Thursday, August 25, 2022

Biting the Hand That Feeds You

I showed a few of my strip drafts for Teaching Ted to some of my colleagues yesterday, and they were... concerned. They are good colleagues, and I trust that they are looking out for me. They said that I should maybe re-consider publishing Teaching Ted. I am a public school employee, and I could easily get myself into trouble with an administrator, parent, or student who sees themself reflected in some negative way in the strip.

This is a fair concern. I'm in the middle of completing my beginning-of-year video trainings, and the advice in all things hews towards, 'when in doubt, err on the side of caution'.

I am a public employee who is held to a higher standard. I have accepted that a long time ago. It might not be fair, but I am judged, and my behavior is scrutinized, even after the school day ends. I go to the local supermarket to get milk and eggs, but I'm not Mike - I'm still Dr. Desing, and (the community presumes) a representative of my school. I attempt to comport myself appropriately as a result. I accept that as part of my life as a teacher.

So, is Teaching Ted in some way a violation of that?

It's a fair question. I want to make sure I don't inadvertantly violate confidentiality or compromise my professionalism. However, I'm also a citizen of the United States with the legal right (and I'd even argue a responsibility) to criticize what I see as inequities or hypocrisy in our political, cultural, and social systems. I think I can move forward with a clear conscience. I know what my intentions are, and I think that petty people are going to be petty if they want to be; trying to get ahead of the pettiness of others is a fool's errand. If I say something that gets someone mad, then it's possible I've simply called them out on their behaviors, and they're not happy about it.

That said, here are the decisions I've made regarding Teaching Ted that should buffer me pretty well:

The Superintendent is the Charlie's Angels voice box; it is a disconnected voice. 'The Superintendent' speaks in cliches and eduspeak. The Superintendent is a hybrid of all medioce superintendents everywhere (and there are many of them).

The principal is going to be Napoleon Bonaparte. In earlier variations, he was a man with a Napoleon complex. Going with a parody of the actual historical Napoleon is going to solve my problem.

I'm never going to mention parent or student names (except for generic first names like 'Joe' or 'Sue'). Parent and student faces will never appear in the strip.

I lean towards only wanting to fully reveal characters who are sympathetic and likeable. Mr. Victor, while probably an effective teacher, has also given in to some of the worst impulses that teachers can be pulled towards. He's lazy and selfish, and doesn't really put his students first. As a result, his face is always hidden behind a newspaper.

So, I figure I go forward... and I have this blog entry for when I get into trouble later on :)

Monday, August 22, 2022

Writing Process: Comic Strips

I find the writing process for a comic strip is fundamentally different than other types of writing I have done. You have a very limited framework to fit ideas within, so things like rhythm, timing, and pacing are vitally important. A few word changes or re-ordering a sequence can fundamentally shift the entire strip.

Additionally, there are two competing forces at play when writing a comic strip; you ultimately want some payoff for the reader. There has to be at least a chuckle or a moment of 'aha' that a reader receives for their investment. It's a low-intensity interaction with a reader, but you want the reader to experience at least one thing during their time in that individual four-panel strip. On one hand, you want to pack as much stuff in as possible. On the other hand, this is a marathon and not a sprint; a long-range reading of some of the great comic strips of all time will reveal that they would have a 'theme' for a week (or longer), mining that idea for as many different individual strips as possible. However, the thinner you spread your material, the less likely you are to give a reader a payoff in each one.

With Teaching Ted, I want there to be three payoffs per strip. I want there to be something in the first panel that makes you smile or snicker or roll your eyes or something; the message on the chalk board, the cat meme on his desk, the sign under the superintdent's name plate - there should be some immediate encouragement for the reader to keep going. Panel two is the transitional building panel; it's the rising action. Panel three is the climax - that's the big payoff for that strip (I think) or a really powerful tease/hook for the final panel (which should be its own form of payoff), and then the final panel has the final downbeat and the closing statement. It's hopefully the best panel, and pays off the investment in the other three.

However, I'm finding that in drafting, I'm often combining two or three ideas into one strip for maximum payoffs. This is the strip I'm working on this morning...

This is one of my TV strips. The idea is that Ted is watching TV; this is my way to reflect on larger political and social events that have some impact on teachers and classrooms; Ted is a witness (often disengaged) to the larger forces happening that will ultimately force their way into his classroom (via his TV at home). In this case, I was thinking about the "don't say gay" policy in Florida, and how to blow this up. By the way, I've decided Ted works in a hybrid conservative state that takes the worst educational policies of the south and merges them into one super-state of awfulness. Anyway, the script started this way:

1. A NASA mission today went wrong when the controller was unable to stop the mission in time.
2. In his own words, "I didn't know if I could say abort. You know. Because of the other word".
3. That other word, as we all know, rhymes with PLAY. And, we will not say it either.
4. In other news, the governor has proposed a bill that would prohibit the public use of the word "abort".

It was okay. It's got a few little payoffs, and an ironic kind of twist at the end. It works well enough, but it's not great, and only borderline good.

I had another draft going with kids and toy AR-15s and them being a song and dance group that goes around doing patriotic songs. I didn't feel like I could get a whole four-panel strip out of that gag, but I fit it into panel one. Then, I decided to up the ante on the word you cannot say joke, and stay there for the rest of the strip. I had to pack things more tightly, but ended up with a much stronger draft:

1. Those local kids are so patriotic.

And cute! Those miniature AR-15s were adorable!

2. Now to national news. An unmanned space mission went awry today.

Apparently, the flight controller saw a problem, but here’s what happened, in the flight controller’s own words… 

3. I wanted to say abort, but I didn’t know if I could say that anymore. You know. Cuz of gay.

4. Turns out he was allowed to say abort, but will now face misdemeanor charges for the other word.

Then, I had to edit as I was doing the layout, because not everything fit on the page. I cleaned up and tightened dialogue due to limitations of physical space, and ended up with an even tighter draft. Here's the page with dialogue. I used different colors to differentiate the various people speaking.

You'll notice that Ted has no arms here... that's because I've streamlined my process quite a bit. I don't draw a new chair or TV or even basic posture for Ted (unless needed) every time; for many pages, I have the basic elements in place, and then I'm just going to draw a hand and (in this case) a bowl of popcorn. He'll be eating popcorn as he watches; but I'm able to use 90% of the same drawing in every panel here, and add the 10% that changes. In some ways, my process is closer to animation than cartooning, because of how I'm managing pieces of the work flow. I've done one chalk board drawing; every time Ted is in front of the chalk board, it's going to be the exact same board design. Right now, I have ten different Ted postures drawn and two sides he can stand on the board; this gives me several thousand variations on how Ted can be standing at the board and talking to his class to work with. By building in these ways to speed up the process, I am more confident that I can maintain a schedule of two strips a week, and move to three a week if I get some momentum going.


Sunday, August 21, 2022

Onward to the Future

We made it to post number 1,000!

I don't know why this feels like a big deal (it's probably no bigger of a deal than any other project I've done - I assume they all feel like a big deal when I launch them), but I've got Teaching Ted (version 2.0) ready to roll. It came together pretty quickly (always a good sign), and I've got the initial sites set up. 

I am going to be posting on both Webtoons and Tapas, at least initially. If and when I get some momentum going, I'll probably get a Patreon going as well, but I'm going to take this a step at a time. I've got four strips done, with scripts and some of the drawings done for another six or eight, so I'm pretty well set for the first few weeks. The comic will be updated on Tuesdays and Fridays, starting September 2.

I wanted post 1,000 to be about going forward, and I suppose that this applies.

Webtoons is posted here 

Tapas is posted here

While I lean towards Tapas, you can read it on whatever platform you prefer. I would appreciate any follows/subscriptions/likes/comments you feel like contributing.

Here's the first comic, an ice breaker...

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Post 999

I've known this was going to be post either 999 or 1,000 and I went back and forth about which one I wanted it to be. Ultimately, the post is about looking back, so I went with 999. Post one-thousand should be about looking forward and what is to come. But before we can get to that, let's reflect on how I got here.

Hey, it's my blog. I can navel gaze as much as I'd like.

When I was a senior in college, our final project for senior seminar was to discuss our life's work; when we look back on our professional career, what do we want to say that we've accomplished? This was a theater course, so of course the expectation was that we'd be talking about theater. My friends discussed things like professional careers as actors, winning awards as directors, or making a mark as a playwright. I had, at one point or another, wanted to do all three of those things. However, by the end of my senior year, I was starting to realize two things: 1) I was not willing to make the sacrifices I'd have to make to truly live a life in professional theater, and 2) I had too many competing interests outside of theater that pulled at my time and attention.

I struggled with this assignment. I wanted to be honest, but I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to just walk away from theater, but I also didn't want to make a claim about something I didn't think I'd do. Eventually, I realized it. I remember the speech I gave; it went something like this...

At the end of my career, I can see a book shelf. It is full of books that all have my name on the spine. I have no idea what is in those books - it might be novels or plays or comics or something else - but it's a body of work that I've created.

A few weeks ago, I took this picture to get ready for this blog entry. It's not a complete shelf per se, but I'm also not done. The fact that I said I would do this almost thirty years ago and I've done it to a reasonable level made me feel really, really good. At the time, the idea of pdf publishing wasn't a thing, so if you count that I'm well over a full shelf. However, I didn't say I wanted a flash drive full of digital files, so the shelf it is.

I am proud of the things I've accomplished and the milestones I've reached. The fact that I've maintained a blog of my creative life, and I've updated it one shy of a thousand times in the last decade, is something. I don't know what it signifies, but it signifies something to me. 

I look forward to seeing what's next, and I thank everyone who has been part of the journey thus far. 

Playing with Formatting

This is post number 998! I didn't want to do any 'filler' posts just to get closer to one-thousand, but I genuinely would post this anyway, so here it is... 

I played with the formatting of the first two Ted strips; I fixed coloring on his collar, upgraded the lettering one size, and I'm playing with a more square layout that might be friendlier on phones and social media. I like the traditional layout of a four-panel grid reading left to right, but going with four panels in this way is not bad at all. I can totally live with it (and I know that it's still the four-panel grid, just cut and pasted around a bit).

Following the Muse

It's been a busy couple of weeks with finishing up summer school and various and sundry projects. I haven't made nearly the progress I wanted to make on Army Ants, but that was okay. I was fine with letting it be ready when it was ready.

But in the last few days, I've been thinking again about my strip Teaching Ted. This was, far and away, the most successful thing I've ever done in terms of cartooning. There were a few dozen regular readers, and I had one strip that went viral on a national teacher blog, and that had a few thousand eyeballs on it. It was a pleasant experience.

But then something happened: I decided to become an administrator. I decided to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership, and to move into running a school. I wanted to take the issues I saw and skewered in Teaching Ted and be more productive - fix the problems rather than just complaining about them and making fun of them. I also didn't think it was a good idea to be poking fun at teachers and administrators while I was trying to move into school leadership; if you are a principal and make fun of teachers, it's now bullying. So, I stopped Teaching Ted.

A few months later, my computer had the crash of all crashes, and I lost everything, including all of my Teaching Ted strips, which numbered over 150. Oh well. Onward and upward.

I eventually got my doctorate. I interviewed for jobs. And interviewed. And interviewed. And interviewed some more. Fifty-four interviews and four-and-a-half years later, I believe it might be time to reconsider. Nobody in a position of authority wants me to lead a school. I get the sense that people don't think I have 'what it takes' to be a school leader. Or maybe it's because I have a hole in my forehead from cancer and it makes people uncomfortable. I have no way of knowing.

It's funny, because I will talk to someone (usually a teacher) about a deeply-rooted problem in education, and I'll be able to explain what is wrong, why it's broken, and outline some steps we could take that might help to address the root problems. I often end these conversations with people telling me that I should be in charge of a school. They are probably right. I do know what I'm talking about. That's why you get a doctorate; you become less likely to talk out of your butt.

But I'm not in charge of a school, and it doesn't look like anyone is going to hire me to do it. And I have to be okay with that. This week, I realized that my administrative certificate will expire in a few months unless I have a job as an administrator. I don't, and I don't think I'm going to try and get one anymore.

Two years ago, I needed a mental break from working, and hammered out a few Teaching Ted scripts and did a few doodles just to see how it felt. I realized that I was getting a bitterness and anger about education, and these things were spilling into the strip. I was reminded of something Lorne Michaels said about cast members and the Trump Administration; if you are trying to make comedy out of genuine anger, you won't make good comedy. I figured that Ted was dead.

But I've had a few good weeks, and I've got a new perspective on education. I went back into the high school I left last year (done in a bit of a desperate gamble to find hope again) - I had found some peace and was refreshed at the middle school, teaching 8th grade. It was a pretty good year (except for cancer 2.0)...

But this summer I spent two weeks teaching a high school review class, back in the building where I'd worked for twenty years. To my surprise, all of my resentment about the place and how its leaders had treated me was gone (as were most of those leaders); I had a new appreciation for what it was, and for how it was no longer my school. 

I was no longer angry.

So I did some Ted doodles. And I wrote a dozen scripts. And I've put together two comics. I've posted them below, along with a pair of scans I was able to find online of the original Teaching Ted strips to see how far the art has come. I feel like I'm a much better artist now, but I still have a lot to say, and maybe Teaching Ted is the place to say it. 

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Flash Fiction Challenge

My response to Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge, using all three images...


Kylwyn locked the apartment door and set the bar across. Moving to the windows, he secured the shutters and, confident that they were immovable, he exhaled. From his satchel, he produced the scroll case. Carefully, oh so carefully, he withdrew the parchment therein and, savoring the moment, rolled it out on the bed before him. With the utmost delicacy, he used the last of his red ink to scratch in a small box, connecting it to two other locations and labeling it with his slender, fine script. It was, he was proud to say, the script of an elf.

He let the moment linger. He stared into the hearth, which he now knew was a gateway into the Everburning Wood. Only those who had accessed the Mad Scribe’s Sanctum had encountered such knowledge; only they knew how to step into the wood.

He knew. He knew many things.

He exhaled and returned to the parchment. There, before him, was revealed at long, long last a complete map of the primary underchambers that connected the underbelly of the great City of Jythra. From the Burial Vaults of the Serpent King through the Hall of Tomes and even past the Obelisk of Jyth itself, he could see it all. The delicate threads that tied the city together were now his to pull. He considered, with a mixture of joy and a growing tiredness, that he was, even after all this time, still the first to discover how the lifeblood of the city flowed. Among fifty thousand, he was the only one who could drop into a sewer drain in Cobbler’s Alley and emerge at the foot of the Library of Vash. Only he knew how to use the Tellis Gate, and its sundry hidden tunnels, to access the North Spires. 

Kylwyn admired the map for several minutes. Then, he resumed unpacking his satchel. He pulled forth the Mask of Hermaphros. Infiltrating this cult had taken months, and the mask itself had required painstaking exactitude, and no shortage of coin, to craft - but it had been worth it. Those cultists were able to share the final answers he had sought, once he had proven himself as worthy to join them. He set the mask on the bed beside the map, the only witness he could allow to this victory.

Next, he found a small, timeworn journal in the deeper folds of his satchel. Kylwyn reviewed the last several entries. It had taken him fifty-seven years and one day to complete this map. Fifty-seven years and one day of exploring and spelunking and near-death experiences had granted him an unheralded understanding of the veins and capillaries that both united and separated all of Jythra. He reviewed the intricate notes, the vast theories, the magical incantations that had driven his journey these last few decades.

Fifty-seven years. Kylwyn set that journal upon the map, now finding a second journal in the bottom of his satchel. This one was much more slender. Only four pages had been used. For the first time in decades, he looked at these. Page one had reported the task had taken him seventy-eight years, forty-two days. Page two reported sixty-three years and nine days. Page three reported sixty-one years and two hundred days. He now completed page four, smiling wide.   

He fixed this moment in his mind. It had been nearly six decades in the offing. Tonight, he would allow himself to revel. He would drink and dance and laugh in the glow of a knowledge that only he possessed. 

Tomorrow, he would start again. He would rise at dawn, pay visit to the priestesses of Ura the goddess of memory, and donate the thirty silver coins required to have this memory magically removed. Then, he would begin his quest again. This time, perhaps, he could beat fifty years. 

He admired the delicate contours of the mask one last time before setting it into the hearth, allowing the Everburning Wood to claim it. After its last ashes had drifted into the swirling smoke and into the unending beyond, he turned back to the map and the journal with his notes. He now began to tear them into thin strips before slowly, delicately, letting the Everburning Wood claim them as well.

And now for something completely unrelated....

 Over on his blog, Chuck Wendig has posted a flash-fiction challenge using art created using an AI. I was thinking about trying the challenge, but then I saw this image (the third option he has given), and was blown away. This is the fantasy city of my dreams... the city and mega-dungeon are so interconnected that you move seamlessly between them; it is never quite clear where city ends and mega-dungeon begins.

This IS Jythra. My goodness but it's Jythra. I've known what I wanted that city to be like, but didn't have it until I saw this picture. Now, I'm going to write a story!