Cartooning Like You Mean It

Cartooning, Teaching & Living – by Tom Hart

Posts Tagged ‘cartooning

Quotes from John Gardner’s Art of Fiction

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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.”

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January 20, 2009 at 9:30 pm

Drama vs. Poetry Part 2

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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 found it!

I found it!

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.

I forget who drew this

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?

Written by hutchowen

January 13, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Navigating a Linefield

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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. )

Ben Jones' Thaz- "story?" "art?"

Ben Jones' Thaz- would you separate "the art" and "the story" here?

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.

Written by hutchowen

January 11, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Cartooning Like You Mean It

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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.)

Written by hutchowen

January 5, 2009 at 1:52 pm