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Barrel of Monkeys

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Barrel of Monkeys is the first book from new publisher Rebus Books, and as far as I know the first wide English publication of work by the team of Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot.

What to say about this book? I did not expect to like it nearly as much as I did. It seemed esoteric and vaguely arch when I first flipped through it, although maybe—as an uneducated person—that’s just me being mistrustful of anything/everything that seems smarter than I am. And the book was esoteric, and more than vaguely arch. It was weird and strange and profane and gross and occasionally shocking and definitely one of the best comics I’ve read in the last year. It’s a human book; it’s a book about human beings and how stupid and crude and terrible we are, and it’s hilarious.

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Barrel of Monkeys is drawn by both Ruppert and Mulot together in, according to the back cover, “a shared visual style.” It’s a little bit like a gestural, scratchy version of a clear-line style: there’s just enough information there for your mind to latch onto and follow, but little enough that you are forced to continually work to apprehend what’s happening. In order to read the pages, you have to fully engage with them, and the book depends on this leaned-forward attention of the reader to deliver it’s short, quick, crystalline jabs in each story.

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The effect is amplified and redoubled by the formal tricks Ruppert and Mulot use: from piling speech balloons all over a page so you can’t tell who’s speaking (or when) and so have to ferret it out for yourself, to more involved tricks. For instance the phenakistoscopes—complex circular images designed to rotate around a central axis in order to produce an animated effect. There are numerous phenakistoscopes throughout the book, each punctuating something happening within a story. When I came across them in reading the book, they seemed a little overwrought, more or less destroying the flow of the reading; which is not unusual for overtly formalist tools in comics. But following the suggestion of the book, you can see them animated here, and wow. Even days after reading the book, seeing the animations now (because I didn’t stop reading in order to watch animations on my phone (for once)), each of them really does add something, each one is a perfect beautiful little weird gem.

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But why do it like that? Seeing a single flat drawing meant to be animated, in the context of a multi-page comics story, creates a weird, dissonant parallax. “What is this? Where does this go in the story, in the sequence, or in my brain?” There’s a lot of that in Barrel of Monkeys, and I’d be surprised if it weren’t fully intended. The drawings are beautiful and light and airy, but there’s only enough information, especially in the faces, for you to tell characters apart. Who they are is less important than what they’re doing, saying or thinking. They often seem like not much more than ciphers, banal in the extreme, acting out a series of clumsy rudenesses. The strange, often terrible actions of the people in these stories stands in stark contrast with their blurry forms and smeared personalities. Though it’s a black and white book, there’s very little actual black, in terms of a compositional tool that moves the eye around a page purposefully. Florent and Mulot seem determined to let you founder until they feel it’s time to drag you up.

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I spent most of my time reading Barrel of Monkeys squinting, both figuratively and sometimes literally, to discern what was actually happening, and so was unprepared over and over again for how everything was wrapped up into a perfectly precise knot by the end. The story of the duel that happens to take place at an international meeting of sword swallowers by itself is worth the price of the entire book. I didn’t read the back until I was done, and Dash Shaw’s blurb says it perfectly:

“When I’d get Ruppert and Mulot’s books in French, I was perplexed by comics that seemed largely informed by theatre, Eadweard Muybridge and proto-animation. Now that I can read it, I’m delighted by how evil and mean-spirited the work is.”

I loved this book. And it’s a really great launch for Rebus Books, run by writer and critic Bill Kartalopoulos. Now the only problem is waiting for more Ruppert and Mulot in English.

112 pages
6.5 x 9.5” bw softcover
ISBN 978-0-615-62235-4
$19.95 | buy from publisher | buy via Amazon

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The Yiynova MSP19U Cintiq Alternative Swings for the Fences

frenden:

With the release of their second generation budget Cintiq alternative, Yiynova gets it right

Yiynova took on Wacom’s tablet display monopoly last year with their release of the DP10 and MSP19. I reviewed those units and they left me wanting.

The Yiynova used Waltop digitizers (digitizers being the bit of hardware that senses stylus position and pressure variance). There was significant jitter in the line quality. Creating straight lines was near impossible especially when making a deliberate, slow effort and the cursor jumped around like a ferret on meth. The display quality and fit and finish were fine, but the underlying tablet tech was a let down. My conclusion? The Waltop digitizer was junk and it let the otherwise competent hardware hanging.

After, I reviewed Monoprice’s graphics tablets. Those use UC Logic digitizers. They’re snappier in OSX than Wacom equivalents with less cursor lag and crisper fidelity in small movements. They sensed light pressure with more accuracy than any Wacom hardware I’ve owned. I was so pleased with the UC Logic based tablets that I purchased a heap of other equipment by them. I sold my Cintiq. I sold my Intuos. Eight months, four tablets and around nine styli later, I became an all UC Logic studio.

I wished that someone could pair the underlying, fantastic UC Logic digitizer tech with a tablet monitor enclosure. I even bought some hardware to try and make my own. But now I don’t have to. Yiynova must have been listening. The MSP19U is a second generation product that jettisons the inferior Waltop digitizers of the first model and replaces them with UC Logic internals.

Does the pairing live up to the sum potential of its disparate parts? Can a relatively unknown $569 tablet monitor compete with a $1999 Wacom Cintiq? Yes, it competes. It even bests the Cintiq in a few key areas. But I’m jumping ahead.

Unboxing, Specs, and the Physical Properties of the Unit

The Yiynova MSP19U is a 19,” 1440x900 tablet monitor with an adjustable, VESA-compatible stand and mounting bracket. It comes with one stylus, one battery, and several additional pen nibs. It has 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity and a 4000lpi digitizer.

The unit is light but not flimsy. Thinner than a Cintiq thanks to its LED backlighting, I find myself occasionally sitting the Yiynova in my lap like a digital art board.

At 19,” 1440x900, and 89.37 PPI, no one will mistake the Yiynova for a retina level display. It’s nearest Wacom neighbor, the 22HD, has a 22,” 1920x1080, and 100.13 PPI, screen. While the Wacom beats the Yiynova in sheer PPI, I always found the color of Cintiqs to be quite muddy thanks in part to an antiglare coating present on the monitors and dim backlighting. I went so far as to remove the glass from my Cintiq to scrape the coating off its back. It helped a little, but was still less than ideal and was not an activity for the faint of heart. Prying, scraping, and modding a $2,499 device to make it useable is a bummer and I went into a lot of detail about the shortcomings of Cintiq tech in my previous review if you want to learn more.

The LED backlighting on the Yiynova makes for a brighter overall display. It’s a little cool out of the box, but was fine once calibrated. If I had to choose between lower PPI or dimmer, muddier colors, I’d pick slightly lower PPI. This particular category is probably a draw.

The glass of the display sits above the LCD by around an 1/8th of an inch and looks to be about the same distance as my previous Cintiq. Until a manufacturer creates a unit with an iPad-like fused LCD and glass display, cursor parallax will be a concern (and is present for both the MSP19U and Cintiqs).

The stand allows for either complete verticality or nearly horizontal viewing angles and is easy to operate. Rotation is not possible, but I find it to be less of a necessity these days. Photoshop, Painter, Manga Studio, and nearly any art app worth it’s salt allow users to rotate the canvas arbitrarily.

There’s a VGA out port on the back of the monitor that will mirror the activity on your tablet to yet another external display. It’s an odd inclusion, but could be handy for making presentations or when teaching a digital art class. I do both from time to time, so it may be of some use.

Software & Hardware Installation

Setup was quick. I tested the unit on maxed 2012, 13” Macbook Air. The Air has a mini display/thunderbolt port, so an adapter was required to pair it with the Yiynova. All in, the MSP19U needs a VGA port, a wall socket, and a USB port to get rolling.

I already had UC Logic drivers installed on my system from my Monoprice tablets, so I only had to plug in the tablet to begin. The bundled driver software is the same version as the downloadable driver on the UC Logic, Panda City, and Yiynova websites, so use whatever is most convenient.

A quick note about drivers. Like with Monoprice tablets, I recommend installing drivers before plugging the tablet in, especially in Windows. Windows will install generic HID (Human Interface Device) drivers otherwise. They’re horrible and you’ll think your tablet is broken. It’s not. You’ll have to uninstall the generic HID driver from device manager, install the proper drivers, and only then plug in your tablet. This mistake accounts for five to ten support emails in my inbox a week.

Some stubborn apps enable tablet specific features (like pressure sensitivity options) only after detecting Wacom drivers present on a system. I install Intuos 3 drivers alongside any alternative tablet hardware to fool these apps into thinking a tablet is present. Painter and Illustrator are the two biggest culprits in my experience in both Win and Mac environments.

Does it work?

I tested the monitor with Photoshop CS6, Painter 12, and Manga Studio 4 and 5 in OSX and Windows. Much like the Monoprice tablets that came before, I found performance even better in OSX than Windows, but fine in both.

There are cursor calibration options in Windows, but no such options in OSX. I didn’t find cursor offset or parallax to be as bad on the Yiynova as on a Cintiq, and never found myself wanting or needing to futz with the cursor offset anyhow.

Cursor lag is similarly less pronounced on the Yiynova than a Cintiq and drawing felt more natural as a result.

A note on Paint Tool SAI. I’ve heard there are some issues running a multiple monitor setup with Paint Tool SAI, specifically, but that’s hard to blame on the Yiynova. SAI has been largely abandonware for some time, and it’s starting to show. I recommend using Clip Paint/Manga Studio 5. It’s a bit like a mashup of SAI, Painter, and Photoshop, and has largely replaced all those other apps in my workflow. My Windows box is a single monitor setup, so I was unable to verify these reports.

The drawing surface is slicker than that of a Cintiq and took a little getting used to. I found that long, deliberate lines could sometimes wobble a bit as my stylus tip slid on the glass, but it was a user limitation, not a failure of the digitizer panel.

Viewing angles on the monitor are worse than a Cintiq, but brightness is better. Viewing angles never veered into unusable territory, but the resolution and viewing angles of the LCD are the single largest area I’d like to see improved in the future.

Bottom line? Is it perfect? No. Are Cintiqs? No.

The Cintiq 22HD costs $1999. It has a slightly laggier feel to drawing, but a higher resolution display and has programmable hotkeys. It’s heavy and cumbersome. At the time of writing, the Yiynova MSP19U costs $569. It has a superior drawing experience in terms of lag and cursor offset to my eye, but a lower quality display and no hotkeys. It’s light and easier to move around a desk or sit in your lap.

Even without the price disparity, I would opt for the MSP19U. Cursor lag was the single biggest complaint I could muster against the Cintiqs and I think the 19U is the winner there. How well it draws trumps how good the image looks for me every time.

But, price matters and we should talk about it. The 19U costs 72% less than the Cintiq 22HD and 77% less than the 24HD. Even if it were marginally worse in all regards – and I find it neither heads and shoulders above or below, simply different – it would still be a steal.

My 19U is now a permanent member of the household. I don’t plan on, or feel the need to, replace it with a Cintiq.

Wacom has genuine competition on both the tablet and tablet monitor fronts. Spread the word. Make them feel some heat. There’s no reason this technology should be so expensive. The underlying hardware has been largely stagnant for a decade with no real innovation.

At $569, and with performance that often meets or exceeds Wacom’s hardware, the MSP19U is more than a viable alternative. It’s the disruptive agent of change the industry needs.

Buy the MSP19U using my Amazon affiliate link if you want to support my efforts to test digital art hardware.

Lastly, I want to thank you all. There have been more than 34,000 reblogs of my Monoprice review on Tumblr alone. UC Logic digitizers are a known quantity in the tablet space now and it’s thanks to you.

Another splendid and thorough graphics tablet review by Ray Frenden. This time it’s the Cintiq alternative, the Yiynova MSP19U.