Craft in Comics part 1


Friday, June 27, 2008

Heroes Con. Charlotte, North Carolina. Late June 2008. Sunday. Craft in Comics panel with Jaime Hernandez, Jim Rugg, and myself, Frank Santoro. It wasn’t recorded. Bummer. Yet somehow, that was for the best. We didn’t use microphones. There were only about 20-25 people there. Shame on all the folks at the con who missed it. Why would anyone ever miss the chance to see Jaime talk about comics? Oh, you had to watch your table, right. Yeah, on Sunday I heard there were tons of sales. Ahem.

I was moderator. I mean, I lead the discussion. The initial idea was to talk about craft in comics. Craft can mean more than technical skill — to me it means VISION, a way of seeing. Craft is the magic that makes one accept a movie as real, the suspension of disbelief. And that exists in comics, particularly, I believe, in the work of Jaime Hernandez. An honest-to-God master of the form, Jaime has an ability to breathe life into lines on paper that is unparalleled. Only his brother Gilbert can keep up. And they’d each tell you that the other was better.

So my idea was to create a panel, a forum where like-minded artists could discuss and “riff” on craft, on how we create our comics. I wanted the panel to be fun so I started off by encouraging the audience to interject if they’d like to ask a question. “But don’t interrupt Jaime. Me and Jim, fine, but not Jaime.”

Did I introduce myself? I can’t remember. I think I did and also Jaime & Jim, and then I just dove right in. I wanted to set Jaime up with a slow hanging curveball that I knew he’d hit out of the park. I talked about learning basic drawing skills as a teenager and how I had a teacher that really “reached” me at a formative time, an important time. And I knew that Jaime had had a rich education in junior college (I’d heard him tell the story last year at San Diego) and that he could get warmed up by riffing on a familiar story. What was really enjoyable was that although I knew the story Jaime was telling, it was like listening to a favorite song live, in person, and hearing new flourishes, new verses. (If any of you out there are not familiar with the origin of Love and Rockets I highly recommend this interview.)

Jaime told of his old bow-tied teachers who helped provide him with a solid understanding of how to move figures through space, to make them come alive. Between school and comics he fashioned his own education and did so with super-human determination. “There were no classes for what I wanted to do, which was comic books. I wasn’t going to go to the Kubert school in New Jersey. I was in Oxnard and getting $300 a month to go to junior college. I thought that was a good deal.” (Laughter) And then here’s the flourish I was hoping for from Jaime: “I was cocky. I was going to show them that I could do whatever I wanted. There was no one coming out of Punk. There was no one coming out of Low Rider culture. That’s what I wanted to do. And I did it. With Love and Rockets we pushed each other, me and Gilbert. When Gilbert came out with Palomar I really had to make each issue better… Anyways, back to craft.”

I wanted to continue the thread of there never being a sympathetic teacher who “got” comics when I was in school. How I’d bring in a Moebius graphic novel or a Barry Smith print and my teacher would sort of “pooh-pooh” me and tell me “oh, that’s interesting, now could you finish your self-portrait?”

Jim agreed and spoke about how his parents weren’t so comfortable with him trying to break into comics straight out of high school, so he went to a small state school for graphic design instead. “I wanted to do comics, but there was no way to break in. I read the submission guidelines, but it was impossible to even get a response.” I interrupted Jim and told the audience how my friend Rick Mays had gotten hired to draw Nomad for Marvel right out of high school — and how I told my parents that story as proof that if art school was a bust I could always draw comics and support myself. (Insert Nelson Muntz laff here.) Jim also said that he had a teacher who hated all the comics he used to bring into class. “But one day I brought Tyrant by Steve Bissette in and she loved that, she thought that was real art.”

Next, I asked Jaime about Moebius (because I had heard from Tom Spurgeon that Jaime had talked about liking Moebius when he was younger). Was he aware of Moebius in the late ’70s? Jaime remembered when Heavy Metal magazine came out in ’77 and that Moebius’ work did stand out and that he liked it a lot. “All the little lines in Mechanics in issue one were from Moebius a little bit.”

He also spoke about how when he would re-visit the comics he loved as a kid, like Archie, he would notice how expressive the characters were when talking to each other. “My friends would be like, ‘Aww, man, you read Archie? Aww, those are awful, it’s always the same thing, Archie getting chased by Betty and Veronica.’ But if you look at the way Veronica is looking at Archie out of the corner of her eye, and crossing her arms and sort of sneering at him — especially when they’re drawn by Harry Lucey — they’re so real. And so I just put that idea in my comics. I let the characters push the story around with their words and actions.”

All the while, Jaime is leaning forward and back in his chair pantomiming the actions he’s describing. It was another one of those moments where he’s able to really transmit the essence of what he believes as Gospel in comics. That the characters should move through the page, the story, free of plot, free of the constraints of formulaic narrative. One may see formula in Archie’s antics, but Jaime saw a wide field, a frontier. Jaime’s characters are more real to me than any character from a novel, movie, TV show, or ancient myth. I know Maggie and Hopey like I know my best friends. That’s insane. What other art form enables that? What other artist can sustain such a mythology all by himself? No Photoshop. No assistants. (Okay, besides Kirby.)


(Part two 1.75 includes Alex Ross take-down. Boo-Ya!!)

**I thought I’d put up these thoughts while they are still fresh, and the con still on my memory’s radar. I’ve got pages and pages of notes from after the panel. Since it wasn’t recorded, I frantically tried to get it all down, at least how I remembered it. Jim wrote down a bunch of stuff too that I’ll be incorporating soon enough. I feel the quotes are fairly accurate. But please regard the posts about the panel as my version, like I was telling you a story.

***Thanks to Sammy and Tom for help in framing questions to Jaime.

NEXT: Part 1.5, Part 1.75, and Part 2.0.

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8 Responses to “Craft in Comics part 1”
  1. Dustin Harbin says:

    Definitely a bummer that that wasn’t recorded, as that was one of the A-list panels I wanted to sit in on and enjoy as a fan. There was some kind of mike snafu at the last minute on Sunday, and half of the panels ended up without mikes or in new rooms. I think it might have been partly my fault, too. Sorry, Frank.

  2. Marc Arsenault says:

    Jaime did amazing things that should have been so obvious to so many comics creators from decades back. It’s simple, really. The execution of basic principles from Stanislavski’s method of acting. look at the feet… look at the hands, really, think about how you go about your daily life. The action of the moment. Why more artists don’t get that is a mystery (Jim Rugg certainly does, btw). Realism of action in a believable space. This is what Jaime has done, and it really is the most obvious of things. How has it been missed so much?

  3. thomas says:

    I actually just read the Locas hardcover collection, so it was wonderful to see Jamie at Heroes Con. The thing that struck me most (during the two panels I saw him on) was how low-key and humble he was. These comics are some of the best I’ve ever read. The characters are so honest and real, and I felt such a strong connection with them while reading the book. It was really one of the only books I’ve ever read that I wanted to read again right after I finished.

  4. Alex Holden says:

    What do you mean by “free of plot”, Frank?

    Is having a plot a negative?

    I am bummed this wasn’t videotaped, hearing about the pantomiming.

  5. Ryan Cecil says:

    I arrived on Sunday just in time for this, and it was a real good panel. For all the talk about storytelling and photo-referencing, the best parts were the 3 of you all talking about your early teachers. (We’ve got similar bow-tie types at MICA in Baltimore, from whom I know Conor and Lane and I learned a lot). Jaime talking about the little dog following Dennis the Menace was super cute. The Alex Ross thing was just weirdddd and I’m glad it happened.

  6. Ed Piskor says:

    Hey Frankie

    Thanks for describing the discussion. I’m anxiously waiting for part 2. It was great seeing you down in NC.

  7. Frank Santoro says:

    Thanks everyone.

    part two on the way.

    tough to write out at the inter-web cafe.


  8. sammy says:

    from what I gathered, jaime was not saying plot is bad, but that the most important thing is character and letting them lead the strip a little bit. and for him, his characters really navigate where L&R goes issue to issue, and thats how he has operated from the beginning.
    you can see how he would love dennis the menace and archie when drawn by the artists he liked-he doesn’t care about the stories, he cares about theses characters living on the page in an honest way-hence all the talk about how great a dog ran around in the background of a dennis the menace scene.
    personally, when think of my favorite stories, I rarely think of the plot-it’s usually particular characters and moments that stay with me.
    plot is there to bring specific emotions traits out of the characters. plot is important, but you can have the greatest plot in the world but if your characters are the kind of cardboard stand ins we’ve seen a million times, nothing can save it. I think of something like THE WALKING DEAD series. which has a fine plot but trite characters that makes it totally illegible.

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