38 posts categorized ":01 Stop: Watch"

March 31, 2008

On the Passage of Time

[From the Desk of :01 Editor Calista Brill]

Something that has always fascinated me about comics is the medium’s ability to express the passage of time.

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Comics also possess an almost unmatched capacity to manipulate time. With sequential art, you have the flexibility to linger on a single moment, exploring it from every angle. Manga is a genre especially well equipped for this, with the luxury of multi-volume storytelling. In Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo devotes 40 pages to the destruction of Neo Tokyo, a disaster that probably takes about two minutes to unfold in “real time.”

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On the other side of this equation, decades, even generations, can be effectively expressed in a simple transition between panels:

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The condensation of time is often a necessity for storytelling in graphic novel form. By their very nature, comics are expansive. Often, the text bears much of the responsibility for advancing the plot, while the art illustrates, enriches, complicates, and even subverts it. A balanced page won’t have too much text on it… which means information and events can take a little while to unfold.

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When a story is limited to 200 or fewer pages, as many graphic novels are, this wonderfully leisurely mode of conveying information can threaten to overflow the bounds of the format. There’s just so much to say, and so little space to say it.

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And that’s great news!

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No, really, it is.

Some of my favorite moments in my favorite comics are examples of genius in the service of efficiency. If poetry is language, condensed, and if much of the joy of a sonnet is the struggle to work within the narrow confines of the form – then the same could be said about a well-crafted graphic novel. Every moment has to count, and many moments have to count on a number of different levels, if for no other reason than economy of space. This is true of storytelling in any genre, but graphic novels have the advantage of a visual means to this end. And happily, a subtle, layered comics story where every panel is significant and many are interesting on a few different levels isn’t just efficient—it’s also awesome.

There are all sorts of ways to pack extra information into a page or a panel.

Scott Pilgrim does it here with vital statistics and diagrams that also happen to be really freaking funny:

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Fun Home uses a ton of literary allusions to tap into a larger cultural context / hive-mind.

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A strong, expressive initial visual impression can also tell you almost everything you need to know about a character. Meet Jellaby.

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The following three panels effectively and poignantly condense the childhood (cub-hood?) of the bear Vivol, from the webcomic The Abominable Charles Christopher.

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Grady Klein uses loaded single-panel visual flashbacks, flash-forwards, and parallels throughout The Lost Colony to heighten and enrich the current action.

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The final moment of the Love and Rockets story Sugar ‘n Spikes offers a simple smile that complicates the entire story, and somehow makes it about 100 times more melancholy.

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A peek into the subconscious of Uncle Scrooge… you won’t be particularly surprised at what you find, I’m afraid. One-liners and sight gags are also a great tool for highly condensed storytelling.

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This is fairly obvious stuff, and anyone who’s thought about comics in a serious way has doubtless come down this road, but it’s certainly a pleasant exercise. It’s nice be reminded now and then that the constraints that bind us—and sometimes frustrate us—can also inspire our greatest innovations… or, at the very least, a few good jokes.

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Excerpts in this post from: The Arrival, by Shaun Tan; Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo; Elfquest, by Wendy and Richard Pini; Tintin: The Shooting Star, by Hergé; Owly: Just a Little Blue, by Andy Runton; Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, by Bryan Lee O’Malley; Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel; Jellaby, by Kean Soo; The Abominable Charles Christopher, by Karl Kerschl; The Lost Colony Book No. 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy, by Grady Klein; Love and Rockets, by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez; Uncle Scrooge: The Son of the Sun, by Don Rosa.

[UP NEXT WEEK: CYRIL PEDROSA]

March 24, 2008

Beginning-Middle-End

[From the desk of Steven Seagle]

I’m always amazed by people who tell me that they could never do what I do: tell a story. I think it’s the opposite. I think people can’t not tell a story. I think it’s in our blood. Genetic? Jungian? I don’t know, but I blame a little something I call:

B-M-E

Sure it’s core to writing a story, but it’s also innate to human existence:

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When it’s absent from a situation, or when the facts of its presence are insufficient, we fill in the blanks and create:

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We can’t help ourselves.

Think about it. The whole of our human existence is measured out as B-M-E:

You’re born. You work. You die.

Maybe you imagined a different middle:

You’re born. You love. You die.

Maybe my ending was your middle and you had a different ending altogether:

You’re born. You die. You’re born again in the form of a praying mantis.

Even people who tell me they could never write a story spend most of their day (if not life) doing just that – conveying events in the form of B-M-E. When someone asks you how your day was, you tend to start at the beginning, work your way through the middle and wrap it up with how it ended. Sure the details may differ, and that’s where doing something like writing professionally develops (hopefully) a better sense of how to convey B-M-E, but each of us has within a raconteur lurking somewhere.

Here, see if you can even begin to stop yourself from creating a tale when you consider this worded image:

A car pulls away at high speed from a person lying in the middle of an intersection, a bag of groceries scattered around them

Writer or not, your mind has probably already started telling you the story. And despite the fact that what was described with words was a single instant, your mind has most likely started to fill in the missing parts using an inborn sense of B-M-E. For most people the B-M-E associated probably goes a little something like this:                                                                                     

B = Car hit person

M = Person was knocked down and spilled their groceries

E = Car sped away from the scene

It’s likely that’s what you came up with, but that is only one possible read of the worded image. Most people would tend to fill in the blanks with the person as the victim. But nothing in the image itself:

A car pulls away at high speed from a person lying in the middle of an intersection, a bag of groceries scattered around them

explicitly names the person in the intersection as the assault-ee. What if we filled in the blanks incorrectly? What if the car wasn’t the “villain” at all? What if the driver was the victim and the person on the ground was the bad-guy (or bad-gal, because, of course, nothing in the description mentions anything about gender either!)? I bet you’ve already started reconstructing your B-M-E. Your mileage may differ, but here’s mine:

B=Person tried to attack driver at intersection

M=Driver threw bag of groceries out window at attacker’s head

E=Attacker was knocked down by groceries as driver made her (or his…or their!) escape

We fill in the blanks based on past experience. We make assumptions about what we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. That’s not news. But what I rarely hear mentioned about all this is that those assumptions tend to be structured in the most basic story sense: B-M-E.

So what happens when we jump from written cues to visual? Gene Yang has had such an incredible year with his 1:2 book American Born Chinese that he (hopefully!)  won’t mind me pulling out three panels of his great tome for a little field test. Here are three sequential wordless images from the book. It’s a scene that’s only three panels long, but with no words, I’ll bet you can still B-M-E the full story between the characters Jin and Amelia (do that, then start reading again when you’re done!):

 

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Okay, not bad. You used visual cues to determine they’re in a movie theater and based on previous B-M-E experiences (from your life or others) you pieced together what happened: Jin is considering his chances for making a move, he goes for it and Amelia is shocked, but then she leans in leaving Jin surprised that his courage paid off, or something like that, right?

Great! But… (you knew there’d be one, right?!) I have, in fact, suckered you! The panels above weren’t actually in the right order. That didn’t stop you from making sense of them, but can you suss out the real B-M-E of this micro story when the three panels are placed in their proper sequence (come back after you’ve cracked it!):

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Good. Sure. Easy. Jin and Amelia are at the movies, leaning in, feeling close, then Amelia suddenly sits bolt upright having thought of something troubling, Jin doesn’t know what’s up. Finally, Amelia’s eyes glaze over, something is wrong and Jin suspects he might know what that something is…him. That works, right?

Great! But…what if I told you that the panels above weren’t complete? This mini-story isn’t a three panel sequence at all. It’s actually a four panel sequence. And here’s how it really plays:

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Okay, got it – same basic story as before, but with the actual ending to the scene in place we now know the sticking point, right? A jealous, hot-head rival for Amelia’s affections, who makes his position known by coming to Jin’s house later and socking him in the face before leaving the scene.

Or are we just back to the story of the car the pedestrian and the groceries again?

I have to confess, Gene is likely to come to my house and punch me in the cheeks over this whole blog. Because the fact is, nothing above was the correct visual story laid out in American Born Chinese. I left out panels in the movie theater, never gave the correct sequence, and that punch image is from way later in the book. A complete disservice to Gene’s incredible storytelling abilities…to illuminate your inherit story-making abilities

I took it all out of context and out of order and…you were still able to B-M-E it. We can’t stop ourselves! We have to make order of what we’re being given as written words or visual cues or…

Or when we’re reading comics…both.

That’s the really interesting thing about this jewel of an art form. It’s working on two modalities at once, and you’re processing the gaps (intentional and unintentional alike) to complete those scenes, stories, and themes. But just like the intersection/groceries/car fragment above, don’t be so sure you’ve given a comics page let alone an entire graphic novel it’s only possible reading. Here’s the cold –hard truth:

We fill in the blanks.

And we fill them in with whatever we have.

And we might get them very right…or very, very wrong…

But either way, we make the work, not just the author's, but ours.

So with that, here's the first image from Genius, the First Second book I'm doing with my long-time, brilliant collaborator Teddy Kristiansen, due out next year.  The image contains many clues about what the story is about.  Feel free to B-M-E all you like until then. . .

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[UP NEXT WEEK: CALISTA BRILL]

March 17, 2008

on coloring

[From the drawing board of Hilary Sycamore]

People ask what I do for a living; I say I’m a colorist. They look at the usually- challenged hair with a puzzled look of: “…and you work in a hairdressers and they let you out like that!” I then explain that I color graphic novels, not hair, which leads occasionally to a knowing “ahhh” or an explanation of what a graphic novel is.

So if you are reading this blog and have found your way to First Second’s brilliant site, there’s a good chance we can skip that stage.

The next question is, “How did you get to be a colorist?”—easy, I’ve always been a colorist. I just didn’t know that it was called anything. Apparently, my first word was “blue” and I’ll save you the rest of the biography except to say it involved a lot of paint, dye and food coloring along the way…

OK, so let’s have a look at color—it’s funny the way people talk about bias in terms of someone’s view being “colored.” That alone should tell you that color is a very personal and therefore subjective matter.

The ability to perceive color is inbuilt in the human design—and yet the many color-blind people manage perfectly well. Hey, we even survived black and white TV. So what does this color perception do? Why do women usually have slightly more sensitive color perception than men? Perhaps it’s a trait connected to maternal preservation and prevention skill; for example, you can tell if someone is getting angry—or getting sick—by subtle changes of skin color. We use color diagnostic skills to see if it looks like rain, to see if the toast is brown enough or that my husband’s science experiments, a.k.a. left-overs, really do need to leave the fridge.

Well that’s fine but doesn’t explain our emotive connections to color. These color connections are even in our language: seeing red, feeling blue, green with envy, in the pink… to mention a few. For a moment let’s forget color and move to music. Sometimes you want to listen to a particular kind of music that just seems to fit the mood. Then, at other times, a style of music can actually change your mood. Well, color works in exactly the same way. There is much research about the effects of different colors—one, which made me smile, was that they painted a high security prison with nursery pinks and pastels (including teddy bear borders) because it made the inmates calmer and better behaved.

So color has a variety of connections and associations. The trick with coloring graphic novels is to use color that actually helps to tell the story. It really is like adding music to a movie—try muting the soundtrack and watching a movie with just subtitles and you’ll see what a difference the music makes.

Putting colors together is like having the right distance between people, some you want up close and personal and others at a good distance. There’s no such thing as a bad color, just a right color in the wrong place, like showing up at a funeral in fancy dress—and I guess even that depends upon the person! I tune colors, like people tune the radio, until it gets the optimum effect. So that the colors make each other look good, for that mood, time and place in the story.

So that’s enough of this horribly difficult writing—thank goodness for writers—and back to the fun stuff, where pages arrive miraculously already drawn and inked. Thank you so much to a whole bevy of First Second artists who release their hearts and souls in the form of black and white line work for a stranger to color. At least these days I don’t need to spend hours with colored cellophane pressed to my face to see what the world looks like yellow; I can add a tint layer instead…

[UP NEXT WEEK: STEVEN SEAGLE]

March 10, 2008

The Birth of a UFO

[from the drawing board of Fabrice Parme]

I'm not going to talk about how Tiny Tyrant came into being. That'll be for another time.

Instead I want to tell you about the birth of another work I created with Lewis Trondheim.

In June 2004, Trondheim and I were invited to attend a comics convention in Haarlem, in the Netherlands. Lewis was just starting to work on his book Désoeuvré, in which he explored how comics artists handle getting old—a crucial question that he was asking himself and his fellow authors (and, not uncharacteristically, a weird premise for a book).

After a pretty packed first day at the convention, we were heading back to our hotel. Lewis was wondering where to go next in his career. He explained that he had rummaged around a lot and couldn't really see what else he could invent. I think he was a bit tired, to tell you the truth, because I don't for a second buy the thought of Trondheim ever being short of original ideas. To help him get over his despondency, I pointed out that, sure, he might have explored tons of different directions in terms of storytelling, but everything remained to be invented from the standpoint of drawing. I talked about composition, color, signage, modern art, cubism, abstract art; about the possibility of designing the page differently based on graphic networks, on shapes. He told me to keep talking about these things, that he found it nourishing.

When we got to the hotel, we sat down at the desk in his room with paper and pencils. I started filling his notebook with sketches and scribbles to explain a bit better what I had in mind. My idea was to take the formal ingredients underlying comics and rearrange them differently—for example, not using panels or strips. Lewis thought that was a really fun idea, but as it was getting late he said we should try to find a common thread of meaning holding all those ideas together, and first grab some sleep. I headed back to my room with shapes swirling in my head.

Ovniroughcoda

By breakfast the next morning, Lewis had found the common thread: an alien from outer space crash-lands on Earth in the middle of the Jurassic period. Through a labyrinthine system you can follow various routes taken by this character, spanning all epochs of humanity. Depending on what path he takes, the alien will get eaten, crushed, trampled, chopped to pieces, etc. Only one path will allow him to repair his flying saucer and return home. The story was as bare-bones as possible: an issue of survival, no frills. Exactly what was needed to cause the form to blossom. No panels, no strips, no text balloons. A fresco 32 feet long, starting with the cover and ending with the back cover. As we ate our breakfast, I continued to fill Lewis's sketchbook with diagrams. The authors at our table were watching us with interest. We explained to our Dutch publisher what was going on. Right away he was game. A month later I found the title: OVNI (that's UFO in French). At the same moment Lewis was launching Shampooing, his imprint at Delcourt. OVNI would be for Shampooing first, then for our Dutch publisher.

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All that was left was to give birth to the beast, which involved a 14-month pregnancy for the colorist and me, and a 14-day process for Lewis.

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To be able to produce the book we had to come up with a new method. Computer-assisted design gave us the greatest flexibility in coloring and the use of archives and image banks, as well as the most freedom to invent through collage, distortions, variations, filters or compositions. That's why the original pages of OVNI were done on the computer, with some parts drawn on paper then scanned and others done directly on screen using the graphic palette.

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Trondheim's script looked more like a musical score: there were indications concerning the roads to follow; there were pratfalls, jokes, open proposals. I followed his score whenever possible. Sometimes I improvised, because the composition of the image impacted the story. I took side roads, moved jokes, dropped a few and suggested new ones. Even when a two-page spread was almost complete, Lewis would still come up with new solutions and original finds. Working on the computer allowed us to course-correct until the last minute, because we were working on several layers—up to 50!

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In the end, I believe the book truly looks like no other and demonstrates that there's always plenty of stuff left to invent.

When the book came out in France, a producer wanted to make a series of cartoons out of it. Would it be impossible to adapt? Not necessarily, it's just a matter of going back to the drawing board and finding the trick.

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http://www.spirit-prod.com/site/ovni.html

[UP NEXT WEEK: COLORIST HILARY SYCAMORE]
 

March 03, 2008

Something Magical

[From the drawing board of Alexis Frederick-Frost]

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[UP NEXT WEEK: FABRICE PARME]

February 25, 2008

Trust

[From the studio of Mike Cavallaro]

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I’ve worked off and on at my own desk or at various studios here in NYC for almost 15 years, but this past spring I took a slightly different step. I rented a separate workspace with five other artists and moved my old art table in, along with a pile of the usual art-making stuff.

The goal was to get out of our cramped apartment workspaces and get in with other people passionate about doing comics. With Dean, Tim, Leland, Joan, and Simon, I was lucky enough to fall in with just that crowd.

We dubbed the place Deep Six Studio. It’s on the second floor of an old commercial loft building on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, right underneath the F/G train trestle. So, appropriately, it looks like the establishing shot of an Eisner comic.

Deep_six

Making comics is a curious endeavor. There are other jobs like it, but then only to a degree. You’ve got this work you need to generate, and you’ve got a deadline, but you’re pretty much on your own until then. It’s easy to fall off, meander, doodle, check email obsessively, etc., etc. No matter how much you love what you’re doing, there are many pitfalls, and it’s easy to not get things done.

The studio makes falling off somewhat difficult. Checking your email is likely to produce a sarcastic, “how’s that page comin’?” from across the room. Obsessively over-noodling will cause a roomful of verbal whips to crack. For as much goofing around that goes on there, you’re still more likely to get work done than you are to doze off (Dean’s music insures against the latter, anyway).

Dean

I’m at Deep Six almost every day. Everyone’s schedules are different, so you never know who else will be there. Since this often leaves us with at least one open desk, we’re fond of having guest artists over for a day of drawing. Sometimes they’re locals who need a break from working at home. Sometime they’re from out of state or out of the country, a friend of a friend, in town on business or whatever. It’s really exciting to have someone new in for a day, and even better if they play ping-pong on the table down the hall, and even better still if I win.

I was a storyboard artist for many years, and in that profession you learn to draw fast, throw it out, and do it again. At Deep Six, having five sets of eyes on your work forces you to look at what you’re doing more critically than if you’re sitting alone in your room doodling. It’s really hard sometimes to see your own work from the perspective of another person, but in the past few months I’ve learned to trust the instincts of the other artists at the studio and to seriously consider their advice and criticisms as they relate to whatever I happen to have on my drawing table at that moment. Sometimes, as in storyboarding, this means scrapping an entire page and starting over. As a result, my drawing and narrative skills have improved in leaps and bounds in just a few months.

People talk about how making comics is this insular thing, but it doesn’t have to be. Things get insular and monotonous when you’re doing the same thing all the time. You lose that feeling you had when you were just starting out and it was ALL new. But watching Tim draw something beautiful with a sharpened stick ( no, really ), or seeing how Simon assembles one of his futuristic cityscapes, or how Dean expertly paces a sequence, serves to remind you that it hasn’t all been done before, and that your imagination’s the limit in how far you can continue to grow and learn as an artist.

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I’m well into the work on my First Second graphic novel, and so far it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s totally a product of the environment at Deep Six, where the general community vibe and level of expertise has helped push my work forward in all respects.

Most studios I’ve been involved with have lasted a few years, and then sort of dissolved in one way or another. Right now Deep Six is going strong. I don’t know what the future holds for it, but I hope it continues. I’m having the time of my life, and living a sort of dream I’ve had since the idea of drawing comics professionally occurred to me somewhere back in highschool. I get up, I walk to the studio, and I draw all day. I get to see everyone else’s projects develop at pace with my own. I know I’m in one of those periods I’ll look back on fondly. The desire is to want to stop time and stay here, like being a teenager forever. Of course that’s not possible (maybe not wise either), but I do hope it lasts a while longer.

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So here’s to working with other people and doing something you love, opening up our creative processes to the artists down here in the panel gutters with us, and hoping that collectively we can all push our own work and the art form forward in some way. Salúte!

[UP NEXT WEEK: ALEXIS FREDERICK FROST]

February 18, 2008

In the Studio

[From the studio of Teddy Kristiansen]

My name is Teddy Kristiansen and I am a readaholic.

I read a lot . . . a lot a lot.

Almost any genre, and always with a hungry appetite for more. Biographies, fiction, short stories, essays and so on and so on. . . .

I love reading about the process of creating (writing, drawing, painting, playing etc.)

And about where this process takes place.

Most people will talk about their studio place or the office they go to every morning, to isolate themselves from all and everything.

This makes me think of my own space.

Studio

I prefer to have all the stuff I call home around me (books . . . and books and food) and feel most comfortable in these surroundings.

I have done work sitting in other places (studios) and done just fine, but I do feel more contend and complete in these surroundings . . . home.

My “studio” consists of this:

The tiniest work table, where most of the tabletop is taken up by my computer (imac 24).

This leaves me a cramped space to do my painting and my drawing . . . papers and books in stacks, fighting me every day, trying to take over what’s left of the tabletop.

But I fight back and win back my small space, inch by inch, so I can continue with the work I am doing.

I used to do all my transfers of my rough sketches to the paper I paint on, using a light table, but many years ago, I began to use the window instead.

My old work desk was big but I found out that I actually used most of the table to store book stacks, while actually using a workspace the same size I have today on my small desk.

So my workspace is getting smaller every year, and, I take it, I will end up with a workspace the size of a matchbox.

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These days the fight is taken up with GENIUS, a book I am doing with my old pal, Mr. Steve Seagle, which should see the light in 2009.

Now on with the fight!

Which makes me wonder . . . what does YOUR work desk look like?

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(more from Teddy Kristiansen at http://teddykristiansenblog.blogspot.com)

[UP NEXT WEEK: MIKE CAVALLERO]

February 13, 2008

Angoulême journal entry

Adding to Gene Yang's entry about the Comics Festival in Angoulême, here's  a ragged little scan from my journal, of a moment shared with Gene and Moebius...

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February 11, 2008

ANGOULÊME

[From the Drawing Board of Gene Yang]

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I got back from Angoulême two weeks ago and my brain is still reeling from the experience. For those of you who don’t know, the name “Angoulême” refers to two things:

    1. A small town in France, about two hours’ train-ride south of Paris

    2. The Western world’s largest comic book festival (or “convention,” as we call ‘em here in the States) which takes place annually in that town

Dargaud, the French publisher of American Born Chinese, invited me across the pond as their guest, and I got to spend four days rubbing elbows with many of the most brilliant cartoonists in the world. Graphic novels from practically every comics-reading culture were on display.

On my first afternoon there, I sat down at my publisher’s booth to do a signing. I started off signing books just like I do in America: the reader’s name in all caps, a happy little message, my loopy signature, and a quick doodle of the Monkey King’s head to prove I’m the guy who did the book. About five books in, I began noticing that the readers were all walking away with frowns. Had I spelled their names wrong? Did I smudge the drawing with my hand? Was it a French custom that I wasn’t familiar with, frowning at the sight of a newly signed book?

Then I took a good look at what the French cartoonists around me were doing. The one on my right was crosshatching a carefully rendered fight scene on a jacket flap, while the one on my left was finishing up a watercolor portrait of her protagonist on the bottom half of a title page. I realized my little monkey heads just weren’t cutting it. French comic book readers expect sketches that are works of art rather than just sketches, and French creators are more than willing to oblige. In an hour, a cartoonist would sign maybe eight books tops, and everyone was happy about it. The readers didn’t complain about the wait, and the cartoonists didn’t complain about cramped drawing hands. I had to step up my game.

The elaborate sketches were indicative of a general atmosphere that pervaded the entire show. The emphasis of Angoulême wasn’t on autograph collections or limited edition toys or blockbuster movies or skimpy costumes. The emphasis was on the art of comics. Everything else took a backseat, and everyone understood this. Displays of original comic book art adorned the halls, just as they do at American conventions, only in Angoulême these displays weren’t afterthoughts -- they were the main attractions.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the zaniness of American comic book conventions. I love watching Jack from Jack-in-the-Box and the King from Burger King engage in a light saber duel before a rapt audience of classic Nintendo characters. I love hearing Klingons shout Klingon jokes to other Klingons, and then laugh hearty Klingon laughs. I even love bumping into overweight Optimus Prime as we both search for those elusive issues of The Warriors of Plasm in an endless sea of dollar bins. But to be at a festival where comic books are seen -- not just by the professionals, but by pretty much everyone in attendance -- as an art form in every sense of the word “art”… this was as close to Hicksville (a geeky way of saying “comic book heaven”) as I’m ever going to get.

The draftsmanship of the French creators certainly reflected this attention to craft. I watched in amazement as fully-formed scenes spilled out from their pens without a single pencil sketch line to guide them. I met cartoonists who had mastered a half dozen media to tell stories in a half dozen genres. The panels that make up their graphic novels resemble small, carefully-composed paintings, with conscious thought evident behind every brush stroke and color. There is much that we Americans can learn from the French.

Of course, the reverse is also true. After all, Will Eisner and Charles Shultz were Americans.

And maybe that’s why I feel so lucky to be working in comics right now. The three major comics traditions of the world -- Japanese, French/Belgian, and American - are in the midst of a Great Cross-Pollination. More often than not, cartoonists today can trace their influences around the globe, to other cartoonists with whom they’d barely be able to sustain a verbal conversation. And yet, through this medium that combines the universal communication of pictures with the specific communication of words, we’ve found a profound way to share with one another.

It’s an exciting time to be in comics. As a friend remarked to me recently, it’s like being at the birth of rock-and-roll.

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Angoulême the town

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Angoulême the comic book festival

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Me trying to step up my game

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Lewis Trondheim, me, and Christophe Blain

[UP NEXT WEEK: TEDDY KRISTIANSEN]

February 04, 2008

Bridges of Translation: Adapting Graphic Novels for a New Audience

[From the Drawing Board of Alexis Siegel]

Bridges of Translation: Adapting Graphic Novels for a New Audience

I have a friend from Israel who is a fabulously talented classical musician and composer. Whenever the spirit moves him he'll grab his violin and share his latest inspiration with whoever's around. Mostly it's amazing to witness, but there was that time when his friends in Denmark (where he lives) wondered aloud whether they'd have to tie up Cacofonix the Bard before they could enjoy their wild boar in peace.

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Surely you recall Cacofonix?

I found it delightful that Danes, talking about an Israeli, would use the name of a character from a Belgian/French comic… and that the image in everyone's mind would be worth ten thousand words.

Then again, I do tend to get excited about different languages and nationalities and such things, in a way that maybe not everyone does . . . if I can judge from the glazed looks I get and the often unanimous votes to have me tied up and gagged in a corner while the wild boar roasts!

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Languages are a particular fascination of mine.  And comics are an especially rich field for a translator to play in, with many levels and styles of dialogue, and lots of cultural reference that can be plenty challenging to translate.

That's why, after many years of working on slightly more austere stuff, like corporate annual reports, I jumped at the opportunity when my older brother Mark Siegel (at the time in a pre-First Second avatar) suggested we work together on translating from the French Joann Sfar's magical stories in the Little Vampire series.

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More Than One Cook in the Kitchen

One interesting question I've been asked is what parts of science, art or craft go into successfully translating a graphic novel.  I find it's a lot like cooking: there are ingredients that you can't do without and recipes that help, but you still have to be able to feel the result.  Does the dialogue work? Does the translated version capture the spirit of what the author wrote in the original? 

That's why collaborations can be so valuable – on your own, it's harder to have the necessary distance from the graphic novel you're working on, so you're like a cook who has to be watchful not to let his taste buds get blunted.  In my work with First Second, I've been lucky not only to work on several remarkable books, but also to get valuable comments from First Second's talented in-house team, and even to collaborate with two excellent (and award-winning, I have to add, it's seasonally appropriate) translators – Edward Gauvin and Kathy Pulver.

In fact, those Asterix translations that I admired as a kid, amazed at how the English versions contained different puns but worked in the same witty way as René Goscinny's brilliant original, were also done by a team (Anthea Bell, the co-translator with Dereck Hockridge, has an interesting article on her experience with Asterix here).

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(In French, a drunken Obelix said "Farpaitement!" in case you're wondering).

Bridging Cultures

Whether I'm working alone or with a colleague, I'm fascinated by how you have to adjust to a new cultural mindset if you want a story to work in the target language.  I had an interesting case on my hands when I was called in to fix the translation of an early story from the Sardine in Outer Space series.  Those zany and fast-paced adventures, part of First Second's offerings for kids, are full of rollicking fun, cheesy puns and good-natured warmth.  But the story that rang alarm bells in its initial translation didn't match that feeling.  In it, Sardine the plucky 9-year-old swashbuckler and her crew arrive on Planet Totocalcho, a planet inhabited by anthropomorphic dogs who speak with Italian accents, love good food and their mammas, and have a passion for a kind of soccer game.  The sense in French was that the story made a few gentle digs, with plenty of endearment, at a neighboring country whose quality of life, sense of family and passion for soccer (the Totocalcio is the Italian lottery based on the outcomes of soccer matches) are viewed positively in France, if not shared. But in the early version of the translation, the attempt to render an Italian accent was indistinguishable from a Hispanic accent, and the overall feeling became one of offensive mockery. Mixed with the image of dogs, it hit a raw nerve. So in the end I decided that the only way to make the story work was to move away from all the Italian/Latin puns and names and simply go to town on dog puns and references. I even had fun naming the advertising banners in the stadium where the climactic soccer game takes place: Starbarks Coffee, Dachshund & Dachshund, etc.

Interestingly, after having had to tamp down what could appear to be prejudice in that translation, I needed to play up prejudice in another one.

When I had the good fortune to translate into French Gene Yang's wonderfully profound American Born Chinese, I came up against the problem of how to portray the ordinary anti-Asian racism that is a key thread of the book, because it's fairly unknown in France. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming that the French have any less talent for racism and prejudice than any other culture. It's just that Chinese immigration is very recent in France and hasn't given rise to the kind of stereotyping shown in the book. I had to rack my brains to find equivalents for the racist slurs in the scene below:

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For the first kid's text balloon, I used the pun of "débridé", which means "unbridled" but has an echo of "bridé", the neutral term used to describe the curved eyelids of Asians.

And I had the second one say not "la chair de poule" (goose bumps, except they're chicken bumps to the French) but "la chair de canard laqué" (Peking roasted duck bumps). 

And when the character of Chin-Kee, a fusion of all infuriating anti-Chinese racist stereotypes, breaks into a spontaneous song-and-dance routine of the Ricky Martin song "She Bangs", I had to find an equivalent that would work in the French context.  I chose to adapt it by using "Alexandrie, Alexandra", by the 1970s French singer Claude François, because I felt it had a similar power to irritate by tying into each reader's many painful experiences of it in karaoke bars and at parties.

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So it's never-ending, what you learn about different cultures through the experience of translating graphic novels, and accordingly I could go on and on with many more examples, but already I see your eyes glazing over and your hands reaching for a rope.… So I'll sign off and head back to my translations.

[UP NEXT WEEK: GENE YANG]

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