Thursday, April 21, 2011

Storytelling Lecture, Artwork - Part 1

Storytelling Lecture Series, Part 7 (Edited from the transcript of a 1994 seminar)


I want to get onto the artwork. Writers pay attention. A lot of this applies to you as well. This is a two-part medium. It's visual and verbal.

We're in the business of storytelling. Because of the unique combination of the visual and verbal, a lot of the burden of storytelling falls upon the penciler. The penciler's not just an artist, he's half of the writer. And a writer should not be just a writer, he should think visually, be a visual storyteller, he should be half of the artist.

Sometimes, when the artist and writer are the same person, it really works well, but it often works very well when it's a collaboration like Lee and Ditko, Lee and Kirby, or Goodwin and Simonson. Sometimes a collaboration is even better than a solo act, because two good storytellers in tandem come up with stuff neither one could alone. Two can be better than one. So, writers, if you can't draw, don't despair. But learn to think visually. Pencilers, artists, learn about writing.  I don’t care if you’re aren’t a wordsmith, learn the principles, understand the goals. As they say in Hollywood, “do the math.” Learn how to do the math.

Let me tell you the secrets of visual storytelling. Again, we're in the business of storytelling—that’s our number one priority. We're here to tell a story. What is storytelling? As I was telling you writers, it's conveying information. CONVEYING INFO. As Frank Miller once said, when he had the epiphany and went from being a talented young artist/writer to being a genius, “I get it. We know the story and they (the readers) don’t, and we’re telling them the story!”

I hear a lot of you thinking, “duh, no kidding.” Listen to me. How many comics have you read in which the artist is more concerned with drawing lots of pin-up shots so he can sell the pages for more money at conventions than getting across what’s happening? How many have you read where the writer is so busy showing how cleverly he or she can do snappy patter that they fail to convey who these people are and why we should care about them?

When you get it into your head that you need a good story to tell, and that telling it—well—is the mission, you’re making the same jump to lightspeed that Miller made that one fine day.

So we’re not just doing patter and pin-ups, not just doing bits and scenes, we’re telling a story and preferably a good one. Something dramatic and powerful, with a point.

How does a pencil artist convey information? What does he have to get across? He's got to get across drama. In other words he's got to have his characters be good actors. He's got to be a good actor, or else he won’t understand how to draw the characters expressing emotion. He's got to be able to understand how someone looks when they're upset, or worried, or how they would express the various emotions. He's got to be a dramatist. He also—well this is a still medium so it presents some particular problems—but he also has to understand how things move, and he's got to create the illusion of movement even in a still medium. So drama and dynamics are important. It's even important to drama you have to know how to move somebody's arm to create the gesture. Another thing is just drawing, not surprisingly enough because if you can't draw, it doesn't matter if you can act. If you can't draw it well enough for people to understand it, you're doomed. These things really are key to the penciler's role in storytelling, things a penciler has to master.

Now I’m going to tell you how you can become a much better penciler in a minute, I mean right now.  Pay attention, and you will leave this room a significantly better artist than you were when you walked in.

JayJay here. Oops, we didn't get this into the next blog, but we will soon!

(continued)

10 comments:

Steve Buccellato said...

Jim & Jay Jay; I'm loving this series on storytelling! It's something I've been thinking (and writing) a lot about lately, in regards to some projects of my own. Thank you both for making this lecture available to everyone on the blogosphere.

Keep 'em coming!

Marc Miyake said...

Dear Jim,

I used to study "how to draw comics" books and magazines. I learned more from HOW TO DRAW COMICS THE MARVEL WAY than from any art class I ever took. Yet I can't remember if any of those "how-to" publications emphasize storytelling. I doubt it comes up in recent "how to draw manga" books whose audience is more interested in drawing in pseudo-Japanese styles than in telling stories. I needed to hear this lecture when I first tried to draw comics about 30 years ago. It stings to realize, hey, I've been doing it all wrong. But admitting my error is a necessary first step. Correcting it comes next.

I don't draw anymore, but your advice also applies to pure prose writers. The misplaced focus on "pin-up shots" and "snappy patter" in comics reminds of me what BR Myers described as "the current practice of viewing a novelist's writing [...] in terms of individual sentences":

http://www.amazon.com/Readers-Manifesto-Pretentiousness-American-Literary/dp/0971865906/

"Now, what reviewer in the old days would have expected people to have a favorite sentence from a work of prose fiction? A favorite passage, sure, a favorite line of dialogue, maybe, but a favorite SENTENCE? You have to read a great novel more than once to realize how consistently good the prose is, because the first time around, and often even the second, *you're too involved in the story to notice*." (Emphasis mine.)

Similarly, perhaps one has to read a good comic book more than once to realize how consistently good the dialogue and art are, because the first time around, and often even the second, you're too involved in the story to notice.

An artist has to get his characters involved in the story. Acting, not just posing. Body language, not just stock facial expressions. The latter alone are challenging. I'm amazed by the range of emotions in Curt Swan's model sheets of Superman characters. The "simple" art of Archie, Richie Rich, etc. expresses more feelings than ultra-detailed, muscular statues in some superhero comics.

Comics art - "simple" or photorealistic - can't be clumsy. The visual equivalent of cacophony - bad anatomy and poor perspective - distracts the reader from the story because it draws attention to itself. Comprehensibility isn't enough; craft can't be forgotten.

Your last line is a great cliffhanger! Like I said, I don't draw anymore ... but I still think visually, so I've got to read part 8!

Dear Steve,

Glad to see a pro praise this series! I'm excited to know that I'm learning alongside other readers with a passion (and even a track record!) in the medium. I was a professional translator of manga for a few years, so I might have a bit of a handle on dialogue, but I certainly could learn more about that and even more about all the other aspects of comics.

kintoun said...

I notice Jim mentioned Goodwin and Simonson as an example of a good collaboration. Unfortunately, I've never read their Detective Comics back-up featuring Manhunter. Did they work together on anything else?

Bosch Fawstin said...

Nice cliffhanger....

jeff said...

Goodwin and Simonson did an extremely well-regarded adaptation of the first Alien movie when it first came out. And an issue of Star Wars together, I believe. Don't know of anything else beyond that.

kintoun said...

Thanks. I never knew Simonson provided art for the very first Alien comic book. I just did a search to get a look at the cover for Alien: The Illustrated Story and I see it's a bit plain with the logo occupying 75% of the page. I assume Twentieth Century Fox was strict against spoilers and didn't want Walt drawing an Alien on the front.

You're right about Star Wars too. According to the Comic Book Database, Archie Goodwin wrote issue 16 ("The Hunter") penciled by Walter Simonson. Although I don't own it myself, that's the story which introduced an elderly cyborg with a scar above his right eye named Beilert Valance five years before Louise Simonson wrote Cable's debut in New Mutants. It seems the only other Star Wars collaboration between Goodwin & Simonson happened in the "super-sized 50th collectors' issue" where Walt contributed inks to the last six pages.

Erik Bruhwiler said...

As I venture into animating comics - animating the actual art & story as if the comic is the story design AND the animation assets - I try to allow the viewer to experience the story, not just tell it to them. With sound and movement, I create an experience of the story and all of its story-relevant nuances. That is the mission, anyway.

Unfortunately, I don't find that much in the comics themselves. Some of them, yes, and those really affect me. But most have too many captions and too much clever dialog as they try to tell me the story, instead of creating an experience of the story for me.

When it is an experience of the story, that is when I am truly transported to another world - the world of that story.

jimshooter said...

Re: Goodwin and Simonson.
Award-winning "Cathedral Perilous." Manhunter.

George E Warner said...

DC Comics issued a collection of the entire Goodwin and Simonson Manhunter series back in 1984. It features a great 2 page introduction by Archie (Manhunter. The Tale Behind The Tales). It still reads great IMHO and the writing and artwork hold up all these years later as well.

Winner Of The Following ACBA Awards:

1973 Best Writer Of The Year Award
Archie Goodwin

1973 Best Short Story Of The Year
The Himalayan Incident

1973 Outstanding New Talent Of The Year
Walter Simonson

1974 Best Short Story Of The Year
Cathedral Perilous

1974 Best Feature-Length Story Of The Year
Gotterdammerung

1974 Best Writer Of The Year
Archie Goodwin

Impressive? Worth seeking out and reading? I'd say so.

George E Warner
superggraphics

kintoun said...

It would be a smart idea for DC to reprint Manhunter again. The special edition is quite rare nowadays and the page count is perfect for it to be labelled a "DC Comics Presents" volume. This could create some extra promotion for the upcoming Secret Society of Super-Villains HC too.