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7 posts from March 2008

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.




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.”


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


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.


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.


And that’s great news!


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:


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


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


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


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


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.


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.



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.


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.


March 27, 2008


As an offering to our young talent, and to anyone who might find this helpful--here and elsewhere, green or seasoned--I've asked a number of experienced authors to send a little word of coaching, encouragement or mentoring to them. We'll call this new category MENTORS CORNER. It will occasionally feature some authors who aren't with First Second.

Check back here on Thursdays every week for new offerings. If any of this speaks to you and answers a need or sparks an enquiry, do add your comment--who knows what dialogue may open up from it.


This is primarily directed at those people with the perfectionist streak that keeps them redoing the first ten pages I suppose. A nice, no pressure way to begin any long project is, before you actually begin finished pages, give yourself the necessary warm up time to draw each of your main characters a hundred times or so. These needn't be finished pieces of art, just doodles, warm-ups, to give yourself the feel of your characters. As the artist, you're an actor, and the characters are the tools you use to express yourself. Achieve complete famialiarity with your creations, streamline any chunky bits in their design, and most importantly, regard this "doodle time" as an integral, important part of the book, not justr something to get out of the way. Rehearsals, if you will. After you warm up for a few days, begin your finished pages and try not to let a day go by where you don't keep working, even if it's just an hour or two on weekends. That way, you keep "warm" and in the feel of the book, and you'll be less likely to look at what you've done already and shudder. If I ever redo a page, it's invariably the first one I completed after an unintended break from the drawing board.

March 24, 2008


[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:


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


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



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!):





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!):




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:

Abc31 Abc32Abc33Abc34

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. . .



March 20, 2008


First Second has a growing number of young creators getting signed on to big projects. Some of these new talents are getting their first break just out of art school, some are not even out of college; some are leaping from short assignments or smaller indy projects to a big long book for the first time, with a big publishing house.

i wonder about our young creators. How are they handling new pressures, contracts, deadlines? Some have already found themselves a trusted mentor or two, a coach in a teacher, their agent, or their editor, but others probably toil away on their own. While for some it may look like they've been doing it all their life, for others it's possible to freeze up, or fall apart, or feel paralyzed, or get stuck redoing their first ten pages forever.

As an offering to our young talent, and to anyone who might find this helpful--here and elsewhere, green or seasoned--I've asked a number of experienced authors to send a little word of coaching, encouragement or mentoring to them. We'll call this new category MENTORS CORNER. It will occasionally feature some authors who aren't with First Second.

Check back here on Thursdays every week for new offerings. If any of this speaks to you and answers a need or sparks an enquiry, do add your comment--who knows what dialogue may open up from it.


In the end, I believe only in learning by example. I can't think of too many general ideas I can offer comics artists who are starting out in their careers. I know a few in France, whose work I'm following, but each one is an idiosyncratic case.

Besides, having been through a lot of screwups of my own early on, I can measure how much I needed to go through them. I crossed a few deserts, often feeling like I'd turned into a piece of dried fruit—I always judge myself to be far below what I could and should be doing, obviously—and that's been part of my path. I can see how it's been useful. In fact, I've always had the feeling that my drawing skill was a kind of treasure, that I carried a treasure in me and that, before being a responsibility, this was an amazing stroke of luck. I'm an incredibly lucky guy, and the most intimate yet visible manifestation of this luck is having drawing in my life.

That said, if I'm expected to hand down one or two precepts from the dizzying heights of wisdom I've scaled, I'd add this: when you feel stuck, on the wrong track, up the proverbial creek, don't stay on your own. Looking back at my own experience, I can see that it was a key turning point for me to decide to mingle with a circle of people, to make a radical break with the solitude of my drawing board and go work among other people. Granted, I lucked out, since the other people were called Joann [Sfar], Christophe [Blain], David [B.], Emile [Bravo], Marc [Boutavant], Marjane [Satrapi], and so on. I could've fared worse. But that's really what did me a world of good—the exampleship of it, the sharing, the mutual inspiration, the highs and lows that you live through together. Watching how the others do it. What they bring you, and what you have to offer them.

Our drawing reflects what we are. A lively personality with a strong sense of curiosity and a robust instinct of self-preservation will tend to use drawing to evolve, to gain maturity, to seek, meet, and always feel more. A less vibrant or more fragile personality will use it as a way to shore up its deficient self-esteem, to carve out a niche, to lie to itself, sometimes even to self-destruct. The truth is that both extremes coexist in each of us, and the key, as in everything else in life, is to try to strike a balance. You can do yourself a lot of harm or a lot of good with your drawing, depending on how you use it. Like all important ingredients in life, drawing is a double-edged sword. It has its good uses and its bad ones. You'll drift from one side to the other, and you need to be keenly aware of the happiness or misery that it's causing you, because that's your compass. And through it all, never put down your pencil!

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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.




March 03, 2008

Something Magical

[From the drawing board of Alexis Frederick-Frost]


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