Monday, January 5, 2015

"Oak and Thunder" part 3 - Tone Deaf?

I've had a bit of a break from work on OaT. (a couple of months. I've done concept art and illustration, both set in Glorantha in the meantime. Lots of cool stuff I won't be able to show for quite some time, sadly.)

I still thought about it a lot, but haven't done any writing or drawing. The reason is simple - I realized I didn't know enough to be making it properly.

Yesterday I finished "Language of the Night", a book of essays by Ursula Le Guin.
(a great book by the way, I really recommend it. It's not a light read and not all the essays are equally interesting, but it's worth buying a used copy even.)
It named an issue in my current script for Oak and Thunder and in other works of art where I noticed it, but couldn't quite name it before - inconsistency of tone.

In my case, I didn't realize I was writing two or three different projects into one, not quite knowing what exactly it was I wanted to achieve.
And then it dawned on me - I want to play it straight. All that I appreciate about Tolkien's writing, about old fairytales and heroic epics - the style, the language, the "setting", I want to do that.

Not a clever twist, not a play on the themes! Everything these days is (seems to me) a mashup of genres, a spin on something, a cliche or a trope reversal. It's cynical, ironic or goofily nonsensical.

I've been playing Dragon Age Inquisition and it's a great example of tonal dissonance (in more ways than one) - the overarching narrative is written straight - epic and classically heroic, while many of the dialogs and banter are contrastingly mundane and out-of-place "current". I'm not at all asking for ye olde speak, especially in American-voiced games it always sounds silly. Just more of a vocabulary and topical consistency.
The game uses well-tested and familiar ways to tell its story, set up its characters etc., but the world and characters themselves (the gameplay as well at times) don't always fit, don't mesh, the gears grind.
I cringed when SPOILER FOR DA:I

in a moment of desperation and disorder, everyone started to sing. They sang to get their spirits up, to unite, to honor the player as their savior. And I'm angry at myself I cringed, because that was a moment which the game attempted to play straight, without Sera laughing, making silly faces and throwing innuendos around, without penis jokes, or talk about "riding the Bull". And I recognize it was partly my fault I couldn't take it seriously. /SPOILER

The Witcher series, for instance, tried to play with tone on purpose, the contrast is there to say something, not as a jarring byproduct.

It's mainly a writing challenge, I'll definitely need help with this. Reading through the long script I wrote, it's too much like people talking on Facebook, or at best roleplaying on a forum. That's the English I know, the one I speak and write online. But it's not the right tone. I can't have Wala and Wape making pop culture references to each other, or drawing cat memes with their enemies' blood.
(those are the current up to date versions of the main characters' names, btw. I'm learning a lot about proto-languages)
I don't mean to write entirely straight, humorless and dry, a boring saga of head-chopping murder heroes! There need to be light and funny parts just as there need to be serious and dark parts, a balance. But I need to strive for a unity of language and themes. Tolkien is a big inspiration in this aspect, a wrong word in the wrong place is just wrong, there's no way around it.
Finding the right words! How easy! :)

I also realized I didn't quite have the characters yet. I know what they do throughout the story, sure. I mostly know what they look and dress like, but I don't fully know what they "are", I can't see their faces and their emotions.

A solution, for now, is to focus on research for the big story and script and draw up short stories. Quick ones, with minimum of writing, just to get a feel for the tone, where I want to go with characters and the art style. (I already have two stories reworked, an action one and a...different one.)
Research is also back on track, I'm reading a lot about religion and linguistincs. Definitely discovering more of the themes and philosophy than every day details about the life in that place and time.

I hope everyone had good holidays! All the best in the new year, friends!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

For the Stiff and Aching Back

Just a quick tip post today.

I'm sure many digital artists (as well as other professionals regularly working while sitting) experience lower back pain, or at least stiffness.

For the two years I've been doing this full time, I've found two things that help me deal with pain and stiff muscles.

One's hot baths. Of course, you wouldn't have those every night after a long day of painting, but I find that once a week is just fine.

The other is a magical artefact called the Iplikator.

I lied, there's nothing magical about it. You'll definitely run into all kinds of yoga or acupuncture mumbo jumbo on the internet. All it really does is poke your back, make the bloodflow a bit better and relax your back muscles.

And that's enough. If it's placebo effect, doesn't matter, it works great. It didn't improve my eyesight, it didn't improve my posture (much), it doesn't cure any diseases. 
I use it almost daily, 20-30 minutes in the evening, laid  on a hard surface (soft or springy surface makes it less painful at first, but also defeats the purpose).
Some people wear a t-shirt, I don't. It's less effective than the naked back.

No need to wriggle or do yoga on it, I just lay down, it hurts a bit, but then it gets very comfortable. I watch a movie, or an episode of a tv show (just enough time). Be careful not to fall asleep though, getting up after a nap hurts! 
A side effect that I noticed (which might be just me, or placebo) is that I sleep much better after I've used the mat.

I've had my mat for quite a few years, we bought the original version based on the Russian prototype, for some 20 USD back then. These days it's a bit more expensive, but 25 EUR or an equivalent in dollars will pay for itself very quickly. (I recommend getting the big one, D1 or just the full size that covers your entire back)

Note: I'm not paid by makers or resellers of this thing. ;) Just sharing something others might find useful.

Also, this is in no way a substitute for exercise and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle. I'm not a doctor and don't have any medical training, so don't take my word for medical advice. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Not Jumping to Conclusions

Etymology and linguistics can be quite beautiful, as well as confusing.

Last night, as I was falling asleep, I had one of those hazy epiphanies when you dart out of bed and scribble furiously on the closest napkin.

The main character in Oak and Thunder is named "Ylai". (Whether it's her birth name, or a nickname, I've not yet decided.)
The Tocharian (an IE language that's thought to be spoken by the Yuezhi, or their descendants) word "ylaiñäkte" is commonly translated as "Indra" (Hindu god of Thunder and other things, certainly one of the many related IndoEuropean thunder gods). The etymology isn't entirely clear, but it's thought the -ñäkte part stands for "god" and "ylai" is related to various other words for "smite" or "hit".

That makes Ylai a "Smiter".

Now, in the book "Perun: God of Thunder", Czech scholar Michal Téra examines the various aspects of thunder god worship among Slavic people. Interestingly, one of the Christianized versions of Perun (and other Slavic thunder deities) was Saint Elijah. In Russian - Ilya.

How good is that?! Ylai, Ilya...

Unfortunately, the two names aren't related. Ilya is a Russian version of Eliyahu, meaning "My God is Yahweh (in Hebrew).
Bummer, right?

I'd love for there to be an etymological connection - Téra mentions the association of thunder worship and Elijah started in early Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean, from where it came to the Balkans and to the Slavs. Unfortunately, most IE roots for thunder gods are entirely different and don't seem to relate in any way. (*trHon - thunder, *perk- and *per- for oak, smite, thunder or mountain)
Tocharian seems to be quite isolated in this regard:

"B ylai- and A wlā- would reflect PTch *w'älā(i̯än)-, in turn from PIE *wel(hx)eha-(h1en)- ... Semantically more likely, given the connection with storms (see ylaiñeṣṣe), however, is a derivation from*welh2-eha- ‘Smiter’ from *welh2- ‘strike’ [: Hittite walh- ‘strike’ and perhaps, with s-extension, TchB wālts- ‘trample’]."

It's far more likely the association was made thanks to attributes Elijah already had in the Old Testament - "he raised the dead, brought fire down from the sky, and was taken up "by a whirlwind.". 
Raising the dead and fire from the sky are very common things for a thunder god to do. 

Sometimes an epiphany ends in disappointment.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

"Oak and Thunder" part 2.5 - Key to Happiness?

TL;DR: Making OaT makes me happy, I think.
This post was inspired by this article by Dave Rapoza:

This September marked two years since I started freelancing full time. I had some experience when I started, but it certainly was a leap into dark and deep waters. It very likely wasn't as hard as it had been for other illustrators. I had great clients (and friends) in the industry already, I had a lot of wisdom compiled by others in the form of podcasts (Ninja Mountain being my Bible) and various tutorials and blogs.
I'd say everything stabilized, slowly but surely, in those two years. I'm making a living, I work on amazing projects and I don't have to go looking for work.

On one hand, routine is good and stable, I really can't complain. On the other hand, I noticed I've become less enthusiastic about my own art. I don't think it's exciting or particularly good. And that's not just the typical self deprecating artists' attitude, I'm less "into it". I think, in some ways, I stopped moving up and forward, I'm not pushing myself as hard as I used to.

A few months ago, I had the silly idea: I should make a comic.
I've not drawn anything sequential since grammar school, in nearly 10 years. I don't even read comics a lot any more. Why then?
I think I actually wanted to write something, but because I haven't written any stories in a while either, I wanted to involve painting in some way. I do illustration all the time, but a comic, that would be a challenge!
When I started researching and sketching, I couldn't get enough. I'd use lunch and dinner breaks, weekends. I stopped watching TV almost entirely. Whenever I have a moment when I'd normally be merely sitting on Facebook or browsing Reddit, now I have a PDF open, or a book on my lap and I'm taking notes.

"Write what you know." is it? I've done that as "Write what you like.". Oak and Thunder is all the things I enjoy - archaeology, mythology, linguistics, swords and heroics...
I keep finding new ways to connect the pieces of the puzzle, or several different puzzles that almost magically fit together. (or at least have edges similar enough not to break the illusion of a bigger picture)

My research book table has been getting a bit crowded lately

The thing I realized yesterday is - I'm really enjoying making this thing.
Just the process itself is surprisingly fun. It's not that my work work is boring or that I don't enjoy it - on the contrary. I get to work on exactly the kind of projects I've always wanted to do, on several of my favourite franchises. The difference between that and OaT I still don't understand fully. It's something where I'm suddenly not interpreting someone else's brief, where I'm not trying to see into a writer's head. It's all on me and from me.
If it sucks, that means I made it that bad. ;)

It's quite probable not many people will ever read it, or know it exists. If someone finds it educational, inspirational or entertaining - that'd be great!

Maybe I'm being stupid and wasting precious time I could spend improving my illustration skills, or getting more work done and making more money.
Right now, working on Oak and Thunder is making me quite happy.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bizarro-Brothers From Another Sword-Mother

(A quick post in between writing more on OaT.)

I ran across an intriguing sword today - a Tibetan infantry sword (amusingly dated to 14-17th century CE. It's funny how either we really can't date something only 300 or 600 years old more narrowly than a 300 year span, or how sword design in Tibet hasn't changed much in all that time)

edit: The actual museum holding the sword dates it to early 14th century:

Either way, it's a beauty! And I immediately thought of another sword I've always liked - the so called "Hod Hill" sword:

The surprising thing - the Hod Hill sword is Roman with Celtic influence (found in Britain) and dated to the 1st century CE!

As you can see in the above reconstruction, the sword had some kind of organic material inserted in the hilt (wood, horn, bone etc.) and only the metal fittings remain.

Looking at the Tibetan sword again, I'm thinking that's probably not the case there. The scabbard seems original and its leather (and wood?) seem to have survived. So did the original sword have hollow hilt bits? Or did it have some kind of organic insides?
The blade is interesting as well, the profile is very close to late Roman spathas and looks more Chinese than Tibetan. (Tibetan swords from that period tend to be single edged and not diamond shaped in cross-section)

Does it all mean anything? No, but it's still a beautiful and intriguing piece. It's just extremely unlikely these two designs are in any way related - kind of like how bats and birds both fly, but aren't that close on the evolutionary tree.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Oak and Thunder" part 2 - The Look?

(in the second post about OaT I will be talking visual style and a feel of the stories, as well as influences and inspiration)

TL;DR: I don't know what it's gonna look like yet, but here's some stuff I like.

I haven't done much sequential art. Most of it was in grammar school, nearly 10 years ago.
For this reason I'm planning to start with a self-contained short story, with a bit of everything. To try and train myself to do more.


Right now I'm trying to figure out how stylized I want the art be. It's definitely going to be ink and tone, probably not in colour. I really like (for example) the detailed and "realistic" style of Thorgal, but I'm not sure I can pull that off.

A more stylized look of comics like Una the Blade or Silk&Gold ( is also great, but I've never dabbled in cartoons, so I'm not sure I could draw like that either.

I'll just have to draw and draw, I'm sure it'll settle on something viable eventually.

(You can see examples of ink artwork I looked at for inspiration here:

Other Inspirations

A huge one is definitely Darkness over Cannae by Jenny Dolfen.

A beautifully illustrated historical novel about Hannibal's famous battle, done in her signature watercolour style:

I enjoy that it's a historical story without any magic added, a story about Vikings in a Japanese (!!) manga. Awesome action and reasonably historically accurate.

 I'm surrounding myself with tons and tons of art and media that may be relevant somehow, that have a spark of something interesting. Since I took these two photos of the books on my desk, their number roughly tripled. *sigh*

The closing sketch for today will be the other main character, the girl-from-yesterday's best friend. 
(that thing he's holding is a spindle)

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Oak and Thunder" part 1 - What is it?

(In this first post I talk a bit about the comic I'm making and how the idea developed over the years.)

TL;DR: I'm making a comicbook about a female Yuezhi warrior living in western China in 1st century AD.
Some five years ago I wrote down an idea for a short comic. The working title was "Dragonslayer" (later "Its Breath is Fire") and the short story was supposed to "realistically" interpret the archetypal dragonslayer heroic myth. (perhaps in a similar way Mary Renault did with Théseus) 
Its setting was an unspecified part of the Eurasian steppe, some time in prehistory - the age of proto-Scythian heroes and Amazons.

I've been interested in steppe nomadic cultures since I started university in 2005. 
Funny things, memories - I'm pretty sure it all started with the short scene in Conan the Barbarian where Conan and Subotai run. I was quite little, watching the film with my dad and he'd tell me when to cover my eyes, or when I should be paying attention. This particular scene he'd always liked, the image of two guys running to get where they wanted to go in the vast open steppe, stopping only to eat, sleep and chat about theology. The music by Basil Poledouris works perfectly to underscore the scene, its light mood and the feeling of freedom.

Steppe Nomads

Much later, I stumbled upon a book on Scythians ( and from then on I started researching them and other nomadic people of the Eurasian steppe. (at this time it was just for fun and out of curiosity)

The Eurasian steppe is a fascinating piece of the world in history! I had no idea how influential and important it was to me - a modern European. The way we were taught history in grammar school, I had some idea of blocks of history - separated by (artificial) era borders and by geographical distance. "Europe went through history mostly by itself and so did Asia and so did America"..etc. 
When I became interested in Alexander the Great and later in the steppe nations, I had to rethink what I knew, unlearn a lot and set up my idea of history from scratch.

If you look into this, sooner or later you'll end up at the Silk Road and linguistics. The steppe is where the West and East meet, connected by the various trade routes and links of language evolution. 
There are so many controversial topics and unanswered questions! Where did the Indo-Europeans come from? What role have domesticated horses played in human history and for how long? What about the invention of the wheel?
We've learnt quite a bit about Mesopotamia and the agrarian cultures in school, but almost nothing about pastoralic nomads. There's this idea they didn't contribute anything of value to us, that people only become civilized and worth learning about if they settle down and start planting crops next to big rivers.
I decided to make up for the gaps in my knowledge of steppe history, bought a bunch of books and started reading.

Mummies of the Tarim Basin

I like mummies. It's an odd passion, I know. There's just something really cool about well preserved bodies of ancient people!
In 2011 National Geographic and NOVA made documentaries about a group of mummies found in the Tarim basin, in Xinjiang.

You can watch the NOVA piece on Youtube:

Mummies of Europoid-looking people in clothing very similar to Celtic style weaving found in western China?! I was immediately hooked!
Of course, many people tried to claim the mummies for various causes. Nationalists, crazy ancient alien theorists, you name it. The thing I found so interesting was the variety - both in physical features and in their DNA, the mummies show a lot of diversity. There's no point in arguing whether they as a whole were European, Chinese, Mongoloid or Caucasoid - these people lived on an important crossroads of the Silk Road. It only made sense so many different places and nations mixed in Tarim.


Learning more and more about the Tarim basin and its history, I remembered the short comic idea I wrote, about an Amazon and a dragon. It'd have to be heavily reworked, but it could very well be set a few centuries later, in Xinjiang. 
An overarching story could be woven around the conflict between the Chinese Han dynasty, proto-Hunnic Xiongnu and the Indo-European speaking, Caucasian looking Yuezhi.
The Yuezhi were a good choice for the main protagonist's origin - very little is known about them. So I can fill in gaps and have some room to maneuver in.
And that is what I've been doing this past summer, through weekends and lunch breaks. 

The Comic

I have several outlines for stories written, with the same protagonist, with one main story going through them. I have a mostly finished script for the ending (which is odd, but it was the first story I wrote), so I know how it all ends. Now I just need to figure out how to get there.

There's always more research to be done, I have tons and tons of material to sift through, make more notes and put them to use where needed.
The next blog post will probably be about research, sources, where I draw inspiration from and how I want to approach the story in this very specific setting.

To finish this off, here's one of the early sketches of the main protagonist. I'll keep playing with her facial features more, this drawing was done to have at least something to show. (her costume mostly, based on the few depictions of Yuezhi and Kushans we have)

(I imagine she's in her early teens, around the time she went into battle for the first time)