The Best Advice I Ever Got

I was thinking recently about the best piece of professional advice I have ever received. I thought I’d share it with all of you out there in the world and beyond (assuming a Mars One colonist reads this within 60 days of landing).

The advice was given to me by Mike Grell. For those who aren’t familiar with Mr. Grell, he is a comic book artist most best known DC Comics’ Warlord, the creator-owned John Sable Freelance, and the famous “The Longbow Hunters” storyline about Green Arrow. You can read all about him here.

At met him at Mid-Ohio Con about five or six years back. He was working on a pencil commission of the Marvel character Black Widow while having a lively conversation with a woman in front of him. I watched in awe as there he was, barely even looking at the page, and rendering this gorgeous image beyond my wildest skill set.

When he was free to talk, I nodded to the drawing, and told him, “I don’t think I could ever do that no matter how hard I worked.”

“You wanna know the secret to doing this?” he asked me, learning forward someone conspiratorially. “What you do is this. Draw for eight hours a day, every day, for ten years straight.”

It made a big impression on me. For me, it put into one simple phrase the need for hard work in a better way than I had ever heard before. Deceptively simple, perhaps, but essentially.

The fact is this. No matter what opportunities natural talent or pure luck throw in your direction, they will do you no good without that work.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Paging Dr. Wertham!

A 20-year old college student at Crafton Hills College is trying to get her school to ban four graphic novels in her English 250 course; Sandman: The Doll’s House, Y: The Last Man, Fun Home, and Persepolis. You can read about the case here

Fun Home is an autobiographically examination of a young woman’s coming of age and family dysfunction. Persopolis is an autobiographical story, also of a young woman coming of age, this time set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. Y: The Last Man sees a post-apocalyptic vision of the future when a virus kills every man on Earth save one. The Doll’s House is a story arc in the mythic Sandman comic dealing with a serial killer convention, as well as issues of Heaven and Hell and sexual identity (quite brilliant, but it gets a bit weird, I will admit, and probably not a good choice for someone just beginning with the medium). You can learn more about them on Amazon and Wikipedia on your own time, but I’m sure you can see where these would all deal with adult themes.

I’m not going to talk about the legalistic interpretations of this particular case. The law is clear on it. Nor am I really going to discuss the ethics of adult content in media. Of course parents should be allowed to decide what their own children are allowed to read. That’s not in question here.
It’s also not what is happening here.

These are not children. They are fully grown adults who are able to vote for their leaders or be drafted to go to war. If a university student isn’t capable of thinking about complex ideas, then they have no business being a university student.

This situation is one of a student believing she should be able to determine the content of her course. It’s both a dangerous precedent and plain stupid. Students don’t know enough to determine that content. If they did, they wouldn’t need to be students.

Look, it’s not so long since I was a college student myself, and I’m not going to pretend that if I was allowed to determine the content that I wouldn’t have gone as easily as possible on myself. There never would have been homework and our exams would have consisted of naps, pizza, and beer. Now, as awesome as those are, they’re hardly an effective rubric for determining how much you know about the Byzantine Emperor.

She says that she was expecting Batman and Robin, “not pornography,” but she obvious stayed enrolled in the course long enough to read the entirety of the content. Colleges provide a generous withdrawal period, but if she stayed till the end of the semester, how offended could she have actually been? This is just speculation, but I can’t shake the feeling that what she really expect from the course was an easy A, and when one wasn’t provided, she decided to settle for her pound of flesh.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

To Sir (Christopher), With Love

On June 7th the movie industry, and the world in general, lost a legend: Sir Christopher Lee. So many people have already spoken up to eulogize him that saying more might seem superfluous, but the man was so fantastic that to encapsulate him would take nearly the entirety of the world wide web.

Christopher Lee had an astoundingly long and prolific career, holding a world record for the amount of films he’s been in. He began acting in 1946 and has worked steadily since, playing some of the most notable characters in cinema history: Count Dooku from Star Wars, Saruman from Lord of the Rings, Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula, the Mummy, Mephistopholes, Grigori Rasputin, Lord Summerisle from the Wicker Man, Fu Manchu, Sherlock Holmes, Rochefort, Bond villain Scaramanga, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Rameses I, and Death himself.

His life off screen was just as interesting. To get a glimpse of some of the amazing facts about him check out this article from io9. With thanks to Rob Bricken, some highlights include:

– “During World War II, Lee joined the Royal Air Force but wasn’t allowed to fly because of a problem with his optic nerve. So he became an intelligence officer for the Long Range Desert Patrol, a forerunner of the SAS, Britain’s special forces. He fought the Nazis in North Africa, often having up to five missions a day. During this time he helped retake Sicily, prevented a mutiny among his troops, contracted malaria six times in a single year and climbed Mount Vesuvius three days before it erupted.”

– “At some point during the war he moved from the LRDP to Winston Churchill’s even more elite Special Operations Executive, whose missions are literally still classified, but involved “conducting espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers.” The SOE was more informally called — and I can’t believe this somehow hasn’t been made into a movie yet — The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”

– “He was made a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2009, a Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John in 1997, made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 2011, earned he British Academy of Film and Television Arts Fellowship in 2011, received the The Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1994, and so many more.”

– “He’s always been a big metal fan, but he released his first full heavy metal album in 2010 at the age of 88. Titled Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, which won the “Spirit of Metal” award from the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony. He made a metal Christmas album in 2012. He was the oldest metal performer, and the oldest musician to ever hit the Billboard music charts.”

In the end, I think his friend and collaborator Peter Jackson sums up the man’s life far better than I ever could, so I will finished with his words…

“It is with tremendous sadness that I learnt of the passing of Sir Christopher Lee. He was 93 years old, had not been in his usual good health for some time, but his spirit remained, as always, indomitable.

Christopher spoke seven languages; he was in every sense, a man of the world; well versed in art, politics, literature, history and science. He was scholar, a singer, an extraordinary raconteur and of course, a marvelous actor. One of my favourite things to do whenever I came to London would be to visit with Christopher and Gitte where he would regale me for hours with stories about his extraordinary life. I loved to listen to them and he loved to tell them – they were made all the more compelling because they were true – stories from his time with the SAS, through the Second World War, to the Hammer Horror years and later, his work with Tim Burton – of which he was enormously proud.

I was lucky enough to work with Chris on five films all told and it never ceased to be a thrill to see him on set. I remember him saying on my 40th Birthday (he was 80 at the time), “You’re half the man I am”. Being half the man Christopher Lee is, is more than I could ever hope for. He was a true gentleman, in an era that no longer values gentleman.

I grew up loving Christopher Lee movies. For most of my life I was enthralled by the great iconic roles he not only created – but continued to own decades later. But somewhere along the way Christopher Lee suddenly, and magically, dissolved away and he became my friend, Chris. And I loved Chris even more.

There will never be another Christopher Lee. He has a unique place in the history of cinema and in the hearts of millions of fans around the world.

The world will be a lesser place without him in it.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

A Rare Moment of Serious

This entry is going to be a little different. Instead of talking about gadgets, animation, or new media I’m going to talk about something that is far more important. Gratitude and sentiment.

Last week Nichelle Nichols, famous for being the original actress to play Uhura in Star Trek, suffered a minor stroke. Fortunately, all accounts suggest she is currently resting comfortably and should have a speedy recovery. We wish her so and are sending positive thoughts her way.

A year ago I had the opportunity to meet Nichelle at the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention. I grew up on a Star Trek fan. Some of my earliest memories in life are watching it with my father and older brothers. Having the opportunity to tell her how much her work has meant to me was great. She was charming, graceful, and classy. And not for nothing, still a knockout.

Hearing about her stroke made me realize how glad I was I had the chance to thank her in person. Even though she seems to be fine, I’d have felt terrible if she wasn’t.

Only the most cynical person would say someone else’s work hasn’t had an impact in their lives. Be it a book, a movie, a TV show . . . everyone has something which has mattered to them. If you ever get the chance to express gratitude to the people responsible for it, then you should. Don’t pass it up, because you might not be lucky to get another chance.

I’m going to take this one further and say it shouldn’t just apply to people who have made things that are important to you. It should be for the people in your day to day life who are important to you. And that’s one to grow on.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

The Ol’ Mars One Two Punch

Remember the movie Apollo 13? Specifically, how the public had grown bored with moon landings, and the mission only really got notice because of the accident? That film could be used as a potent metaphor for space exploration in general the past few decades. We only seem to take notice when something goes horribly wrong, like in the case of the Challenger and Columbia accidents.

There was a time when NASA’s mission was THE headline. Every bold leap forward for science was front page news. That time seems to be sadly past though.

A non-profit in the Netherlands thinks they have a way of combating that audience fatigue with their new venture, Mars One. The plan is to permanently land four human colonists on Mars, with the mission launching as early as 2026. To fund the expedition, the project lead Bas Landorp has proposed turning it into a reality TV show starring real-life astronauts instead of celebutantes.

Many have criticized the plan, both technically and ethically. Few scientists and engineers believe their timetable or technical plans are sound. Worse still is the guarantee that it is a one-way trip. The crew of Mars One (which will be selected from a group of contest-winning volunteers) would, with 100% certainty, die on the Martian surface, if they could make it there in the first place. An analysis of the environmental plans conducted by MIT students suggests that the environmental system would fail within 68 days of landing on the surface, dooming the colonists. Some astronauts and aerospace engineers have even gone so far as to call the program a scam.

That being said, public interest is a major factor in pushing space exploration further, both in guaranteeing financing and showing the force of will to make it happen. It’s as true now as it was in the 1960s. Perhaps there is the kernel of an idea Mars One, beneath the bad planning and the gaudy reality show trappings.

Keeping people interested and involved is a great idea. Perhaps an interactive web community with vlogs from the colonists as well as an ability to interact with them via message board?

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

DVR, Pants, and the Worldwide Media Experience

Where were you when you heard Kennedy was shot?

According to my mother at least that’s the benchmark question for people of her generation. Everyone seems to be able to describe in extreme detail where they were when the nation was gripped by the news the President had been assassinated.

The 1960s seemed to be the perfect decade for shared experience moments like that. Television had become a mainstay in nearly every home in America, and major news items seemed to be happening every other week. JFK’s assassination, the Beatles on Sullivan, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the Kent State Shootings, Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the moon landing. These were all events that were faced together through the shared view port of the television.

The benchmark moment for my own generation was 9/11. Where were you when you first heard? For myself, I can remember I was a senior in high school, in my home economics class, when one of the other teachers came to the classroom door to tell our teacher to turn the TV on.

I can remember being strangely calm and analytical about the situation. Probably more than I should have been. Shock, perhaps.

Outside of major breaking news events the opportunity for these shared media moments is dwindling in the age of DVRs. Many pre-scheduled “event” programs are being watched on delay to suit the schedule of individual viewer. It’s not a bad thing by any means. It has freed the consumer in countless ways. It’s merely something worth acknowledging. A change HAS happened.

On Wednesday May 20th 2015 we had another shared moment. David Letterman ended his thirty-three year long career as a light night talk show host in a star-studded affair that looked back at his history as was punctuated by a final musical performance by Dave’s favorite band, Foo Fighters. It seemed like everyone was watching, and watching it live, no less. Perhaps the age of an event watch isn’t completely dead after all.

I know I’m probably contradicting myself here, because if you’ve been following these posts you’ll have heard me singing the praises of new media as long as I can. That being said, I hope the era of shared media experiences that can reach across a country; across a world; doesn’t disappear completely. It’s comforting to know we aren’t all alone in the dark with just a flickering screen to keep us company. Moments like this make us one big family

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Short Thoughts and Past Remembrances

In working in media we owe an incredible burden to the past. None of us, not a single one, would be in this field without having stood upon the shoulders of giants. Be their names Ridley Scott, Robert Altman, Jim Henson, Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Howard Hawkes, or Georges Mielles; they have all contributed to the language of cinema and we would not be where we are without them.

Even the chapters we would rather forget have added to the language of media in terms of technique and craft. The propaganda works of Leni Riefenstahl, while deplorable, are historically significant for what she accomplished. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, though sickeningly racist, dramatically pushed forward the art of film editing. We can hate their content, but we must acknowledge the technical achievement.

The need to remember this history of film bears a sad reality. Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that nearly 90% of films produced before 1929 have been lost to time. We may never recover them. Here is a list provided by Wikipedia

No point beyond this: we must preserve our past because it is stuff from which we build our future.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

The Future Will be Virtual

On May 6th, Oculus VR announced that their first consumer version, the so-called CV-1, will be available in the first quarter of 2016. It’s one of three major VR platforms coming out soon. The other two being Sony’s Project Morpheus and Valve’s SteamVR.

Technology maybe have finally caught up with our ambitions. These devices, unlike their gimmicky predecessors, could be the real deal to change the world of interactive entertainment. While far from the Star Trek holodeck that so many would love, we could be standing on the cusp of an unprecedented breakthrough in terms of realistic 3D environments that we can be part of. Paired with some manner of haptic feedback suit the illusion could be just that much more all-consuming.

But gaming will only be one of the exciting places that virtual reality will change the world. In this article from Forbes they explore a few of the ways that devices like the Oculus could change the world of medicine. They make mention of training, remote encounters, uses in therapy for the autistic and mentally ill, palliative care, and even surgery. Something they don’t mention, but I think is an inevitability when paired with next-generation 3D body scanning, will be virtual reality INTERNAL exams. Imagine a neurologist being able to walk around the structure of a brain tumor. It would be a game changer.

Not just medicine. Would you like to walk around on the Moon from the comfort of Huston? Send a rover and do it remotely! Integration into other aspects of daily life is limited only by the scope of our imaginations.

Trying to predict the future of technology is almost always a losing bet, as the best advancements are often unpredictable. It does seem clear though, that no matter what the future brings, simulated reality will have a place in it.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Kickstarter Ethics

It was big news (as far as these things go) a few months ago when decades-old comic book character Archie Andrews was killed off in his own title, stabbed while trying to protect the life of a dear friend. Anyone who reads comics knows that dead inherently never really means dead forever, so no one was really surprised when news came that Archie was going to be rebooted with a fresh look and new attitude for the character’s 75th Anniversary thanks to a new #1 issue and the creative team of comic book superstars Mark Waid and Fiona Staples. It was only a matter of time.

Most companies like to publish several titles in continuity with one another, and Archie Comics would be remiss not to do the same. What surprised a few people though was the manner in which they chose to pursue some of these other titles. It was announced on May 11th that Archie Comics would be launching Kickstarter campaigns for three potential new titles: Jughead, Life with Kevin, and Betty & Veronica.

If you are wondering why a major publisher needs to take to a crowd-funding site, then you’re not alone. A lot of independent creators feel that it is taking notice away from smaller projects that don’t have the same kind of name recognition that a company that has existed since the 1940s. Simply put, the argument is that Archie Comics doesn’t need the help that a crowd-funding platform gives them.

It is the same argument that was raised when the Veronica Mars movie went up on Kickstarter, or when Zach Braff went there for his latest directing effort. Do they need it? Are the hurting other creators? No one is going to argue that Kickstarter has enabled many worthwhile projects to happen, but is there an unspoken ethics to its use? And if such a distinction between worthy and non-worthy projects exist, who makes the call?

There is another issue. Retailers are saying that it will hurt the comic book direct market that exists. The direct market is a complicated issue you can read all about here.

The direct market model does have a lot of problems though. Diamond Distribution Services holds a near monopoly in the industry, and I’m all for innovation, so I can’t fault a company for wanting to try something new. And even though there’s something that rings strangely wrong about the situation to me, if people want to support a Kickstarter for Archie Comics, then who am I to tell them they are wrong? It’s their money, and they are free to spend it as they see fit. That’s the very spirit of capitalism and Kickstarter.

No matter where you fall on the issue it’s got to be more worthwhile than potato salad right?

UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, Archie Comics has pulled their Kickstarter campaign.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.

Numbers Racket

This past weekend the most anticipated film of the year, Avengers: Age of Ultron, opened to giant numbers. As of the time of this writing (Sunday May 3rd at approximately 11 PM Eastern Standard Time) it sits at around $188 million in ticket sales, making it the second largest opening in film history.

In the United States.

If you factor in the ticket sales from overseas the totals come to $627 million, which to my eye is a significant difference. It leads me to wonder why domestic box office grosses are the metric that the industry is still using to gauge success now that we’re ostensibly part of a global community and communication is instantaneous. If the bulk of the money is coming from overseas, why is it that the only money the industry rags and studios visibly care about is from here at home? Money’s still money.

It wouldn’t make any difference if they weren’t using it as a standard to determine overall success of a project. But there have been films which have been deemed flops in the United States which have been arguably huge successes in the foreign market.

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim was considered a flop, making only $102 million on the domestic market, against a $190 million budget. A net loss…on its own. Add in the $310 million in foreign ticket sales and you have what anyone could deem a success. Pacific Rim is going to get a sequel in 2017 titled Solar Rim, but it is a fluke.

The time has come to get with the times and start treating the economic realities of filmmaking for what they really are. Global.

Keith Cunningham
Keith is a freelance writer at Black Powder Design and a graduate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in animation. Keith hosts a podcast on the Deliberate Noise Network titled The Keith Show Show starring Keith. He is also the illustrator and writer of his own comic series called Stale Popcorn.