Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Evolution of a Page

Time has really gotten away from me. I can’t believe that my last entry was way back in June. Between now and then I’ve been to Chicago twice, taken a trip up the California coast to look at colleges with my high school senior son, and waded through armies of costumed fans at Comic-Con.

Oh, and I finished my book.

To recap, the book is called That Hidden Road, and it’s about my solo cross-country bicycle ride, which I made in the summer of 2010. It’s also about those parts of my life that made me think I needed to go on a long, long ride by myself.

I knew from the start that I wanted comics in the book, and I knew that I wanted to draw them myself. Problem was, my drawing skills were a little rusty and I’ve never made comics before.

As I drafted and revised the manuscript, I played around with some ideas for comics and eventually came up with three main types. Backin early December, I posted a few pages from one of these, which I called the “StuffI Saw” pages. Pretty simple idea—one page of six panels each in a more or less “realistic,” sketchbook-y style. The second group of comics I called the “Voices from the Road” pages. These would also be single-page comics, but have only four panels. The style would be a little more cartoonlike and focus on some people I met along the way who made brief but memorable impressions on me. I finished these over the summer. Finally, the third group of comics would be more sustained narrative; there’s a brief two-page story in the prologue called “Pre-Ride Jitters,” and there’s a longer (eight pages) story in the middle of the book called “Welcome to Springview Farm.”

This story covers the few days that I spent on a farm in Missouri—a farm that belongs to Jan and Bill Montgomery, who happen to be the mom and stepdad of my best friend. I didn’t want to fold that story into one of the other chapters; instead, I wanted it to stand on its own even though I couldn’t—at least early on in the writing—say why.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I decided to write a blog post that went into some detail about how part of this story came together, and I thought that the easiest way to do that would be to document the evolution of a single page from “Welcome to Springview Farm.” The page in question is the third of the story, and it covers part of the tour that Jan gave me of the farm and house.

In writing this and assembling the materials I used, I found it very helpful to me as a writer to step back and examine my creative process a little more closely. As I said before, despite my lifelong love of comics and the fact that I teach and write about them, I’ve never—until this book—tried to make comics myself, at least not in any organized way. So I thought I’d give a shout-out to several helpful sources along the way, including Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, Barrington Barber’s How to Draw Everything, Bruce Blitz’s The Big Book of Cartooning, the many Facebook postings by Ed Piskor of his work on Hip Hop Family Tree, several Youtube videos by Alison Bechdel about the construction of Fun Home, my friend and comics goddess Mary Fleener, and conversations with students much more talented than I am in this regard.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how the story came into being. I think I got the idea within the first hour or two I spent with Jan and Bill. They're incredible people who are also pretty wacky, and as Jan showed me around and told me stories, I realized that the written word alone couldn’t do justice to this bizarre and comic experience. I was going to have to tell the story through comics.

Coming to this realization was the easy part. In writing this book, I’ve found that the most challenging part of memoir comes in trying to shape and narrativize your experience. Fact is, there’s a lot of dead time in our lives, but story demands at least some kind of structure. To get there, we need to arrange, amplify, and discard the pieces of our experience and hope to hell that in doing so we arrive at a meaningful truth. With comics, one’s experience becomes even more fragmented—literally, by individual panels. Plus, the canvas is much smaller, and the words that make it in must be pared down yet still work effectively in conjunction with the corresponding image.

Because I’m a textual kind of guy, I started with a script, though that’s a little generous of a description. It was really more of a sketch with words—lines of dialogue loosely coupled with some ideas for images. The draft was long and rambling, and like most drafts, I ended up axing close to half of it. The section of the script that covers this particular page reads as follows:

Springview Farm is filled with strange and wonderful creatures…

Underfoot, the invisible barn cat
Goosey and Goofy (two llamas)
??? (pygmy goat)
A Watusi bull (image of me taking its picture while it’s trying to mount cow)

      Jan:  “Oh for the love of Mike, don’t show them that.”
      Me:  “Why not?  It’s nature!”
Jan:  “It’s Eskimo!”
Me:  “Huh?”
Jan.  “I don’t like the word ‘nasty,’ so I say ‘Eskimo’ instead.”

Inside the house is just as interesting…

Fisherman lightswitch
Stuffed owl that watched me.
Jan’s closets
      The Fairy Closet
      The Shower Closet
      The Memories Closet
            Closeup of Chuck and Dewey poster
Jan’s dolls

The events depicted on this particular page took place in late June of 2010, and I didn’t really start drafting this script until almost a year later (fortunately, I had my photographs and journal from the trip). Like most of the drafting I do, I didn’t pause too much to double-check details. For example, I couldn’t remember the name of Jan’s pygmy goat, so I let that go. I also didn’t know what kind of bull they had (just that it looked really strange), so I let that go and filled in “Watusi” later, after calling Jan. At that point, I knew that the goat wasn’t going to make it on the page, so I didn’t bother to find out its name (sorry, pal). As I wrote, I also knew that part of my brain was thinking in terms of comics. I had an idea about what to do with that bull, and I see in the writing that I had an idea for both the image and the word balloons.

The next step was to sketch the panel breakdowns. I  saw that there was way too much material here to fit coherently, so I had to narrow it down, to start shaping the experience into narrative. I wanted to make this part of the story unfold as a kind of a “walking tour,” but the big question was, What to keep? Two parts of this section jumped out at me: the Watusi bull and the dolls. For the moment, I put the dolls aside. I knew that I wanted the panel with the bull to be big—the width of the page. In part, that was out of necessity; there was too much image and dialogue to cram into a smaller panel. I figured the rest of the page would break down in a steady rhythm of three equal-sized panels per row. I laid out the panels as textboxes in Word, and they came out like this:

To accommodate this layout, I had to start this page with the bull scene, so I moved the the material in the script that comes before—the cat and the llamas—onto the previous page. That seemed to work well in terms of rhythm, where my introduction to the various animals would climax with the bull, and he’d be at the top his own page in a panel befitting his size and, uh, horniness.

Now, back to those dolls. Sifting through photos, journal entries, and memories, I recognized that the real “punch” of my tour of the farm was Jan’s collection of creepy dolls. Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m terrified of dolls; it all dates back to an episode of Night Gallery that you can read about here.

Because I wanted the “weight” of the page to come down on these dolls, I reserved the bottom row for them. With three panels left in the middle, I had to pick and choose from the remaining details. I knew I needed one of Jan’s closets in there (she has an interesting array of closets in the house), and I went with the converted shower closet, because it’s just so Jan. I also liked the light switch cover where the switch became the naked fisherman’s penis (again, very Jan). It seemed like it would be an interesting visual to pull off, so to speak. I also liked that it comes right after the bull trying to hump the cow. For the third image, I decided on the owl. I originally picked it because my plan was to make it the third image in the row so that two figures—a naked man and a bird—would “frame” the closet. Only later did I come up with a better use and reason for that owl. I did a very rough sketch of how I saw the panels:

The drawings are intentionally primitive; my purpose here was simply to get a very rough sense of what’s going to be on the page.

Now I had to decide on text and put the words into boxes and balloons. By visualizing the “containers” for the text, I’d get a better sense of how much space I had to work with and how to compose the panels. By sharpening the text into the exact language, I’d get a better sense of what exactly to draw. At this stage, I started to think more about that owl and what I was trying to do with the story as a whole. I said earlier that I didn’t want to fold my time at Springview Farm into a prose chapter and I wasn’t sure why. In actively mapping out the story, though, it came to me that it was about finding a substitute family on the road. In fact, “Welcome to Springview Farm” is split into two parts, and they bookend the very central chapter of That Hidden Road, when I drive to Chicago to see my real family. Thus, “Springview Farm” serves as a kind of counterpoint to that experience.

Anyway, back to that owl. The very end of the story is the day I leave the farm. It was raining when I left, and I wound up spending that night in a tiny Missouri town named Houston. I called Jan and Bill to let them know I made it to my next stop in one piece, and Jan confessed to me that they followed me for a few miles in their truck, just to make sure I was okay. As I was writing this part of the script, I wanted to convey that feeling of being watched over, and I remembered the owl, stuffed and staring at me in my room at the farm. Now, the thing about Jan is that she names everything, but I couldn’t remember if the owl had a name. Indulging a little bit in the “creative” part of “creative nonfiction,” I decided to name it “Mama Owl” and attribute it to Jan. I mention Mama Owl again on the last page of the story. At this point, I knew that I had to move Mama Owl to the middle of the page, which is the most important space in a comic. The panel breakdown with text inserted looked like this:

It’s worth noting here that once I typed the text on the page, more revision was needed. I had to shorten some lines, move some of the dialogue around, and play around with font sizes. The point here—and one that I stress to my writing students—is that revision is ongoing and the writing process is recursive; you take two steps forward and one step back almost constantly.

Once I was happy with the page, I printed it up, taped it to my drawing board with artist’s tape and the help of my t-square, boxed and ballooned all the text, and got ready to sketch my pencils. To help with this, I had two main tools at my disposal. First were the many, many photos I took at the farm. Here are some of the ones I used:


The second tool was my sketchbook. I’ve found that it’s been indispensible in testing out different visual ideas and to practice drawing different things. Here are a few of the sketches I made while penciling this particular page:

In the original sketch, I had Bill standing there, too, but the panel was getting a little crowded. Plus, the dialogue focused more on a back-and-forth between me and Jan, so I cut Bill out. But not to worry; Bill is very present in the rest of the story. And he knows I love him.

The next stage was actually biting the bullet and getting the pencils in the panels. I decided that I wanted to have some fun with the style, so I made the top panel more cartoony and the bottom six panels more realistic. I wanted to give those six panels more of a documentary feel to them—like a camera’s eye roving around the farm—so it made a certain sense to me that the art should reflect that. After the better part of a day filled with plenty of erasures, here’s what the page looked like with the text, boxes & balloons, and pencils:

The final stage was the inking. This is where pencil lines get sharpened and more depth is added through line weight and shading. I’m not yet completely confident with this very difficult skill, so I turned over inking duties to my talented buddy John. He threw my pencils on his lightbox, inked it up (without the text), and scanned it for me. I then opened it in Photoshop, retyped the text (and, yes, revised it some more), and performed some minor tweaks to the images. Here, then, is the final product:

All told, there are over thirty pages of comics in the manuscript of That Hidden Road, and I’ve developed a newfound respect for the work that comic book artists do. I knew intellectually that it was difficult work, but until I tried it myself, I had no idea how difficult.

But it’s also incredibly rewarding, like any kind of creative activity that allows you to “disappear” inside of the work. Entire afternoons would evaporate as I’d get my drawing supplies out, set my iTunes to “shuffle,” and get busy turning my life into story.

Well, if you've made it this far, I thank you. I'd love any feedback on what I have here or on your own process of writing, drawing, or both.

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