Dan's major assignment: (Studio work, days four and five)
On the afternoon of Thursday, the fourth day of instruction, Dan put us into studio mode. There was no lecture or class discussion; we were just to begin creating our final piece for the class. Working together in the classroom, we were to conceive, write, design, and draw a two-page comics story. All the comics would be collected for publication as representative of the GNI class. There were no parameters to the assignment, other than the suggested length.
My own participation in the assignment wound up being curtailed. The class continued until Saturday, and the intention was to use Thursday afternoon, all day Friday, and all day Saturday to create to the piece. My own plans had changed and I would not be able to stay for the Saturday session, so I unilaterally reduced my contribution to one page, preferring a complete shorter work to a rushed or incomplete longer work. I also made the decision to create an imaginary comic book house ad rather than a sort autobiographical piece, which was the the form of choice for most of the class (a strong Forney influence there, I thought); I wanted to work more on my actual art and rendering than on the plotting and storytelling, and to play with the techniques we had been working on all week.
I started with rough thumbnails instead of an actual script:
The premise of the imaginary house ad was that an upcoming series would feature the Universal Studios movie monsters as private detectives. This is an idea I had been kicking around for several years without any product, so the content came easily (nice for the time constraints). I thought on the initial layout had a nice balance.
From there, I moved on to pencils:
I decided on the twelve-panel grid probably because in my mind I was envisioning some Sandman stories (perhaps by Creig Flessel) that used such a grid to good effect. I used some photo references for the art, such as pictures of Humphrey Bogart for the collar and hat brim details, and (believe it or not) an anatomy shot for the foot detail in panel two. As I laid the page out, I thought I was introducing too many characters, so The Phantom of the Opera was cut. I did the pencils on plain copy paper, the better to work with a light box on the inking stage, in the manner of Ellen Forney.
Speaking of inking:
Since my intent was to thrash around with new tools, I tried to stick with the brush pens for most of the inking and pay attention to line weights and such. Given my limited skill set, I'm not sure how successful the approach was. I did make the conscious decision to do minimal hand-inking and no hand-lettering; Photoshop was going to be a big contributor to the final product.
All of the black backgrounds are obviously Photoshop fill; I can't imagine trying to do this with hand lettering. I also threw some grayscale fills in, most noticeably on the Creature's hat and trenchcoat; I'm not sure how successful that choice was without complete consistency. One detail that I think worked particularly well was the reversing of the Invisible Man's glasses from black to white in the final panel so they would show against the background. All the lettering was done in Photoshop, of course, and I think most of it works with the exception of panel three, where it gets lost. And panel four shows the most computer work: not only has the figure been reduced and moved, but the streetlight was added in
The obvious deficiency in the page, regardless of the techniques used or the relative lack of drawing ability, is the almost complete dearth of background detail in the panels that could have really used some. The Bride may have an iMac (with poor perspective), but that appears to be the only thing in her office - even the wall appears to be a caption box (with poor proportions) - and the cast appears to be posing in some sort of dark gymnasium for the final shot.
The point of the exercise - for me, at any rate - was to experience, at least in some small scale, the pulling together of all the pieces, particularly on the art side, that go into making a comic. As someone who routinely reads and criticizes comics, I felt it was important to have this experience, and in regards to that outcome, at least, the exercise was successful. My appreciation of the level of engagement and the attention to detail necessary to produce comic art with both the communicative and aesthetic properties intended has been expanded and deepened. I only have to look at my own meager effort, and be reminded that even with photo references in front of me I forgot to render the classic P.I. trenchcoat as double-breasted, to sustain my awareness of how much actual work goes into the making of a successful page and how easily one can miss the target.
As an opportunity for developing talents and techniques, I am not as sure how successful the exercise was. Perhaps I cannot speak to this with sufficient qualification, since I missed almost half of the time allotted, but the work-all-day-with-the-instructor-wandering-around method didn't seem as helpful to that objective as some other models might have been. The differences in level of artistic ability and familiarity with comics form seemed pretty great, however, so I'm not sure what that approach might have been.
And perhaps that was the most problematic element of the whole class. Making comics takes the synthesis of a wide array of skills that come from the writer's toolkit, and the painter's and the graphic designer's, as well as from that very specific toybox of comics conventions. My lingering impression is, that as far as instruction goes, a focus on one of these dimensions of the craft at a time is more successful, at least in the classroom environment. Pulling them all together is a great capstone demonstration.
That's the final entry in the assignment-by-assignment breakdown of the Graphic Novel Intensive class. If you are interested in seeing the final products from all eighteen students - many of whom produced work a lot better than mine - you can buy the class album from Lulu Press.
Postage Stamp Funnies by Shannon Wheeler Dark Horse, 2008
I came across this slipcased three volume set at a bizarro gift store in Spokane that had a back corner of comicsy goodness, new and old. I was somewhat familiar with Wheeler's work from Too Much Coffee Man, but it wasn't the content of the books that attracted me: it was the form. Each book measures 2.25'' x 4", and the single image on each page is about 1" x 2.25". I wondered what in the world could a talent do to turn such formalist restriction into a creative opportunity. Unfortunately, the answer in this case is: not much.
These books reprint cartoons from a feature in The Onion newspaper that present pretty much the standard fare for single-panel gag cartoons of the modern era: some non-sequiturs (mother to child: I'm tired of buying you juice), some visual puns (woman to dog in a suit: I take it you're a dog person), some verbal puns (woman to friend: I knew he was a magician when I married him. I just didn't expect him to disappear), and a series of shit jokes. I guess they're funnies; I guess they're cartoons; I'm not sure they're comics. Robert Harvey's essay "Comedy at the Juncture of Word and Image" can be read as nothing more than an attempt to pull single-panel cartoons into the definition of comics; I was never sure why Harvey felt this inclusion was important, and neither his essay nor this collection persuade me that it is so.
But whether the gag cartoon is an example of comics really isn't the point here; the observation that struck me as important was that the miniature form of these cartoons was not integral, essential, or even necessary to their impact. These strips would be just as funny (or unfunny) at a more typical size or full-page; some would work as one-liners in a stand-up routine and some even as animations. Of course, nothing required Wheeler to make use of the form as part of his art; perhaps the reasons for working in this small scale had nothing to do with creativity or formal play. Nonetheless, I felt a little disappointed.
However, there was a saving grace, besides some of the cartoons' actually being amusing. Here are three instances where formal play did manifest itself, albeit in a way completely detached from the scale of the form.
In each of these, Wheeler takes a a non-diegetic graphical element - a word balloon, a thought balloon, and a traditional icon, makes the characters aware of them, and gives them a reality in the narrative. This still has nothing to do with the small size of the comics, but it is the kind of structural experimentation that I find both delightful and intriguing.
Normally, word balloons and similar devices have no substance in the story-world of a panel, strip, or comic book. A caption box may obscure part of the illustration for us, the readers, but the characters can see right through them. What happens when we twist this relationship and give these conventional elements as much reality as the characters and the environment that they move through?
I'm not sure. I do know one thing, however: the gags that take this approach could not be expressed any other way than through the language of comics. The three sample panels above cannot be summarized and communicated in the way I presented the three examples in the second paragraph of this essay; at least, they can't be presented that way without a lot more detail and a lot less impact. They might be described, but they can't be translated. Take this strip in contrast:
I can easily describe this cartoon to you, or the joke could be presented as a short live action film, as an animation, or even as a part of a told story. (Rodney Dangerfield: I tell ya, I get no respect. At our wedding reception, my wife told me she wanted to see other people.) There is nothing about the form that requires it to be a cartoon. Not so with the other three illustrations, and a few other gags in the collection - they need to be comics and can't be expressed any other way. And somehow, when an experimental artifact draws attention to the critical elements of the form, I can't help but think we could learn something about how the mainstream of the form works.
As a collection of gag cartoons, Postage Stamp Funnies is probably a pretty good sampler, if you like that kind of thing. And while it doesn't use its small size and form as anything more than a novelty, a few selected cartoons do raise some interesting formalist questions.
Note: the observant reader will notice that after I introduce the three illustrations central to this inquiry, I begin referring to the cartoons as "comics" despite my rejection of that term earlier. I noticed this, too. I wonder if Robert Carrier's privileging of the word balloon as one of the "essential qualities" of comics has some merit.
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:
Idea Research Script Thumbnails Good Pencils Inks Scan/Tweak Reduce/Reproduce
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.
Before continuing with the series of outcomes assessments, I wanted to take a break to address a topic related to the last post, that of comics format and how it relates to narrative.
The last exercise concerned a rather outré format for comics narrative, that of slotted cards which could be connected in different ways. While it proved to be a useful heuristic for developing character and story, the format didn't reveal itself as especially useful for constructing narrative in a deliberate way.
It happened that at the same time I was considering that format, mainstream comics were presenting themselves in a new format as well: DC Comics began publishing a weekly, near-broadsheet-sized periodical called Wednesday Comics. Looking like nothing more than an old-school newspaper Sunday funnies section, the comic provides fifteen separate one-page stories in a 12" by 18" page format - roughly twice the dimensions of a standard comic.
The most obvious effect of this format is its nostalgic value. The very physicality of the item resonates with indolence and innocence and echoes of time past. A few of the creators play with this, calling out to comic strip conventions. Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred run messages directed at the reader in a slot underneath the main Metamorpho story, and Adam and Joe Kubert use a slightly smaller space for portraits of the cast at the bottom the Easy Co. strip; both of these approaches evoke similar practices that were common in the heyday of the the newspaper strip.
What is significant is that these practices are only possible because of the characteristics of the printed artifact itself. If we reduced these strips to standard comic book size, even though the aspect ratio would be nearly perfect, the absolute (not relative) size of the ancillary material would be reduced beyond usefulness, or even in some cases legibility, coming to resemble something more like Sergio Aragones's marginals in Mad magazine than an integral part of the main strip. This explains why these features have all but disappeared from traditional comic strips; the very structural possibilities of the narrative are determined by its ultimate format. The large-scale page format of Wednesday Comics offers up additional possibilities, which different contributors take advantage of in different ways.
Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook, with Kamandi, and Paul Pope, with Strange Adventures, use this oversize canvas to present artwork that, because of the strength of its composition or the intricacy of its detail, probably wouldn't work nearly as well on a smaller scale.
Two consecutive Allred strips comprised a single panel; the size of the panel was large enough that repeated figures were clearly read as existing in different moments as well as at a different points, moving through both time and space in an expansive landscape. This effect would be much more difficult to carry off on a standard-sized splash page.
Karl Kerschl et al present a multi-layered narrative. Under the banner of The Flash, one sequence showcases the Flash himself, and the other belongs to Iris West, the woman in his life; each is separately sub-titled. You might be able to have this effect in a standard comic by separating each thread on its own facing page, but the horizontal orientation of the strips and their proximity on the same leaf creates a much more intimate connection between the two strands.
The rest of the strips seem to have taken standard comic book technique and simply enlarged the page. While the bigger size gives us a better look at the linework and adds some power to the figures, in these cases it seems like an utilization of the potential of the format. The strips are perceived differently, but are not, it seems, intentionally different.
The oversize format has the ability to affect not just the presentation, but the very structural possibilities of the comic narrative. To draw this conclusion into sharp relief, let's take a look at a completely different format. Here's a short video illustrating how the comic Atomic Robo appears on a GooglePhone:
On a screen that is somewhere around 3" x 2", the narrative possibilities are limited, to say the least. One panel at a time is the norm: off the table are expansive page layouts, dual story threads, broad landscapes presented in single panel, and all that. The comic in the video was originally presented in a standard comic book; it was edited to fit the phone format, and its narrative flow was greatly changed in the process. I can't even begin to imagine attempting to present something like Paul Pope's intricate page layouts on the phone; Kamandi's panels would be so small as to be unreadable; and the Flash series would have to offer up one narrative at a time. Comics over the phone may be a viable option in the future, but they will likely contain stories written especially for the format, whose narrative structures play to the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of the format.
This awareness of form is just another layer of complexity in understanding how we apprehend comics narrative; we have ongoing discussions on the difference between reading a serialized narrative published periodically and reading the same narrative collected in one volume ("waiting for the trade"); the questions of format lay themselves over that, to wit: What would a collected album of Wednesday Comics look like -- all the Kamandi, all the Flash, all the Metamorpho, and so on? Wouldn't it be a huge book, however it were edited? Would the physicality of holding such a tome change your interaction with the stories? And from a different take: can you imagine reading a graphic novel on a phone?
And all of this highlights once again the difference between prose literature and graphic literature. With any form of prose, whether short story, novel, memoir, or whatever, the ultimate format - hardback, paperback, e-book - matters little. In effective pose, the little marks on the page disappear from our conscious ken and we live the story in our imaginations. Not so with comics; we don't want the marks on the page or the screen to ever disappear; we want to linger over them and savor them and appreciate them and their details, the physical traces of the artist, what French analyst Phillipe Marion called graphiation. And so, questions of format, trivial to the prose writer, become critical considerations for the comics creator.