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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams

Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Greg Houston's NBM blog
George Grosz
Abandoned Cars
Free online copy of Sixth Gun #1
Molly Maguires
Doug Potter
Recent Books of Interest

Elephant Man #1 by Greg Houston (NBM)
Elephant Man #1 I brought this into my comics class (see column!) and one of the artists wanted to go buy it right away, mostly on the basis of Houston's hyperbolic art. Now, all comic art is "hyperbolic," in a way -- that's why Roy Lichtenstein was able to turn faux prints into 60s era pop art -- but Houston's tale of a humble newspaper reporter turned metropolitan defender is a mash-up of Ralph Steadman, Mad Magazine's Mort Drucker, and George Grosz. All rendered in black-and-white, and all in the service of a tale of Elephant Man -- yes, the original -- now re-contextualized as a defender for kind of nether-60s (that decade again!) Baltimore. Not Barry Levinson's Baltimore, but that of John Waters. Come for the art, stay for the derangement, and release most notions of "plotting." More mini-GN's about our misshapen but well-meaning (yet ultimately feckless) hero are promised.

Abandoned Cars by Tim Lane (Fantagraphics)
Abandoned Cars Did I say all comic art was hyperbolic? In his Kerouac-esque tale (really, a collection of tales) of people drifting across, and into, "the American night" (as On the Road Would Have it) Lane takes a far more "documentary" approach to his own black and white art, as he tries to render a landscape set not in the neo-1966 of Elephant Man, but in an alternative 1958, where guys still wear T-shirts and jeans, drive big ol' cars, listen to Elvis and Chuck Berry, drink with bums, and try to find out What It All Means. (Though Dylan makes an appearance too, so maybe there's some 60s here, too). Sometimes, the lettering is as crammed as a Dr. Bronner's label, but when the publicity typo'd the description of these stories as "nourish narratives," instead of "noirish," that cramming suddenly made sense: These are about people trying to become "nourished," mostly spiritually -- and the long bursts of prose on the page show just how hungry they are.

The Sixth Gun, #1 by Cullen Bunn (writer) and Brian Hurtt (art) (Oni)
The Sixth Gun, #1 We need more weird westerns -- give me zombies with spaghetti western tropes and I'm a pretty happy fan reader. Here Bunn and Hurtt, who have already done demonic genre mash-ups with their gangstery The Damned series, begin a tale of post (Civil) war wounds that won't heal (literally!), possessed guns, ruthless Pinkertons (à la The Molly Maguires), battling Friars, and even one supporting character whose face is an homage to Jonah Hex. The first installment lays out so much mythology so fast, it's hard to figure out who, initially, is after who, or what they want from them, but by book's end, the stakes are made clearer, and most of the players brought on stage convincingly enough that you definitely want to see what happens next.

Teaching Comics

I'm done with teaching comics.

No, really, I'm finished -- as in, the five week course I taught over the summer on comic book scripting is now concluded.

I've mentioned here and there that I teach writing -- one of the places I do this is "in house," for the Disney folks, who have very robust enrichment/education programs for their employees. I happily fell into one of these as a creative writing teacher for one department running what amounts to an in-house community college, offering evening classes in subjects ranging from photography to sculpture, public speaking to digital art, and more. I've taught various aspects of writing over the years -- sometimes blanket "Creative writing," other times more specific courses on "Writing for Teens and Children," "Science Fiction & Fantasy," and more.

We were looking for something that hadn't been done, or offered there yet, and I suggested comic book scripting, almost as an afterthought.

This became a seized-upon, and well-received idea (though I later found out not everyone who wanted to take it could -- will there be additional sections offered "down the road?" Stay tuned!), and the class was capped at around a dozen, so in our two hours-a-week we could do some workshopping of sample script pages.

But therein lay the challenge -- I had some former students return, who'd been waiting for such a class, and a bunch of new students (who'd been waiting for such a class!), divided between those who were, primarily artists (and worked as such within Disney), and those who were writers.

But how to proceed?

In the fiction writing classes, aside from in-class exercises and writing prompts, people could bring in pages each week and read sections of works-in-progress. The prose on the page, after all, were a "finished version" of the story's form (revisions notwithstanding).

When I've taught script or playwriting, the writers still bring in pages, only with enough copies to "cast" each new scene they've written. Thus they can hear the words spoken and reacted to -- not quite a "finished" version of the story, but certainly a good way to give you a sense of whether your dialogue-driven tale is working, or not.

But what to do with comics?

If everyone had more time, then a couple of people each week could email their scenes to other participants, and they could be workshopped in class. But I'm constantly losing "students" to business trips, last minute meetings, etc. Sometimes their only "outside" creative time is in class itself.

So I had some in-class exercises -- blank comic strips and pages, where they could fill in the narration panels and voice balloons (one series of which was provided by Nexus Graphica amigo Douglas Potter), and learn pacing and "brevity" that way.

Another was to provide a blank comic script "form," covering two "finished" pages, where they could write a "documentary" comic about their day at work (some of the artists in class worked by sketching out the drawings first).

And of course we studied and dissected both finished comics, and scripts to well-known series. But what to do when people brought in pages?

Comic scripts don't really lead themselves to being read by an "ensemble," in part because so much is visual -- even the way utterances are lettered, or narration is shaded, can affect your reading of the page or panel (voice-over from another character? Oh! A "flashback" panel!, etc.)

You could bring in multiple copies, and have everyone read them there, and discuss it.

I tried versions of both these approaches -- breaking up the group into small teams, where each 2-3 people could critique each other's scripts, then report back to the class as a whole on their colleague's stories.

For smaller groups (as I said, there were sessions were attendance was cut by other "work obligations"), we tried having the writer reading their script pages, describing each panel, how it worked, what happened in it (including dialogue), etc.

This sort of worked. We definitely got a sense of what each story was about, and were able to offer suggestions and feedback, but I'm not sure we were always able to impart the feel of each project that way.

So I'm still learning -- how to be a comics teacher. The class room "modalities" for other types of writing I get -- and how best to share work before it's finished, imparting a sense of what the writer wants, and means.

But comics -- before things are drawn, inked, laid out; well, I'm still looking for the most effective way to impart that, outside the writer/artist or the writer/editor relationship, which are one-on-one, and ideally, can develop for many years.

In a five week class, how do you justice to a comics idea that's still blocked out words on a page, and present it to a group when you don't even have any roughed out art to go with it?

I'll keep tinkering with this when and if I do a ten-week version of the same course, on a non-"tryout" basis. In the meantime, any suggestions from "Nexus nation" are welcome. (are we really a "nation?" Nexus "coffee Klatch?")

As for what I'm teaching now, for the remainder of summer: memoir and essay writing, drawing on my years as a journalist, and my last two prose efforts to appear in print: both essays, in larger anthologies.

Now -- to combine that with the comics writing...!

Copyright © 2010 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams wrote the Danger Boy time travel series, is, he swears, almost done with his non-Danger Boy book, and wonders about comic adaptations of prose work. He gets Twittery @mlondonwmz

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