Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Layers of a Story...

I love telling a good story.  Sometimes. I love telling several stories at the same time.  That's something that isn't as easy as it sounds.  It takes the ability to compartmentalize your ideas and keep them in your own mind as single solitary tales.

In a way, the conductor analogy comes into bear here, because I like to think of the stories as trains.
One story train will be humming along, minding its own business.  Alongside it, another story train is chugging along doing the same thing.  When I write stories like this I take care to keep all the trains going in the same direction.  It's self destructive to have the story come crashing along at some point just because my tracks got crossed a ways back because of poor planning.  Though when used for effect, this can work to your advantage.
I start this process of multi-layered stories as a single united theme.  From that theme, I branch out individial points of view.  That's how I like telling my stories...from individual accounts.  I think that the narrative comes across more efficiently in my own head as well as on the paper when it is being told by someone who is actually involved in it.

"It was a dark and stormy night..." Versus "My clothes dripped nonstop onto the floor from the rain like the ticking of the unseen clock with me in the room."  Both lines convey the points.  Rain. Dark. Time.  But the last one packs more punch in my opinion because it's being told first-hand.  I know it runs on, but it's a first draft.  That can be fine-tuned later.  We tend to believe eye-witnesses more than conjectured accounts.  This is my theory, and how I approach the narratives I craft.  So when telling the multiple stories within the story, it is key to find the individuals who are telling the story and give them their voice.

When I have these voices in mind, I begin with the story.  I like the plot of the same event seen through differing eyes giving each person a seperate outcome.  I also like the plot of past and present stories mirroring each other.  I tend to use THAT particular one a lot as it speaks to the axiom of those ignorant of history being doomed to repeat it.  I personally have a severe distaste of duplicating my efforts.  I will never dig the same hole twice if it is at all to be avoided. No matter which avenue I chose,  I want the tales to have some common thread.  That is of the greatest importance to me.  Writing these kind of stories comes across as disjointed and haphazard if I don't have a believable thread to tie them together.

In regards to comics and how I write them (seeing that as the entire point of this blog) I have several manners of using this tool.  The most commonly used one for me is the off-screen dialogue box.  This one comes in super handy for this.  With this box, I can tell a complete story off camera while the real story goes on before the reader's eyes.  I am particularly fond of the monologue within this box.  With that one, I have the ability to give voice to something off camera, and can use the pictures as backup.  Sometimes these two trains are riding side by side, sometimes they are on the same track.  Sometimes I have them going opposite directions and use this device as a way of illustrating the innevitable crash.  It's very easy to build tension when you show two opposing viewpoints at the same time and use that leadin to point to some dramatic confrontation in the future. Imagine if you will this picture. 

A lockeroom at halftime sees the coach of the losing team inspiring his boys to comeback by telling them about a can't miss strategy.  While this is what you see on screen, the opposing coach says in his dialogue box that he expects the opposition to do precisely what the coach is telling his team to do.  The entire time, the losing team is playing right into the winning team's hands only they don't know it.  YOU know it because you see both sides of the story at the same time. By the time the losing team's coach wraps things up, and you see how his words have inspired his players into doing precisely the one thing that will make their loss a certainty, you can feel the pity I intended you to feel for these doomed warriors from the start.

As I said before I like the dialogue box set against the main story, but sometimes I go one step beyond and have the piture on the page telling a third story. That's the hardest one, but it works so well if I pull it off.

This is leading the reader and some writers feel it cheats them of the brain-work necessary to figure things out for themselves.  I don't write who-dunnits.  The goal of my writing is, was and always will be to illicit a particular and specific response from you as a reader.  I craft my stories in this manner to lead the reader to an intentional emotional state.  It's manipulative, yes.  But I write stories because I get this silly idea in my head that goes something like this. "Wouldn't it be cool if....?" and then I devote myself to putting you in the setting that brought me to that conclusion.  I want the reader to find cool and interresting the things that I find cool and interresting.  Mine is the craft of sharing.  Wether I share emotion, action or comedy is immaterial.  I put pen to paper for a purpose.
If I succeed in this, the reader will walk away from the story I wrote thinking exactly what I thought about when I initially wrote that piece.  It doesn't always work, but I use any and all tricks at my disposal to insure that it does.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


By: Roger A Wilbanks

"Dammit!" he shouted as he threw the mangled remains of the shovel across the yard. The dog yelped and hid under the deck, fearful that his master's anger was directed at him. He went to the garage and got another shovel, one with a little better handle. The rocks and roots in the soil had gotten the better of that last one.

When he returned, he carried the bundle with him. Nestled within the folds of cloth lie the remains of 'Sluggo', the neighborhood cat. A stray dog had gotten a hold of him in the night. He heard the fight. It was epic. He'd assumed it was just a catfight till he walked outside this morning to get the paper and saw Sluggo lying on his porch. The cat had crawled with the last ounce of energy it possessed onto that safe haven from which he had spent countless hours being pet, fed and played with. He liked that cat.

For some reason Sluggo, a name he himself had given the beast, had adopted his porch as his base of operations. He would lie in the sun there and shelter himself from the rain there. He wasn't a pretty cat, like the one you see in the cat food commercials. He was ugly. there weren't enough adjectives in the English language to properly describe him, but he kept himself clean and had a pleasant disposition. "More than I could say about the majority of the people I know," he thought. He remembered one afternoon in particular, when a spring rain sent deluges down the street where Sluggo hopped up in his lap as if it were perfectly acceptable behavior and immediately began to purr. No contact was necessary for this activity. Just the fact that the cat felt completely safe and comfortable and felt like showing it.

The tangle of roots beneath the soil was proving too tough to manage with just the shovel, but he was running out of options here. He had already buried over a dozen family pets in this area of the yard through the course of his residence. King occupied the place of honor in the center. He even had a tombstone made of granite. He loved that dog and never once shied away from the price tag that accompanied that chunk of rock when old age took him away. Dingus was in the corner. That cat was never right in the head. He walked around his entire life with the look that the lights were on but nobody was home in his eyes. He remembered laughing about that all the time with his wife, his boys and his neighbors. It was a constant source of amusement to see him play with absolutely nothing and feel like this was perfectly normal behavior.

Countless other animals lie in this makeshift pet cemetery he had constructed. Angel the poodle. Cary Grant the dachshund. There were two parrots named George and Gracie that he planted beneath their birdcage. He got those birds when he was still in college. Birds live long lives, and those two saw a lot of life being bounced around in the cage that was their tombstone.

As he leaned against his shovel for a moment to catch his breath, he wiped the sweat that was pouring down his face and neck away with hands turned red with the growth of future blisters. He stopped digging and collected his thoughts about Sluggo's death. For some reason the image in his mind from this morning wouldn't go away. He saw Sluggo on the porch. He saw the trail of blood the cat left as he clawed his way to the safety he thought was there. All those hours spent watching cop shows on television set his inner criminologist working to piece together the crime scene. The fight started in the yard. Sluggo was probably keeping watch of his adopted turf when the dog arrived.

He remembered the sounds that flew from his yard that night. He assumed it was another cat. Sluggo was constantly fighting the neighborhood cats and his looks reflected that. He was missing chunks where there should be chunks. Sluggo tangled in the yard, and the dog left for some reason. There was a silence after that initial scrape. He took that to mean Sluggo had sent another alley cat packing. He had no way of knowing that purring machine that sat in his lap days before was crawling to his porch broken and bleeding. Sluggo must have made it up to the spot where his chair was and sat there, slowly dying. But that dog wasn't finished with him. As Sluggo the cat felt the last of his life ebb away, that dog returned and finished the job. That act was silent, but messy. He never heard a sound, just saw the effects. One of his limbs was torn free of his body.

He felt something else on his face mixed in with the pouring sweat. It was a tear. He was actually crying now. Something about that cat thinking he was safe in his chair made him feel like he had let Sluggo down somehow. He felt like this was his fault somehow. He had let Sluggo in the house sometimes when the weather was bad. Why couldn't he have done it that time? He felt tears and sweat mixing freely on his face now. He looked at his cemetery and a sudden wave of loss washed over him as the pain from every death of a loved friend pricked him from all sides. He dropped down to his knees, shovel still in hand, blisters now bleeding from his tightening grip.

As sobs bubbled out of him from this unexpected wave of emotion, he felt a pressure against his side. His dog Prince (There would never be another King) was shoving his nose into his master's side. When he saw that he had his master's attention he lie there at his feet and put his head on his master's foot as if to tell him, "Hey man. I liked that cat too, but I would have done the same thing to him. It's my nature."

"God never gives you more to take than you can bear."

This pearl of wisdom from his time in Sunday School as a child suddenly and loudly popped into his mind. He had surely born quite a bit these last few years, he thought. Two layoffs, the mortgage issue, sick kids, two pets dying and two fresh graves to dig had all taken their toll. He looked down at his dog and thought for a second about the utter futility of life. How can there be a purpose to this? What is the point of a game where you never win? You only die at the end?

He looked at his bleeding hand and saw the scar. When he was a kid, he fell from a second story roof. He grabbed a hold of a piece of metal and hung on for dear life. The metal dug deep into his flesh but he refused to let go and hung on till the grownups arrived. He remembered something about that that he seemed to have forgotten over the years. The entire time he hung from that drain, there was a dog barking like mad below him. At the time the thought that shrouded his mind was what that dog would do to him if he let go. But he got it now. The dog was trying to get someone's attention. The dog was trying to save him. He stopped crying as the idea that that animal he didn't know was trying to save him somehow.  He didn't even remember the dog's name.

The bundle looked cheap. He went into his house and returned with one of his wife's fine purple towels. She would complain, but he would just buy her another one. He took the matted rags he'd wrapped the dead cat in and threw them aside. He carefully wrapped the cat in the folds of the soft purple towel. "Sluggo, you look respectable now."  He added, "For once." This made him laugh.

It started as a chuckle, small and sporadic. It grew. Soon he was laughing as if he just discovered humor. He still felt the pain of letting Sluggo die alone. He felt the loss of the animal that purred for no reason. He felt guilt for not saving this miserable animal's life, but none of that mattered.  Now he felt a wave of calm wash over him as the understanding that 'this too, shall pass' sunk in.   He placed the dead cat in the hole he dug and returned the earth atop him.  When he was done, he stood in silence over the fresh grave and said goodbye one final time to the cat in the purple burial shroud.

Purple was the color of royalty. Sluggo may have died a vagrant, but in this cemetery, the Gravedigger buried them all like Kings.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Bring on the Legal Teams!

Not for real, and hopefully never.

The subject of this particular blog is more or less to put down my limited understanding of some of the legalities involved in comics with specific regards to particular re-invisioning of certain characters.

I am a fan of the Lone Ranger.  I always have been.  I spent many a day in my youth watching a crappy 9" black and white television every weekend when the westerns came on to catch the exploits of that western badass and his friend (not sidekick) Tonto.  I loved the lore of the character and for as long as I can remember I have asked myself "What next?"

I have a tendency to see things on timelines.  I do this with people I just met as well as with fictional characters.  I have even been known to do this with inanimate objects like cars and buildings.  I like creating stories.  This trait, I am told, is a side effect of having that sort of inclination.

But back to the Ranger.  I watched the episodes loyally yet with a moderate amount of skepticism.  That would never fly in the modern world, I told myself.  And that got the gears to spinning.  What would the Lone Ranger be like were he riding today?  What about him in the future?  What about him in the past?  What would he be like fighting prohibition era gangsters?  He couldn't do it on horseback, if he did...that would be untennable.  He'd have to have something more mobile and faster.  Like a motorcycle.  That would make one hell of a story.  The Lone Ranger on a motorcycle fighting gangsters.  Only problem with that is that never happened.  The Lone Ranger fought in the Wild West and died before the gangsters time.  Or did he?

I had this idea back in college and did countless hours of research and drawing to get it right.  I wrote several issues of a comic that bridged the gap between the Horseback Knight and MY modern one.  I put him smack in the middle of Chicago during the Gangster-era and had the makings of one HELL of a story. 

Then I left it.  I put it in a book and shelved it because I was afraid.  I was mortally afraid that the people who owned the legal rights to the Lone Ranger would snatch all my hard work and my imaginations and pocket them, leaving me with empty pockets and possibly a lawsuit.

I have gotten over this fear with the recent realization that there is such a thing as Public Domain.  As long as the character I create is NOT the Lone Ranger...has no ties to the Lone Ranger and I never mention the Lone Ranger, or show him in any fashion, my creation will remain mine.  he will be 'inspired by' (How I loathe that term) him, true...but the character himself will be a living, breathing embodiment of my own subconscious imagination. 

The story I wrote for him has been shelved for now.  I will tell a different one.  Eventually I may share that original generational bridge with the public.  Who he is and how he came to be, and whatnot...but for now, I will not even refer to him as The Ranger.  At least not in print.  That's his name in my mind, and there it will stay till I have had a chance to actually speak with the proper rights holders and sell them on my idea. 

I think they'll like it, as it will bring the character I love so much into a more modern time and give me so many opportunities to write awesome stories.  Stories with the action and heart that I saw way back in my childhood in the face of a masked man with a silver bullet.