An Essay to Accompany My Biblical Daydreams #2: My Senior Thesis for Loyola University
Day-and-night, I ask myself, "What kind of story is this? A job for prose or pictures?"
I'm fairly impartial about the two.
It's case by case, but usually, the lesser of two stressors wins out and the story's shape is finally contained.
So, what is "Auteur Cartooning?”
I’m not sure if I know what it means exactly, but I really like the way it sounds.
I write stories. I often go an extra step and draw those stories too. I don’t believe these mediums are mutually exclusive in the span of a creator’s life, but you don’t have to take my word for it. John Updike, writer of the critically adored “A&P” (that one short story everyone had to read in high school) said, “I see no intrinsic reason why a doubly talented artist might not arise and create a comic-strip novel masterpiece.” I haven’t read much else by Updike, but I’m very glad he said this. I cheerfully quote it all the time to the kind of prudes that don’t read comics—or those that have yet to give the really good ones a chance.
The problem is, I’ve never really felt doubly-talented. Doubly-confused is a much better word for what I am. For me, encompassing a writer and an illustrator, is like being two very different people. I don’t have a preference because it’s an equally rewarding experience for me either way. Sometimes, I wish I did have a preference. In fact, you might say that not having one tends to become a problem. The both of them are always wrestling over who gets to tell the story this time. However, I can say without a doubt that the writer’s job is actually the easier one. Conversely, a good cartoonist makes their work look effortless. Still, because so much can be captured in the moment-to-moment progression of a single strip—I’m lured into comics again and again—it’s a siren song. I forget the pain. I forget the time it takes to render the images. The story takes over.
In the world of mainstream comics, there are the writers (considered the “brain”) and then, there are the artists (considered the “hands”). The company that publishes their book acts as a middleman—regulating the collaboration between the two. It is quite rare to find someone in that world that can do both jobs consistently. Comics take a long time to plan and the entities that publish them run a tight schedule.
It’s no wonder that the world of indie comics exists in a small and somewhat exclusive niche. Within that world inhabits the talented, but virtually insignificant Auteur Cartoonist—or someone that does both jobs.
In regards to process, one group of cartoonists doesn’t bother with a script. They proceed straight from ideas to ink. The words and pictures—like music inside their heads—are improvisational. They require no prior composition. For this storyteller, cartooning is something spontaneous—very close to the hand. I can understand this desire—writing one’s story beforehand can get in the way of telling it.
Others still, will write a detailed script and still decide to forgo words on behalf of pictures. When the visuals lead a story, the words are often sparse—look at the work of Jim Woodring: his stories are often entirely wordless. It is undeniable though, that there is a kind of visual language present on the page.
Another group of creators will write something so detailed, it could be handed off to another artist to be drawn. They receive the privilege of having their vision interpreted by an artist. I like to be invited to interpret a story—not working from a strict script. The best filmmakers know how to do this with a novel. They can tease out the visual language within.
For mainstream comics—in much the same way auteur theory functions in filmmaking—this aforementioned writer receives most of the credit for the storytelling. Despite the fact that there were other collaborators in the process, they are lionized for crafting and controlling a singular vision. This writer is considered the work’s total author—essentially an auteur. I don’t mean to berate this process. I can definitely appreciate certain aspects. One advantage is that these stories take longer to read—like an actual novel. I don’t want a page of comics to be a pain to look at—overly-crowded with text—still, I feel betrayed when I don’t have to give something I’m reading some pause and contemplation.
I have a lot of little ideas. I call these biblical daydreams. I see them as being an attempt to accomplish what writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Lydia Davis (particularly her dream stories) seem to have partially built their careers around—composing short vignettes or snippets. I’m especially interested in these little treasure troves of micro-fiction, because they are especially similar to the work cartoonists produce. Such a comic is akin to a poem. The ability to translate and capture a snippet of prose into a simple quadrille of pictures is too much of a temptation to resist.
While the experience of drawing a story might be a personally rewarding one for me, condensing the raw imagery into pictures just doesn’t seem appealing when one considers how low the ceiling is for a cartoonist’s literary achievements. Every now and then, I wonder, “Am I wasting my time rendering this detail, instead of just describing it?” Let’s face it, society just doesn’t assign the same value and cultural acclaim to a visual story that it does for stories containing the very same information in prose-form. Even when a visual story is evaluated on these terms, it’s praised for its achievements on the basis of it being a comic, not on being a work of fiction. How patronizing to be shoehorned in such a way, as if to say, “Well, for a comic—your story is actually pretty good!”
This is the problem with literary criticism, not a shortcoming of the comic’s medium. Everyone must write. Fewer people continue to believe that they can draw. Thus, it makes a lot of sense that very few know how to read and decipher visual language. It’s paradoxical because, students spend most of high school feeling that their teachers read too much into a story. The aforementioned “A&P,” for example, was one such story—no offense to Updike, but I couldn’t see the point of it then. I wonder how much of what I understand of it now is not influenced by my own instincts, but instead by what my teacher told me it was about. Looking back, I wonder if that story would have made a bit more sense to me if Updike had been a cartoonist. In fact, I think quite a lot of alternate earths in which my favorite novelists are graphic novelists instead (and vice-versa).
Despite the fact that I was raised mostly on mainstream comics, I don’t find that world terribly appealing anymore. Why? Imagine that Don Quixote was still an ongoing serialized publication to this day. Imagine if it was divorced from Cervantes’ original authorship (something Cervantes himself fabricates into his mythology). If it was instead penned on a monthly basis by a corporate-hired rotating cast of writers. Additionally, those writers are handpicked and swapped out by an editor chosen specially to maintain the story’s continuity—in other words, to make sure nothing really lasting or significant ever happens to the characters. Lastly, imagine that every few years, the entirety of the story’s chronology is “rebooted” in order to make the characters more relatable pending on a new generation’s interests. Everything must be new. Dead characters are alive again. This is because mainstream and syndicated comics aren’t art—they’re entertainment. This nightmare is a comparative analogy for the way mainstream superhero comics and syndicated strips treat the works of their creators.
Make no mistake, there have been good stories told beneath the helm of the mainstream. I’m particularly in debt to the early stories of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint—when “creator-owned” stories were still possible. There have also been some truly impressive careers compiled by the collection of years and years of newspaper funnies—consider Peanuts. These should be collected, reprinted, and remembered in treasuries. Instead they are like redressed corpses—puppet-like and grimly paraded around.
Likewise, an accumulated mountain of work-for-hire is now continuously recycled and mined for major Hollywood blockbusters. These companies are under no obligation to attribute said contributions to their originators because of agreements said creators signed a long time ago—all to have the privilege of working for those publishers in the first place.
In both 2014 and 2015, I took some of my work to meetings with editors and literary agents at the Hotel Monteleone. I knew what would happen, but I did it anyway. I went to the convention actually looking to obtain an agent or an editor for Spiderella: The Girl Who Spoke with Spiders, a middle-grade reader’s book I’d written with illustrations by cartoonist Laurel Holden. I brought along some of my own self-published comics, too.
Some people tried to be helpful. They asked me if I had an idea for a longer story—something with more words. I really appreciated them asking. Maybe someday I will try my hand at a novel with all words and no pictures. Other people only thought they were being helpful. The second year I attended the convention, a person told me I should go to Wizard World Comic-con and try to make my stuff more like the kinds of things on sale there. I thanked this person and avoided them afterward. In fact, I immediately performed a French leave. I exited the hotel where the convention was held without saying a word to anyone else, walked wistfully to Canal Street and caught the streetcar home.
Don’t worry—I haven’t been discouraged.
I had to get out of there though. If anything, I realized that I’m not drawing and printing these stories for the sort of mass-market paperback world I was mistakenly pitching my ideas to. I can still remember where I was a few years ago. How far I’ve come since then.
In spring of 2011, I was a freshman at Loyola University and I was terrified. I was very quiet. I never spoke in any of my classes. I offered very little about myself. I started spending my weekends with students in the music program—following them around on their various busking routes and making sketches of them. When people would ask me my major, I told them I was in philosophy pre-law. That was my plan—to be a lawyer and maybe do some cartooning on the side. People would look puzzled at that. Their immediate follow up was, “Why aren’t you in animation school?” Maybe it was because they could see I was saying and doing different things. I was always drawing. In reply, I would say that, even though I liked to draw, I knew that I needed to be responsible and go to school for something useful. I was convinced no one would buy any of the sort of comics that I could draw then because I simply was not that much of a talented artist.
I had heard of the Joe Kubert School in New Jersey. When I was a kid, I even had one of those Joe Kubert’s Comic Book Studio kits that were sold at art and hobby shops everywhere. It came with a pre-stapled and assembled 7 x 10.25 blank comic inside. I made my very first mainstream-style comic book that way—I still have it somewhere. I must have been around nine years old. The problem was: I had no idea how to reproduce and share what I had drawn inside it.
I never dreamed of asking my parents about comic book school, because I knew that, even with good training, I could never draw anything like the art in the stories I really adored. Despite my early love of superhero comics, it took a long time before I realized I was more interested in caricatures in my own personal work—the sort of style generally associated with Underground Cartooning—than I was in the human form itself.
After one particularly bleak and grey, yet rainless day of my freshman year, I went into the Loyola University Bookstore and decided to wander the shelves. I fell in love with two comics that just happened to be on sale there in the shop. The first was Art Spiegelman’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&* and the second was Jason Lutes’ and Nick Bertozzi’s Houdini the Handcuff King. Both books broadened my very narrow mainstream-influenced ideas of what kind of stories were possible. However, the latter of the two was published by The Center for Cartoon Studies.
I had never heard of this school. It was fairly new—it had been founded in 2005. I was so enthralled with the comic and the stylistic way it had been produced that I decided on a whim to submit an application. This was what I wanted. It was where I knew I needed to be. While a lot of the students there could definitely have applied to the Kubert School with success, CCS was purportedly a school that focused a lot more on storytelling than art. I didn’t think they would accept me, but by the end of the summer, I myself was pulling a Houdini. I escaped from the city to a tiny Vermont Railroad town where I would not only study with the writer of Houdini, but learn from many other personal heroes of mine. Steve Bissette, for one, is responsible for the dissolution of censorship at DC that led to the Vertigo stories I devoured as a teenager. There was nothing to do in that little town, except draw and watch the trains go by. It was exactly what I needed. The world went on elsewhere and I was able to put my nose to the grindstone and focus on my craft. In that year, 2011, there was a kind of mass-exodus of students from universities. My then-advisor tried to convince me to stay. My case was a bit different though, I told the College of Humanities Department that I just wanted to take a two-year sabbatical and then return. Time may have stood still in that valley between Vermont and New Hampshire, but not a day went by when I wasn’t very aware how fortunate I was that Loyola reserved my place at the university and retained my scholarship while I was away. Supposedly, my absence was noticed. I later heard from a friend on staff at the Loyola Library, that my specific case was brought up.
Picture a meeting in which teachers were discussing various ways to increase student retention…
“There’s even this one kid that left to go to cartoon school—how are we supposed to compete with that?!”
Students at The Center for Cartoon Studies have a weekly visiting-artist lecture. I noticed a trend revolving around every professional working cartoonist’s introduction. The artist in question would come to our class, and give a presentation about their work and life. I noticed many of them, like myself, had been reared on the same kind of corporate-owned periodicals shelled out by Marvel or DC Entertainment or the syndicated strips printed in newspapers. They would eventually outgrow those stories—often dismissing their preoccupation with them as being somewhat infantile. Then they would point to an epiphany they had—while reading a comic unaffiliated with the former publication routes. Usually this comic was a personal story or was written and drawn by the same author. Regardless of what the story was, it felt personal. It was a singular work—one by a singular author. This is a distinction usually relegated to the novel. The artist would recall that this formative influence taught them that comics could be literature.
It’s actually quite sad to me—not this revelation—but that this is a revelation at all.
Outside of tiny little schools in tiny little railroad towns in tiny little New England, this is a conclusion very few acknowledge. In the world outside of that little valley, all an independently working cartoonist can hope for is a very minor and exclusive pinhole of cult-appreciation. To make ends meet—if they’re lucky—those cartoonists find themselves doing illustrations for magazines where their work serves to compliment another’s words—another’s article. Images don’t standalone in this world. Nobody looks at a New Yorker illustration and comes away with the notion that artist illustrating the magazine might be equally capable of writing the stories and articles they are reading inside. Good literature is read in schools. Good films are screened at universities. The problem with good comics is that the truly innovative and groundbreaking stories are primarily read by other cartoonists at small and fairly obscure conventions. The realm of comics is still a very small world.
Two years later, I returned to Loyola University. I had graduated from The Center for Cartoon Studies and intended to finish my undergraduate degree. This time though, I wanted to study literature, in the hopes to one day apply and subvert the language of literary and film critics. I seek to displace it to a medium where it is desperately needed—in the world of comics. I had a very different approach to my classes henceforth. I think any of my teachers can attest to the fact that I definitely have things to say. Studying for two years with the sort of characters cartoonists are made me a little less shy. Although, sometimes I worried maybe I spoke up a little too much, what matters most to me is that, I definitely know why I was back at college. For the next three years, I was able to turn in comics for many of my class assignments. This is why I have My Biblical Daydreams #2. I knew what I wanted from Loyola.
What I hope to see remedied in my lifetime is the synthesis of two different personalities. The first is that of the obscure and trodden-upon indie cartoonist. They write and draw their work—meaning that it is entirely their own. They tell genre-bending stories and have to go through the drudgery and long hours of laboring through each page themselves. They should be called not just an artist, but considered a true auteur—someone whose work is their total vision.
The cartoonist of the near-future will hopefully be permitted to create a body of recognized culturally significant work simultaneously while their contributions are not beholden to the work-for-hire practices of the mainstream or watching their characters posthumously ventriloquized by their estates for the purposes of creating personal dynasties. Should they choose to collaborate, these proceedings will be ethical and credit will be given to those whom it is due. This is the world of comics I want to work in. This is the world of Auteur Comics.
Originally published from New Orleans, LA. / May 16, 2016
Edited and Republished from Southern Pines, NC. / Aug 31, 2016