ON FICTION AND CARTOONS
I’ve been a fiction writer since high school and still (and will probably always) identify primarily as a writer, rather than a cartoonist. I didn’t even start making comics until I began my MFA program two years ago–I’d been interested in the medium for a few years, but without any visual art background, it seemed like something I’d never be able to make. Coincidentally, the program hired a professor to teach fiction and comics the same year I entered the program. Now, I’m writing a long-form comic as my fiction thesis. I’ve found that comics lends itself well to my strengths and weaknesses as a writer–I’m good at dialogue and characterization, but have to put more work into rendering setting or how characters look in prose writing. When I make a comic, I can utilize all of my strengths as a writer in the text and compensate for some of my weaknesses.
When making a comic, it seems almost as if the story is revealing itself to me by turning itself inside out through the middle. Fragments of text and image pop into my head simultaneously and slowly get reworked into a narrative. Fiction happens like this for me too, but I’m more aware of it in comics since when something comes as an image, it doesn’t need to be ‘translated’ into text. I’m instead thinking about what stays in image, what can or should be text.
ON TEACHING AND ACADEMIA
I try to include comics into my teaching as much as possible–in part because comics are underutilized as texts in the classroom in general, but also because there seems to me to be a lot of potential in what the medium can do for students’ learning. When teaching fiction, I do a lot of what I call ‘visual revision’ exercises. Students are asked to give visual examinations of their narratives–in images, in charts/graphs, sometimes drawing directly onto their workshop drafts. My favorite is having them turn prose scenes into comics. As they ‘translate’ their work from prose to comics, they have to consider what they’re ‘showing’ in their stories (the images in comics) and what they’re ‘telling’ (the text in comics) to think more critically about their image and exposition balance. They have to look carefully at timing and pacing, which is represented in panel length, size, and shape. They’re forced to really look closer at what they’re not seeing in their prose writing when they start to look at their writing as a comic.
It initially drives my students insane to draw so much in a creative writing class, but when we open up a class-wide discussion on what they discovered about their writing, they relate the most interesting insight about their own work.
ON KNOWLEDGE AND PUBLICATION
I made this comic while developing ideas and the narrative for my MFA thesis, so I’d been considering both self-contained chapters and book length narratives at the time, which is probably why the comic suggests both. I’ve written a few comics with different characters that live in the town this comic takes place in, but right now that’s taken a backseat to creating my thesis (which, ultimately took as turn away from this narrative the more I produced). The ideas I have for this town right now are too big and involve too many characters and switching narrators to even finish a working draft as my thesis, so it’s a project I envision working on over a couple years and eventually (hopefully) pulling together into one book.
Lots of cartoonists who aren’t in academia self-publish their work in the form of mini-comics to be sold at conventions or to their website. But in academia, it seems like everyone turns their noses up at self-publication, so I’ve had prose professors question why I’d ever put work up on my tumblr since that doesn’t ‘count’ as a publication (for my CV or the job market). More literary magazines are taking comics, and I find myself thinking hard about what work I choose to submit–I ask myself “is this literary enough or ‘serious’ enough for a lit journal?” in a way that I don’t with my prose writing or while I’m making comics. Of course submitting any work to any journal means considering whether the content is a good match for the journal, but with comics I have this weird impulse to justify the work I’m doing to a literary or academic audience in a way that I don’t with my fiction.
Comics is still a new medium for me and I’m trying to find my voice–each comic I make I try to do something different, create a new challenge for myself. I’m constantly forcing myself to try something new, either stylistically, in content, in form, in the tools I’m using to help me grow as an artist with each project I complete. Because of this, I feel like I’m a little all over the place.
Want to be considered for future installments of The New Comics? Send your work to Comics Curator Keith McCleary via the Entropy submissions page.