Frank’s Soapbox #2
Friday, August 21, 2009
I’ve gotten some weird e-mails in regards to the “80%” quote I made in the comments section of my Tom K post from last week. In the original post I wrote: “For me, Tom’s work is an oasis in the desert. And the desert is contemporary alternative comics. I find 80% of today’s alt comics poorly constructed — a veritable colony of lean-to shacks that could be blown over in a strong wind. In contrast, Tom K builds comics that could be likened to a brick house. These are solid comics.”
And then in the comments section I wrote: “I worked all last week at Copacetic Comics and went through the shelves, book by book. I’m sad to report
that how UNREADABLE most alt comics are. My 80% figure is not an exaggeration. I made a list (which I’ll never publish). It’s embarrassing how little structure alt comix have compared to mainstream comics.”
What I’m bummed about in hindsight is that the post was meant to be an appreciation of Tom K and not about how I feel most alt comics are structure-less. I try to go out of my way in my reviews to praise comics that have good structure, and when I point out that most alt comics do not, it is not my intention to “shame” anyone. If I review a comic that is structure-less, I’ll say so. But the point of my post on Tom K was not to criticize others but to praise Tom. Still, since the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, I thought I’d add a few more thoughts on the subject.
I said that 80% of alt comix are unreadable because of their lack of structure. I did not say these comics are “garbage.” I said they were “unreadable” and that they are “poorly constructed.” I’m specifically talking about sequencing, not really the drawing itself. “Unreadable” is a bit hyperbolic though. What I mean is that most alt comics are not well crafted on a narrative level. Alt-comix creators, for the most part, get away with being structure-less. They focus on style and “earnest-ness” at the expense of transitions and effective storytelling. Mainstream creators have editors and house styles. (While “house styles” and editorial constraints may sometimes lead to formulaic stories, they actually also often provide a solid foundation for the artists and writers to build upon. It’s not always conformist formula.) Alt-comics creators are “free to be me” and often bristle at the notion of editorial input. Editorial input is not necessarily the same thing as “structure” but I think the two go hand in hand.
I’m being vocal about this issue because I think too many alt creators don’t even realize it’s a problem. I want to wake them up to the fact that even the most experimental comics creators need to study story structure and craft (and could potentially benefit from editorial input) — not just their mainstream peers. I’m talking about myself here too. I study structure religiously and am trying to improve my own fundamental skills day by day.
I remember running into Chris Staros in 1997 (’98?) at the APE convention when it was still in San Jose. He told me a story about a young cartoonist he was working with named Craig Thompson. As I remember it, Craig turned in his manuscript for Goodbye, Chunky Rice and Staros wasn’t thrilled by the ending. So he suggested Thompson take another crack at it. Staros said, “It came back and it was unbelievable. It made me cry.” Fast forward to ten years later, and I’m talking to Nate Powell about his new book, Swallow Me Whole. I asked Nate how involved Staros was as an editor. Nate told me that Staros asked for the book to be drawn entirely in pencil first so that any changes would be easier. Makes sense to me.
What I’m getting at is this: Both Thompson and Powell are “alternative” cartoonists who have grown considerably in their short careers. And both worked closely with an editor who is well versed in comics structure. They both benefited from Staros’s critical eye and both have produced solid comics. Would they have made great comics without Staros’s input? Sure. But with an editor they pushed themselves to go beyond their comfort zones, and I believe they are better, more well-rounded artists because of the experience.
Another great example would be Paul Pope. He appeared almost fully formed, seemingly out of nowhere. Yet he was raw. When he began producing stories for Dark Horse Presents he worked with the editor Bob Schreck. I would argue that this helped Paul. Pope has said, “He’s an editor, but he’s also a friend. He knows how to get me working on it. Sometimes it’s flattery, sometimes it’s encouragement, sometimes it’s — well, he just opens Holy Hell before you.” Would Paul have made great comics without working with an editor like Schreck? Sure. But it didn’t hurt.
My beef with many alt guys is this aversion to structure, to editing, to criticism. Do you know that Chris Ware “sits” on a story for years before he releases it? From what I understand, he works on a couple of stories and strips simultaneously and over YEARS slowly adjusts them, until the story is finally ready to be published. He edits himself in ways that I think most young cartoonists cannot imagine.
I’d like to recommend Dave Sim’s Following Cerebus #5. It’s all about “editing the graphic novel” and contains conversations with Craig Thompson, Paul Pope, Frank Miller, Chester Brown, Seth, and many others. It is where I found the quote about Bob Schreck.
[Thanks to Mr. Hodler, my editor, for help on this one.]