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Entwined @ IGNCC19

Presentation slides and text from my talk unpacking creative processes in Entwined: A Recurrent Romance at The International Graphic Novel and Comic Conference in Manchester, 2019.

Entwined: A Recurrent Romance is a one-shot romance sci-fi superhero adventure about gods and mankind. Created, written, and laid out by Mike Cooper, with art by myself, Entwined is an exploration of a gods and humans, and a collaboration in design, art, and comic mechanics. 

Work on Entwined started purely as a creative work. My position as a creative practitioner and ECR at Swinburne University, as well as reading into Practice Based Research in preparation for this conference, led me to a question: “are my Non-Traditional Research Outputs (NTROs), in fact Practice-integral research, or rather just Professional Practice”.

This paper will give an overview of my creative approach to world building and character design in Entwined via a discussion of Practice Based and Traditional Research criteria proposed by Michael Biggs and Daniela Buchler (2008). Although I am applying Creative and Traditional Research criteria retrospectively within this paper, my intention is to create future creative work with these criteria embedded from the outset.

NTROs must be created with the aim of being assessed from within a ‘situated position’ within academia, where creative and cultural industries have equal conditions to the STEM fields. This acknowledges the importance of operating from ‘situated position’ in academia is unavoidable as Practice-Based Researchers seek recognition, employment, and funding in competition with academics across disciplines.

Overall this paper seeks to: 

  • understand what is required for creative practice to be recognised as ‘research’
  • produce NTROs that are creatively enhanced by the application of research criteria
  • Help create a situated position for NTROs in academia

1- Academic research requires the discovery of something no one knows, that builds on existing knowledge. It must be cumulative- it must accumulate knowledge. 

2- Academics must be ranked, rated and assessed in relation to their peers across academia. It is a comparative and competitive environment. 

Practice Based Research can be thought of as “sensory knowing and a form of critical engagement, a socially engaged process of reflection and action that discloses new meanings and possibilities”.

T. Barone, 2008

For the purposes of this paper I will refer to artistic practice within an academic context as Practice-Based Research. However there are a number of variations in terminology and definition regarding artistic practise as research, each indicating subtle variations on the relationship between practice and research. Herbert Read (1958) categorises art and design education and research as: Research into, through, and for Art and Design

In beginning my character design research phase I limited my scope to Aztec Gods in a Practice-led research phase. Practice Led research uses practice to research practice itself. It is often without an initial clearly defined question or hypothesis, and may lead to a formal question or hypothesis; It is discovery-led; where ‘the artist uses his or her professional experience insights and skills’

Images of Aztec Gods were recreated to understand relevant design practices involved in their creation. This involved image an image search – (Research into art and design) and then analysis through drawing –  (Research through art and design). 

Question and Answer

The basic model for any research could be drawn simply as: question (problem) – research (solution). The traditional approach to art and design research often has a central question, issue or focus and is essential that the researcher come up with an answer or some kind of response in order to make a contribution.

The traditional approach to research often has a central question, issue or focus. There is debate on the Question and Answer approach in PBR:

If creative research starts with a single question then a single answer might be expected, rather than the question remaining in discussion, which should be the objective

Andrea Sabisch

Artistic research is not ‘hypothesis-led’ but ‘discovery- led’ research

Henk Borgdorff

The formulation of a question is crucial for any kind of research, often in conjunction with a concrete working hypothesis, whereupon follow-up questions unfold dynamically.

Alexander Damianisch

In testing traditional research criteria against my creative work, I’ve adopted a question. It is:

“what are the representations and relevance of polytheistic gods over time?” 

This simple question has led to a taxonomy of types, placing the research within a historical and critical context. These types are categorised as Traditional, Heroic, and Modern. 

Starting off with the question “How has the representation of polytheistic gods changed over time?” would have prompted a broad literature review, as opposed to focusing purely on Aztec Gods. The lack of a question, in this instance, limited the research Into Art and Design phase. Embarking on this phase of research into art and design has led to a simple taxonomy of Polytheistic Gods. These types are categorised as Traditional, Heroic, and Modern. This taxonomy aims to improve the narrative while proving the research makes a contribution to knowledge by placing it within a historical and critical context, a process of Research Into Design. 

Polytheism adheres to a multitude of gods. Since the power of God under this belief system is not confined to one entity but is distributed among many gods, the powers of these gods often pertain to nature, and the gods themselves are often representations of forces of nature or ancestral principles.

Traditional gods are culturally fixed attempts to understand, classify, and placate, biological and elemental force beyond humans’ control. My initial character design research phase focused on traditional representations of Aztec Polytheistic Gods. In 1989 Neil Gaiman engineered existing comic characters as Traditional gods. The character of Destiny received cosmic status as Dream and in Sandman #5 Gaiman depicts the universality of Dream as a culturally dependent polytheistic god concept. Dream is perceived as the Martian dream god by The Martian Manhunter.

Heroic gods are distillations of Traditional Gods as superheroes; swashbuckling adventurers. Thor is a god of thunder, not a pure elemental force, a crime fighter, not an embodiments of pernicious forces interfering with mortals. Note cultural appropriation in costume and powers, and mixing of Pantheons with teams (see Avengers team members Thor and Hercules).

Modern gods exist in the age of science and no longer exert the same level of control over us, given our growing mastery over fertility, nutrition, climate, and disease, and are re-contextualisations of ancient forces as representations appropriate to our modern age.

The Invisibles- An attempt to look into the psyche of the nation of their respective times. Lennon is adapted in Chaos Magick style into a psychedelic Godshead and summoned by King Mob as an augury of the future. Inspired by Moorcock, Lovecraft, Burroughs

A precursor to this was sandman 36 where Gaiman had a Japanese god sasano ono mikoto say that their pantheon had been modernising and had adopted Marilyn Monroe and John lennon. 

More recently created modern gods serve a greater variety of purposes. They are representations of diversity and celebrity (Wicked and Divine), looking at celebrity as a modern embodiment of godhood. Gods are modelled on the likes of Prince, Bowie, Kanye etc. Whereas a pagan might call on Mars before a fight, or Aprhodite to seduce, we might call an MMA champion, or Anjelina Jolie. The current paradigm for beauty/speed/war is a celebrity, raised above mere mortality and into realm of godhood, to be worshipped and idolised.

Character Design as Practice Led / Research into art and design

Entwined’s gods were based on Aztec gods but designed as Modernised gods. Tlaloc (rain and fertility) as Woman of Willendorf (28,000–25,000 BCE). Xolotl as a Modern God is represented as a corpse in an electric chair, but without cultural signification.  War/Sun’s design is a spear with sun-like decorative spikes, and a military inspired moustache. The Smoking Mirror is a Patrick Nagel influenced female face with a cigarette, within a diamond shaped obsidian mirror.

This mixing of design choices using a variety of source texts makes use of metalepsis- the act of transgressing the usually unacknowledged state of ontological separateness between different worlds such as when a character or narrator transmigrates from one fictional text to another.

In the aim to further develop the original designs while staying faithful to them I undertook a process of drawing Aztec imagery to understand the shapes, colours and patterns built into them. This can be understood by the research processes of: 

  • Research into art and design (Copying of images – practice as research)
  • Research for art and design (Drawing variations on those images)

The taxonomy has guided design choices and a provides a visual framework for delineating a variety of theistic representations

Research for Art and Design concerns creative practice where the end goal is an artefact. Where the thinking is, so to speak, embodied in the artefact, where the goal is not primarily communicable knowledge in the sense of verbal communication, but in the sense of visual or iconic or imagistic communication. This idea of allowing the creative work to speak for itself was classified as ‘The Aesthetic Approach’ (Vergo 1989 p48): the reader is allowed an unfiltered/unconstrained experience.

My previous creative outputs have been created largely in this manner, with the research often retrofitted to suit, or existing as a loose justification for the work. The idea of a purely experiential based reading of a work speaks to Barone’s proposition of Sensory Knowing.

Materials research or developmental work. Artefact and research. Studio work and research report, practical experience, project in the studio

This is achieved in traditional research through the FUNCTION OF RHETORIC, with ‘rhetoric’ referring to “constituting things through language”. This can be more specifically analysed as the “impact language has on what one can and cannot think” (Wittgenstein 1971; 5.6).  Rhetoric (in the form of presentation, research paper, exegesis etc) allows the audience an additional perspective into research and practice-based processes, giving structure to the creative process and assessment of subjective experience.

This method requires the use of an Action Research Methodology
“Research needs to be undertaken as part of practice rather than a bolt-on addition to it.” (Denscombe 2014, p124) Action Research requires that the researcher needs to investigate his or her own practices, “using research techniques to enhance and systematise that reflection” (Denscome 2014, p124)

As already outlined, my methodology has changed over the course of this creative process, from a Practice Led, to a Practice based approach.

Practice-led research (no question, grounded research)

Using practice to research practice itself. 

In the case of Entwined, images of Aztec Gods are recreated to understand the artistic practices, patterning and design principles in their creation. This involved image analysis through drawing, which then later led to a question-based research inquiry. Practice-led research is a methodology for improving practice, for incorporating new information/techniques, and for finding research questions to be answered and a research direction. 

Hypothesis-led. Action research

Practice-based research (hypothesis-led, action research)

Practice-based research is hypothesis-led, action research where “practice is integral to the method and not just the medium of the output, it tests pre-formulated questions; the artist is the researcher” (Ruth Mateus Berr)

An example of Practice-Based Research (according to this definition) might be in the case of archaeology where pottery is found and a question of the method of creation is raised. Creative practices may be implemented to recreate and thus accurately determine the method of creation.

An example of Practice-Based Research (according to this definition) might be in the case of archaeology where pottery is found and a question of the method f creation is raised. Creative practices may be implemented to recreate and thus accurately determine the method of creation.An example in the case of Entwined might be using digital techniques to recreate traditional ink wash and tonal rendering, or iterative drawing for character design, or the use of different representations of gods to assist in the communication of narrative themes.

The process of creating Entwined began as purely practice led, without theory, and led to a grounded theory approach, where the questions and terrain were dictated by the artistic process. 

  • layering, from layouts (blocking and composition)
  • first pass line and reference layer (scaffolding for tone)
  • General to the Specific (foundation of practice as research) 
  • Tonal pass (light and shadow, local value)
  • Compositing scans (traditional)
  • Merging value and first line layers (digital) 
  • Paint brush without paint- initial line layers integrated into the tonal layer
  • reinforcing areas of ambient occlusion and creating details of value. 
  • 2nd pass Line – hallmark of the comic medium (graphic over painterly approach)
  • colour (gradient maps, local colour)

This process came about via a practice led-methodology, without question, using experiential research- finding traditional approach too time consuming

When justifying the use of NT activities for research, it is useful to ask: “What would be lost if a non-traditional form were not used?“

The use of personalised Morphemes (speech balloons, action lines, etc) can be used to create personality for the Stem (speaker, object) and to make clear the speaker (stem) even as their design changes across the story.The integration and relationship of text and image is built into a medium. A number of different operations of text and image at work justify the use of comics as a necessary form for this content. 

Scott McCloud’s interdependent classifications of text and image operations: Words and images work hand-in-hand to convey ideas that neither could convey on their own; each expresses something unique.

In an effort to clarify the separation of time between characters and the Modernised versions of gods, the panel structure is used to indicate where time exists. The absence of panels are a demarcation of the shapeless miasma of Platonic ideals.

During this research into art and design phase it was noted that there are myriad visual similarities in the use of symbols and patterns across cultures. Spiral patterning is found across iconography and representation of gods, perhaps due to its mathematical significance and frequency of occurrence in nature. This Spiral imagery is used in to signify the characters’ connection across time

As a creative practitioner within academic institutions where the legitimacy of CCI is still in its infancy of justification, it is important to foreground the potential for non-linguistic communication in the contextualisation, analysis and justification of a creative work. However, until an aesthetic approach is acknowledged as valid in academic circles, the definition of practice based research will still require “reflection and action that discloses new meanings and possibilities”.  Furthermore, research behind NTROs must be communicated in a manner which the broader academic community understands as valid and is possible to assess and recognise from a situated position.

The audience for this research as artefact and exegesis is both specialised (comics theorists and readers, as well as general academic audience). To answer the question “how have gods been represented over time”? integrated practice and theory including the manipulation of morphemes and carriers, panel structure, and a visual taxonomy of polytheistic gods allow for an academic audience to acknowledge that this as cumulative research, while a general audience can engage with aesthetics and conventions of the medium

Viewed this way, Entwined may be viewed as a subset of academic research ‘situated position’ rather than assessed as other than traditional research, or an ‘isolated position.’ It is bound to practices and concepts from the academic world of knowledge generation and management, while being open to critique from specialised practitioners and academics, therefor the question of whether the work constitutes research may be more readily agreed upon.

Research into Aztec Design focused on traditional representations as a way to add a visual flourish to the provided designs and to provide a visual differentiation between distinct periods of man’s reliance on gods, and man’s mastery over the forces that gave rise to them, a central theme of the story. However, beginning with an open/thematic question, informed by the narrative themes, such as “what is the relationship of gods and humans, and how it has changed over time” would have allowed for a more informed research into art and design phase. This would have guided a wider scope in the initial character design process, and circumvented a substantial process of redrafting. 

It is clear that beginning a creative work with a TR criteria built in not only helps in saving time, but also in positioning a work as a piece of cumulative research, satisfying a broader academic audience. Additionally, the design choices arising from this initial literature review and taxonomy not only reinforce the suitability of this non-traditional form of research output, but also enable a thematically rich visual crafting of a narrative. This not only lends itself to an enhanced aesthetic experience of the creative work, as well as assessment and recognition in alignment with traditional research structures of academia.