By Laura Jones
What recent comic makes you tick?
I hate plugging something I’m involved with, but I just can’t resist. Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose is an anthology I co-edited with my wife, Sari Wilson. As the title implies, the book is a mixture of comics and prose, flash fiction stories bouncing off each other. The book works in “triptychs”: say, there's a prose piece written by somebody, then a cartoonist reads that story and creates a comic utilizing some element from the original. Then a prose writer takes some element from the comics story and writes a piece based on that. Jedediah Berry wrote a story for Flashed called “The Chambers” that's a response to “The Hole,” a comic by Gabrielle Bell, and those two pieces might be my favorite ones in the whole book. The way their pieces work off of each other is just really cool. Flashed will be out in February for people to check out on their own…
Have the concerns of journalistic ethics changed how you work?
I approach my comics projects by asking what constraints of the form limit what I can do, yet also provide the area in which I can be creative. It allows me to not be intimidated by all the possibilities of creative expression, but just to limit myself to what's possible within the form and my own talents. Adding the ethical questions of journalism — interviews, sourcing, verification, etc. — gets folded into the same process, and I find it really invigorating. I play around with voice, tone, point of view, and use techniques of fiction to come at a story in an unexpected way. These constraints don’t feel like something that limits me, but rather just serve to focus my creativity.
How attuned should aspiring comics writers be to publishing trends?
Back in 2009 there was a real explosion of interesting online comics, as well as a lot of discussion about making comics suitable for people to read on their phones. There was a lot of talk about “motion comics”: integrating comics and animation. Some of these things appear to have been trends that have dissipated. There's now a large population of people who read comics on larger mobile devices like iPads and e-readers, but to me those platforms are essentially replicating the experience of reading a traditional book or magazine.
Scott McCloud has talked about the “infinite canvas,” where you can have panels on a limitless scroll, or branching narratives that could go any direction — but in my experience there hasn't been a real movement away from the traditional comic format. You read stuff on sites that feature webcomics, and they may have a bells-and-whistles element, where, say, a background stays static while the rest of the comic scrolls by, but I think publishers have realized you shouldn’t distract people too much from the primary experience of reading comics — which in itself requires a fair amount of active imagination and inference. When I structure a story I still think of it in this traditional sense of panels and pages, where you guide the reader's eyes, leading them through the narrative. If I’m working on an online project that may incorporate some of those extra bells and whistles, I think about those elements in the later stages of production. I guess I’m old-fashioned that way.
How does your creative process differ from someone who doesn't draw?
Any good comics writer needs to think a lot about what images are going to be in their comic, and if you're not doing that, you probably shouldn't be working in comics!
As a cartoonist, I have a very segmented process. I write a story like I'm writing it for someone else, describing in exacting detail what’s in each panel. I'm very specific about the content of the captions and word balloons. Then I “hand it over” to myself to draw. When I'm actually laying out the story and thumbnailing it, I often find better image solutions than I had imagined when I was writing it, because when you see it taking shape on the page you figure out better choices, but essentially I create my work in this very segmented fashion. Other cartoonists create their work much more organically, writing and drawing their stories simultaneously in the thumbnail stage. Personally, I've never been able to craft a story that way. I’ve found that one of the most important elements to becoming a confident cartoonist is determining what process works best for you.
Will your mentoring of nonfiction versus fiction writers differ?
As a mentor, I try really hard not to apply my own aesthetics or interests on my students. To me, the skills involved in crafting any type of traditional narrative, fiction or nonfiction, are similar — it's just whether the events of the story actually happened or not that differs. As a nonfiction cartoonist, I'm interested in a lot of the same things fiction writers are: establishing what’s at stake, dramatic conflict, strong characters, resolving emotional issues, immersing readers in the experience.
Describe the responsibilities in a mentor relationship.
It's important for writers (and cartoonists!) to know what they're going for and to be able to talk about it in a non-precious way — something I think is often hard for young writers: admitting that what they're doing isn't magic, just very hard work, and thinking carefully about what they're trying to do, and whether they're doing it effectively or not. I think I can be pushy in that regard. From the student side of things, I don't think they're under any obligation to take my suggestions, or to accept all of my corrections, but they should be open to interrogating themselves about whether they’ve thought through some of their choices enough, and then deciding how important it is to hold onto how they originally were going to do it versus considering alternative solutions. Pushback is always part of the process, and it's healthy.
Where do you draw the line on experimental project proposals?
It gets back to this idea of the creator being able to communicate their goal in a way that somebody else can understand, even if their ultimate product will be extremely untraditional or non-narrative or experimental. If the author can describe their proposed project, and what he or she hopes the reader will get out of the experience, in language that's understandable, I'd say go for it. If I started to feel like something was way out of my experience of being able to assess, I'd gladly bring in other Solstice faculty to get their perspective. I applaud ambition —
it's hard for me to imagine rejecting a proposal unless it seemed like it wasn't thought carefully all the way through.
How do you facilitate workshops?
I like starting with the basic comic vocabulary, so we're all talking about the same things: panels, captions, word balloons, sound effects, splash pages, establishing shots, etc. When I do longer workshops I structure them so there's a mix of activities: collaborative experiments to get the juices flowing, specific lessons on whatever we're focusing on that day, whether craft, or storytelling, or character development. Time for group critiques. And of course time for people working on their own projects with me helping them as issues arise. It's a pretty standard mixture of your typical creative writing workshop with a standard visual arts type of studio workshop — which, it being comics, is only appropriate!