Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Those Alluring Comics Storytellers

Comics ConfidentialWhen I began work­ing as, and think­ing of myself as, a graph­ic design­er, I assumed that all of my ideas would have to spring out of my mind … and that was ter­ri­fy­ing. (Think of the oft-asked ques­tion, “Where do your ideas come from?”) I didn’t think I was cre­ative enough or wide­ly trav­eled enough or even edu­cat­ed enough as a graph­ic design­er to come up with ideas that would trans­late into smart, pleas­ing designs on paper or a com­put­er screen.

Then I talked and worked with oth­er graph­ic design­ers. I learned that they had fold­ers full of “ref­er­ence mate­r­i­al,” designs they admired, cut out of mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers, along with pho­tos they’d tak­en and words type­set in inno­v­a­tive ways. And that sound­ed liked cheat­ing to me. Were they just copy­ing oth­er people’s designs?

I began col­lect­ing my own ref­er­ence mate­ri­als (books, mag­a­zine pages, type, col­or swatch­es) and orga­niz­ing them into fold­ers and note­books.

As I became more expe­ri­enced, I under­stood that look­ing at ref­er­ence mate­ri­als was not copy­ing because some­where dur­ing the cre­ative process my brain added its own con­cepts and my design sel­dom looked any­thing like the ref­er­ences I had used for a project.

So many young peo­ple are inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing their own comics and graph­ic nov­els. They have sto­ries to tell and they want to do it in a visu­al way. There’s a learn­ing curve. They’ve prob­a­bly read enough “ref­er­ence mate­ri­als” when they begin, enough that they intu­itive­ly under­stand sequence, the gaps in time and sto­ry, and the con­ven­tions of dia­logue bub­bles and frames. They may begin by copy­ing their favorites, but what they’ve read informs their sto­ry­telling and what they cre­ate will be entire­ly their own.

Leonard Marcus

Leonard S. Mar­cus

How refresh­ing to have Leonard Mar­cus’ book of inter­views, Comics Con­fi­den­tial: Thir­teen Graph­ic Nov­el­ists Talk Sto­ry, Craft, and Life Out­side the Box (Can­dlewick Press). It’s a ref­er­ence mate­r­i­al of a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent type, invalu­able real­ly, because it shares how these thir­teen much-admired artists tell their own sto­ries. We get a peek into their lives, their expe­ri­ences, their notions of art and the work they’ve done before they achieved their much-admired sta­tus.

Every inter­view, whether I know the work of the artist or not, held me riv­et­ed to their sto­ry, their expe­ri­ences, their gain­ing of knowl­edge. I loved read­ing that many of them worked with a group of like-mind­ed comics artists, learn­ing and devel­op­ing togeth­er. These inter­views instill con­fi­dence and sure­foot­ed­ness. As a young and bud­ding sto­ry­teller, I know that tid­bits from these biogra­phies would change how I work and how I think about my images and scripts.

For instance, Dan­i­ca Nov­gorod­off shares that, for The Under­tak­ing of Lily Chen, “I would envi­sion each scene as a scene in a film. Some­times I would have to stop myself and real­ize, ‘This is not going to work in a draw­ing. I am going to have to write it dif­fer­ent­ly.’ I wrote a scene, for instance, with an emp­ty gray stone city in which mist was ris­ing through the streets. I thought, ‘You can’t actu­al­ly make mist rise in a draw­ing, can you?’ I tried it and it didn’t work out near­ly as well as it had in my mind! It would have looked beau­ti­ful in a film.”

What you see clear­ly in your mind fre­quent­ly doesn’t trans­late well into your draw­ing or screen. You have to do a lot of eras­ing. Much as the con­cept of revi­sion is taught by edu­ca­tors in thou­sands of class­rooms, this idea of work­ing on the frames in a com­ic book page until they are telling the best sto­ry pos­si­ble, both in words and pic­tures, can be enor­mous­ly free­ing and encour­ag­ing.

Comics Confidential, Danica Novgorodoff

Dan­i­ca Nov­gorod­off, “Turf,” Comics Con­fi­den­tial, inter­views by Leonard Mar­cus (Can­dlewick Press)

In this book, each inter­view sub­ject cre­at­ed an orig­i­nal two-page sto­ry. Both the fin­ished com­ic and an orig­i­nal sketch are shared. Mar­cus tells us in the cap­tion for the “Turf” sketch that Nov­gorod­off “not only spec­i­fied more back­ground detail but also moved more action to the fore­ground and turned more of her char­ac­ters to face us.” That’s essen­tial infor­ma­tion!

Comics Confidential James Sturm

James Sturm, self-por­trait, from Comics Con­fi­den­tial, inter­views by Leonard Mar­cus (Can­dlewick Press)

The com­ic artists telling many of our favorite graph­ic sto­ries are inter­viewed for this book:

  • Kazu Kibuishi, who keeps his fans breath­less with antic­i­pa­tion for the next vol­ume in the Amulet series.
  • Hope Lar­son, astound­ing sto­ry reteller of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrin­kle in Time.
  • Matt Phe­lan, who has graced us with excep­tion­al sto­ry­telling and art in books like Bluffton and The Storm in the Barn.
  • James Sturm, the bril­liant sto­ry­teller and instruc­tor behind the Adven­tures in Car­toon­ing series.
  • Sara Varon, well-loved for Odd Duck and Pres­i­dent Squid and Robot Dreams.
  • Gene Luen Yang, whose Avatar, Shad­ow Hero, and Secret Coder series all show the bril­liance for which he was award­ed a MacArthur Genius Grant.

These are just a few of the mighty tal­ents inter­viewed for Comics Con­fi­den­tial. Mar­cus, who is a mas­ter at ask­ing ques­tions that bring forth the infor­ma­tion Every Read­er wants to know, has cre­at­ed a book for­mat­ted beau­ti­ful­ly, brim­ming with ele­ments that read­ers will pore over, with a help­ful bib­li­og­ra­phy in the back mat­ter.

If you’re an edu­ca­tor, this book will open your eyes to the skill and imag­i­na­tion and well­springs of cre­ativ­i­ty from which our very best graph­ic nov­el­ists for young read­ers draw (tired pun, but apt). You’ll under­stand and appre­ci­ate graph­ic nov­els and com­ic books in a way you haven’t done before read­ing these inter­views.

Your youngest bud­ding artists may have a hard time read­ing the book if their read­ing lev­el doesn’t match the book’s vocab­u­lary but Comics Con­fi­den­tial is also a pow­er­ful incen­tive to per­se­vere so you can learn from the mas­ters.

If you have a small group of inter­est­ed comics cre­ators in your room, read­ing the inter­views out loud and dis­cussing them, par­tic­u­lar­ly with some of that artist’s books at hand to review, would inform those stu­dents … and make you look awful­ly smart.

Donald Duck Officer for a DayI have loved comics since I read my first Don­ald Duck com­ic book in the first decade of my life. I quick­ly became enam­ored of super­hero comics. I wasn’t allowed to buy them but thank­ful­ly my cousins were. I often spied one under a cof­fee table and took myself sur­rep­ti­tious­ly into a qui­et room to read it before we went home. As an adult, I con­tin­ue to love the visu­al nature of the sto­ries and the dif­fer­ent, inven­tive ways in which sto­ries are told by comics artists. Comics Con­fi­den­tial is a dream-come-true, allow­ing me to “meet” the visu­al sto­ry­tellers I admire great­ly. I con­sid­er this book an essen­tial pur­chase for every library and class­room.

2 Responses to Those Alluring Comics Storytellers

  1. Heidi Hammond September 30, 2016 at 10:49 am #

    Thanks for this arti­cle, Vic­ki. I have just about every book Leonard Mar­cus has writ­ten. I will be adding this to my shelves.

    • Vicki Palmquist September 30, 2016 at 12:53 pm #

      It’s already spurred me on to sev­er­al projects, Hei­di. I know you’ll enjoy it.

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