30 November 2007

Rhythm, Rhymes, and Gzonks

Though we remember Dr. Seuss for his narrative books, such as Horton Hears a Who and The Cat in the Hat, he also wrote a number of plotless picture books that relied on the sheer power of accumulating nonsense. These include If I Ran the Circus, If I Ran the Zoo, and the venerable And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

In the latter category, my favorite was probably On Beyond Zebra!, which took the normal form of an alphabet book but discussed letters no other author had used. (Other alphabet books I recall vividly from childhood were those by Richard Scarry, P. L. Travers, and H. A. and Margaret Rey.)

Tony DiTerlizzi plays similar tricks with the alphabet book form in G Is for One Gzonk! Each letter of the alphabet introduces a creature not found anywhere else, such as the eponymous gzonk. The pages show of DiTerlizzi's creature-creating talent, honed from illustrating Magic cards and co-creating the Spiderwick series.

The young bespectacled stand-in for the author-illustrator vows to make his alphabet different by not pointing out anything else on the page that begins with the crucial letter. Though he can't resist ponting out what he's not pointing out. And then some Woos, who resemble hovering water balloons with numbers attached, keep invading the pages, trying to turn the alphabet book into a number book. Their contributions to the text appear in a different color and type style from the narrator's.

With all the arguments and twists, G is for Gzonk! requires 80 pages to get through twenty-six letters of the alphabet and one number. That's an unusually large investment for a picture-book publisher, reflecting DiTerlizzi's success with Spiderwick and The Spider and the Fly.

Unfortunately, the book's rhyming text is just as irregular as its alphabet, and less intentionally. As I always say about stories in verse, rhyme is easy; rhythm is hard. Here are the book's first two stanzas, with the naturally emphasized syllables in capital letters:

HelLO! And WELcome TO my BOOK!
I am the AUTHor and ARTist
(as SOON you'll PLAINly SEE)

of this ALphaBET of CREACHlings!
A TWENty-six-LETter menAGerIE!
as you MAY have GUESSED,
it WON'T teach you A b C.
The lines never settle into a steady rhythm, iambic or otherwise. Compare the bumpy patterns above to "and to THINK that I SAW it on MULberry STREET." The most solidly metrical lines, such as "(as soon you'll plainly see)," add little to the text's meaning.

Dr. Seuss's nonsense texts showed his mastery of language, but I fear Gzonk's verse, like the Woos, show language overwhelming the author.

29 November 2007

Several Forms of Irony

MotherReader hosts the month’s Carnival of Children’s Literature, which has lots of tips on blogging, parenting, and reviewing books. Though I admit my favorite part was her reference to “the ever literary Oz and Ends” a mere four days after I’d featured a comic-book panel of a zombie rabbit.

But just to justify that judgment, I’ll reply to MotherReader’s plea (in the truly useful “Funny Writer Tips”) for “an ironic font — and no, the little winking emoticon isn’t enough.”

As far back as 1793, when William Thornton published Cadmus: or, A Treatise on the Elements of Written Language, authors have expressed a desire for some visual sign of irony within written text. Perhaps earlier writers had stated the same need, but literacy and irony may also not have been widespread enough to create a serious problem before. I hate smileys, too, but must admit they’re the first widely recognized solution to that challenge.

Thornton’s suggestion was:

A mark of Irony should be invented, for its use must be acknowledged, by those who are acquainted with language; and it should, like all the rest, be placed before and after the sentence---(+) this mark may serve.
Putting special punctuation before as well as after sentences (as Spanish typography already does with its ¿) was meant to signal readers about the nuance of a sentence before they plunged into it. Of course, some irony depends on not revealing itself too early. +We may need another two centuries to figure this out.+

Finally, outside the carnival Bottom Shelf Books imagines picture-book superheroes Max and Pinky interviewing for jobs with the Justice League. (No, a mere ahistorical allusion to Robin doesn’t make this our weekly Robin.)

28 November 2007

Home, School, Play, Work

I’m taking the opportunity to pass on a call for papers from the American Antiquarian Society (and to save time on a busy day by posting the same material on two blogs):

Home, School, Play, Work:
The Visual and Textual Worlds of Children

Conference: 14-15 Nov 2008, at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

The Center for Historic American Visual Culture and the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture at the American Antiquarian Society seek papers that explore the visual and textual worlds of children in America from 1700 to 1900.

We welcome proposals that address the creation, circulation, and reception of print, manuscript, and other materials produced for, by, or about children. Submissions may address any aspect of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century textual, visual, or material culture that relate to the experience or representation of childhood.

Suggested topics include popular prints for or of children, board and card games, children’s book illustration, visual aspects of children’s books and magazines, early photography and children, performing children (theater, dance, the circus), dolls and puppets, child workers in art and printing industries, images of children and race, representations of childhood sexuality, the architecture of childhood spaces (schoolrooms, nurseries), children’s clothing, children’s appropriation of commodities, children’s handiwork (samplers, dolls, toys), and theories of visuality or textuality and childhood.

Please send a one-page proposal for a 20-minute paper and a brief C.V. to Georgia B. Barnhill, Director of the Center for Historic American Visual Culture, by 10 Jan 2008.
See this page for Barnhill’s email address, more detail, and any updates.

The A.A.S. has a significant collection of early American children’s literature. The organization’s founder, Isaiah Thomas, contributed to this field by reprinting many of John Newbery’s pioneering British children’s books--albeit not with Newbery’s formal authorization. The A.A.S. reading room was also where Esther Forbes, author of Johnny Tremain, did much of her research alongside her principal assistant (her mother).

27 November 2007

Still Looking After That Bear

HarperCollins in the UK has announced that it will publish a new Paddington Bear novel by Michael Bond, the first in thirty years. As The Bookseller reports, Paddington Here and Now will come out next year, fifty years after Bond's first Paddington novel introduced the character.

Of course, Paddington hasn't really been gone since 1978. He's simply been transfered from novels into picture books, cartoons, figurines, plush toys, and other manifestations. The page on the official Paddington website showing how the Peruvian-British bear has been portrayed over the years puts the books' several illustrators on an equal footing with depictions by "FilmFair," "Cinar," and, of all things, "Merchandising."

I rather liked the FilmFair TV series, which was created in the 1970s using stop-motion animation. Paddington and his props were three-dimensional while all the other characters were flat cut-outs--which had the nifty effect of making Paddington look more real. The more recent cartoon series has used standard drawn animation, and I've never found it special enough to watch.

25 November 2007

Sensational Character Find?

As I wrote a week ago, I first read about Batman and Robin in the collection Batman: From the '30s to the '70s, which ended with comic books showing Dick Grayson going off to college and Bruce Wayne proceeding to fight villains on his own. Editor E. Nelson Bridwell presented that as a return to Batman's deep, dark roots.

The same understanding of the arc of Batman's character shows up in a lot of other places. Bob Kane himself has written (with Tom Andrae) about "my original conception of Batman as a lone, mysterious vigilante." Gotham's Greats describes the late 1960s characterization of Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adam this way:

O'Neil's scripts were evocative of the early Kane/Finger pulp-inspired stories, centering on the lone, Robinless figure of the Batman--it was "the" Batman, again, thanks to O'Neil--against whatever inexplicable, ghoulish denizens of the night he had to face in a given month's melodrama.
Another typical assessment comes from the "Nightwing of Kandor" website:
Batman operated alone and relied on his wits, solving mysteries and fighting street thugs in back alleys. He had become again what he had been in the beginning; a lone wolf, a mysterious figure haunting Gotham by night and striking fear into the hearts of evil-doers.
(Extra points to anyone who knows the more familiar name of Nightwing of Kandor.)

Not only is Robin not part of that original picture, but he seems antithetical to it. How could the Batman be scary with a bare-legged twelve-year-old in yellow, red, and green clothing swinging by his side? In DC Comics's current "continuity," Bruce Wayne met and adopted Dick Grayson in "Year Three" of his career as Batman, implying Wayne spent at least two years of terrifying criminals on his own.

All of which made me a little embarrassed to find Robin an interesting character. I like my history accurate, I like my texts original, I like my vigilantes as dark as my chocolate. And these authors were arguing that Robin had softened and sugarcoated the Batman. I feared that I was somehow disrespecting the pure and essential.

Lately, I did the math. Robin made his debut as "The Sensational Character Find of 1940" in Detective Comics, issue 38. The adventures of Batman had started the year before in issue 27. Which meant that Batman had a grand total of eleven recorded solo adventures before Robin burst into the scene. There were one or two more in the first issue of Batman magazine alongside some Batman-Robin adventures, but the "original conception of Batman as a lone, mysterious vigilante" had held up for less than a year.

More recently I've read accounts of the development of new Robins in the 1980s, and the DC editorial teams of that decade seem just as certain that Batman needed a Robin as earlier teams thought that Batman needed to be a loner. In a 1984 interview Teen Titans artist George Pérez said of his counterparts on the Batman team:
They wanted to bring back the old formula. Doug [Moench] was anxious to try the idea of the original Batman and Robin team again.
Even Dennis O'Neil wrote in the foreword of A Lonely Place of Dying in 1990:
...the consensus was that a Batman without a Robin wasn't quite a Batman. I wasn't surprised. Nor did I disagree, particularly.
So somehow the essential Batman, even attached to the word "original," was the Batman-Robin team, not the lone vigilante.

24 November 2007

That Thing Can't Die

Another bunny.

Art by Bob Brown, script by Arnold Drake, from the DC comic book Challengers of the Unknown, issue 48 (Feb-Mar 1966). The one where they meet the Doom Patrol.

23 November 2007

Page Spreads versus Pages: graphic evidence

Back during COMICS AND NON-COMICS fortnight, I shared my impression that most comics are planned page by page while most picture books are planned spread by spread. And here's some graphic evidence of those different approaches.

John Byrne created these layout sketches that while working on X-Men for Marvel comics (specifically for the landmark "Death of Phoenix" issue). They were reprinted in TwoMorrow Publishing's Modern Masters volume on Byrne. As you can see, he sketched each page as a separate box.

In contrast, here are instructions on how to plan out a picture book from Frieda Gates's How To Write, Illustrate and Design Children’s Books. It advises working by page spreads. Even when two facing pages have separate illustrations, as in the first pairing, Gates sketches them as a unit.
(And there's even a bunny!)

Now it's possible that the process of creating comics has changed greatly since Byrne was drawing this issue in 1980. Certainly comic books now contain more unified page spreads, and the rise of non-periodical comics has allowed artists to anticipate where their pages will fall in a book more successfully. Nonetheless, I suspect that comics artists still work mainly page by page, and full spreads are the exception to the rule.

22 November 2007

Bronze Lentil

Hamilton, Ohio, calls itself the "City of Sculpture." Among the many realistic bronze statues in its public spaces is this rendering of Lentil, the harmonica-playing hero of the picture book by native son Robert McCloskey.

The book never names the dog following Lentil, but a town contest came up with the name Harmony. The sculptor, Nancy Schon, also cast the duck family in Boston's Public Garden based on McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings.

Other sculptures in Hamilton are less inspiring.

21 November 2007

Oz Art at Suffolk U.

The Daily Ozmapolitan alerted me that the New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University in Boston is presenting an exhibition of student art called "Ozspirations: New Art Inspired by The Wizard of Oz." It will be on display until 22 December.

The school's blog calls this "a thought-provoking exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of L. Frank Baum’s classic series of books"--though the anniversary of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was in 2000. I can argue that 2007 is the centenary of the launch of the Oz series because Ozma of Oz (1907) was the first Oz book Baum wrote with a plan to add more. But still, the dating seems a little wide of the mark.

Associate Professor of Graphic Arts Jennifer Fuchel explained the timing this way: "I wanted to put on this show because I felt people had been so swept up in the whirlwind of tragic events unleashed by September eleventh that the Centennial of Oz had passed largely unnoticed." Except that those events started in 2001, a year after the Oz centenary was observed with a major conference by the International Wizard of Oz Club, several books, and an exhibit at the Library of Congress. Perhaps it would be better to say that imaginative artists never need an excuse to envision Oz.

The drawing above is F. Lenno Campello's "The Last Thing the Wicked Witch of the East Saw," one of the works on display. But I must recommend the drawing on the same theme by Eric Shanower published on the cover of Oziana magazine in 1992.

20 November 2007

The Dangerous Book for Rabbits

A loyal Oz and Ends reader advised me after the great flood of comics postings that perhaps I should go back to musing on books about bunnies. But I'm not sure that Emily Gravett's Wolves was what she had in mind.

Wolves has a bunny in it, to be sure. He or she checks out a book about wolves from the library and reads it while walking home. And as she or he reads, wolves creep out of the book, growing larger and larger, until our leporine hero or heroine reads that their prey includes...rabbits.

What follows isn't pretty, although Gravett's combination of drawing and collage is delightful, as is her play with the form and expectations of picture books. To be exact, she assembles a happy ending for sensitive readers from the shreds of the chewed-over book the rabbit was reading.

Wolves is a curious sort of picture book. I bet it holds more appeal for adults who have a lot of experience with picture books as an art form than to little kids looking for a satisfying story. I came across it at the Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards ceremony, where there were many more adult picture-book professionals than children of any age or disposition. I bought a copy for myself, but don't know of any child I'd subject to it.

For another, Wolves is from a curious genre I think of as anti-book books. These volumes portray reading as so powerful than it's actually dangerous. The rabbit in Wolves isn't hunted by wolves naturally; she or he encounters wolves that come out of the library book, with the implication that they would have remained stuck on the page if only that book had never been checked out and read.

In some anti-book books, such as Cornelia Funke's Inkheart, the solution to the problems caused by reading can be found in further reading. But others, like Wolves, don't offer even that comfort.

19 November 2007

The Book with Six Beginner Mistakes

You wouldn’t think that writing a profile of an iconoclastic economist and then co-writing a book and magazine column with him about non-intuitive findings about human behavior would be good practice for writing a picture book. And you’d be right. But that’s part of the story behind The Boy with Two Belly Buttons, by Stephen J. Dubner.

It’s rare to see so many beginners’ mistakes in a published picture book, much less a picture book published by a top press (HarperCollins). But then the reasons for the publication and extra marketing push for The Boy with Two Belly Buttons are easy to spot. Dubner cowrote Freakonomics, a New York Times bestseller, and this book offers a pat “valuable lesson about life” with the addition of an internationally known celebrity--i.e., he’s ready for his morning-show interview now.

The book’s mistakes actually start with Dubner’s choice to share a tale created for his own kids without punching it up better. Beginner mistake #1: Kids love to hear their parents’ stories, and like to keep their parents happy. The test of a good story is not sharing it with your kids, but sharing it with people who don’t give a damn about you.

The protagonist of the book, young Solomon, realizes when his little sister is born that he is unusual in having two belly buttons. This is a “problem” without consequences. Solomon is not suffering physically. He didn’t feel “different” before his little sister arrived, and I’m pretty sure the anatomical differences between boy and girl go beyond the navel. Beginner mistake #2: It’s tough to write a compelling story without a compelling conflict.

If Solomon just kept his shirt down, no one would see his stomach. But the boy shows his extra belly button to everyone but a “professor of buttonology” who refuses to believe in it. Why doesn’t Solomon lift his shirt then? Because of beginner mistake #3: Making the main character act illogically simply to keep the plot going.

Solomon meets a talking turtle. Why a talking turtle? (Why, for that matter, two belly buttons?) The story never explains. There’s no reason that a whimsical tale needs to explain every detail, of course, but in a world with talking turtles how weird would an extra belly button really seem? Beginner mistake #4: Inconsistent tone. Not every idea for a book is worth keeping.

Finally, Solomon bumps into a “very famous movie director” who looks exactly like Steven Spielberg. In the original manuscript, the publicity materials assure me, the movie director was Steven Spielberg, whom Dubner once interviewed. The text doesn’t prepare us for that moment or explain why Solomon literally bumps into a director getting out of his limousine. This isn’t an experience young readers, or even older readers, usually have. Beginner mistake #5: Ever since Aristotle, deus ex machina is a lousy plot device.

The cinematic artist formerly known as Spielberg tells Solomon that a boy with an extra navel would “have to be very special.” He might even make a movie about that boy. (The real Steven Spielberg would know that movies need a very compelling story, not just a minor physical anomaly.) And suddenly Solomon feels okay. Beginner mistake #6: The young protagonist doesn’t solve his problem; instead, a wise adult tells him how to solve his problem.

The Boy with Two Belly Buttons is ultimately about our celebrity culture. Not just because if someone had offered this manuscript to HarperCollins but hadn’t written a New York Times bestseller, met Steven Spielberg, or been known to the press, then the publisher almost certainly wouldn’t have published it.

The book also reflects our outsized deference to celebrities in its story. The talking turtle tells Solomon that having a stomach like no one else’s “is a recipe for ridicule.” A Hollywood luminary tells Solomon that having two belly buttons is “very special.” Why does Solomon believe one and not the other? Well, only one of those judgments comes from a celebrity.

18 November 2007

Susan Cooper in Cambridge

On Thursday I had the pleasure of hearing Susan Cooper speak on “Unriddling the World” at the Cambridge Forum. As I did during the Horn Book Awards ceremony, I noted down some particularly aphoristic remarks from Cooper's speech or the question session that followed.

"Nearly every time I sit down to write a piece of fiction, it turns into a fantasy by the end of page 3."

"Though myth, like its great-grandchild fantasy, may not be real, it is true."

"You have to be irrational, indirect, in order to help young readers solve this determinedly puzzling universe."

"I don't write for ten-year-olds. An audience of ten-year-olds fills me with terror. But I write from the heart of my ten-year-old self."

In regard to her experience growing up during the Battle of Britain: "Under normal circumstances, a child doesn't experience enough bad things to get a sense of evil."

"Fantasists can't deal with extremes, just as extremists can't deal with fantasy."

Growing up on an English landscape, as opposed to (I believe) America, "gives you a sense that everything that ever happened is still happening."

"Life is not a happy little story, but it has a lot of wonderful things in it."

That event was recorded for the Cambridge Forum program on public radio, and an audio download will soon be available through the WGBH Forum Network, at which time we can check how good my note-taking was.

In her talk, Cooper listed five great mysteries of human existence that fantasy can help young readers explore: life, death, time, good, evil. That got me thinking about what mysteries aren't on Cooper's list.

Love, not in the sense of "Love your neighbor" goodness, but in the sense of "Why can't I stop thinking about that girl across the room? Why do I want to spend the rest of my life with this man?" Cooper chooses not to write about adolescents, who are often rapt (and wrapped) in that mystery. She noted how her Dark Is Rising hero Will Stanton is eleven years old while the recent cinematic offshoot is in his teens and, naturally, in the throes of a crush.

Family. This human bond is a big part of Cooper's work, but not as a mystery she probes. For Will and for the Drew children in the Dark Is Rising series, family is a given, a guarantee, a haven and a happy responsibility. In King of Shadows, Nat has lost his family, and seeks a new one in the theater. But not all families are alike, or happy. Families and family ties are not benign forces in the work of Diana Wynne Jones, to take one example. And the screenwriter of The Seeker was clearly interested in difficult sibling relationships, grafting that mystery onto Cooper's story.

17 November 2007

Don't Let the Robin Drive the Car

The first superhero comics collection I remember reading was a copy of Batman: From the '30s to the '70s, published in 1971. I think it was in the library of the college where my father taught, and I would have been in early elementary school. Naturally, this collection included a lot of stories about Batman's sidekick Robin, starting with the 1940 adventure in which young Dick Grayson began fighting crime and going through the 1969 tale that showed Dick leaving Wayne Manor for college.

I didn't buy or read comic books until a few years later, and then I focused on Marvel titles--Batman and Robin were trademarks of that company's rival, DC. But the last series that I bought on a monthly basis, the only one I still checked out during my own first years at college, was the Marv Wolfman/George Pérez Teen Titans. That group of young superheroes was led by none other than Dick Grayson, though toward the end of my run he'd taken a new costume and identity as Nightwing.

Robin, the Boy Wonder, was thus at the alpha and omega of my experience with superhero comics. So when I decided to look at that genre again this year, I figured I could do worse than investigate them through that character. He's been around in American culture for two-thirds of a century. Other young characters have now assisted Batman under the name Robin. And the whole batch have, it turns out, gone through some interesting changes and interpretations.

At first I imagined a week's worth of musings on Robin, but then I realized I had more. Enough to turn this into a comics blog, of which there are plenty already, and to turn off some children's-literature fans (one of whom I've already heard from this COMICS AND NON-COMICS fortnight).

So instead of bunching the Robin posts together and letting the Boy Wonder drive this blog, I'm inaugurating an almost-regular series I'll call "the weekly Robin."

You've been warned.

(The dramatic image above, anonymously drawn by Dick Sprang, comes from the cover of Batman magazine, issue #20, Dec 1943/Jan 1944.)

16 November 2007

One of Baum's Best: "Glass Dog" Goes Graphic

Fantasy Classics, volume 15, to be published in spring 2008, includes a comics version of L. Frank Baum's short story "The Glass Dog," as adapted by Antonella Caputo and Brad Teare.

Baum was best at the long form, which gave enough time for his strengths in characterization to come out. His indifference as a plotter makes some of his short stories less than fulfilling.

But "The Glass Dog" is one of Baum's best little tales. It's like an O. Henry story with an overlay of magic--what we might call "magical realism" today. A wizard, a glassblower, and a sickly rich lady all try to take advantage of each other, and the story's outcome has the "you deserved it" snap of some early 1950s horror comics, in which all the characters end up as unhappy as they deserve.

"The Glass Dog" also offers shadows of Baum's longer fantasies to come. The action starts with a one-drop rheumatism cure, like John Dough and the Cherub. A magician brings a glass figurine of an animal to life, as in The Patchwork Girl of Oz. But there are no children here; it's strictly a tale of adults behaving badly.

15 November 2007

Comics, Criticism, and the Compass

For folks bored with all these musings about comics, I once again offer a supplemental daily entry with a couple of outside links.

And the first one is about...comics! It's Publishers Weekly's brief report on a panel discussion about the future of comics retailing, through comics shops or bookstores, especially with more of the industry going online. One excerpt:

As graphic novels continue to claim more and more shelf space at traditional bookstores, the issue of how to categorize graphic novels in bookstores--by format or content--remains complicated.

[Graphic novels publisher Rich] Johnson reported that Barnes & Noble recently decided to shelf the Yen Press title With the Light, a manga tale about raising autistic child, in the child developmental section, rather than the manga section.

But [Pantheon Editorial Director Dan] Frank, who recalled “the tremendous amount of difficulty” he experienced in 2000 getting traditional bookstores to stock the critically-acclaimed Chris Ware graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, remarked that “even to this day [we] can have trouble with the more traditional chains. They don’t know quite where to put some of our things.”
On the heels of the National Book Award for Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, I can't help linking to B. R. Myers's thoroughly exasperated review of same in The Atlantic:
When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences--when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat.

Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.
The same issue of the magazine includes Hanna Rosin's article about how the upcoming Golden Compass movie will deal with the His Dark Materials trilogy's portrayal of religious organizations and sexual awakening. That investigation is hampered by the facts that:
  • Rosin has apparently seen neither the movie nor the script.
  • All the bits that are really controversial appear in the latter two books, especially the third, and therefore were never slated for this movie anyway.
So, like the Catholic League's bombast, this is all based on unproven assumptions.

Get Out of the Gutter: Hong Kil Dong Goes Comics

Anne Sibley O'Brien's The Legend of Hong Kil Dong is a recent example of an American picture book that uses the visual vocabulary of comics. Earlier in the year I wrote about hearing O'Brien speak of the challenges, for her and her production team at Charlesbridge, of figuring out this new style.

Here's another wrinkle that probably became apparent only after the book had been bound. Hardcover picture books usually have a strong library-quality binding, so the pages don't lie flat. That produces a deep gutter, and an artistic challenge. If any illustration extends over two facing pages, and these days most picture-book illustrations do, the artist must be careful not put crucial details where the gutter will fall. In laying out the book, the Production Department must make each pair of facing pages meet at their join as seamlessly as possible.

Here's a scan of one problematic gutter from The Legend of Hong Kil Dong:
O'Brien drew two panels of the same place from the same angle--a common comics technique. In the first, her hero Hong Kil Dong practices with his sword in a walled garden. In the second, a man approaches him and speaks.

Unfortunately, the space between those panels and the borders that defined them fell into the gutter between the pages and disappeared. Because the two panels show the same sky, wall, and grass, they appear at first glance to be a single panel stretching across the gutter. There's even a bush that seems to provide visual continuity from one side to the other.

Only after "rereading" the spread did it become clear to me that the two young men with swords are in fact the same young man at different moments. This is a minor glitch in a book that generally uses comics techniques well, but it's a sign of how picture-book publishers will have to learn new tricks as more artists try the comics style.

14 November 2007

Old-Fashioned and Modern: Dorothy Gale Goes Comics

It's been a while since I ventured into the "Oz" side of Oz and Ends, but now that I'm discussing how stories make the transition into comics format, I can mention Michael Cavallaro's "manga-style" adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz from Puffin Graphics.

This book was conceived and commissioned by Byron Preiss Visual Productions, which probably means it was done on the cheap. A nice consequence of that approach, however, is that it gave a young artist the chance to create his "first novel-length work for a major publisher."

Cavallaro hadn't read Baum's text before this job, but he was quite faithful to it. The only omitted episode is the visit to the China Country (which Baum probably added to his manuscript after the first draft). Most of the dialogue and narrative captions come directly from the book. There's little evidence of the MGM movie looming over this vision of the story.

Nevertheless, throughout the book there's a tension between Baum's original text and Cavallaro's visual adaptation of it more than a century later. The first page says, "In our solar system...on Earth...in America...in the midst of the great prairies"--the last phrase echoing Baum, the first three hinting at today's wider perspective on fantasy lands.

Dorothy lives "in a place called Kansas," but she also lives in an urban townhouse. She wears jeans, sneakers, and a studded belt. She speaks in old-fashioned cadences: "I'm sure Aunt Em will be dreadfully worried over my being away so long." But she has a young adolescent's spindly body and the big-eyed visage of anime heroines.

The Tin Woodman has a buzz saw for one hand, making an ax redundant. A detail like that is usually a hallmark of a "dark" adaptation of Oz, but this tin man's character is as kind as ever. Similarly, the Scarecrow wears (is partly made of?) a zippered sweatshirt, the Winkie soldiers have dog tags, and the Wicked Witch of the West's magical cap is a chic turban. But their characters are as Baum created them.

All in all, I thought the mix worked just fine. I especially liked the variety of panel frames and layouts that Cavallaro used to translate Baum's story into dramatic visual form. A budding comics creator could get a lot of ideas from these pages. And the last 26 of the book's pages share a sample of Cavallaro's sketches and notes.

13 November 2007

Shifting Perspective: Alex Rider Goes Comics

The Stormbreaker graphic novel was adapted from the movie, so some of its differences from Anthony Horowitz's original novel might have been influenced by the conventions of commercial films rather than the conventions of comics.

For instance, the villain has become a tall, muscular American rather than a short, stunted Lebanese or Egyptian. I'd think that would make the villain more formidable, but Horowitz has lamented the change.

However, I also think movies and modern comics have a lot in common: combining images and words, developing along parallel tracks about a hundred years ago, and using some of the same narrative strategies.

The novel begins with young Alex overhearing the news of his uncle's death one night. It throws us into his experience of loss, and ties us to his point of view. Several chapters later, the narration jumps out of Alex's perspective for the first time. We then become privy to a brief conversation among a spy agency's leaders about him, a conversation that Alex can't hear.

In contrast, the graphic novel has an early scene of Alex speaking to his uncle by cell phone. Uncle Ian says nothing to Alex about what he's doing, but the comics panels show us: he's involved in a deadly car (and, if I recall right, helicopter) chase. This scene might have been added to the screenplay for a couple of reasons. It would open the movie with an action scene, and would give us more of a sense of Uncle Ian as a character, and thus Alex's loss, than the book does.

Regardless of that scene's genesis, I think it highlights something that comics (and movies) do more often than novels: shifting around among different characters' points of view. Comics routinely show us what villains are up to, spell out several characters' thoughts, and show us what the protagonist can't see. Some novels still do that, of course, but over the past century American novelists have been much more interested in creating a tight focus and maintaining a consistent point of view.

Perhaps comics, with their visual dimension, make it easier for readers to sort out multiple points of view than a prose novel can. One page of typeset prose looks much like another, after all, but a picture of the Green Goblin in his workshop is clearly, immediately distinguishable from a picture of Spider-Man wondering where the Green Goblin is.

12 November 2007

Brothers Undercover: Hardy Boys Go Comics

I decided to ease into reading Japanese-style comics through American adaptations of the style--specifically, one of Papercutz's manga-style additions to the Hardy Boys books. This one was called, somewhat ironically, Identity Theft.

In this revamping of the Hardy Boys series (the third major reworking in its history, I believe), Frank and Joe have been granted several attributes that the heroes of adventure comics usually have. They now have secret identities as agents for A.T.A.C. (American Teens Against Crime, but that's a secret). They sky-dive. Joe wears bicycle gloves throughout the adventure, showing how edgy he is.

And the bigger change is in their personalities. When I was a boy, all Hardy Boys books were hardcover novels, and all Hardy boys were alike. Frank was a year older than Joe, but otherwise their characters were the same. Or, as the New York Times noted in 2001, their "personalities...barely extend beyond the color of their hair." (Joe's the blond one.)

Now Failure Magazine reports:

Frank and Joe are now exhibiting stronger and better-differentiated personalities. In the Digest series [started in 1979], "Joe is a bit more impulsive and Frank is described as 'studious,' but the reader can't tell them apart," reminds Gutman. "We're going to exaggerate their personalities. Joe will be younger, hipper, more impulsive and reckless. Frank will be more mature, grounded and perhaps a little nerdy. Think of Joe as Mel Gibson and Frank as Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon."
So basically the Hardy boys are now acting like the Sprouse twins--or at least the version that shows up in their TV show.

Still, I didn't expect them to go all shōnen-ai.

(And in case these new Hardy Boys comics on top of the old books aren't enough, here's a link for clean Hardy Boys fanfiction.)

11 November 2007

Balloons and Other Ways Comics Show the Invisible

Probably the most visible hallmark of comics style is the use of speech balloons. For centuries artists have conveyed the idea that people are speaking by writing words into their art and connecting those words to particular figures. Over the last hundred years comics artists have developed sophisticated systems of using words in balloons to convey tone, emotion, pace, sources of sound, and other aspects of speech. In fact, in some ways this approach outperforms prose in conveying the nuances of how we talk. Here’s a small sampling of variations from Web Comic Triage.

Seeing speech balloons in a picture book or illustrated novel seems to cue people into saying those books have a "comics" style. I think that's another big reason why people view Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen as different from other picture books. As the page image back here shows, Sendak sprinkled some speech balloons into his recipe.

Another example of such a hybrid is the recent bestseller Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Jeff Kinney conceived that as a novel with some comics-style illustrations supplementing and commenting on the prose. When his story was first published in installments on FunBrain.com a couple of years back, the web format called for art on every page. I noticed then that other websites were reviewing Wimpy Kid as a webcomic--it had come to look as much like a comic as like a novel.

Speech balloons are just one part of the visual language of comics that makes visible many experiences that we can't ordinarily see in a still image. In addition to spoken words, these things include:

  • Verbal thoughts. Words can appear in puffy thought balloons. Artists can also depict thoughts visually, showing a character's fantasy or fear or plan.
  • Nonverbal emotions and states of mind, conveyed through beads of sweat popping off a forehead (as in the "Mr. Wonderful" comic in today's New York Times Magazine), cultural symbols (broken heart, bleeding nose, birds circling the head), chibi versions of characters acting out their emotions, and more.
  • Sound effects. POW! sssssss. Fwapfwapfwapfwapfwap... These visual elements are especially difficult to deal with in translations since the letter forms themselves become integral to the art.
  • Motion and impact. Different artists convey speed by adding motion lines behind the moving object, blurring the object, blurring the background, and/or drawing multiple images.
  • Labels from the narrator for the benefit of the reader.
Some critics even see this visual language as crucial to distinguishing comics from other forms of sequential art. R. C. Harvey reportedly says in The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History that Hal Foster's Prince Valiant is "not comics" because of its resolute separation of words and pictures; it famously doesn't include speech balloons. Other critics say that's ridiculously judgmental, that Prince Valiant has earned its place among comics through longevity and graphic quality. All I can say is that one look at Prince Valiant shows that it's different from everything else on the funny pages. It alone uses pictures and prose like a traditional picture book.

Traditional picture-book storytelling eschews the visual language of comics in favor of a more realistic approach. That may seem odd, considering that picture books abound in talking animals, cartoonish people, magic, and other unrealistic things. But still, it's rare to see the techniques listed above in today's full-color picture books.

Picture-book artists seem most comfortable with the less verbal and symbolic and the most visual of those techniques. Eric Rohmann's My Friend Rabbit has motion lines, for example. (His more traditional Cinder-Eyed Cats does not.) Robert McCloskey's Lentil used a few motion lines and a lot of musical notes--almost necessary for telling a story about music.

It's still a rare picture book which incorporates sound effects into the art or shows characters' speeches and thoughts inside balloons, however. And when an artist does use those techniques, as in Little Vampire Goes to School, librarians seem to be shelving those books with "graphic novels" simply because they all use the visual language of comics.

10 November 2007

Comics, Children's Books, and the Self-Publishing Stigma

This installment of COMICS AND NON-COMICS WEEK turns away from form and back to a behind-the-scenes aspect of the two types of publication.

I quote Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics:

Self-publishing is a mark of mediocrity in the prose book world, but it's easy enough to do in comics--since there's only one distributor of note--that it's not just an acceptable first step but, in more than a few cases, a long-term career path.
And Michael R. Lavin at the University of Buffalo:
Unlike the book publishing community, the comic book industry accepts self-publishing as a respectable outlet for creative effort. Experienced, talented comic book professionals often publish their own work as a means of realizing their artistic vision without editorial interference from mainstream publishers. Most self-published comics are created using the same professional, high-quality production standards as titles from major publishers. Many have enjoyed long-lived commercial success and/or critical acclaim. In fact, some of the most original, exciting, and groundbreaking comics in today's marketplace result from self-publishing activity.
Self-publishing is a "mark of mediocrity" for non-comics only because so many mediocre books have been published by that route. I'm not sure why the situation would be different for comics, especially since that field offers plenty of egregious examples of self-publishing. But, as this column from The Book Standard notes, some of the field's best work also came to us by that route (including today's featured book cover, from the Bone series by Jeff Smith).

Wolk suggests that the dominance of Diamond Comics Distributors is a crucial difference, opening the playing field for all comics publishers. Maybe the cheap price of comic books (as opposed to paperback collections) makes it easier for customers to take a chance on a new title that looks promising. Maybe there's a better word-of-mouth network; fanboys do talk. Or maybe the nature of comics themselves, with their plethora of art, means that a quick look can distinguish the good from the mediocre.

09 November 2007

Same Image, Slightly Different

Having broken the news that there are more pictures on a typical comics page than a typical picture-book page, I'm going out on a limb today to suggest that there are fewer pictures in a traditional picture book than a comics-style book of the same length. Yes, the insights just keep coming.

My real point is that I think the smaller number of images in typical picture books has pushed artists away from a method of using sequential pictures that comics artists use a lot: a series of similar images with small changes from one to the next.

Picture books have a minimum number of images, a fact that writers have to consider when they conceive of their stories. As Peggy Tibbetts wrote, "if you can't come up with at least a dozen concrete visual images for the illustrator to choose from, you might want to re-think your picture book idea." Jan Fields went further in distinguishing a picture-book story from one more appropriate for a magazine: "In a picture book, it is...important that every illustration be different (not all in the same room, not all of two people talking)."

Traditional picture books also have a maximum number of images. They tend to be 32 pages, and if nearly every spread offers a single picture, that means there are only about 17 holes to fill. Where the Wild Things Are has an extra half-signature: 48 pages (including endpapers). But, even counting the cover, Maurice Sendak created only 20 images for that book. The picture-storybook Pink and Say is also 48 pages; Patricia Polacco created only 26 pictures.

Faced with so few opportunities for art, most picture-book artists strive for visual variety. They make each image a full-spread masterpiece, showing a complete scene. When a manuscript calls for them to portray the same scene over time, most choose different angles or move characters around to create dissimilar images. After all, why spend 2 of 17 spreads (more than 10% of a 32-page book) repeating yourself?

In contrast, the comics storytelling style often requires artists to depict the same scene several times on a page: the same two people talking in a room, for example. Artists can show that scene from a variety of angles, with lots of character action. Or they can create a series of similar panels, focusing readers' attention on the passage of time or the small variation between one panel and the next. I've come to think of that technique as another hallmark of comics art that's uncharacteristic of recent picture books.

The page from Sendak's In the Night Kitchen that I showed back here offers a view of that technique, clearly inspired by comics. A single page contains two images of Max falling through the same room. By comparing one to the next, we can see how he's moving down past the chandelier and the clock. We can also see Max lose all his clothes, which is bound to keep a young reader's attention.

I suspect that technique works best if the two similar illustrations aren't separated by a page turn. When the two images are side by side, we can see their similarity even as we concentrate on the details; we don't have to hold one in memory. However, some picture-book artists have used this technique well from spread to spread. Ellen Raskin was a master at it: Spectacles, And It Rained, Nothing Ever Happens on My Block. (I wonder if it was more popular when artists were responsible for supplying their own separations, and so were copying their drawings already.)

As an example of how this type of sequential art works so well in comics, I've taken two facing pages from Art Spiegelman's Maus. (I've fuzzed the unnecessary words so as not to show more than fair use.) On these pages the narrator's father describes his family gatherings before World War II.

This page contains eight images. Two show the narrator's father speaking from his exercise bicycle; in a picture book, that would be redundant. The other six images show the father's family, and they're even more repetitive. They're all from the same angle. They all show nearly the same instant in time. Yet they're still visually interesting because of their differences.

By comparing one similar image to the next, we understand that Spiegalman is bringing us into the scene through the window (like the opening of Citizen Kane!), and introducing us to each part of the family in turn. On this page, he's used panels to organize a single scene mostly by space.

On the facing page, Spiegelman continues to show us the same family from the same angle, but this time he emphasizes time by keeping the same part of the table in every picture, the same characters in the same seats. We're forced to focus on what changes from one panel to the next.
That puts more weight on the grown-up characters' words. We also see time pass by following a couple of little wordless stories involving the younger relatives. The teenager Lolek has his book taken away, and pouts. Baby Richieu turns over his plate, gets scolded, wails, and gets a hug. In a picture book with one image per spread, those four moments would need nearly a quarter of the book. Here it's just a lovely detail on a single page.

08 November 2007

Elsewhere in the Virtual World

While I indulge my inner fanboy during COMICS AND NON-COMICS WEEK, some folks might enjoy these links:

So far all the commenters on the question of comics versus picture books have been male. Hmmmm.

What A Glorious Thing the Turning of a Page Can Be

Yesterday I stated my first hallmark of the comics form as opposed to the picture-book form: more pictures on each page. Of course, a preschooler could see that. Is that insight really a good use of a college degree and twenty years of editing books?

No, but I think the implications of that basic fact send comics and picture books on somewhat different paths up the storytelling mountain. As I wrote yesterday, most comics appear to be organized in units of pages while most picture books are conceived in terms of page spreads. And today I'll posit another way the two forms work differently because of the different image-per-page ratios.

In comics, the vast majority of transitions from one image to the next occur through readers simply moving their eyes across the page spread. Both pictures remain visible. There's no other physical action necessary, and the time is quick.

In contrast, in picture books the vast majority of transitions from one image to the next take place through a page turn. One picture replaces another. There's a physical action, and a slight transition time.

The page turn has thus become a dominant element in how picture-book creators plan their pacing, suspense, surprises, scene changes, mood shifts, and more. In his interview on the National Book Award website after The Invention of Hugo Cabret was nominated for that award, Brian Selznick said:

There are graphic novels of course, but these don't usually take full advantage of the idea of the page turn. What a glorious thing the turning of a page can be!
Selznick's quotation shows the importance that picture-book artists give to the page turn. As I wrote about Hugo Cabret, its visual scheme depends entirely on page turns: there are never two pictures side by side.

Other remarks on the importance of the page turn in picture books: In essence, most picture books take the fuel that drives readers through every story--the wish to know what happens next--and inject it into page turns.

That said, Selznick is wrong to suggest that page turns don't play a big role in graphic novels. A very traditional comics volume I read earlier in the week--the superhero brawl The Insiders--has many dramatic page turns. In fact, the trope becomes rather predictable: you turn the page and find a big panel of a villain or two looming in the sky, energy crackling out of their eyes.

Both picture books and today's comic books seem to put particular weight on the final page turn, though in different ways. In picture books, that final step brings the story to a close, as in Where the Wild Things Are: the last page is simply text that says, "And it was still hot." Today's comic periodicals depend on interlacing, never-ending stories and multi-issue "arcs," so a final page often leads into a dire new conflict or emergency, cuing readers to buy the next issue.

The reason Selznick might perceive graphic novels as not taking full advantage of the power of page turns is that that type of transition isn't the primary mover of comics. In comics the most common transition between sequential images is perforce the eyeball shift from one panel to its neighbor. That doesn't require as much time and effort from the reader, and therefore seems less dramatic. (But tomorrow I'll discuss how that transition allows some visual techniques that picture books use more rarely.)

Visual storytellers might have to make a choice between a single image on most page spreads and lots of images, without much middle ground. My writing-group colleague Marilyn Salerno is also a first-grade teacher, and thus experienced in sharing picture books for beginning readers. She says that when she shows her classes books with two or three images on a page spread, the kids' eyes go zzzzzip! across the images to the one on the right. (Presumably the opposite occurs in Japan, Israel, and other countries that read right to left.) These young readers are all interested in the latest event, not in chewing on what came just before.

Why don't we zzzzzip the same way to the lower right of a comics page? I think a coupla things slow us down:
  • The large number of images on a page--not just two or three but eight or ten or twenty.
  • The integration of words into those pictures, which I'll discuss later in the week (plus, in this example, the fact that Ms. Salerno is not reading those words to us).
Those two elements of comics remind us of how much information we'd miss by skipping to the last image. Comics readers learn to be more patient than a first-grader.

TOMORROW: Picture books, comics, and visual variety.

07 November 2007

Page Spreads versus Pages

Yesterday I promised my thoughts on how picture books and comics work differently, even though they're both made up of words and sequential pictures. Here's the first major difference I see.

By and large, in modern picture books the main subsidiary unit is a two-page spread containing a single large image. When artists plan a picture book from a manuscript, their first step is to divide the text into page spreads.

In contrast, comics by and large have two or more--usually many more--images assembled in front of the reader at the same time. Together they make up one large image, of course, but each represents a different scene in time and space. Furthermore, historically the main subsidiary unit of comics has been the single page, broken into panels; of all the ways to write comics scripts, the pages/panels organization seems like the only constant.

This is, of course, not a hard and fast rule. Plenty of picture books have two or more separate pictures on a page spread, especially to break up a series of large images and change the mood or pace. Last year I talked about how nicely Chris Wormell's George and the Dragon does this.

Conversely, plenty of comics have two-page spreads. Indeed, a dramatic single-image spread containing title and credits has overtaken the introductory splash page as a comic-book convention. I also see more artists designing comics so that a page spread, even though it contains many images, has a unified visual scheme.

That's a recent development in comics, however--at least in the format that dominated the field in the US for so many years, the comic book. Those books depend on advertising pages that pop up in the middle of the story, making it harder for artists to plan full-page spreads. We can see the consequence in volumes collecting comics that are twenty or more years old. Each page of a story/issue is usually numbered by hand in a lower corner; sometimes even-numbered pages appear on the left in the book, sometimes on the right. In other words, the two pages we see on a spread were probably not designed to be viewed side by side.

The most popular periodical comics still have ads, but their publishers have discovered the additional revenue stream of reprints without ads in "graphic novel" format. That, plus digital tweaking of art, has let comics artists think in terms of page spreads. But there can still be a few bugs in the system. In the book version of DC's histrionic Infinite Crisis, editor Anton Kawasaki says of one segment:

We're also adding two new pages to this issue to "fix" the awkward way the Green Lantern spread originally fell. Damn you periodicals people for not paying attention and making us poor Collected Editions guys work harder!
A two-page spread in the original comic book would have been broken by a page turn in the graphic novel if Kawasaki hadn't commissioned an extra page before and after it. That sort of problem never comes up in picture books because they're designed around spreads from the start (and have no ads).

How does this play out in classic picture books? Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson's The Story of Ferdinand usually has one large illustration on each spread, showing one moment of time. So do Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings, and Ellen Raskin's Spectacles. [I choose my classics; you choose yours.]

But Sendak's In the Night Kitchen does not. As shown yesterday, Sendak took a leaf from his model, comics master Winsor McCay, and pictured more than one instant on a single page. Two other author-illustrators who often used that technique are Jules Feiffer and Edward Gorey--the other children's-book creators that Scott McCloud proudly names in Understanding Comics. Yet another example that McCloud doesn't mention, but who I think clearly belongs in the same group, is Richard Scarry in his larger books. They all have multiple sequential images on a typical page, my first hallmark of comics style.

TOMORROW: How we read picture books and comics differently.


Today's New York Times describes how the US presidential race popped up in part of the "Potterverse," and vice versa:

the Romney campaign had not expected its banners to appear on FanFiction.net, whose users have seen thousands of “Romney for President” ads while using the site to write their own plots about their favorite fictional characters — or read the work of others, including pornographic scenes between Harry Potter and Hermione Granger.
Of course, given the amount of fictionalizing former governor Mitt Romney has done in his brief political career, and how it seems to be accelerating rapidly, this ad placement seems only appropriate.

06 November 2007

Drawing the Line Between Comics and Picture Books

I am of course not the only fellow musing on where the line, if any, lies between comics and picture books. That's a big part of the argument in Dylan Horrocks's essay, "Inventing Comics," against taking Scott McCloud's influential analyses of comics as the last word on the art form.

This passage in Horrocks's critique focuses on McCloud's attempt in Understanding Comics to distinguish between picture books and comics:

The belief that ‘comics are a visual medium’ sits guard at one of comics’ most fragile frontiers - the one between comics and illustrated texts (children’s picture books and so on). In fact, in Understanding Comics [McCloud] fails to define it at all. And by including a number of children’s picture books (such as Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen), he even seems to leave it wide open.

But when R. C. Harvey raises the question of this border, it soon becomes clear that this was not Scott’s intention:
Harvey: ‘Do you think that your definition also includes children’s literature - books in which there is a picture on every page and prose beneath each picture?’

McCloud: ‘not if the prose is independent of the pictures. Not if the written story could exist without any pictures and still be a continuous whole. That’s how it’s usually done, whereas the pictures are usually discontinuous...’

Harvey: ‘[That is] the narrative is continuous and independent of the pictures. And the pictures really are illustrating some moment in the prose narrative. There’s no necessary narrative strand in the pictures themselves.’

McCloud: ‘If you turn that on its head, you have comics. If the pictures, independent of the words, are telling the whole story and the words are supplementing that, then that is comics.’
This exchange is a revealing one. If we were to take his definition at face value, we would expect Scott to agree that children’s picture books are indeed comics. So long as there are two pictures somewhere in a book - and so long as those pictures form a narrative, then that book is a comic by Scott’s definition. After all, there are those books by Sendak, [Jules] Feiffer and [Edward] Gorey he includes in Understanding Comics. And if he’s willing to include stained glass windows, photo-booth strips and Hogarth’s etchings, then surely he’s happy to welcome the countless literary classics that the inclusion of picture books would bring into the realm of comics.

But McCloud is not willing to concede the point. Instead he struggles to qualify his definition in such a way that it will exclude ‘mere illustrated texts.’ It is no longer enough that there be spatially juxtaposed pictures, nor that the reader performs closure in reading those images. Now the pictures must tell the whole story, independent of the words - which are only allowed to supplement the pictorial narrative. In effect, McCloud has added an amendment to his definition: comics must not only contain pictorial narrative; they must be dominated by it.
I think Horrocks is correct that McCloud's attempt here to differentiate traditional picture books from traditional comics doesn't hold water. In many picture books the illustrations can tell the whole story, with the words merely filling in details. And there are wordless picture books, such as Flotsam. And finally there are many comics that would be incomprehensible (or even more incomprehensible) without their words.

But I do think there's an artistic difference between the examples of picture books that McCloud accepts as comics and most picture books. And I think it's apparent in this page from In the Night Kitchen.

TOMORROW: Spelling out the difference, part 1.

05 November 2007

Comics and Non-Comics, Manuscript and Script

In June I featured COMICS WEEK, with every posting about comic books or comics in other forms. In September I launched NON-COMICS WEEK, about books that have something to do with comics, but aren't comics. But today Oz and Ends starts something totally new: COMICS AND NON-COMICS WEEK!

Which is to say, I'm going to post thoughts on what makes comics different from other illustrated books. Some of these differences have to do with form, and thus may be inherent to the different storytelling media. Some involve the way that the different types of books are created, and thus may be more related to organizational cultures and traditions than the artistic forms. I base these comments on analysis rather than much experience with creating either of those types of books, so I welcome comments and rebuttals from people in the fields.

My first observation began several years ago when I drafted a comics script about Button-Bright and submitted it to the world's leading Oz comics creator. (What the heck?) I hadn't found any books about writing comics scripts, so I followed the only rules for to-be-illustrated manuscripts that I knew: the rules for picture books.

Those rules are:

  • The author writes the text on the page and nothing else.
  • Not even page breaks. The artist (working with the editor) decides where those fall.
  • No, you may not describe the action or the setting.
  • All right, if a visual detail is absolutely crucial to the editor and artist understanding a story, you can include it as a note in your manuscript.
  • You as author do not give ideas directly to the artist. In fact, you should not even be in contact with the artist until the book is done.
In one of my writing groups, an author had sold a picture-book manuscript about canoeing on the Charles River with her son. When it was published, the artist had decided to portray the mother and child as Native American. That's how that picture-book publishing works. Editors explain that this is necessary to give the artist enough creative input.

I've heard some experienced authors speak of exceptions to the rules. Stephen Krensky has noted in his manuscript what image should go on the wordless last page of a picture book. Joanna Cole and Robie Harris both insisted that they had to work closely with their illustrators--Bruce Degen and Michael Emberley, respectively--given the nature of the Magic School Bus and It's [Sensible Information about the Human Body] series. But those authors know that they're exceptional. They were all established, and two even had in-house editorial experience, before they broke the rules above. Newcomers don't have the same freedom.

So back to my Button-Bright comic. I carefully wrote out a manuscript that included only the words that would appear on the page, with the barest possible description of the action. No breakdown by pages or panels, no descriptions of characters, no commentary on mood. I had ideas on all those things, but was scrupulous about keeping them to myself.

The artist sent back a polite note gently telling me that's not how comics scripts work. Over the past year I've gotten around to looking at Dennis O'Neil's DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics and several other books that include scripts, either in full or as part of the DVD-like extras that DC and Marvel include in their "graphic novel" editions.

And sure enough, though there are many styles to creating a comics script, the writer has the freedom and responsibility to break the action down into pages and panels, to describe characters' actions and emotions, often even to suggest the shapes of panels and viewpoints from which they should be drawn. Paradoxically, even though a comics artist creates many more drawings per story than a picture-book artist, he or she is expected to have less control over the interaction of art and text.

Sometimes this can cause anxiety. In the extras added to Identity Crisis, penciller Rags Morales recalls complaining to his wife that Brad Meltzer's script was too detailed and controlling, that he couldn't do the job. But gradually Morales realized what Meltzer had in mind, and how all those details would add up. To be sure, the same material and interviews highlight places where Morales suggested changes from Meltzer's instructions which both agree were better. But clearly the scripter was deeply involved in creating the visuals of this book.

Among other award-winning comics scripters, Neil Gaiman's texts are casually conversational:
Well, hi Kelley, Malcolm, Todd, Steve, Tom, Karen...

Here we are at the third part of Season of Mists. We last saw the Sandman watching Lucifer walking away into the mists, having been given the key to Hell. This episode begins a few hours later.

Now, the last issue was pretty low on characters - it was basically just Lucifer and the Sandman, with a couple of cameos. This issue has a cast of thousands. Well, hundreds. Well, lots.
Alan Moore's seem erudite and freakishly detailed:
All I can say to picture-book authors is: Do not try this! If your manuscript includes chatty commentary for your editorial and illustration team or detailed suggestions about the endpapers, for goodness' sake, you will brand yourself as the worst type of control freak: the type who doesn't know what the heck she's doing.