Saturday, May 22, 2010

How I Approach Cartooning

(This post is a rerun from September 2008, combining two posts I wrote on "How I Approach Cartooning" that seemed to be pretty well received.)
"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 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.

Historical Research
The story of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? covers more than three decades, from the late 1930s to the mid 1970s (plus a bit beyond). This raised a problem I'd never really dealt with before: doing historical research for a graphic novel.

Both the beauty and horror of writing a graphic novel is that nothing gets on the page by accident. If there's a person, car, rock, tree, trash can, or blade of grass in the picture, it's there because I wanted it there. This turns out to be a significant challenge when you go back in time. I struggled mightily to leave all my modern preconceptions behind and find references for everything I could. My characters drink soda pop in 1939; what shape and size were soda bottles then? What did a street light look like in 1945? When did kids start wearing high-top sneakers? What day and time did a particular TV show air, and what phase was the Moon in that day?

I collected probably a couple thousand pages of reference and read hundreds of pages more. I discovered that one problem with trying to get it right (and being terrified of getting it wrong) is potential paralysis: being afraid to do anything for fear that it isn't perfect. Eventually, I just figured I'd have to live with getting the big stuff as right as possible and minimize the risk of flubbing the small stuff as best I could. After absorbing all the research I could manage, I had to kind of relax, let it go, and just start to draw.

I tried to be thoughtful about my sources. For example, researching period clothing yields a lot of old magazine fashion spreads. But everyday people don't dress like fashion models then or now. Better are actual news or candid photos of the time showing real people living real lives. It's also tempting to look up "1945 automobiles" or "1965 business suits" and use the first examples you find. But nobody buys a new car and wardrobe every year. People drive 10-year-old cars and wear 5-year-old clothes. Few houses have all-new furnishings; right now in my living room I've got a 10-year-old couch and a 90-year-old phonograph. The people and places I draw should look that real and lived in.

Two examples of how that works in WHTTWOT: One panel is a big overhead shot of a kid's bedroom in 1965. Now, kid's bedrooms are often furnished with family hand-me-downs, so when I put a radio near the kid's bed I made it a small tube-powered model built in the mid 1950s (the same one I have in my bedroom passed down from my father-in-law). A chair in the corner of the kid's room--you know, that extra chair that doesn't fit around the dining room table so you stash it in the bedroom--is from a set made in the 1950s.

Also in the 1965 chapter, I put my characters in a '57 Chevy. That was a risk. First, as I've written before, I don't draw cars well, nor do I enjoy it. Not sure what I was thinking when I scripted a road trip. Second, the '57 Chevy is an all-time great classic car with legions of fans who know every bolt. (Digression: I was recently admiring a '57 Chevy in a parking lot when my wife Karen remarked that she'd had a friend in high school who'd owned one. "Oh, was he a classic car guy?" I innocently asked. "Not really," she answered. "Back then it wasn't really classic. It was just old." Ouch. Since Karen is younger than I am, I instantly felt positively antique.)

Despite the peril, I had both practical and creative reasons for picking the '57 Chevy. Practically, it was easy to find a good toy model and tons of reference photos for it (period photos only, since modern examples of the car often have subtle modifications I wouldn't want to accidentally include). Creatively, the car is strongly evocative of its time. And putting my 1965 characters in a 1957 Chevy said something about them: they had an eye for style and couldn't afford a newer car. They're middle or lower-middle class; an 8-year-old car is the best they could do, but they picked a good one.

I don't know if any of this will come across to the reader. I suspect not, but hope it accumulates into a kind of verisimilitude that makes the world of WHTTWOT seem more real than if I hadn't gone to the effort and just made it all up. I'm also positive that as soon as the book comes out I'll start hearing from readers telling me what I got wrong. I expect to know the anguish experienced by Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier when he discovered he'd had his Civil-War-era hero eat a variety of apple that hadn't been hybridized yet.

All I can answer is that I honestly did my best and if I tried any harder I wouldn't have been able to produce the book at all.

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