I am possibly the only imbecile on Earth who can prepare for something extra-early and still be late for that thing.
(That’s not true. You, hypothetical reader, are possibly, perhaps probably, just such an imbecile.)
I arrive a few minutes past the starting time for the first panel, Education in Comics, which apparently started right on time, so I’m playing catch-up. The current speaker (name to be added momentarily) is delivering a lecture (also to be named momentarily) on children’s comics–the stylistic strategies, the use of wordless narratives, the stigmas involved, etc. Various example books are circulating throughout the room.
Okay, the lecture is called “Following the Pictures: Wordless Comics for Children”, and the speaker is Barbara Postema.
One of the books is called Korgi, by Christian Slade. For those who don’t know, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi is the cutest species of animal on Earth, as scientifically determined by me. I must get this book.
Next up is “Reading Patterns of Comics Readers vs. Prose Readers”, by Laura Jimenez. One of her first contentions is that “graphic novels are motivating for marginalized readers.” In other words, comics can reach people who wouldn’t normally read, who maybe don’t do well with prose or aren’t intrinsically motivated to read. As an educator, she explores questions of whether or not the skills involved in reading graphic novels can then be transferred to prose reading, how images are received differently from prose, and how comic art might cater to both cognitive processes.
Next up is a long title that will receive its own page break.
“Hey Kids! Learn History Comics! Warren Ellis’ Crecy and Trevor R. Getz’s Abina and the Important Men as Classroom Resources.” The speaker is Aaron Gulyas.
Right off, Gulyas delineates primary sources and secondary sources–cultural artifacts of the time versus documents about that time. Comics can be both. He argues that Crecy is a secondary source, being a narrative retelling of events, while Abina blurs the two categories, being a narrative adaptation of a court transcript.
As an educator, Gulyas describes the difficulty of working Crecy into his course–one battle of one war, in a class that has to cover a broad swath of history, likely included at the expense of other very important material. The more comprehensive and accessible Abina does not represent this difficulty. While Crecy functions better as a story and an entertainment–a better “comic book”, he says, doing the finger quotes–Abina is the better educational resource.
One question Gulyas asks his students is, between the transcript of Abina and the actual story (i.e. the comic art), which conveys the history better? Which one is more “real”?
I would bet that the transcript probably does a better job of evading the anti-comics stigma–a prejudice that probably bedevils educators even more than anybody else involved in comics. That said, the comic art would do a better job of conveying the information in a way that will stick. Educational text–especially historical text–can be very dry and dense. It’s the textual equivalent of unstylized speech, going in one ear and out the other. Told in evocative imagery, the same information might have a much better chance of engaging the reader and remaining in memory.
This year’s gallery display by the MSU Comic Art Collection (curated by the magnificent Randy Scott) is called From Superman to Seth: Comics and Canadian Cultural Identity.
(That’s right: The quintessentially American Superman has partially Canadian heritage. Joe Shuster, the first and still finest artist to ever illustrate the Man of Steel, was born in Toronto and moved to Cleveland as a preteen. There, he met Jerry Siegel and they made beautiful comics together.
I personally find the “American” aspect of the Superman image to be slightly overstated. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were working class Jewish kids. Shuster was a Canadian-American. Both were first-generation sons of parents who immigrated from Europe. Their Superman was loyal to ideals, rather than national boundaries. As a response to World War II and a defense mechanism of the anti-comics scare in the 1950s, Superman gradually received the “American” upgrade.)
The next panel, Reexamining Relationships, begins soon.
First up is “Ti-Girl Power”, by Matt Yockey. (“Ti” pronounced “Tye”.) Subtitle: “the politics of the progressive superhero text”.
Yockey’s starting contention is that Ti-Girls author Jaime Hernandez delves into the conflict between the utopian vision of superhero comics and the homogeneity implicit in that utopian ideal. Hernandez consciously uses the superhero team paradigm to deal in issues of gender, ethnicity, body type, and queerness, which mainstream superhero comics tend either to gloss over or handle in superficial and clumsy ways.
This is the second time Hernandez has been brought up, the first being in last night’s speech by Jessica Abel. Embarrassingly, I am familiar with Hernandez as an artist but have never read his stories. Love & Rockets, his ongoing story, is a sprawling and intimidating work that I’ll nevertheless look into at the next opportunity.
Next up is Jeremy Stoll, with A Comics Tradition in New Delhi.
In this presentation, Stoll starts out by discussing the recently developed Comic Con of New Delhi, which, while small compared to those in America, attracts several known names, including the mighty (and normally somewhat inaccessible) R. Crumb.
Stoll walks through the development of the comics medium in India, which went through a process of pastiches of American literature, which incorporated more and more uniquely Indian references and imagery. Eventually, they arrived at a variety of material, including styles and stories reflecting wholly Indian concerns. Despite this evolution, comic artists and enthusiasts in India still face a battle of association between comics and children’s literature, as well as the prejudice of comics as an inferior form of art and entertainment. Sounds familiar.
Apparently, there was supposed to be a third presenter who couldn’t make it, so this is the end of the Reexamining Relationships panel.
This panel is the creators’ showcase, featuring Jessica Abel, Mike “Apooka” Roll, and Denver “Tales of a Checkered Man” Brubaker. Sitting in as moderator is Jay Jacot.
The first question is about process. Abel encourages her students to work in thumbnails, but mixes in full script herself and does much of the work in In Design. Roll works heavily in dialogue, despite the irony of his lead character being a zombie. Brubaker started out with detailed scripts, but found himself working more naturally in thumbnails–a mixture of his own preference and the demands of the material.
Next, on the subject of world-building, Abel’s process varies from book to book, because the material itself varies from book to book. Building a realistic location on terra firma is a different process from building the alien landscape of a sci-fi future. She finds herself asking questions like, “If you don’t have books, what do you fill your house with?” Roll doesn’t worry so much about building the fine details of the world as much as working in recurring details that readers will recognize. Brubaker takes a whimsical approach. Not being a natural world-builder, he works in details as they occur to him–funny brand names, posters of movie stars on people’s walls, etc. He also listens to old radio shows, which enables him to channel the imaginative vibe as he writes.
Essential tools: Abel doesn’t try to draw comics on the road, so she doesn’t have a stripped-down tool set. She does bring a laptop and work on scripts. For transporting ink, she recommends a ziplock bag. Roll tends to do rough pencils until he can get back to the kit and ink the artwork. Brubaker did try to bring materials with him and has tried to work today, which didn’t work out so well on the fly. Ordinarily, he tries not to ink on the road. Jacot brings pencils and 8.5×11 paper, which, when folded over, approximates the proportions of a standard comic book. He once had a disaster when he moved a bag containing a bottle of ink from a cold room to a warm room. The heat change caused the bottle to crack and distribute ink throughout the bottom of the bag.
Jacot asks about the collaborative process–how one adjusts the usual process to meet the needs of collaborators. Abel has an easier time when there is an agreed-upon structure of tasks beforehand, so it isn’t just two people sitting in a room without an idea of how to proceed. As an artist, Roll gets the script and typically sticks close to it, but he works in details and gags as they occur to him. Brubaker tends to work alone, but occasionally brings in guests, such as when he did a flashback sequence and wanted to use a different style.
When starting out, Abel recommends getting a job with flexible time. She worked as a bartender in her early days. One of her strategies for keeping things moving is never to stop without knowing what you’re going to do when starting up again. For example, ending a paragraph and putting in notes for the next paragraph. Roll has a day job, working in a print shop, which proves convenient. He professes to have no social life. Brubaker has a 9-5 office job, but is self-managed, and works on comics during downtime. He stresses the importance of recognizing downtime–when you’re doing something you have to do versus when you’re just sitting around putting things off, and treating it as a serious enterprise that demands a certain amount of time. Jacot also has a normal 9-5, doing business stuff on breaks and working the artwork in after family time at home. Abel, Roll, and Jacot admit to sacrificing a significant amount of sleep, Abel more so in the early days than now.
All stress the importance of feedback–gathering a group of colleagues or friends to go over the work, giving out free samples, attending group writing/art events, and generally taking as many opportunities as possible to catch problems early in the process.
The next panel is called Emotion and Memory: The Figure of the Artist in Three Contemporary Künstlerroman Comics.
(For the hypothetical reader who isn’t a word dork, a künstlerroman is a story about the storyteller, or more generally a story about an artist’s coming-of-age journey.)
The first presentation is “The Anxiety of Influence”, by Catherine E. Baily, which concerns “text and intertextuality in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”. Bailey discusses how the Bechdel character in the story strives to express herself in art, but her father (who consciously patterns himself after F. Scott Fitzgerald) damages her self-confidence with his obsession over previously existing artistic works. This seems to be reflective of the post-modern problem: if our culture becomes more mediated and our lives become more saturated with media, then artists must struggle harder to express themselves in ways that don’t reflect previously existing artwork. Today’s art has a tendency to be about other art, rather than about life.
The next presentation is called “Raise More Demons Than You Can Lay Down: Using Image to Resurrect the Past in Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons”, by Traci Brimhall.
(This one barely missed the title for “longest title”. Nice job, “Hey Kids! Learn History Comics! Warren Ellis’ Crecy and Trevor R. Getz’s Abina and the Important Men as Classroom Resources.”)
One Hundred Demons, the subject of this presentation, is a graphic memoir. “Demons”, in this context, refers to the Greek etymology of lesser gods and spiritual guides. The book appears to be recursive: it’s about the author drawing a book about drawing the book, including events that happen as she draws. Various demons are used to represent the author’s thoughts, moods, and anxieties.
This is a fascinating idea that brings to mind the Tibetan concept of the tulpa: a Plato-esque ideal form that manifests itself numerous times in different avatars in mythology and fiction throughout history. There are many examples of this idea both in history and modern pop mythology. The highest human aspirations–the form of human perfection–show up as Superman. Our anxieties about our efficacy as warriors and our confidence around the opposite sex–the form of masculine uncertainty–manifest as chauvinist action characters like James Bond and John McClane, and so on. Perhaps more on this later.
One reason for summoning such forms–e.g. by writing them as characters in myth or fiction–is to take our problems out of the abstract and give them an objective reality, thus making them easier to handle. This is why the Greeks and Romans came up with pantheons of gods, and this appears to be why Barry works in her chosen method for this book. It’s an idea that isn’t terribly well-understood or consciously used much today in the Western world, which I suspect gives us a hard time dealing with our anxieties and our aspirations as a society.
We struggle to deal with those things without first taking the vital step of separating them from ourselves. The filmmaker Paul Schrader referred to storytelling as a problem-solving strategy–turning our problems into their own things, independent of us. We’re messy, and haphazardly mixing ourselves up with our problems makes our problems messier than they need to be.
This panel is called Gender and Race Studies in Comics. The first presentation is “In the Gutter: Comix Theory, Queer Theory,” by Chase Gregory. The slide on the screen is a great New Yorker strip: a man in panel one asks a woman in a bar if she’d like to join him in panel three. In panel two, she tells him “No.” Panel three features an empty bed.
This piece is about the complicated act of closure, by which we take two separate things–in comics, two panels–and mentally join them together in a logical relationship. This is the process of closure, and it’s something that our brains thrive on in order to filter and make sense of all the input they receive from the world outside. In other words, closure enables us to make meaning out of pure information. Gregory further draws a connection between committing the act of closure and the presence of queerness in a largely heteronormative society. I admit this is something I’m not sure I grasp concretely.
So I guess there were supposed to be two or three more panelists today, but there is some kind of viral plague going around that is laying waste to the scholarly comic panelist community. So if you fit into that category… lots of zinc and vitamin C. Before you get sick.