Thursday, July 24, 2008

Cross Training for Writers

  • Zadie Smith's White Teeth
  • Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men
  • Scott McCloud's Making Comics
  • Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men
The Scott McCloud book gave me plenty to think about. I'm a big fan of his Understanding Comics, a 1993 non-fiction comic book arguing, through a close analysis of how comics work, that contemporary comics is a sophisticated art form. I think it's mind blowing.

Making Comics is good, but not mind blowing, and a few things about it disappointed me. For one, a lot of it is (explicitly) a rehash of parts of UC. Also some of the analysis lacks depth -- some generalities and assertions with too little supporting evidence. And then there are long sections of text at the end of each (comics) chapter. I think they speak to an unacknowledged weakness of non-fiction comics -- low information density. And though I enjoyed reading through the notes, I wondered if the book wouldn't be better if McCloud had worked harder to incorporate the info in the notes into the comics. How? Hey, I'm not the comics genius!

For the most part, I really enjoyed reading this book however. I imagine that for an aspiring comics writer/artist, it would be essential reading, and even for someone who very occasionally enjoys comics and graphic novels there is a good bit of pleasure to be had just spectating. I love reading about the choice of tools, pens, paper, etc. It all means zilch to me, but it is intriguing.

Most of what I got out of this, though, was as a writer. It can be instructive for me, as a writer, to read the shoptalk of artists in similar fields. (I also loved David Mamet's On Directing Film, for instance.) McCloud's discussion of what he calls intensity (playing with perspective, crazy panels, crazy layout, etc.) versus clarity, really resonated for me. The very same trade-off exists in written fiction. Where is your work positioned on an axis with maximum language, interesting form on one end and clarity of language, story, character on the other? I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and it was cool to see it presented graphically.

I was happy to revisit his analysis of the possible approaches to combining image and words and the effects these have on the reader. It's interesting to contemplate the equivalent effect and technique in written fiction. And while I thought they were a bit sketchier and perhaps more narrowly focused (legitimately so) on comics, I found his ideas about style, genre, and types of artists intriguing. (Okay, I rolled my eyes at some Jungian psychology, but still!)

All in all, well worth my reading time.

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