Thursday, March 29, 2012

Secrets of a Super-Hero Sketch Artist: Served with a Silver-Age Spoon

Some of you following my blog may have noticed that I am the “Yukinori Xum” who has been recently contributing to the weekly “The Line It Is Drawn” feature in the “Comics Should Be Good” blogs posted on the “Comic Book Resources” website.

For those of you not familiar with “The Line It Is Drawn”, it is a weekly sketch-drawing challenge that revolves around a weekly comic-book-related theme, where myself and a group of artists take suggestions submitted by site visitors via Twitter responses. We essentially have 4 to 5 days to pick a suggestion and complete the drawing for submission. I have submitted 12 entries so far on almost a weekly basis and I must admit it’s a fun way to exercise both my drawing hand and the creative side of my brain.

Last week, the “Line” theme was “M.O.D.O.K. March Madness” – which essentially asked for suggestions of a comic book or pop-culture character (or characters) to be depicted as a M.O.D.O.K., which is a Marvel Comics villain primarily known for his huge head (click here for a better look). 

Nearly 124 unique responses have come in, ranging from Squirrel Girl (a common suggestion, I understand) to the cast of “Big Bang Theory.” As I was skimming through the list, I saw a suggestion that simply said “Wonder Woman.” I immediately thought, “Well, she can’t really defend herself from bullets with her bracelets if she had a M.O.D.O.K. form,” and that’s when the whole idea just clicked. A mysterious villain would transform Wonder Woman into a M.O.D.O.K.-like creature, and thus put her into immediate jeopardy. It sounded like an actual “Silver Age” DC Comic scenario, complete with the “bizarre transformation” trope that made comics of that era such fun to read. So I decided to approach this assignment as an actual Silver Age Wonder Woman cover, playing it as straight as I imagined DC Comics would have at the time.

Below is a teaser of the line work, you can see the finished version here on the “Line” web page.

This week’s “Line” theme asked for “What-If?” suggestions, based on the Marvel Comic that told alternative storylines framed around that question (e.g., “What If Someone Else Besides Spider-Man Had Been Bitten by the Radioactive Spider?” or “What If the Fantastic Four Never Gained Their Super-Powers?”). Out of the 195 Twitter suggestions for this theme, the one that caught my eye immediately was: “What if the Flash wasn’t the fastest man on Earth?” One could easily dismiss this idea as “it’s been done,” as evidenced by a number of Silver-Age Flash stories. Like the one where he was transformed into an extremely fat person that could hardly move, or when he was hit by a gravity beam that made him so heavy he could hardly move, or the story with “slow radiation” that slowed the Flash down so much he… hardly moved. (You can see the pattern here?)

So when I saw this suggestion, I decided to try something that wasn’t as obvious: instead of playing on the “fastest man” aspect, I would focus on the “Earth” part, and make the Flash the fastest man on another planet!  Since that sounded like another Silver-Age comic scenario, I did another “straight” Silver-Age cover concept, complete with the expository word balloon that essentially explains the entire premise of the "story" inside the comic – if this was an actual comic.

Scroll down this “Line” site to find the final version.

When I was working on manhua projects in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, I was essentially a cog in the production process relegated to rendering backgrounds and background characters (the “movie extras” of the Hong Kong comics, essentially). I am not complaining, mind you. My job was a vital one: creating the scenery and added realism without which the book wouldn’t be complete. But still, it’s nice to actually do some comic work that was more in the forefront like these comic book covers, even if they are fake ones created just for fun. I hope you enjoy these submissions as much as I did making them.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More Misadventures in Marketing

The story you are about to read is true. Names have been changed to protect the idiotic.

Upstart advertising copywriter Mr. X was in his first client meeting with Southeast Asian cellular communications company, Cell-Koh-Koh, which were poised to launch their new device, the Neato-Cool Office-Fax Type-Messenger (or NCOFTyM or “Nick-of-time” for short) to the public. To really drive home how long ago this was, the NCOFTyM was the first mobile device in this Southeast Asian country that was capable of sending a text message to a landline fax machine, which would then print said message. However, the NCOFTyM was unable to receive messages; that would come later once the e-mail and texting capabilities that were mostly restricted to the military (and some colleges and businesses) would become more mainstream.

At any rate, workers on the go would have the means to print a message at their base office from anywhere within Cell-Koh-Koh’s network, and Cell-Koh-Koh had taken the initiative to book a full-page ad for the NCOFTyM in a major industry trade magazine. Then they finally decided to bring in their advertising agency to develop the ad, which had to be delivered in four days. (!) Assuming we used stock photography and called in a few favors from the color separators (yes, we were using films back then), the ad concept and copy had to be approved by the client by 2 p.m. the following afternoon.

So Mr. X was listening very intently to the two-hour client presentation, twisting his brain in a feeble attempt to squeeze out some compelling messages for a full-page industry trade ad that would convince companies with a mobile workforce to invest in this not-really-inexpensive device for communicating with the base office instead of simply continuing to rely on not-really-expensive mobile phone calls.

Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on his way back to the agency, an idea suddenly came to Mr. X, who proceeded to write and rewrite in his notepad during every stop in his stop-and-go journey back to the office. Upon his arrival back at his desk, he quickly typed up a final draft of his initial proposed ad copy, gained immediate creative director approval and a photo suggestion, and faxed it all to his contact at Cell-Koh-Koh.

The contact called Mr. X immediately, and while he was impressed with the photo, he wasn’t happy with the copy, which seemed to be missing a lot of messaging about the techno-whatzit whizbangs that explained how the NCOFTyM can do its thing. For the next 30 minutes Mr. X listened and took notes, and was told to expect a twenty-eight-page fax of the device’s technical specifications for further reference. It was now past 7 p.m., and tomorrow's 2 p.m. deadline doom seemed to be approaching faster than the speed of time.

Fighting his rapidly deflating ego, Mr. X struggled to decipher the technical specs that he read (and reread) that evening, and struggled further the following morning trying to translate that information as well as pack all of the client requests into a concise 400-word ad -- which still had to fit with the approved photo. Fifty-five minutes before deadline, Mr. X showed a 407-word, somewhat clunky draft to the creative director -- who understood that there are times when creative people have to assume the role of an order-taker.  He gave the copy an OK to fax for client review.

Twenty minutes later, the phone rang. Mr. X took the call from his now-irate Cell-Koh-Koh contact, who said that the ad copy was completely off-base. After a seventeen-minute discussion regarding what the client was really looking for, something clicked in X’s head.

“Just a moment, I’ve been rewriting as we have been talking,” X lied over the phone. “Let me send you a new draft.” X immediately took his initial ad copy from the previous evening and refaxed it to the client while he waited on the line.

Three minutes later, and one minute before deadline, the client was elated. “This is perfect! I was having my doubts, but I can see that you really get this. Please proceed.”

So this was a case where the third time was definitely the charm, even though it involved trusting one’s first instinct the second time around.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood…

It’s no secret to those close to me that I am a fan of British music from the 1980s. But what seems to take several people by surprise, including the woman who would one day become my wife, is that one of my most-listened-to albums was the self-titled one by Samantha Fox. But then, these people may have only heard her hit singles that were broadcast on the national/international airwaves: “Touch Me,” “Naughty Girls (Need Love Too),” and “I Wanna Have Some Fun” – which have strong sexual themes. And while such suggestive songs are not my usual “cup of tea,” two of these singles had, if you’ll pardon the phrase, touched me in a very different manner than the obvious one – as did a ballad by Ms. Fox titled “True Devotion” that should have received a lot more airtime than it did.

“Touch me, touch me/I want to feel your body/Your heartbeat next to mine”

My first exposure to Samantha Fox was in a college student lounge in Fall 1986, as the chatter in the room seemed to completely evaporate as her “Touch Me” music video started to play on the TV in the corner. I stared at the screen, spellbound, as did most of the mates around me as Ms. Fox pranced, gyrated, and moaned on stage in front of a crowd of obviously horny young men, demanding them to “touch [her], touch [her] NOW!” I think I pretty much explained why my mates had their jaws hanging open (this was one of the raciest music videos on the British airwaves at the time), but that wasn’t the reason for me.

You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of a song “taking you back” to a particular moment or event in your life, with the memory becoming as clear as if it happened yesterday. In many cases, this song was either playing during the event in question, or near enough to the time of the event to make an association. In this particular case, I was watching this video for the very first time in 1986, yet my mind went back seven years to a particular day in October 1979.

The day I first met Danielle.

1979 was my first year – Form 5 – in a British school in the London area. A very uncomfortable year. I did have the advantage of taking Forms 1 to 4 in an English-speaking school in Singapore, so there was no language barrier to overcome. Still, as my family had recently moved to the United Kingdom, and my being one of the few Asians in the school (as well as a gawky 16-year-old with a funny name), I had some difficultly fitting in and making friends.

So this shy, awkward 16-year-old Asian kid was just leaving a mostly-forgettable English Literature class, except for the part where he made a supposedly “profound’ (the Professor’s words, not mine) conclusion during our review of Shakespeare's Henriad about how even the most unlikely of people (in this case, Prince Hal) can become great (Henry V) when given a little push.

As I shuffled along the school corridor toward my next forgettable class, I suddenly felt a pair of very small but very strong hands press against my lower back. I was so surprised by the action that I allowed myself to be pushed into a run down the remainder of the hallway toward the courtyard window. Catching my breath, I whirled around ready to hurl an irate “What’s the big idea?” at an obviously cheeky older classman.

And then time stopped.

Before me stood a beautiful blond British girl, about my height. Smooth light skin surrounding the most sparkling sea-green eyes I had ever seen. Her shiny blond hair cascaded in light curls down her head to her shoulders, the golden-brown roots betraying the fact that she actually bleached it. I also couldn't help but notice how nicely her form had filled out her school uniform (remember, I was 16).

“You looked like you needed a little push,” she said with a playful smile, and a smooth deep voice thick with a haughty British accent. “Sorry. Manners. Hi, I’m Dan. I’m in your Lit class…?”

I nodded, I have seen Danielle in class before, but didn’t seem to really notice her until that moment. I think my heart skipped a beat or ten. I couldn’t speak.

“This Shakespeare [stuff] is tough,” she continued, chuckling a bit at my surprise to her expletive (which I edited out of this family-friendly blog), “but you seem to have a good grasp of it. Could you possibly help me prep for next week’s exam?”

I nodded again, and eventually found enough power of speech to agree to meet after school in a library off-campus to study. My heart skipped another beat as I watched her walk away. This was the first person in the school to actually strike up a conversation with me. And she was beautiful, too. I then resisted dwelling on these typical high-hopes-of-a-16-year-old thoughts and reminded myself that she only wanted some help in her studies.

At the library, I had just finished arranging my books and notes on a large corner table I reserved when Danielle arrived, and time stopped again.

She was wearing a black halter top, a light-blue form-fitting denim jacket, very tight jeans with torn ankle cuffs, a leather and rhinestone bracelet on her right wrist, and perhaps a bit too much makeup. Her hair also seemed more curly and “puffed out” than before. I almost didn’t recognize her, until I looked into her heavily shadowed eyes and saw that familiar sparkling sea green. Her high-heeled leather boots clicked around the table so she could sit down next to me. I was still in my school uniform, by the way, and I immediately determined that we were from two completely different worlds and couldn’t possibly connect on anything beyond the subject matter.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Our discussion almost immediately faded from Shakespeare to talking about ourselves. I had never shared so much, so quickly, with another person before that day, but there was something about Dan that drew me out of my shell. And she opened up to me as well, and even admitted a number of times that she didn’t know why she was telling me things about herself that she wouldn’t tell anyone else. In that quiet secluded corner, voices hushed in whispers, we talked for hours about our families (and family troubles), our hopes and dreams (she wanted to travel the world), a mutual love of American comic books, and our individual issues with fitting in at school. While we didn’t get much studying done, both of us had definitely made a friend that evening. And looking back, that’s probably also when I first fell in love, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I do remember being abruptly crestfallen when Dan’s boyfriend arrived to pick her up for supper.

I literally relived that day while I watched that almost-4-minute Samantha Fox video, and if you watch the video yourself I think you’ll see why. I’m not just referring to the singer’s attire (which had a few more... noticeable tears in the jeans), but also the way the bouncy Ms. Fox projects herself as carefree (okay, perhaps more frisky than carefree) and so full of life. That’s the type of person Dan was; and I knew that from the moment she clicked into the library.

“Then along came you. Now I know it’s true/Naughty girls need love…too”

A few years after the debut of the "Touch Me" video, I discovered my flatmate actually had the self-titled album of Samantha Fox, which included her hit single “Naughty Girls.” This song was essentially about a promiscuous, heartbreaking girl who unexpectedly falls in love. I suppose I was drawn to this song because it encapsulated my wish of how Dan would view our relationship.

Not that I ever thought of Dan as a “naughty” girl, but others in the Form 5 class definitely did. It probably didn’t help that, even in her school uniform, Dan was flirty with a lot of the boys on campus. Dan may have also been mildly flirty with me, but we had already became best friends by the second Shakespeare study session, so it was on a much lower scale (she’d call me “Xummy,” which I didn’t mind at all coming from her).

More important, being best friends, I knew that the “flirty Dan” wasn’t really her. She had shared with me her insecurities and fears, and admitted that she found it easy to use her looks in order to be noticed and liked. (This was true for most of the male population, I had noticed, though it was on a mostly superficial nature; the female population wasn’t very accepting of her, to put it mildly. Since I met Dan, I became aware of, and infuriated by, the whispered rumors and innuendo about her.) I also knew that, deep down, she secretly wished that more people would want to know the “real Dan” and like her for who she was. Again, neither of us truly understood exactly why Dan shared this part of herself with me, and only me. I theorized at the time that it was because of mutual understanding, as I was also wanting to be accepted and liked by my peers. I'm sure it was also because she somehow knew that she could trust me not to betray her confidence.

At any rate, I never, again, saw Dan as “naughty,” just someone who was desperately looking for love, but those boys she was interested in (and they were boys, even if they were a year or three older) weren’t really interested in finding love, only making it. I always made sure I would be there to offer a listening ear for Dan to vent about her unsteady relationships with the four unsuitable boyfriends she had during the five months since I had met her, as well as a shoulder to cry on after each breakup. I wished Dan would be with someone who realized how beautiful she was on the inside as well as out.

Or, to put it more selfishly, I wished she would want to be with me.

Yes, I did eventually realize that I was in love (as defined by a 16-year-old) with my best friend, but I said nothing. I’d like to say it was because she gave me signals that we should be “just friends,” or worse, “that I am too much of a friend to be a boyfriend." Or perhaps I valued our very short but very strong friendship so much that I didn’t want to risk losing it all by telling her I wanted us to be more. Well, this last statement is true, but it would be more accurate to admit that I was essentially a coward.

So I find myself replaying “Naughty Girls” as a reminder that all the hope in the world won't make anything happen unless you take some action -- and that life doesn’t have a rewind button.

“Inside this breaking heart/The pieces fall apart/And all I’m dreaming of/Your true devotion”

Samantha Fox’s self-titled album also contains “True Devotion,” another single that didn’t seem to gain as much popularity as her previous hits. Maybe the public wanted another racy number from Ms. Fox rather than this beautiful pop ballad about a woman realizing her relationship is about to end, even though she still loves her partner. This song has the strongest effect on me because many of the lyrics, while not directly related to me personally, are a reflection of Dan's words during a conversation she and I had one cold Friday evening in March 1980, concerning what I believe was the worst boyfriend breakup she ever had.

I was home in my family’s flat alone, my parents away on business, when there was a buzz at the door. The intercom never worked, so I went down the stairwell to open the main entrance door. Standing in the rain was Dan, dressed in another halter top and a very short skirt, soaked to the bone. Her makeup running down her face more from her tears than the rain.

She literally stumbled into me and embraced me tight, though I could feel her wanting to collapse right in my arms. She was so cold, yet felt so warm as I’ve held her for what seemed like an eternity on the foyer floor -- calmly quieting her many apologies for interrupting my evening and staining my shirt with smudges of rouge and mascara.

Dan and I eventually made our way to the flat upstairs. I let her use my shower while I made some hot tea. I also provided some dry clothes for her: a simple sweater and sweatpants. An advantage of my being a small Asian was that my clothes were a good fit for her.

As I was pouring her tea, I tried very hard not to think about how beautiful her face really looked without all of that makeup, and how good my clothes looked on her body, or the fact that she wasn’t wearing her black lacy undergarments that were currently tumbling with her clothes in the washing machine. Leaning next to me on the couch, she poured out the sad details about her breakup earlier that evening with her boyfriend of three weeks (number 4). He was three years her senior, but she believed he was her “true love,” and just recently shared her body with him. But he obviously didn’t feel the same way, and essentially got what he wanted from her and decided to move on. I wasn’t judgmental of Dan at all, though my heart had sank a bit at the news about the sex. I was more angry at the now ex-boyfriend and the words Dan told me he called her during the breakup, which I will not repeat here.

“Love is so unkind,” she said in-between tears. “Sometimes I wouldn’t mind just being alone.”

I understood. It seemed that most of the people in this beautiful girl’s life essentially hurt her. Not just the boys in these breezy relationships, but also her bickering parents and the jealous female classmates. No one deserved that.

Dan didn’t deserve that.

We had talked for so long that we forgot to put her washed clothes into the dryer. However, she already had to leave. Her family was visiting relatives interstate for the weekend. I grabbed my umbrella and walked her down an oddly silent three blocks to the train station.

Her ticket in hand, we were the only ones standing on the platform. The rain had stopped. She finally broke the awkward silence.

“It seems the only person I truly have is you, Xummy.” Her accent made her voice sound like a purr.

I gulped. “Well, that’s what friends are for, Dan. I… (had a chance and didn’t take it why was I such a coward) care about you a lot, you know.”

“Is that all? Just ‘care’?”

I didn’t have a chance to answer, for the next thing I knew, I was feeling a very soft pair of warm lips melting over mine. Dan was the first girl I ever kissed… at least like that. I could hear my heart pounding in my head as part of me hoped I was kissing her back correctly. The rest of me hoped that, despite my awkwardness, the kiss wouldn't end – and I was amazed that Dan had shown no signs of breaking it off. The kiss continued for several minutes. It was very long, yet not long enough – as we eventually heard the train approaching.

“I hope you closed your eyes, Boy!” she teased. My eyes were closed, but my inexperience must have been obvious to her.

I stood there breathless, eyes transfixed on Dan as she turned to enter the train, which was fairly crowded.

“I… I love you, Dan,” I stammered (finally).

She looked at me with those beautiful sea-green eyes. “I know, Xummy,” she said very seriously. She then flashed a cheeky grin. “We can give each other’s clothes back on Monday, ‘kay?”

I blushed as I heard the chuckles from the other passengers as the doors closed. “O… okay. Monday.”

I watched the train slowly rumble away until it was out of sight.

“When life is too short, we leave it too long/To find each other babe”

What just happened?

I could have pounded my head into the walls of my parent’s flat that entire weekend as my heart and thoughts raced a mile a minute. She knew I loved her. And it was love. I may have been 16 then, and may have had a very limited view on what love was, but that didn't make my feelings any less genuine. But Dan didn’t say that she loved me. But if that kiss (that kiss!) was any indication… Did she love me? She just broke up with a boyfriend she had lost her virginity to and she was devastated. What if she was on the rebound? Or just seeking comfort? But what if she does love me? I wanted us to be more than friends for so long. What if I screwed this up and the best friendship I ever had was reduced to “breakup number five”? The last thing I wanted was for her to be hurt... again.

My heart was aflutter with excitement and anxiety as I entered Monday’s English Literature class carrying an extra backpack containing Dan’s clothes. But Dan wasn’t there. There was no answer at her home when I called in the evening either. It wasn’t until the next day, during an unexpected school announcement, that I found out why.

Dan, and her parents, were killed in a car accident on Sunday on their way back from their trip.

It will soon be 32 years to the day when I had last seen and touched one of the most important people in my life. While the pain has faded significantly over the years, my time with Dan definitely stays with me. It would be another 24 years before I met my wife-to-be, Namiko. That's a story for another time. Right now I will say that I count myself very very fortunate to have found another true love in my life.

While a few of my now long-time friends knew about Dan, I had, before this post, only revealed to Namiko how the Samantha Fox songs had initially connected me to those very dear memories of my best friend and first love. She noticed that I had (and still have) the self-titled vinyl record (a gift from the flatmate) as well as the 12-inch single of “True Devotion” on my bookcase, even though my old phonograph had taken its final turn years ago. Namiko was so understanding; one of her first gifts to me was a CD release of Samantha Fox’s self-titled album to allow me to listen to these songs again. A more recent gift, which is on order and will arrive soon, is Samantha Fox’s latest album from a few years back, “Angel with an Attitude.” I have heard that it is the most autobiographical album that Ms. Fox had ever released. Selfishly, what I have admired most about Ms. Fox was how she helped remind me so very much of Dan, and this is truly unfair. So I look forward to listening to “Angel” and getting to know more about the artist who unintentionally has given me so much. Words cannot even begin to express my thanks to Ms. Fox for that.

I’ll admit that this has been one of the most difficult posts I have ever done, but I am very glad to be able to take you back in time with me to the pretty British girl with the sparkling sea-green eyes who in just five months has made such a tremendous impact on my early life. The one who encouraged me to open myself up to another person. My best friend who gave me a little push, and my first long-yet-not-long-enough kiss.