Saturday, 19 December 2015

Vark Wars: The Biography Of A Commission

Vark Wars (2006)
by Dave Sim
(Click image to enlarge)

(from Dave Sim's Blog & Mail, 13-14 February 2007)
It's certainly interesting doing these commissioned pieces. I mean, on the one hand it makes me feel like a much older artist than the fifty year-old that I am. Commissions are sort of an Legendary Veteran kind of thing, but then being the Pariah King of Comics puts you in various contexts that you might otherwise not be in. Producer of Commissioned Work being one of them (although I've yet to tie it in with my discussions with Chester about prostitution). The interesting part is that I end up drawing things that I would never in a million years choose to draw on my own. It's no big secret that I am definitely not in the Star Wars fan category. I had gone to see the first film when it came out and loved it (more vicariously through Gene Day who L*O*V*E*D IT) and then went to see the second film when it came out and, well, that was it for me. I went to see the last instalment when that came out a couple of summers ago, part of me wondering, "How did I get so easily put off by these things? Wasn't there enough Gene Day Juice in the first one to keep me coming out to see every one of the films the day it was released?" The answer came at some point in that final instalment when Yoda showed up on the screen. Oh, right. Fozzy Bear. Frank Oz doing his Fozzy Bear voice with that strange syntax. That was what had done it all right. My willing suspension of disbelief went from willing to unwilling the moment I was being asked to accept a Muppet with Fozzy Bear's voice as a Jedi Master. Mm. Sorry. No can do.

No offence to all the Star Wars fans who are legion in the ranks of the Cerebus Yahoos, but that was it.

So it was interesting going to get reference at the library for the piece. There was a picture book that was just tailor-made for my purposes, Star Wars The Visual Dictionary (D.K. Publishing Inc.). Big display publicity shot of Harrison Ford from the first movie looking as if George Lucas is somewhere off-camera explaining to him exactly how to pose as Flash Gordon as drawn by Al Williamson. This was one of those "luck of the draw" things for John H. that he was asking for a Star Wars commission and that Al Williamson had drawn the original Star Wars newspaper strip. I would get a chance to do my best Al Williamson impression on the page and John was pretty much guaranteed to get a much nicer drawing as a result as I tried to impress my inner Al Williamson.

I had already warned John over the phone that Cerebus as Han Solo was going to pose some difficulties since Han Solo is a distinctly vertical figure. The more vertical a character is, visually, the more difficult it is to compress him to Cerebus size. The leg holster was a good example. It was either going to be too large if I drew the blaster accurately, taking up most if not all of Cerebus' leg, or it would look like a toy if I drew it to Cerebus scale. The Flash Gordon jackboots are a big part of the look and there was no way to do them on the shape of Cerebus' leg. The best I could manage was shiny leggings. John expressed confidence in whatever solutions I came up with. "At least he has the same vest," he said hopefully. Han Solo had a Cerebus vest? Sure enough when I got the book out -- cut differently but definitely a black vest.

Anyway, this serendipitous publicity shot of Harrison Ford looking exactly like an Al Williamson Flash Gordon pushed me in an entirely different direction. I just HAD to use the whole thing and traced it off in short order manufacturing my rationalization as I went. What if Cerebus is using the legs as stilts? That way I could draw the legs and boots as much like Al Williamson as I wanted and it would look kind of funny to have Cerebus' own legs bulging up Harrison Ford's svelte waistline. I even decided to include Harrison Ford's hair as if someone had taken extraordinary pains to make this aardvark character look as much like the actor as possible. I tightened up the figure in pencil on tracing paper and got out a sheet of 11 x 17 S-172 artboard to figure out how much space he was going to take up.

That was when I noticed that the book had a nice Star Wars logo in gold against a white backdrop, which meant that I could trace it off without even shooting a photocopy. It only took a few minutes to change Star Wars to Vark Wars. Then it was time for Jaka as Princess Leia. I tried the traditional all-white robe and the hairstyle that looked like two cheese Danish stuck on either side of her head from the first movie. It just didn't work for me somehow. It was hard to tell why. The basic answer is that the outfit is pretty much featureless—a nun's habit is more distinctive!—and it was pretty much tailored to Carrie Fisher's body type which is very different from Jaka's body type. I could trace off the publicity photo in the book, but pretty much everything would have to be redrawn anyway including the posture of the figure. What a strange outfit. Did they cast Carrie Fisher before they designed the costume? These are the sorts of questions you find yourself asking yourself when you're hip-deep in a strange commission and mentally analyzing the physical components. Under what other circumstances would Dave Sim find himself asking himself if Carrie Fisher or her costume came first in the first Star Wars movie?

On the facing page was a smaller shot of Carrie Fisher dressed as Jabba the Hutt's slave girl. It certainly seemed more suited to Jaka with her dancer costumes (and I suspect if your average Star Wars fan was to choose a favourite Princess Leia outfit the slave girl outfit would be the one) (I wonder how many slave girl publicity stills Carrie Fisher sells versus the other publicity stills at show signings these days?). This raised even more layers of speculation that I had no idea I had inside of me. How did George Lucas talk Carrie Fisher into the slave girl thing? I mean, that was pretty far along in the series and presumably Carrie Fisher was still thinking and hoping that this Star Wars gig might be a stepping stone to other roles in "major motion pictures". "Barely there" costumes are not exactly something with which actresses with hard-won screen cred are known to willingly associate. Did he just blindside her with the script? Throw it onto her front steps in the middle of the night? PRINCESS LEIA DRESSED AS SLAVE GIRL ENTERS FROM RIGHT OF SCENE. When did she first get a good look at the costume? Did she call George Lucas up screaming? Can you even do that to George Lucas or did everyone have a "Whatever George wants George gets" clause in their contract? That might explain my favourite Harrison Ford quote where he said that George Lucas should be tied to a chair and forced to read his own dialogue out loud.

Where was I dredging all this stuff up from?

Were there negotiations about how much skin would be showing? Or was the outfit just presented as a fait accompli? I mean, it's a very good costume, based solidly in the Alex Raymond/Dale Arden mode (I assume it was one of the things on George Lucas' mental checklist) but with all of the high-end Hollywood costume artistry brought to bear. "Here's Alex Raymond/Dale Arden and here's Carrie Fisher's body type. Now, how do we do work them both in?" Pretty flawlessly, I would say. In the publicity shot she certainly doesn't look very happy (which I suppose could be just "in character" for a slave girl). Looks like she had to work out pretty hard to get that toned. How old was she at that time? Early thirties? No love handles, no pot belly. She did a great job.

As I say, it's bizarre what goes through your mind when you actually work on something like this. In the same vein, it was an unexpectedly happy nostalgia jolt to have John Williams' Star Wars soundtrack running through my head for days on end. Took me right back to 1978-79 when that was what you listened to most mornings at Gene Day's studio in Gananoque. "What'll it be? John Williams' Star Wars soundtrack or John Williams' Superman soundtrack?" It certainly made writing and drawing comic books seem incredibly heroic at the time.

I really have to give George Lucas credit as a thorough-going storyteller, assuming that all of the detailed information included in this book came from him personally. I mean, I'm probably just outside the loop, but I had no idea that that broken red racing stripe on the side of Han Solo's pants is a "Corellian blood stripe" or that his belt is equipped with a Droid caller and blaster power cell. Or that the blaster consists of a scope, enhanced blast delivery circuits, power pack release lever, low power pulse warning, power pack, cooling unit, final stage collimator (with "puree" setting?) and flash suppressor. Or that it's officially a DL-44 pistol. I think I managed to get them all on there, although I'll frankly admit that the proportions are probably off by quite a bit.

Anyway, I did a quick Jaka as Jabba the Hutt slave girl drawing on tracing paper and then reduced it a bit on the photocopier so she didn't look TOO much larger than Han Solo (although I did want her to look larger—this is, after all, Cerebus and Jaka), turned over the photocopy on the light table to trace off onto another piece of tracing paper…

…and the next day promptly fell ill for nearly a month.

Shall a bore you with my illness? Not the Full Horror Story. I'm saving that one. But just the sheer surprise that I had never been through anything like this before. All of my recent experience of the last twenty years or so has been that when you feel sick the best thing to do is to just go straight to bed for twenty-four hours. My experience has been that if you catch it early in the gestation, you sleep and let your body—by itself—get rid of the virus or whatever it is. Usually involves staying as warm as possible in bed and letting that body warmth crest until the fever breaks (that is, you wake up bathed in sweat from head to foot, towel off, change night clothes and go back to sleep for another six to eight hours). Worked like a charm for years. The difference this time was that I went to bed but I didn't sleep. I didn't really even notice that I didn't sleep (which was very weird in itself). I also couldn't get my body temperature to go up no matter how many night clothes I put on (up to and including my winter coat). So I just had this feverish weight on my brain that made even basic thought processes really difficult and then virtually impossible but which just stayed up there on my scalp and refused to come down into the rest of my body. Since I run on my thought processes this posed no small problem. The biggest concern, as always, was my prayer times and for a couple of days I struggled out of bed and attempted the ritual ablutions and changing into my prayer clothes and kneeling down until that just became impossible and I would, instead, just lie in bed with my hands crossed over my chest and recite my prayer. With my impossibly slowed-down thought processes it took me about a week to realize exactly how strange this ailment was. It did finally dawn on me that this was something that I had speculated about. What happens when you get too old and you can no longer kneel down to pray? My assumption was that you just lie in bed and pray that way (but how interesting to be that close to The End: "I'll never actually kneel down to pray again"). So, the strange ailment suddenly became a dress rehearsal for my own Last Days. And then I started wondering—with my incredibly slowed down thought processes (a stroke? A brain tumour?) if it was a dress rehearsal or if this was the real thing. I found that either way I was fine with it. Obviously swimming upstream every day of your life as the Pariah King of Comics can get to be a drag and the idea that I might just be headed down the exit ramp was fine by me. "If I keep going downhill like this, I could actually be Out of Here by the end of January."

Cool beans!

There really wasn't much that I could do, so I'd recite my prayer and when I was done, I'd recite it again. I'd drift off for strange brief periods like ten minutes or twelve minutes and then snap wide awake. It was only two weeks in where I had actually managed one morning to sleep for a two-hour stretch—what a sense of accomplishment!—that it sunk in exactly how strange this ailment was. "I've basically been wide awake for two weeks." My mind and brain were really, really slow but at that point I started wondering (really, really slowly) about sleep deprivation. I mean it isn't natural to not sleep for two weeks but it's even more unnatural to not really feel any ill effects from it. No delusions, no hallucinations, no light-strobing in the corner of your eyes, no paranoia. Just really, really slow thought processes. I never doubted my faith in God or came anywhere close to recrimination against God ("God, after all my faith and prayers how can you DO this to me?"). It seems to me one of those things about faith in God that the more you have the more you pretty much anticipate that life is going to be something of an ordeal when the time comes for that. The Job Rule seems to me to always be in effect. The more you have absolute faith in God, the more you become a potential contending ground against God's adversary. "Sure he's got faith in You now, but take away his ability to think, take away his health, his mobility and see how much faith he has then." Well, quite simply it didn't work. "Unto death" was my simple response. If that's what this was: I was dying of a stroke or a brain tumour then that's what it was. It would be hard not to see it as a failing grade on my report card being that abrupt: I had guessed wrong too many times, had written way too many controversial Blog & Mails in way too short a space of time and now I was being taken out of the game because I was over-throwing all my pitches. Trying too hard and missing. Well, so be it. I had no cause for complaint. Especially in the last ten years of my life, I had made each of my own calls every step along the way. People had tried to get in the way and tried to coerce me into different paths but I couldn't say with a straight face that any of them had had any success. No, all of my decisions were my decisions. "Dave Sim Fails at Fifty." Well, okay, Dave Sim fails at fifty.

What was interesting was that this was also my first month running Aardvark-Vanaheim completely on my own with Ger's decision to leave the company at the end of 2006. I suspect that might have been part of God's point: even with my diminished capacity where I had to plan one or two half hour stints per day a day ahead of time just getting the basics done -- bills still had to get paid, invoices had to be sent out, the mail still needed to be picked up -- I was able to run Aardvark-Vanaheim even though I was flat on my back for the better part of a month. I shepherded the first printing of a Cerebus trade paperback anywhere outside of Preney Print & Litho. A FedEx package came in containing three copies of the fourth printing of Form & Void from Lebonfon in Montreal -- and they did an excellent job! The mail piled up. I'd take a cab to the post office and back once a week (I'm putting on my coat and the scarf Linda Parker knitted me. I'm standing in the doorway waiting for the cab. I WILL remain vertical and I WILL walk out to the cab and get in when it gets here) and just pull out the cheques and the bills that needed to be dealt with. Mid-month was about the worst: it actually took me the better part of an hour to write four cheques, put them in envelopes and put postage on them. Mid-month I'd get the newspaper in the morning and force myself to read the headlines on the front page until I understood what they said. Then I'd flip through the front section in about ten seconds and go back to bed where I would lie awake repeating my prayer over and over and having these weird eight to ten minute naps every two hours or so.

Finally, whatever the mystery ailment was was... well, not gone, but no longer had a stranglehold on me... and about two o'clock one morning in the third week, I went upstairs and started tracing the Jaka figure for the commissioned piece. What an adventure that turned out to be. I had to do everything at least eight times before it was even remotely close to what I intended. "It's a picture of Jaka, Dave. You can draw Jaka in your sleep." Maybe so, but this morning? Not so much.

It was interesting because by that point I had such a clear mental image of what the piece was supposed to look like that it became hard to tell if I was doing everything eight times because I was still sick and incompetent or if I was doing everything eight times because I wasn't going to rest until this picture looked exactly the way it did in my mind's eye. I had done the "Vark Wars" lettering in a double outline, as an example, and intended to colour between the two lines. As I looked at it, though, I could see that the space for the outline was off about a sixteenth of an inch. It needed to be a little bit wider. Not too wide. I didn't want the lettering to be the first thing you saw. I wanted the first impression to be of a nice Al Williamson splash panel. Only once that had registered did I want the viewer to see the "Vark Wars" lettering. I don't know how long it actually took me to expand that outline by a sixteenth of an inch, but it definitely took a while. Then I filled in all of the areas where the space backdrop would show through with brushed in solid black—as close to the pencil lines as I could get -- and then filled in the remaining spaces with a Hunt 102 instead of a rapidograph. Using a Hunt 102 to fill in solid blacks. Only a very sick and/or very obsessive person could come up with something like that and stick with it, but I wanted every straight edge as straight as an arrow. My inner Al Williamson was watching closely. I wanted every corner as sharp as I could get it, coming to a precise point with no extraneous line intruding or extending beyond where it was supposed to be. I was also determined not to have to white anything out. I was aiming for an Al Williamson level of accuracy and precision and I can't think of a higher level of accuracy and precision than that. I forget how long that took. I also made the choice to not outline the Vark Wars lettering in black which added a whole other level of precision to the inking stage. I forget how long that took. I remember it took the better part of a day to colour Jaka's fleshtones, adding layer upon layer of light orange, pink, pink and yellow blended, building it up and building it up. Bright! Brighter! Brightest! Al Williamson Bright! After a month you forget how good it feels to be actually drawing and to have the picture coming out right how it would colour your entire day so you didn't even think about strokes and brain tumours. I'd just sit and look at it while I was getting my shoes on (which meant I had plenty of time: putting on my shoes took a while) or waiting for a cab or getting ready to actually walk downtown on one of my "half-hour of health" sojourns. Looking at all the sharp lines, looking at that bright colour of Jaka's fleshtone and the pretty close match on the slave girl skirt colour.

"Don't screw it up, now" I'd think, looking at everything else that needed to be done.

John had asked when I wanted to get paid and I told him to send a cheque. The cheque came in Monday and at that point there was a sense of obligation. Nothing worse than getting paid for a piece and to have it sitting there three quarters done. What if I have a relapse? So I spent most of Monday working on it. I mean, literally most of Monday. I woke up almost exactly at midnight with the Sabbath over and I went out and sat down and worked on it, inch by painstaking inch from midnight to roughly three-thirty when the newspaper arrived which I was finally able to read from front to back while resting in bed. Apart from picking up the mail, I had nothing planned for my "half hours of health" on Monday, so I alternated resting in bed (and actually sleeping for a change!) with each inch by painstaking inch of the picture. And then, unbelievably, twenty-two hours later it was done. And apart from a few minor glitches, it was about as precise and accurate a piece of work as I've ever done.

In fact, I'm so pleased with it, that I decided to make it this year's Thanks for Showing Up Print at SPACE in Columbus, Ohio (i.e. it will only be available at the show). I'm getting 50 high quality cardstock colour photocopies done of it and I'm going to sign and number them and sell them exclusively at SPACE for $20 each. Except the #1 out of 50 which I'm going to auction on eBay. If I have any of them left over, I'll sell the remainder at Torontocon.

Just called and told John Higashi that his commission is done and chatted with him a bit about his art collection. Has he gotten a lot of these Star Wars commissions done? Turns out he's been collecting them since 2000 and at this point he has (get this) SIX HUNDRED individual Star Wars pieces that he's commissioned. You think I'm kidding? Click on ComicArtFans... and he tells me that you can see just about all of them. Since I know most of the Cerebus Yahoos are raving Star Wars fans as well, I figured I better mention it.

It's a funny thing about drawing. It exists in a world all its own. Out of the six thousand pages of Cerebus, I can tell you what was happening in my life on the day I drew the page with maybe a half dozen of them. If that.

I wonder if that will be true of the Sickbed Star Wars Commission? Probably not, now that I've told the whole story here. But I've forgotten other pages that I thought I would always associate with specific events.

And, at one point in the depths of my feverishness I thought, "Lord Julius as a WOOKIE!" Now I'm never going to my final rest in peace until I get THAT one out of my system.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At the time, at least, Carrie Fisher seems to have had a sense of humour about it:

-- Damian