Currently setting up an intensive teaching/cartooning blog at http://www.howtosayeverything.net
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.
So Margo and I are now gearing up to launch ALI’S HOUSE! Target date: May 3.
We could use your help- write your local daily newspaper editor, tell them you hear there is a new strip that you would like to read, called Ali’s House. Tell them the truth- you’re interested in our work, you’re interested in the project, in the culture of the strip, whatever, just tell them you want to read it.
Below are a few favorites as teasers.
Tom and Margo
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.”