Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Artistic Catch 22: Should You Only Create What You Love To Ingest?

I’m in the process of trying to figure out what to do with the work that I’ve created. I have a collection of really good stories - a mixture of novels, short prose, short film scripts, and some half-hour pilots that might also work as web series episodes. Like most writers, I also have a few other unfinished stories in addition to my completed works.

The problem is that I don’t know what to do with them. I want full control of my work, but I don’t want to write novels or short stories. However, prose is the only storytelling medium in which complete autonomy works. Conversely, I would much rather use my stories to produce comics and/or films. But because I don’t have any skill in the visual arts, those mediums would require me to heavily depend on the services of others in order to create a finished product, something I don’t want.

The Ultimate Catch 22: Have great stories
to tell, but only being able to tell them
in a medium you don't enjoy.
It’s an artistic Catch 22. What do I mean by this?

The general rule of thumb for getting better at any artistic endeavour is to completely immerse yourself into the craft. If it’s novel or short story writing, you should be constantly reading. If you’re looking to become a great TV writer, you should analyze a lot of television shows. It’s the same with films, cooking, comics, etc.

Obviously, you’re looking at these things from a professional perspective. If you're a writer, then you’re not just reading other people’s work for the sheer fun of it. What you’re doing is studying the process, absorbing that particular author’s style and approach in order to learn how the best aspects of the completed work is accomplished.

The best writers read. The best artists study their form. I get that. I wholeheartedly believe in that. My struggle, however, is whether or not an artist should only produce work in the mediums that he spends the most time being entertained by.

The Union Cross Trilogy is the two-time
GloryReelz Christian Novel award winner.
I am incredibly honored by this,
especially considering that I didn't
grow up with a love for books.
I am the author of the Union Cross trilogy. I’m very proud of what I was able to do with the series. However, I don’t have any authors that I feel have influenced my novels. I would say, perhaps, Anthony Horowitz of the Alex Rider series. The reason I hesitate to say that, however, is because I forced myself to read his books. In college, when I first began my path to becoming a creative writer, I was told early on that the best writers have to read anything they can get their hands on.

I wanted to write stories for young adults, so I went to a local Borders and, at random, settled on a copy of Stormbreaker from the YA section. I read the book. I liked the book. Consequently, I read three more books in the series. But the process felt very artificial. It still does. More often than not, I find that I’m typically forcing myself to read books for no other reason than to say that I’m author and that's what I’m supposed to do. I’ve never read a book twice. I don’t have a favorite novel.

There are all manner of fans and authors who swear by the printed work. They love books. They love prose. They love the medium. God bless them. I’ve never been one of those people. My mother tried so hard to get me to read. When I was a kid, she bought me a copy of The Hobbit that sat in my house for ten years in virtually the same spot in my room. I never read past the second page.

Acknowledging this makes me feel weird. I am an award-winning author, after all. And when I say that, I don’t mean to imply that I’m this “prolific writer”. Far from it. I’m humbled more and more as the years go by, knowing that so many people pursue writing and never even get published, let alone receive recognition. So on this level, it makes me feel strange to be an author and not actually like the medium.

The truth is I got into writing because I wanted to create cool stories, but I had no other skills that would allow me to do so. I can’t draw comics and I don’t have the money to do films or hire an artist for a comic.

Television shows and films are the things that I ingest the most. I have never forced myself to watch TV or see a movie. In particular, I like all different types of animated series, anime, and animated feature films. Those are what have inspired me. I couldn’t tell you what my favorite novel is to save my life. But I can easily create several top ten lists for my favorite animated films and TV series.

An image from Project M, the pilot episode of a
planned web series. It was screened at the
2014 GloryReelz Christian Film Festival.
Unfortunately, I didn't have the funds
to complete all 14 episodes.
The problem is that I don’t know how to create what I ingest the most, at least not consistently. Over the years, I’ve tried so many things to remedy that issue. I took art classes my first year in college and promptly dropped them all about eight weeks into the semester, after it was clear that I had the drawing chops of a six-week old kitten on LSD.

Later on, after I settled on becoming a writer, I started looking into technology that could help me create images without actually drawing. And I found some cool ones, too. Poser and Daz 3D come to mind. The problem was that those products can be very expensive. Also, though I am proficient in most of your basic software, I lack the technical skills needed to operate the systems at their full potential.

My most successful attempt was Moviestorm, an easy-to-use software program that allowed me to create the first episode of an animated web series. I did everything - directed, edited, produced, and hired the voice actors. It was an incredibly fulfilling experience that culminated in a film festival screening in Detroit. The biggest issue here is that, because Moviestorm is easy enough for a guy like me to use, it’s very limited in the kinds of movies I can produce. Furthermore, hiring voices actors is surprisingly costly.

Writing prose is much easier, much faster, and far less expensive. You’re in control of every aspect of your story. You’re limited only by your own imagination. But I don’t like novels. I don’t like short stories. I only read them when I’m forcing myself to do so, which brings me back to my original question. Should an artist only create what he loves ingests? If you don’t like the form, why use it?

Should you force yourself to read or watch something simply because it’s in the field that you produce work in? An argument for ‘yes’ could me made based on the fact that artists do often force themselves to create. Just because we love what we do doesn’t mean we always feel like doing it. Whether it’s writer’s block or any other inhibiting circumstance, it’s something all artists face. I don’t believe you should only write or draw when “inspiration comes”. You should always be working on your craft.

Working on your craft, however, isn’t the same as ingesting other works within your medium. It’s like college. Forcing yourself to complete a class in your major is understandable. Forcing yourself into a major you don't like is big problem. There may be classes, assignments, and other requirements in your major that you may not feel like dealing with. However, if you love your major, you'll power through, get it done, and hopefully come out of it with something beneficial. But taking on an entire major that you don’t like can demoralize your soul, especially if you chose it solely because you don’t feel you have the skills to do something else.

So what do I do? I have so many cool stories to share. But I don’t have the skill to share them in the medium that I want. And the medium that have the skill to share them in, I don’t like.

Please share your thoughts with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Five-Q With Jim Zub, Street Fighter

I am immensely proud to present the thirteenth edition of the Five-Q series. My goal was to bring in interesting people to talk about interesting subjects relating to careers in the arts, in comics, in writing, and in journalism. Having a vision and achieving that vision is always a wonderful feeling.

Today's guest brings a new element into Five-Q: video games. The people who know me understand my obsession with fighting game story analysis. I write about it. I speak on panels about it. I talk about it on my podcasts. However, I really don't get the opportunity to present the subject from an insider's perspective. Earlier this year, however, I got the chance to meet Jim Zub. Zub is known for his creator-owned work for Image Comics and his work on licensed intellectual properties with IDW Publishing. He does so much great work that people sometimes forget that he also writes for UDON Comics, the long-time publishers of the Street Fighter comics. He was kind enough to answer several questions for me regarding the process of creating stories for the iconic fighting game franchise.

Jim Zub, creator of comics for several
heavy hitters including Image, IDW, and
Marvel Comics.
Aaron David Harris: Street Fighter is arguably the most recognizable video game in its genre (fighting games). What is your connection to the franchise? Did you grow up loving it? Were you intimidated taking up the writing mantle of the Street Fighter brand?

Jim Zub: I’m a long time video gamer and Street Fighter fan who first discovered the franchise in high school when Street Fighter II was released. The incredible graphics with huge character sprites, varied move mechanics, and competitive head-to-head gameplay completely pulled me in. My friends and I would play the arcade game regularly and once it arrived on Super Nintendo it was a constant fixture of our free time. I had a cross-shaped blister on my thumb from pressing hard on the controller day after day, trying to perfect my moves and combos.

It was a thrill to come on board the comic series and get a chance to contribute a bit to a game series I enjoy so much. Like any work-for-hire project, I strived to bring my best to it and show that I could take what existed in the established canon and build on that to develop new entertaining stories.

ADH: What experiences do you try to give SF fans in the comics that they wouldn’t otherwise get in playing the video game series?

JZ: The Street Fighter comics allow readers to dig into a lot more of the back story and motivations of the character cast above and beyond the brief cinematics in the games. The personalities that are only hinted at get a much deeper dive and events that happen outside of the tournament setting can be explored far more fully. It’s additive, enhancing the story that’s already there.

ADH: Obviously comics has worked for Street Fighter in terms of extending the brand of the franchise. Do you think it’s a good idea for other fighting game franchises (Tekken, Mortal Kombat, The King of Fighters etc.) to go all in with comics? Why or why not?

JZ: I’m sure it could work well with just about any video game franchise, fighting game or not. Comics are a great way to focus on specific character stories and flesh out the setting in ways a gameplay-centric cinematic has trouble doing. Giving greater context to character relationships, broadening the scope of the setting, and showing past or future events outside of the set game storyline.

ADH: I’ve often argued how hard it is to tell a story that revolves around tournament-based fighting games because, unlike most video games, there are multiple “main” characters, each with a story that affects the outcome of the tournament. Ryu, Guile, Chun-li, Cammy...what challenges do you face juggling them all?

JZ: Unlike the game, at some point the comic has to show a single set ending in order to move the story forward. Only one character can win the Street Fighter tournament and who that is affects everything after that point in the continuity we’ve set up. We can have our favorite characters but at the end of the day it’s about building that cohesive story and making sure the pieces are in place to keep it going with each new iteration. Capcom doesn’t have to follow our storyline as they plan future games, but we have to try and follow theirs, and that can be a real challenge.

ADH: Is there a story in the Street Fighter universe that hasn’t been told that you would like to tell? What parts of the SF universe do you find the most fascinating?

JZ: I personally like focusing on ‘lesser’ characters because there’s so much more flexibility to build new things and help flesh out who they are. They’re not as rigidly defined in terms of personality or storyline as the core heroes in Street Fighter, the ones driving the main plotlines. Writing the Ibuki mini-series was an absolute blast for that very reason. Ibuki can have fun adventures off on her own without shaking up the core timeline of the Street Fighter tournaments. In that same vein, almost any of the side playable characters would be fun to work with and develop, including Elena, Makoto, Laura, Karin, Dhalsim…you name it. Those side stories are where we can get the most creative.

ADH: Fighting games are defined by the special moves (Hadoken, Cannon Spike, Psycho Crusher, etc.) How do you incorporate those special moves into a story. Any examples that stand out?

JZ: Just like in the games themselves, the bigger the special move, the more powerful the result so we try not to overuse them in the comic stories. Special/Ultra moves are a dramatic payoff, a climactic finish to a struggle that shows the character is giving it their all. In the Ibuki mini-series she uses her Yoroi-Doushi Super Art as the big finish to a confrontation with Oro and it represents the culmination of both her intensive training up until that point and her will to persevere no matter what.

ADH: You mention how Capcom doesn't have to follow the storylines that you create. But are they instances where the company has taken something you've created and used it in any other capacities beyond the comics (games, films, official bios, etc.)?

JZ: Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono really liked the Ibuki mini-series and in turn gave Sarai (Ibuki’s best friend who we fleshed out a lot in the comic) a nice appearance in the cinematics for Street Fighter IV.

We’ve also seen quite a few of the costume designs come up with by the UDON artists incorporated into the games as alt costumes, which is a nice nod to our hard work on the comic series. There’s a lot of mutual respect between the Capcom Japan game crew and the comic creative team.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Five Video Games Characters Based On Pro Wrestling

The interesting thing about fighting games is the relationship that they share with professional wrestling. In terms of stories, the characters and sagas can be equally exciting and shallow. I mentioned in a previous post how even characters who aren't considered wrestlers have moves that are recognizable to professional wrestling fans.

Here's a list of five pro wrestling-based video game characters. I chose each character based on three factors: move lists, legacy, and uniqueness. Each character must possess either a deep wrestling move list or a move list that reflects the proclivities of a pro wrestling character. Legacy implies the impact the character had on the creation of other pro-wrestling based character types. Uniqueness simply revolves around how well a character stands out.

5. Ramon (From “The King of Fighters” series) – I was first introduced to Ramon in 2008 when I played “King of Fighters XI.” Ramon struck me as a very unique character in the pantheon of 2-D fighting games because it’s not every day that you see a small, fast-paced, lucha libre-style wrestler in a fighting game. From what I can tell, his character is based off of “Tiger Mask,” the legendary manga that spawn a legion of real-life wrestlers who used the Tiger Mask story as a character gimmick. In addition to his flamboyant fighting style, Ramon uses several of Tiger Mask’s signature moves including the Moonsault, Tiger Suplex, and Snap DDT. You'll see better, more popular characters. Very few of them, however, move just as fast as the true lucha libre performers.

4. Craig Marduk (From the “Tekken” series) – If you’ve played any “Tekken” game featuring Marduk, you’ll notice that he’s basically an amalgam of a heavyweight mixed martial artist and Bill Goldberg, a distinction that’s pretty hard to differentiate, in my opinion, given Goldberg’s wrestling style. So I guess that means he’s a mix between Goldberg and Tazz. In Marduk’s move list is a kneebar submission, a side kick, the Spear, and the Jackhammer, all moves that Goldberg used during his tenures in the WWE and WCW. Marduk also shares Goldberg’s impressive physique.

3. Jeffry McWild (From the “Virtua Fighter” series) – Of the fighting games that I’ve played (the vast majority of them), I will freely admit that I have the least amount of experience with Virtua Fighter. But since its debut in 1993, Jeffry has been a stable character of the game. His bio sheet says that he is a Pankration practitioner, which is another way of saying that he practices MMA. When you look at his move list, however, he’s a wrestler - a very good wrestler. Backbreakers, Power Bombs, and Choke Slams are just a few moves that Jeffry employs. I do realized that Wolf Hawkfield would be the better choice from the perspective of pure wrestling moves, but he's not a trendsetter. He's a wrestling character with a strong move list, but there are several other characters that can do what he does better or faster. Jeffry, however, is the first MMA practitioner-based wrestler in fighting games. His character opened the door for Street Fighter's Adam and Alex;  Dead or Alive's Bayman, Leon, and Mila; King of Fighters' Ralf and Clark (to a smaller extent); and even Marduk.

2. Zangief (From the “Street Fighter” series) – This entry should speak for itself. There isn’t a more iconic video game character that is based off of professional wrestling than Zangief. One could argue that’s only because his is a featured character on a popular fighting game series that has absolutely nothing to do with him. Regardless, there is no doubt about the legacy of “the Red Cyclone.” His fighting style set the standard for grapplers in tournament-style fighting games. Every fighting game that followed Street Fighter has feature a big, slow, durable grappler capable of dealing out massive damage in a single move because of the creation of Zangief. Ironically enough, his signature move is the Spinning Piledriver, completely unrealistic and impossible to replicate with causing serious injury to someone in real life.

1. King (From the “Tekken” series) – I think King is the single most complete wrestling character created for any fighting game. By far, he has the deepest move set of any character in every incarnation. His character origin also has roots in the Tiger Mask story. Unlike Ramon, however, King’s move list is infinitely more versatile. Since the debut of Tekken 1 back in 1994, King has used just about every professional wrestling move you can think of: submissions like the Figure 4, Boston Crab, Cobra Clutch, and Indian Death Lock; and several variations of Power Bombs, Backbreakers, Piledrivers, and DDTs. He’s like a walking Fire Pro Wrestling creation. He has signature moves from popular wrestlers like The Rock Bottom, The Stone Cold Stunner, The Sharpshooter, and The Frankensteiner. He's sort of like the Bret Hart/Shawn Michaels of wrestling game fighting characters. Before those two, most of the main event wrestlers in the WWF were bigger, taller guys. King was one of the first to break the trend of the wrestler being the biggest, slowest character on the roster.

*Honorable Mentions: Wolf Hawkfield, Armor King, Tizoc, Adam, Bass Armstrong, Tina Armstrong, Lisa Hamilton