VanCaf: a good weekend.

This weekend, I got in a car with Iris and Nero and went up to Vancouver for VanCaf. I brought twenty copies of the Rita omnibus, and 24 of book 1. I came back with, um, two copies of Book 1. And a wallet full of Canadian money that we didn’t get a chance to exchange up there because it’s a bank holiday.

I dunno if I made any connections, though I had a few “Morning, Ralph.” “Morning, Sam” kinds of conversations with the people I see at every single comics con. But I definitely made some new fans, and that’s a lot of the point of going to cons.

Watching the stack of the omnibus shrink throughout the show was pretty exciting. Would I sell out? Would I wish I’d brought more? Would I have to pack these awkward huge books home? About an hour before the end of the second day, I got down to nothing but the one copy I’d unwrapped and put on my table as a reader copy, and decided I was done; I put out a post-it saying “hey you can have this reader copy for $20” and went for a walk outside. When I got back the book was gone and Iris directed me to another $20 she’d taken and stuffed inside my pencil case. I even ran into the guy who got it and signed it for him, and told him the Illustrator Pencil Tool Secrets – I find I usually tell a few people that over my table, and I really should just get some stickers or cards made up with them to be honest.

Anyway. Now I sleep for a day or two. I might get up and go use some of these funds to buy the electric guitar I’ve been wanting the past few months, after I exchange all this maple-scented plastic for boring American dollars…

The Objective Reality of Gender

Every now and then I find myself in a discussion on the Internet of whether or not trans people should be allowed to exist/have their chosen pronouns respected/etc.

And inevitably there’s someone who insists that “penis=man, vagina=woman, that’s the OBJECTIVE REALITY”.

Well. Let’s unpack the objective reality of this seemingly simple concept:

  • people have some combination of X and Y chromosomes
  • most people are XX or XY
  • some people aren’t, maybe they’ve got three, maybe they’re chimeras of two non-identical twins who merged in the womb, whatever
  • these chromosomes are not necessarily perfect copies of your parents’ chromosomes, nor of the ones in the egg and winning sperm – transcription errors happen
  • the body is shaped by the ways these chromosomes express themselves, both as the fetus grows in the womb, and as the child grows to adulthood and beyond
  • the body is also shaped by many chemicals fed into it, whether it be something the mother ingested while the kid was in the womb, something in the water, something in the food, something in the air, or something ingested voluntarily as part of a deliberate gender transition program
  • the brain is part of the body, and is thus shaped by chromosomes and chemicals in the same way, from gestation to death
  • pretty much every human language contains words for the concepts of “male” and “female”, which often combine both expected social roles with expected body parts related to the process of making more humans (penis, vulva, testes, womb, breasts, etc); English has historically combined these two things and considered deviations from that combination to be freakish. Up until relatively recently it also combined expected sexual orientation with both of them and considered any deviation from that to be freakish as well.
  • all children in America are currently assigned a legal gender based on examination of the genitals shortly after birth, either “male” or “female”; babies with ambiguous genitals often have this surgically “corrected”
  • human thought is shaped by the languages you speak; if enough people start using a new word, then the people who make dictionaries will take note of it and put it in the dictionary; if enough people start using an old word in a new way, that, too, will be noted and placed in the dictionary, thus documenting the slow change of the language, and the slow change of the set of concepts available to people who speak that language
  • some other languages contain words for people who are not necessarily “male” or “female”; English does currently allow for separation of sexual desire from genitals (gay/lesbian/straight/bi) but does not commonly distinguish “what’s between your legs” from “what expected gender-based social norms you prefer to conform to” (well, kinda – the fact that “sissy” is an insult but “tomboy” is not opens a whole new can of worms)
  • the community of people who do separate “what is between your legs” from “what expected gender-based social norms you prefer to conform to” has developed its own set of words for the concepts of other parts of the gender spectrum; we can say things like “Steve is a dmab man who prefers traditional male pronouns”, “Nile is a dfab enby person who prefers ‘they’ pronouns”, or “Peggy is a dmab woman who prefers traditional female pronouns, and what she has between her legs is only your business if she wants you to touch it”. (DM/FAB: Designated Male/Female At Birth. Enby: an abbreviation of Non-Binary, presenting as neither male nor female.) Which means queer people have a more nuanced set of mental boxes to put people’s gender into than other English speakers do.

I would argue that, thus, the queer community can approach the Objective Truth of sex, gender, and social roles far more closely by separating “what your primary sexual characteristics were at birth”, “what gender marker was put on your birth certificate”, “what your current primary and secondary sexual characteristics are”, “what gender you would currently prefer to be seen as”, and “what gender do people sort you into when they see you” into separate categories, each of which often contains either “male” or “female”, and often will have the same choice selected in all of these categories, but each category may contain something from a richer set of choices, and is not required to match any other category.

From another angle: Consider the research people have done on color names in different languages, and the way some languages have more color words than others. If the only terms you have for color are “black”, “white”, and “red” is someone who points at two things you call “red” and calls one of them “red” and the other one “orange” denying an OBJECTIVE TRUTH, or are they just using a finer set of mental boxes to categorize the different energy absorption spectra of these things than you are?

TL;DR: Words mean whatever the fuck a large enough segment of the people speaking that language want them to mean, and there is a large enough segment of people now saying that “male” and “female” are simplifications of some complicated-ass things that you may have always taken as Objective Truths.

sure, why not

god did i just impulsively send off an application to a storyboard position at cartoon network

i sure did

well whatever, don’t hold your breath peggy

all goofed up on hopballs

The ex-with-benefits tweeted the cartoony cover to an old book about DRUUUGS and expressed a desire to spend the weekend looking like one of the characters in it.

So I drew this. Illustrator, 30min.

Polybius: a review.

When you begin playing Polybius, all you can really see on the terrain is your tiny ship and the ox-horn gates. There’s other stuff but it all comes and goes so fast; the only constant is the ox-horn gates. You pass through them and you speed up. This is good, right? It’s the goal of the game, right? I mean after a few rounds of smashing into things at insane velocity and dying, you’ll notice a path that leads you to the next gate. You must be here to pass through these gates while shooting as many baddies as possible.

Then why, you begin to wonder, do they turn red when you’re aligned with one?

Why, you wonder, when looking through the achievements, is there one for taking your hands off the controller for thirty seconds?

And then you begin to learn to slow down. To see through the chaos.

Polybius is an urban legend. An arcade game that never existed. An arcade game that caused amnesia. An arcade game that caused nightmares. An arcade game that nobody ever heard of until someone added an entry to a database of Every Video Game Ever approximately seventeen years after it supposedly showed up in a Portland arcade in the late eighties for a mere month or two.

The database entry is quite insistent that this game is not an unusually intense Tempest prototype.

You begin learning the systems layered on top of this simple game of “flying way too fast and shooting things”. You try a few games where you avoid the gates that the game so clearly urges you to fly through. You find the quiet places in the chaos of the early levels to pet some oxen with your bullets. They emit lots of points when you do this.

You laugh when level six urges you to GET THE FRIED EGGS. Until you realize that this incongruity worked nicely to focus your attention on the fact that they play an important part in the game. Seriously. They let you run through things with impunity for a limited time.

You notice that at the end of every level, flashing text floats by. It was lost in the rapid multicolored strobing of the end-of-level sequence at first. But now you can see that, after you’ve spent about a minute staring fixedly at the screen, watching the flashing lights, you’re being urged to EMBRACE ILLUMINATION. To ENJOY ENLIGHTENMENT.

Or being urged to BE SLIGHTLY CROSS WITH LUKEWARM TEA. It’s different every time.

You begin to suspect that this game is not what it seems.

Jeff Minter is a video game legend. He’s been an indie developer since almost the dawn of the medium; his gameography stretches back to the Vic-20 and the Commodore 64. Over the years, he’s done two general kinds of things: abstract shootemups with a goofy sense of humor and a lot of hoofed mammals in them, and what he first called “lightsynths” – visual toys that make seething, abstract images. Nowadays we think of them as “visualizers” when they’re connected to a music player, and he’s done those, too – if you play music on a Jaguar or an XBox 360, you’ll see Jeff’s work up there on the screen. For years he was a solo act despite using the corporate name of Llamasoft; the past decade’s seen him collaborating (and living) with one Ivan Zorzin, who I believe does a lot of the hardcore math stuff in Jeff’s games. (I apologize to Ivan if I’m giving him short shrift here. I suspect he’s used to it by now.)

Jeff’s games are, for the most part, fast paced twitch games, with a tendency towards intense visuals. They flash, they moo, they make jokes about sheep. Some of them are original, some of them are riffs on early classics like DefenderRobotron, or Tempest.

Jeff’s done at least three riffs on Tempest now.

Two of them were definitely Tempest. One was an official modernization, done for Atari’s Jaguar. One wasn’t official; TxK was the reason I bought a cheap PS Vita. It was going to be ported to the PS4 until whoever owns Atari’s trademarks waved lawyers at Jeff.

And then there was Space Giraffe. Which you’d be forgiven for thinking was a trippy Tempest clone. Until you realized that the meat of the game was in letting as many enemies as possible get to the edge of the web. Which was about the worst thing that could happen in Tempest. Realize this and you could start playing the real game, where the challenge occasionally became “survive a level floating in a howling void of gorgeous visual feedback” because the whole thing was actually running inside a refined version of the visualizer Jeff wrote for the 360.

Space Giraffe had deep roots in Tempest. But it wasn’t Tempest.

When you first launched Polybius, you were greeted with a screen warning that “This game contains psychedelic visuals and flashing images”. And a crosshair. Which you had to steer to a symbol representing either psychedelic visuals or flashing images, which gave you a screen going into more detail about how, no, really, this game is going to have a lot of rapidly flickering images, and if you or your family have a history of optically-induced seizures, you should consult your doctor before continuing.

Sure, sure, there’s a warning about that in the manual for every video game console since the NES. But Jeff has been making trippy, flashy things for about forty years. And Jeff made you consciously acknowledge that this game is going to be pouring some seriously intense visuals into your eyeholes. You couldn’t just press X and plow through these screens without thinking; you had to read the first one, move the stick, press a button, then do it again. If strobing lights can break your brain then you should not be playing this game.

You learn to stare fixedly at the center of the screen, watching the little dots that tell you what enemies are about to drop onto the planes and tubes you’re whizzing along. The rest of the screen seethes with flashing lights. But here in the center it is quiet. Here in the center is the future: this dot is a gate, this dot is a jump pad, is that dot a bonus ox? Is that one a fried egg?

Focus on this. Ignore all the flashing in your peripheral vision. The real game is here. Or is it?

Every PS4 game has a set of “trophies” for doing various things in the game. Bronze, silver, gold, and always one platinum trophy for getting all the other trophies. Usually the platinum trophy has a cute name, and a prosaic description along the lines of “Win all the other trophies”. Polybius’ platinum trophy is named “Beast of Universal Love And Light”, and its description is “Achieve ultimate transcendence”. You think Polybius told you to do that at the end of a level once, too.

You wonder how long it will be until the Playstation Network says more than 0.0% of all players have acquired this trophy.

Once upon a time in the sixties, an artist named Brion Gysin created something he called a “Dreammachine”. It was a device designed to produce lights that flickered at about the same frequency as the electrical brain resonance known as “alpha waves”. Staring into it with your eyes closed is said to induce a hypnagogic state. Dreaming while awake. Shapes and colors swirling around and around. Until you open your eyes.

The Dreammachine may also induce seizures in people susceptible to such.

When you close your eyes, you still see ox-horn gates rushing towards you. Ox-horn gates on an endless plain of stars.

Polybius is compatible with the Playstation’s VR helmet. Put it on and you are inside a hallucinatory world full of flashing lights.

As you get better at the game, you start to more regularly enter a mode where you’re going at high speed, and everything’s gone monochromatic. Everything’s rendered in a single color or in black. And that single color is slowly changing. And the pattern of color versus black is flashing rapidly, because your little ship is still careening across the checkerboard ground at some impossible pace, hopped up on fried eggs and crashing through everything in your way. Maybe you’re playing this in the VR helmet. Maybe you’re not. Maybe nothing’s convinced you to get one yet. Maybe this game will tempt you. Does this sound like a thing you want to fill your entire visual field with?

Sometimes you get a fizzing sensation in your skull as you complete a level cleanly. It’s like the chills that run down your spine when a piece of music hits just the right notes. Or when a soft-voiced pair of hands whispers their way through an unboxing video. Perhaps this is a sign that you should, as the between-level advice sometimes suggests, take a break and have a cup of tea. Or some dinner. You’ve been playing this a while now.

You begin to wonder what exactly is hidden under the surface of Polybius. Jeff Minter has taken this modern myth of a video game that gets inside your head and rearranges your brain, and done his best to make it. I do not think there is anyone in the video game industry more qualified to make this myth a reality than him.

Polybius, if you’re willing to give it a little time to learn how to play it, is a powerful brain rearranger. It will leave you in a relaxed state despite the intensity of its play. And while you are at your most relaxed, while you are feeling rewarded, it will tell you things to do. And gently suggest comedically mundane things to avoid doing.

Do you trust Jeff Minter with the keys to your brain?

Do you trust him to be the genially eccentric Englishman who smells vaguely of sheep, llamas, and maybe a little cannabis, that he appears to be?

Do you trust this nice English wizard to have built this powerful delivery system for subliminal messages, and not implant anything worse than RESIST RUNNING OUT OF LOO ROLL or BUY JEFF A DELICIOUS SOFT DRINK?

Polybius is a video game about shooting things that explode into pretty electric fireworks and occasionally say “thank you”. Polybius is not a magic spell designed to lift you out of this world and into a truer reality, nor is it one designed to make you its creator’s slave.

Ten camels out of five. Highly recommended if you have a Playstation; I believe it’s coming out on the PC as well.

Magicians and Mastery

I’m sitting here slowly re-reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, whose primary virtues still seem to perhaps be that it is an exceedingly lengthy telling of a tale about magicians making bad deals with the fairies. It’s early in the book – I’m barely in the second hundred pages of this awkward thousand-page paperback tome – and I’m thinking about the contrasts Clarke is making between the Raven King, the near-legendary Great English Wizard of the Past, and the awkward, bookish Mr. Norrell.

Norrell has thus far been portrayed as a man who has pretty much spent his entire life far away from the world, collecting books of magic spells. As the book opens we see him starting to step out into the real world and perform spells. The Raven King, on the other hand, would do things like hop on a horse and lead an army into battle, slinging spells left and right.

And something about this is resonating in the back of my head.

This morning, I flipped through the usual set of Internet distractions on the tablet. One of them tends to be the Adobe Illustrator subreddit, where people post lots of “how do I do X” questions, and I answer some of them. Sometimes I’ll be specific and make little numbered lists of “open this palette, use this menu item” kinds of instructions, sometimes I’ll just say “I’d use x, y, and z” and maybe link to the online help pages of these features if the querent is lucky.

And sometimes I’ll do an epic reply wherein I say “there are many ways to achieve what you want, here’s short but explicit instructions for four of them, and some very brief notes on why I prefer methods 3 or 4 over 1 or 2 in my work”.

When I started doing this, it was an interesting way to push my Illustrator skills: how can I achieve this effect someone wants? And moreover, can I achieve it in a way that makes it super-easy to pick up and use in a future drawing? But I feel like I’ve seen the same questions over and over again, and perhaps I should go back over all these comments I’ve made and write them up as blog posts and/or text expansion macros. I’ve already got some of the latter for “pen tool basics” and “pencil tool basics”.

Or maybe I should stop wasting so much time hanging around that subreddit answering the same questions, and get more drawing done. That’d be nice.

There is a thought I am groping towards here about mastery of a craft, as demonstrated by the way Norrell frequently has to refer to books, while the Raven King just Does Stuff. (Which may be an example that’s invalidated over the course of the remaining nine hundred pages of this brick of paper with text infuriatingly close to the spine, ugh who the hell at Tor thought this was okay, why didn’t they split it into three 350p volumes for the paperback, but I digress.) And it’s something about the process by which people go from being Norrell with his library to the Raven King, who can just cast spells like crazy. After, of course, a long period holed up with a teacher, or a library, learning and practicing them. Eventually you have the library in you; eventually you know all twenty ways to achieve an effect because you’ve tried them all on similar problems, and you can sit around for a moment, think about how the strengths and weaknesses of each method will work with the problem at hand, then do the thing quickly and efficiently. I suppose this is what can be summed up as going from “journeyman” to “master”, which always feels like an uncomfortable thing to implicitly apply to myself.

There is also probably something here connected with my post from last week about visiting Pilchuck Glass Studio with my girlfriend, who is a relative beginner in one of the Nine Arts Of Glass. That probably boils down to “girl you should get out of the studio and figure out how to actually be sociable with people who are doing this small press comics thing if you wanna take it any further”, which, ugh, oh god, I’d have to be social at cons to do that and sitting there at a table selling my stuff all day drains all my social energy and then some, but again, I digress.

Maybe I just need to move back to LA and try working my various connections to find studio gigs, where I can hang out with other artists and work without having to organize a time and place for that. I dunno. I’m terrible at sitting in one place and working for more than an hour or two as a general rule.

Hell if I know. I’m stoned, it’s sunny out, and I’m stuck in the apartment waiting for a delivery of books I’m gonna take to VanCaf later this month. If all goes well it’ll be the first con I’m selling the Rita omnibus at.

If you were looking for a point to this blog entry, I’m afraid you’re not gonna find it here.


Today I looked in the mirror and saw two hairs growing out of my right ear. One was in the middle of the earlobe. One was right on the top of the antitragus (that little cartilaginous flap just above the earlobe, I had to google up ear anatomy for that one).

I have ear hair. It is official. I am old.


Well. That was an interesting day.

My friend Kerri took me along on a tour of the Pilchuck Glass School, a sprawling campus up in the woods north of Seattle dedicated to the Nine Glass Arts. I did not know until today that there are nine different branches of glass art, and I still couldn’t tell you what they are – the docent didn’t ever explicitly list them off. It was gorgeous; there were amazing views from its perch high in the mountains, and lots of quirky buildings built from local lumber.

Glassworking isn’t my thing, so I didn’t recognize any of the tools and techniques on display (well, okay, I saw a lot of familiar stuff in the print shop – apparently Printing With Glass is one of the Nine Glass Arts, and, um, the part of my brain that is a total freak for cool spot inks and whatnot immediately started thinking about cool things I could do with that), or any of the names being casually dropped aside from Chihuly (because you cannot live in Seattle and not vaguely know who he is), but what I did recognize is the general shape of a bunch of artists coming together to share resources and techniques, and maybe even trying to set their egos aside – the docent had a story about how she got help learning to use a lathe on glass from a guy who she later realized is one of the lead designers at Waterford Crystal, for instance.

And I also recognized the complicated dance between money and art; the place was set up about forty years ago by Dale Chihuly and some of his glassmaking buddies, on land donated by the owners of the Pilchuck Tree Farm, who also sunk a lot of money into supporting it over the years as it grew from “some guys doing occasional glassblowing sessions in the woods” to “a super-prestigious School of Glass Art that regularly hosts some of the top glass artists for teaching and residencies”.

Really though it made me want to find more excuses to get the hell away from the city and just sit somewhere peaceful and draw. Maybe alone, maybe around other artists. Where is the lovely tree-lined retreat for digital artists. Well I do have a couple friends who are kicking around the idea of acquiring some space up in the woods, building a few tiny houses and keeping some chickens and goats, and letting friends stay there for a while once they have more tiny houses than they need for their own shelter…

It’s like, a group of artists needs a few fundamental things: space to work and to keep their less-portable tools, other artists to help spread out the cost of that space and their tools, a library of both reference works for their own craft and works from outside it (because everyone should be looking to both the work that inspired them to take up this particular craft, and to work from far outside it, unless they’re happy just cranking out functional-but-uninspiring work), and other artists with a wide variety of skills – newbies need mentors, old hands need people to pass all their One Weird Tips on to, and all of those artists need folks who can look at their sketches and finished works and offer useful critique. And somewhere to eat, somewhere to excrete, and somewhere to sleep if the group workspace is way the hell away from civilization like this one is. I didn’t recognize the vast majority of the tools and processes but I sure as hell felt at home with the general shape of the place as a Bunch Of Artists.

Here’s some photos stolen from Kerri’s Facebook post about it:

Part of a team that was finishing up a piece in the Hot Studio as the tour ended.

The Hot Studio is a big open hexagonal place with room for 3 or 4 teams of 4-6 people to work on pieces. Glassblowing is not a solo practice. Other glass things can be, I think, but blowing needs about a dozen hands and at least one person in a heat-resistant suit.

We never went in this building so I couldn’t tell you what it is. It’s pretty centrally located so I presume it’s pretty important.

The building partially obscured by trees is the Hot Studio. It’s pretty central to the campus. It’s got a few furnaces in it that, if I understand correctly, are pretty much on 24/7 and cost about $900/day to keep running – they’re enough of a giant expensive hassle to start up that this is more efficient. Especially if you’re running them in a school with people potentially wandering in to use them at 4AM when they can’t sleep and want to work on that piece burning a hole in their mind’s eye, I guess.

Hearing the docent describe what goes into glassblowing gave me new respect for the art, to be honest. You’re really close to scary temperatures on a constant basis. It’s pretty metal.

A sketch I did of the Hot Studio while Kerri was chatting about Glass Things with the school staff. Partially from memory, because we decided to go in and watch the glassblowing happening in it.

(Yes, the “Hot Studio” does indeed imply a “Cold Studio”, where they do stuff that doesn’t involve fire – it’s full of water-cooled devices for grinding, carving, and smoothing glass. When we passed through it was also full of a dude in an absolutely fabulous sparkly purple rubber apron, which it transpired was designed by someone associated with the school, for some of the specific needs of grinding glass. There is also a “Flat Studio” where people mostly do small things involving much smaller amounts of fire than the furnaces in the Hot Studio; why it’s the Flat Studio, I’m not sure, in part because apparently nobody is quite sure. Tradition, you know? Kerri didn’t photograph these other places, and I left my phone in my purse for pretty much the entire tour.)

A half-assed sketch of the glassblowing session we caught the end of. The dude in the dark glasses was mostly handing the Scary Hot Stuff, and was in a bulky silver Really Hot Stuff Handling costume; when the piece was done, he put on what I can only describe as “industrial-strength oven mitts” and carried the finished piece to an annealing oven at the side of the Hot Studio, where it’ll be slowly cooking for… a while, I get the impression a fairly thin-walled piece like this would be in for most of a day, while a big solid sculpture might take weeks. And yes, the woman holding the pole the glass piece is attached to was doing it in nothing more than a tank top, casually staying mere feet away from this open flame. Glassblowers, again, are pretty hardcore.

Something I doodled while we were having lunch afterwards. Trying to capture some features of the very specific piece of industrial furniture being used to support the blown piece as it was being shaped that I didn’t get in the doodle from life; it’s a very idiosyncratic assemblage of metal and wood that I’m pretty sure has a damn fine reason for having one side be a large black metal parallelogram with its base about a foot further away from the other side than its top is. That mess on the left is a vague impression of the furnace, with protective shields that keep most of the heat from spreading out in every direction around it. And all of these things are way out of proportion with each other because I am totally spoilt by Illustrator’s ability to easily resize stuff if I fuck up proportions.

Afterwards I told Kerri that I am basically going to hassle her every now and then for the rest of the year about her obvious desire to apply to take a class or two next summer. Because I am an artistic enabler, damnit. GIT THAT PORTFOLIO IN SHAPE GIRL. She apologized for excitedly burbling about what she saw at the place and I was like, dude, I know how I felt the first few times I was in a Real Animation Studio, carry on, I’d be worried if you weren’t excited.

(Me? I found it interesting, and I wouldn’t turn down a collaborative project or something (or an opportunity to just hang out there for a week with my tablet, drawing the same kind of stuff I normally do) – but I don’t think I have a burning desire to learn a Physical Craft to go along with my drawing skills right now. I am however currently juggling a long-buried desire to make hideous noises with an electric guitar against the growing urge to get my ass back in the pole dance studio and get back in the kind of physical shape you need to do that… I’m pretty sure I can’t really do both at once.)



Docent: “This is one of the biggest annealing ovens outside of industrial shops.”
Me: “Damn, you could dispose of a LOT of bodies at once in that.”