Archive for the ‘Cartooning Like You Mean It’ Category
Currently setting up an intensive teaching/cartooning blog at
It’s currently a mess of scaffolding and attempts at order, but some thoughts are getting in there.
Please see the SVA website for details about TWO continuing education classes I am teaching this summer, and one undergraduate class.
First, a solo class called a bit oddly, The Semiotics of Sequential Art: How Comics Rule. Monday evenings. This class will be about finding your voice, about following, focusing and articulating your idea in comix. I bring in tons of work to pour over, we begin with a number of quick exercises to get us going, then work on longer projects towards the goal of a single large-scale piece. It’s always a good class.
Next is the SUMMER INDEPENDENT STUDY SEMINAR that I am co-teaching with Lauren Weinstein. This class, begun last semester by Matt Madden was a great success, and Lauren and I will continue it this summer, helping self-motivated students develop and finalize their longer projects.
Above- if kids these days really really cared about vampires, there’d be a run on nosferatu dvds…
There is this moment I think about all the time from The Young Ones. The Young Ones was an ensemble comedy TV show from the early 1980s on BBC about 4 horrible college students living together in squalor who hate each other. Vivian, the house “punk” has devised a trick involving a fake finger and a kitchen knife. The other three roomates are hollering amongst themselves, while Vivian is shouting over them, trying to get their attention, wildly brandishing his kitchen knife, screaming “Watch my trick you bastards!”
That’s it. That’s the moment. For some reason, this image resonates with me, sings in me, stops me in my tracks and makes me smile sometimes. I don’t know why. I don’t need to know why.
But if I think I about it, I understand: It echos my need for attention, and my glee in silly grotesqueries, and my delight in being brazen and especially in demanding that you want something from people. Something about those qualities make me love this moment- this dramatized, actualized, manifestation of those themes in my life. I am haunted by the Jon Lewis image above for the same reason, I think.
In fact, when I look at the last 2 1/2 years of my comic output, I now realize this was the governing theme: trying to be heard. No wonder these images speak to me so much.
We all experience images from narratives this way. There are always moments that sticks with us, for reasons we may uncover later.
I asked a couple friends for their “images that sing” and here’s what I heard.
One friend says he always remembers a moment from a 40s-era Dick Tracy comic strip, where The Brow is being squashed by a Spike Machine. The brow is desperately crying: “Oww. Somebody stop the spike machine.” Another friend said that an image from the movie The Shining always haunts her, of the Shelly Duval character dragging a knocked down out Jack Nicholson character down the hall and locking him into a food closet.
The first image is about pain, oppression, helplessness, and a desire for connection. The second, about empowerment after feeling victimized by someone you love.
—————”DON’T ANALYZE!” HOGWASH!—————
I’ve heard that people think it’s dangerous to analyze such connections, and that there’s a magic in not knowing how certain connections work. I don’t buy it. First: emotion will always work faster than analysis. Second: there will always be new things to be moved by. Third: let yourself be moved by the understanding, too.
Look at Kiki and Herb. Kiki and Herb are a faux-torch song duo who perform as if they are on a reunion tour of sorts. Their supposed heyday was decades before and now Kiki; damaged, drunken, spiteful and absolutely, desperately human sits on the piano basically dying, telling old stories and singing cover songs.
They perform a version of the 80’s hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” which is quite moving, a little funny, and desperate. The final minute or so of the song is monstrously powerful. A crescendo has been building for minutes, Kiki is now riffing on the original’s “turn around bright eyes” motif. Kiki is quoting The Byrds, Joni Mitchell and louder and louder, she ends by screaming, yowling Yeats poetry (with Herb like a lost sailor shouting his background parts into the storm of Kiki’s desperation) “The falcon cannont hear the falconer… Surely the second coming is at hand…”, riffing more, “Turn around…. turn around… don’t turn your back on me… don’t turn your back on Kiki!!! Kiki loves you! Kiki needs you! Kiki would die for you!!!”
All this crazy manic energy has just coalesced, and you realize, the decades old “turn around” of the pop hit has been transmutated. Now its a plea: “Turn around, come back. TURN AROUND, STAND STILL AND BE LOVED BY ME GODDAMIT.”
Kiki -and if anyone is a falcon who can’t hear the falconer, it’s her- is crying for you to believe in her transformation, her second coming. She is turning and turning, and transforming and transforming, watching you walk away, but she won’t have it .TURN AROUND! TURN AROUND! The song ends with her demanding to have her love accepted. DON’T TURN YOUR BACK ON ME! KIKI WOULD DIE FOR YOU!
It took me dozens of listens to this song at full volume to realize all this. It gets more powerful each time I hear it, and the more I decode, the more it moves me to tears…
And of course, this moment too, is about being heard, like most of the moments that are moving me right now.
What are your Images That Sing? What are they about? Pay attention to those, like anything you attend to, it will grow. More will appear, and they will strengthen your own work. DON’T TURN YOUR BACK ON ME!
SOME FRAGMENTS as I get organized.
Why what’s the point why why?
because we as a race of creatures constantly want stories, we want
images and stories that can add to our ever changing (and not always
maturing) understanding of the how what and why of life? Why are we
here? How does it work? What the hell is going on anyway?
stories and images help us triangulate ourselves, find ourselves in
the sea that is the answers to these questions…
Attaching images to images, stories to stories
this is the assembling that all narrative works from. Pulling from
your collected store of images and stories and creating more, explore
the existing paths already between them.
How do we do that. Go back to mess mode. But now with a starting place.
want to make a giant graphic novel? The connections will start to make
sense via plot. Of course the mother who discovers the knife is the
woman I imagined crying at the zoo… She went there because it was
where her husband was a custodian. She discovered the knife when she
found him dead in the pool. The woman’s story begins to emerge. She
must find her husband’s killer, and will learn more about… …
look to your other images and fragments. What else suggests a double
life, unsolved mysteries, or what else just calls out to be part of
this larger story?
Want to work in short forms? You’re more than halfway there. Connect
the two images… Tick that “story clock” one or two notches and get
notes re: sit com
With good characters and the self discipline to sit down, you can
write dozens more of these effortlessly. The key is having good
characters, and injecting them with an interesting enough new
We always wonder about our plots? Is it funny enough? Grave enough?
Puzzling and suspenseful enough? None of this matters before you
sitting down to explore your characters. None of this matters before
you sit down to explore your characters. The only thing plot does is
enliven your characters…
meta is different.
PART 1 of an article in progress.
There is a book by Yoshiharu Tsuge that I have never read, called in French- “L’homme Sans Talent” -The Man With No Talents. I’ve seen it in French and its original Japanese. My French being awful and my Japanese non-existent, I have barely penetrated this world, but I am absolutely obsessed with this above image and what I can read of the story. I’ve gone to friends’ houses, I’ve sought out this image so I can just stare at it, like a 3 year old transfixed by a scary doll or damaged stuffed animal; I’m obsessed with a simulacrum of a human.
I stare at it. Who is this man selling stones? What brings a cartoon man to this point in his life? Why is he lying like that, in that strange position, and composed of those scratchy short lines? I gaze at this drawing and try to answer those questions on my own. I look, ask and imagine. And then I realize: what Tsuge has created with this simple panel is a space in my heart for a new story to appear.
And when I look at this man without talent I know one thing, because my spirit knows about a story: that some other character or object or beast from this same linefield will intrude upon this character’s world and story. Some other beast must emerge to confront in a new way, this scratched, sketched-out man. It will probably be some visual and immediate thing, but it could come from his own memories (full of other creatures and things, no doubt) or his own concerns- newly manifest from the alchemy of his own thoughts. A beast in spirit, a beast-thought. But something will emerge from the linefield to become story.
Forcing myself through this story, in a new language of lines, light and shadow and little (computerized) French squiggles, I’m propelled to slow down and immerse myself in the meaning. I’m in the perfect frame of mind to take in artwork: immersed in form and content, slowing down, perceptions open, looking for meaning. This new language IS the linefield. The linefield is about finding meaning, sometimes found whether you search for it or not.
Trying to read Tsuge in French is like trying to read Rege in english. Puzzling and troublesome, yes, but something is shimmering and calling out for attention, suggesting meaning where you might have thought you just saw a drawing, a doodle, or an tiny unimportant foreign word. In Rege’s Against Pain, or in a slow-moving master work translated into a unfamiliar language, every millimeter seems to speak.
The first story (or chapter?) begins on page 5 of the volume itself (I’ll use that method of numbering from now on) and is a title page. Along with the title, “Le Marchand de Pierres”- we see a landscape in a ceramic pot. The shine and man-creafted shape tells us it’s ceramic, but set in there, a landscape of streams and crevices and plateaus, is it a rock? Atop that, the silhouette of a man (I think, from the broad shoulders) in a hat, seated still. Is this a real landscape and a normal sized man? Or a small rock and a tiny, tiny abstract person? Anyway, it’s totemistic- it’s inviting us into the story.
Page 6- Our man, lying down, on a rocky beach landscape, beneath a tarp, stones for sale to his right on small boxes and shelves. Behind him, a sign in Japanese on a pole, a bird in flight, silhouetted. The next panel zooms in and flips our view of the sign on the pole. Thus, are we looking from the sea shore? Are we the bird in flight? It stretches time or space, maybe both, doing this. On the sign: “stones.” My struggle to read the computerized French caption is minimal: I became a seller of stones. But at the start of that sentence, does “pour finir” mean “finally” or “in the end” or even “in order to finish?” Each incarnation means something new: resigned in the first two possibilities, or something more willful in the third.
Panel 3 of this page- a close up of the stones. Suddenly they are higher in contrast, and differentiated from each other. Some are splotchy, some textured with thin gradations, some lumpy, some smooth. A price adorns each rock. Everything depicted in the story up til now sits there stock still, solid, a heavy, deadened part of some otherwise transient (ocean, river currents, wind currents) landscape.
Page 7, a giant silhouetted crow with a berry or stone in its beak rests on a wooden pillar. These pillars line a road to the back of the space of the panel. The atmosphere in the sky and/or water is troubled with lines, but the crow is unbothered. In the text, the man says he tried other things- some sort of cartoonist, some sort of photographer, nothing worked. Man is bothered, nature unmoved.
The man is viewed closer and closer, seeming more like the first vision of him we saw. He has read some books on selling stones, it doesn’t cost anything to begin such an endeavor, he thought it was a good trade for him. Our last view is presumably his view, looking onto a small marshy area of reeds, plains and water.
Action begins on page 9 (page 8 sets us up to see the giant river-landscape he is on). As our man prods and beats and pokes at stones, he tells us he’s going to do this well, and deciding this, he was given the idea for his project. It’s the last two panels here that are riveting. Panel 5, where the text about him getting his little idea, the man is on a little jetty or wooden plank. It’s precarious- he’s careful, on the edge of his world, and maybe his understanding. An idea is forming. The next panel, “My project”, as the man shuts his eyes and looks serene, a silhouetted train thunders by above his head, on a bridge over the river. The effect: “It’s risky, but a powerful idea.”
We’re fully in this man’s world now. As his lines and shadow assemble to re-form him panel after panel, he makes his way through his new chosen profession.
Rereading John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction as I create “Cartooning Like You Mean It.” Realizing now that this was one of the main influences in my designs to write the thing: theory, craft and exercises all wrapped under one cover. Here’s some notes from within, with my reflections (in italics…)
P 47 “Poe frees Kafka to write: “One day Gregor Samsa awoke to discover that he had been changed into a large cockroach.” ”
Gardner’s point being that Poe frees us from needing to know WHY things happen (his example being The Cask of Amontillado)- freeing us cartoonists to stretch reality, to imagine impossible realities. Did Poe free McCay to imagine a boy whose very sneeze could overturn elephants, or Herriman to imagine a brick-throwing mouse? Did Bosch’s nightmare creatures have anything to do with it- did Odilon Redon free our line medium to explore its fantasies? Words and pictures, fiction, etching and painting. All these entangled histories in our comix world.
P47 cont.- “By the selection and arrangement of the materials of his fiction, the writer give us not the truth about the world and how things come about but an image of himself, “a portrait of the artist”- or perhaps nothing more than an interesting construction, an object for our study and amusement.”
My feeling is that no one defines for the young artist what art is for. This is a good approximation above. We create to communicate with our audience -in back and forth dialectic and poetic, psychological, metaphysical discourse- what it is to be who we are. And at other times, we create for others an object for study and amusement. This different kind of creation is no less a gift to our readers, but is best done as mindfully as possible.
P 52 – “Particles of the action, “event ideas” such as kidnapping, pursuit of the elusive loved one…; or particles that go to make up character, such as obesity… In isolation, each element has relatively limited meaning; in juxtaposition to one another, the elements become more significant, forming abstractions of a kind- higher units of poetic thought.”
I like “higher units of poetic thought”. This is what people whose literal readings of art never are comfortable with. Not knowing, not having concrete words for the deep meanings in art or in their spirits…
P 55- “What the logical progress of an argument is to non-fiction, event-sequence is to fiction. “
But what is it in comix? Show me one thing- it’s not one thing. These two things “logical progress” and “event-sequence” are found in comix, but so too poetic, visual connection, etc.
P 79- “As for fiction, in any case, it seems fair to argue that, since no narrative beyond a certain length can hold interest without some such profluence as a causal relation of events,…no narrative except a very short one can escape real-world relevance. “
I’ve been interested in the subject all my career. Where can you locate the answers to this question in comix? How long can a piece be before it NEEDS human drama? How little might it need? What are the limits of “real-world relevance”? How can we both honor and evade it?
P 80— “Good-heartedness and sincerity are no substitute for rigorous pursuit of the fictional process.”
I read this after a discussion with a table full of writers lamenting the trend towards memoir in publishing right now. Gardner would no doubt agree that the trend represents a lack of need for artistry, and a cheapening of the human imagination. I agreed, and countered sadly that the average reader doesn’t care about craft as much as the people at that table. Weirdly, Gardner almost validates this a few pages later (but I no doubt feel he would stress an knowledge of technique to allow one the ability to accomplish the below.)
P 93 – “All the ordinary, decent-hearted reader will ask is that the transformation be astonishing and interesting and that the story in some way appear to make sense…”
P 185 “Successful novel-length fictions can be organized in numerous ways: energetically, that is, by a sequence of causally related events; juxtapositionally, when the novel’s parts have symbolic or thematic relationship but no flowing development through cause and effect; or lyrically, that is, by some essentially musical principle- one thinks, for example, of the novels of Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf.”
“The lyrical novel is the most difficult to talk about… The form lends itself to psychological narrative, imitating the play of the wandering or dreaming mind (especially the mind troubled by one or more traumatic experiences)… “
P 192 – “It is this quality of the novel, its built in need to return and repeat, that forms the physical basis of the novel’s chief glory, its resonant close. … What moves us is not just that characters, images, and events get some form of recapitulation or recall: We are moved by the increasing connectedness of things, ultimately a connectedness of values.”
P 193 - “To achieve such an effect, the writer must rise above his physical plot to an understanding of all his plot’s elements and their relationships, including those that are inexpressible.”
Drama vs. Poetry Part 2
(This post seems to have been written and unposted. It dovetails well with my recent post about The Linefield, so I’m posting it now.
I recently saw The Day I Became A Woman, an Iranian film by Marzieh Meshkini (written by her father, Mohsen Meshkini), a film in the three parts on the theme of womanhood in rural Iran. This and another play I saw the same week, Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill both remind me of my initial instincts as a storyteller, or as a non-storyteller, let’s say.
The Day I Became A Woman features three separate stories, with the gentlest of “story arcs” in them at all. In part 1, “Hava”, a young girl conspires during her last hour as a child (before she turns 9) to play in the dirt with her male friends. After she turns 9, she must don the chador, and hide from male attention. Indeed, the entire section involves Hava playing her last hour away. Part 2, “Ahoo” features a woman in a bicycle race. Her angry husband rides up on horseback, demanding she put a stop to her evil ways. He divorces her (while still on horseback), and her older family members and then members of her tribe all ride up to her demanding, requesting she return to her man. Finally, in the distant final shot, her brothers come and put a stop to her pedaling, and take her away. Part 3 “Hoora”, an old woman buys a bunch of furniture and appliances she never had, arranges them on the beach before putting them and herself all out to see on makeshift boats.
When I began writing stories, or when I began consciously doing so anyway, after “Hutch Owen’s Working Hard” I wanted as LITTLE STORY AS POSSIBLE. What I wanted was character, poetry, poetic image, images, internal surprises.
I tried my hardest to chase this dream in New Hat, and The Sands. In New Hat from 1994, also a three part story, my main concerns were contrasting rhythms and formal structures, and crashing sequences of narrative which may or may not relate to the others. Part 1 of this book was the most like this movie, I think: a man gives a last diatribe before being stoned to death, and then we see a local daydreaming belltower operator rise up and do his job. it’s probably my most successful small piece of storytelling. It meant little specifically, but raised lots of emotions legitimately and put them all in the same frame.
The Day I Became A Woman doesn’t feature the same range of simplistic emotion; instead it features more human characters, deeper insights to the human heart and the societal mind, both things I was shooting for.
A continuum all these works vacillate on is Drama vs Poetry. Drama is the manipulation of characters and events in opposition with each other. In its most extreme, it is superficial and distancing: tired action movies about good guys and bad guys. In it’s best examples, characters are deeply drawn and communicate, questioning and exploring the themes of the drama both in their behaviors and thoughts.
Poetry I would argue is the single image designed to provoke or evoke other impressions and ideas in the mind and inner eye of the audience. Poetic image is created using the images of our society: people, places, and time etc. At its most extreme and superficial, it is cloying, simplistic, Hallmark cards and childish posters. At its most astute, it uses hints of drama to offer up enough action, enough motion and opposition between the characters and other elements to suggest worlds within the audience and to allow meditative space within them.
I have spent most of my career thinking of this continuum, and have spent most of time WAAAY believing in the far end, toward the poetic.
I was never the kid in rock bands, never the kid reading or writing sci-fi. I was spending my adolescence in the bath tub listening to Brian Eno’s Ambient music and traipsing around the woods trying to resonate with what I found there. In one wooded area around me, there was an old living room chair, rotten and stained. I never once imagined who might have put it there. I never thought til now that there might be a story behind it, that there could be long dramas behind the decision to abandon this furniture, and the action of getting it there might have been something one could image, watch or engage with. All I wanted to do was allow it to make me feel something.
The simpleton’s response to the world: how does it make me feel?
So my earliest stories and sketches were light on drama-as little as I could get away with, with as few specifics as possible. This was often unsuccessful, as you could guess.
Learning the tools of dramatic storytelling has been fun but a lot of work. The instincts were never within me very well. Every correct dramatic instinct I did have was stolen from Star Wars (see “Hutch Owen’s Working Hard.”) As I began to learn the tools, I tried to create stories and characters that were unique, with believable inner struggles and outer problems. (I was maybe most successful with this “The Road to Self.”, though Banks/Eubanks was a valiant try.)
Still, I believed that this was all training to go back to attempting to create the poetic image, the story that exists outside of specific narrative, and in a an internal landscape in the viewer. But I still tried to learn the tools of drama, and to this day I tell my students to write over the top. To imagine the murder, the betrayal, the villain, and then to write down if need be. To tone down the drama once the extremes have been entertained and rejected.
And some 10 years or so since beginning this experiment (I would say since I closed the book on The Sands – wildly unsuccessful, though fun) I have yet to reattempt the piece where poetic image is the main core of the story.
Artists who do this well: Tsuge, first and foremost, though his peer Yoshihiro Tatsumi does it well also. In Western comics, I always though Anders Nilson was getting there (though I haven’t finished his Big Questions). Ben Katchor, obviously, Ron Rege, Chris Ware. As others come to mind, I’ll post them here.
I have dozens of notebooks and boxes of index cards all vibrating with the potential to be that next poetic comic. So what am I doing doing comic strips?
Soon or maybe never: Part II. What I am doing doing comic strips, Top Girls, and how form can be the poetry. And note to younger self: why on earth wouldn’t “poetic image” involve DRAWING?
The Linefield is a word I have been looking for for 20 years. I’m using it partially to describe the visual mark making and image making that gives much of a comix’s feeling to the reader. It’s not the “art!” If I hear one more person commend “the art” in a comic I’m going to key somebody’s car. Art is a word that encompasses much more than the visual conveyance of ideas, which is usually what people mean when they say it.
The linefield is much closer to what they mean. It’s the drawings of the character and character of the drawings, but it’s also the reading and navigating experience, and it’s the soul of the creator poking through to the material world like buds and weeds through a sidewalk. Shards of the creator’s intention and confusion (because who isn’t confused just being alive?) making it’s way to wall, papyrus, cloth, paper, screen.
The linefield, while visual, isn’t just describing the visuals. It’s also the complete synergy of mark-making with narrative intent, whether it be dramatic or reflective. More about that below.
In fact, I don’t know entirely what linefield means. I think in the case of a word used to describe an emotional and subterranean action you are involved in, you are perhaps better off not being able to entirely nail it down. (Like a sufi chasing the meaning of Allah, I have been chasing the linefield and I never find it, I never look it in the face, I just like it when it and I are close by. )
Why do we create art at all? Partially because our senses are wrong, our perceptions are limited. We need art to refocus what we see, and allow us to create other pathways to experience our world. The linefield is that new pathway. It describes a visual record of a creative experience incorporating elements of drama, poetry, mark-making, dance, acting, imagining, crying, celebrating and just about every verb a human is capable of. But in our medium, comix, and for the sake of this exploration, I want to focus on the first three as helping us define the linefield: mark-making, drama and the poetic reflection.
The mark-making in a comic is what has traditionally been called “the art.” (I’m keying that teal Buick right now.) It’s a simple word to define. We call it style, drawing, etc. It often combines the ability of the artist to convey our concrete world into 2-dimensional representations, with a sense of exaggeration or emphasis that distorts to a psychological and emotional effect.
Drama and poetic reflection (shorten the latter to “poetry”) I think are the two poles of what has traditionally been called “the story.” (That will really get me on a tear. Separate “art” from “story” and I’ll key anything in sight.) Drama refers to the dynamic tensions between personalities in opposition. Characters wanting something different. Poetry, for me in this instance (because the word is extremely malleable), refers to the impulse to reflect deeply and slowly and to allow space for reflection. It tends to hamper drama unless that reflection is being used to inform dramatic decisions (see Hamlet.) (And for more on “poetry in comics” see my post here.) (And more tomorrow, too.)
Somewhere mashed around these three ideas, lies the linefield. You can’t talk about one with the other two, and maybe it’s best to discuss all three at the same time.
In my favorite comics, and even many I don’t enjoy reading but respect, the linefield can be a powerful new manifestation in my ordinary world. Gary Panter has one of the most powerful linefields you will see. In his best work, you ARE Jimbo, walking his denuded landscape, navigating the hatches and lines of his apocalyptic, commercial, anti-commercial, historical limbos. The linefield in Jim Woodring’s comix shimmer and constantly spin off into new characters and visions. E.C. Segar’s comix did something similar; sweat, desire and ferocity spinning and shaking off from the linefield into weird compact myths about giant birds and witches, injustice and hamburgers.
The list could and will go on and on. The best artists in this medium have made marks and drama and poetic reflection their own. I’ll explore those creators in time, but I want to start with a look at the linefields of Yoshiharu Tsuge, Ron Rege and Jack Kirby.
Tomorrow, an old unpublished post furthering drama vs. poetry, then later in the week, Tsuge, Rege, Kirby.
In 2009, I am dedicating this blog to “Cartooning Like You Mean It.”
It is about the art of cartooning as a method of self-expression, a way to figure yourself out and untie your own knots (Leonard Cohen), a way of cartooning stories characters, situations and stories as if they was burning to get out of you and you didn’t even know til you noticed the cinders.
“The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth.” – William Butler Yeats
(To which I would add: “Or Mars.”)
This is about burning off your influences- the unconscious styles and other people’s languages that you’ve inadvertently stolen from while learning- and getting your own soul out there on the paper in ink, color, lines, scratches and wiggles.
Herzog- “ My belief is that these dreams are yours as well. And the only distinction between me and you is that I can articulate them… It is my duty because this might be the inner chronicle of what we are, and we have to articulate ourselves–otherwise we would be cows in the field.”
You are your own earthly project. You are some sort of bizarre combination of individual sensations, reactions and history, explosions and whispers. Don’t use someone else’s language. This is about finding, forging and refining your own unique voice, story and code.
It’s about getting your stories out that are inspired by your own experiences, passions and lifeforce.
But even more importantly, letting that lifeforce emerge from your own creation. Reversing the cycle, letting your work create you. Discovering the depths of your self through surprising yourself through work.
Brian Eno, from his diaries: “What part of myself have I discovered now?”
You must allow yourself to be surprised. You have to allow yourself to not know what will come next, to not be always in control, to not plan everything. This is cosmic stuff- can you allow the spaces of your spirit to be filled with something unexpected?
Milan Kundera: The novel is a counter to the “noisy foolishness of human certainty”
Don’t be certain. Be open and be curious. Arm yourself with pens and brushes and a knowledge of story structure and visual techniques. Read these books:
• Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden
• Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
• The Empty Space by Peter Brook
• Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
• What It Is by Lynda Barry
• On Directing Film by David Mamet
• Story by Robert McKee
And then set out.
(images from Vaughn Bodes RIVERMEAT.)
At the first day of our Hothouse class at SVA, Matt Madden, Jessica Abel and I offer our different strategies about creating stories and work. Jessica works from a character, plots out a story. Matt works from form. He looks at categories of rhythms and structure that he hasn’t created work in before, and creates characters and situations that relate to those forms. The story develops from there.
I’ve always gone next, discussing how I work from themes, first and foremost. This is changing and I want to explore that a little here.
I’ve first and foremost started with themes, especially when I knew what character I was using: Hutch Owen. From a starting point of a familiar character, themes would appear in the outside world that I would want to explore.
Here’s a quick list of Hutch Owen stories and the themes I had hoped to explore:
Road to Self – how we change or don’t change our ideals over time
Aristotle – what is freedom? creativity? as it relates to this character?
Emerging Markets – how have we colonized other cultures both through commerce and religion?
Mind you, a lot of these stories were also excuses to draw guys with sticks and bats pounding on a man dressed up as a sheep. But first came the idea to explore, the question, then the characters and situations. HOPEFULLY, at that point, those characters and situations developed organically, and became their own interesting narrative entities.
Since those stories, I’ve move into comic strips (for a host of reasons I’ll go into some other time), and this is changing how I start, where I work from.
I recently finished 2 1/2 years of working with Hutch Owen as a daily comic strip character. Working with a stable of 4-8 continuing characters, my method is still to work from theme.
Friendship loyalty, male/female handling of the environment to silly things like Spiderman’s effect on the culture are just a few of the themes I explored in the strip.
In another instance, a colleague eagerly asked me if I had done any work on the Dalai Lama or world peace, which he would like to feature in a show he was curating. I hadn’t, but it was easy to make happen. With my characters, which represent particular kinds of reactions, wrestling around with the character of the Dalai Lama and the idea of world peace made for a fun and robust series of strips.
One of the main values for this as a creator, and one of my many reasons for switching to comic strips was that inventing situations and themes for the characters to explore, greatly expanded the characters themselves. They began revealing themselves to me in constant, ongoing new ways, in ways that couldn’t happen with larger stories which tend to involve less invention and let’s say it: more depth of exploration. The quickness of the comic strip allowed me to alight frequently on the personalities of the characters and explore new facets of their behavior. This is incredibly fun. And the nimbleness needed requires me to live constantly in the present. I digress.
Lately, in my newest strip I find myself playing less with themes, and more with situations. The overarching themes of the strip are traditional ones: sibling rivalry, the love of one’s work, what does it mean to be new to a culture, plus what the heck is America about. Now I design situations to explore those themes: an Arab food stand in a mall, cousin’s traipsing the woods outside their back yard, immigrant grandparents with their Americanized grandkids at dinner, etc.
So it’s all about themes, situations, and invention. The invention comes from the initial thoughts, the hopeful power of the stories or strips comes from allowing invention and connection to flow without agenda.
Here’s a sneak peak of a secret series of strips I’m making with my good pal Margo Dabaie.