Form Is Function by John Barber
Collaboration of One?
The Comics medium is often a collaborative medium. This is particularly true in "mainstream" American and European comics, but a lot of independent or alternative comics are also produced in a collaborative setting.
I've been writing the last couple of these columns about comics scriptwriting, with the implication that I'm talking about comics created by several hands. I've been referring to the writer and the artist as though these are two separate entities, but the things I've been writing about hold true (in as much as they hold true at all) for a single creator, as well.
A single creator's comics are formed in as many different ways as there are creators. The language of the transference of idea-in-head to lines-on-page is as individual and idiosyncratic as the creator. When you introduce a collaborator, you're communicating your ideas to someone else, so you (necessarily) have to use a language you both understand.
This doesn't mean the resulting comics will (necessarily) be less idiosyncratic or individual â€“ just that the process has to be standardized to some degree.
I personally find this incredibly useful. In the past, my "scripts" to myself have tended to be scribbles on paper that only I can understand, while scripts I've written for others â€“ and scripts others have written for me â€“ have been (necessarily) more coherent and understandable.
In having to make ideas more understandable to others, you yourself have to fully understand the ideas from the outset. It's easy to scrawl something in a notebook and decide it's perfect in its raw, spontaneous glory. It's harder to take that scrawl and explain what about it works â€“ and when you introduce someone else into the mix, youâ€™re forced to do just that.
Nothing is better at demonstrating whether your comic is brilliant or wretched than trying to explain the thing to someone. I don't mean (necessarily) a Hollywood-style high concept â€“ what I mean is, if you're trying to tell a story, having to actually tell the story to someone will help you realize the parts you need but donâ€™t have, and the parts you have but don't need.
Is it possible to do this by yourself, all in your head? Just look at your own scribbles and figure it all out? Sure. Probably. But if you keep it that personal, then you may be missing a lot that you can't see on account of it being so "close".
As an example, let's say you're teaching a creative writing class, and you want to help the students improve the quality of their writing, on a technical level. You want to help the students be able to communicate their ideas and intentions more clearly and with greater control.
The worst thing you can do is ask all the students to write journals to be critiqued, because then you're not just criticizing the writing (even if thatâ€™s all you're trying to do), you're also criticizing the subject matter â€“ you're critiquing the student's life, even if you don't mean to.
The subject matter of a personal journal is too close to the student. The student will naturally build up defenses for every critique you throw, because the work has such a personal meaning to the student.
The same thing holds true for comics, whether they are autobiographical or not. When you spend as much time with an idea as you do when you're creating comics, you build a bond with the work that makes getting some distance â€“seeing it with a sense of perspective â€“ difficult at best.
It helps the work greatly to use tools to help distance you from your work... which brings us back to collaboration.
One of the things I've always enjoyed about collaborating is that I could actually enjoy the results, which I really can't with my solo work (there I always see what went wrong, after the fact). Part of the reason â€“ besides working with talented collaborators â€“ is that sense of distance.
If you work on something you don't have an emotional bond with, you tend to concentrate on the mechanics of storytelling (and imagemaking). You learn tools that you can apply to works that you do have that bond with.
The obvious problem is that none of us would be making comics if we didn't have an emotional bond with them. Divorcing ourselves from that bond removes the only reason we enjoy what we do. It also creates â€“ in a literal sense â€“ hackwork.
So we have to resort to a tricky balancing act â€“ figuring a way to use the tools of being emotionally divorced from our work while maintaining a real bond to it.
So that script of mine that's all indecipherable scribbles in a notebook? I'm realizing that's not cutting it for me. That's holding me back. It's holding me back because I'm not tearing every one of those scribbles apart, seeing what makes it tick, and putting it back together, in a better way. Or just throwing it away. Whatever's best.
Forcing oneself to use the tools creating emotional distance â€“ of developing the scribbles in a notebook into a script and really looking at the script and thinking about what works, of writing outlines â€“ really writing them out and going over them and cutting scenes and characters and adding new ones when you have to â€“ these are tools that can help the work that we care so much about grow to new levels of quality.
And if we really have an emotional attachment to our comics, we owe them no less.
John Barber is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia.