private menagerie, and that's how I caught the bug. For years I was obsessively devoted to collecting small animals and creating terrariums and aquariums. Amphibians and reptiles were far and away my favorites and at one point I'd managed to cover an entire wall in my room with shelves of ten-gallon tanks. Alas, when I was twelve I went on an extended trip to Oregon with my brother, leaving my finny, scaly, and slimy pals in my mother's care.

Let's just say that when I got home I didn't have a hobby anymore...

But when the missus and I got together, the disease resurfaced, malaria-style. On a whim we looked at a local store specializing in herptiles and were hooked. It started innocently enough with a pair of baby iguanas (I'll have to tell you about Isadora some time. Let's just say that when a reptile loves you, it ain't like mammal love, it's more like a sense that you're part of their territory and they own you.) but over the next few years our collection expanded to include fire-belly toads, bearded dragons, a snake, leopard geckos, axolotls, etc, etc.

So we were in and out of that place buying mice and crickets on a regular basis. One time when I was in there I noticed a truly spectacular animal for sale at a very, very low price. It was a salamander that had beautiful black-and-mustard mottling and it was more than a foot long. He was missing an eye, which was probably the reason he was on sale.

I saw him, I fell in love, I knew I didn't need another pet. So after a few weeks I broke down and bought him. But when I asked what species he was, I couldn't get an answer. The guy who sold it to me gave me an, "I'd tell you but then I'd have to kill you," type of response.

So I hit the books and the best guess I could come up with was that he was a mole salamander suffering from gigantism.

He was swell. Amphibians aren't typically what you'd call full of personality. But Cyclops was. I put him in my studio next to my drawing table and the axolotl tank. When I'd work he'd come out from under his slab of shale and prop himself up on the side of the tank closest to me and stare at me, probably hoping for a pinky mouse.

And when one of the axolotls floated at the end of the tank closest to Cyclops, Cyclops would go into a frenzy. He would writhe and make clumsy frolicking jumps and try and climb out of the tank while periodically making this strange little proto-croak. I always assumed there was some kind of sexual motivation there...

Anyway, that was about fifteen years back. On Tuesday I ran across this.

That big salamander? The one that's running amok and fucking things up for the native species? It's a dead ringer for Cyclops. A perfect match.

So now I'm wondering. Was Cyclops a hybrid? Were those hybrids introduced into the wild deliberately or accidentally? Or is the hybridization occurring spontaneously in the wild? This is all extremely circumstantial evidence, of course, but I'm wondering whether or not a fairly serious action against the local ecology has been committed, beyond the introduction of the barred tiger salamander -- and whether or not I have any responsibility in this situation. I will almost certainly just let this float by, but it's troubling.

But there are, as always, some less savory influences on my actions here. First is the deeply ingrained ethos of my ugly little youth, which taught me that snitches get stitches and dead finks don't walk too good.

And I, myself, committed a similar act when I was younger. Details tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Tribulator Knocks Off Work or I Want To Marry Illustrator's Live Trace Function

Here's the initial composition, constructed from scans in Photoshop. The background is too dark and intrusive, and the whole thing has a muddy, unclear quality to it. But that's fine -- this is just a preparatory stage.

So it's been a good day. Got another chapter of the novel out to the Homework Club, and I finished a new illustration for the magazine. It's based on one that was originally intended to be a centerfold -- here it is, if you're interested.

While I was working on the first version of this I got a sense of deja vu. I thought the composition looked familiar. Well, I figured it out. It was from the Lord of the Rings movie, the scene where a moth flutters by Gandalf when he's imprisoned on top of Saruman's tower.

It would have worked as a centerfold, but it turns out that the image needs to be split into two panels. That weakened the image too much -- oh, well. I was still able to salvage the subject matter and use the scans.

Anyway, I've made some interesting discoveries in using Photoshop and Illustrator in conjunction with one another in order to produce line art -- art that is pure black and white, which is easy to reproduce clearly. I thought I'd show off a bit of the process.

There are five elements on seperate layers in the initial Photoshop file. This is the background, scanned from the flank of a lubber grasshopper.

The Tribulator is a scanned damaged butterfly, chosen for the ragged edges of its wings. The spire is the knee joint from the leg of the lubber grasshopper mentioned above. I used a lot of distortion tricks in Photoshop to give the shapes a sense of perspective and depth.

I also use two or three adjustment layers on each of these elements -- Levels, Brightness and Contrast, and in the case of the background, Invert. I try and get the images as close to pure black and white as I can this way.

Again, these are two seperate layers. I duplicated the Tribulator and Spire layers, used Levels adjustment layers to render them in pure white, and added an Outer Glow from the FX menu on the layers panel, then positioned them under their corresponding elements. This gives the Tribulator and Spire a white outline to separate them from each other and the background. I'm big on clarity.

Now I can get ready to start working in Illustrator. First I want to get the background in place -- I was taught to work from far to near when making this kind of image -- to get the most distant elements in a composition rendered before going on to the elements 'closer' to the viewer. So here's the background with the white cut-outs, ready to be traced.

And here's the initial tracing. I went to Illustrator, created a document the same size as my Photoshop document, and then placed the Photoshop file in the Illustrator document and hit the Live Trace button in the control panel. Then I went to Object-Live Trace -- Options and began fiddling around until I got what I liked. This was done all in Lines, no Fill, lightest weight of line.

Since the first background was a bit weak, I turned on the Inverse adjustment layer, saved, and did it again.

Here's what I got. A nice outline of the Tribulator and his Spire.

I put each of these onto its own layer in Illustrator. Here's how those two look together. I thought this was thin, so I did one more layer after adjusting the grays in the Photoshop image -- you'll see how that fit in when you get to the finished version.

And now for the Spire...

For the Spire's Live Trace, I used all Fill and no Line.

The Tribulator was close to black and white in Photoshop --

-- so the Illustrator version looks quite similar. Now it's time to put everything together...

"The Tribulator had cultivated a spire at the center of his territory. Its spiral buttresses and knotted shaft were made of the same subtle matter as he was, and he kept his nest at its apex. When he reached home the Tribulatrix was waiting for him. After being in proximity to the sick human the sight of her was like a flight through spring rain..."

-- from Hate Her, Hate Her, Tribulator! You'll find the rest of the story in the next issue of Swill.

Monday, June 29, 2009

I May Have Figured Out One Of The Problems & Some Casting Suggestions From The Missus

I'm not pleased with myself. This isn't a horrible illustration but it isn't a pro-quality reconstruction.

I've forgotten how to draw while I've been busy making pretty pictures. I need to hit the sketchbook on a regular basis.

This is the depressing part of having a large and involved skill set -- while you're getting good at one skill, another atrophies.

So I may have mentioned that I've been having a bit of a problem with my crazy over the last year or so -- basically, since I started seeing signs of success in my creative life. I've been blaming it on self-destructive tendencies. This is true, but it dawned on me last night that there's something more than that going on.

See, the way I handled my crazy before was to carefully monitor all the aspects of my life that contributed positively or negatively to my mental health. Sleeping, eating, exercise -- the basics, you know?

But since things have started taking off for me, I haven't been thinking about that stuff at all, except to complain about my self-abuse. So it's time to start eating three meals a day, making sure that I get to bed at a reasonable hour and stay in bed a reasonable amount of time even if I'm not sleeping. It's time to make sure I get a walk in every day.

And my irritation with my poor draftsmanship is part of this as well. In a previous post I mentioned that I needed to work on structure and balance in my creative life; this applies to my whole life.

So I ate breakfast today. I ate a reasonable lunch, so I'm going to be able to eat dinner. Gonna take a walk as soon as this is posted. I've done some drawing today, done some writing. And now the only deadline breathing down my neck is for Swill. Time to try and figure out how to organize myself. How to make proper use of my time. It'll make me healthier, happier, and a more functional artist.


Anyway, I mentioned to Karen that Traumador had left a comment on my site suggesting that if I was lucky, someday Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks might play the lead in a movie based on the novel. This was kind of hilarious, as the lead character is based on me and let's just say there isn't much resemblance.

She had some interesting suggestions. Willem Dafoe was her first -- and the thing to remember is that this isn't based on physical resemblance. It's based on someone having the emotional range to pull off the story -- they have to be able to do smart, crazy, nice, and menacing. They have to be able to be both scary and vulnerable. So Willem Dafoe is a good one. I thought Ed Norton might be good. Maybe Brendan Frasier -- I think he has acting chops they haven't asked him to use yet. John Turturro.

But this morning she came up with one out of the blue that sounds good to me -- Alan Tudyk. He played Wash in Firefly? Karen recently saw something where he gave good menace. I can see him in the role. 's kind of a fun little game.

Actually, now that I think of it, you know who I'd really like? Ron Perlman.

Of course if it sells, they probably will have Tom Cruise play the lead.

Or Keanu Reaves.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Nicer Skeleton

A moment's inspiration gave me a clue as to how to improve the skeleton below. That one's an Autotrace of a Photoshop file. I realized that if I manipulated the Autotrace options I could get a solid outline of the skeleton. I did so, then rendered the first trace in a dark color and put it on top of the second, rendered in a light color, then put a midrange rectangle behind both. So now I have something to post if I mess up the finished piece.

That was fast. This is the third of these skeletal drawings I've done so far. I uses Photoshop techniques for the first and it took me a long workday. l did the second one using Live Paint and it took me a couple of hours to get the results I wanted. This one? From the initial Photoshop file (which was a real bear) to the finished Illustrator piece, less then an hour.

I'm in love with Illustrator.

More Ptero-Fun & How The Oaf Almost Managed To Screw It Up Again

Well, now I've got a decent skeleton in a decent pose. With any luck I'll be able to meet the deadline on this sucker. Pteranodon longiceps, folks, the pterodactyl for those of us weaned on pop culture.

I was so proud of managing to apply to Viable Paradise... I thought I'd done everything right, aside from sending my application in at darned near the last moment.

But come on. In a process as 'complicated' as this, there has got to be an opening through which I can strike at the heart of opportunity. In order to kill it fucking dead.

Now I don't have OCD, but I do tend that way. At least, that's what the shrink said. So when I started considering applying to VP, I started reading everything I could find online about it. Over and over again. Especially the application instructions.

Including these two sentences on the subject of the emailed portion of the submission.

"RTF format only. Not .doc, .txt, .wpd, or anything else."

I don't know about you, but me? I sense a certain lack of ambiguity to the above statement. Simple. Direct. Easy to understand.

Right? Right?

So why the fuck did I send the email portion of my submission as .txt files? I mean, what the fuck?

What the fuck?

I think I caught it in time. I re-sent the properly formatted files. I apologized. But god damn, people.

You ever see that original Star Trek episode where the crew of the Enterprise start mixing it up with versions of themselves from an alternate dimension where they all have hipster facial hair and a sincere commitment to evil?

This is the downside of being nuts. I have the evil goatee version of myself inside of me all the time, working patiently and tirelessly to screw my life up. Being a loser doesn't just happen. It takes fucking effort.

The missus and I were talking about my possibly seeking out more counseling the other day; fuck that. I don't need a shrink. I need a goddamned exorcist.

Hopefully that was my only real fuckup here. But honestly, when I say I'm my own worst enemy, it isn't a casual fucking statement. I am a crafty foe and a genuinely cruel and vindictive one.

But I'll tell you this much; if I ever get my hands on me I am kicking my fucking teeth so far down my throat I'll have a picket fence around my asshole. I have tried getting along with myself; you see how that's fucking worked out. So help me god, I will not rest until I have been made to pay for what I've done to me.

This is my vow.