From the drawing board of Leland Myrick
“If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry”
I took part in a panel discussion at last summer’s San Diego comic convention that started me thinking again about a subject that’s been spinning around in my head for a while—the relationship between comics and poetry, and whether some comics can be called poetry. It didn’t take me long, honestly, to come to the conclusion that many comics, though they might not have started out as poems, are in their finished forms closer to poetry than anything else.
During the panel discussion in
One of the most important things that happened in the transformation from poem to comic was the loss of words. My editor, Mark Siegel used what became an important phrase for me in the early stages of the book when I was still struggling with keeping the language of the original poems intact—Let the words fall away. And so I did. In my head I saw the words falling away, floating leaves settling on the floor around my drawing table. And when I did, the transformations occurred for me, small enchantments twisting poetry into comics. When I told my friend Jane (who taught me more about poetry than anyone else) about this process, she said, “Oh...don’t let the words fall away! Let me have them.” One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received, and I’ll always love her for saying that.
When I finished MISSOURI BOY, I didn’t stop thinking about the connection between poetry and comics, because the chapters still felt like poems to me, and I began to think about the other graphic novels and comics I’ve loved, and I began to think about which ones felt like poems to me. And a lot of them came to my mind. And I decided that, for me, certain books are poetry, in the same way that MISSOURI BOY is still poetry. They feel like poems when I read them. The magic mix of the language, the arrangement of the words on the page and the pictures conjures poetry.
The moment near the end of Dave McKean’s CAGES when the artist and his love are talking about creativity and then walk out on the balcony to see the city rising beneath them—that’s poetry. The moment in Taiyo Matsumoto’s BLACK & WHITE when Kimura has a leisurely conversation with Suzuki and then kills him, Suzuki knowing all along that he’s going to die—that’s poetry. The moment at the end of Lark Pien’s LONG TAIL KITTY, when Long Tail Kitty carries the bunny-chewed shoe to the sleeping woman—that’s poetry. The moment in Keiko Nishi’s shojo manga, THE SKIN OF HER HEART, when Lin-Lin turns down an offer of marriage from the factory chief’s son and the rain stops. That’s poetry. And I think even if Dave McKean or Lark came up to me and pointed a finger in my face and told me absolutely not, their books are NOT poetry, I’d smile and nod, and they’d still be poetry in my head and in my heart.
This all may lead one to say that I am just playing with words. And that would be true. But, if I stretch my mind and try to come up with a definition for poetry, I can never settle on anything that strays very far from Miss Dickinson’s definition that I started with. Novels can be poetry, and graphic novels can be poetry, and films can be poetry, and sometimes, for a little while, people can be poetry. They may not be verse, the physical manifestation of poetry that usually starts on the left side of the page and turns back on itself. But poetry is not the same as verse. Not for me, and not for Emily Dickinson.
[UP NEXT WEEK: GREG COOK]
From the drawing board of Derek Kirk Kim
[This post was originally written in my private journal on 8-31-07, a couple weeks after my latest book, Good As Lily, had hit bookstores.]
I stopped by my local Barnes & Noble this afternoon to see how Good As Lily was doing. This particular Barnes & Noble is a mid-sized one with 2 floors and an escalator. It's mammoth. On my way out, I was coming down the escalator, gazing out at the endless battalions of shelves. As I was being slowly lowered into this vast ocean of books, it really hit me what a microscopic portion of this world I really was. What a pointless, insignificant drop in the bucket my little book was. Just another book among millions. Nothing special – a simple-minded diversion, at best. Am I so egotistical to believe that someone should choose my book over the hundreds and thousands of books in that store? Does my book even deserve to be read when someone could fill his or her mind, imagination, and spirit with The Catcher in the Rye or American Born Chinese or Carl Sagan's Cosmos instead? How can I expect someone to dish out their hard-earned, minimum-wage money on the drivel that is my writing when there are so many – SO MANY – books they could read instead. It's truly a blessing – a miracle, really! – that any of my books sell at all. It's easy to forget that.
Oh, and not one copy of Good As Lily had been sold, just in case you were wondering.
[UP NEXT WEEK: LELAND MYRICK]
From the desk of Jane Yolen
I was a lover of comics as a child, though my parents — while big encouragers of reading and writing — wouldn’t let me give them house room. So I borrowed them from friends. Not for me the Archies or the Marvel heroes. I went for the dark side: "Tales from the Crypt" was my favorite. (This gives you an idea of how old I am!)
However, ballet, boys, horses, fencing, college, work as an editor after college, then marriage and children somehow weaned me from about thirty years of reading comics. The good stuff (and the not-so-good stuff) got away from me.
Three things brought me back: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I got to write introductions to two of the three, and that ain’t bad!
What was it about those three that drew me? They were adult pieces of work, with gorgeous writing and a sense of history and cosmology. They told stories with metaphoric and psychological underpinnings. I can always be seduced by good writing and subtext. These were not just comix, but graphic literature. I was hooked.
So for the last ten years, I've wanted to try my hand at writing a graphic novel. After all, a graphic novel would combine those things I knew and wrote best — picture books and novels, plus an occasional movie script.
I kept asking and asking, writing proposals and having lunch conferences, but no one — and I mean NO ONE — wanted me to do a graphic novel. My various editors, even those dabbling in graphic novels, all looked at me as if I’d gone crazy. Basically I was told: leave comics to the comics people. They seemed to be saying, why bother, since you’re already well known in the children’s and adult lit biz. My answer sounded like a child with a tantrum: "Because I want to."
Then, through Terri Windling, I was lucky enough to get to know Charles Vess . He asked me to write one of the ballad stories for his graphic anthology. (Neil Gaiman lent me a script so I could see the format, though I ended up making up my own!) Being an overachiever, I wrote two. And I was hooked again.
You see, with children’s picture books, the writer isn't allowed to talk about the pictures at all. That's considered the artist’s province. With novels, words have to substitute for artwork. You want a castle, describe a castle; you want a medieval house, explain wattle and daub. And with scripts for movies, though there is a bit more leeway suggesting the look of the thing, in the end it’s the director who makes the final decisions. But writing those graphic short stories, I got to combine all three. Surely — I thought, after writing the two ballads for Charles — I can get someone to take me seriously about a graphic novel.
No, and no, and no some more. My own editors continued to turn me down. I wondered if I was going to find an alternative universe before anyone would let me write one.
Then manga happened. A comics explosion happened. Graphic novels went Big Business. And I almost literally fell into First Second’s Mark Siegel’s arms — though I am old enough to be his grandmother, and heavy enough to flatten him if that had actually happened. But we met, had much in common, he plied me with his first list, and I sent him the start of a short story about my granddaughter who is a fencer, a story called FOILED over which the plot gods and I had previously had a falling out.
He said, "Send me a couple of pages as a comic and. . . ."
Old dog. New trick.
FOILED (after seven hefty revisions for Mark’s freelance Editor Tanya McKinnon) will be out sometime in the next year or so. And I so want to write: CURSES, FOILED AGAIN. Maybe I will have to go into New York and fall on Mark all over again.
[UP NEXT WEEK: DEREK KIRK KIM]
THIS SUNDAY AT ROCKETSHIP, the best graphic novel shop in these latitudes, for those of you in the neighborhood -- George O'Connor, Sara Varon and Nick Abadzis !
We get the best fan mail coming through for SARDINE IN OUTER SPACE -- artwork, photos, letters requesting more and a movie please, mainly from 8, 9 and 10 year old girls.
Our current favorite: the following photos from Louise!
You look ready to board the Huckleberry and go kick Mr. Muscleman's butt!
The World, heard internationally on Public Radio International, NPR affiliates, and BBC radio, will air its pretaped interview with Nick Abadzis on Thursday, October 4th-- the anniversary of Sputnik I. For a list of stations/times to listen click here: http://www.theworld.org/?q=node/72. (In New York it will air on WNYC-AM at 3:00 pm).
Set in 19th-century America, Eddie Campbell’s The Black Diamond Detective Agency frames a relatively conventional tale with unconventionally rich technique. The graphic novel tells the story of a train that explodes in Lebanon, Missouri, and the Pinkerton-like agency of detectives hired to track down the bomber. All, of course, is not as it seems – a man known as John Hardin has been framed for the explosion and a large part of the book deals with his quest to clear his name.
If you noticed the word “frame” was used twice in the preceding paragraph, it’s not accidental – “Frames,” in fact, is the title of the first half of the book, and the opening image is a full-page shot of a major character “hiding behind those fake glasses,” another kind of frame. In details like these, Campbell demonstrates that his interest is not so much in telling the story of a train bombing as it is in investigating the semiotic possibilities of the comics medium. (This isn’t to say that the surface narrative won’t compel readers, especially those who like heist scenarios and spaghetti westerns; the Scottish-born Campbell’s turn-of-the-century Chicago is to the Windy City as Sergio Leone’s San Miguel is to Texas border towns.)
Campbell’s art, rendered in exacting watercolors, makes particularly interesting use of panel borders – frames again – although at times one must read attentively to follow the action. Punctuating his initial conservative layouts with stunning splash pages, Campbell quickly begins to use negative space to great effect, until the period white backgrounds and borders become a pacing mechanism all their own. Even more impressive is an eleventh hour gunfight shown in small square carefully scattered over a white page; severe as one of Mondrian’s geometric compositions, the spread gives us a panoptic view of the battle, ordered only by the horizontal tracks of bullets from panel to panel. We see the shoot-out as if it were a Cubist conceit, from all angles at once. Campbell is hardly unaware of his sources: “What was that Goddamn noise?” says one character, looking forward to the new century; “they’re writing music that sounds like a cornfield meet. Next it’ll be statues that don’t look like nobody and paintings with nothing in ‘em but your nightmares.” Even as he acknowledges his debt to high modernism, however, Campbell isn’t afraid to handle it with a little irreverence. “Up yours, modern time!” exclaims the same character as he rings in the year 1900.
The resolution of the plot depends largely on the work of Sadie Geoff, an artist whom the eponymous sleuths hire to create lifelike wanted posters; through Sadie, Campbell funnels ideas about artists as observers, recorders, and mediums (“It’ll be good to see the world through your eyes, Miss,” says one of her associates). A great observer, recorder, and sometimes medium in his own right – this book is adapted from a screenplay written by C. Gaby Mitchell – Campbell always manages to transfer something of his peculiar and incisive vision to the page, and his mordant intelligence and mastery of the form are clearly present in The Black Diamond Detective Agency. And les we forget that the plot unfolds in the aftermath of some powerfully exploding boxes, each of Campbell’s panels is a box charged with a certain amount of narrative weight. If any fail to detonate – if Campbell occasionally appears to be having more fun rearranging invisible fuses than telling his chosen story – it’s because the medium is more interesting than the eventual explosion.
From the drawing board of Nick Abadzis
“Where do you get your ideas from?”
This is supposedly the dumbest question a person could ask a storyteller – a cartoonist, a writer, a performance artist or whatever. But it’s a question that hints at the cluelessness any storyteller faces at the beginning of the creation of a new tale. A blank piece of paper, a blinking cursor on a screen, they both demand a first action: just dive in. In my experience, it’s better not to dwell upon questions. Where do ideas come from? Where do stories come from? Why, from living, from observation, listening and sometimes from the bones of other stories, dear reader, as you may well know. But what’s the process?
The most accurate and honest way of describing how a story happens for me is to say, ‘I make them up as I go along.’ Really. I may think I have a plan, but stories are so mutable they refuse to stick to it. Indeed, I wrote an earlier version of this blog entry where I followed a thread down a rabbit hole into a labyrinth where a shaggy dog wiser than I lives. I abandoned it on the grounds that it wasn’t really a piece of illuminating writing; it was turning into a story itself. One that was trying to say, ‘Dunno’ in an entertaining way. Saying ‘I don’t know’ in answer to that question isn’t being as disingenuous as it might sound; it’s more of a protective mechanism. I think part of it is that I don’t care to look, to find the source. You know, just in case there’s nothing there and it really is all done with smoke and mirrors. On the other hand, I have some weird sense of faith that if you have the smallest, dumbest, crudest and most insubstantial seed of an idea, then a narrative can accumulate around it, whatever the weather.
Still, I get asked that question and I suppose by now I should really have a ‘prepared answer’. I’m writing this over the Atlantic traveling from London to Washington DC and from up here the clouds look like the kind of fluffy thought balloons I imagine some of the askers of that question would expect a story to look like in its nascent form.
It’s a bit like asking where ‘thought’ comes from, I suppose. An idea in its raw state is an impulse, an apparently involuntary inclination that causes an action, a response to an upwelling of fresh, volcanic whim from some chasm that reaches down into the subconscious where there exists an ocean-wide magma lake of half-formed notions. From that Ocean of Notions (a real place in a children’s graphic novel I once authored) ideas come. One of them occasionally bubbles up to the conscious mind above, sometimes in reaction to outside stimuli, other times entirely at random. And, as mentioned, all of the stuff that exists down there has entered one’s psyche somehow either though observing, listening, reading. Human culture and the way we process our environment is the collective subconscious if you like, the place from where stories derive. The mind is the crucible in which it takes form, mutates, divides.
Or maybe stories form like planets do. Imagine a vast cloud of dust and rubble floating, a great mass of impulses. Some mysterious force somehow attracts two or three to each other, they stick, and the core of something greater is formed. An idea. The process continues, more particles join the core and there is an agglomeration of disparate elements, things foam and fuse together in new shapes. Eventually, you get something roughly spherical. No, hold on, that’s planets… and we were talking about stories, weren’t we? Well, there’s a parallel pattern in that rather ramshackle metaphor somewhere. The point is, without wanting to romanticize it, there is something mysterious about the whole process. When I’ve finished a work of any kind, I can never really find the same path back to the germ of the idea and understand it backwards. When I’m in the tumult of creating something, I know when it’s working, but afterwards I seldom really understand how I did it.
Getting an idea isn’t really that difficult. The storyteller’s initial problem is really taking that pesky idea and charming an outline of its final shape from out of that vast cloud of possibilities. This is where questions actually do help as you ask yourself, ‘What’s it about?’ and ‘What am I saying here?’
If it’s a good day and you’re lucky, you’ll get an answer. From out of that cloud, a shape may form. Sometimes this can be pretty scary, and it can feel like this thing is choosing you to tell it. Stories are contrary and individual beasts and you need to either tame them or allow yourself to get caught up in their nature (I generally go with the latter option). Every single one demands its own set of solutions to narrative problems. If you happen to be working on a story that is drawn from real events (like Laika), the discovery of a new fact can radically alter your perception of a story’s outline – but I’m getting ahead of myself there. The backbone of a story can mutate and flex into an entirely different shape from what you expected. But this is enormous fun: let it do this. If you’re being honest with it, characters will begin to introduce themselves to you. These are more shapes from the murk, voices from a glimpsed place that will become clearer the more you listen, faces that will cohere and solidify the more you focus. They’ll begin to populate your story. At this point, they are little more than ideas themselves, quirks of creativity that may randomly spark and begin generating their own subset of tales. It’s a never-ending process.
‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I’m not sure if I really answered that question. I suppose another answer would be that I have nothing to say on the matter. But it seemed better to just riff on it rather than to say that; to provide a few descriptions of how the process can feel and what the potential results of it can be. With any luck, it may have inspired or provoked or calmed you in some small way; enough that you get one of those impulses of your own that you can translate into something fine that can live in the world.
One last thing: you know that old anecdote, 'Truth is stranger than fiction?' A wise man* once told me that any artist worth their salt has an aerial picking up signals from the place where ideas come from. I agree with him, and this whole blog entry has really been a descriptive essay about that. But here’s an illustration too, about the way coincidence can inform a thing you create. It gives you the idea that there is a world out there larger, richer and much wilder than the one we see.
I spent years of my life working on Laika, which of course is based upon a true story (or, more correctly, several true stories intertwined with a few of my own). One of the characters that introduced herself to me along the way was Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky, who was very, very loosely based upon a woman who worked with cosmodogs at IMBP some years after my tale takes place there. My character rapidly changed as I wrote the story and lost all connections with that woman; she became her own character in service to the story I was telling. So I thought. After Laika was published, I had a conversation with the author Chris Dubbs whose earlier book on the Soviet cosmodog program Space Dogs had helped me research Laika. With Colin Burgess he has also just published Animals in Space, an excellent and exhaustive work on all those experimental animals who were launched into space, including Laika. We tell a very similar story of course but Chris and Colin had come across a photo of two cosmodog carers in the course of their research that I hadn’t seen before:
The woman on the right is spookily similar to my fictional character Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky. I thought I was making her up, but maybe I wasn’t. The aerial’s tuning itself OK, then.
Thanks for the use of the photo, Chris.
Nick Abadzis (over Montreal now) 27th September 2007
*Brendan McCarthy, in point of fact.
[UP NEXT WEEK: JANE YOLEN]