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News post – Catch-23 No. 1150 Lockdown Haircut

I was going to do a strip about NSW’s Freedom (sp?) Day, but it was more bitter than funny, so I went with the new craze of lockdown haircuts instead.

I have resisted thus far, but my resistance is waning. It’s been like three and a half months since my last cut, and I’m well past unkempt. I’m headed towards unruly. COVID and lockdowns have gotten us back to being more self-reliant. Cooking for ourselves more often, painting our own nails, grooming our own dogs. Hair is like a bridge too far. I read a theory some years ago that we evolved hair on our heads that needs regular tending to force us humans to maintain our social bonds.

Something to think about while I scratch my proto-mullet and think about using the dog clippers on my head.

Mat

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Blog #19 The Right Tools, Part Two: Illustration programs

As I mentioned in the last blog post, you can create with any tools, but some tools give you a head start and then get out of your way.

Last time, this message was about writing using a decent keyboard. This time, it’s cartooning with a decent illustration program.

For a long time, Catch-23 was drawn on paper. Blue pencil with black ink (with a Pilot Fineliner) over the top, scanned into a computer and then touch-ups and dialogue added in Photoshop.

A meeting with the illustrator Martin Abel convinced me that drawing straight into the computer was the future, and he was spot on. I got a Wacom Bamboo drawing tablet, and used that to draw straight into Photoshop for years. Being able to ‘undo’ a badly-drawn line is definitely a game-changer.

The final piece of the puzzle was when I was at Penny Arcade Expo Australia (PAX AUS). I was at PAX AUS every year, and one of my favourite parts was the panel where Mike and Jerry drew their Penny Arcade comic strip live on stage, whilst answering fan questions.

This one year, Mike wasn’t drawing in Photoshop, it was some other program. It looked and acted a fair bit like Photoshop, but there was a bunch of tools and functions directly for illustrators and cartoonists. Mike revealed that the drawing program was Manga Studio (which has since been renamed to Clip Studio Paint, for reasons that I suspect only lawyers understand). I purchased a copy that evening.


These are the first two comic strips that I made in Clip Studio Paint:

Catch-23 No. 793 Feeling a bit sketchy

Catch-23 No. 794 The cat café


What’s so great about Clip Studio Paint? The big advantages for a cartoonist like me are the ink and brush engines and the easy-to-use word balloons.

Without going into a whole vector-vs-raster TED Talk, Clip Studio Paint allows you to draw using vector lines, which keep your pen pressure thin-thick properties, but are an editable vector line as well. Not only does this mean you can edit a finished ink piece line-by-line, but it also means that if you overshoot, there is a time-saving Vector Erase tool that cleans up these unwanted lines in a flash.

Not having to worry about rogue lines means you can draw with more freedom, with looser lines, and then just tidy it up later. This freedom is the best of both worlds – your drawings have more ‘life’, but you don’t have to sacrifice neatness and clean lines to get it.

Speaking of looser lines, there is also a wonderful line smoothing option that can be applied to the inked lines. Having a nice smooth curved ink line is a dream that only the steadiest hands can achieve on paper. In Clip Studio, you just turn it on, select how much smoothing you want, whether you want it to kick in when drawing fast, slow or both, and away you go.

And word balloons have always been a chore… before Clip Studio Paint. There’s a dedicated Word Balloon tool, and a Word Balloon Tail tool as well. Other programs have had standard vector shape tools that you could use for word balloons, but they were made for generating regular symmetrical shapes, not the more organic shapes that word balloons need. If your balloons are too even, too round, too precise, it distracts from the final product.

Clip Studio Paint is what I have been using for years, and it would take a mighty program to get met to change, but it’s happened before.

Yes, you can use anything to create, but starting with the right tools can take the drudgery out of the repetitive tasks and let you spend more time on the fun bits. Once you’ve gotten to grips with the new tools, this can open up creative possibilities that you never considered previously.

As I mentioned last time, I get no kickbacks for talking up Clip Studio Paint. I paid for my licence years ago from my own pocket, and I am just sharing my experiences.

Mat

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News post – Catch-23 No. 1149 Rivalry

The Delta outbreaks and subsequent lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne have produced some strange competitiveness between the cities. It’s always been there – football, liveable city rankings, weather – but now people are strangely proud of negative things, like highest case numbers and days spent in lockdown.

What to learn from this? Is it that we’re so desperate for a win that any kind of win will do? Stress, uncertainty and restrictions do weird things to people.

I have lived in both cities – Sydney for almost 30 years and Melbourne for almost 15 years – and I can say that even with our long lockdowns and colder winters, Melbourne is the better city. The better city for me, your own mileage may vary.

Mat

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Blog #18 The Right Tools, Part One: Keyboards

I’m not usually someone who believes that tools make the artist. If you gave Jimi Hendrix a dime-store guitar, he would have made it sound like a million-dollar rig.

But.

Sometimes the tools need to be of a certain quality to get out of your creative way. You can learn to work around the idiosyncrasies of any system, but if there’s nothing to work around, you can just get on with it.

The two things I want to talk about in regards to this are: using Clip Studio Paint to draw my comic strip and using a fancy typewriter-style mechanical keyboard to write on.

Keyboard first. I’ve always gotten by with ‘just OK’ keyboards. They’ve been a means to an end. Wireless, wired, old, new, whatever. As long as the keys worked, and it had a number pad, then we’re golden.

That’s what I thought.

Then I started to take my writing more seriously. My regular old Logitech keyboard had started getting in the way. As I was typing more, and typing faster, my typos increased and when you’re banging out a bunch more words, going back and fixing more mistakes was getting to be really time consuming.

I did a little research. What kind of keyboard did the internet recommend for writers? Mechanical keyboards came back as the resounding answer. But there are a million types of mechanical keyboards. Mechanical keyboards are prized as they use true mechanical switches – they need a bit more pressure to punch the key down, but every key press is either yes or no, on or off. This intentionality encourages accuracy and reduces those mushy multi-key presses.

Could we go further?

Always.

More research showed a range of styles of these mechanical keyboards. Mechanical keyboards come in either standard square-key keyboards, fancy light-up gamer keyboards and round-key typewriter keyboards.

I think you see where this is going.

Round keys kept coming up as a good option to improve accuracy. As square keys are very close together at the corners, hitting the wrong key can be more common. With round keys, there is a little space around each key, especially at the top and bottom corners (duh, circles have no corners!). Plus the nice keyboards have slightly concave key surfaces, guiding your finger to the centre of the key rather than sliding off sideways.

A poke around on Etsy and some other online store, and I knew a black and silver, round-key keyboard what I was after. Enter the Azio MK Retro Typewriter Mechanical Keyboard. Heavy body, adjustable height via wide padded feet, chrome-bezel round keys. Sold. I had some credit on my Amazon account, which brought the price down a bit. I have never paid this much for a keyboard, but I have also never used a keyboard that’s so perfectly made for writing on.

The clacky-clack of the typing also really drives home the fact that this keyboard is a tool for writing, expensive compared to a $30 keyboard that basically does the same thing, but finely tuned to the task.

Side note: this is no paid product placement. I bought this keyboard, and Clip Studio Paint, with my own money. I’m just a consumer, my endorsement is not paid for, just earned by making superior products.

So, here I type on this new keyboard, and it’s a joy to use. The mere act of punching words into it is satisfying, and this is setting up a nice feedback loop where writing more encourages me to write even more for the sheer pleasure of the process.

Next time, I’ll talk about why I use Clip Studio Paint to draw my comic strip, and how that tool makes my drawing life much easier.

Mat

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News post – Catch-23 No. 1148 Knock, knock

It’s hard to separate out my feelings about Gladys resigning as NSW Premier. Mostly I’m still angry at her for not putting Sydney into total lockdown, which allowed Delta to spread all over the place. The resignation may have been in response to the ICAC investigation, but it feels like a long-overdue punishment for the miserable bungling of this current outbreak.

Melbournites are still in lockdown, two months in, and the numbers have never been worse. The amount of bitterness towards Gladys and NSW is at an all-time high. We tried to do all the right things and we still ended up under the bus.

I’m sure at some point in the future, I’ll feel sorry for Gladys, but that day is not today.

Mat

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Blog #17 Aliens in film and novels aren’t alien enough

Wednesdays are continuing to be busy days for me, so I’m officially moving blog day to Friday. Happy Friday! On to the blog.

I love me some sci-fi, and where there’s sci-fi, there’s often aliens. My issue is that we, as creators, think too small. Aliens should be much more alien than they’re usually represented.

Aliens in fiction are usually stand-ins for people, they are a way to tell a story about what it is to be human. Aliens are almost always humanoid, bipedal, two eyes, and able to speak our language with a bit of help.

When stories take place in more of a science-fantasy genre (like Star Wars, where there’s magic, hyper-speed and sound can travel in space), it’s fine for aliens to be basically people in rubber suits. In serious science fiction (‘hard’ sci-fi, in the vernacular), aliens are still mostly just people in rubber suits.

Us humans evolved into the shape we are due to the planet we started on. The gravity, the available chemicals, the environmental pressures, all of this made us the way we are. To my way of thinking, if another creature dragged itself into self-awareness on a far-flung planet, that planet’s vastly different environment, by necessity, would shape a vastly different creature.

Life, even on planet Earth, is much more varied that we realise. We have tiny creatures, broadly grouped as extremophiles, that happy live in the most inhospitable corners of the planet. Creatures that thrive at crushing pressures, blistering heat or withering cold.

And that’s just here.

Why would we assume that something growing up on a far-distant world would be any less bizarre than the most bizarre terrestrial lifeforms?

In summation, keep aliens weird.

For a good example of inhuman aliens, a couple of examples spring to mind. First, the aliens in Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Rama‘ series, and the creatures in the movie ‘Arrival‘.

And don’t get me started on UFO’s. If you want to know how aliens are going to try and talk to us, forget little green men in flying saucers and instead read ‘Contact‘ by Carl Sagan.

Mat

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News post – Catch-23 No. 1147 Tremors

As if a plague and riots weren’t enough, apparently we also needed an earthquake to really make it clear that 2021 is the darkest timeline.

The earthquake happened on Wednesday, so by the time the comic strip was made, all the good jokes have been done already. I had a few different ideas, but when in doubt, stay true to the characters.

This one was a fun one to draw, it was enjoyable doing tilted panel borders and lots of shake lines. Showing movement in a still image is one of the hardest things to draw – the very medium of a static image is against you. Luckily there’s lots of tricks in the book to convey something in motion.

And no damage to report here, just a few pictures on the wall got tilted and a few DVDs fell off the shelf.

Mat

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Blog #16 Not even a pen

Why did I pick Wednesdays for my blog? Wednesdays used to be quiet and now they are my busiest day. Maybe blogs will move to Friday…

Today’s topic is about bribery and corruption. I’ll tell you a story from a bunch of years ago, and then I’ll draw some comparisons to what’s going on in Australian politics.

More than a decade ago, I was freelancing as a designer for a supermarket catalogue. The team was mostly agency freelancers with a handful of fulltime staff. It must have been an expensive way to run things, but it gave them the flexibility to scale up and down with staffing at short notice.

I had been there only a few weeks, still learning the ropes, when everyone in the catalogue team – full timers as well as freelancers – get called into a meeting with Corporate.

In the meeting, we learned that a store manager was found kicking store business to a close friend of his, who was a meat wholesaler. The dodgy business practices were uncovered and the store manager was sacked.

Corporate’s response was to institute some big anti-bribery policies. In an effort to stamp out this kind of practice, we were told that no-one that did work for the company could accept anything from any company or person that we did business with. Gifts of any kind given to someone that has a say on who gets the business, and how much of it they get, is a slippery slope that the company wanted no part of.

‘Not even a pen,’ they said. Accepting something as small as a pen was deemed as crossing the line. No more gift baskets, no more freebies, nothing.

As a freelance designer, I had no real say on any business matters. I put product pictures where I was told, adjusted prices as per the weeks pricing rules and printed proofs for checking. And yet, even I, someone who was not technically an employee, was bound by these rules.

What does this story say about those in government, accepting payments from people who they are in a position to help? What does this say about accepting massive blind payments to pay your legal bills?

If a freelance designer can’t even accept a pen, why are the rules at the highest level of government so flimsy?

Mat

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News post – Catch-23 No. 1146 Crativity

Why are we humans drawn to things that could injure us? Behold, the milk crate challenge, where you are supposed to walk up a stack of milk crates, then back down again, usually resulting in the aforementioned falling and hurting. Dangerous enough to get banned from TikTok. Here’s a video explaining why the milk crate challenge is pretty much impossible.

‘Fix it in post’ is a reference to something that reportedly happened on the Star Wars Episode III set. They were filming the climactic lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Hayden Christensen turned up on set without his Anakin wig. Instead of waiting to get the wig, George Lucas knew how much special effects work was already in the film, so said ‘we’ll fix it in post’ and they added computer-generated hair to the wigless shots.

Mat

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Blog #15 That time I almost quit my day job to become a video game tester

At one point in time, I almost walked away from publishing – an industry I worked in for close to two decades – to work in the video game industry.

Follow your dreams
I have been an avid gamer my whole life. The publishing industry started off as a bit of a fall-back job, but ended up being a decent career. I worked for a bunch of publishers, mostly in the education industry, but after about 13 years, it had started to get really stale.

I was working as a freelancer on the Coles supermarket catalogue. We had been living in Melbourne for about two years, and I had been looking for jobs in book publishing or educational publishing, but it’s a really small industry and it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Still new to the city, I didn’t really know anyone. This design/publishing job came up at the Coles catalogue – the money was good and the work was challenging, especially that weekly deadline.

But it was just a job. It wasn’t creatively fulfilling. Putting yet another ‘Half Price!!!’ dot label on pictures of Coca-Cola started to wear thin.

I asked myself, what would my dream job be? I was making this comic strip at the time, but I had no illusions that it would pay the bills. Gaming, especially mobile gaming, was starting to boom and a bunch of up-and-coming studios were based in Melbourne.

Maybe I could make video games. Doing what? I didn’t know. Art, writing, testing, planning, I had no idea what the actual roles at a game studio might be, but I decided I wanted to try.

A job came up for a tester, so off I went to the studio.

Testing
What does a tester do? Just like it sounds. In broad terms, you play through the current build of the game, and report any bugs or issues so that the team can fix them before release. On paper, you’re playing games for a living (yay!) but in reality, it’s mostly writing emails and communicating with the various departments about the circumstances that caused the bug.

The weird interview
The team at this game studio were nice enough, but the vibe was that the industry was so new that it was making things up as it went along, especially the HR and hiring policies. My interview was conducted by a manager, with another applicant beside me – a shared interview.

Sounds terrible, right? That’s cuz it was. It’s hard enough talking up your qualities without another stranger looking on, who is after the same job you are.

We were even asked, like some reality show, why they should hire us over the person sitting next to us. Ew.

Did I mention the person I interviewed with was half my age? I was almost thirty and this kid had just finished high school.

Entry level
Which leads me to the reason I’m not working in the industry – the job was entry level. Not just entry level, but money-wise, you’d make more slinging burgers at a fast food chain. The carrot is that starting in Quality Assurance would eventually lead to roles in other, more exciting, parts of the company.

At that stage, there was no way I could have walked away from a well-paying catalogue job when we had a mortgage and my wife was still studying her masters degree.

The manager interviewing me observed that I was overqualified for this entry-level job, and I had to tell him that the pay rate was not something I could accept.

I did not give up on the gaming industry just yet. I ended up getting a publishing job at Oxford University Press (Australia and New Zealand) and worked there in a variety of print and web roles for eight years, so the idea of making games went on the backburner.

The time I made my own video game
When I was burned-out on publishing, I dusted off the idea of making games for a living. The industry had matured while I was working in publishing and became much more mainstream.

In order to promote myself, I went ahead and made my own little platform game…

…but that’s a story for another blog.

Mat