SDCC 09: Graphic Novels and Novelists

Best Shots Extra: Scott Pilgrim 5

The Comic-Con International: San Diego Graphic Novels panel, moderated by Tom Spurgeon, was a celebration of the successes of the art form, and a peek into the minds of many of the industry’s most acclaimed graphic novelists. It was attended by Gene Yang, creator of the Eisner- awarding winning  American Born Chinese graphic novel from :01, and creator, with fellow panelist Derek Kirk Kim of Eternal Smile. Yang has been a cartoonist for 10 years, as has Kim. Kim was also behind the Top Shelf book Same Difference. Also attending the panel was Seth, a Canadian cartoonist of 25 years, whose latest work is George Sprott from drawn and quarterly.

Next was Lewis Trondheim, an acclaimed French cartoonist of 25 years, who described being a cartoonist as “a good life.” Jason Lutes, a cartoonist of 20 years, behind Jar of Fools, and the Berlin trilogy, rounded out the panel, as Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O’Malley ran late.

The panel began with Spurgeon asking about the impact of the still relatively new format of long form comics on the artists.

In the time before graphic novels, Seth would have tried to fit his work in comics, or an art book. There’s now an impetus from the market, he said, that makes full length books sustainable. The magazine style issue has fallen out of favor. This is the market Seth dreamt of forever, but now that we’re here, he acknowledged a melancholy about the death of the comic book. There was something exciting, he said, about the release of 8-Ball issues every few months. It’s bittersweet, but he is for the change.

Yang shared that Eternal Smile was originally a 2 issue short, but that since the book market has opened up, it was repurposed. Kim shared that he misses the letters page in the graphic novel format, but that it’s a small price for the format they all prefer. Seth claimed it was the internet killed the letters page, which is a shame. Yang supposed that the internet is a letters page, where everyone is mean. The crowd agreed in laughter and applause.

Jason Lutes had conceptualized Berlin early on as 24 chapters of 12 pages each, so the book trilogy was always the blueprint. But the bigger narrative allowed for things to be read, as almost a standalone.

Spurgeon asked if anyone felt constrained by format.

Lutes surmised that it’s the constraints that force great comics. But the structural, physical limits force creators to be more creative.

Spurgeon asked Lewis Trondheim if he felt the European influence of albums opened up the world of graphic novels.

Trondheim supposed that graphic novels are multinational. Comics are endemic everywhere, there are Belgiun books, superhero books from France and Japan, and they can read Manga in France and USA, but it’s very difficult to export French and Belgiun comics. But with graphic novels, the translation is easier. It’s a more transcendent way to make art, and express oneself. It’s “the best way to do comics.”

Spurgeon asked the panel if it’s opened up comics to different worlds.

Lutes said that Berlin sells better in Germany, a smaller market, than anywhere else. The changes of format and style have made a lot of connections, and fostered cross-pollination. There’s a camaraderie shared by international graphic novelists.

A fan asked about the difference between page counts, when there are 22 pages, or the open tapestry of the graphic novel.

Lutes said it all depends on the story one is telling. If you’re trying to tell Crime and Punishment in 24 pages, you’ll make choices that way, but if you’re telling a scene it’s different. Like the old Classics Illustrated, it was a real cliff notes version of a story. Many mainstream comics work this way, page 8 first plot point, page 15 the next one, but it really depends on what you’re trying to tackle. But if you’ve got a story you’re trying to tell, you’ll tell it how you have to, but with limits, you’re going to distill that nugget of story as you have to.

Seth says that the graphic novel revolution is the liberation from a page count. In the 1980s, you suddenly had an unlimited number of pages to tell your story. Suddenly, artists were free to tell whatever they wanted. They could do a 200-page story, and just serialize it. It’s changed how cartoonists think. They didn’t have to think about anything other than how long the story is supposed to be. The storytelling has changed, a lot, and how people are breaking down pages.

Trondheim raised the issue of economics, as the way it’s released, with the steady flow of the serials, can be a fiscal boon to artists. Seth said there was never money in comics here, while Trondheim stated there was a lot in France.

Here Bryan Lee O’Malley joined the panel, and Spurgeon asked how he conceived his Scott Pilgrim series originally.

It started as one book, the length of one, and then it became series of six. It was a “stupid idea,” he said, and not how he’d do it now, but he saw the Japanese works, and wanted to channel that.

Gene Yang admitted that he saw most of the attending panelists as his influences. It was Jason’s Jar of Fools that sparked his interests, and taught him that comics didn’t have to be about tights, or greedy ducks.

Kim grew up in Korea until he was 8, and saw all translated works, so he never really saw 22 page structure as a constraint.

A fan asked if anyone could pinpoint the very first graphic novel, or if there was an agreement on the issue.

Spurgeon described the nebulousness of “graphic novels,” as a term. Will Eisner’s First GN Contract with God he said, is akin to Columbus’s discovery of America. Arthur Drake, the Woodcut novels, and Tin Tin and the albums of Europe were all there already. There are limitless ways to interpret, and a lot of likely candidates, but in the end it was agreed that it is really just a convergence of an artistic acceptance, and a marketing term.

Jason called them all cartoonists, who make comics.

Seth cited the Hernandez Bros as his seminal influences. It wasn’t that they were “Graphic novelists,” but it was the fact that they were content driven, not by page count limits. Crumb was big too, not for page count, but for challenging conventions and doing new things. Then Maus broke the barrier as the real influence. It was THE book that summed up “here is a real book, a graphic novel.”

A fan asked how cultural background influenced the sequential elements of the form.

Seth, being Canadian, decided that that must be why his books are boring. But then Bryan Lee O’Malley cited himself as Canadian, blowing that argument out of the water. O’Malley then said it’s hard to look at your own work and see those things, and left it up to others.

Jason, the less timid one, saw a lot of European books like Herge’s Tin Tin, when he was young. There were a lot of stage-set books, and Jack Kirby Western comics, but it was really Herge. He described Berlin as his reaction against his own aversions to American culture.

Kim said his Korean origins really influenced him. Not in terms of story, but approach. European comics are generally more plot oriented, and he was more prone to long series of time dedicated to a singular scene.

A fan cited Yang, and the saying that all creators ultimately have one story to tell, and asked how one can tell if their story has merit.

Yang said he has never been called “melancholy.” He grew up in the Bay Area, met other creators, and always got feedback on his stories, at whatever stage they were at. It helped to refine the work. Compared to a lot of cartoonists, Yang doesn’t see himself as too venturous. Doesn’t do straight autobiography, as he’s waiting for certain people to die.

Seth mentioned that it’s always important to always be honest as artists. Everyone needs to try and convey how they really feel about things. He tries to think of his audience as little as possible. It’s most important to write that which you want to read, because otherwise compromise sets in.

Kim agreed, and although he’s always thought about the audience, whenever he gave into that, it failed. It was only by blocking that out that he’s found success.

Trondheim has done autobiographical comics, but is very prude about who he mocks or anything. He thinks about himself, not who else might be reading.

A fan asked about editorial influence, or the lack thereof, and what role that plays in the longer formats.

Jason pointed out that in autobiographical, alternative comics, there’s never been much editorial influence. Sometimes they’d proofread, but only sometimes. There was always freedom. As the industry has developed, with greater publishers, they’re always more. In Lutes’ experience, doing historical Americans for Hyperion, but they won’t allow things like smoking. They’re better at getting at nuts and bolts, structural issues, so there have been benefits. It’s common in mainstream books, but less in alternative books. Jason sees editorial influence as a good thing, and focuses the work better.

Seth, though, is utterly opposed to all editing in comics. It’s a mostly economic issue, he claimed. The system has developed in a better way. He’s not even for editors in novels, but sees why they enjoy it. “Comics don’t need editors,” they’re about how a creator does it by themselves. Outside views manipulating art makes no sense. It’s like telling a painter “oh you need more paint.” It’s mostly a middle management.

Lutes called that an extreme, because some editors can help a person develop. The two duked it out, citing the extremes, agreeing to disagree. The biggest thing to avoid is formula. Like film, it’s so standardized. The best part of this field is those constraints don’t exist, so there are much more lively risks to take.

Yang said he craved editing from a young stage. He didn’t have confidence in his stuff, would finish a page, feel great about it, and then put it down. Then come back, and it would all be tilted; he wasn’t satisfied. There were things he couldn’t see immediately. Editing allows for catching things that you don’t see from early on. “A good editor shares my view of something,” and helps him get there.

Seth saw this as feedback, which he likes and needs. It’s just the boss-structure of editors he opposes. A cartoonist can help. It’s only doing the work that helps.

Kim sided with Seth on editing, but wasn’t for painting all editors in the same corner. “Not all are dictators,” you don’t always have to do what they say to be effective. If an editor is on the same creative path with you, it’s helpful.

Seth’s final argument on the issue noted that his real beef was the convergence of editing and marketing.

A fan asked about the difficulties of the long format, and when half-done projects fail to satisfy halfway.

Kim said the challenge of  long form books is that you grow and change.

O’Malley has been working on the same book since 2004, so that year will haunt him for the rest of his life. Some days he hates everything from that era.

Jason said it’s an interesting struggle. One either stops in progress, or believes in the resounding merit of the work.

Someone asked if creators always plan their works out meticulously prior to starting. The panel agreed that one either knows the end when you start, or make it up as you go along. Seth does both.

O’Malley said he is now filling in story from scant paragraphs of years past. He’s allowed to change as he wants.

Trondheim makes it up as he draws, always improvising.

A fan asked how one chooses to commit to a story, or pick one of the millions of potential to commit 600 pages to.

Jason trusts his gut, and makes choices. His choices are not market-driven; they’re impulsive, which makes him trust it. He can’t do things like say “oh I’m going to do a fantasy book.”

Finally, a fan asked about atmospherics in books, and their allure.

This was big for Seth. The release from page count allows for focus on things creators couldn’t before. With the space to commit to whatever they wanted, he can give the texture of life, without restraint. One can focus on the essence of being alive, which some call “mood.” It’s the most exciting thing in GNs, how cartoonists expand the language of comics. In the old days, he proclaimed ruefully, the only atmosphere allowed was the “establishing shot.”

Twitter activity