Jeremy Potterfield's Blog

An Oberlin course blog

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Brecht and Comics

May 10th, 2011 by Jeremy Potterfield · Uncategorized

Last class we discussed sympathy in comics. We we also lightly touched on purposeful and accidental alienation between the reader and the comic. This reminded me in many ways of Brecht’s theory of epic theater. In epic theater, the audience should always be aware that they are watching a play. To ensure this estrangement between audience and play Brecht uses techniques such as breaking the fourth wall and having one actor play multiple roles. In Brechtian theater, the actor will narrate what the character is feeling — instead of embodying and channeling the character in a realist form. The goal of epic theater is to free the audience from thoughtless emotion. That’s not to say there cannot be emotion in the play — but rather that emotion should be thought-driven. In his plays, Brecht aimed to elicit social change. Brecht required that the audience truly think about the societal dilemmas he staged.

Purposeful alienation frees the audience from the blurred lens of their emotions and requires them to analyze a situation rationally. Has/could this technique be used in comics? The best example I have in mind is the Harvey Pekar Name Story. Pekar speaks directly to the reader in each panel and the background is bare. In a way, Pekar is presenting a dialectic to the audience to be questioned and evaluated. This is quite Brechtian.

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Sandman

April 27th, 2011 by Jeremy Potterfield · Uncategorized

I really enjoyed reading the Sandman. A lot of the pleasure came from experiencing so much landscape and story in a single volume. As a reader we go from Hell, to the JLI base, to Arkham, France/England (I couldn’t tell). Because Sandman can travel through dreams, the reader often never stays in the same setting for long. We grab onto Sandman’s fantastic dreamy robe and take part in his far reaching quest — stretching miles in dreamspace, realspace, and otherrealm space (I totally just coined these three terms). Gaiman takes familiar concepts like the Sandman, or Hell, and completely surprises the readers’ expectations. For instance, Hell is sort of how one might imagine it. It’s complete with devils and daemons and the like. But Gaiman puts a fantastic spin on the concept of Hell. It’s an oligarchy, where strange contests of cunning settle disputes. And then Sandman just waltzes into Hell with his bad self. Gaiman’s novel takes on timeworn concepts were completely fascinating. Sandman does indeed earn the term graphic novel,for it is as much a novel as it is a comic. The panel design was innovative and the drawings of the characters were artfully juxtaposed. I look forward to reading the next volume/s.

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Generational Conflict in Spirited Away

April 27th, 2011 by Jeremy Potterfield · Uncategorized

Generally, Miyazaki features a young heroine as the main character of his films. This young heroine is often at odds with an older generation. In Spirited Away this young heroine is Chihiro, a young girl moving to a new home. The first generational conflict we notice is the conflict between her and her parents. This is not a violent familial conflict, but a conflict between the wants and desires of competing generations. The parents want to explore and eat the mysterious food at the fair. Chihiro is more cautious and tentative about her unknown setting. Ultimately this conflict brings Chihiro to the spirit world, on a quest to return her and her parents back to the human realm. While Chihiro is in the spirit world, she is perpetually in conflict with the old crone, Yu Baba. Yu Baba despises Chihiro for being human and does not think she is capable of anything. Chihiro eventually proves her worth, but the conflict is never really solved — it just passes away.

The conflicts between the generations seem to never have a victor who roots the other out. However, the conflict often leads to character growth for the younger generation, who must take on new responsibilities and life roles.

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The Simpsons Opening Sequence

April 10th, 2011 by Jeremy Potterfield · Uncategorized

As any Simpsons fan knows, the opening sequence is not the same, repetitive introduction to the characters and setting that one commonly sees in a television show. Instead, the opening sequence is a whole distinct cartoon, featuring original gags and jokes that differ from episode to episode. The most common everchanging gag is the couch gag, where the members of the Simpson family plop down onto their old couch to watch T.V.  and something unexpected happens. Some of the gags are short five-second shots of slapstick humor, while others last upwards of a minute — resembling cartoons in their own right.
Here is a video featuring all the Simpson couch gags ever made (up to the creation of the video) in high-speed:
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One of the +1minute gags. Definitely a favorite:
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Another recurring gag is the chalkboard gag, where Bart is shown repetitively writing a phrase on a chalkboard in detention. Like the couch gag, this phrase varies from episode to episode. It is often ironic and/or refers to some event in pop culture. For instance, during the controversy regarding Guantanamo Bay, “Chalkboarding is not waterboarding.”
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From 2009 to the present many more gags have been added to the opening sequence. The gags keep the introduction from becoming stale, while adding to the general amusement and humor of the show.

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Animated Films have Messages?

March 21st, 2011 by Jeremy Potterfield · Uncategorized

When did animated films ever have messages?

When I was seven years old watching the Iron Giant, it definitely didn’t have a message. There was a boy and his robot. Comic chaos ensued, as well as really cool battle scenes.

But a message? Apparently that film had a message?!

Alright. I’m being facetious — but to a point. I’m not sure how visible the “message” in The Iron Giant was to me, at seven years old when I saw it in theaters. I’m pretty sure I had heard about the Cold War, but  I really doubt I knew anything substantial about it. I doubt I knew nukes were involved. Flash-forward 11 years and I’m in college. And I know a lot about the Cold War. And other things too. Sex. Music. Philosophy. Psychology. Coral Reefs. Politics. French. Feminism. Everything. And armed with this eclectic base of knowledge I suddenly am finding messages where they never appeared before. Messages in children’s cartoons.

What is so cool about a Comics and Animation class in college is reseeing the past with mature eyes. Finding that profound moral and emotional truths were always right there under our noses, and we just didn’t recognize these truths because we were too young or naive. The discovery that our intellectual acuity is constantly growing and expanding, revealing new things in everyday things.

Life should be a constant learning experience; our intellectual acuity, our eye-sight of the physical world, should always be improving.

So if you don’t, go to screenings. Do not judge the content of the screenings to be “for children” and not worth time. Older and wiser, you will be surprised by how what you find. You may even discover animations have messages too.

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The Photoshop Effect: Beauty, Cartoons, and Abstraction

March 16th, 2011 by Jeremy Potterfield · Uncategorized

Procrastinating and spending time on Youtube, I came upon a collection of videos which featured average faces being transformed into beautiful faces via Photoshop. The Photoshop process is sped up, but one can see the artist’s contortions and alterations of the face that lead to its dramatic makeover. A digital artist is able to modify a photograph in such a way as to invoke a certain aesthetic reaction. I will coin this the Photoshop Effect  We see the Photoshop Effect in magazines and advertisements. Digital modification of images has transformed the advertising media. Advertising (propaganda, magazine ads, internet ads, radio, etc) is focused towards one goal: influencing the mind of the public. Through the use of digital touchups humans can be portrayed as more appealing to the viewer of an advertisement. Digital modification has many more tricks, but I will focus on this point.

A digital artist whose goal is to create an aesthetically pleasing advertisement can give a picture of a human attractiveness it could not otherwise have in real life. There may be people out there who disagree with this statement, — and may not be attracted to the say, touched-up adverts in magazines — but with a certain degree of artistic competence, I believe this statement is generally true. I believe this is done by cartooning the image. It is done by making a caricature of the original human image, but without the negative connotation that goes along with the word.

As Scott McCloud writes in Understanding Comics, most comic artists, even very realistic artists, choose to take away a certain degree of realism from their characters. This allows the reader to imprint his emotions and thoughts upon the character, creating a deeper connection. The cartoon becomes more relatable. The a general likeness to a human, whether facial or body = Like-Ability.

I believe this is where we find the answer to the Photoshop Effect. Things which indicate realism: wrinkles, the blood veins in the eyeballs, very slightly asymmetrically skewed body parts, are all taken away in a digital touch up. A certain amount of the body is digitally modified to meet contemporary conceptions of beauty, but things which seem to speak to realism are taken away. The face and body are abstracted. In this way they are more relatable to their human audiences. Their abstract quality makes them a blank canvas for viewers to imprint their emotions, thoughts, and feelings.  Additionally, the more abstract an image the wider its demographic. I’ve noticed in magazines that skin color of some models is modified just so slightly that they can appear to be Latino, Caucasian, African-American, Pacific — really any race you are/can think of.

I would argue that cartooning is a very specific type of art. One that emphasizes abstraction and relatibility. A connection with the reader. It is the reader who turns thought bubbles into words, and ink on paper into sentient beings.

It’s amazing and a bit funny to think that cartoons are so related to beauty. I definitely see it — I hope I’ve gotten the point across.

If not! Here is a video to emphasize my point. It is Mr. Beans’ transformation into a Mr. Bond:
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Gerald McBoing Boing

March 13th, 2011 by Jeremy Potterfield · Uncategorized

I found the animation adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s, Gerald McBoing Boing, to be expertly done and thoroughly entertaining. It’s about a child, Gerald, who, instead of speaking his first words, can only create sound effects (albeit expertly). The cartoon demonstrated how excellent pairing of sound and animation can really create a fine product.

The cartoon is as lyrical as Seuss’s original work. Though I’ve never read Gerald McBoing Boing the animation captures the essence of Seuss’s whimsical poetic style that we all know and love. The graphical representations of the characters are not totally like Seuss’s storybook characters, but do capture some of Seuss’s original style in their movements and gestures.

This might be a stretch, but in a way Gerald is meta, in that he represents the medium of animation. Animation, like Gerald, is an entirely new form of communication. At first Gerald’s way of communication seems incomprehensible, but later it becomes useful and effective for improving entertainment in a novel way.

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Childhood Cartoons as Discussion

March 13th, 2011 by Jeremy Potterfield · Uncategorized

Why is it that programs targeted at educating younger children generally take the form of animation rather than plain live-action? As a child I was enamored with Arthur, Sesame Street, and Dragon Tales — and though I loathe to admit it I also watched J J the Jetplane and Caillou. Because Sesame Street features cartoon-like puppets I wouldn’t categorize it in the straight live-action category.

Really this question could be expanded to, “Why do children prefer animation over live-action.” Now, I’m assuming that this is a true statement. It was true for me, and my friends, when we were children. Even now, at times, it applies.

What is it about animation that is so likable?

My answer comes from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. He points out that humans have the ability to identify with abstract, and even caricatured, representations of ourselves. We can even see a face in the two or three spaces of an electrical outlet.

Cartoons lack the detail and realistic anatomical proportions of humans. So, as Scott McCloud asks, “Why would anyone, young or old, respond to a cartoon as much or more than a realistic image?”

When the a representation — a cartoon — is presented as an abstraction of reality it allows the audience to better imprint themselves upon the illustration. When the cartoon speaks, it is not actually speaking, but rather we give it a voice. We take a leap of faith and impart human qualities to the puppets on Sesame Street or the characters in Arthur. Life is given to paper. Like Pygmalion, we fashion  beings in the images of ourselves, and then animate them.

Still I’m not totally convinced. Do we really get satisfaction from humanizing puppets or cartoons? Or are our emotions really amplified from interacting with an abstract image? Is being alike synonymous with likability? Is this really what causes children to prefer animation over live-action. Perhaps we just see so much of live-action everyday. Cartoons represent a break in this monotony. Maybe comics are so appealing because our eyes crave a change in graphical representation.

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Will Eisner and the Spirit

March 6th, 2011 by Jeremy Potterfield · Uncategorized

Using his knowledge of astrology and tassology, Brian Doan accurately predicted that we would be reading The Spirit on Will Eisner’s 94th birthday. I thank Google’s logo illustration for alerting me to this celestial connection.

First, I came into reading The Spirit completely fresh. Well — almost fresh. There was a movie adaptation of Eisner’s Spirit that came out in 2008, for which I saw a trailer. Also because Stana Katic, Detective Beckett in ABC’s crime show, Castle (of which I am a HUGE fan), plays Officer Morgenstern in the adaptation, I did search on YouTube for her scenes. Anyway, from watching the trailer and Katic’s occasional screen moments I figured this about The Spirit franchise: The main character is a suave masked man whom women fawn over, he’s also a detective, and Samuel L Jackson has fuzzy sideburns. Just kidding about that last point, but it really caught me off guard. I mean, really?

So, I came into reading The Spirit almost fresh. Now, after reading it, I wonder if my original conception of The Spirit is so different from the one I currently possess. The character of The Spirit is in fact a suave masked man, who wins over the hearts of any ladies, friend or foe (It must be the mask and the fact that it emanates mystery). He’s also a self-appointed detective who works well with the police commissioner. In the comics we never see Octopus’s face, so I can’t tell you whether or not the fuzzy sideburns are Eisner approved. So far, my original conception is pretty accurate. And in all truth, these first two points are essential to The Spirit franchise.

Yet, I would be remiss to say that that was all there was to the franchise. From reading The Spirit I understand there are a lot more subtler things at play in the comic, which have contributed to its renown and today’s immortalization on Google’s homepage.

First of all, The Spirit is extremely lawful. While he is a self-appointed detective, he works within the narrow confines of the laws, collaborating with the police. While there are times when The Spirit follows his own moral compass and strikes deals without police approval, he almost always puts laws and rules ahead of circumstances. He doesn’t deal in grey area. The comic book is surprisingly black and white. In his eyes if you are a criminal, you must serve time in prison.

The Spirit doesn’t seem to have any superhuman powers. Or at least, this isn’t expressly stated. He is not at all immune to bullets, and in one chapter we see The Spirit on crunches after being shot in the leg. He’s not an alien from Mars. Nor is he a mutant. He is portrayed as a man who is given a second chance at life, and, with a new identity, chooses to become justice incarnate. The Spirit’s mortality allows him to connect to readers in a way that most of his superhero counterparts cannot.

Finally, Eisner takes many liberties in the storytelling of The Spirit. Often the stories are goofy, surreal, and experimental. There are more serious stories, with recurring villains, and morality tales, but often Eisner’s whimsical and imaginative storytelling is just as, if not more so, profound and entertaining.

Reading The Spirit filled a huge gap in my cultural education and I would recommend it to those who haven’t had the chance to read it.

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There She Is!! Step 1

March 5th, 2011 by Jeremy Potterfield · Uncategorized

First, some general information about the There She Is!! series. It is a five-part series (in “Steps”), began by SamBakZa, a trio of Korean flash artists. The animation features a female rabbit named Doki, and a male cat named Nabi. The first “step” was submitted on Newgrounds in 2004.
Without further ado:

Step 1 introduces the viewer to the world of Doki and Nabi; a colorful world of anthropomorphic rabbits and cats, but one that also forbids interspecies relationships. Doki and Nabi’s attempts to sustain this tabooed relationship in a politically unchanging environment are the subjects of future Steps.

The colors in Step 1 are mostly watercolors and whites; with the exception of a few notable motifs: Nabi’s scarf, hearts, the vending machines, the no-love sign. These motifs will be recurring throughout the whole series so watch out for them. Also the color scheme will change throughout the series, so pay attention to the colors.

The animation begins with a shot of a vending machine, dispensing fish in a cup. The music is stretched out, building tension. The viewer sees a cup of carrot juice spill to the ground in slowmotion, Finally, the music erupts in climax as the viewer sees Doki blushing with overflowing adoration for Nabi, hearts forming around her head. From :30-32 we understand from the haughty and disgusted reactions of the crowd that such a relationship is forbidden. Or, if perhaps the first time viewer doesn’t get this, the animator cleverly sets the scene with a sign at :40 basically saying love between a rabbit and cat is not allowed. This a motif that will continue throughout the series.

From :50 onwards there are lots of well-done gags, as Doki attempts to chase down her heartthrob, Nabi, while he runs for his life (knowing that such a relationship can never work). The gags are playful with lighting, dimension and space.

After about a minute of gags, Nabi attempts to explain to Doki why they cannot be together. He gives her a slideshow of relationships that work in their society: Rabbit and Rabbit = good. Cat and Cat = Good. Cat and Rabbit = X. The facial movements of the characters say a lot about the character’s personalities. When Nabi’s head moves slightly forward after giving the bad news, the viewer knows that he is patient and trying to let Doki down easy. From the declining of Doki’s head and the question mark that appears over her it, the viewer understands she is naïve, but stubborn. Gags continue for another minute.

At 3:14 we see another forbidden interspecies relationship in the making. After Doki downs a fish-product from the vending machine in the first scene, we see a heart appear over Nabi’s head – which he quickly and cutely attempts to rub away.

The animation works as an allegory for certain relationships which are looked down upon. It could apply to interracial relationships or homosexual relationships. I know that when I first saw the animation I immediately thought of the latter. There she is!! is a good example of the power of the comic/animation medium. The animator can present a politically charged issue innocuously, and then attempt to explore its complexities in the animation. The next blog post will be about Step 2, but after seeing Step 1 it’s kind of impossible not to watch the next four right away.

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