Thursday, March 31, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 4: The Return, Episode 04

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Director's Commentary: Things I'd change if I were doing it all over again: Moses' beard on the page immediately prior, so it matched how it looked on this page. Most of the characters had a continuity to their appearance, but Moses goes through some radical changes from page to page. This is the joy of doing a web comic in your spare time when your time isn't so spare.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 4: The Return, Episode 03

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Director's  Commentary: I love the ongoing joke of the crowd getting misinformation from each other, especially the giant grasshoppers. 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 4: The Return, Episode 02

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Director's Commentary: I've been listening to Karen Armstrong's lovely book, The Bible, which approaches the history of scripture as a sort of biography. In many ways, I find it more comforting than our pastor's recent sermons on the Bible, which were a rudimentary introduction to Bible study for lay people. While I applaud the intention, he wasn't telling me anything I hadn't read or heard before. Nevertheless, wanting to be on track with where the rest of the congregation is, I've been focusing some of my reading on either the study of scripture, or in this case, the book itself. Armstrong's history of the development of the Judeo Christian texts included two thoughts that put my mind at ease somewhat regarding re-posting Josh and Caleb. The first was that consensus among Biblical scholars of the Jewish scriptures is that Israel's invasion of Canaan likely didn't happen, so I'm working in mythic space. Second, the presence of violence in scripture is a testament to the way the Judeo Christian texts present the warts-and-all picture of the development of the Bible and the people who call it sacred. Accordingly, we can view the texts advocating violence as moments when we missed the point, which is some of what I was doing with Josh and Caleb. What started as an adventure will end with ambivalence about how things play out. So while that isn't where I was at when I wrote it, I'm glad to be reflecting on it again, in light of where my journey has taken me. I guess I'm thinking of Josh and Caleb as midrash, the Judaic "reading between the lines" of scripture.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 4: The Return, Episode 01

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Director's Commentary: All of "Chapter 4: The Return" was colored while working the summer as staff pastor at Greenbay Bible Camp in Westbank, BC during the summer of 2002. I can't recall if the line art was already produced before I went out, or if I worked on it while I was there, but the completion of so many strips over a two-month period is due largely to the encouragement and support of Nathan "Monkey" Thomas, who allowed me to steal time at his desk and use his Intuos tablet to colour the strips. Nathan is now an animator out on the West Coast who was working media at Greenbay that summer. He was a strong motivator for me, and spurred me on to create better jokes as well. Accordingly, I'm dedicating Chapter Four to Nathan.

This page is definitely inspired by Dave Sim of Cerebus fame yet again. I loved the use of many quasi-anonymous speech balloons in his crowd shots during the Church and State issues of Cerebus, and loved using that technique with the wandering Israelites, whose bitching and moaning during the journey to Canaan takes on comedic proportions even in the Pentateuch.

I can't recall why I decided this all had to happen at night, but it turned out to be a very smart choice in the next chapter, as the night provided the perfect contrast to what invades the night. It certainly wasn't intentional, and by the time I was done the summer, I was pretty sick of my smurfy Israelites.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 03: It's All Who You Know, Episode 03

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Director's Commentary: Again, I want to state very clearly that I was viewing the writing of this series as though Josh and Caleb were a D&D Warrior and Rogue/Ranger. To equate what I'm doing here with the current situation in the Middle East would be to miss the point, akin to history buffs who cited all of Zakk Synder's errors in filming 300. Frank Miller's 300 is not history - it is a historical moment recast in the tradition of the sword and sandal heroic epic. I think the real-world implications of a moment like this is far more complex than shown here. I find it unlikely that everyone in the land of Canaan was evil. But in the context of any theophany, there are sides taken and positions drawn up. I'd be less black and white in the delivery of such ideas today.
And let's face it, it would spoil the joke here, which is that Josh and Caleb have been discussing how Adonai is caring for them while unbeknown to them, that very thing is taking place.
People who know campfire call response games may also recognize the inside evangelical joke of the onomatopoeia in the third panel: "I said a Boom Chikka Boom!"

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 03: It's All Who You Know, Episode 02

Director's Commentary: So finally we see the beginnings of a simpler approach to colouring emerge. It will really see its day in the following chapter, but I'm using a lot less overwrought dodging and burning at this point. I love the background of Caleb's memory and Sinai, and although it never occurred to me at the time as a moment of intent, showing the boys walking over the chasm to illustrate its depth sets up the action on the next page.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 03: It's All Who You Know, Episode 01


DIRECTOR'S COMMENTARY: In terms of chapters, this one is my favorite. It's concise, and has a good Loony-Toons style visual gag. If I consider the ideas contained in it in a real-world geo-political sense, I find it troubling, but at the time of writing, I wasn't making those considerations. Again, I was treating the story of Josh and Caleb a bit like a D&D campaign, not as commentary on the current situation in the Middle East. A note of trivia: the chapter title, "It's All Who You Know," is not only a reference to the cliche, but I'm guessing it was also a reflection of what I was listening to at the time. The Newsboys had a song called "It's All Who You Know" on what remains my favorite release by them, Take Me to Your Leader.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 2: Spies in the Land Episode 04


Director's Commentary: As punchlines in this series go, this is one of my faves. I was also very happy with bring able to utilize a digital comic cheat of repeating the same images over and over, but moving them. I did one image of Josh and Caleb, one background, and then moved the characters and inserted speech bubbles. It was a wonderful way to get this strip done under pressure. What's equally funny is that, unable to rely on image, I had to rely on text for humour.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 2: Spies in the Land Episode 03


DIRECTOR'S COMMENTARY: This joke might be too old to be funny at all. It's a play on the Team Canada ads that were on television when I was writing these first Josh and Caleb episodes. Caleb's line mirrors the "we have a bunch of Team Canada shirts," followed by the punchline, "and a whole can of whoop ass!" It's so old I can't even find a YouTube video of it. Ah, the joy of the Internet. Trending today, gone tomorrow. I love this page in terms of composition. I'm also happier with what I'm doing with the colour here than in the previous episodes.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 2: Spies in the Land Episode 02


DIRECTOR'S COMMENTARY: I think I've complained about my approach to colour enough - you get the idea. Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite pages in the whole series. I drew it while sitting in a session at a Teacher's Convention, bored out of my tree. I love the grape gag, and was very happy with how the colour approach works in the fruit explosion. This is also one of the few pages where you get a good look at Caleb's quiver, which says in a pseudo-Hebrew font, "Ass-kicker." I don't think I kept that up for later episodes, but I'd clearly adopted some sort of colour chart, as the colour of Caleb's top-knot holder is consistent. Sadly, its location in the last two panels, isn't.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 2: Spies in the Land Episode 01


Director's Commentary: I was definitely inspired by Dave Sim's approach to panels and progression in Cerebus here. Clearly, they've descended from that precipice we last saw them on. Somehow, in my brain, the Promised Land is just a climbing maneuver away.
The whole no-talent ass clown reference was a real risk at the time: at the time, my resume was useless outside church circles. I've have that corroborated by an HR manager. My multimedia developer's certificate didn't help either: the dot com industry was hurting, and there weren't many good entry level jobs in media at this time in Edmonton. So I knew I'd be applying for church jobs again at some point. While I was aware of this, I chafed at it. Putting this sort of humor into a story taken from the Bible was me working out my irreverent reverence, being simultaneously still very tied to my faith, while wanting to distance myself from most expressions of it. The Gathering was comfortable with such an approach, but it would haunt me later when I came up dry in my job search later that year.
Nevertheless, it's one of my favorite jokes, and will receive further mileage later in the series.
A note on the art: the line art was a lot better on paper, but I was toying with using the "blur" tool over the line art to make it look more painterly. It doesn't work well with the cartoon approach though, nor does my overwrought use of shadow and highlight. It looks crazy. I wouldn't colour this way again. That said, the grapes look fantastic, and I like the blurred background to imply distance.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Josh and Caleb Chapter 1: The Mission / Episode 02


Director's Commentary: As you can see, I'm already using a web-comic trick, by recycling images I've already worked on in that last panel. Despite it being one of the first, it's always felt a little iconic of what I was going for with Josh and Caleb. Two friends on the edge of a precipice, gazing into the distance - the call of adventure! And although I'd never do it that way now, I love the way the sun looks in the panel when it finally comes up over the horizon. I was playing with the tools of Photoshop - I'd make a far more consistent background to all of these panels, and then just move that image around to get difference.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Josh and Caleb, Chapter 1: The Mission / Episode 01

DIRECTOR'S COMMENTARY: The top image was the first one I drew of Josh and Caleb. I did a lot of sketching while working as a Teaching Assistant with at-risk kids in an elementary school, and came up with the design in two or three passes. I was attempting to play around with Japanese-style comic art, so it was a departure from my own style. It took me until the fourth chapter of Josh and Caleb to make the approach my own, and since then, I've continued integrating the way I used to draw characters (more lifelike) with this clean-line approach (more stylized).

I was simultaneously learning how to colour art in Photoshop, so in addition to some sloppy artwork, there is some sloppy colouring in these first pages. I was far too enamoured with the burning and dodging approach of light and shadow, but found tutorials on channels and multiplying brushes overwhelming. At the time, I still thought I could punch this whole thing out in a season of Lent, and was working with speed, not accuracy.
Despite these problems, there are still items I love about these opening frames: Igal,the guy in orange next to Moses in the group shot felt like a stroke of genius - name brand clothing from the Bronze age; establishing Josh's "gee-whiz" idealism and naivety next to Caleb's ironic cynicism; and the opening shot, which was a photograph made to look more cartoony. At the time, it felt like cheating, but I've since learned that many of the artists I admire use these approaches now. It certainly provided a foundation for the rising sun as back light.

I've lost the original Photoshop files of these images, so if demand proves high enough and this ever goes to print, this will all get recoloured. It would be good to have the opportunity to fix what I don't like about these pages, making the colouring more consistent with the end of the series. But as a progress chart, it certainly tells me how I improved over the course of producing the strip.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Josh and Caleb

Ten years ago, I decided to try my hand at making a web comic for the Gathering's website. It was called Josh and Caleb, and was intended to tell the story of the Twelve Men who went into the promised land as spies. Originally meant to be a brief series of strips over Lent, it ended up running at my site for years, while I sporadically updated the story. I had periods when I was more prolific than others, and for one summer the strip was regular like clockwork.

My intention had been to warm myself up for drawing the web comic I really wanted to produce, a steampunk retelling of Cinderella called Cinder, which never made it past design sketches and story outlines. Josh and Caleb gained a momentum based upon fan response: people were reading it, so I felt compelled to finish it. And "finish" I did, coming at least to a moment of closure with the series before abandoning it completely during my graduate studies. However, there were three pages I had penciled and inked in the summer of 2005. They're scanned into the computer, and one of them received colour two and a half years ago. That leaves two to go. Seems like as good a time as any to wrap it all up and re-release it here at the blog. With the website going down in late '09, Josh and Caleb lost their online presence: this Lent will restore them.

These character cards were created several years into the process, after my hand really had warmed up, but they're not indicative of the art I was producing at the start of the series. I was Alexandra Junior High's "Most Promising Art Student" many moons ago, and had dreams of being a graphic artist. However, in 1989, my guidance counselor wasn't sure where to send a student who wanted to be an artist and filmmaker. Besides, many people were encouraging me to go to Bible School and become a pastor, and I was idealistic and stupid enough to think I could do drama and art in a Baptist church. Over the next ten years, I learned the hard way that Baptists like their art with scripture on it, and by art I mean nature photography. When I consider what forty-year old Mike would tell sixteen-year old Mike, it always goes something like, "Don't go to Bible school - attend studies in Vancouver at..." and then I either put in a design college or a film school. Hell, I'd tell sixteen-year old Mike to study art at Grant MacEwan here in Edmonton over Bible school.

So Josh and Caleb stands as the only comic I ever finished (providing I get those last two pages up), and despite the clunky start artistically, an achievement I'm very proud of. It probably isn't the greatest material to be working from in this fractured, war-torn world, and the artwork isn't my best - I was experimenting with manga-styles, but I get something a little closer to Disney in the process. Still, I think most of the jokes are good, and I really like my lead characters. The idea I had in my mind was to render Josh and Caleb younger than they are accounted as in the Pentateuch, as extreme-sports adventure junkie types. Not patriarchs, but two ordinary guys who like to have a good time, who are sent because they're good in a fight. In Dungeons and Dragons, Josh is a fighter, and Caleb's a multi-class rogue/ranger. It's a good indication of where I've been spiritually, as well as where I'm going. I think Josh is the voice of my spiritual journey, starting out ready to do as told, and ending with some questions.

One of the themes of Lent is wilderness journeys, and the stories of Israel in the desert are often material for homilies. So let's take a desert journey together, along with Josh and Caleb.

Seven Sacred Seasons: Lent

Lent begins today. Officially, yesterday was Ash Wednesday, and while many people start Lent on Ash Wednesday, it's really post-service, post-ashes-on-the-forehead that you begin Lent. At the Gathering, we started Lent after our service was over.

The first year we did Lent, people were taken aback: "I didn't realize the Gathering was Catholic." Of course we weren't - a radically congregation Catholic church would be an even more bizarre phenomenon than a radically congregational Protestant church. No minister? No ecclesiastic hierarchy? No, we definitely weren't Catholic, but we really weren't very good Protestants either.

In our search for post-denominational structure, we turned to the more traditional approaches to frame our year. Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas, were the two primary seasons we started with, then worked out from there. What was wonderful about these holidays was that they came ready made. We could get liturgical resources for our services for Lent without difficulty.

Helping our primarily Evangelical congregation understand the value of Lent was another matter entirely. "What's the point in me giving up coffee for 40 days? How will that bring me closer to Christ?" In our first Lenten experiences, our reply was how the sacrifice was symbolic of Christ's time in the desert, a minor fast with major implications. In later years, we challenged our group to find things to sacrifice that went beyond coffee or chocolate. In those years, I gave up swearing, or listening to music that didn't reference my faith. One year stands out, when we encouraged the congregation to ask others what they ought to give up. That was the year I gave up giving unsolicited advice. I took that a step further the next year by practicing reticence - I did not speak unless spoken to. It drove a few people crazy, as my normal mode of conversation is loquacious. It was a great experience - I felt the burden of responsibility to carry a conversation lifted. I no longer felt the need to fill in the uncomfortable silences. It was great. 

Some folks innovated by adding a spiritual discipline to their life. By doing so, they ended up sacrificing as a latent benefit. A friend chose to read through the Gospel of Matthew over Lent. Another endeavored to actively encourage one new person each day.

We celebrated Lent with austere decor in the physical space we worshiped: our slides were less colorful, less bombastic. Our song choices were focused on the desert experiences rather than the celebration. One year, we collectively gave up singing along in the worship times - the band did all the music instrumentally, as a time of contemplation. When we finally got to sing at Easter, it was such a welcome change, to finally open our mouths and sing along - the celebration wasn't contrived at all.

This year, as the Lenten journey begins, I'm still uncertain about what to give up. My job and children demands sacrifices of me. Don't I deserve to just keep suffering as a parent and busy academic? Do I really need to take away one more thing I enjoy for the period? So I'm likely engaging in an additive approach this year: reading a spiritual classic instead of reading for pleasure. It might be wimping out, but given that I haven't practiced Lent since the Gathering ended in the fall of '08, I'll be satisfied with baby steps.

As always, feel free to steal the slides for wallpapers or for your own worship experiences. I know it's a bit dated, but this was playing off Nike's "Just Do It" marketing strategy.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ash Wednesday: Liturgies

Here are a few of the slides I made up for Ash Wednesday and Lenten services at the Gathering. Use them as a wallpaper, or feel free to snag them for your own use in an Ash Wednesday service. I'm doing my best to track down the resources I got these liturgies from.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Seven Sacred Seasons: An Overview

Two years into The Gathering’s history, the Crash forced our hand, accelerating an idea we'd been toying with: to go from a single leading pastor to a radical congregational approach to leadership, and consequently, church work. Initially, this resulted in a sporadic, haphazard series of services where music and preaching were unconnected: without some sort of guiding idea, worship leaders and speakers alike found choosing a path difficult. Coming out of a Baptist background, we were used to the sermon being the focal point, but were needing a model that would serve all levels of worship, including the speaking themes, so that volunteer preachers had an anchor for their preparations.

In addition to the congregational model, we'd been interested in liturgical approaches to worship, particularly Celtic modes, as Celtic worship was in vogue at the time. What emerged was the Gathering's Seven Sacred Seasons, a liturgical church year broken into seven sevens: seven “sacred seasons,” each centering on a different theme and lasting roughly seven weeks. While our liturgical year was intended to begin with Incarnation Season (Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany), it always felt like it began in September with Gathering Season. I've organized this explication of the seven seasons to begin with Carnival, since that's how the calendar year would begin as well. The following is a lightly edited version of what our Sacred Seasons document looked like:

CARNIVAL (From the celebration of EPIPHANY to the beginning of LENT on ASH WEDNESDAY)
In many countries, Carnival is a time of merrymaking and celebration, often done in ways which the church does not approve. The Gathering sought to introduce Christians to the concept of holy parties, or celebrations. In winter the weather can be miserable for long stretches of time. Traditionally, Carnival is a season for music, plays, art, and also for wild behavior and wearing disguises. Worship during this season was of a festive nature, often unpredictable, ranging from beach parties, comedy improvisation, dance music as worship (both by a dance-music-worship team on several occasions, and once by a DJ), and masquerade.

LENT and EASTER (Starts the service after ASH WEDNESDAY, ending on EASTER SUNDAY)
During Lent, the Gathering encouraged our faith community to give something up as a sacrifice to Christ, modeling his sufferings in some small way. Over the years, everything from coffee to video games to character traits were given up for Lent. One year, we asked each other to suggest the thing we ought to give up: I gave up giving unsolicited advice that year. During Holy Week, we held a series of worship services, dramas and vigils, contemplating the crucifixion and resurrection. A "real-time" vigil of the Cross was observed several times, where we would begin contemplations hour by hour of Christ's Passion, using James Bishop's The Day Christ Died as a guide. Easter Sunday was the only time of the year the Gathering meets on a long weekend: since we were run by volunteers, we gave our workers long weekends off.

Also called the Easter season, 50 days are a “week of weeks,” seven times seven plus one. Pentecost is 50 days to sing alleluia, 50 days to live as if God’s rule of justice and peace were finally with us. Because it is the beginning of Spring and people are thinking of being outdoors, the theme of Pentecost involves the Gathering going out “into the streets.” Major themes are the nature of the church and the Holy Spirit. We tried to incorporate more social justice into this season, but also took time to consider what it means to be the church. In later years, we used video teaching during this season to give our speakers a break, and to ensure we weren't just preaching what we all wanted to hear. It was a means of avoiding our teaching becoming "inbred."

CREATION (Pentecost Sunday to the end of August)
Since it is warm outside, the Gathering seeks to praise God for his Creation during this season. As a result, when weather permits, worship is held outdoors. During Creation, we often did prayer walks, utilizing labyrinths on a number of occasions. We held drumming circles, and did worship in city parks. In later years, we gave the community the summer off, as attendance was sporadic, and our volunteers became increasingly worn out. We held one other significant service in late August called the G-Arts Festival, which was a celebration of the community's creative gifts. People were encouraged to bring a creative display of any kind to present to the community. This included a wide range of expressions: salsa dancing, belly dancing, carpentry, antique collecting, poetry, music, visual art, scrap-booking, and card making are among the creative expressions I recall seeing over the years.

GATHERING  (Beginning of September to the Canadian THANKSGIVING long weekend)
This originally was two seasons, bookending Creation Season, but it became simpler in later years to just have one: Gathering Season was a time of remembrance, when we looked back to our first services together. For many years, this was marked with a "Year Video," a music-style-video montage of clips, highlighting the prior year. It was also considered a time to introduce others to the Gathering, a season when we were more focused on newcomers than any other time of the year. During this time we explained the reasons why the Gathering practices Christianity the way it does. Notably, this season would work for churches that aren't called the Gathering, since this season fell on the time traditionally known as Harvest season, culminating in Canada with Thanksgiving.

ALL SAINTS (Canadian THANKSGIVING long weekend to the beginning of ADVENT)
Traditionally, this is celebrated as one day, but the telling of the Saints’ stories as inspiration seemed richer as a season, not merely a single evening. Since the Gathering held that all Christians are saints, All Saints was a time for sharing our stories of how God changed our lives, and how He has used us since that change. We also hear the stories of saints outside the Gathering, the ‘heroes’ of the faith,” from scripture or history. We also observed a sort of Halloween service, complete with costume party and a darker theme for the evening.

Beginning four weeks before Christmas, and ending on the service closest to January 6, this season focused on more than just Christ’s birth: Advent, the time leading up to Christmas, could be about the traditional Nativity stories, or look toward the parousia, Christ's second advent. Epiphany, the story of the magi’s visit to Jesus, and Christ’s baptism are also included in this season. Christmas was considered, as it is in liturgical circles, only one event in the Incarnation Season. Most of the time was spent in anticipation of the celebration of Christ’s Nativity. Due to the Gathering’s emphasis on family, we did not hold a service on Christmas eve or day, but encouraged families to perform worship in their own homes, using the time to build their own communities.

Over the year of the Rabbit, I'm going to echo these Sacred Seasons in the content I reveal here at Gotthammer. Caffeinated Incorporated fulfilled the goals of Carnival Season - laughter and levity. We're about to enter Lent, and to observe that, I'm going to take the Lenten journey I started with the Gathering ten years ago with a web comic called Josh and Caleb. It was originally intended to be a little bit of media for the Gathering's web site, but it grew into its own thing, as many creative endeavors do. Each season thereafter, my posts will reflect the Sacred Season we're in. I've been missing the structure this liturgical year gave to my comings and goings, and want to reengage those rhythms, and share them with you.