Notes : 07/07 - 12/07


July 22, 2007

I've had this image for awhile and thought I'd post it. It's a cool, crazy outfit from a designer named (I think) Vario Fresch. Via Nothing Magazine, a pretty interesting art and design online mag from (again, I think) Australia.

July 21, 2007

I came across this quote following a link from Mike's Progressive Ruin, a pretty interesting and funny blog from a manager (or owner?) of a comic store in Southern California. It's not deep or incredibly unique, but I thought it was a good, congent distillation of a problem with serialized storytelling:

But eventually everyone (or most people) realize that superhero comics are by nature unable to change. Most people either learn to appreciate serial comics differently than when they were twelve - i.e., by appreciating the good and bad aspects of craftsmanship and storytelling that individual talents bring to the table - or they get stuck in perpetual adolescence, demanding increasingly high stakes for the illusion of change they crave to keep the reading experience fresh and interesting.

From When Will The Hurting Stop. Some of the content on the blog contains strong language and may be otherwise NSFW.

July 19, 2007

I just discovered the best possible compliment to my previous post about the Transformers Fan Fiction Character Wiki. There is an artist named Scott Campbell who takes apart Transformers and reassembles them in abstract combinations. The resulting creatures maintain their poseability, or at least are assembled in such a way that the various joints retain some maneuverability. The artist encourages visitors to visit a gallery to pose and rearrange the new Transformers, now called 'Misformers'.

The art itself is an interesting phenomenon, although I have some misgivings about it. What drew me to this article more than anything, though, may be the impassioned pleas of the Transformers collectors who were alerted to Campbell's art. I'm not sure I can completely pin down what reeled me in. I don't care to defend or otherwise explain the minor points and quibbles of any fandom. The strange thing about being an artist and a fan (from "fanatic") is that you simultaneously are drawn to the structure of a given creative work while you experience a strong desire to rearrange it to fit your own needs and interests.

Forums, blogs and other comment-oriented projects publicize conversations that were previously private or intensely marginalized. Previously you fought over who the coolest member of the Fantastic Four was with the few friends you had who read comics. Maybe you got a letter published in the comic's letter page and joined a strange pre-Internet threaded discussion. The internet ties together previously separated elements of fandom (for a great variety of interests, not just sci-fi and comics) and in so doing often creates a new monstrously didactic voice.

So, I suppose for the moment, I will say that the comically out-of-control hysteria that drives the commenters is what pushed me over the top. I sympathized with them in part : Campbell is being a kind of tourist in sci-fi fandom and maybe in elements of Asian culture in general. There is a faint condescension implicit in most Pop Art. Lichtenstein's reframing of comic panels rankled comic professionals of the day; Warhol's use of Brillo boxes succeeded in part because the existing design of the boxes was quite striking. There may be many suggested, but unfulfilled paths that emerge from this entry. I may just have to revisit these threads in the future.

In an interview with Ping Mag (an awesome resource for graphic designers and people interested in the creative scene in Japan), Campbell declares :

TransFormers are shining examples of functionality. They transform from useful machines into even greater robots capable of god-like feats. As a model for the transition from a boy to a man, a TransFormer is a pretty tough act to follow. The MisFormers series brings some balance to the idea and represents the multitude of humans and social realities stuck somewhere in the middle. No longer a car but not quite becoming the world saving robot either.

So, that's not a bad rap to have about your work. Simply put, there is a mythology constructed (or better yet "tapped into") via the Transformers cartoons and comics. Perhaps it's similar to the ideas of another Campbell : the individual Transformer accesses the maturation symbolized by the broader story of the hero's journey. Scott Campbell is interested in inverting that mythology, or at least stripping it of its comforting teleology. Perhaps the journey to self-realization or even maturation isn't much of a straight line. Maybe few people get very far along that journey in the first place. It might not even be a place one wants to go, although that is going a step farther than Campbell does. There's gonna be a few problems with these lines of thinking, but we'll get to that in a bit. The artist further states :

Besides all that, I like the complexity of the mythology and the internationality of the visual language of the TransFormers as a material. I love the way they feel and the colour as well as the sound they make when they shift from one pose to another.

Oh yes. We all imitated that sound while we were playing with our Transformers. It was funny and cool at the same time.

It's interesting to see an artist consider the international (trans-national, if you will) path of a set of bodies. Certainly it's a big interest of this blog the degree to which Japan and the United States export altered bodies, or even ordinary bodies, as desirable objects. I'm not at all prepared to speculate that mythological bodies contain some universal seed, but I've found a variety of examples wherein an entity from mythology has been swept up in a culture machine far away from its origin. The Greek pantheon may be the most plastic as one can find them recreated in a variety of cultural guises from books to films to comics and beyond. The strangest example I've found would be the use of the Irish hero Cuchulainn in a manga called Youseiou.

In this case, the artist notes the "internationality of the visual language (emphasis mine)" of the Transformers. Presumably, then, the forms of the bodies themselves are international in some way. I don't know whether it's the neon-rainbow palette or the chunky-mechano-bio shapes of the various limbs that strikes the artist as international.

When asked by Ping Mag whether the objects are more aesthetic or symbolic-communicative, the artist replies :

Primarily, the MisFormers are Visual Art objects. I could write an essay or a book about the same ideas and the meaning would still be communicated. What I love about visual art is that a whole chapter of ideas can be communicated instantly. I love the way that when I first look at an artwork, a whole flood of new thoughts can enter my mind at once.

Whoah, friend. You're getting a little excited there. You might want to sit down if you're getting floods of new thoughts. That might be all the caffeine talkin'. "I could write an essay or a book about the same ideas and the meaning would still be communicated." Hmmm... As they say in the po-mo classrooms of today's universities "there's a lot to unpack here."

Does the artist mean that instead of making Misformers, he could write an essay about "the inability of many industrialized societies to raise socially functional male adults"*? Wow, you mean he can just whip out an essay, too? Like he writes for USA Today in his spare time? Or would it be more of an anthropological or sociological study with some heavy-duty demographic data-crunching? Unfortunately, this is a sentiment I've heard from a variety of artists, and one that is promulgated by too many art programs - that you have an idea that you want to communicate and you need to figure it out and shape it up and make it clear and then make a clever work of art. There are two big problems with this method : 1) it's a description of graphic design, rather than art**, and 2) communication is a process that requires an agreed-upon set of signs and symbols. The strongest case for "agreed-upon signs and symbols" would be math and the weakest case would be language. Art, as a non-system of visual phenomenon, doesn't have much of a case for "agreed-upon", much less being comprised of "signs" or "symbols" in the first place, particularly as one moves away from the representational.

Is it impossible for communication to occur when one encounters a visual work? No. Certainly if I see a smiley-face with a bullet hole in the forehead and blood oozing out, I can infer as much as I could from many slightly-surreal, metaphorical language utterances.*** It might mean that the person who made or reproduced the image is tired of the insipid nature of our customer-service culture (i.e. "shoot the Wal-mart icon"). Although now we're already in trouble as maybe the "communicator" on the other end of the symbol has never heard of Wal-mart. Or at least isn't bothered by Wal-mart. Perhaps they intend the image as an indictment against Prozac, as anti-depressants have recently been linked to suicide. Or maybe it's simply a joke on the American "Have a nice day" culture, which is similar to the idea of being anti-Wal-mart, just not as specific. But which is it?

We have a variety of possible contexts and meanings to associate with our symbol, which may agree to some extent with each other but only as a loose net. In other words, we've narrowed our meanings to things we could associate with a smiley face and how the presence of an image of a bullet hole on the smiley face may be a critique of the smiley face itself. We also have a huge inductive leap from the presence of an image (the smiley face) to the possibility of a communicated "message".

Now most artists who trade in language and concepts would demur that this is the ideal situation - that the meaning isn't clear, but rather that the image provokes a variety of thoughts. As Scott Campbell says "a whole flood of new thoughts can enter my mind at once." This is fine, sort of, but now we've left the realm of communication. It seems silly to hang on to the word communication****, as we seem to have a process more like "associative idea generation."

What's the difference between communication and "associative idea generation"? Well, if our conversations occured through "associative idea generation" they'd look like this :

Kaneda : "Hey, what are you doing tonight?"
Aoife : "Tonight? 'She walks in beauty like the night'."
Kaneda : "'Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.'"
Aoife : "I'm gonna organize a march against hate."
Kaneda : "Well, 'these boots are made for walkin''."
Aoife : "Ugg boots are so 2005."

Arguably, there is in fact communication occuring here : there is a kernel of information that is passed from one sentence to the next. But, this is a far cry from how we use language to communicate.

So, why would we say, in reference to a work of art, that we could also write an essay and accomplish the same thing? Even if it was true that a work of art could communicate in the same way that an essay could, what a boring work of art that would be!

Now I haven't even really gotten to the best part of the Misformers.

So Ping Mag runs the interview in Spring of 2006. Where things get really exciting is the discovery of Campbell's work by Transformers fans.

The first interesting moments in the comments section of the article occurs when 'Colin' waxes poetic on the nature of Transformers. I'm going to quote a hefty amount of Colin's commentary as it is so sincere, even eloquent, in its defense of a pretty weird position :

... it is appalling. By taking apart these characters, Mr. Campbell is taking apart icons of youthfulness and boyhood. It pains me to see these objects reconstructed and misshapen as something familiar yet alien. The robots in Transformers (with the possible exception of Beast Wars, which I note Mr. Campbell makes gratuitous use of) teach us to care not only for machines , but for each other. They reflect values, like perfect moments of precise machine-like love, honor, discipline, devotion, courage and trust.

Instead, Mr. Campbell's mutations preach, in piecemeal convocations, of our limitations. Of how we can never be someone as sleek as Starscream, as honorable as Optimus Prime, or as devoted as Iron Hide. His works are like pointed jabs at the psyches of men (and the boy that rests in all of us). While I recognize in them parts of those characters I cherish (Ultra Magnus' arm here, Grimlock's mouth there), what I fail to find is the depth and conviction that completes the characters I know and love. In taking these characters apart, Mr. Campbell has exposed them to the futile whims of our world. Apart, they no longer function fully, and are no longer more than meets the eye, but simply bodies exposed and embarassed to every judging eye in the world.

And to what end? To distract we the viewer from the possibilities of a consistent set of value and belief? To lead us into a state where we cannot act as organisms, as though struggling with our own disparate functionless-ness? Where our only possible "how" is our every which way? Does Mr. Campbell hate that he is a man? Is he so focused on his limitations that he can't see his own moments of being special? How do such obvious boy stuff as transformers possibly tell us anything about ex-girlfriends? And how can the pearly colors of preformed plastics possibly tell us about landscapes?

... [W]hile Mr. Campbell may have the touch and the power to sell his work to art collectors, but [sic] I for one will steer clear of these silly mutations of a worthwhile and meaningful part of our culture.

There's a naive neocon spirit pervading lines like "they reflect values, like perfect moments of precise machine-like love, honor, discipline, devotion, courage and trust." Later Mr. Campbell's works are described as a distraction "from the possibilities of a consistent set of value and belief." The writer is pretty clever however, or at least knows how to hide silly references in some pretty complex language ("[W]hile Mr. Campbell may have the touch and the power (emphasis mine)..." is a reference to the theme song of the animated Transformers movie from 1986). The sentence asking "where our only possible 'how' is our every which way" is a clever jab at the supposedly porous boundaries of our postmodern culture, or perhaps is a sideswipe at the "permissive culture" of contemporary liberality. The question "How do [sic] such obvious boy stuff as transformers tell us anything about ex-girlfriends?" is so convoluted as to boggle the mind, but I do agree that making a spiky, angry piece and calling it "Ex-girlfriend" looks immature and angsty in a high school art class.

Other Transformers fans chime in with their opinions. Well, I write "chime" but if it was the sound of an instrument, the Transformers fans united voice would sound more like those Nordic horns you hear when the rescuing army is about to come rushing over the hilltop. They're out for metaphoric (well, maybe literal) blood. A reader named 'Bert' gushes :

Looking at what Scott has done here fills me with the sudden, intense urge to harm him. Those of you "art" snobs who are unfamiliar with collecting or playing with our beloved childhood friends the Transformers cannot possibly have an appreciation for what this represents. Imagine somebody you love dearly. Picture them. Now picture some gangly moron ripping them apart, disembowling and re-assembling their dead components in the name of "art". If you feel sickness tinged with a sense of overwhelming rage at the person who did this, that's akin to what this makes us feel. So, to Scott and those who approve of this sort of garbage, may you rot in hell. Thank You.

* - That's another explanation he offers as to the "meaning" of the pieces.

** - I continue to work professionally as both an artist and a designer. I don't think one is more important or intellectual than the other. But they are very different.

*** - It occurs to me that images, amongst the many features they do not share with language, do not tend to have the communicative modes that language does. For instance, while we could perhaps say that a photograph is descriptive or an instructional diagram is prescriptive, these conditions or modes are not characteristics of the image per se, but rather are characteristics of the modes of production or reception. In other words, a photograph is descriptive not because of the image in the photograph, but rather because we assume the camera was pointed at a "real" thing at some moment in the past. An instructional diagram is prescriptive because it is often accompanied by text that "commands" and itself accompanies a complicated process or item. Diagrams and photographs have become so pervasive in our technological, instrumental "what-can-I-do-with-it" society that their image elements are nearly abstract. It's a common design trope to litter something with arrows, semicolons, boxes and other odds'n'ends to imply some functionality. The arrows aren't marking anything nor are the boxes demarking anything. If you want to point out that language has the same abstract quality now, you're making the case against language's ability to communicate rather than for an image's ability to communicate.

**** - Of course artists hang onto the word "communicate" because it bestows a certain instrumental legitimacy, particularly in an academic environment. "What does your work do?" "It communicates."

To return to the Transformers Fan Fiction wiki (I know, I can't get over this), I think the creative piece that will stay with me the longest from the Misformers and the wiki is the surreal name "Roadhead". When you go to the wiki's front page, there is a box with a ranking of the entries ("most popular" etc.). Currently one of the most visited pages is the entry for "Roadhead." It's just such an awkward name, but you can almost hear it as the name of a toss-off character in a postapocalyptic movie ("Oh s*!@! They waxed Roadhead!").

Pics - Top: Landscapes & Botanicals collection: Three month rice and Coca-Cola scarecrow, 2004 Bottom : (L) Donald Friend and Cherry Blossom (Prunus serrulata), 2004 and (R) Ex-Girl-Friend (from the Role Models Collection), 2004. All by Scott Campbell.

July 11, 2007

Oh man. I need one of these really badly. Fortunately I own a bike, so I can wear one of these "to breathe clean air" or something. The eye holes are just perfect.

The image comes from BoingBoing, wherein it's explained that the helmet is a product of a British design student, Luke Pannell from Brunel University. The young designer hopes to find a manufacturer who can bring it to market at around 100 pounds. That's alot of money, but boy I'd look cool! It's sort of a cross between a Star Wars Stormtrooper and Jeff Smith's Bone - actually that makes me think it belongs in a Ralph Bakshi film (Wizards!)

Hmmm... maybe I need one for airbrushing..?

July 10, 2007

Wow! Is that thing crazy or what?! Apparently, it's "Evil Aptom" from the manga/anime series Guyver. I've never read or seen Guyver, but I did have an interesting, albeit brief conversation with a teenager in Navan, Ireland about the quality of anime in general and Guyver in particular. It's a small world. A small, strange world.

Dig that kaleidoscopic texture and color!

Pic - Evil Aptom from Donnay

July 9, 2007

For some reason I think this will produce the Singularity speed-metal enthusiasts have been waiting for - there is now a wiki for Transformers fan fiction characters.

There's a weird mirror-facing-a-mirror-producing-infinite-regression quality about fan fictional Transformers characters. Or perhaps it's just a crazy postmodern lamination effect - a palimpsest, if you will,** of characters added on top of characters. When they went on the holodeck and played at Sherlock Holmes in Star Trek : The Next Generation, was that a kind of fan fiction? A kind of fictional-characters-playing-fictional-characters-playing... kind of fan fiction..?

Now I'm the last person to pile on nerd subculture as I'm a HUGE nerd. There's something kinda cool in fact about wresting control of a creative universe away from the Michael Bays of the world and trying to develop a sincere vision. All the usual caveats apply*, but honestly I think it's "sweet" for lack of a better word.

I'm ambivalent about the Transformers. My first loves as a kid were GI Joe and Sectaurs. I had some Transformers and liked them and had a brief bout of collecting some of the really strange Beast Wars items, such as the Japanese-market-only Beast Wars Neo. Beast Wars Neo's main three characters were a transforming mammoth, rabbit and giraffe. That's a movie I'd go see.

* - I'm a bit ambivalent as well about putting your creative energy into an exisiting fictional universe. Certainly we live in the age of the remix and much of this blog is about the metaphoric frameworks provided by shared mythologies, but if you're going to write fiction or draw pictures or make comic books as a labor of love, make 'em your own wacky visions!

** - Since I don't want to go to the trouble of making an MP3 of me saying "a palimpsest, if you will..." so you can hear my droll phrasing, I'll just have to write instead that you shouldn't take me seriously here. Or maybe ever.

Pics - Big Convoy (or Optimus as a wooly mammoth) and Longrack (the mighty giraffe) from

July 6, 2007

There was an interesting article linked from Metafilter recently - an American cultural anthropologist who lives and works in Japan wrote about "What Japanese Girls Do with Manga, and Why." The whole site contains several interesting articles about various facets of manga. It was also of particular interest to me because Mr. Thorn teaches at Kyoto Seika University which has a strong connection to my alma mater, the University of Michigan School of Art & Design.

July 6, 2007

I've been thinking about gold robots a lot lately. As far as precious metals go, I don't have any special attraction to gold. Yellow is one of my favorite colors, a trait I share with my dad - we both like yellow cars. Gold robots are an important part of the robot heirarchy in Japanese popular culture. American superhero costumes are dominated by the red-blue-black axis. There aren't many yellow superhero costumes that spring to mind - some variations of the Flash, and to some extent, Iron Man has a yellow/gold costume. Red and blue were the superhero costume colors for most of the genre's life, with black being the favorite since the 1990s.

So, it was a bit unusual to first encounter Hyaku Shiki in Zeta Gundam. Gold marked Hyaku as special from the whites of the Gundams and the greens and purples of the Zakus and Rick Doms. In fact, it's color was remarked upon during the story. I don't think there is any particular metaphorical associations to be made beyond the usual equation of gold with the highest level of a phenomenon (recently supplanted somewhat by "platinum").

Top: Angel Aphrodite from Mazinger, copyright Bandai; Akatsuki from Gundam Seed Destiny, copyright Bandai; Goodrock Machinder, copyright Il Giocottolo, photo from CollectionDX; Bumblebee from the explosion-fest Transformers movie, presumably copyright Hasbro, TakaraTomy and Dreamworks.

Bottom: Partaqushie Mirage from Five Star Stories, copyright , photo from G-Systems; Hyaku Shiki from Zeta Gundam, copyright Bandai, photo from JEEP.



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