Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How I Approach Cartooning #1

One of what I intend to be a series of occasional essays on what I think about when I'm writing and drawing. I'm not saying this is the best way, right way, or only way. It's just a way that works for me that I hope someone finds interesting.

"I have made this letter longer than usual,
because I lack the time to make it short."
--Blaise Pascal

I tend to overwrite. I learned that about myself a long time ago--probably in my first real job out of college as a reporter for a small daily newspaper--and also learned to use it to my advantage. I made it part of my writing process. For example, when I write a first draft and check my word count, I'm very happy if it comes out 10% to 20% over. I know I can go through it a few times, tighten it up, release some gas, and polish it into a nice lean piece that clearly says what it needs to and nothing else. That's my goal.

I have a friend who wrote a novel. When he finished and started showing it to agents, they told him it was too long to be marketable in his genre. He'd have to cut it by a quarter. This seemed a daunting, despairing task: go through and slice out every fourth word? Impossible! His finely drawn characters would become caricatures, his carefully balanced plot would fall apart. Yet he did it, and when he finished cutting he was amazed by how much it'd improved his book. Yes, he'd lost some favorite bits, but the novel had a new flow and energy that made it a better story.

Cartooning is that to an extreme. Back when I fruitlessly submitted comic strip ideas to newspaper syndicates, I made up a rule that if the text for a daily strip didn't fit on a 3-by-5-inch index card, it was too wordy. That worked pretty well. I wrote both Mom's Cancer and WHTTWOT as pages of script accompanied by doodles and thumbnail sketches that captured the visuals I imagined--the screenplay for the movie playing in my head. Then I cut.

Not everyone works that way. Some find inspiration in starting with the drawing, brainstorming visually and then building a story from that. Although an image sometimes comes to me full-blown, I usually start with words and then consciously seek opportunities for pictures to take their place, add meaning, and carry as much of the narrative load as possible. A graphic novel should be more than an illustrated prose novel. In my ideal graphic novel, both the words and art convey equal meaning and neither is complete without the other.

For example, in Mom's Cancer I wrote about the ordeal of managing Mom's many medications (pp. 59-61). In my first-draft script, I'd written something about it being like "walking a tightrope." Now, aside from that being a lazy, obvious simile I didn't like, I couldn't figure out how to illustrate it. What do you draw, Mom sitting around taking medications? Rows of pill bottles? Boring. I wanted to capture the precarious uncertainty of this experience and, at the same time, fix the clunky metaphor. My solution was to draw the metaphor: The pictures show Mom actually walking on a tightrope surrounded by danger while everything goes wrong around her, freeing the words from having to mention it at all. It also gave me a chance to play some absurd dark humor against Mom's grim situation. Cartooningwise, I was very satisified with how this bit turned out.

I looked for similar opportunities in WHTTWOT. I'm very aware of how my words and pictures balance, and which is pulling more weight through different passages. For example, the first chapter of WHTTWOT is exposition-heavy, so I deliberately followed it with a chapter that's almost pantomime with hardly any text at all. My aim was to give readers a break and exercise a different part of their brains that interprets visual rather than verbal information. The last chapter is again light on words and heavy on visuals, which reads quicker and I hope creates some momentum that pulls readers through. In addition, as the book nears the end, each page provides less visual information than the page before, prodding readers to pick up their pace as they barrel toward what I hope is a satisfying climax.

That's how I'm trying to manipulate you, anyway. Don't know if I pulled it off.


Mike Lynch said...

Yeah, the old standard is right: great work is not written, it's rewritten. The tough thing about comics is knowing when not to tell in words, but show in pictures.

Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

Interesting that the tightrope scene came from spiffing up a dull part in the first draft. I'd figured you'd drawn it that way from the start.
I found the illustrated metaphors in Mom's Cancre to be charming (in the make-a-joke-about-something-stressful sense): The Operation Game, the Frankenstein Lab, Superpowers etc..

Brian Fies said...

Mike: Yep.

Namowal, thanks for the compliment. The "first draft" I talked about was little more than notes on scraps of paper, so the notion of drawing the tightrope metaphor came early, before I'd actually drawn or posted anything. I think the Operation and Superpowers bits pretty much turned out as I first imagined them. On the Frankenstein Lab panel, I recall wanting to draw a picture of the actual equipment used on Mom but not being able to find a reference for it. The more subjective (and much better) Frankenstein point of view was borne of desperation.