Wednesday, June 15, 2011

See One, Do One, Teach One

My most daunting responsibility at the Comics & Medicine Conference was leading a 90-minute workshop titled "Making Comics: See One, Do One, Teach One." I also moderated a couple of panels where academicians presented papers on various topics, but that was easy. If those panels stunk, it was the presenters' fault; the quality of my workshop was entirely on my shoulders.

I mentioned yesterday that Karen managed to record nearly an hour of the 90 minutes and said I'd try to fill in the beginning and end she missed. I don't expect anyone to plow through a long blog post and four YouTube videos, but if you're crazy enough to try, here they are. Long-time readers of this blog will recognize a lot of my advice and examples.

I'm very happy with how it went. I'd never done this specific sort of thing before and the audience participation piece made it hard to time. I ran long. Bear in mind that my audience comprised smart, motivated adults; I'd do things differently for a more general audience or kids. I see room to improve my presentation skills, and Karen suggested afterward that I should have done some live drawing myself, which is an excellent idea. People love chalk talks. But the important thing is that I felt relaxed and confident, everybody seemed to have fun, and a few participants afterward told me they'd really gotten something out of it. One even corralled me the next day to show me a full-page four-panel comic he'd not only pencilled but already arranged to have published by someone else at the conference (!) because I'd inspired him to give it a shot. Raney, you made my day.

A note on copyright: in addition to examples from my own work, my presentation included copyrighted work by others. I believe my use of these examples clearly falls under Fair Use provisions that allow limited reproduction for the purposes of education and criticism. I respect copyright and so should you.

The following is based on my notes and is rough, but I think gives the jist of it. My written description takes you up to the videos, then picks up again when they're done.

* * *

"Making Comics: See One, Do One, Teach One"
The purpose of the workshop is to show some ways that comics can be made—which in this context mostly but not entirely means how I make them. Then I’m hoping to do some exercises that lead into you making your own comics, which then prepares you to go out into the world and make comics yourself, teach someone else how to make comics, and—particularly in a healthcare context—maybe find new ways to communicate with patients or healthcare works, or maybe just express yourself.

My history and qualifications. Lifelong cartoonist without much success. My mother's cancer diagnosis. Mom's Cancer webcomic; recognition, including the Eisner Award; Mom's Cancer book; recognition; Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow; recognition.



All that led to an invitation to speak at last year’s London conference on Graphic Medicine, which led to me helping organize this conference, which it turns out is a nice way to get to do a workshop.


One of my goals is to get you over the biggest hurdle facing any prospective cartoonist:

"I can’t even draw a straight line." Here’s your first cartooning secret: Neither can I. Nobody can, and even if someone could, that wouldn’t make them a great cartoonist. Besides, drawing straight lines is trivial. Straight lines aren’t interesting. What’s interesting, and what makes good comics, is drawing crooked lines in your unique style that no one else could draw. In fact, the second cartooning secret I’ll share is that you don’t have to be a good artist to be an excellent cartoonist.


James Thurber. Great essayist and cartoonist. Was once trying to do some fancy shading on one of his drawings when writer E.B. White looked over his shoulder and said, “Don’t do that. If you ever became good, you would be mediocre.”


XKCD by Randall Munroe. One of the smartest, most popular webcomics in the world. Stick figures.

John Callahan. Well regarded, critically acclaimed. Pertinent to the theme of this conference, he was quadriplegic. Died in 2010.

My favorite example: Miriam Engelberg's Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person. The only book sort of like mine that I enthusiastically recommend.

Comics = Words + Images that together transcend the sum of their parts.

My favorite analogy is popular music: lyrics are usually bad poetry, melodies are usually bad music, but put them together and they can evoke emotion, perfectly capture a time and place . . . In my ideal comic, the words and pictures both carry about half the storytelling load and neither is complete without the other.

Need a common vocabulary to talk about these things: Anatomy of a Comic. Panels, borders, gutters, balloons, iconography.









Expressive figures. In general, think about silent movies or old Warner Brothers cartoons, where the pose really helps sell the action and emotion.




Can even use the language of comics to impart expressiveness to inanimate objects that normally aren't. Old animators' exercise from Walt Disney Studios: challenge is to draw a sack of flour to express emotions.


I think about these things when I draw comics, even the simplest of objects. Like a cube. A cube made of straight ruled lines is boring. But a cube made of cardboard needs to look different than a cube made of concrete. In comics, everything has a personality. Everything comes to life. The choices you make define your cartoon world, and nothing goes into that world unless you decide to put it there.


Cartoonist Al Capp ("Li'l Abner"): "No cartoonist, no matter how talentless or obscure, has ever drawn a dog without having made a comment on the state of dogs. He's never drawn an outhouse without making some incidental comment about rustic life in America."

Nuts & Bolts

Two very broad approaches: Words first or drawing first. I’ll talk about working from a written script, like a play or movie, because that’s how I usually do it and what I know. But there are cartoonists who’d just start drawing, telling a story in purely visual terms, go where it takes them, and add any words later if they were needed at all.

Panels are the foundation of the page. How they are arranged determines the pace, mood and style of your story. Panel size and placement convey meaning all on their own.

I asked my friend Mike Lynch for advice on doing a workshop like this. He told me a story about two cartoonists talking about how to draw a non-visual concept like “loneliness.” The first cartoonist draws a quick sketch of a man sitting sadly in a chair and says, "That's loneliness":


The second cartoonist takes the paper and draws a big, empty border around the man in the chair and says, "No, that's loneliness." And that's the power of panels.


You control how time passes between panels. Several examples from Mom's Cancer, with discussion:


Lettering comes first! A lot of people don't know that, and in the old days it didn't, and the words ended up squished together (ex. "Little Nemo"). The words are what the reader's eye seeks out first, and they guide the reader through the page. It's important. (Examples from WHTTWOT.) Don't cross your word balloon tails unless you've got a valid storytelling reason to (e.g., two lovers' dialog intertwined, the chaos of a riot).


How I lettered, penciled, inked, corrected and colored a page of Mom's Cancer. (Rather than reproduce it here, I'll point anyone interested to this old blog post, where I used the same examples. This isn't quite how I do it anymore, but it's close enough and still valid.)

Coloring: Examples of digital coloring from both my books, as well as coloring directly on the original art by Vanessa Davis and Carol Tyler. In the example below from the wonderful Carol Tyler's You'll Never Know, see what she’s done with her panels, treating them like cards in a photo album. Look at three different types of lettering: Lower case, for the parts that are her character’s diary; traditional all-capitals for the word balloons; and cursive for the parts that are excerpts of letters from home. Subtle but clear: you catch that these are three different narratives even if you’re not aware why.


The Digital Age. I love "analog" cartooning but things are changing. Now you're as likely to find an artist working on a computer as a drawing board. Discuss. This is a time of transition. If you want to start an argument among cartoonists, just get ‘em going on this. But for our purposes here today, and for your purposes going out into the world to spread the gospel of the power of making and reading comics, my message is that anyone can express themselves, and even still do professional quality work, using the simplest and cheapest of tools.

Do One
Exercise: Write and draw a two-, three-, or four-panel comic about something that’s happened to you in the past few days. Maybe a moment that happened at an airport or in a taxi, maybe an argument at the hotel desk. A true slice of life. It doesn’t have to be funny, but it would be nice if it had a beginning, middle and end. Don’t feel obligated to use all four panels (which I provided in my workshop packet) or even stay within the panels. Be fast and loose, and don’t sweat the details.

I’d like you to use the self-portrait you did in the first exercise, and see if you can work in some expressiveness in the face and body. Try also to work in a variety of shots: not all just close-ups of your head, unless that’s best for the story you want to tell. Studying how movies are shot and edited, with establishing shots that set the scene and two-shots and close-ups, is a very good foundation for making comics.

Suggested materials list.

Conclude with a few thoughts about what I think makes comics special and why this is worth doing, why we had this conference. Why comics work. I think the most important characteristic of comics is that they distill reality to its essence. The cartoonist polishes and strips away unnecessary detail until only this gleaming little nugget of pure humor or tragedy or truth is left. The difference between good and bad cartoonists is how good or bad they are at selecting what to put on the page and what to leave out.

My favorite quotes:

Philospher and mathematician Blaise Pascal: “I apologize that I made this letter so long. I did not have time to make it short.”

Victorian cartoonist Phil May, to an editor who thought May's drawing's weren't detailed enough: "When I can leave out half the lines I now use, I shall want six times the money."

Cartoonist Larry Gonick: “Our brains represent things in some stripped-down, abstracted way. We don’t remember things as photographs or movies. We remember them as cartoons.”

* * *

Anybody heroic enough to stick with that to the end? No, I didn't think so. It flew by like a rocket in person, though! Thanks to everyone who attended the workshop, I hope it was worth your time. .

No comments: