Do My Cables Look Big in This?: Cyberfashion

December 16, 2011

When I met with the college’s lead fashion tutor last week for advice on character design and clothing, you may recall there was a degree of disagreement. Nevertheless, while I might have been at odds with some suggestions on reflection I found that many of the criticisms rang true. As is often the case with the project I’ve been completely sucked into certain areas while I’ve neglected others – fashion being one of them.

Conveniently and somewhat kindly, Lucy Markham – a fellow MA student – offered to meet up and provide another fashion perspective on my project. Doing so yesterday she threw a number of interesting research ideas my way, but most pertinently she highlighted an obvious area I’ve completely overlooked; besides being a genre, cyberpunk is also a subculture fashion.

To date I’ve been drawing most of my clothing concepts from the early 1940’s in order to connect with genre roots in film noir and detective fiction of the era, which was certainly a better move than falling back on SF clichés. Still, what’s becoming strongly apparent as I progress is the need for variety and range in the character’s appearances; not everyone can wear a suit, tie, trench coat or gown. In order to create a genuinely immersive environment I need to draw upon a broader set of influences.

Having been lead to a number of specialist websites in ‘cyber’ clothing (thanks Lucy!) I’ve spent the last day or so exploring what the internet has to offer, being the most immediate and up to date source for this kind of niche. Indeed, there’s a bigger market for this kind of stuff than I knew, but before I go into the examples which I found useful its important to explain a couple of issues regarding the ones I didn’t.

First of all: cybergoths.

No offence to them or anything. In fiction gothic can work marvelously with more traditional cyberpunk stylings – the work of Tsutomu Nihei being one of the best examples I can think of – still I struggle to find relevance for it in my own project. I’ve tried to remain careful of tone and consistency in Branch’s design and frankly the romanticized nature of gothic influences seems a poor fit for the kind of cynical used future I have in mind. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of inadvertent gothic touches – one scene near the end of the script comes to mind – but I doubt it will ever become a major influence.

Additionally, while it’s uncommon I noticed a few instances of steampunk and cyberpunk being mixed up or similarly combined. Again, a heavily romanticized genre which elaborates on historical possibilities rather than future ones. Again, largely irrelevant to my own work.

My second set of disregarded sources present a larger problem with cyberfashion: genre awareness.

As illustrated by the lady above cyberfashion often plays on cyberpunk themes and iconography, integrating circuitry, parts of machinery and a typically industrial vibe. In reality I find this to be pretty cool, but in a fictional context it becomes more problematic.

The issue is motive. As a real life fashion people adopt the look in order to be idiosyncratic and possibly to reflect adoration of the cyberpunk genre, whereas within cyberpunk fiction a character’s dress will typically reflect the world they live in lacking the self-awareness the former has. To put it another way: in Branch, would characters bother with superfluous circuit patterning and nods to fictional cyborgs when they are already cyborgs themselves? In the end the result would be a broken fourth wall and a loss of immersion.

Excluding these subcategories what I’m left with is a more muted collection of what might be called industrial punk. Suddenly integrating such a thing with 1940’s influences might normally seem like an impulsive move, but looking over my backlog I realized that hints of it may inadvertently already be present. Perhaps it’s from the 80’s/early 90’s SF influence Lynn criticised but touches of punk do permeate the more restrained noir era clothing. Heck, the security guard who appears on pages 9 to 11 was at least partially inspired by a cyborg henchman from Tetsuo II:

Other things like Curt’s decidedly punkish hairstyle arose incidentally from random design ideas and character quirks, still, all the more reason to directly acknowledge the references and research them properly. So without further ado let’s look at some of the research examples that did work for me and talk about why they work:

The trousers pictured above – the first two taken from, the last from – appealed to me thanks to restraint in design compared with most others (e.g. no ridiculous chains, no manskirt, no tribal script down the side etc). Yes there’s still a fair amount of goth exaggeration to the boots, but otherwise things are nice and simple. They have a hard-wearing look probably taken from worker’s gear and while the straps and rivets are fairly redundant they have aesthetic appeal without being over the top. The tool holster on the last image is also a neat addition, further emphasising a sense of functionality with a sort of engineering/technical edge.

Again taken from crisiswear and again striking for its simplicity, I like this cowl because it’s not too over the top. It’s undeniably decorative rather than functional but projects a sense of functionality through inclusion of facets from working clothes; again straps and rivets (beginning to see a pattern here?). It looks like it was made for a practical purpose, even if it’s not.

This aviator’s jacket from isn’t too different in most respects from its everday counterpart, however the ‘V’ which wraps over makes a bold visual statement without obliterating the garments basis. I also can’t help thinking this may have been influenced by the folding design of Japanese kimonos which brings me to my last example and closing thoughts.

I selected the above ‘spiral out’  here from NerveDamage because it shows a very different side to cyberfashion. Unlike the previous three examples this outfit eschews muted blacks and dark blues and adopts eye searing neon. It’s flamboyant rather than functional, being purely aesthetic. More than anything though these colours, the general design and hairstyle all remind me of the wilder designs for characters in Japanese manga and anime.

Following this line of thought I’ve decided to redesign my character Sasaki with more of a cyberfashion slant. This is partially to provide a sort of prototype to try applying these influences to, while unlike much of my cast she hasn’t been shown in the comic yet giving me freedom to tinker. However, the main reason is that in retrospect she strikes me as a missed opportunity; as a play on Japan’s otaku it seems a shame not to capitalise on the parallels between cyberfashion’s manga/anime influenced designs and the characters ethnicity/basis. Putting aside dysfunctional characteristics she’s also one of the cast’s only truly upbeat personalities whereas the current design conversely seems drab and uninspired. Much of my character design has been relatively formal and muted but if there’s appropriate subject for something a little wilder, it’s Sasaki.

I can’t say how successful this new design direction will be, but hopefully by experimenting on a small-scale first I can get a sense of how well it  meshes with my existing universe and be able to apply it with greater confidence to the wider setting.

A Dark Mirror: P3rsp3ctiv3

October 4, 2011

I discovered this short through Cyberpunk Review a while ago and had been meaning to share it for sometime given its obvious genre relevance.

The writer, director and lead actor – Mehmet Can Koçak – describes P3rsp3ctiv3 (or Perspective if  L33t isn’t your thing)  as ‘a tribute to the cyberpunk genre’ and in this respect it may not be massively original, but thanks to the slick execution and strong social message it turns out to be rather more impressive than might be expected.

POV camera work is an idea that’s in danger of being worn out in mainstream cinema, but here its connection to the subject matter makes it perfect for the scenario, feeling integral rather than tacked on. It reminds me most prominently of Strange Days (1995) and the ‘squid’ technology it featured in the way the viewer is literally thrown into the world, but also in how a cynically realistic outlook is adopted on its application. Just as the internet is used by many in the pursuit of pornography, here the near limitless potential of a seamless VR experience is used/abused for virtual sex – no matter how advanced society becomes our base instincts still apply.

The visuals have a few nice nods too. There’s the usual industrial dystopia stylings on show but it’s offset by a few interesting touches; the simulation is run on a massively upgraded Commodore 64 – possibly in acknowledgement of cyberpunk’s birth decade or simply to give a scavenger aesthetic to the scenario – while the ending also shows that no matter how high tech a rig may be it will always be susceptible to the most common or unlikely of failings; be it a crash or cockroach.

As I’ve mentioned/raved on about, the focus of my graphic is considerations of how we humanise technology through our use of it. In this case Perspective supports the idea but not in positive way. In creating an idealised version of himself for the simulation the protagonist unwittingly creates a mirror which shows him up as something altogether more unpleasant than intended. If the technology here is humanised, it’s done so in the sense that it replicates our more troublesome sexual and violent urges.

The truth no matter what: Transmetropolitan

July 16, 2011

During my recent trip to Orbital Comics for the Jack Kirby exhibit I had an inevitable moth-to-flame reaction seeing their generous shelves and was pretty much set on buying something. So it was that I spotted Transmetropolitan going cheap and – recalling Cyberpunk review’s praise of the series – decided to give its first two volumes Back on the Street and Lust for Life a go in the name of research and entertainment.

I must admit that I’m unfamiliar with the work of the writer Warren Ellis but right from the first issue a firmly satirical tone is established. Garth Ennis of Preacher fame writes the first book’s introduction, which along with his summation that ‘Warren doesn’t like “nice” things’ gives you a fair idea what to expect. This is a cyberpunk future which plays out less like Blade Runner and more like an ultra-violent version of Futurama – naturally those easily offended need not apply.

With the story beginning ‘up a goddamn mountain’ we’re introduced to Spider Jerusalem; Transmetropolitan’s protagonist of colourful name and even more colourful personality, in his fifth year of isolation sporting an Alan Moore haircut which would have Robinson Crusoe green with envy. It’s cyberpunk tradition to have alienated, offbeat characters at the heart of their stories however that might be something of an understatement here.

An infamous gonzo journalist forced out of his mountain refuge by unfulfilled book contracts, Spider makes for a fascinating contradiction as the living, beating, hateful heart of the comic. His profession and reputation inevitably suggest involvement in culture, politics and the media – the issue being that he hates all three with a vengeance. Seemingly a complete misanthrope, prone to substance abuse and short-tempered outbursts he’s unpredictable at the best of times with the welcome knock on effect being the unpredictable course taken by the narrative.

To my mind at least the other major character is the sprawling metropolis suggested by the title (assumedly an amalgam of major American cities), a place which begins to seem less like a setting and more like a collective antagonist thanks to the views of our warped anti-hero.  Thrown head first into this world much like Spider, the sense of chaotic over-saturation is palpable but the real accomplishment is seeing the diverse groups, technologies and icons start to become recognisable facets of the series. Like most good sci-fi a sense of underlying cohesion and inner workings are gradually established within the universe without resorting to blunt exposition at every turn. Darick Robertson’s art is fairly straightforward in style but accomplished and packed with background detail featuring lots of humorous little touches, each adding something or at least giving you an unexpected laugh.

Following some aggressive bartering for his old job and an accident with a shower/’physical cleaning unit’ which fixes his hair problem, Spider almost immediately sets out to report on a brewing catastrophe; a pocket of social unrest revolving around ‘transients’, humans who have partially adopted a template of alien DNA in a bid for sovereign rights. As expected it’s with a cynical sense of opportunism that he approaches the group, his unimpressed stance towards the minority emphasised during the interview as he labels them “body perverts”.

Up to this point I had some growing niggles over the underlying themes or rather, lack there of. With the city and its culture portrayed unsympathetically as crass and chaotic alongside an equally unsympathetic narrator there are certainly plenty of parallels to modern life and dark humour to accompany it, but without reasoning or any form of moral focus it looked like the series was fated to slide into crude nihilism. Thankfully matters take a U-turn as the story climaxes. With the police moving in to brutally crush the transients, Spider impulsively enters the war zone and – taking to the roof of a nearby strip club alongside its employees – begins to write.

It’s here that his true colours shine through as we see an altogether different side to Spider Jerusalem; a man passionately obsessed with the truth above all else and infuriated with the hypocrisy and lies which surround him. As his furious report is transmitted live across the city formerly unseen sympathy for the transients crops up while an insightful reveal of police corruption behind the riot suggests a sharper mind than we’ve been led to believe. To make an analogy of it, Transmetropolitan turns out to be much like Spider himself – seemingly crude and heartless at first glance belying the intelligence and care that runs beneath. For all his unpleasant habits, illegal acts and sudden outbursts of violence our journalist isn’t quite the monster we’re initially led to believe.

Considering the two volumes I read as a whole (the aforementioned scenario being just one of the stories) so far it’s typically been episodic with Spider doing everything from reports on religious conventions and an ill-advised day watching future television to dodging assassination attempts. There are however characters and subplots which extend throughout, with the most notable one surrounding his assistant Channon and the crumbling relationship with her boyfriend. Other threads at the moment appear to still be building to something with the payoff assumedly further down the line, either way it all helps construct an intriguing worldview and suggests more interesting developments ahead.

Considering relevance to my own work beyond the obvious cyberpunk connection, I’m aiming to keep the tone of my own graphic considerably more muted but there are some technological ideas worth taking note of; familiar science fiction clichés are presented then deconstructed in interesting or humorous ways with cryogenic revivals becoming the new unwanted immigrants of the future, adverts subliminally beamed into the mind for dream playback and household fabricators with a taste for hallucinogen’s.

One page in particular caught my attention during an explanation from Spider about the process of “downloading” where through nanotechnology people can be converted into a cloud “foglets” free of conventional human form and its attached concerns. As he outlines:

“If a guy has a prosthetic leg, is he still human? Sure. It still does the same job, does what you tell it to. So how about if he had two artificial arms? A plastic heart? Carbon-fibre bones? Artificial neurons? Where do you stop being human? (…) You could put a human mind into an entirely artificial body and that person would still be a person. You could download a mind from out of its — let’s face it — eminently crappy, badly designed human body and into a seriously useful and functionally immortal artificial form.”

It’s this line of thought which is pretty much the driving force behind my own narrative, contemplating the humanizing of machines instead of dehumanization through them while it’s also another fine example of how the comic offsets its absurdities with genuinely sound ideas.

I can only guess where it’s all going but Transmetropolitan’s first two volumes deliver a sound introduction to a universe packed with satire, humour and ideas. It has no time for sensitivity but is far from being mindless having things to say about the society of today many would rather not acknowledge. It isn’t “nice” but it may just be brilliant.

And hey, why take my word for it? Vertigo has put the first issue online to read for free :)

The story so far

October 30, 2010

Hi folks! Ozy here. Seeing as I’m just starting out it seems only fair that I give a brief rundown of how I got here and what I’m planning. The site’s a little barren for the moment given that I’m still getting to grips with WordPress (be gentle), but if you want the short version of what’s going on you can find the summary on the ‘What is Branch?’ page.

Still there? Then I’ll explain.

For the last three years I’ve been studying on Westminster’s BA in Contemporary Media Practice – think Film & TV with some stills photography thrown in – without exaggeration I can say this was an immensely valuable experience, expanding my knowledge of industry practice while also giving me plenty of creative freedom for experimentation. For the majority of these years I specialised in film production, however I always had something of soft spot for animation.

Indeed, I did a great deal of concept art and storyboarding throughout as well and it quickly became apparent that my drawing skills were my strongest asset. As a hobby, I took to making webcomics in my spare time, though given the pressures and constraints of uni work there was a limit to what I could manage on a regular basis and I couldn’t shake the feeling that given more time I could accomplish something vastly superior. As such, to date my comic attempts are modest at best.

As I started searching for suitable employment around my graduation, a familiar student scenario began to unfold. It was quickly evident that in spite of favourable qualifications they would only offer a slim chance of employment in media. As many will know, getting work in the industry is something of a Catch-22 situation: you need experience to get experience, to say nothing of today’s economy. In short things were looking bleak.

So as an alternative I resolved to continue my education in the form of a part-time MA in Art & Design to strengthen my CV and expand my skill set, this time in the more comfortable surroundings of my home city Hull. Aside from issues of funding (which I won’t go into here :p) I had a hard time thinking of a suitable project at first, all while I continued struggling to fit my comic work into a schedule. After weeks of grappling with an idea, I came up with a single solution to both problems – namely to combine hobby and study in the form of an MA project.

Thus it is that following a slightly unnerving pitch I find myself here, preparing the research and planning for ‘Branch’ – a self contained cyberpunk graphic novel of an estimated 100 colour pages.

Why cyberpunk you ask?

Well for one it’s a subgenre I’ve held a great deal of interest in for a long time and yet it’s always been something of niche genre, only occasionally rearing its head into mainstream culture, perhaps most notably during its debut in the 80’s with the most well known film examples being Blade Runner and The Matrix. In other word’s it’s firmly established but far from done to death.

Secondly, it’s a genre with themes of uncanny relevance to the society we live in. The cyberpunk fundamental of ‘high technology, low humanity’ is perhaps truer today than ever before. Specifically it’s my intention to base Branch’s story around cyborgs and the concept of the man-machine hybrid – while this may come across as outlandish fiction, to an extent we are already in symbiotic relationship with machines. How often do we utilise them every day? How many people do you know who are dependent on mobile phones, e-mail or Facebook to communicate? That I’m even publishing this through the internet right now itself is testament to our common reliance upon technology. From this perspective, we could already be regarded as cyborgs in a sense.

It’s this line of thought that leads me to believe there is ample depth and research material (real and fiction) to warrant an extended project and the resources supplied by a masters course while forming a formidable challenge to my writing and drawing abilities. There’s certainly a lot for me to be doing over the next two years, and I’m certain I’ll be pushed by the workload but all being well I’ll be looking at sizable improvements in my art, planning and general knowledge.

The final results will likely be showing up on Drunkduck while I’m certain I’ll be doing some printed copies too for those interested – publication seems I little overly optimistic but I’ll be giving everything I can go. In the meantime, I’ll be making regular progress updates right here along with relevant art and research, effectively charting the journey from concept to realisation. Constructive comments are welcome as is readership.

So how about it? Fancy coming along for the ride?