Friday, November 7, 2008

How I Approach Cartooning #4: Graphic Narrative

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.

Three things came together to spur this post, which I'm not sure will amount to a coherent essay so much as a loose tangle of barely connected thoughts. We'll see how it goes and whether it pulls together.

The first is a talk I'm preparing to give next week to a women's group that invited me to speak about Mom's Cancer. I've given several talks--tailored to whether I'm speaking to a "comics crowd" or a "healthcare/social service crowd"--but it's been a long time since the last one, and reviewing my PowerPoint slides has reawakened the experience of crafting the book and its themes. I haven't thought about some of these things in a while.

The second is an article just published in the journal Literature and Medicine, a scholarly publication for healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, the piece by Harvard's Hillary Chute isn't available online, but it cites several works--the comic strip "Funky Winkerbean" and the books Our Cancer Year, Epileptic, Black Hole, Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story, Janet and Me, Mom's Cancer, and others--from the perspective of their value as "illness narratives." In laying out her premise Ms. Chute wrote, "Comics is, in fact, a distinct form--a medium in its own right--not a lowbrow genre of literature or art, as it is often understood . . . In this review, I consider the properties, commonalities, differences, and contributions of a swiftly growing, yet diverse, body of graphic narratives about illness in order to explain the current profusion of such texts and to account for why the graphic narrative is a distinctly effective (and affective) popular form for such stories."

The third was a recent interview with Art Spiegelman recommended to me by cartoonist Rod McKie. Spiegelman, who wrote the Pulitzer-Prize-winning graphic novel Maus and a new book titled Breakdowns, said: "Comics work the way the brain works: picture-signs mixed with little bursts of language. Past, present and future all scrambled up and butted up against each other--the perfect medium for depicting memory."

Interestingly, Chute said that she spoke with Spiegelman, though it's not clear if he shared this particular insight with her. But I think Spiegelman's right, and I further think that's the key to understanding something important about how comics work and the kinds of stories they tell.

See, ideally, comics is just another medium that should be able to tell any type of story, fiction or nonfiction, just as books or film can. But, in practice, although many terrific graphic novel creators have explored a lot of different techniques and subjects, a huge share of graphic novels--and most of the really successful ones I can think of like Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Blankets--have been memoirs (leaving aside those originating in the world of pulp and superhero comic books such as Sin City and Watchmen).

I wonder why that is. Does it reflect the immaturity of a medium that just hasn't figured out how to tell different stories yet? Lazy unimaginative authors? Lazy unimaginative publishers? Lazy unimaginative readers? Or something more fundamental about the nature of graphic novels and the types of stories they're somehow suited to tell?

I'll take the easy way out and suggest they all apply. Graphic novels are a relatively young medium for which writers and artists are making up new rules as they go and figuring out how things work. A lot of writers and artists are lazy or unimaginative, taking the maxim "write what you know" too closely to heart and focusing on themselves because, hey, what do they know better (or have to research less) than their own miserable, misunderstood, solipsistic lives? Publishers are lazy or unimaginative, only willing to take a risk on stuff that's already been proven to work. A lot of readers are also lazy or unimaginative, comfortable with the graphic novels they know but not looking further afield for interesting work in other areas.
In addition, comics is the purest expression of McLuhan's axiom that "the medium is the message" I can think of. When you read a comic by Robert Crumb or Chris Ware, every line and letter--even the paper the comic is printed on--reflects the hand of its creator. More than most books and certainly more than collaborative work like television or movies, the content and form of comics are the result of singular creative visions. There's little distance between comics authors and readers, and I think the very best comics feel like a private conversation that jacks directly into the brain.

So I've been long intrigued by the idea that there's something about the way words and pictures combine in a reader's mind that makes comics especially apt for intimate stories that unfold like memories or dreams--editing episodes down to their most essential information, invoking symbols and archetypes, employing a kind of pre-literate shorthand of images and impressions. In other words, comics about stuff that happened to you.

I don't know if that's right. It feels like it could be.

Turning to the illness narrative, I think it's helpful to look at Chute's list of graphic novels as a subset of memoirs (with the exception of Black Hole, which is straight-up allegorical fiction) and in light of Spiegelman's notion of comics and memory. Illness invokes unique experiences and strong memories. "This is strange and frightening and interesting; I need to tell someone about it." I've told this story before: when my Mom became ill and our family fell through the medical rabbit hole, I resolved to share our story somehow. I didn't know if it would be a blog, a magazine article, a book, whatever, but I wanted to communicate our experience and scribble a rough roadmap for those who followed. Mom's Cancer became a graphic novel the day I took Mom to chemotherapy and, to pass the time while she napped in a comfy I.V. chair, turned over a piece of paper and sketched her. There was something in that drawing that perfectly captured our day in a way no other medium could have; the lightbulb lit over my head. I knew it would work. And I think somewhere in there is an insight into how and why it works for others as well.
That sketch.

Of my book Chute wrote, "While Mom's Cancer is more a cultural phenomenon [first I've heard of it!--BF] than a masterful graphic narrative--its popularity on the Web spread rapidly by word of
mouth--in its visual metaphors and its diagrams, it points directly to how the idiom of comics tackles the representation of illness and its range of hard-to-picture effects. Its enthusiastic audience and re-publication in print demonstrate the need and desire in our current moment for narrative and visual chronicles of struggles with illness."

I agree with that. But even allowing for some underlying commonality, there's a lot of variety among Chute's graphic narratives. While she wrote a very thoughtful review with an interesting angle, I think her analysis is weakened by comparing works done with very different goals and audiences in mind, from deliberately underground to deliberately literary to deliberately mainstream (like mine). She rightly points out that comics are a medium, not a genre, then lumps us all together anyway. As a survey of different approaches to writing about illness it's interesting, but I think it also runs the risk of judging books against standards they never aimed to meet. There's no reason to compare Mom's Cancer to Epileptic or Black Hole except they're all comics about sick people. I understand why that's a hook but I find it a very minor one. However, just for taking comics seriously and avoiding the "Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't Just for Kids!" headline, Chute has my respect and thanks.


John Shableski said...

Hey Brian, I just wanted to let you know that Mom's Cancer is one of my favorite books to use in my talks and presentations I do for librarians, teachers and retailers. It works really well on so many levels but what I find really interesting is that, for those who are true linear readers, Mom's Cancer is the gateway drug.
Maybe that's due to the nature of the orgins? Do web comics translate into better books for the linear readers? I dunno.

The other way it works for my presentations is that I usually hand it to that person who seems most resistant to the idea of reading a graphic novel. I give them a brief summary and also let them know, inspite of the title, that the book is a positive story that ends on a happy note.

With that, they find themselves pulled into the story.

Thank you, for creating such a great book. It has helped me open many, many doors.


John Shableski

Wallflower said...


This is a thoughtful posting that I want to share with my writing group, and my friend Linda who is a visual artist. Linda is a voracious reader who says she has difficulty with graphic novels because of the mixture of images and words. I think the concept of "images with bursts of words" approximating thought (and memory) will be interesting for her.

It is thought-provoking that illness, our own or a loved one's, seems to call up creativity. Charlotte Bronte wrote the first third of Jane Eyre while helping her father convalsce from eye surgery.

Brian Fies said...

John: Wow, thanks very much for the note. Your opinion and experience with potential readers (and buyers!) means a lot to me. Please don't hesitate to contact me if I can be of use on a panel or somesuch.

I don't know if Webcomics provide easier entry into GNs than other works; I've read some pretty impenetrable Webcomics! In my case, I made a deliberate decision to tell the story as clearly as possible in bite-sized bits and simple panel layouts. I wanted the art to be light, airy and inviting (against my first instinct to draw it gothic and scritchy-scratchy dark). I didn't want to make someone who'd never read a comic before "figure it out." If that worked, I'm very happy.

Wallflower, please feel free to share, I'm flattered that you'd want to. The complaint that people don't know how to read graphic novels is surprisingly common--surprising, that is, to someone who grew up immersed in the language of comics. But I think I get it. The eye doesn't know where to go, what to do first, how to take in information using different parts of the brain at the same time. I actually experienced that confusion once, looking at an X-Men comic in the '90s, when I had no idea what order the panels were in, the words seemed to have no relation to the pictures, and the art looked like random shapes that may or may not have been characters. I put it down in frustration after two pages. In that case, I blame the comic book. In fact, I really believe that if the writer/artist is doing his/her job, a graphic novel should be as easy to decode as a Garfield comic strip.

Interesting story about Bronte. I think serious illness heightens everything, often for the worse but sometimes for the better. Thanks again!