Category Archives: Essays & Articles

Essays on comics and the writing process.

Ryan Estrada’s The Whole Story

Conflict of Interest Notes: The following review is based on complimentary press copies. Plus, I’m friendly with Ryan Estrada. Also, I hope to submit work of my own to future iterations. That said, I wouldn’t want to contribute my own work if I didn’t honestly think what Ryan is doing is pretty great.

Ryan Estrada has launched a fascinating new publishing venture. “The Whole Story” deals entirely in self-contained e-books (nothing serialized), sold on a model inspired by the The Humble Indie Bundle video game sales. Briefly: a varied group of titles are packaged together and sold on a “pay what you want” system, but with additional rewards unlocked by choosing to pay at a higher rate. The bundle will only be available for a limited time, so if you want it, you need to grab it now.

I’m fascinated by this packaging method, as it seems like a great way to get readers familiar with one creator interested in the work of lesser-known creators packaged with them. Not to mention that web distribution as a whole is still struggling to find a good model for publishing longform narrative comics, which just don’t lend themselves to succeeding on the same model as humor strips. This is the first iteration of this model that Estrada is running, and I’ll be waiting eagerly to hear his report on how successful it was. I’m very hopeful that it will do well enough to justify further such attempts in the future.

The base package, for which you can pay as little as one dollar, includes three books: Estrada’s own “The Kind,” Box Brown’s “A Heart of Stone Work,” and the collaborative experiment anthology Fusion Elementary. As you go up the pay ladder, the books that get added in include a second collaboration experiment (which I’ll explain in a bit) “Fusion Future,” two more Box Brown Titles “Walk Like a Sumerian” and “The Great Dissapointment,” and the “You Can Do It Dong Gu,” the US debut of Korean artist Nam Dong Yoon. Additional rewards include audio commentaries, original art, and additional gift downloads for friends.

The core books of the set are Estrada’s and Brown’s, especially as the latter fills out just shy of half the books available. Estrada’s The Kind is a sweetly horrifying story of new love and inadvertent violence, about a smitten couple, one of whom happens to turn into a bloodthirsty monster every time the moon is full. The awkward romance comprises the bulk of the story, slowly building up to the hilarious grievous bodily harm of the action-filled climax. It’s light hearted and fun, with Estrada’s usual odd humor. If you’ve like Estrada’s comics in the past, you’ll probably like this one to.

Box Brown’s books were more revelatory for me, especially as I hadn’t quite understood the appeal his work seems to hold for so many people prior to reading these three books in a row. I think I’d read the wrong pieces before—most of what I’d seen were journal comics, and were fine as journal comics go, but it’s a form I’m pretty done with. The stories in these books, though, show Brown working out a set of concerns vitally important to him, though mixed fiction, non-fiction, and autobiography. They all relate to faith, documenting Brown’s own journey to comfortable atheism, but also his fascination with various mythological traditions, from the beliefs of ancient Sumerians, to spiritual philosophies of Buddhism, to the bizarre hucksterism of rapture cults. “The Great Disappointment” was the standout of Brown’s books for me, and possibly my favorite of the whole package, and I especially liked the books conceit of bookending the content with quick pictorial summaries of all the major world religion’s creation myths (“Alpha”) and Armageddon myths (“Omega”). The piece detailing Brown’s desired funerary rites in particular has stayed with me, for the intimacy and strange calm that it possessed.

You Can Do it Dong Gu documents several weeks in the life of a six-year-old, and authentically captures the intensity of a child’s equally compelling need to master trivial and impossible tasks.

The most unusual books in the set are Fusion Elementary and Fusion Future, both of which follow the reverse collaboration model of providing writers with completed art, and asking them to make up text to fit. (I was a fan of, and contributor to, Ryan North’s similar Whispered Apologies experiment, so this grabbed my interest right away.) Both exclusively feature the art of Nam Dong Yoon, which is fine, as his art is vibrant and fun. The major difference between the two is that Fusion Elementary gave each creator a standalone short story to work with, while Fusion Future attempts to string all of the pieces written by different creators together into a cohesive story. And it does ultimately create a comprehensible plot, but the need to do so left a number of the pieces along the way less satisfying than they might have been. There are certainly enjoyable bits in there (Shaenon Garrity wrote one of them, after all), but it’s the ones that do the best job of standing alone that are most memorable. As a result, Fusion Elementary, which allows all of the pieces to simply stand on their own, is the more successful of the two books.

For interested readers on a budget, I the sweet spot is the $25 pay level, which gets you all of the books except for You Can Do It Dong Gu. The latter book is enjoyable, but not enough to justify the jump to the $50 pay level, unless you’re really into the audio commentary file also packaged with that level. Six full-length books for $25 dollars is an excellent bargain, though, and well worth the cost.

If you’re not on a budget, then go right ahead and pony up the 50 bucks to get the fun Korean book too. That works out to just a smidgeon over $7/book, which is still a pretty sweet deal.

Update: Ryan adds “And if people post a review after paying any amount, I will upgrade them to the $50 bundle. So you can get ‘em all for a buck, if you want!”

Essays and Articles Reorganized

I’ve just finished reorganizing the pages for my the Essays and Articles category of my publications. Rather than browsing full blog archives, you’ll now find succinct links with representative quotes to make it much easier to find an article you’re interested in.

Most of these are old pieces, but some continue to be perennially relevant, particularly those in the On Writing category. And I hope the creator Interviews remain interesting, even if the works they refer to aren’t all current anymore.

Publications Archive

I’ve added an archive page for my fiction and poetry publication. Not that I write much poetry anymore, but might as well make what’s out there more accessible. I do hope to see the list of fiction publications growing in the coming months.

The Essays and Articles archive has been rolled into the broader Publications archive. Now I just need to give that section better organization.

Review: Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, by Leanne Shapton

First pubished on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

Photography by Jason Fulford, Kristin Sjaarda, Leanne Shapton, Michael Schmelling, and Derek Shapton.

What is the value of a memory?  What is the value of a single moment shared between two people?  Does the worth of an affectionate gesture outweigh the cost of a petty unkindness?  When does the price of love become too high?  These are the central questions of Leanne Shapton’s inventive second book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, a book in which each moment in the affair of two lovers comes with a price-tag clearly affixed.

Important Artifacts takes the form of an auction catalogue, the shared and individual possessions Lenore Doolan and Hal Morris splayed out, photographed, organized, and appraised with an unsentimental eye; we are to witness the posthumous dissolution of Love’s estate.  Is the first known snapshot of the couple, taken at a Halloween party in 2002 worth $25 – $30?  Is Doolan’s hand-drawn Valentine’s Day dinner menu worth $50 – 60?  To whom?

The plot is not worth discussing—two people meet, then fall in love, then share each other’s lives for a while, then go their separate ways.  This is known from the beginning, and there are no tricks or surprises along the way. The challenges these lovers face are as mundane as they are insurmountable—she is a food writer for the New York Times whose life and livelihood reside in her kitchen; he is a world-traveling photographer with a fondness for hotels.  We aren’t here to find out what happens, what grand events transpired.  We’re here to pick apart the minutia, and to witness how those minutia ultimately add up to the success or failure of love.  The clues play out slowly, and are subtly presented—LOT 1104, a collection of birthday gifts from Doolan to Morris, which includes “A gift certificate, unused, for Italian cooking lessons at the Culinary Institute.”  Unused. The other gifts in the set are clearly thoughtful, carefully chosen gifts, but it is that one word that stands out.  It might as easily have said “unappreciated,” or “unwanted,” or simply “rejected.”

Not every moment in the book is so elegantly achieved.  The bulk of the photography is perfectly executed, neutral depictions of well chosen artifacts that put the characters’ tastes and personalities on display with little need for elaboration: her collection of vintage dresses and antique salt and pepper shakers, his tweed suits and collection of hotel room keys.  As successful as these indirect depictions are, where Shapton sometimes falters is in her attempts at the characters’ direct communication.  There are frequent notes between the characters; some, like their postcards and their brief scrawled exchanges on the backs of playbills can seem quite natural.  Their longer notes—frequently notes of apology—are less successful.  LOT 1104 again, also includes a handwritten note from Morris to Doolan: “Darling, Am sorry about last night, please please don’t get offended about the cake, I’ve always loathed meringue and thought I’d mentioned it.”  Morris’ ingratitude is compounded, but in a far less interesting way.  It feels expository rather than authentic.  And what’s more, it’s unnecessary—Morris’ rejection not just of Doolan’s effort, but of her attempt to share her personal interests with him was already so clear that this letter can only diminish the effect.  It is as though Shapton’s confidence in her concept (or her audience) wavered.

The lovers’ personal snapshots also occasionally feel a bit too on-the-nose.  LOT 1108, “A photograph taken at a farewell party for Doolan’s coworker” shows Doolan and Morris at an office party.  Doolan is engaged in conversation with her coworkers, while Morris sits beside her, but turned away reading a magazine, in blatant disinterest of the people around him.  This is a painfully unsubtle image—so much so as to call attention to the fact that it’s clearly staged.  It is a considerable chip in the book’s otherwise impressive authenticity.

Despite this occasional unevenness, Important Artifacts is an interesting concept cleverly executed.  What’s more, it taps into something instinctive—who doesn’t examine their friends’ and acquaintances’ knickknacks and bookshelves for clues to their private lives?  This book embodies the pleasure of investigative voyeurism like no other, making it an eminently worthwhile read for any snoop, peeping tom, or busybody—as well as anyone merely interested in a novel approach to pairing words with pictures to tell a story.

Review: Idiots’ Books, by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr

First published in ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

Idiots’ Books is comprised of Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, and husband and wife creative team who produce “odd, commercially non-viable illustrated books” which they sell primarily through subscription service, while also taking their books to the occasional comics convention.  I first encountered them at MoCCA a few years ago, a con they can pretty reliably be found at—it was my wife who discovered them, and upon finding me insisted that I visit their table, as she was certain their work would delight me; she was correct.

As creators, they are prolific, producing no fewer than six books each year (a quick scan of my home turns up 19 volumes.  There are probably a few more tucked into corners somewhere.).  Length varies—some are thick perfect bound volumes; others are not books at all, but wall hangings, or puzzle tiles.  None can be described unambiguously as comics—most bear a closer relationship to picture books or illustrated fiction.  Some (Facial Features of French Explorers; The Nearly Perfect Sisters of the Holy Bliss) are merely collections of absurd portraits, with irreverent captions.  But regardless of form, all are inventive, clever, and beautifully executed.  And very, very funny.

Swanson’s writing is very dry, presenting the most absurd statements with minimal inflection: “Sister Olivia distributed lunches to the broken and decrepit while endlessly whistling theme songs from bygone television dramas.  Her favorite was the one from Hill Street Blues.”  It is a surprisingly versatile style, serving him well across a variety of forms: moving from fairy tale to faux academia to dream like quest story require only minor adjustments to his approach.

Behr’s art is adaptive to the project at hand, shifting from simple cartoons, to ink sketches, to complex full color paintings.  The style she uses for most of the books combines a scratchy line and ink splotches with rich colors.  Her figures are typically deformed and abstracted in ways both comical and horrifying.  And she has a particular knack for creating images that blend one into the next, allowing readers to remix the images to their own liking—an effect seen in the interchangeable tiles she created to accompany Cory Doctorow’s recent novel Makers on Tor.com, as well as in the older Idiot’s Books Ten Thousand Stories and After Everafter.  The latter two are both modeled on the old Mix or Match Story Books, allowing the readers to blend both text and image into multiple combinations, creating smooth flowing, if utterly bizarre narratives.  You can play with a digital version of Ten Thousands Stories online here.

The book that initially won my heart was The Contented, a small spiral-bound booklet, recounting a day in the life of a cloistered monk.  It is a mundane story, as we watch the monk go about his various daily chores: doing the laundry, mending his robes, torturing the prisoners, washing the dishes, and so forth.  The appeal lies predominantly in Behr’s illustration, simple, evocative depictions of the monk in his robe, interacting with similarly simple environments, punctuated with beautiful abstract landscapes that give a sense of the monk’s isolation in his home.  There are, in fact, only six words in the entire story, revealing the monk’s deepest wish.  It is a silly, childish wish—and yet, it leads to a final image that is unexpectedly sad, casting an even greater pall of loneliness over everything that came before.

Following the birth of their first child, Swanson and Behr honored the occasion with another tiny spiral-bound, The Baby is Disappointing, which recounts all the ways in which babies are un-amusing, unproductive layabouts in lofty, despondent prose: “The baby is unmotivated.  It loafs all morning long.  As the afternoon slides past, the world’s work remains undone, and all the while this baby drifts in dreams of better days.  And yet it does not smile.  It does not now how.”

The illustrations in this volume are particularly simple—what appears to be a found image of a kewpie doll blended with ink sketches to illustrate a variety of atrocious conditions to subject a baby to.  It’s bleak, and cynical, and hilarious.  And, of course, it’s ultimately not a condemnation of the baby’s uselessness at all, but rather a portrait of the fears any new parent faces when considering all the ways they can fail to appreciate or understand their child.  (My wife and I found it a particularly enjoyable read while awaiting the arrival of our own first child last year.)

Not every book is comical.  The Clearing is a lovely fable about an old, ruined king, who commits a terrible act of violence against the one living thing he still loves.  This sets him on a quest to atone for betraying his brother in his youth, but ultimately leads to more complex questions about who he is and whether either atonement or revenge are even possible or justifiable.

Given the number of books the pair produces, not every one can be stellar.  Animal House, for instance, which offers portraits of the primary figures of American politics in 2008, depicted as animals, is losing significance rapidly.   But the duds are few, and are far outnumbered by little gems.

At $60/year, a subscription might sound hefty, but given that that price gets you six books, it’s really an excellent deal.  At the very least, if you have opportunity to browse their work at a convention, take it—it only takes a few minutes of browsing for the craving for more of their work to take hold.

Write What You Know (Because Learning Something New Would be TERRIBLE.)

First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

“Write What You Know” is probably the most common advice writers receive, so much so that it is accepted wisdom; and yet this is quite possibly the worst advice ever given to a writer.  Here is what I understand this advice to mean: writers should be lazy and ignorant, and we should never, ever challenge ourselves to try to understand people who aren’t ourselves.

This leads to writers limiting their characters to activities and experiences they’ve had themselves, regardless of whether their own experiences are at all interesting.  Their characters have worked the same jobs they have, pursue the same professions they do, go to similar schools or have similar friends.  Because, according to the rule of “write what you know,” that’s all a person is qualified to write about.

The truth is you don’t need to be a fire fighter to write a story about fire fighters, or a chef to write a story about chefs, or a musician to write a story about musicians.  Nor do you have to have immediate personal experience in those areas.

What you do need is research.  The trick isn’t to write what you know, but to be aware of your ignorance, and remedy it.  Put in the work to attain the information you need in order to make your characters sound and behave authentically. Writing is communication, yes, but that’s not all writing is; it’s also exploration, and that means heading out into unfamiliar territory.  Take as your starting point that you should always write what you want to know—then the process of learning the needed information will be integral to the joy of writing itself.

Of course, there are more challenging consequences to “writing what you know” than just limiting the careers of your characters.  This thinking is also part of what leads straight white males to write exclusively about straight white males, while also setting up the misguided expectation that minority authors will write exclusively about experiences relating to their minority status.  This is a profoundly limiting approach to writing, which leads to a sort of ad hoc segregation besides.  (Author Elif Shafak gave a great TED talk about this cultural expectation, which you can listen to here.)

There are, of course, situations where this advice is given with good intent, in response to a legitimate problem in a writer’s work.  Student writers in particular can be a bit overreaching in their efforts to write a moving story—a middle class white kid from the suburbs who’s trying to write a profound story about the experiences of a slave woman in the deep pre-war south, based only on what they’ve gleaned of slave history in their high school history classes isn’t likely to write an accurate or particularly successful story.  But the problem isn’t that they’re attempting to address an issue outside their experience.  Rather, it’s that 1. They are attempting to address too many issues outside their experience all at once, and 2. They’re assuming they know more than they really do, and consequently, they aren’t doing the necessary research.

The appropriate alternative to this sort of overreaching isn’t to stick strictly to safe territory, but to start there and then move gradually outward, incorporating ever more disparate ideas, experiences, and ways of thinking, while making sure to add to your own knowledge as you go.  Just because you’re writing about someone different from yourself doesn’t mean they can’t have anything in common with you—of course they can, and will!  Find that common ground and you can build from there.

Of course, this is difficult.  Reaching beyond yourself always is.  But that’s the writer’s job.

Review: Family Man, by Dylan Meconis

First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

I’ve never bought into the notion that “the eyes are the window to the soul.”  Sure, they play a role in reading a person’s mood or opinion, but if one were to ask me what facial feature is most revealing, I’d say the mouth, no question.  There’s a treasure of information to be read in the tension of a person’s lips, the crook of a smile, the skewing of a jaw.  By comparison, I just don’t think eyes have that much to say.

Dylan Meconis is working hard to change my mind.

A couple of weeks ago, I received my pre-ordered copy of Meconis’ first print collection of her webcomic, Family Man.  A kinda/sorta/not really prequel to her vampire farce Bite Me, Family Man is a much more restrained story, of loftier ambitions and headier dialogue.  Rather than smartly goofy comedy, she’s now delivering a complex tale of the politics of theological scholarship, the politics of religious/familial duty (not necessarily separable issues), and werewolves, set in Bavaria in 1768.  This is not to say that Family Man is a humorless affair—far from it!—but that the humor here is much drier, and much more rooted in the culture of the time.

The werewolves, I should mention, have played a relatively small role in the story thus far, a point Meconis is tired of hearing, if the withering look she gave me when last I teased her about it (over a year ago—and still few signs of werewolves!) is any sign.  And that’s okay—the hints of werewolfdom we’ve seen thus far have been tantalizing, and the overall tenor of the story makes clear that when we do finally dive into that aspect of the plot, we’re going to see something much more thoughtful and interesting than your typical horror thrills.  Until then I’m more than happy to listen to young Luther Levy debate the merits of Spinoza while lamenting the tribulations of being ethnically Jewish, culturally Christian, and philosophically atheist, in a country and time that has little tolerance for two of the three.

In printing, I find that smaller trim size (though not necessarily quite so small as a manga digest) tends to give a book a greater air of seriousness.  Given the sobriety of her story, I expected that Meconis would make use of this, to create a prim volume that might evoke the academic texts referenced throughout its pages.  I was surprised then, when what arrived on my doorstep was a book with a generous 8.5” x 11” trim.  To be honest, I was a disappointed at first—but my disappointment was short-lived.  What I failed to anticipate was just how much Meconis’ art would benefit from the freedom to sprawl across these larger pages.

This is, in this case at least, an argument for print over web.  The print pages are substantially larger than Meconis runs them online, and all the more rewarding for it.  Counteless little details come into focus that are completely unperceivable in the web version.  Take, for instance, our first glimpse of the remarkable library at Familienwald, built in an abandoned church, displayed here it’s full online resolution:

Note the stained glass windows at the far back of the library.  Now, compare to this scan of the same windows from the print edition:

You see the saints?  Do you see the shape of their robes, their feet, their tiny little halos?  And those details exist in a part of the image so inconsequential to the plot that it doesn’t even matter that you can’t tell they’re there in the online version.

Now, here’s a moment that does matter: Luther Levy’s first meeting, two pages later, with Ariana Nolte, the university’s librarian, and Luther’s eventual romantic interest:

There are a lot of nice details here, but what I want to draw your attention to is that final panel, the first time we get a good look at Ariana as an adult.  She’s clearly a strong woman; her expression is commanding, the odd perspective dramatic, her orders succinct and non-negotiable.  Let’s have another look at that panel, blown up a bit:

When I was flipping through the book, and happened past this panel, I locked eyes with Ariana Nolte, and was startled by her.  This has much to do with the perspective, but also: those eyes.  They stare right out of the page at you in a way that the screen just doesn’t convey.  In that panel, you feel you are looking out through Luther’s eyes, and she is looking straight back at you.  It’s eerie and powerful.

Another thing about the perspective in this panel: it’s not just an unusual angle, but also an outright reversal of the way perspective is ordinarily used to convey power dynamics.  To “look down” on someone is to convey that you feel superior, better, more powerful than they are.  A downward shot from a character’s eyes ordinarily conveys that we are looking at someone weaker.  That we get the opposite reaction here is impressive, and goes even further to cement Ariana’s dominance in this exchange.

It’s those eyes.

More about Meconis’s eyes: they are always active.  She clearly knows exactly what every character is looking at in every panel, and reveals much about who they are through the object of their attention, as well as the particular ways in which they look.  As in real life, Meconis’ characters rarely give a simple forward look at whatever they are looking at.  There are sidelong stares, distracted glances, hooded glares, and this is true of every character in every panel, no matter how minor.  Consider:

I have no idea who the three characters to Lucien’s left are, but I can tell you that the one on the left has no interest in the book he’s reading, the one in the middle is very interested in the university gossip he’s overhearing, and the one on the right is content just to be having a meal.  That’s not just in the eyes, of course (the mouths too, convey much in their set), but the eyes are doing the bulk of the work.

It’s this level of attention to the nuances of character—not just appearances, but what those appearances have to say about the characters’ inner workings—that makes every exchange in Family Man so compelling.  And as good as it is online, it’s even better in print.