Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dave Sim's blogandmail #110 (December 30th, 2006)

The Blog & Mail

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Mike Lovins of Midvale Utah writes

Good to see you last week in Salt Lake, we all enjoyed your presentation and all the work that went into it. I'm the one who gave you copies of Brent Anderson's work and some reading materials. I've been reading through The Last Day since then and am impressed with the innovative sequential narrative that you worked out. Your lettering still remains unique in the age of digital lettering and still gets nominated a lot as well.

You mentioned Will Eisner in the preface. It should interest you to know tons of his original art was exhibited here last year and was a privilege to behold. I had the opportunity to interview him a few years back when Pro Con was going on. There were only two other people in the room, so I pretty much asked him whatever I wanted. One of the things he said was that he was savvy enough in business to get the deal he wanted (remember his graphic novel, The Dreamer?) and that cartoonists, generally, were taken advantage of because they were ignorant of it. I neglected to leave my contact information. Feel free to respond when you're inclined.

I enjoyed talking about spiritual things and regardless of any divergent views will find common agreement in how it has changed our lives. Take care.

Thanks, I enjoyed it, too. Some people took it personally when I indicated that the only time I'm really fully awake at a signing is when discussing God and scripture and related matters, suggesting that I was as much as telling my long-time atheistic readers to f—k off in saying so. Well, I don't think so. I've always tried to be honest with the Cerebus readership and it wouldn't be honest for me to be implying or leading people to draw the inference that I consider Cerebus as important as God or scripture even though it probably be a far more lucrative position to take. I'd rather take a major financial hit being honest than get rich by lying.

And I always try to remind myself that Will Eisner had a lot of ups and downs along the way as someone who was always on the outside of the comic-book industry per se even in the last decade of his life when he was seen pretty much indisputably as a Living Legend. The Pro Con example is a good one. For my readers who aren't aware of it, Pro Con used to be put on in association with Wondercon, the idea being that professionals would come in a couple of days ahead of time and basically do panels and presentations for other professionals (Dick Giordano did a faultless presentation on comic-book inking the year I was there, 1993 that was recorded but I don't think it's ever been transcribed or circulated). As Mike says, Will went to one to do a presentation and only two people showed up to hear what he had to say. That had to hurt, whatever the explanation you want to attach to it.

The Third Person:

Stalking the Large Narrative

Pat Harrigan has been working on a (thesis? Essay?) called The Third Person which basically addresses from an academic standpoint the creation of large narratives. At least I think that's what it was about or maybe that was just my section. Anyway, I answered a bunch of questions off the top of my head and gradually he's been piecing my answers together into essay form and has sent a rough draft with boldface interjected questions where he wanted some more elaboration. I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone—helping Pat and his co-essayist Noah with their essay and filling up a Blog and Mail instalment at the same time.

What are some of the closest analogous works to Cerebus?

That would really depend on the individual viewer/reader. My own opinion is that Lynne Johnston's For Better or Worse is probably the closest analogue because it's also done in comics form and it's also a rare instance where comics characters actually age and change. A lot of people will tend to roll their eyes at that because For Better or Worse is not seen as a particularly sophisticated (as opposed to populist) strip and certainly if you were to try and read the entire history of the strip it would far more resemble a soap opera than it would a novel, but in terms of large narratives it is a very large narrative and it does strive for realism and the sense of being a document of actual lives, as opposed to the latest try at breathing life into an old trademark.

How does a long work like, say, Lone Wolf and Cub compare?

I've never read Lone Wolf and Cub, although I've tried to. There I think you get into the problem of defining "long". I wasn't only doing a lot of pages in Cerebus, I was also trying to determine what level of literary density was needed in order to do the equivalent of a novel in comics format. The conclusion that I came to was that the relationship was about a 1:10 ratio. You have to do ten comic book pages on average in order to equal the level of information that can be imparted in a single page of good text. But part of that ratio, for me, included the long blocks of text in Jaka's Story, the text pieces in Reads and so on, counterbalancing the reasonably long stretches of wordless comic page narrative and with the average reading time of, say, ten to fifteen seconds on an average page with six panels on it and maybe eight to ten word balloons and captions. Manga has a very different literary density from that, from what I understand and from what I've seen. The idea is that you're supposed to read manga very, very quickly and that the experience should be halfway between reading a book and watching a movie. Flip Flip Flip Flip. If that's the basis of the medium you're working in, then I think the ratio goes up exponentially. You would have to do as many as 50 pages of manga-style narrative in order to equal what a page of text communicates. I'm not going to make any friends in the manga community or the graphic novel community with my opinions, but those are the opinions I hold.

Do you think this holds true for all graphic novels? Or are there alternate modes of attempting it? Does a page of Cerebus have the same informational quotient of, say, a page of Watchmen?

I would think so, although that would probably vary from one Cerebus book to another. Watchmen is pretty much a "base nine"—nine panels to the page—and most of those panels had at least one word balloon in them. Most of Cerebus was "base six"—six panels to the page and an average of one to two word balloons per panel: so the reading time would be comparable. When I went lower than "base six", I'd compensate with more word balloons to offset the fewer number of panels. I'd have longer stretches of "off the map" variations because the canvas was 6,000 pages as opposed to Watchmen's 400 or so pages.

What about 100 Bullets or on the other side of things, more decompressed forms of graphic storytelling like some manga, or something like Planetary? Again, I'm not so much interested in discussing the relative merits of various works as I am in making sure I'm clear about how your ratio operates in other contexts.

It really comes down to reading time. If you take any graphic novel and flip through it you'll get a pretty good idea of the literary density of it just by doing so. What's the average number of panels per page, how many pages are there, how many word balloons are there, how many captions and how many words are there in the average balloon and the average caption? A Contract with God is "base two". The average page has two panels on it and the average caption or word balloon maybe a dozen to two dozen words. I can read A Contract with God in its entirety in about twenty to thirty minutes. And I do, very often. There are few better ways in the graphic novel field to spend twenty to thirty minutes than in reading A Contract with God from cover to cover. I can't read From Hell in twenty to thirty minutes. I would only pick it up to enjoy a favourite sequence or if I was prepared to spend time with it over a period of several days. The "base" figures that I use aren't a ranking according to quality but a ranking according to structure, like "time" in music. This piece is 4:4 time. This comic book is "base two" this other comic book is—David Lapham's Stray Bullets is the best example—"base eight". Chris Ware goes all the way off the map up to "base thirty-two" or "base sixty-four" depending on how drastically he chooses to subdivide his pages.

I tended to think of it as "value for the money". When I started mapping the story in longer arcs so that a whole issue might end up having 20 very light pages in terms of literary density just because of what was required at that point in the 500-page graphic novel I was creating, I expanded the letters pages to bring the "total package" literary density up higher.

Is there a difference between a 20-page magazine article (the analogy you use here) and a 20-page short story (the analogy you use earlier)? A magazine article is primarily informational but a short story, at least a good one, has an aesthetic objective that goes beyond simply conveying information.

It depends on the magazine article and depends on the short story. There are good magazine articles and good short stories that you can sort of tell have been pumped full of air in order to hit a higher word count. In both cases—as with a good graphic novel—what I want is for it to impart something to me. "Here's a new way of looking at things and here's my best attempt at distilling it for maximum impact." Some people just have one good idea and try to fluff that up into a novella or a novel when it would've made a better short story. Set it up, impart your one good idea and have done with it. Really good authors usually have a lot to say either in an article or a short story and know how to connect a series of good, original ideas into a narrative form that becomes larger than the sum of its parts. Anything that makes me think I consider to be an accomplished piece of writing.

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