[to read Moon Festival, CLICK HERE]
Apologies in advance for the length and seeming randomness (though randomness is somewhat fitting in retrospect) of the following ramblings.
I’ve never been one to try articulating any creative approach in an academic sense.
I’m always doubtful of my ability to verbalize what’s happening in my brain.
I wanted to take a moment to talk about how I created the comic “Moon Festival” since I just finished it, and am
still excited by the possibilities for new comics it has opened up (to me at least, hopefully for others as well)
MOON FESTIVAL was composed using chance operations, a procedural methodology of creating music employed and popularized by John Cage.
I have been trying to figure out a way to use Cage’s working methods to create comics for quite some time, but only recently discovered a way that seemed suited to the task.
There are many ways comics have been compared to music, Frank Santoro even joked in his initial post about the Comics Workbook Composition Competition (the event for which I initially created Moon Festival) that using the 8 panel grid was like playing scales:
"I feel that using the grid is an essential step in understanding TIMING in making comic books. If you wanna play like Coltrane, you gotta learn your scales first.”
As a musician myself, I am fond of the music:comics analogy.
I decided I didn’t want to play like Coltrane on this one, I wanted to play like Cage.
For those who aren’t familiar with the idea of chance operations/indeterminacy, John Cage attempted to create music that lacked ego - he wanted to remove himself from the end product, to not let his likes and dislikes dictate the music he made. He tried to open up to the possibility that any and all sounds could be included in his compositions, even noise, and (most famously) silence. He used the I Ching - an ancient Chinese book used for divination which employs a series of coin tosses that add up to a hexagram which then offers advice - to aid in the generation of compositions. Cage used charts that numerically matched the hexagrams, and substituted musical elements such as various sounds, duration, even radio frequencies for the words of wisdom. Thus, after spending much time flipping coins, he would eventually arrive at a composition that, in essence, created itself - devoid of any specific input from Cage himself (minus the setting of parameters for the piece.) He called these works “indeterminate.”
So, to run with Frank’s music analogy a bit more, I approached Moon Festival via its individual components - treating image and texts as sounds. Colors as tone/notes. Blank spaces as rests/tacets (silences). Number of panels as duration/time.
Cage left his work open to all sounds (even ones not in the score - sounds delivered by the environment - such as the crowd shifting in their seats or coughing, traffic sounds, jet noise overhead, etc)
With that element in mind, I decided to leave any dots or marks caused by the photocopier when I resized my artwork for scanning - "blemishes" I would usually erase in Photoshop. I also will consider the format you are viewing the work in as part of the piece determined by outside sources. Different computers have different screen resolutions. Maybe you are reading Moon Festival on a tablet, or mobile phone. Maybe you are listening to music while you read it. These differences contribute to your own experience, they do not diminish it.
Because the Composition Contest set specific parameters for participants, I had to work within the constraints put forth by Frank Santoro.
The comic had to be 16 pages (a front and back cover, and 14 pages of story), and each page had to adhere to a strict eight-panel grid within a 10 x 13 inch live area. The comic could, however, be black and white, color, or both. Frank is also not fond of using gutters (the white space that commonly separates comic book panels) and since this is his competition I decided to dispose of gutters for this project as well.
So, within those constraints, I made a list of questions to ask when starting each panel.
Does this panel have text? Yes or no.
[I decided right off the bat, for the sake of simplicity, that any text would be captioned (rather than word balloon) in this piece. However, the next chance-composed comic I create will include balloons as well. I am anxious to see how that would work.]
Does this panel have an image? Yes or no. (flip coin)
Will this panel be in color, or black and white? (flip coin)
For duration, I would ask how many panels until I got the same answer twice:
Is this a sequence of one panel or two? (Two) Two or three? (Three) Three or four? (Three) - would result in a three panel sequence.
I asked whether the image in the first panel of a sequence would be the whole image, or just a piece of the image - this resulted in some sequences “building up” an image over several panels, while others repeated an image several times.
If an image was repeated, I redrew it completely each time to the best of my ability rather than photocopy it. This allowed each repetition to have slight variations - reflecting inflections caused by an instrumentalist holding a note for an extended duration. (“Repetition is a form of change” says Brian Eno - who probably got it from John Cage)
As far as source material for the text and images, I settled on the following:
-Text in the piece was taken from fortune cookie fortunes that I’d been absent-mindedly tossing into a teapot over the years, chosen at random
-Images would be based on a stack of found photographs from 1975, apparently of a group of aging friends on a tropical vacation, chosen at random
I considered the fortune cookie a bit of a sly wink to Cage’s fondness for Eastern thinking. I disposed of any of the fortunes with things like “a great sum of money is coming your way” and chose randomly from what remained - fortunes more closely resembling aphorisms.
Just as with the imagery, I used coin tossing to determine if a panel would contain an entire fortune, or just a fragment of one.
Even the title of the piece (Moon Festival) was derived from a phrase on the “learn to speak Chinese” back side of a fortune. I selected two potential titles randomly - “moon festival” and “pomelo” - and was planning on letting the coins determine which one would be used, but my girlfriend interjected “YOU HAVE TO USE MOON FESTIVAL. I’M THE COIN THIS TIME!” - and I can’t very well argue with that now can I?
The back cover ended up as a blank color field because the final page ended with a six panel textless sequence of changing colors and only five panels remained on the page - so I treated the back cover as the sixth (and final) panel.
Chance operations guided the development of the front cover as well. Again, I broke the piece into its fundamental elements:
-Will the front cover contain one panel or more? More
-Two panels or more? More
-Three panels or more? Three
-Will the panels divide the page horizontally or vertically? Vertically
and so I divided the cover into three vertical panels.
Since it is implied that the cover would include the text (title and author) I then asked
-Will the text be included in the panels, or intercect the panels horizontally? Horizontal intersection
-Will this horizontal line cross the vertical panels in the top or bottom of the cover? Top
-Top quarter of the page, or halfway down? Halfway
and so I drew a horizontal line halfway down the page.
-Will the text be centered or justified to a side? Centered
-Will the text itself be color or black and white? Black and White
-Will the text panel be color or black and white? Black and White
-Will cover panel one contain an image? Yes
-The whole image or a partial image? Partial
-Color or black and white? Black and white
-Panel two: image or no image? Image
-Whole or Partial? Partial
-A different image than panel one, or the same image? Same
-Color or black and white? Color
Etc Etc. This was essentially how I created the entire book, one panel at a time, mapping it out in my sketchbook.
re: chance operations, Cage says
"you don’t have control except in the way of designing the questions which you ask… you can decide to ask certain questions and not others… you have no control over the answers, except the limits within which they operate…"
"from the responsibility to choose, you’ve shifted to the responsibility to ask…"
I plan to carry the experiment further next time with additional elements - coloring the line art, limiting the color palette, the use of word balloons, different source material for texts and pictures, different page layouts and so on.
I feel as though a world of possibility has opened up for exploration by introducing indeterminacy to comics.
Oh, I almost forgot color - for simplicity’s sake I based the colors used on the photographs that were selected. In panels without imagery that were determined to contain a color, I made a list of color choices from whatever the previous full color image contained and asked questions until I arrived at the result - the same method used for determining panel duration.
I am pleased and delighted with the outcome of this experiment, and I extend a hearty thank you to Mr Santoro for giving me an excuse to hunker down for a few days of rigorous experimental comic book making. Thanks also to the late great John Cage for giving me new ways of approaching art (and life, for that matter) care of his music and writings.
Moon Festival is a comic that I never could have created on my own - it exists because of chance operations. Yes, I drew it, and set parameters for the experiment - but the comic that resulted was outside my own making. This experiment has allowed me to step beyond my own tastes and create something that is (I, at least, find to be) new and exciting. As a lover of poetry, another form with which comics share a lot of personality traits, I was very happy with the way Moon Festival reads. I had no idea what would happen when I sat down and started flipping coins, but I walk away feeling pleased as punch.
I fully intend to continue exploring chance-composed comics for some time to come, and I hope you like Moon Festival. I had a lot of fun making it.
August 16, 2013
I have included several reference pictures as well, so you can see what the comic looked like before it was formed:
- A sample of a chance-determined grid, and the resulting page
- The ingredients of that page - fortunes and photographs
- The fortune containing the title
- also HERE is a link to John Cage’s “Music of Changes” - one of his first “Indeterminate” works
The key to understanding my sketchbook grid insanity (since I used the coins to map the whole story first):
T = text
I = image
W = whole image
P = partial image
BW = black and white
C = color
tiny numbers in panel corners indicate sequences
highlighted markings T# indicate the particular fortune being used, and I# the image
For personal clarity, I also highlighted panel sequences that shared imagery
Upon completion I have found at least two “mistakes” I made while transcribing Moon Festival from the sketchbook to the page:
-Panel 9:6 was left blank by accident - according to my chart it should have contained the same image of the tiny sailboat seen in the next two panels
-Panel 12:8 should have been the same as that in 13:1
I have not gone back to alter these elements, as I consider them happy accidents that are as “correct” as anything else included in the work.