Friday, August 14, 2009

Outcomes Assessment #6

This is the sixth in a series of analyses of exercises and activities from the Graphic Novel Intensive class at PNCA.

Number 1 is here.
Number 2 is here.
Number 3 is here.
Number 4 is here.
Number 5 is here.
Number 7 is here.

Ellen's major assignment: (Homework, days one through three)

On the first day of class, Ellen Forney gave us the assignment that was to be turned in on day four, the last day she was instructing. We were to write an autobiographical comic in six to nine panels, oriented vertically. The suggested themes were "how did you get that scar?", "interaction with a stranger," 'clothes shopping with your opposite-sex parent," and "your most embarrassing moment." I chose the interaction with a stranger, and decided to tell the story of an encounter with a cranky waitress.

Monday: Since the comic was bound to be fairly Forneyesque anyway, I decided to go the whole empty vessel route and use her techniques, or as close as I could approximate. Rather than work full-script (like writing a screenplay) or the draw first/write later system I can only call "the Marvel way" (in which the art takes precedence and the dialogue is added afterward), Forney uses an idiosyncratic method: she writes the story in a sort of prose outline, and then blocks out the text into panels before moving onto thumbnails. My version of this approach wound up looking like this:

As a writing teacher, I encourage my students to at least experiment with new heuristics and ways of drafting, and it was in this spirit that I attempted this method. It felt like it had some advantages over a simple outline, but I'm not sure that it didn't detract from some sense of the visual. The prose rendering might encourage verbal beats rather than visual ones, but perhaps not.

In any event, working from that marked-up "script," I developed these thumbnails:

As I was creating the strip, I realized that I was adopting some of Forney's style, particularly the reliance on narrative captions to carry much of the story.

Tuesday: In class the next day, we broke into small groups for peer review. The upshot for my strip was the realization that I needed to reverse the layout for the punchline to work; if I didn't, the word balloon would be out of sync with the visuals. I also decided to use my all-text panel as an introduction rater than a denouement. That evening after class, I managed these pencils, working on bristol board:

I kept the setting as simple as possible so that things would look pretty much the same from panel to panel; I thought a static setting was important to the story. For that same reason, I stuck to stick figures; I didn't trust my art talent to render consistent figures with anything more elaborate.

Wednesday: We didn't have time to review our finished pencils in class on Wednesday, partly because Forney gave an inking demonstration for the first part of the morning. Our homework for Wednesday night was to ink the penciled strip. Although I experimented with brush-pens during the day, I couldn't work up the nerve to use a regular brush, chickening out in the end and inking the whole thing with Flair pens. I worked the way Forney does, with the pencils under a new sheet on a light box, so there's no erasing of stray pencil lines. Here's how it turned out:

I don't know how much I improved the art, and how much I lost with my crappy technique. You can see that I edited the captions and dialogue during this process as well.

But for Forney, the finished product of a comic is never the original art, it is the reproduction, so there was still one step. I scanned the inked page, cleaned it up a little bit with Photoshop, and printed it off: that was the final submission. Here's the file that I printed:

Thursday: We did the by-now familiar hang-up-all-the-work-and-critique-it exercise. My strip got decent reviews; Forney thought that I had captured the body language, particularly of the waitress, pretty well.

The point of the exercise was to experience all the steps of creating a strip, which Forney had enumerated as our first lesson on Monday morning:

Good Pencils

In that respect, the activity was a success. Following the process through from beginning to end, even on a greatly telescoped schedule, gave insights into the relationship between the different elements of creation that I don't think could have been gained by discussion. The scope of the assignment was narrow enough to be practicable, yet broad enough to require engagement with and decisions about page layout, pacing, dialogue, and character design. All of McCloud's five choices were forced upon us, to good effect.

I wonder, perhaps, whether there would still be room in a course like this for an additional, extended exercise. Completing a full-script version of a longer work would be very useful for those primarily interested in the writing side of the comics game; similarly, illustrating a full script (or even a treatment) would give those students who really wanted to work on their visual language a chance to experiment with different versions of the same narrative, without worrying about creating the narrative in the first place (and some students on the class had as hard a time coming up with things to say as I did managing to draw effectively).

In my case, as someone who doesn't hesitate to critique the comics he reads, it was instructive to have to go through the whole cycle of creating one.

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