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Splat Graphic Novel Symposium Makes a Splash

by  in Comic News Comment
Splat Graphic Novel Symposium Makes a Splash

The New York Center for Independent Publishing held its first annual Splat Graphic Novel Symposium last Saturday, bringing together booksellers, librarians, and aspiring comics professionals for a full day of professional development seminars. Splat offered three “tracks” of programming, set to appeal to several diverse interests and levels of familiarity with the graphic novel format, and attendees could pick and choose from the full offerings. CBR News attended several sessions across the spectrum to give a fair picture of the symposium’s offerings.

In the day’s first session, First Second Books editor Mark Siegel led a storytelling workshop with tips for both artists and writers. He began by asking the room for the names of some good stories, and the list came to include “Persepolis,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Star Wars,” “American Born Chinese,” “Citizen Kane,” and many more. Siegel offered children’s book “Good Night, Gorilla” by Peggy Rathmann as an example of taking a very simple principle and creating a story of “genius.” Siegel said the story, in which a gorilla and several other animals escape from the zoo after the zookeeper has said goodnight and then follow the zookeeper home, is easily understood by very young children but has subtle touches that will keep adults engaged through twenty-plus readings. For one, he notes that the colorful cages from which the animals escape look like cribs, and “Good Night, Gorilla” thereby allies the animals with toddlers and contains “a gentle subversive message of sneaking out, and into the parents’ bed.”

From here, Siegel used an onion diagram to describe the layers of a graphic novel story, with the middlemost layers representing a “core” that could best be described in spiritual language. He also suggested that writers and artists should approach their craft from the perspective that “it takes thirty years to make anything ‘real.’ Those are the people that get it in two. Because there’s a real humility to that approach-you don’t have as much of your ego, which is surface, getting in the way.”

Next up was a presentation on “Comic Deconstruction.” Rather than a discussion of Frank Miller’s ability to take apart the myth of the superhero, Paul Karasik gave a talk on the visual language of comics, exploring how the eye reads a page. Karasik, who served as editor on “I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets” and has adapted Paul Auster’s “City of Glass” for comics, employed the unlikely case study of a fifty-year old “Nancy” comic strip to prove his arguments. He said that, as a child, he and his friends would discuss all the daily strips-all of them but “Nancy.”

“‘Nancy’ was beneath our contempt,” Karasik said. “That doesn’t mean we didn’t read ‘Nancy.’ You couldn’t not read ‘Nancy.’ Even just looking over the page for ‘Lil Abner’ your eyes would scan ‘Nancy’ and there, you’d read it.” This, he said, was due to the comic’s tight, effective storytelling that could be taken in at a single glance.

The “Nancy” strip in question, in which Sluggo accosts several kids with a squirt gun before Nancy finds a way to pay him back big time, is notable in that it ends before the punchline of Nancy spraying the boy with a hose. Karasik suggests that this technique allows the reader to participate, showing a high level of respect for a young audience. Other topics included the use of black ink to direct the eye, the suggestion of time between panels, and the alignment of the reader’s point of view with Nancy’s.

Kerasik then moved on to Winsor McCay’s “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend,” which featured more complex artwork but operated on many of the same principles. A nine-panel story was flashed on screen for four seconds, and attendees were then asked what the comic was about. Though of course there was not time to read McCay’s messy, text-heavy captions, it was clear that some sort of business transaction had gone sour. In another, eight-panel story, a man had clearly boarded a train without a ticket and was now paying the consequences.

Brian Wood offered advice on using place in comics. Wood, whose “Local” is set in a different small town or city borough in each issue, discussed researching and photo reference, as well as the challenges when one is not personally familiar with a given locale. Wood said that the challenge was to recreate real and specific businesses and record shops that existed at the time the issue takes place, but still have the stories feel universal. For the Portland issue, which takes place in a real pharmacy, Wood thought about “the general pharmacy experience-waiting to ask for an embarrassing prescription, then having to wait with other people, and the smells.”

The writer said he doesn’t always get all of the regional details right. “Part of the story takes place in an Amtrak station. Well, oops, I found out people in the West don’t really use Amtrak,” explained Wood. “It just seemed so natural for me to have that in there.” Minneapolis, though, was easier, because artist Ryan Kelly lives there. “Sometimes where friends live determined locations,” Wood said, talking about how he would obtain photo references from people he knows across the country and Canada. The writer said that local media and comic stores love the issue that covers their town, and this was part of the incentive to do “Local.” The people who call these towns home like it, too. The Tempe, Arizona, issue included the landmark “A” on Tempe Butte, which Wood said inspired cries of “Dude! Yeah! Right there!” among college sports enthusiasts.

Wood also discussed his series “DMZ,” which takes place in a war-torn New York City. Wood takes all of the reference photos for “DMZ” to send to artist Riccardo Burchielli in Italy. The purpose of place for this series, he said, is “taking a location everybody knows, but showing it’s in a war,” with the effect of creating a more terrifying environment through familiarity.

After a break for lunch, Diamond Kids Group director Janna Morishima led a panel discussion on children’s comics. The panelists were Misako Rocks!, writer and illustrator of “Biker Girl;” Chris Duffy, Nickelodeon Magazine’s comics editor; Scholastic’s David Saylor; and “Knights of the Lunch Table” creator Frank Cammuso.

Saylor, who founded the GRAPHIX comics imprint at Scholastic, described the self-defeating attitude of book publishers towards comics, particularly those presses which specialize in books for young readers. “It seemed absurd, that children’s book publishers were not publishing comics for kids,” he said. “This is one piece of what you can give to a child, which is a great, artistic reading experience.” Saylor also noted that Scholastic has the advantage of being able to distribute its books, including comics such as Jeff Smith’s “Bone” in color, directly to schools and at school book fairs.

Duffy commented that “the time has never been wrong to do comics for kids,” which Cammuso elaborated upon, saying, “kids have always liked comics, but for a while we weren’t making them. It didn’t make any sense.”

The “all ages” tag came under fire from the panelists, noting that this term is useless in selling graphic novels to children’s book buyers at retail stores. Buyers usually work with a specific age range, and don’t know what to do with something that essentially claims to appeal to pre-school and junior high-level readers. “All-ages is a cop-out,” Morishima said. “There is a real difference between what kids want to read at 3, or 6, or 12, and I feel like all-ages gives short shrift to kids.”

Web comics took center stage for the next panel, with Colleen Venable leading a talk with Act-i-Vate founder Dean Haspiel, “Babysitter’s Club” and upcoming “X-Men Manga” writer and artist Raina Telgemeier, “Diesel Sweeties” creator Rich Stevens, and “Altitude” anthology editor Ted Rall.

Haspiel described his web comics collective Act-i-Vate as analogues to the musician Prince’s side projects during the “Formerly Known as” years. “The studios were saying, we want an album from you this year, but Prince said, well, I’ve got four albums. The record company can’t promote four albums a year.” Prince then developed his own system in which he could “fully control everything, promote and hype his albums the way he wanted.” For Act-i-Vate creators, Haspiel said, the web presence is a place to create work outside the company system to allow for greater creative freedom and build a fan and professional community. But he doesn’t see web comics completely replacing physical editions. “I prefer the book in my hands. Humans naturally like to covet things-what you like on your screen you also want on your shelf. I don’t think we’re at a place yet where I feel like I own something because it’s online or on my hard drive.”

Rall said the appeal of web comics was the “color and immediacy,” which can be difficult to capture in the strips syndicated through United Media, for which Rall is tasked with finding new comics for newspapers. “If you’re doing your Guantánamo torture cartoon, you can post that immediately after drawing it and get responses right away,” he said. Possibly related to this, Rall said that the internet “makes it much easier for people to send you death threats.” Surprisingly, Telgemeier concurred. “I would get hate mail for ‘Babysitter’s Club, with these thirteen-year old girls sending me an itemized list of why I’m the devil.”

Stevens and Rall argued about free online content that is also for sale in print. “I would make every cartoonist, every newspaper take everything offline, and cartoonists would make fifteen times more [money],” Rall said, noting some historical statistics. “But you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Rall said the ability to publish online has created “an illusion of democracy” that in fact “keeps people out” because there is a diminished sense of legitimacy. “Only print pays,” he said, but Stephens interjected, “That’s not true!” Stephens said he makes his living on t-shirt sales and, to a lesser extent, advertising on “Diesel Sweeties.” Countering Rall’s assertions about what it means to be a cartoonist, Stephens said that, if nothing else, doing the comic is “a better hobby than watching the goddamn Food Network.”

The well-attended “How to Get Published: A Comics Publishing Primer” was the day’s last session before Scott McCloud’s interview at the closing reception. “Comics Foundry” editor Tim Leong spoke with Marvel’s C.B. Cebulski, Del Ray Manga editor Tricia Narwani, Henry Holt editor Kate Farrell, and Bob Mecoy, an agent who handles graphic novelist clients. Cebulski said that Marvel’s approach is often “proactive rather than reactive,” and discussed his recently completed “Chesterquest” search for new artistic talent. He said the original parameters of the search involved finding twelve new artists; Cebulski said that Marvel has in fact already employed eight to ten new artists as a result of the talent search, not including the twelve that will be announced at New York Comic Con. He said there were also talks about doing a similar search for writers, but also noted the legal and logistical problems associated with evaluating writing samples. Other panelists addressed the hurdles for writers, as well, with Narwani noting that “it’s much harder to find a brilliant artist than a good writer,” and exceptional artists are thus more likely to find work.

Though many of the panelists advised doing something to make a submission stand out, Farrell warned against using “glitter or feathers or anything like that.” She also said not to waste money on fancy packaging, as the submissions will ultimately be judged on quality.

On the subject of following up, Farrell said to keep an editor’s needs and schedule in mind. “I’m always busy. I don’t mind being reminded,” she said. “But every day, even every week, is too frequent.” Cebulski added that the relationship a creator has established with an editor can be a factor. “If you’ve received an email from the editor saying, hey, I like your work, you can probably follow up in about two weeks” after submitting, he said. But if there has been no communication, one can assume a negative response.

Though most comics creators do not use an agent-though some who work in other media do have representation for TV, film, and the like-Mecoy said there is a role for representation. “I have a better understanding of what money is available to an editor, how to make that money available, and how to make the book easier to sell in-house.” Mecoy, who has dealt with DC Comics but normally sells graphic novels to the book trade, added that he can also help publishers who have never produced a graphic novel before to navigate the challenges unique to the medium-with his creative client ultimately benefiting from the process. The agent said his concern in taking on clients is that they “prove that it will sell,” by using such indicators as RSS feed statistics or t-shirt sales from the creator’s web site.

For a complete list of the weekend’s panels and further information on Splat, see the conference web site at http://www.nycip.org/graphicnovelsymposium/

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