A couple of years ago my good friend, the writer Sara Ryan, did the world a favor when she put together a blog post series called “How NOT to Write Comics.” (Post one, post two, post three.) It’s a useful collection of tips and anecdotes to help aspiring comic book writers, with most of the information drawn (haha) directly from comics artists who have suffered at the hands of inexperienced or incompetent writer-collaborators.
These posts were needed in part because comic books are still not a very dominant medium in the English-speaking world. Travel to France or Japan and you’ll witness a very different culture, where plenty of cartoonists rank in the creative elite, producing work that is both widely read and taken seriously by critics and scholars.
Yet many people in my part of the world still don’t really know how to read comics, much less create them. Sara’s posts provided a useful sort of “Goofus and Gallant” appendix to the ever-growing body literature on how to create compelling and readable graphic narratives.
However, one group wasn’t served by “How Not To Write Comics,” because this group is not interested in writing comics per se. They are interested in writing about comics – or their editors are forcing them to try. Because now that comics have infiltrated the mainstream book trade (and the reading lists of grownups) in the form of graphic novels, memoirs, and trade collections, an increasing number of critics are faced with the task of reviewing the damn things.
The results are, shall we say, mixed.
For every column inch of well-considered and well-informed discussion, there are fifteen yards of lazy, confused, condescending, clueless, unhelpful, and sometimes even frankly hostile copy.
Some of these critics are just jerks who resent that their editor has torn the galley copy of the latest Houellebecq novel out of their hands and replaced it with some stupid book with pictures in it. Pictures. Only Umberto Eco gets to use pictures!
I can’t help those people. I just feel bad for them, because they’re going to miss out on a lot of wonderful and important books.
This leaves all the critics who are just beginning their journey into comics reading, or who have yet to be entirely won over to the medium but want to keep an open mind (perhaps due to peer pressure: I remember a literati cocktail party where somebody near me anxiously muttered “I guess we’re all supposed to read graphic novels now.”) These brave souls are willing to give it a try, but they tend to make a lot of mistakes when they first start out.
Certain errors needlessly recur in comics criticism. Encountering one of them in a critical review or essay is an instant signal to an informed comics reader that the writer doesn’t know what they’re talking about. There might still be some excellent insights on display, but those insights are diminished by sharing the page with outright errors.
Don’t get me wrong: there is plenty of room for interesting-but-still-arguable observations from outsiders, and even room for points best described as obviously-not-true-if-you-know-your-stuff–but-shows-genuine-effort. I don’t want to discourage original thought. But the sorts of mistakes I’m after in this post are not near-misses born from attempts to take on something new. They’re just unprofessional blunders.
Luckily, these mistakes are easily avoided with a little attention. This post is intended to help you, the critic, identify those mistakes in advance so they never hit the page. So, without further ado…I present to you my own personal….
This is the second of two new pages in two weeks. It’s good to be back!
I spent most of my summer putting together the three new books I’ll be selling this fall – all in different sizes, bindings, and colors. I did virtually all of the print design and set-up myself – an arduous though always educational task, composed of 10% fun design choices, 85% eyeball-nuking detail work and frantic technical fixes, and 5% waiting for InDesign to finish saving.
My proofs arrived from the printer this week (and they look amazing), so there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but all that work did cut into my usual creative time-budget and gave me a sore arm for a few weeks.
Nonetheless I managed to have a bit of fun on the side! Here’s a sampler of some of the pieces that I snuck onto my drawing table this summer. (Did I also mention that I got to play a Vulcan in a stage production of a Star Trek episode? No? That happened, too.)
Lotsa foxes! Drawn for the Hero Initiative charity auction.
For the Portland Mercury, one of three different proposed social media apps that I think we could all actually use. I interviewed a performance artist whose work focuses on the internet, and accompanied it with some graphics of my own invention. I’ve also gotten to write a few straight-up theater reviews, which has been hugely fun.
For Jon Morris’ super-fun Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe : REDUXE project! In which artists re-draw and re-design entries from the old Marvel encyclopedia. I’ve always had a soft spot for Rogue (of the X-Men); I turned her into a bit of a surly gutter punk, which is always my mental image of her. It was fun to do very simple flat colors under a fairly realistic drawing style, a combination I don’t often try.
I have more saved up, but I’ll give myself a few weeks to reacquaint myself with the drafting table before I unleash it all. I hope my fellow Northern hemisphere dwellers had a lovely summer!
Just a little transition page! Good timing for me to have a simpler page this week, since I am pretty dang tired out from all the last-minute excitement of the Kickstarter project. It was a huge success – 808 backers for a total of $36444 (over 240% of the original $15000 I asked for).
I’m loopy with gratitude. It will take a good long while for those funds to translate from operating funds into any serious income, but being able to publish three books without major financial risk is quite a gift for a small businessperson like yours truly. And I’m excited for what it means for volume two of Family Man.
I’m grateful to Kickstarter for providing a clever, fun and intuitive platform. While I don’t think it’s the perfect system for every project, this has been a great experience for me and a wonderful way to play with longtime readers and attract some new ones, as well. And now I’m very much enjoying the newfound peace and quiet of my post-project inbox, and taking great pleasure in all the fiddly art and pre-press work that I have left before it turns into a whole bunch of books.
All the progress I make on that front will be restricted to backers of the project from here until I start getting physical proofs, but before the project finished I did post a single rough version of the first page from the new Bite Me! short story that will be appearing in the anniversary-edition (PDF and print). Posted below for your perusal and enjoyment!
It’s been desperately fun to revisit these characters, and the process of putting the grey washes down digitally – while figuring out how to retain the very hand-done character of the original – delights me.
A number of people have written to me expressing dismay that they didn’t come across the project until after it had closed. Don’t worry! I’ll be selling copies of the books produced for quite some time, and they’ll go on sale to the general public towards the end of October; the extras (prints, patches, bookplates etc) are the only things exclusive to project backers. I’ll let you all know when the new books are available for purchase!
I’ll see you all next week – when we find out what Ariana is waking up to…