I have a ruling reputation online as being outgoing and wacky. An online friend was once shocked to find out that my voice is not, in fact, at ALL chipmunky, despite the fact that I can yammer and pun and load on the sarcasm for paragraphs in chatrooms. But for some reason, around accomplished comic book people I’m a complete dimwit. I regularly act like a lovesick teenager around Dicebox’s Jenn Manley Lee, lost my ability to speak fluent English when I met Neil Gaiman in Paris, and my full-on Idiot reaction to Bryan Talbot last year still draws a chuckle from my friend Bill. (I mean, look at my facial expression. And I’m not even that big a Talbot fan!)
And so my relationship with comics has felt terribly strange of late. It’s bizarre to realize how more and more involved I am in this tiny, weird, and sometimes marvelous community of artists whom North America looks at rather askance, if at all. (Ask me about comics in France sometime. No, actually, don’t. Your ass will start hurting around Hour Five or so.)I have a ruling reputation online as being outgoing and wacky. An online friend was once shocked to find out that my voice is not, in fact, at ALL chipmunky, despite the fact that I can yammer and pun and load on the sarcasm for paragraphs in chatrooms. But for some reason, around accomplished comic book people I’m a complete dimwit. I regularly act like a lovesick teenager around Dicebox’s Jenn Manley Lee, lost my ability to speak fluent English when I met Neil Gaiman in Paris, and my full-on Idiot reaction to Bryan Talbot last year still draws a chuckle from my friend Bill. (I mean, look at my facial expression. And I’m not even that big a Talbot fan!)
And so my relationship with comics has felt terribly strange of late. It’s bizarre to realize how more and more involved I am in this tiny, weird, and sometimes marvelous community of artists whom North America looks at rather askance, if at all. (Ask me about comics in France sometime. No, actually, don’t. Your ass will start hurting around Hour Five or so.)
Suddenly I’ve realized that I know people’s names, that Scott McCloud casually refers to my friend Erika Moen on his site, that my friend Vera Brosgol and I can, now that we’re both on girlamatic.com, refer to ourselves as "semi-pro cartoonists." (We still giggle a little, and we haven’t been paid yet, but BY GOD…)
Erika, one grade and a locker below me in high school, made a full-force comics-reader out of me: my last experience having been an obsession with MAUS in 5th grade (…I was precocious…) and the inevitable public-library-fueled Elfquest phase (ah, Skywise and his “lodestone”). Up until recently I vaguely assumed this was where it had all really started.
Then clearing out my room this week, I found myself digging through wads and wads of stuff I drew from 3rd to 8th grade. I was shocked at how many little comics were in there: one-page opuses, X-Men ripoffs (“T’lalet, you have powers…special powers…”), epic story teasers and all sorts of crazy stuff that indicate I’ve actually been a cartoonist since approximately 1985, and just sort of kept forgetting the fact.
How reassuring! This wasn’t random post-adolescent mutation! I’d had COMICS stamped on my forehead for years!
(…the thing about being stamped on the forehead is that you’re the one who can’t see it.)
And yet, along with this recently affirmed birthright come certain realizations:
Comics as a medium is intensely frustrating. They take an incredibly long time to do: the writer part of you blazes deliriously through a script (for a page or the whole piece), busy playing screenwriter and jumbling up mental images presto-presto.
Then reality hits home and you spend countless hours grinding out thumbnail, skeleton-pencil, full pencil, ink, text, shading/color, and then whatever production work is required for distribution. (In my case, scanning, cropping, Photoshopping, uploading, coding…)
TONS of effort, time during which you’re generally sitting in a room, alone, listening to a lot of David Bowie and telling yourself that it’s a sunny day and your youth is swift bleeding away and why the hell are you sitting in here again?
When you’re done (much later), you have a product that generally can be read within the space of an hour. If you keep on it for ten years or so, a reader can maybe string it out a whole weekend (as with Sandman or one of the encylopedic manga out there, but even they did it in teams!). It’s got massive reread value, sure, but the comics reading-time equivalent of War and Peace is still going to take a lifetime to create on your own.
And, if it’s really a quality, individual piece of work…well, the odds are it won’t sell. You’ve got something not as immersive or popular as film, not as immediately subtle (if that’s not an oxymoron…) as literature, not as respected as "fine art", with a reading audience of approximately one tenth of one percent of the population, many of whom keep comics in little plastic bags and argue about Batman vs. Spiderman a lot, with no sense of irony.
This is not to say, obviously, that a comic can’t throw you head over heels as a piece of art. Berlin, Sandman, Isaac le Pirate… these are some of the most important stories to me personally, and they simply couldn’t exist in another medium. Clearly you are looking at a Comics Enthusiast here, somebody who might very well go into the thing professionally, such as one can.
Still, at least in the States the vague aura of disappointment or confusion from certain people is hard to miss.
I was talking last summer to a well-known speculative fiction writer who happens to be a patient of my mom’s. She had been told that I was a writer and artist, and had a silly comic about vampires. She asked me if I was working on anything at the moment.
"Well, I’ve got a story," I replied. "It’s going to be a big sucker, and it’s a comic, so I don’t know if I’ll have the skills to actually produce it once I finish the script."
"Then turn it into a prose story!" she cheerfully retorted.
And, yeesh, in a way I wish I could: heaven knows that for me at least, it would be a lot easier. But some stories are just COMICS, and that’s the way things are, so please pass the Magic Rub eraser and let’s stop whining.
In a closer tidepool, a lot of people prefer to twist a comic into a sort of ultra low-budget film, or see it as a kind of glorified storyboard (some of Bruce Timm’s storyboards for the Batman shows make me want to weep in admiration).
My grudges against film are large and obvious. It’s impossible to have really independent, single-person vision with film, the industry’s rottenness makes comics look like a First Communion party, it’s expensive, everybody wants to do it…I hate how in our society, everything is waiting to be turned into a movie, as if it were the ultimate artform. Read something good? Odds are somebody’s optioned it.
And comics get infected with these kids. Okay, I say, do film AND comics—great! Show people that comics can translate into films more intelligent than Spiderman! Suck all the goodness from film’s marrow and exploit it in your comics! Make the next Ghostworld, the next Nausicaa, awesome, right on, all knowledge is good knowledge, cross-pollination and all that, but for god’s sake, don’t forget that comics can do things that film would KILL for.
So: Comics and film can get along splendidly, but as Jenn Manley Lee once told me, "comics are not a poor man’s movie." Sure, I probably would’ve loved to do film, but once again…"film doesn’t NEED me." She’s got all the cocaine-huffing LA kids and bright-glorious animation geeks she could ever hope for already.
Whereas there is a little voice that says:
COMICS needs you. It NEEDS you to spend hours in a little room slaving away. TRUST ME.
One of my primary reasons for not being captivated by math in high school—despite being an A- student—was the overwhelming knowledge that, well, math just didn’t CARE. It would go on arcing into eternity and expressing infinite, beautiful patterns of interweaving purity and significance if we all collectively stepped out into traffic.
But a woman sent me an e-mail a year ago saying that she’d been having one of the rottenest days of her life, then read the latest page of Bite Me: she cracked up, reread the archives, and decided she had to send me a letter. A guy recognized me at the Comic-con last year (this is THRILLING when you’re 18!), Neil Gaiman knew who I was, Lea Hernandez fixes my coding errors and calls me “dear”, Donna Barr gave me her phone number and the Penny Arcade guys crashed my site by linking to it.
This all is not the only good, personal feedback I’ve ever gotten on something: I’m one of those sick kids who does anything with “Creative” in the title, and could easily have spliced off into theater or jazz singing or fine art or full-time prose but:
I’m going to the Comic-con.
I’m on Girlamatic.com.
My best friends are almost overwhelmingly cartoonists.
I’m searching for illustration programs for after undergrad.
I’m rereading Reinventing Comics.
The only things I brought back from France: comics.
So I can get as frustrated I want over comics’ tendency to be fluffy and entirely escapist, over how much I hate shading Bite Me, over how completely flunked this industry is, over how painful American comic book stores are and how the paper-bound individual issue is backwards-minded and TPBs have to be the future, over what a self-centered jerk so and so is now that he’s syndicated, over crappy Photoshop-colored boobs and the troglodytes lurking in the collectibles aisle, but
Comics NEEDS me
I need COMICS.
…this is the point where normally I would make a disarming, sarcastic remark about "and now back to things that matter", or maybe something about what a huge dork I am.
But to hell with that.
Because I mean it.