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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.

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Stephanie Roth Sisson

Stephanie Roth SissonThe first Princess Posey book was pub­lished in 2010. How long before that were you asked to illus­trate the book? And were the plans to have it be a sin­gle book at that time or were there already inten­tions to pub­lish more than one book about Posey?

Susan Kochan and Cecil­ia Yung at Pen­guin con­tact­ed me in Novem­ber of 2008 about the Princess Posey series. If I am remem­ber­ing this right, there were two books planned ini­tial­ly. The first book was well received, so I think that’s what expand­ed the series out.

Know­ing how impor­tant it is to have char­ac­ters in books look the same no mat­ter how they are stand­ing or sit­ting or mov­ing, how did you begin to cre­ate Posey’s look?

Princess Poeey and the Tiny TreasureStephanie Greene’s text cre­at­ed Princess Posey through her approach­able and clever text. After read­ing the first man­u­script, I thought that this is a real and relat­able kid- some­one we all know. As an aside, I loved that Posey’s fam­i­ly sit­u­a­tion is not explained. We don’t know why her father isn’t in the pic­ture. This isn’t a divorce book or a book about why dad isn’t there—her world is not about the absence of some­one. Posey has her fam­i­ly, her neigh­bors, friends, and a teacher who are lov­ing and nur­tur­ing and that’s enough.  

What type of draw­ing mate­ri­als and papers do you use when you’re illus­trat­ing the Posey sto­ries?

The Princess Posey illus­tra­tions are done tra­di­tion­al­ly with water­col­ors and paper. I do a lit­tle clean­ing up dig­i­tal­ly, but 90% or bet­ter is tra­di­tion­al media.

What do you think of dif­fer­ent­ly when cre­at­ing the black-and-white draw­ings and spot illus­tra­tions for Posey as opposed to cre­at­ing the illus­tra­tions for your newest book: Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mys­ter­ies of the Cos­mos?

Star StuffWhen I was work­ing on the illus­tra­tions for Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mys­ter­ies of the Cos­mos, I was prepar­ing for a life out­side of the U.S. on this lit­tle island called Mau­ri­tius. On Mau­ri­tius the air is humid (paper buck­les and molds) and qual­i­ty art mate­ri­als are dif­fi­cult to find,  plus ship­ping orig­i­nal art­work is an act of faith in an incred­i­bly unre­li­able ser­vice at best. I can’t even count on a let­ter mailed with­in Mau­ri­tius with clear­ly print­ed address­es to make it to its des­ti­na­tion. For Star Stuff, I used most­ly dig­i­tal media work­ing on a Wacom™ tablet with some scanned art—mostly for back­grounds. I need­ed to teach myself a method that I could use that could be uploaded to an FTP serv­er. I uploaded the book short­ly before we moved to Mau­ri­tius and it worked!

Do you keep a file of images, either on paper or dig­i­tal­ly, that helps you with ideas?

Yes, I have files for all of my books. I am also a big fan of Pin­ter­est. When­ev­er I find images that I think I can use I col­lect them. This is a great way to cre­ate a book.

Posey has three friends, a teacher, Miss Lee, and her moth­er and grand­fa­ther as main char­ac­ters. Do you orga­nize your infor­ma­tion about each of them in a par­tic­u­lar way? What form does those records take?

Princess PoseyI keep a file with images of Posey’s world. It con­tains maps of her neigh­bor­hood, draw­ings of her house, a floor­plan of her house and draw­ings of each room. I do a bit of the same for the oth­er char­ac­ters, not­ing what sort of cloth­ing they wear. For exam­ple, Nik­ki wears a lot of tunics and wears a head­band, Posey likes her bling.  I have scans of the char­ac­ters in var­i­ous posi­tions and have a “line up” draw­ing with their heights rel­a­tive to one anoth­er.

Do you feel that you know Posey and her world quite well now? Does it feel like a real place to you?

Yes, def­i­nite­ly. Her world sits as a com­plete place in my mind.

On your web­site, you wrote that Tomie dePao­la was the first illus­tra­tor who made you real­ize that you could have a job writ­ing and illus­trat­ing children’s books. What kind of train­ing did you go through to make you con­fi­dent in your work?

Tomie dePaolaYes, I was lucky to have met Tomie dePao­la when I was in ele­men­tary school. I haven’t received any for­mal art train­ing. My col­lec­tion of books for chil­dren grows by the year and includes most of my favorites from child­hood. I study those books. I love every­thing about them from the feel of the paper,  how the sto­ry is laid out, the the­ater of this thing we call a book. I began draw­ing (like most of us) as soon as I could hold a pen­cil, I’ve just nev­er stopped.

What books would you rec­om­mend to bud­ding illus­tra­tors?

Show Me a StoryStudy the books you love  and ask your­self why you like them. Study how the sto­ry unfolds, how we meet the char­ac­ters in the book, and what we can tell about the char­ac­ters from the pic­tures. I’ve noticed that many suc­cess­ful illus­tra­tors come from a film back­ground. Watch movies and see what kind of light­ing is used to set a mood, how scenes are framed and how things are paced to height­en the emo­tion of the sto­ry. As a sto­ry­teller, my num­ber one focus is always the emo­tion­al con­nec­tion between the read­er and the char­ac­ters and the sto­ry. As far as books go, there are so many! Leonard Mar­cus has writ­ten some gems about chil­drens’ lit­er­a­ture, I love read­ing biogra­phies of illus­tra­tors and writ­ers for inspi­ra­tion, too. My first stop though in this process of becom­ing a cre­ator of con­tent for chil­dren is the SCBWI (Soci­ety of Chil­dren’s Book Writ­ers and Illus­tra­tors).    

Stephanie, it has been a joy to come to know Posey through the visu­als you cre­ate. Many of them show ten­der­ness, humor, and joy … all of which young read­ers appre­ci­ate. Thank you for shar­ing your tal­ents with us.

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Show, Don’t Tell

I am fre­quent­ly remind­ed in our Chap­ter & Verse meet­ings that peo­ple read a book, look at the illus­tra­tions, but may not con­sid­er the illus­tra­tions. Study them. Won­der about them. Unless an illus­tra­tor sits at your elbow as you turn the page of a pic­ture book or illus­trat­ed book, explain­ing the moti­va­tion and tech­nique behind […]

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A Writing Tip

In Leonard Mar­cus’ inter­view with author Bev­er­ly Cleary, which you’ll find while read­ing one of this mon­th’s Chap­ter & Verse Book Club selec­tions, Fun­ny Busi­ness: Con­ver­sa­tions with Writ­ers of Com­e­dy, she pass­es along a won­der­ful tip for prompt­ing kids (and oth­ers) to write. Q: In the Ramona books, Beezus wor­ries about not hav­ing enough imag­i­na­tion. […]

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