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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Leonard Marcus

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.


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.


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 […]


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. […]