Tuesday, July 19, 2022

An Army Ant Retrospective

Is it weird to write an analysis of your own comic book series? 

Yes, it probably is.

Oh, well. Here we go anyway.

In working on the beginnings of a new series involving the Army Ants, I'm a bit older, and a bit better as a writer, and far better in terms of my understanding of storytelling and pacing and tone and all of those things... and I spent a little time perusing some of my army ant work. I wanted to decide what, exactly, made this book what it is to me, and what things were 'essential' to keep going forward.

In this process, I have realized that there are two 'types' of army ants stories. They are fundamentally different. 

The first type is loosely based on Carl Barks and Ducks. These are short stories, entirely self-contained, that are more like extended comic strips. They rely heavily on visual humor, puns, and fast pacing. They don't move 'the story' forward, because there's no story to move forward. These are just the ants being army ants. The larger story is in the background, but stays there. The exemplar of this, to me, is Slab Smash, which I threw together in like three days and still think might be my best comic book story. It's got everything I want out of an army ants short - some genuinely clever bits, good action, nice character beats... there's a lot to like here. I really want to find the best files I can for this and re-do the lettering; in retrospect, my art was usually a step (sometimes more than a step) ahead of my lettering - the use of digital fonts is a game changer for me; lettering is my worst attribute as a cartoonist. I wish I was better at it, because I think great lettering is a hallmark of a great cartoonist, but I just couldn't get there. Incidentally, I pulled one of my Carl Barks Donald Duck collections just to read through and... it's not very good. I mean, there's not much in there that's genuinely funny or clever. I read the introduction first, and was expecting some laugh-out-loud moments. It was actually a bit disappointing. I know that there is a great reverence for Barks, but I just didn't see it this afternoon. Maybe I just don't appreciate good stuff? No idea. In these sort of Army Ant stories, it's interesting to me that they are largely about Vince, Phil, and Slab. Those are my C-3PO, R2-D2, and Chewbacca. They are who they are. They generally don't change much, and tend towards comic relief.

Anyway, the second type of Army Ants story is the graphic novel. This is longer (duh), but deals with and develops themes around friendship, loss, hope, family... these are generally more serious, where story comes to the fore and I'm more concerned about character development and structure. It is interesting to me that these stories have pushed the characters of Gunner and Zak to the forefront. These are the characters who grow and change, and who have the most complexity to them. They are my Han Solo and Luke Skywalker characters. Vince, Phil, and Slab are there, but they are secondary characters, tending to fade into the background in large part.

So which one is 'really' an army ants story? That's been my dilemma. I've been drawn, at different times, to working in one style or another; part of me thinks that the army ants work best as short bursts of chaos, while other times I think they lend themselves to deeper meditations - that they are my own personal Watership Down.

Ultimately, I've realized that it's both. Army Ants is best when the two genres work side by side, balancing each other. They are the Yin/Yang that makes the series whole to me. I don't know why, but that realization is really helpful for me. I want to tell stories like "The Storm", which will work best jammed into the fewest pages possible; I also want to tell a sprawling story like "New Frontier" that is going to meander a bit and take its time getting where it wants to go. I am going to do some considerable world building with New Frontier. 

I am excited that, maybe at long last, I've given myself permission to do both.

What does that look like? Not sure yet. But at least I know how it should feel.

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