XA Skecthbook Diaries #22: Habitat Zones
Wednesday — May 15th, 2013

XA Skecthbook Diaries #22: Habitat Zones

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On Collaboration: Appreciating the Good Things

My last two posts in this look back at origins and evolution of our creative partnership have been kind of heavy, haven’t they? And long. Heavy and long. I think it might be time to mix that up a bit and give you a break from my meandering earnestness.

(Don’t worry, Dear Reader. I always come back to the meandering earnestness eventually. It’s kind of my thing.)

Xeno’s Arrow #1, the first issue of the full-sized, professional self-published series, shipped to comics stores in February of 1999. And, of course, we wanted to capitalize on that – and do everything we could in general to promote the series. So, that same month, we traveled to our first comics show as pros – the Alternative Press Expo in San Jose, California.

I hadn’t been on a plane since I was a child. I’d never been to California. And this was my very first comics show as a professional creator.

So yes, I was excited. Thrilled. Walking on air. I barely needed a plane.

Greg was a little more blase about travel, having moved around more in his childhood, but as for the rest of it – California, our first convention as pros – yes, he was pretty excited too.

Our flight was uneventful, aside from some turbulence that led to us flying over Denver at quite a low altitude, at night – it was all lit up in a nearly perfect grid, fascinating to my eyes since I’m used to more chaotically-arranged cities, and made it to San Jose. We saw Hare Krishnas at the airport, made a call on a PacBell pay phone (it cost $0.35 U.S., which seemed exorbitant to us), waited for luggage and eventually reached our hotel.

Despite the excitement, despite the jet lag, I slept.

The next morning, we walked out of the hotel together, looking for a place to get breakfast.

There, on the sidewalk, we looked out at the infinite Northern California sky, past a row of palm trees, towards the Pacific Ocean.

“Holy s—, Stephen,” Greg said, “We’re in California.”

That was a perfect moment.

Looking back at it, that’s what I remember, more than the con itself. That moment, and the feeling it brought, a heady combination of new experiences, excitement, joy and a tremendous sense of possibility.

Good times and bad times followed, for us and for the comic. There was joys and frustrations to come. But that moment is one of the ones I remember most vividly, and with reason.

The good things, when they happen and after, need to be celebrated. Appreciated. These are the moments that can help to lift you, buoy you, individually and as a team, when the inevitable bad times and frustrations do come, as they will.

That trip, and that one moment within it, are worth remembering with appreciation.

I do.

On Collaboration: The Roles We Play

I mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to talk a bit more about roles, and about how the dynamics of a creative partnership helps to establish and maintain them – and how those roles can be beneficial, or, sometimes, not so much.

In our creative partnership, Greg and I fell more or less naturally into a number of roles. I’ve mentioned the complications engendered by my role as “Defender of Greg” while Greg was in his role of “Guy Working Himself to the Bone to Make the Next Deadline”. My evolving sensibilities and understanding of the artistic side of the process led to frictions in our previously-established roles of “Artist” and “Guy Who Appreciates the Art”. (For bonus fun, guess which one was me!)

Other roles were extensions of the roles we played in our social circle – and also partly on our public, “on” personas at events like comics conventions. For instance, there was a really strong sense, in the way that we interacted in front of others, that Greg was “The Funny One” and that I was “The Smart One”. We sometimes played that up, and sometimes resented it a bit (since we considered ourselves to both be quite amusing and intelligent fellows).

That, however, was a minor concern compared to one of the other roles that I became boxed into – a role that, oddly enough, neither of us wanted me to play, but that I felt absolutely impelled to enact.

All the roles we filled were real aspects of our personalities, of our strengths and weaknesses, but the crystallization of this one in particular can be traced to a very specific point – the day we got our order numbers from Diamond Comic Distributors for the first issue of the self-published series.

We had both been pretty optimistic about our prospects. We knew that we faced some hard work but by 1999 the comics market seemed to be recovering from the crises of the mid-90′s. It was difficult to get detailed information either from Diamond or our self-publishing peers about sales figures, but we expected based on anecdotal evidence to enjoy a successful launch that would serve as the basis for future growth, with the comic moving over time from being more-or-less self-sustaining to being a source of income that we could re-invest in the business and eventually, use to at least pay Greg if not both of us.

Greg was our point of contact with the distributor. As was the industry standard at the time, he got the numbers by fax. And then some time, I don’t know how much time later, he called me to tell me what they were.

And they… well, they were about half of what we thought we could reasonably expect. Less than enough to be self-sustaining. We’d be taking a loss on the first issue. Worse, we knew that orders for second and later issues usually fell, sometimes by as much as fifty percent, and had to be painstakingly rebuilt over time. The book was in the red, and looked like it might be for some time to come.

So, when Greg told me the numbers, I was shocked, dismayed, and I felt a horrible “Oh cripes are we doomed?” feeling in the pit of my stomach. “What?!” I asked – I suspect I shouted it, in fact, but my memory of the details has been occluded by the overall emotional tone. I was about to express some of my feelings, or maybe just swear a bit, when Greg broke in.

“I need you to work with me on this,” he said.

So I reined myself in. I calmed down. We talked about things we might be able to do to promote the comic and staunch the flow of red ink.

And I internalized the idea that Greg wanted – needed – me to be the cheerleader. That I could not express anger or fear or doubt or ever say, “Oh cripes are we doomed?”

So yes, for the rest of the life of the comic, I was the cheerleader. The optimist. I was downright Pollyanna-ish. I was downright stupid about it.

This is another example of how having, you know, an actual conversation about something would have been a really good idea. But we were too busy. Greg had no time or emotional energy to delve into these issues. I believed that he was depending on me to support his hard work and sacrifice of his time and energy by not expressing doubts.

It wasn’t until years later this came up in conversation. We were having one of our occasional discussions about the prospects for bringing Xeno’s Arrow back – or it may have been for another project, I don’t actually remember – and the subject of our working dynamic came up. Greg mentioned, then, that he had felt like he could never have a serious discussion with me about how badly things were going, about the prospect that the comic and our business might fail, and what we could realistically do about it. Because I was being irrationally optimistic, would not acknowledge the possibility – and as time went on, the increasing likelihood – of failure.

I stared at him in incredulity and I think a little bit of horror. “That was what you wanted me to do!” I replied.

And we finally, all those years later, talked it out. I realized that I had, in trying to be supportive, left Greg feeling like he had to bear the burdens of our increasingly bad situation all alone. He realized that, in asking me to set aside my feelings during that first conversation, he had inadvertently helped to set up the dynamic that left him feeling frustrated, abandoned and like the only sane man.

The take-away from this one is pretty obvious. It’s an extension of my conclusion last time: Communication in a creative partnership is essential, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Roles are a natural outcome our our interpersonal dynamics, but they aren’t a substitute for communicating, and the changing reality that a collaborative partnership faces can outpace those roles, if we allow ourselves to be boxed into them. Getting trapped in a role is a really good way to deny reality, and a really bad way to successful navigate change. And we should never, for the sake of filling a role, no matter how how important it seems, refrain from expressing what we think and feel – or ask others to do the same.

We talked about that, on the day we finally discussed our roles, unpacked them and put them away. I mentioned that it would probably have been for the best to give me five minutes, or an hour, or the evening, to express those feelings of anxiety and fear and get them out of my system – so I could come back refreshed and ready to deal with our situation realistically.

“How could it possibly have hurt to let me have that time to freak out?” I asked Greg, “We weren’t going to solve the problem that evening anyway.”

He thought about that for a moment, and wrote a note to himself, as a reminder for the future.

Let Stephen freak out, it read.

On the subject of schedules…

A quick programming update: Based on my evolving understanding of my own workflow processes around the site, I’ve decided to move my updates to a Tuesday/Friday schedule, rather than Monday/Friday. Part of me still always thinks of the weekend as meaning more free time, but these days, I’m way too busy with my family and home life then for a Monday post to be a realistic target.

Look for my next process/history blog post tomorrow, and the next Appendix update on Fridays as usual. Until then, thanks, as always, for reading!

Undecayed Orbits: The Planetary Poems of Quasar Jones

[Excerpted from Undecayed Orbits: The Planetary Poems of Quasar Jones, B. Claude Trethewey, ed., Homeworld: Tumbleweed & Salmonberry Press, 2634.]

Introduction

In what Quasarian scholars — those erudite examiners of the Question that was Quasar — have come to call (with a lamentable lack of lyricism) the poet’s Second Wanderings, he sojourned on the spacelanes of the Known Galaxy, seeking inspiration and idylls on sundry star-spun worlds. The truths he discovered — poetical, philosophical, philosophical-poetical and poetical-philosophical — he adeptly articulated primarily in his Cosmic Cycle of poems. But these were not, be assured, the totality of his expression! Less well-known, yet wonderful and worthy, are poems of the Planetary Cycle. These were more minor musings, reflections on perceptions perceived and experiences experienced on the worlds he walked in his peripatetic perambulations. Once feared lost, these gems of genius were recently recovered, fortuitously found where they had lain forgotten and fallow in a simple shoebox, delightfully discovered (and ably authenticated) by myself at a humble garage sale, bought for the benefit of the arts and Civilization in general — and, thanks to the perspicacious publisher of Tumbleweed & Salmonberry Press, available to all.

I am gladdened to present to you these under-appreciated undertakings of one of the outrageously original talents ever to engage in expression in the poetic paradigm in the hallowed history of Lizardkind, the enigmatic Quasar Jones.

B. Claude Trethewey

Autumn

Swooter World autumn

Harvest time, and vast leaves fall

From ancient grand trees

Summer

Homeworld in summer

The heat cursed, but never feared

On a world long tamed

Winter

Grey skies herald frost

And the wise plants sleep, and wait

In deep Gloit Winter

Spring

Unseen Teeko spring

Hidden by glass and concrete

Seasons can’t live here

On Collaboration: The Weight of the Schedule and Being a Good Partner

Okay, I’m back. I do apologize for the unexpected, and unexpectedly long, interruption in posting. This time, at least, it’s not because of a terrible personal health crisis. Just, you know, life and stuff.

Anyway, before the break, I was planning my next post. Ironically, I’d decided to springboard off a comment Greg made on an earlier post, and talk about issues and challenges around scheduling – and the effect of those challenges on a creative partnership.

When we began professionally self-publishing Xeno’s Arrow, we were under constant deadline pressure. And by “we”, I really mean that Greg was under constant deadline pressure. I did my best to help by doing things that fell within my capabilities, but the fact was, no matter how much we tried to balance the division of labour, the effort of producing a bimonthly comic book fell primarily on him, as the artist.

There were a couple of contributing factors adding to the pressure on Greg. We felt, at the time, that we had to publish bimonthly – there was a very real sense that producing a new issue any less frequently would mean that readers and retailers would lose interest or just sort of forget about you. And there was strong and virtually unquestioned conventional wisdom among self-publishers that adhering to that regular bimonthly schedule and never deviating from it was absolutely essential.

(In retrospect, I’m no longer as certain that it was, or as least, not as much as we all believed. Certainly, comics with erratic schedules – both self-published and otherwise – had caused problems for retailers in the past. But none of those retailers, when you got right down to it, seemed to care very much how many bimonthly issues Greg had batted out, exactly on time as promised. It may have mattered, but I don’t think it was a deciding factor.)

The other pressure, which was less important in some ways but which we felt more keenly in others, was social. In our mini-comics days, we hadn’t understood the workflow process involved in creating a comic as well. Because of that, in the early days, we made some commitments about when the next issues would appear that turned out to be pretty unrealistic.

And of course, since the first and most enthusiastic audience for Xeno’s Arrow consisted of ALL OUR FRIENDS, we heard about it. Not constantly, of course, but often enough, especially around those missed deadlines. And it crystallized into a sort of running joke that the next issue of Xeno’s Arrow was always going to be late.

That affected Greg, and I think sometimes disheartened him – especially after the mini-comic was over, we started self-publishing, he hit every deadline, and that running gag still wouldn’t die.

It affected me, too. By the time we were self-publishing, as I’ve mentioned in earlier installments, Greg had moved into the suburbs, while I continued to live with friends in Toronto. Because of that, I actually heard a lot more ribbing about the next issue and its timeliness than Greg did.

Because he was my partner, and because I knew he was hitting our deadlines, and because I knew it was half-killing him to do it, I sort of appointed myself his defender, and started letting people know that the ribbing was actually kind of bruising us, and not just in the ribs.

But that had an unexpected consequence: With Greg feeling exhaustion of actually making the deadlines, and the stress of wondering if all our friends thought he was goofing off when he should be working, and with me feeling the tension of being Greg’s unasked-for champion, we both had a lot of free-floating anxiety about the schedule, the workload, and Greg’s efforts in that regard.

And so it became impossible for us to actually discuss the schedule. It was too fraught, too loaded. If we’d been better able to talk about it, we might have figured out a way to take some of the pressure off Greg, letting everyone know in advance that we were taking a break and skipping one of our bimonthly releases. Or switching to quarterly, which as I noted above, I now suspect really wouldn’t have hurt us as much as we feared at the time. Something that would have let Greg breathe and headed off burnout. We didn’t, couldn’t do that.

That wasn’t the fault of our friends, who were incredibly supportive of us and the comic and who probably didn’t joke about it even a tenth as often as I’ve implied – we were just hyper-sensitive. It was another unresolved communication issue. It was us both boxing ourselves into roles (more on that in later installment, because it merits being discussed further).

What could we have done differently? It’s easy to say that we should have talked more and been more open to discussing these issues. In practice, that would have been a challenge. Not just because it was hard for us to deal with, but also because of the practical aspect of the deadline pressure. The comic was a more than full-time job for Greg, and his work process was planned quite literally down to fractions of an hour. It wasn’t easy for him to set aside time for any lengthy conversations with me that weren’t absolutely necessary.

But I suppose that’s a good lesson: In creative or business partnerships, as in any kind of relationship, communication needs to be open and frequent. And it’s not enough to assume that communication will happen on its own; it needs to be scheduled. Time needs to be made.

Because without communication, the rest of the workflow process, no matter how carefully arranged, can run aground on the shoals of other pressures, unconfronted challenges and unspoken assumptions.

XA Skecthbook Diaries #22: Habitat Zones

A hiccup more than a hiatus

We’ve gone a bit quiet here again over the past week or so. While things aren’t anywhere near as dire as they were in early April, this is still one of the times that we’re feeling slings and arrows a lot more than Xeno’s Arrow.

Greg and I have both been tied up with various personal matters. Nothing too terrible, and nothing very interesting, really – but time-consuming for sure.

I expect posting to pick up again next week. Until then, why not enjoy a soothing cup of tea, that most Civilized of beverages, and perhaps, if you feel especially daring, a biscuit?

(Note: Biscuits are restricted to Sentients of Civilization Rating 7 or higher. Thank you for your cooperation.)

On Collaboration: Appendices

Over the last little while, we’ve been running a blog feature on the site, about once a week plus or minus, that’s set in the Known Galaxy of Xeno’s Arrow, but clearly has nothing to do with the main story or characters. These are tagged with the category ‘Appendix’ (I really ought to do something to make that tag more prominent). But it occurs to me now that my original brief explanation of what the Appendices were and are may have been a little too brief.

People who first encountered Xeno’s Arrow online won’t realize this, but those who first met us in print will recall that what we called the Appendices were an integral feature of the comic, appearing at the end, after the comic proper but before the letters and other backmatter.

The Appendices were text, mostly, but were often heavily illustrated and very carefully designed – the current incarnation lacks that, alas. They were presented as excerpts from newspapers, magazines, textbooks, internal memos, and sundry other printed matter from Civilization.

They were fun to write, first and foremost but also served some valuable purposes. They were a wonderful opportunity to use some of our elaborate world-building, without risking weighing down the story itself with irrelevant exposition. That added richness and texture to our setting. Readers better understood the Lizards and Civilization, and that understanding fed back into the story and the plot, and increased the sense of what was at stake for the Lizards as antagonists.

We could also indicate some of the complexities of Civilization that were beyond the expectations and experience of Xeno, our viewpoint character. His sincere but naive belief in the principles of Civilization wouldn’t have had the same impact without the added context of the Appendices.

One of my favourite Appendices was one of our simplest and, I think, most effective – a poem, ostensibly by the mysterious and vaguely New-Agey Lizard poet, Quasar Jones, about the Lizards’ First Contact with the W’mp’l, and the problems involved in “Civilizing” a species of semi-aquatic invertebrates. Like our other best best Appendices, and this is a standard that I haven’t always met in their current incarnation, it implied the complex truth of Civilization without having to say it.

The most obvious inspiration for the Appendices were the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings – Greg and I are both inveterate Tolkien fans. But another inspiration, and one that served as a more directly useful exemplar since it was from comics: The Keith Giffen / Tom and Mary Bierbaum “Five Years Later” Legion Of Super-Heroes. Those comics also included text pieces as backmatter, set in the world of the Legion, that expanded readers’ understanding of the setting beyond the viewpoint characters. It wasn’t necessary to read them to enjoy the comics, but there was a definite value-add, too.

Sometimes they dropped big hints about the larger plot (something we generally avoided), but more often they answered other questions that were interesting but would just have slowed the plot down, like “why exactly did the economy of 30th Century Earth collapse, anyway?”

(For the curious, it was because of the need to keep pumping more and more resources into maintaining weather control technology, because the more it was used, the more essentially it became and the more energy was required, until…)

With those two examples as our guide, we crafted our Appendices to pull back the curtain, just a little bit, and show the bigger stage that Xeno and his friends were moving across, and more importantly, affecting in profound ways, whether they realized it or not.

But we realized it. And so did our readers. At least, the ones who read the Appendices.

Trial of the Century? That’s not how this Cookie Crumbles

(Excerpted from the Homeworld Daily Comet, News Section – May 25, 2641)

Flora McDudley
Comet Senior Crime Correspondent

So, this is the “trial of the century”, is it? Well, you can colour me unimpressed.

Trial of the century. That was the phrase dropped, like a petal from a particularly unappealing flower, by a senior member of the defence team (who can’t be identified because his comments were “not for attribution”, natch, and some of us in this racket still have a few journalistic scruples) in the never-ending saga that is the Great Cookie Heir Trial.

For those of you who’ve forgotten in the rush of recent events – and how your intrepid reporter wishes she was one of you – let me summarize: This farce features the members of the famous (or perhaps notorious is the word I should use) Whitmore family, once a dynasty of bakers and entrepreneurs famed across all Civilization for their popular confections and great success selling them to all and sundry, but latterly a gaggle of idle rich ne’er-do-wells most often recognized for their appearances in the gossip columns and less savoury reality shows of the Known Galaxy.

The last true genius of the family, former patriarch “Cracker” Jack Whitmore, went to his everlasting reward in Fred’s arms some few years ago, and since then, the family has been coasting at best, watching smarter companies steal their market share and extravagancing themselves ever closer to insolvency.

But they had one last trump card, one thing keeping poverty at bay: The family’s legendary, and top-secret, recipe for its signature Triple-Chocolate Caramel Coffee Crunch Classic Cookie.

That cookie made the family’s fortune. That cookie maintained the family’s fortune. That cookie…

I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up poor on the tough streets on the south side of Titan, we couldn’t afford luxuries, big or small. But every once in a while, when Mama and Papa McDudley had scraped together a few Civdollars to spare – like my birthday, or St. Kringle’s annual visit – there’d be a special treat: A box of Whitmore’s Own Triple-Chocolate Caramel Coffee Crunch Classic Cookies.

Those cookies really were “a little taste of the best Civilization has to offer”, just like the ads said, and I treasured every little taste of them I could get.

The recipe for that cookie is the one secret the Whitmore family has been able to keep, even when its dissipate scions revealed everything else and then some on the CommNet.

Until recently.

This is what we know – what our hard-working, long-suffering CivCops have been able to determine: The recipe is missing. It disappeared from a vault within the family compound, with a security system that would put the Morian Corporation to shame, that no one but a member of the Whitmore family would have been able to open.

There was plenty of suspicion to go around – none of the members of this family seem to actually like each other very much – but eventually all the hard looks were being cast in the direction of young Chip Whitmore, grandson of Jack, kicked out of so many fancy prep schools that his wasted tuition would put a serious dent in the Civil deficit.

Chip, who, it’s been whispered, likes his friendly games of chance just a little too much.

But suspicion isn’t proof, especially not in a family as brimming with animosity as the latter-day Whitmores. For the CivCops to step in, actual evidence is required.

That evidence was thoughtfully provided by Chip’s aunt, former belle of many balls Macadamia Whitmore. There were snapshots of Chip meeting with a mysterious figure in a dark coat. Evidence of sums of money impressive by even Whitmore standards being transferred to his bank accounts. And the shocking revelations that Chip, in an unguarded moment, had told his dear auntie that he’d make the whole family pay for the way they’d treated him.

Have I jogged your memories enough? Simply reiterating the public record makes me feel as ridiculous as any Whitmore. Suffice it to say that Chip was arrested, but maintains his innocence. The trial is underway, and the wheels of justice continue to grind away.

It’s as exciting as any soap opera, to be sure. Perhaps that’s why I’m having so much trouble taking it seriously. Industrial espionage is no laughing matter, but this isn’t a criminal trial, it’s criminal theatre, reality programming taken to its logical, lowest extreme. Of course, it would star the Whitmores. This generation’s party-girl Whitmore, Saccharine, the sometimes model and actress, has even unveiled a new signature scent in her line of designer perfumes for the occasion.

Really. ‘Crimes of Passion’, from the Sweet Smells by Saccharine Collection. Available at X-Mart locations across Civilization.

And this, this is the “trial of the century”? I’m sorry, esteemed Mr. Unattributed Senior Member of Chip’s Defence Team, but no. The leader of Black Wind is in the docket for crimes against Civilization somewhere on M-Beta. The legal wrangling between the Swooter Government and the Snackin’ Hut Corporation could change the way business and politics are done across the Known Galaxy. And when those lunatics who invaded the Intergalactic Zoo and kidnapped Uncouth sentients are captured and brought to justice? That trial promises to be spectacular.

You can call it the trial of the century. You can call it anything you like. This is really just more pointless melodrama from a family that’s brought us too much already.

Who wants to forget all about it, and join me for tea and cookies?

XA Sketchbook Diaries #21: Zoo Corridors