Jag kan inte tala svenska, men Monica kan dra vackert

I’m late reporting this but, over in Sweden, Monica Lundström has insightfully illustrated the experience of reading Fudebakudo. How fabulous is that? Very fabulous, that’s how fabulous.

Monica Lundström's illustration

Available in the original language and also in English if your Swedish is a wee bit rusty.

You can see more of Monica’s supercute illustrations, which are part of a journal-like blog of aikido musings (in Swedish, mind), at http://aikido.sjalvskyddsakademin.se.

Robert W. Smith: the Master

“The world’s most secretly guarded fighting techniques” — The Boston Globe

Secret Fighting Arts of the World (book)

Secret Fighting Arts of the World, by
John F. Gilbey ISBN 0804816085, pub. Tuttle. The book was first published in 1963. This is a 2001 edition.*

Although over the years I did a lot of research for the Fudebakudo book, there is one book that was, indirectly, hugely influential: Secret Fighting Arts of the World by John F. Gilbey. Actually it wasn’t really by a Mr Gilbey, but I didn’t find that out until much, much later. I read it when I was around 13 or 14, and it sowed a seed which undoubtedly resulted in my drawing the first Fudebakudo cartoons well over a decade later.

When we were young teenagers, a friend called Jon lent me the book and I distinctly remember being impressed by the wonders described within it. To my delight, I recently got hold of a second-hand copy, pictured here (although a previous owner has drawn loops around some of the chapter titles — gah! why would anyone do that?). If you like the left-hand pages of Fudebakudo, you will love this book and you should seek it out. It’s a parody so sly it makes Fudebakudo seem as coarse as a clown-car with square wheels.

I don’t think I was particularly credulous as a child, and today anyone who knows me will tell you I have a sceptical outlook so developed it’s probably wearisome, but back then I never realised how deliberately untrue the book was. Some of the things it reported were suspicious, certainly, and the incident described in its last chapter sort of flagged to me that silliness was afoot (which, I now appreciate, is a very neat thing to do with the final words). But if I’m honest, I didn’t understand how mischievous and how good the book was until much later. Two things in particular contributed to its credibility. Firstly, it was written as a convincing series of reports without hyperbole by someone who was quite clearly experienced in the martial arts. Secondly, it was published by Tuttle Publishing, a well-known and immensely credible source of books on martial arts (especially, back then, Japanese arts, since Tuttle had (still has, in fact) strong links with Tokyo).

An indication of how strong the book’s subliminal influence was upon me is shown by a double-spread illustration of anatomical “Zodiacal Times” (showing where the dim mak death-touch spot is at particular times of the day) on pp.17–18 of Secret Fighting Arts. I had no recollection of this at the time I did my drawing, but Fudebakudo readers will recognise nonsense so similar in Fudebakudo, purporting to be from a 15th century English book, Samuel Borogove’s Systematic Anatomie of Man, his Life, and Contrivance for Ending It, that I am shocked to realise how unoriginal and close to Gilbey’s that gag is.

Well, the reason Gilbey’s book was written with such an informed voice was that the author was in fact Robert W. Smith, an astonishingly knowledgable martial arts historian with unprecedented experience, and who repeatedly took the trouble to seek out true experts in the Far East. Unfortunately, because I read the book so long ago and because I didn’t use it directly as a source when researching strangeness in the martial arts, I did not realise Gilbey was a pseudonym for Smith until after Fudebakudo was published. Certainly, had I known, I would have dedicated the Fudebakudo book to him, for both hoodwinking and inspiring me as a youngster, and for basically being the grandmaster of writers of martial arts parody books. It’s a limited field so there aren’t many of us, to be sure, but there is only one master. Thank you, Robert W. Smith.


* There’s a sequel to Secret Fighting Arts, also by John F. Gilbey, called The Way of a Warrior: A Journey into Secret Worlds of Martial Arts. Smith’s book Martial Musings, which, to my embarrassment, I have yet to read, also touches upon the project from Smith’s, rather than Gilbey’s, perspective.

Marvellous Mug

For Christmas I was given this fabulous mug. (It's actually one of a set of four Beholder-themed mugs, all wonderful).

Fudebakudo mug

Mug: clockwise from top-left: URL and logo, aikido guy, Jiriki (on the bottom) with a black belt, and (inside) one of the midge assassins of Zhao.

Thanks to Kelly and Caroline!


Judith has Decided

1. Hidari peiji proofreading

When we were working on the Fudebakudo book together, Judith stated: "parody is only funny if it is accurate."

The left-hand pages of Fudebakudo are accurate. We can all thank Judith for that. Let me explain.

Judith and I met online through Planetarium, which is a puzzle story I wrote in the late 1990s. At the end of the puzzle is the xiii Forum where readers who've got to the end of the story can leave comments, to each other and sometimes to me. It's an exclusive place because it takes twelve weeks to get there.

Had I known then the quality of some of the puzzlers who would subsequently work through Planetarium I would probably have been scared off producing it. I didn't know there was such a thing as the National Puzzlers' League, not even when "NPL" started being dropped into comments in the xiii Forum. In fact, I was flattered because I thought it meant there were nerds from the National Physics Laboratory who'd done the puzzle.

Some of the USA's finest crossword-writers, anagramists, scrabblers, scribblers, and solvers belong to the NPL. Judith, as Sibyl (everyone has a nom, or pseudonym), edited The Enigma, the society's newsletter, for many years. It's a position requiring levels of erudition, accuracy, and humour which most mortals, even mortals who claim writing as their profession, can never hope to muster. Her background in some way explains it: I don't know it well enough to record it here accurately, because I come into Judith's story late — right at the end, in fact — but she was formerly a poet, a lecturer, a writer and a reader. As her husband Eric once told me, she can do things with words like nobody else he's ever met.

The point is Judith's language and learning was overkill for a project like Fudebakudo. But she generously offered her professional skills as a proofreader and I, perhaps a little out of turn, accepted.

If you have ever been professionally proofread, you will know that it can be a humbling experience. In the most basic sense, the proofreader's role is simply to point things out: the problem being, of course, that those things are wrong, and more to the point they are your mistakes and no one else's. There are the silly little things that anyone might get wrong; there are the things you wouldn't normally stumble over but for which, in these specific cases, you have some exceedingly clever or sophisticated excuse; and then there are all the other errors: the stupid, clumsy, ignorant, unfunny and grammatical ones. So by the time you're through with it, your proofreader knows you very well. It's a bit like having your brain measured, diced, weighed, and, inevitably, found wanting, but without an overt admission that such an analysis just happened. You both know it has, but nobody says so. Such is the polite restraint of a good proofer. This is, after all, someone who could wearily strike the whole bloody thing through and write it properly, but who does not, and instead delicately drains the bath-water whilst leaving the baby — the writer's ugly baby — intact. It's a rare skill, with a good dash of diplomacy thrown in too.

I made it hard for Judith: for rather feeble technical reasons, she didn't see the illustrations. For a novel, this is fine. For a book which is two thirds illustration, it is a significant impediment. While she was working on the words, she never saw any of the right-hand pages (which have the full cartoons on them) nor even any of the illustrations for the text with which she was working.

At one stage, she had to tell me that either I had missed a "t" off the end of the tiny Midge Assassins of Zhao, or else they were insects. I told her that they were insects; if she had seen the stupid pictures she wouldn't have needed to jump through these hoops just to make sure I was getting things right.

She also had to point out, patiently and several times, what was wrong with the phrase "transmission of Fudebakudo from student to master has traditionally been conducted in secret." She even fixed the alphabet in the index, because somehow the one I had designed was in the wrong order. Yes, really.

It was, I think we both agree, an interesting and extraordinary correspondence.

Well, the book was finished and if it is funny, it is because the text is astonishingly accurate. The mistakes that inevitably snuck through were all on the right-hand pages and are entirely mine. This is why eagle-eyed readers who look at the end papers may have noticed that Judith is credited as "hidari-peiji proofreader" — left-hand page proofreader.

I should also point out that, really, Judith wasn't just proofing; she was copy editing too — she checked dates and fixed my inconsistent Japanese and Chinese spellings, she gently guided my wayward style, and on several occasions performed that most essential of services: telling me when a joke didn't work.

The quality of the book is a result of Judith's patient and generous work, from the other side of the world. All this while she's in Portland, USA, and I'm near London, UK.


2. Arxnodorum

So, later and a couple of years ago, I flew out to Portland for Judith's 70th birthday party. To the amusement of us both, my friends had cautioned me about the dangers of flying 5000 miles to meet a woman I had only met on the internet — "you know," they said, "she's probably lying about her age." Well, it turned out that she wasn't, and furthermore it was a good party, and it was wonderful to finally meet.

That trip also coincided with the 2006 World Cup. I'm English, so I have to take an interest — it's part of our national character to feel compelled to watch our team losing. As an American, Judith hadn't been all that bothered about soccer; but she kindly videoed the England games, and followed the tournament with an increasingly knowing eye. By the time I left she was happy to discourse — without irony — upon the strengths and weaknesses of Sven's squad and whether Becks was all he was cracked up to be (he was, incidentally).

I rode in the ambulance that took her to hospital the day after the party. The ambulance caught fire. By way of a contrast, Sarah, her doctor, was exceedingly cool (she still is, as it happens). It was quite an adventure. Afterwards Eric sat me down before an American steak served by someone who for all the world looked like Britney Spears. That was a nice touch, after such a crisis and when Judith was safely in good medical hands, that he took the trouble to bring in celebrity servers for his credulous English guest.

At some point in that trip, I sat at the table with Judith and Eric and we talked about the Beholder project I had begun. I needed a word, a word for the central place of the story. Judith spent the afternoon with dictionaries spread over the table, following linguistic leads, using a poet's eye to gauge the shape of this word and the balance of that. After a week or so, I flew home with the word in my pocket: "Arxnodorum," which is the right word, and which is crucial to my current work.

When you know you are running out of time, you pick your projects carefully. I think it's fair to say Judith insisted on helping with this current project. I suspected that her time was limited and this work probably wasn't worthy; she knew better than I did what the real prognosis might be. She has, in this intervening time, also completed "the Twisto book," a fine and intriguing biography and tribute to a recently deceased NPL member.

So we've been in correspondence since then, working on the new project, and sharing jokes and research between the three of us, Judith, Eric, and me. Eventually, I got the first drafts of the manuscripts over to her and she set upon them with her steely knives. She has got everything done; she says it was a labour of love.

Last month I went out again; it was a working break, as I spent an extended time just fixing problems with the story, discussing changes and weaknesses. At different times, we read some of it out loud to each other. Judith surprised me by slipping in a few extra lines — for example, the fairy-tale protagonist became a "silly bitch" after a particularly unwise decision — to check that I was paying attention. We had a great time, and Eric and I shared good coffee in the mornings and good single malt in the evenings. I learnt to speak fluent American, I kept an eye on the veranda for the critter dance I had been assured happens from time to time (raccoons, possums, and squirrels, doing a sort of Oregonian hoe-down, I believe), and I pointed at all sorts of wondrous things in the local Freddie Meyer supermarket.

Judith had a heart attack two days after I flew back to the UK.

This summary seems oddly stark now I read it, because it's just about my involvement with Judith through Beholder and yet we have, all three, become unlikely friends beyond such a thing. There were other odd synchronicities and connections that we have made, and Judith and Eric also brought me into their circle of excellent friends (not to mention their remarkable son, Jeremy). It's been a privilege and an adventure.

So . . . It's a matter of disappointment that we now know Judith won't see the book when it is done next year — in fact, she won't see next year — or any of the things that may spin off from it. Judith, you probably suspected as much when you were waiting for those first draft manuscripts — boy, is he leaving this late. Honestly, I was writing as fast as I could.

I'll miss you Judith, every time I remember to use that Oxford comma, or hear or say "which" when it should be "that", or mess up the pesky subjunctive that we Brits don't use consistently. Of course, I'll also try not to say "of course" too many times. Thank you for all of it. It was mazal tov, wasn't it?

Pen technique

I'm working on a new Fudebakudo frame at the moment.  I used (and continue to use) the same set of pens, given to me by a special friend, for all the Fudebakudo cartoons.  These are Rotring Rapidograph, and I use four different widths, working on marker pad over a light-box. I usually sketch in pencil or fibre-tip pens first, sometimes sketching the same thing again and again and again before inking-in. Of course other stuff in Fudebakudo is entirely digital (for example, the ninja — although the background was done in felt-tip pen first), and there's even a tiny bit of POV-Ray inside the book (the electron microscope scans of the blades on p.52, if you care). So Fudebakudo really is an MMMA (mixed media martial art).

What prompted today's entry was recently reading a Pixelsurgeon interview with the accomplished American illustrator Bob Staake in which he says:

I love to draw, but I also enjoy pushing around a cursor here and there. Nothing pisses me off more than old-school artists who somehow feel that creating art on a computer is somehow easy, or worse, isn't legitimate. Anyone can drip a paintbrush into some india ink and slosh it across a piece of drawing paper. It takes a special talent to do the same thing with a mouse and a machine that can crash in a moment's notice.

Incidentally, if you're interested in how some people work (and I know most people don't think they would ever be), there's a great little video on YouTube showing his surprising technique (music by the artist, I believe).

You're looking for a oonnection with the martial arts here? Well, there doesn't have to be one, since this post is about production, which is what is concerning me right now. But there is something explicit from my on-the-mat training that crossed over directly to my drawing technique (not to mention the whole business of repetitive practice, and observation, and, well, a whole load of connections actually). And that is breathing.

An old aikido friend, years ago, drew my attention to this and subsequently I noticed I held my breath when drawing long lines (like borders, which often sneak into my cartooning style). In general, especially in the internal or soft martial arts (although some people are surprised to discover it matters when you learn to use a sword properly, too), how you breath is important. Obviously I don't mean exhaling with a shriek or power-grunt when you slam your fist into somebody, but the more subtle stuff in all the movements around that. You're rarely told this to begin with, but later you start to notice that some of the people who are really good have worked it out, and sometimes they even tell you about it when you ask them.*

So when you look at a long line in a Fudebakudo cartoon (yes, the long lines are the ones that tend to wobble a bit) you can be confident that I was breathing out (not in; not holding my breath) when I drew it. A little bit weird, no?


* Not always, though. I was once present when an eccentric Japanese sensei got very angry when someone asked him about how they should be breathing. So pick your moment carefully.


Samurai crabs

On page 43 of the book, there's the curious tale of a ninja who escaped from the battle of Dannoura in 1185 by strapping his feet to a pair of crabs with kelp twine, and scuttling away. Consequently, the crabs of Shimonseki to this day bear an invisible ninja footprint on their shells.

Um . . . 

Well it's a quirky story and the footprint bit is hard to disprove. But, as ever with Fudebakudo and the martial arts, there's another version of the story. This one is slightly better known than the ninja one, but it, too, is not quite as straightforward as it seems.

The fact is that there was a sea-battle at Dannoura in 1185. It was a bloody affair resulting in the defeat of the Taira clan. The grandmother of the six-year old boy Emperor Antoku jumped to her death, taking the boy with her to her watery grave, when it was clear that the battle was lost. To this day, the crabs of the area have on their shells the faces of samurai warriors, the drowned souls that were lost beneath the waves reincarnated as crustaceans.

heike crab

Ooh! Spooky! And yet . . . almost true — because the thing about this story is that the crabs do indeed display a ghostly samurai face (note that "ghostly" here affords some artistic license, and you have to scrunch your eyes up a bit, but hey). They are called Heike crabs (Heike is another reading of the Taira kanji) and there's an intriguing explanation for how this has come to be. The samurai crabs are, the theory goes, an exquisite example of artificial natural selection.

The key fact is that the crabs have patterned shells, some of which look a bit like a samurai face and some of which do not. Fishermen catching the crabs in the sea where the legendary battle took place would be inclined to throw back the ones that seemed to be reincarnated warriors (it's never wise to antagonise departed souls, especially those of warriors), whilst keeping the ones that had no such pattern. In this way, over the centuries, the stock of crabs with a samurai pattern on their backs is reinforced by breeding, while those that fail to carry the mark are removed from the gene pool.

Neat, eh? 

It's a wonderful idea, and it was popularised by the late, great Carl Sagan. But, sadly, it doesn't quite cut the mustard (or Thousand Island Dressing). The explanation of artificial selection works best if you imagine crabs the size of dinner plates, or, at least, big enough for half a crab sandwich. Unfortunately the Heike crabs are on the small end of the crabby scale (an inch across, or thereabouts) and it's not such a convincing theory if you consider that nobody bothers eating crabs that small; they probably all get thrown back. Unless, of course, the seagulls of Shimonoseki are more selective than people realise.

Starting young

The key to mastery in any martial art is to start young.

starting young 

This photograph, taken by an undercover journalist who had infiltrated a Fudebakudo Baby Camp deep in the cellars of a secret monastery in the Wutan foot-hills, shows the early stages of indoctrination. Presumably the parents paid handsomely for putting their offspring through such an elite, disciplined regime.

It makes you wonder just when the army of Fudebakudo toddler-warriors will be unleashed upon this unsuspecting world, swinging Fisher-Price battle-axes and hurling shuriken in primary colours with rounded corners.


Flick-man Animation Cuts Through Page

As anyone who's bought the book knows, the samurai animation on this site appears as a flick-man animation in the corner of the book. In fact, the little samurai slashes into the page, and then steps through the cut. If you then flick the book from behind, of course you see him emerging into the cut on the other side of the pages, just as you'd expect — you can't accuse Fudebakudo of not being thorough in the world of flick-animation.

Japanese postcard Anyway, years later our fine proofreader Judith (assisted by our US despatch ninja Eric) spotted this historic precedent from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and sent it to me. In fact it's from their postcard collection (of over 20,000), just a few of which are shown online. It's from the Meiji era, probably between the world wars, and represents Japan's nationalist fervour and a return to past glories. But never mind that, hey, he's going through the page!

As you may have realised, the Fudebakublog doesn't shy away from technical, nerdy details, oh no. So . . . the flick-man animation in the book was created by René and Raúl Carbonell by drawing (on paper) all the separate component pieces of armour, then scanning them in and compositing and manipulating them in ToonBoon. They were restricted to doing the whole sequence in 64 frames, because that is the number of facing pages in the book. This then went into Flash and was exported (as numbered TIFFs) for inclusion in the final proofs that went to the printers. What this means is that if you flick the little flicky flick-man animation in the corner of the book, you really are looking at a Flash movie, on paper. Ooh!

Now, the Flash movie you see here is exactly the same Flash animation, but coloured and with the paper cut replaced with the computer background. But even that is more nerdy than you'd expect. We couldn't find an appropriate picture of the innards of a computer (revealed when he slashes the screen) so the boys hooked their digital camera up to the machine by USB, took the side off the PC (don't try this at home kids) and took a picture of it while it was running and connected. This picture was then squirted down the cable into the PC and tickled in PhotoShop. So, that really is the inside of the very same computer that the samurai was cutting at the time he was being filmed, if you see what I mean. Like I said, you can't accuse us of not being thorough.

Spider Source

I put a spider on the back cover of the Fudebakudo book. People who know me well find this surprising, because I suffer from the relatively common affliction of arachnophobia — fear of spiders.

So maybe you don't like spiders either, but something deep down in my primal wiring really has a problem with them. I certainly can't voluntarily touch one of the beasties (well, tiny money spiders I can cope with… anything bigger than a thumbnail is out of bounds), but furthermore I can't comfortably handle photographs of them, or look at them. If a book has one on the cover (yes, even something like O'Reilly's Webmaster In A Nutshell, for example) in a room where I have to be, I'll discreetly turn it over so it's not in my peripheral vision (evolution has made sure that if you're frightened of something, just about the worst place for it to appear is in the corner of your eye).

The spider

I mention this because as an illustrator (albeit a cartoon illustrator) I can't really draw spiders — simply because I've avoided ever looking at them with the kind of intensity proper drawing requires. But (and this is about to get very nerdy) the cartoon spider on the back of Fudebakudo wasn't drawn, it was rendered in POV-ray. POV-Ray is a ray-tracer driven by a Scene Description Language. Huh? If you're not a nerd, then suffice to know I typed that spider. No, really: I didn't draw it, I typed it. If you don't believe me, here's the source code. Now that's scary.