Abel Gets Meta With "Out On The Wire," Reflects on Comics' Representation Problem

Though cartoonist Jessica Abel has created engulfing graphic novels like "La Perdida" and "Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars," her latest is a groundbreaking book she'd prefer be described more accurately as a "documentary comic," or a "graphic nonfiction narrative."

In "Out On The Wire," Abel thoroughly explores the workings of storytelling radio shows and podcasts like "This American Life," "The Moth," "Radiolab" and "Snap Judgment." In the process, she also created a how-to guide and source of inspiration for a whole new generation of storytellers of all sorts.

The path to "Out On The Wire"s creation began 17 years ago, when Abel was working out of Mexico City, diligently drawing while devouring episodes of "This American Life." So when the show's host and producer Ira Glass called the artist asking if she'd create a comic about the ins and outs of the show's production, she jumped at the chance. The resulting "Radio: An Illustrated Guide" was made "in a crunch" and came to just 30 pages. Yet it was a big hit with the show's audience that continued "chugging along under the radar for 15 years."

"They continued to sell it via their website for that whole time," Abel explained to CBR News. "And it sells. It's in its seventh or eighth printing, it's sold 45,000 copies. You know, for a floppy comic that's 15 years old, that's never been sold in stores, that's pretty amazing."

Realizing that there is still a demand for explorations on aural storytelling, Abel proposed a reunion to Glass, who was initially reluctant. "He didn't want to get involved in a big thing," Abel admitted. But when she re-conceived it from being co-written by Glass to making him a "sort of expert guide, or co-host" while she delved into the inner workings of a variety of shows, he was game. But getting him on board was just the beginning of a long process that involved hours upon hours of interviews, struggles with how to turn lessons in storytelling into a comic, and a soul-searching walk through what Abel calls "The Dark Forest."

Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

CBR News: You talk to so many people about their process that "Out On The Wire" is more an ongoing discussion of story instead of a manual. Did you find their advice on storytelling shaped the book as you were making it?

Jessica Abel: Oh, yeah. I mean it's the most meta project I've ever made in my life, for sure. I'm writing a book, trying to pull together interviews and things and try to figure out what I want to say about them. Meanwhile I'm re-listening to old interviews from the year before and trying to transcribe them. And finding the thing that I needed two weeks ago in the interview that I forgot was there. So it was frustrating. Very frustrating. I had to already know all this stuff to write book properly, yet the point of the book was learning it.

I was surprised by how much the advice offered applies to other forms of writing and storytelling.

Certainly this book is about radio, it's about podcasting. But primarily, it's about making stories. It's not at all specific to that field. The details are specific, but these people [I interviewed] are just the best about making stories. And these stories could take place in another medium.

The one thing that they have down in the field of narrative nonfiction audio is incorporating collaboration into their process. This is something that I think other narrative artists -- meaning cartoonists, comic book artists, etc. -- really miss [out on]. And I don't mean collaboration in comics, where you have, like, a writer and an artist, though obviously that can count depending on how that plays out. I'm talking collaboration at a construction level, at a writing level, at an editorial level -- having essentially a writer's room, having people that you are really knocking things out with and testing the process.

You're testing your work, your ideas, against people. And the fact that the end product of what they're making is said out loud, in itself is an advantage. I feel that talking out loud about your ideas and reading your stories out loud is just so important for making good writing. It's so so crucial. It's not the only thing obviously, but it's really, really important. And I think it's something the vast majority of narrative artists -- who are not in the audio arena -- would miss completely.

I'm starting a podcast that goes along with the book. That's kind of what the basic thesis of the podcast is: A) This isn't only for radio. And B) We should do this together. We should collaborate.

"Out On The Wire" also digs into how difficult that collaboration can be, essentially opening up this thing you're passionate about to a room full of critics. You talk about how hard that is.

It's super hard. It's really emotional. I think you can get good at it. You can get better at it with practice.

In the book, Ira says it's not just about listening to the criticism, but also understanding what the criticism really is. Like finding the intention of the criticism instead of its literal value.

Yeah, [it's figuring out] what it is they're missing. They missed something. They didn't make a connection. You didn't explain something clearly. You have to be able to interpret it, for sure. And I want to go back to this thing about it being really hard.

For me, personally, I don't have the reaction that Ira has of being really mad when people edit me. I actually mostly enjoy it. But it's possible, when it gets going, to feel beaten down by it. But you have got to listen to these people because they are the ones who are on the receiving end. And getting deep, deep, deep into your story, you can get lost in it. You know everything that's supposed to be there. You know all the ins and outs of it. And the listener or reader doesn't know what's going on in your head. You don't know necessarily if you've put what's in your head on the paper or on the radio properly, and the only way you can figure that out is through an edit, is through feedback. It's literally the only way.

It's a hard process, because it feels so personal for something you've worked so hard on to be torn apart. Do you have any advice for taking and giving critiques?

There's a lot of things I could talk about with that. And in fact, in the podcast, in the collaborative group we're setting up, we're setting up critique guidelines, suggestions on how to do this so that you're helping rather than just attacking. First of all, make sure it's not personal. Don't let it be personal for you, and don't make it personal for the other person. Don't attack the person. Talk about the work. "I didn't understand this, when it went from here to there." Not just, "you did a crappy job with this." That's number one.

It's obvious, but it bears repeating.

Number two: You really have to listen for, where am I losing the thread, here? You should take notes on that, write that down. I mean, whether it's audio or comics, it's the same thing. Follow along and any time you zone out -- it's important when you're doing this kind of level of critiquing to be very attentive. Your average reader will not be that attentive. But it's your job [as a critic] in that moment to go, "Where is that moment you lost me? Where is that moment where I start to feel like the character is off? There's something wrong."

You have to pinpoint those moments, and you have to take notes on those moments. And don't interrupt in the middle of a reading or presentation. Take notes, and go back. Read through the entire thing, and then go back with notes.

In college, the advice I got on how to deliver effective critiques was to start with something positive and end with something positive. It sounds manipulative, but it's more about reminding someone that they did something worthwhile, which is why we're working to make it better.

It helps. I think that's a good point. I do think you can overdo that. You need to be able to just get into the nitty-gritty and talk about stuff. But again, keeping it professional and on a non-critical level, like, "I didn't see where this was going," or whatever -- that couched-in "I really liked what you did here" is a really good idea. But it's not something that needs to happen in an ongoing way every time. Because then it can feel constructed, manipulative and strident.

It also helps concretely to know what works, because then you're comparing things as well. Not just, "Oh, it's lovely," but, "the way you use this description here builds character." "The way you're showing what this character is like in this scene" is really helping. Like "I like this," "I don't like this" are not critique. I don't want to hear "I like this," "I don't like that," period. That's just not helpful. The critique has to be specific to the work. Being specific is being effective.

In "Out On The Wire," there's a section on the X and Y of storytelling, X being the story and Y why it's important or interesting. As a movie reviewer, I can see it in an alternate context for my work where X is what I thought of a movie, Y is why I felt that way. Criticism is about showing your work on your thought process.

It's really tough skill to learn, and I don't want to underplay that. Initially, when people come into critiquing, they don't know how to know what they think. They have to learn to pay attention to their own reactions in a non-judgmental way, like, "I'm losing focus here. There might be something wrong." If you can just think that, that will help narrow in on it. Where if you just say, "I didn't like it," that's totally unhelpful.

The "Radio Lab" team also introduces this idea of The German Forest as the point where a creative endeavor becomes overwhelming and you get lost in what to do next. When you find yourself in that place, how do you find your way out?

Brute force. [Laughs] A large axe. How do I find my way out? Collaboration. It's sitting down with Matt -- Matt Madden, my husband, who's a fellow cartoonist and a really smart guy. And I spent a lot of time talking to him about what I was doing, what I was thinking, what I was finding. It shortens my time in the forest by months. That doesn't mean it's not there. But that's my only trick, basically.

I like how in the book that process is presented as an act of exertion. It's visualized as an actual forest, then with Ira, it's portrayed as making your way up a rocky mountain. It does feel like that. Some people might call it writer's block, but it's not enough to just sit and hope it goes away.

Writer's block is a different thing. Writer's block is when you're devoid of ideas. And I think that's kind of -- it's not a real thing, exactly. Writer's block just means you need to go out and experience something and have a thought or a conversation and get going. The German Forest is, you're working; you're in it. You just don't know what to do next. You're at a loss because there's so much stuff going on, so many things going on in your head and ideas. And nothing looks better than anything else and it's all kind of a jumble.

I started calling it the Dark Forest, actually, because people were like, "German? why German?" [Jad] was doing a thing about Wagner, and that's why he came up with that term. But it's a little confusing [outside of that context], so Dark Forest works better. But yeah, the imagery is really strong and the Khyber Pass -- Ira's image of slogging, essentially -- the slog that's actually trying to execute the thing once you actually have the plan. You're in the German Forest, you don't know what you're going to do. Then you figure out what you're going to do, then you have to actually do it. And you have to do it day after day, weeks after several weeks. And you really have to get through something. And then you're like, "Okay is it working? I don't know. Now I have to go back again." There's iterations.

Tying the creative to the physical, it does feel physical because of the way you're concentrated and pulling yourself through it.

It does affect your body. It totally does. It makes you feel crappy. It makes you feel stupid. It makes you feel fat. It makes you feel ugly. It makes you feel useless. It's a real thing.

When people talk about working in creative fields, there's always the emphasis on the rejection therein. But your book talks about one of those less discussed sides of rejection, which is self-inflicted. Ira talks specifically about feeling like you're failing your idea or yourself. In showing these people who are so good at what they do having these moments of doubts, you normalize and de-stigmatize that feeling in a way that I think aspiring storytellers will find cathartic.

I hope so. I mean, I feel that way. I re-listened to that interview with Robert Smith [of "Planet Money"] as I was totally in the depths of the Dark Forest. Like absolute rock bottom. In that interview, Robert was like, "Six months from now, you're going to be like, 'What am I doing?!'" and suggested I write a postcard (to my future self, encouraging myself). Listening to that interview was like that postcard. Because we'd been sitting there, talking about it, saying it was going to happen. And it happened! I was in it. And it was like the little postcard to myself saying, "This is normal. It happens every time. Don't forget! It will happen again. You'll get out of it."

Now, it feels great. I feel really positive about the book, I feel it's really strong work. I'm excited about the podcast thing that I'm doing. Like, I'm excited about all this stuff, that sense of lightness and excitement and positivity, I did not have that in the middle there. I just had to believe I was going to get it back.

Were you at all intimidated to get into podcasting after spending so much time with these people who are pioneers of the form?

Oh, yeah, for sure. Definitely. Getting into podcasting? Am I in podcasting? That's a good question. I'm doing this thing, and I think it's going to be really cool and really fun. But the podcast itself -- I don't know if you listened to the teaser for it yet -- but it's different. I'm not telling stories, I'm talking about stories. So there's this weird pedagogical side to what I'm doing. I'm thinking it's going to be exciting and compelling and people are really going to want to listen, but I have the same problem with the podcast that I had with the book, which is there is no central character. All the things I'm telling other people about what these podcasts and shows do, I can't do because it's not the kind of podcast it is. It's not a hero's journey.

In the foreword, Ira Glass speaks of this book as a tool to building a radio-producing army. Was that your goal? To make this brand of storytelling more accessible?

I don't think my goal was specifically to boost the number of producers, although that is necessary. I mean there is a shortage. I mean if people want jobs in the arts, that is the way to go for sure. But the goal is to put the tools in the hands of makers of narrative, people who want to make stories. Because I feel like the tools (presented in the book) are really strong, are really important.

Recently, "vocal fry" has become a major issue on podcasts/radio. They even covered it on "This American Life." What're your thoughts on vocal fry and its backlash?

I think it's stupid. I think the whole thing is stupid and sexist. I mean, what else is there to say about it? It's idiotic. Men have it as much as women, but nobody complains about it unless it's a woman under the age of 30 [speaking]. It's just the way people talk.

I loved how they covered it on "This American Life," because Ira explained what vocal fry was, and I thought, "But that's how Ira talks, and we love how Ira talks." And then, at the end, Ira cops to it, saying that if anyone employs vocal fry, it's him. But listeners only complain when female contributors exhibit it. I thought that was an elegant way to approach it.

I don't talk with a lot of vocal fry, but there's things that you say or a tone of voice when it comes out and it's like, who cares?! It sounds like your voice. I think it's a tempest in a teapot, and people like to get up in arms about stuff like that, especially when it's young women's voices. I saw an awesome response to it in a tweet. Hang on [She searches for the response.]

Oh, Jenna Weiss-Berman tweeted [reads the screengrabbed e-mail below]:

Radio shero @katiemingle of 99% Invisible crafted a lovely auto reply for listeners complaining about women's voices pic.twitter.com/fLoVu5aTte

- Jenna Weiss-Berman (@WBJenna) July 11, 2015

Drop the mic! Leave the stage. I mean, is there anything else to be said?

Representation has also been a big issue, especially in comics and their movies lately. What drives you to create books like "Trish Trash" and "La Perdida?" (The former has a black girl in space, the latter focuses on a Mexican-American woman.)

People are interesting, and especially people who are not like me are interesting to me. I've always felt as a writer, like -- I want to create characters who are surprising to me, and who have experiences that are different. It's a way of experiencing the world and being curious about how people and life [operates]. I would not do a 250-page book about somebody I did not want to write about.

But then beyond that, when I choose someone to draw, I tend to default to non-middle class white person. What I feel like happens so often in creative fields is, nobody's trying to be racist -- well, some people are, but most people are not -- when they create comics or make films. They're not setting out to totally skew the numbers [toward white males]. Nor are they setting out not to. There's a default mode that ends up being mostly white guys showing up on screen.

I watch a ton of sci-fi, TV and movies. I love it. Any crap that comes along, I'll watch it. And I am always amazed when it's set in the future and everybody's white! Like, everybody is white, and most of them are male. And I'm like, have you not noticed how many brown people there are in the world? And how many more brown people there are every year? How many people have mixed families? It's the future! You want to talk about the future? Let's talk about the future.

I think it was the creator of "BoJack Horseman," (Raphael Bob-Waksberg) who spoke about how he didn't realize his own default dude mode until one of his female storyboard artists pointed it out to him. I think that's an interesting point people are starting to understand. But on the other hand, you have creators who insist the inclusion of people of color, women or LGBTQA characters must be "organic" rather than being forced in. What are your thoughts on that?

I just think if you start a show or a book and half of the people in it are female, and at least 40% of them are brown -- all various browns -- from day one like everybody around, then nothing's going to feel forced. If you start a project and you make it all white men with a token woman and a token black guy, yeah if you add somebody it's going to be notable -- but you set up the problem wrong.

I don't know.

I really do enjoy making characters who are not standard characters. That's more fun as a writer. But when I'm drawing "Trish Trash," the people in the background are 90% brown, the people walking down the street and stuff. And sometimes I need (source) images, and I go to TV or comics or whatever, and it's all white people. I have to find another photo source for a variation of people. You know, I walked around downtown Brooklyn and took pictures of random people walking around in an area where there's just way more black people than white people. And all the range of people -- you don't just have your go-to features, you have a whole range of features. As an artist that's more interesting too, drawing different types of facial structures and bone structures. That's way more interesting than just being default face all the time.

With superhero movies, we've seen characters like Black Widow have to bear the burden of representation, where she has to be all things woman to all people because she's the only one, or has been for so long.

Right. We just need a lot more women. Not just like one more -- like, a bunch more. There should be, 40%, say, would a good number I would think. More men to beat people up, so there's that. But other than that, there's no reason you couldn't have it be almost 50/50. And in terms of the color line, that's ridiculous. Are there Asian superheroes? Are there any Spanish superheroes? Like, on the screen? Where are these people?

Off the top of my head, I can't think of any in movies. But yeah, when they are recasting Peter Parker again and the kids they're looking at -- nothing against those kids -- but we've seen that story how many times?

I think when you're dealing with these iconic characters -- I was glad when they changed Spider-Man comics. I don't follow superhero comics, but they changed him to a Hispanic kid, right?

Miles Morales is biracial. He's black and Hispanic.

Well, that's great, he's bi-racial, He's partly Hispanic. That's great, really cool. It's tough to mess with an iconic character that has so much history. Spider-Man, especially. Superman, no one gives a crap about his alter ego. But Spider-Man's alter ego is really important. He's like a 1950s teen from Queens, that's who he essentially is. Miles Morales -- from what I understand -- is the today equivalent of that.

But people have a very specific look and all that attached (to the character). And I understand that. But there's so much room, just add a bunch of people. You're making a zillion movies, why not just add a whole bunch? Add a bunch.

"Out On The Wire" is on sale now.

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