COMICS AND CIVILIANS: AN UP-CLOSE STUDY
Last week I spend three days teaching comic book workshops as part of the Norman Rockwell Museum’s week-long “Got Ink?” programming for teens. Andrew Wales, my colleague in comics and teaching – though he hails from far away Pennsylvania and made the trip just to teach at the Rockwell for a couple of days – taught the first two days of the course, and since most of the kids signed up for the entire week, he gave them a strong foundation on how-to-draw comic books, from concept to thumbnails to finished art.
The group even created a bacon-themed anthology mini-comic at the end of their two days with Professor Wales, because, well, it’s bacon. And it was a popular discussion point all week.
Of course, the first thing I did when I got there on Wednesday was to have the students draw one of their “favorite things (no bacon).” I’m mean that way. But I also didn’t want eight drawings of bacon, which totally would have happened if I didn’t put the bacon veto in effect.
Why am I telling you all of this?
Two reasons: (1) I want to share some of the content of the workshops with you. Not so much what the students produced, but what I prepared for them, and how I walked them through the aesthetics of comic books. My take was different from Andrew’s. I didn’t have them get to the self-publishing stage (and they’d already done that with him anyway), but I wanted them to dig deep into the essence of comics, and I think the way I approach the essence of comics might be instructional for you too. Maybe as a way to think about comics or just a way to see how I think about comics. And (2) I thought the students’ reactions to comic books was interesting, from a what-do-civilians-think-about-comic-books perspective. With all this shift to digital delivery and a more concentrated effort to expand readership of comics, companies are making a lot of assumptions that, based on the admittedly small sample or workshop participants, may not be an accurate reflection of the attitudes of potential readers.
First things first, the aesthetics of comics!
I began this workshop as I begin many of my comic book workshops, with students jumping right in and drawing a comics page. I’ve mentioned this in “When Words Collide” before, I think, but the best way I’ve seen to get students (of any age, and I’ve done this with ages 8 to 58) to think about the choices a comic book creator makes when it comes to drawing a page is to have them actually draw one, even if the students don’t think they have any artistic talent. By the way, you might expect that students who sign up for workshops on writing and drawing comic books would have some desire to actually draw comics, but that isn’t always the case. This Rockwell group was very interested in comic books, though, even if they all weren’t equally interested in developing their own drawing styles.
But nevertheless, getting them to draw that one page – and I have them draw a page based on a simplified script that Matt Madden uses as the basis for his “99 Ways to Tell a Story” – allows them to see how each artist in the room has their own unique approach to telling the same basic story. And then when we look at the Madden examples (just a few, to show different possible approaches), and discuss what works and what doesn’t and what effect is achieved by each approach, you can literally see a light bulb go off over their heads. Okay, maybe not literally. But I see light bulbs, cartoon style, popping up in the air, a Chuck Jones drawing embedded in a cloud floating above them.
Looking at the student work and the Madden pages brings up topics about panel size and shape, point of view, layouts, figure drawing, use of back ground details, and just so many fundamental aspects of comics that they have never thought about before. It’s about creating the kind of intelligent reader who truly understands comics, whether or not they end up making their own in the future. When it works, and it usually does, and quickly, the students become more vocal critics of the comic books we look at in the rest of the session. They begin to see which techniques work better than others, and why. And maybe that’s breeding a crop of comic book critics instead of comic book creators, but I’d like to think that it’s all part of the same discussion.
And I’d rather have new readers become interested in comics because the comics are actually good, rather than have them become interested just because comics are available.
I usually follow up the Madden exercise and discussion with a look at some classic Will Eisner pages from “The Spirit,” because Eisner is such a vivid example of the use of multiple styles to tell a single story. He establishes so many rules for making good comics in those “Spirit” strips – long before he ever wrote his how-to books – and he breaks the rules just as effectively. Eisner’s visually symbolic use of storytelling devices (the recursive images, the strong sense of place, the physicality of the Spirit himself, the use of word ballon and sound effect placement, and more) make him a great subject for aesthetic analysis, and even young students can talk about what they see and what he seems to be doing with the panels and pages and how it shapes the way they interpret the story. Eisner is still a masterful teacher of the comic book artform even though he’s no longer with us.
That’s the high concept and deep analysis that we got into last week in the workshop, and the students seemed energized by the discussion, and by looking closely at the way different images, placed in different sequences, can really affect the meaning of a story. After that, we spent the afternoon workshopping some original comics the students had been working on, or wanted to start working on, and I challenged them to employ some of the specific techniques we had seen in the Madden and Eisner examples.
Day two of my part of the workshop was all about story and structure, and I knew it could get a bit heady and abstract and maybe even dull, so I spiced it up with a trivia challenge and a close look at the work of Skottie Young. Skottie ended up getting the “Artist Spotlight” treatment because I wanted to show the students his distinctive use of shapes in character design and panel composition, and how much his style had changed since its early days, while still remaining visibly similar. It was about decoding what had changed and what the effect of those changes on the story were all about, and trying to figure out what didn’t change about his style. As a warm-up, the students quickly created thumbnail copies of some of Young’s pages from “Spider-Man: Legend of the Spider-Clan” and “The Marvelous Land of Oz,” so they could internalize some of the visual problem solving that Young applied to the page years ago, and more recently.
But the other reason that Skottie Young received the spotlight in the workshop was because he recently started posting video journals about the making of his graphic novel. I played the first video journal to the students so they could see and hear a comic book creator talk about the story process. And what’s great about Young’s first video journal, is that he discusses all the various approaches to writing a comic book (from using index cards for scenes to scripting to doing thumbnails with dialogue notes) and he describes why some techniques work better for him than others. It was a way to show the students what a creator went through as part of the creative process, and the video clip acted as a springboard for discussions about why some writing approaches – and approaches to story structure and dialogue – might work better for some students, or some projects, than others.
I was really impressed when we got into story structure and plotting and two of the younger students knew about Freytag’s Pyamid – well, everyone knew about it, but these students knew what it was called. So we spent time talking about conflict and climax and resolution and all of that stuff that makes up the essence of any story. And one of our conversations revolved around internal vs. external conflict, and how comic books, with their visual nature, rely so much on the external conflict. The internal conflict can be part of a story, and it certainly helps to raise the stakes when there’s doubt and fear and emotional turmoil involved, but the storytelling engines of comics tend to rely on external conflict. And the external conflict in comics often symbolizes something thematically. That’s how superheroes operate, in particular, when they’re done well.
So we wrote and drew, wrote and drew – comics with external conflicts of various lengths – and that superhero discussion, though we touched upon it, was saved for the final day.
Because one thing I’ve learned in teaching these workshops is that superheroes can bring a group back to life, and if you have a group of students who have been grinding away at comics for an entire week, superheroes on a Friday can make them spring right back up again, even if they’ve never read a superhero comic in their lives.
And that’s exactly what happened in this Rockwell workshop, with our create-a-superhero game (in which students select random powers written on slips of paper, and then try to craft a superhero that makes some kind of sense and has some kind of essential purpose). Because one of the things we talked about on superhero Friday was that most of the superheroes that have penetrated into popular culture most deeply – and all of the students loved superheroes, even if their only exposure was on t-shirts and in cartoons or movies – have a symbolic foundation that powers them beyond the details of their story.
Superman, for example, represents goodness and hope. Batman represents justice. Green Lantern represents imagination and willpower. Spider-Man represents struggling to do what’s right, even at great personal cost. And so on.
It’s the essence of the superhero archetype, and some of the characters who haven’t stuck in the consciousness of popular culture probably have weaker core concepts. The Flash, for example, has the fast-running thing going on, but what does he represent, really? And that’s why a Flash film is unlikely to tap into subconscious human desires the way a Batman film would, for example.
We talked about all of that, and I gave them time on superhero Friday to read some of the comics that I had brought and spread around the tables for inspiration and reference earlier in the week. This is where we get to the part about the civilian response to mainstream comics, and I found it enlightening.
I didn’t bring just superhero comics, and it was a purposefully random selection. I grabbed whatever was loose and lying around, but I tried to give the batch of comics some variety. So there was a Dark Horse “Predator” comic next to “Monkey vs. Robot” next to “Justice Society of America” next to a Bronze Age “Brave and the Bold” next to Bendis’s “Spider-Woman,” with a few manga and some graphic novels and other floppies scattered about.
The students who chose the superhero comics, tended not to like them at all. And they were very specific in their critiques, based on the kind of aesthetic theory (though they never would have called it that) that they had learned earlier in the week. And one of the reason they didn’t like the superhero comics – old ones and new ones – was because they didn’t see the point of any of the stories. And keep in mind that these are a group of kids interested in comics, and really excited by superheroes, but when it came time to read actual superhero comics, they found them pointless. There was none of that essential symbolic quality that makes superheroes so appealing on a primal level. It was just a lot of internal conflict or seemingly pointless external conflict with costumed characters yelling and punching each other.
These students hungry for comics, hungry for superheroes, found almost nothing to like in the actual superhero comics from Marvel and DC that they read. And the worst ridicule was reserved for “Spider-Woman.”
I didn’t tell them that I gave “Spider-Woman” #1 a positive review or tell them that I gave the “Spider-Woman” motion comic a negative review, but after they started talking about “Spider-Woman” #1 (and more than one participant read the comic), and tearing it apart by talking about its focus on the characters internal conflict at the expense of the external one, I pulled up iTunes on my computer and showed the motion comic, saying “hmmm, well, what do you think about this. Because Marvel thinks that this kind of thing would appeal to new readers.” Boy did they hate the motion comic.
They laughed at the dialogue, saying it was like “a really bad soap opera” and complained about the “terrible animation” and said, at the end, “someone actually thinks that people would like this? They spent money making that?”
I was shocked at how vocal their criticisms were, because even though we had been critiquing comic book pages and thinking about the effectiveness of certain artistic choices, they hadn’t been that passionate in their responses to anything else all week.
One student even, going back to “Spider-Woman” #1 for a minute, pointed out how Alex Maleev relied on the same basic shot too many times. I had given them Wally Wood’s “22 Panels that Always Work” as a guide earlier in the workshop, and this participant showed that Maleev used just one of Wood’s recommended panels, and he used it again and again. To the students, Maleev’s art (which was the one thing I loved about the comic) was completely unappealing. It was dark and stiff and didn’t make them want to continue reading the “boring” story.
The class ended up being a huge success, with students creating their own heroes and villains and drawing dozens of comic book pages over the course of the week, putting their own lives (or their hopes and dreams, symbolically embodied) down in sequential panels.
But what struck me, as someone who comments on comic books and thinks about the direction the industry is heading, is how much all of us who are too-inside comic books don’t really understand how this stuff seems to the potential readers in the outside world. When I approach a comic, I bring to it a knowledge of its larger context. So “Spider-Woman” #1, for me, was part of a larger conversation about the development of Alex Maleev’s style, the Bendis approach to dialogue, the reclamation of the character from the Bronze Age dustbin, the specific continuity context of “Secret Invasion” and Jessica Drew’s life as a triple agent even before that.
Without that context, does something like “Spider-Woman” #1 have any appeal to the average reader looking to read a good superhero comic? Apparently not, if these students were any indication. And this was a comic that was designed to appeal to new readers across two different delivery platforms.
So I guess that leads me to this final thought: you can have all the comics in the world coming out day-and-date on the iPad or whatever device you want, but all those potential readers exist as pure potential unless you give them something they actually want to read. And there may not be as much of that stuff out there as the companies might think. Not even close.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan