Last week I wrote quite a rant about comics, and about how I don’t find them to be a bad thing. I tried to also stress the point that this hasn’t made me blind to the state of the world, doesn’t make me a child. Well, somewhere in the process of writing the rant, I got it all pretty much out of my system.
Which was a good thing, because the next day, I had the opportunity to see graphic novelist Kazu Kibuishi presenting on “Making Comics and Graphic Novels.” And I pretty much came at this with my mind clear, which led to five and a half pages of notes (taken on my iPhone no less). There’s no way I can include all of the insights from Kazu, so at the very least, I need to pretty much leave myself out from here.
Kazu is known for a number of his different works, including as the editor on Explorer and Flight, the cover artist on the 15th-anniversary covers to Harry Potter, as the author of the webcomic Copper and the author of Amulet. His work is exploding in schools right now, but I have been far enough removed from those that I had not heard of his work until I knew he was coming. So Holly and I have been reading Amulet, as Holly mentioned, and it’s pretty amazing. It’s sad to think that it’s not done yet (volume 6 came out recently, out of a total of 9), and we’ll have to join all the other fans now in waiting for new issues! But it will be worth it. So allow me to explore the world of comics and graphic novels from the perspective of Kazu Kibuishi!
On the Importance of Comics
Kazu was drawing from an early age, and drawing cartoons and comics. He had a lot of encouragement for this as well, people telling him he was going to be doing this for the rest of his life, or that he really ought to. As he pointed out, telling people to pursue their passion, or to stick with something because it is their passion, is a great way to create in them an existential crisis.
Thus, Kazu never thought he would actually be creating comics and making a living at it. Instead, he pursued a career with film, as he figured this would be the closest he could get. He uses a number of film comparisons, and hearing that someone like Miyazaki, with both his comics and films, was a huge inspiration makes sense to me.
One of the things that helped lead Kazu to comics, though, was gaining the ability to think about them, to talk about them. And this perspective he gained through reading Scott McCloud’s classic, Understanding Comics. This has been recommended to me before, and I definitely need to read it, so that maybe next time I can be more articulate and less rant-y.
In a lot of ways, “cartoon,” “comic,” and “graphic novel” get mixed up and combined. Kazu talked about all three, in ways that both combined them and set them apart. For instance, he did a lot of work in college for the school newspaper – creating their cartoons. He loved this work also because he got constant feedback, even if it was just seeing someone open the paper, flip to the cartoon, and laugh out loud. He also got feedback in the constant process of putting out his webcomic, Copper. He doesn’t get nearly the same level of feedback now that he is working on a graphic novel… but more on that later.
The idea of “amplification through simplification” is an important part of Kazu’s work. He likes to leave a lot of room for the reader to put things in – be they ideas, or just when they are absorbing huge, two-page spreads with no text (of which there are a good number in Amulet). Indeed, I have found that you often have to keep up in Amulet – things are happening between pages and sections, characters are interacting with each other and catching each other up on what has been happening.
Kazu talked about the importance of comics in different ways. One was that comics are maybe the fastest way to convey information. The right combination of text, layout, and image present far more information than any one of those elements can do alone. He talked about how comics fit in the empty spaces in our minds, how they fill in the cracks.
He also talked about how comics are the mascots for thing. They’re not the final product or idea themselves, but are one of the best ways to think about, talk about, create community around, an idea. They create a common language to talk about things, a combined experience. So like Dilbert is the mascot for office dwellers, and Penny Arcade is the mascot for gaming. And Peanuts is the mascot for life – and is maybe the best comic strip because of it. And a room full of librarians lit up at the thought – maybe Kazu is the mascot for reading.
Because that’s another great thing comics do – they can get reluctant readers interested in reading.
Which leads us into Amulet, which all the children’s librarians in the room just loved – and which their students are loving to death. Because we’ve been reading library editions – I can attest that these have circulated a lot. So first big question, why did he decide to do a children’s graphic novel?
And as it turns out, he didn’t. Amulet can be considered more of an “all-ages” story. This comes from a desire to write something, as he put it, that he doesn’t have to be embarrassed about showing his mom and grandma. Not only would I say he has succeeded, but it also makes sense that he got to do the covers to the Harry Potter series, another series known for bridging the gap between younger and older readers.
Another reason he started writing Amulet for this sort of broad audience was that the previous comic series that fit this audience, Bone, had ended. Jeff Smith, author of Bone, is also a friend and mentor of Kazu’s. So in some ways, of course Amulet.
If you want to know what ages Amulet is appropriate for, you have to look no further than the first ten pages or so. These pages can shock you, can be hard to deal with, and completely shape the main characters. They are essential – Kazu tried a draft without them, and the characters’ motivations and actions made no sense. But it’s also like an age gate. If you’re mature enough to deal with death, you’re old enough for pretty much anything Kazu throws at you in Amulet.
This also functions to draw in those reluctant readers I was mentioning. They might look at Amulet and just be like, “what’s this?” It’s an amazing hook. It draws you right in. It shows you that this story can surprise you, and can be serious and real, even while taking you on a fantastical journey. It does its job well.
As a personal note, I love the idea of an all-ages comic, showing that it’s not just a medium for children, that it can in fact be something enjoyed by all. It can also follow literary traits, something Kazu talked about as well. He particularly loves Steinbeck.
There’s another big question: why the female protagonist? This came up in particular when we had a librarian asking about it because her library had been using it in boys and girls reading programs – the girls had been reading Amulet, and she realized boys might like it too. I had not even thought of something like that, as here we are in the blogosphere wondering where we can find more strong female protagonists, and find them in comics, no less.
And here Kazu is, with his strong female lead. He says it might have a lot to do with how he grew up, with a strong mother, and without his father. He’s more like the younger brother: maybe a hero in his own right, but also kind of following along with what the female protagonist is up to.
This is how strong female protagonists need to happen: naturally, because they make sense, because you know how they would work. Not forced or for the sole purpose of inserting a female protagonist. Kazu’s done a great job with this, and if you are looking for this sort of thing in comics, give Amulet a look.
On Making Graphic Novels
Graphic novels, as an art form, almost don’t exist. Not exactly. Not as something, conceived of in whole, produced in whole, and released in whole. No, most of them are serialized, published as comics or webcomics. Coming out on an ongoing basis, they allow for a level of feedback – like I mentioned above – and give you an ability to adjust as you go, reacting to what fans like or what is working well. It also forces you to begin and end a small sub-section of the overall plot, creating a cadence to what we know as a “graphic novel.”
Most graphic novels are then trade paperbacks, combined volumes of a series. Something like the Batman comics we have been reading recently, like Hush or The Long Halloween. It particularly stands out in The Long Halloween, with each issue being a different holiday and a different holiday murder, which meanwhile all comes together into an overall story and mystery, and reads well as a combined volume.
However, what Kazu is doing with Amulet – and which a number of young creators are doing now – is creating a complete graphic novel. A story the length of what one of the trade paperbacks would be, released all at once without having come out in part or sooner. As Kazu has found, this is not as easy as it sounds. You lose the feedback levels of being serialized, from the audience and from the editors and such.
He also found he lost the correct story patterning, a problem which he has solved and which drives much of his graphic novel production process: he self-serializes, so each Amulet volume should read like it has 12 or so distinct parts, like a year of a comic book would. He talked a lot about this process and how he does it, and let me know in the comics if you would like to know more about this, as I could write it up, for sure. However, this post has gone on long enough (maybe should have done this as a series?) so let me instead show you Kazu at work.
And there he is. He works from paper first, as you can see in the sketches I posted earlier, and uses the old Xerox style of animation-making, combined with the current method: Photoshop. However, for us to all see it while he presented, he painted and then created a comic page all in Photoshop, drawing on his tablet, and displayed above for us to see.
First, he painted this waterfall, showing us one of his more important pieces of art advice: make a mess, find what’s in it, and then clean it up. This was amazing to watch in action!
Then he took that painting, and began putting it into a framed comic page, like you might see in Amulet. He then filled these panels.
Until eventually, we had something that looked like this. It was great to watch him create, and to watch him edit with ease in Photoshop! He has found himself presenting a lot, and in front of a lot of school groups and kids. Watching him work would be really inspiring as a kid, I’m sure, because it was really inspiring to me now!
So he writes the graphic novels, and does most of the art – although his assistant Jason does a lot of the art as well. They put a lot of work into researching things for how they look, and Kazu highly recommends that students work from a reference when learning to draw – and beyond! Nonetheless, the overall voice in the work is Kazu’s, and this is one of the main things he has to say about graphic novels like this: they are one of the best ways as a creator to get a point across.
In comics – like superhero comics – you have a writer with a script, but then you have an artist who is asked to bring this to life. Or even like in film, you have many voices, many competing visions of the final product. Even with an “auteur” director, Kazu argued that there tends to be a crew of people that the director works with. So you get a studio that, in working together, creates movies that feel like each other, that feel like a voice, and we ascribe this to the director. It’s just not the same as creating a graphic novel as a full story.
Because it’s story, and not the art, that matters in the end with a graphic novel. That’s the point of them. And as a lover of good stories, I am so glad that I have gotten to encounter Kazu Kibuishi. I will likely be mentioning him and his work from here on out, as I consider comics more, as I read other graphic novels, and as I hunt down some of Kazu’s other work – I’m interested to read the anthologies he edited, Flight and Explorer. Also at the library!
But this one isn’t: