From the drawing board of Danica Novgorodoff
I remember someone saying that there are two kinds of stories – those about leaving home and those about returning home. I don’t know if I agree with that (there must be a million kinds of story), but it does seem like most of my writing is about a journey away from home (then, sometimes, with an inevitable returning).
I think and write most creatively while I’m traveling. To loosen ideas, shake words from my brain, I need the culture shock, the changing landscape, the perilous cliff-edge bus rides, the train careening through the night, the language blur, the unease (OK, fear), and maybe even the loneliness of being a stranger and a foreigner. Routine and familiarity lend themselves to discipline; traveling to inspiration.
I first started making comics during a year when I was roaming around Ecuador and south of there. I came to the medium partly because it was, simply, portable.
I love New York, but I get a real travel itch if I stay in one place too long. Last winter, on my allotted vacation time, I took off to Yunnan province of China. A year later, now, a couple of stories set in China have started to creep around my brain, haunting me.
My upcoming (Fall ’08) book from First Second, Slow Storm, is mostly about my home, Kentucky, but one of the characters (Rafi) makes the infamous journey across the U.S./Mexico border.
A lot of the imagery (both narrative and visual) of Rafi's home was inspired by the time I spent in Mexico and South America.
And a lot of the images were drawn from photographs I took then.
So. Go west (or east, or south, or even north), young man.
[UP NEXT WEEK: GRADY KLEIN]
For most of the history of American comics, storytellers have had to structure their tales in episodic chunks of narrative, their plotlines unfolding in serialized chapters from month to month. This was due to the nature of magazine publishing and the requirements of the marketplace, conditions which inadvertently influenced the medium in significant ways. As with pulp sci-fi or detective periodicals such as Astounding Stories or Detective Fiction, publishers and the reading audience alike tended to favor brief, cliffhanging narratives full of colorful, often lurid characters. Stories in the comics resembled soap operas or radio plays more than novels, a condition we still see in most mainstream superhero comics being published today. These sorts of episodic stories are not really supposed to end, like Pachelbel's Canon or The Beatles' Hey Jude, they're designed to go on forever and ever.
There is some debate about which book actually qualifies as the first true graphic novel. Will Eisner's A Contract With God is often sited, a book that's a collection of short stories about normal people living in a New York tenement building. These beautifully drawn stories are written with a subtle, literary flavor which still resonates today. This is probably the true mark of literary quality -- if a work can seem living and vital every time you re-read (or in the case of comics, every time you re-view). If that work can somehow continually enrich the person reading it again and again at different points along the walk of life, it becomes a priceless thing, like an old and continually surprising friend. For the decades preceding Eisner's attempts, "comics" as a storytelling medium relied on either the daily newspaper pages or the monthly comic book format for its stage. Whether in the hands of a great artist or a tired hack, the stapled newsprint pamphlet was the staple of comics storytelling. An artist like Milton Caniff could develop long and rather complex adult-oriented storylines in his strip Terry and the Pirates, and his work -- along with Windsor McCay's Little Nemo In Slumberland and a few others -- is still held as a high water mark in 20th century cartooning. In Europe and Asia, there were longer narratives, and some stories (such as Cendres and Pellos' Futuropolis or Osamu Tezuka's Adolph) resembled prose literature in their tone and content, however these were largely unknown outside of their home countries but to a handful of world travelers and professional artists for years and years. It has really only been for about a single generation -- maybe since the mid 1980s -- that the long format "graphic novel" has been a viable storytelling vehicle for people who want to tell stories in the comics medium, and only for that same amount of time American readers have had wider and wider access to the entire body of what I call "world comics"-- graphic stories from around the globe. Today's young reader has access to virtually the entire body of comics history, stretching from Japan to Europe to the cave-spelunking past of America's many venerable traditions.
Each facet of the comics medium is important and deserves its own special consideration, but it's the writing in comics I'm thinking about right now. I often wonder why we don't see more literary quality in the comics being published today, why we don't have a John Steinbeck or Robert Penn-Warren in our medium, authors who can unfold a filigreed theme across an extended storyline and touch on that ineffable shade we call "the human condition." Where are our Sam Hamiltons, our Willie Starks, our Jack Burdens, our Cal Trasks? It may simply be that good writing is rare. It is also entirely possible that most comics creators are simply unconcerned with developing literary themes in their work, favoring instead sweeping epics of good versus evil, populating their paper worlds with colorfully costumed heroes and villans invested with very little psychological complexity or self-awareness. It may be that most people who are attracted to the medium want very little more out of life than to draw pretty pictures, tell exciting, splashy stories, and get paid for it. There is certainly nothing wrong with those interests (I wholeheartedly share them myself), but every time I finish what Hemingway might have called "a damn good book," I can't help feeling there is always a need for more and better writing in the comics. When it comes to comics, the equivalent of a fine literary writer would have to be someone (or someones) with the implicit vision of a poet, who sees and feels life and knows how to code it into visual storytelling through comics' special melange of prose/dialogue and persuasive drawing. It seems to me a poorly drawn but well written story is far better than a well drawn, poorly written one. When we're lucky, as in the case of Gipi's Notes For A War Story, we have both together, at once. That should be our ideal, then. More stories with better art and better writing, always and forever more. Whether it's a serious meditation on the private life of a family or a madcap ruckus with kooky talking animals, all I care is that it's a comic story which is done well and it has lasting impact -- that's the literary quality I want to see in a comic.
For my upcoming projects Battling Boy and Total THB, I've been really thinking about the freedom made possible by the extended graphic novel format. It is significant to note that we've reached a point in the history of comics where an author can more-or-less work completely outside of the monthly serialized periodical format, with its inherent page strictures and narrative conformities. Nobody said it was easy or could come without paying your dues, but you can do it all the same. So long as you have something valuable to say and the talent to put it on paper, you can do it. It is no longer necessary to constantly invent some new cliffhanger every 24 to 32 pages to keep the readers coming back month after month, it is no longer necessary to come up with endlessly hyperbolic cover designs to entice new readers, no longer necessary to truncate extended scenes of character development for lack of space on the page. These are all common characteristics of the monthly comic book publishing format which many of us struggle with all the time. Now, thanks to the vigorous interest in manga on the part of new readers and the on-going assault comics is making on the whole of contemporary pop culture, cartoonists are able to approach new comics in the same way authors like Tom Wolfe or Kurt Vonnegut would've approached their latest novel. Readers crave good stories, and probably beyond that, deeper meaning. There seems to be a real psychological need for art -- for all the arts. Art offers us a reflection of interior ourselves, through the eyes and hands and words of another. Through meaningful art, we consider ourselves and our very condition of being human, and in the process, gain more insight into our true natures as living, sensing creatures living on this planet of ours which we call Earth. Comics has stepped out of the wide shadows of film and illustration, and is now invited to stand on its own, an infant medium full of potential and power. We are being invited to share our stories on a world stage, however long or short our stories might be. We've got a lot of work to do, let's show them what we've got.
[UP NEXT WEEK: DANICA NOVGORODOFF]
Jane in California wrote to us, asking us to tell Emmanuel Guibert that she loves the Sardine books and to please hurry up and make her a movie too.
We passed on the message. And here's what Emmanuel sent back:
And Jane was thrilled:
... and when she found out Emmanuel lived in Paris she told her dad "Oh, that's why he didn't understand me!" Her father asked her what she meant. She said "well I wasn't asking for a drawing, I was asking for a movie!"
With her father's help, she even wrote the following to Guibert:
Merci pour le dessin monsieur! S'il vous plait faire un film et un D.V.D de sardine pour moi et le terre. Jane!
... which I guess Monsieur Guibert will simply have to oblige!
From the drawing board of Matthew Bernier
I'm kind of the odd-one-out so far in this column. Everybody else who's contributed so far either already has a comic out through First Second, or they've had a book(s) published somewhere else, and the have a book coming out presently. They've all been older creators who've paid their dues much longer than I have. I'm part of a pet project of Mark's (Mark Siegel, my editor, that is). Mark has been courting young artists like me, either freshly out of or still in college, and his plan is to pair our somewhat undeveloped talents with those of writers from outside the comics world, and out of these pairings nurture unique and great works. I could hardly be more excited to be a part of it.
However, being unexperienced and young comes with its problems. My only experience, when I was hired on by First Second, was being an art student at the School of Visual Arts, and self-publishing some minicomics. In both cases I was allowed to write my own stories and draw what I wished. That ended up creating some trouble for me.
It's amazing how, when left to your own devices as an artist, the things you're "not interested in drawing" coincidentally happen to be the things that are hardest for you to draw. Someone (whom I've forgotten, being much better at remembering quotes than their speakers) once said that a cartoonist's style is a playing up of their strengths in an attempt to hide their weaknesses. Mike Mignola is terrific with blacks and graphic design, but he hates drawing perspective and cars. So Hellboy has a lot of great black placement and terrific design, and pretty much no cars or perspective shots requiring straight lines converging on a vanishing point. Most superhero artists know anatomy well but can only draw a few body types, so that's all they draw, for every character, no matter how inappropriate or silly it looks. They avoid drawing regular human beings as much as possible, to make the handicap less conspicuous. In my own case, I can draw texture and flowy things very well. Water, clouds, fire, and earth are easy for me. I can make something feel convincingly gooey, hard, smooth, or soft with just lines. I'm very good at composing clear, readable pages. But figure drawing is a challenge to me, and drawing multiple figures in a panel short circuits my brain. I'm not great with clothes. I'm terrible at drawing cars, and boxy things like houses. So, left to my own devices, I don't draw those things very much, and as a result, I look like a better artist than I really am.
The script I'm working on has many pages where nearly every panel will have 6-12 people in frame, all needing clear arrangement. Everyone must be distinctive in form and personality, must have all their gear and costume on in every panel, and must fit seamlessly both into their surroundings and into the composition of the page. And there are so. many. cars. And buildings. Fabio Moon (Or was it Gabriel? One of the twins, anyway) wrote recently about their experience with working with writers. They hadn't worked with writers much before, and lately they had been working with writers a great deal. They were saying how working with a writer was exciting but much more challenging. They were forced to learn to draw things they'd never have thought to draw, and they were required to manifest visions that were not their own--to make someone else's vision their own. And in doing so, they found that when they went to write their own comics, the new visual vocabulary they'd gotten from serving another's vision had broadened their own story possibilities.
I was greatly heartened to read this, because at the time, I was positively desperate and struggling, putting myself through an intense crash-course in everything from anatomy to costume to perspective. I collected reams of reference materials for unfamiliar objects and settings, and I was consuming comics as fast as I could by artists who I felt did well what I worried I could not do at all. I pored over pages by Stuart Immonen, Guy Davis, Gabriel Ba, and others, reverse engineering their compositional decisions, seeking to patch the holes in my knowledge with their expertise. It was so good to hear that another artist had been suffering the same problems, and even better to hear him talk about how the process strengthened him and made him a better, more diverse artist.
My book is in it's very beginning stages--you won't see it for some time. Making it will be a very hard process for me. There are so many things I'm not good at, or that I don't now enjoy doing, that I can't avoid without copping out. I must serve my writer's vision the best I can, and that means finding a way to do the things I can't, and finding the joy in doing things that seem to me unpleasant. (I don't want to make it seem like a bummer, though--there's tons of stuff in the book I can barely wait another second to draw.) Once I finish, though, I know that I'll be a better artist than I ever could have been on my own.
[UP NEXT WEEK: PAUL POPE]