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Interviews: On Cartooning

"It's a mystery to me why comics have been so despised for so long." Cartoonist and writer Jessica Abel, the author of La Perdida, talks about her influences, her style and why comics get no respect.

Jessica Abel self-portraitPOV: Your comics have a particularly strong literary component, not only in terms of structure and narrative arc, but in their relation to works of fiction. In La Perdida, Carla, a young American whose father is Mexican, goes to Mexico City to find her roots and discover herself, but the journey becomes a dark and ultimately dangerous one. Your epigraph is from Malcolm Lowry's incredible and devastating novel Under the Volcano, which, although it takes place in a very different part of the country, transforms Mexico into a beautiful and diabolical place. I wonder if you could talk a little more about what the epigraph means to you, and what sort of connection you find between your book and Lowry's.

Jessica Abel: The epigraph was a bit of a last-minute decision, but now that I chose it, it feels exactly right.

"¿Le gusta este jardín
que es suyo?
¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!"

I loved Under the Volcano, which I read while living in Mexico, and the flashback structure of La Perdida is inspired by that book. In Lowry's book, we know that something terrible happened to the Consul from the first chapter, and we spend the rest of the book finding out what and why. I was attracted to that structure, to the idea that you can tell readers what's coming, and they will still be lulled into a sense of comfort and security with a character in a work. When the predicted horrible events do occur, readers still feel all the shock of them, and even forget that they were warned.

The epigraph is a sign in a park in Cuernavaca that the Consul sees repeatedly, and translates in various ways, always misunderstanding the sign's meaning — his Spanish isn't up to par. The true meaning of the sign: "Do you like this park, which is yours? Make sure your children don't destroy it!" seems a perfect veiled warning to Carla if only she could understand it, which in turn seems a perfect metaphor for the book as a whole.

Jessica Abel - comic imageI drew the phrase onto a sign in the style of signs of Parque Mexico, where there are several along those lines. It must have been a common municipal feature in the '20s and '30s. I planned to put the sign into the park on the cover, but the composition didn't allow it to show. You can see just the edge of it on the back slipcover flap.

POV: The ligne claire ("clear line") style Hergé employed when drawing the iconic characters of Tintin contrasts with the unusually realistic landscapes and backgrounds of the worlds Tintin visits and inhabits. As Scott McCloud pointed out in his book Understanding Comics, this contrast gives the effect of allowing the comic reader to "mask themselves in a character and safely enter a stimulating world." "One set of line," he writes, "allows readers to see; the other to be."

Describe your own illustrative strategy or style. How did you arrive at it? How do you feel it's been most effective? Did you struggle to find it? When does it not work?

Jessica: I'm not sure I really buy Scott's theory, but if "masking" (Scott's term) ever works, it's with Tintin. The world he occupies is incredibly rich.

Jessica AbelMy drawing, like that of most cartoonists, is intended first of all to be functional: to create believable space, and communicate information. My strongest point in drawing has always been my ability to show characters' nonverbal communication through facial expression and posture. In La Perdida, I began using a new style, one designed to fool the reader into imagining a richer world than I'm actually drawing.

In my earlier short stories (in Artbabe, now reprinted in Soundtrack and Mirror, Window), I was deeply interested in getting it right — all the details. But after a number of years of getting better at that technique, I hit a wall. Among other things, I realized that, when you draw in such a tight, controlled style, you open yourself up to (in my case, my own) criticism that things aren't quite right. If room is drawn so carefully, when a detail is wrong or missing, it's wrong or missing. The reader's imagination doesn't add the detail in [because there are already so many other details]. The reader is restricted to seeing the elements that are right there in front of him/her.

Then, of course, there's the time issue. Those pages took me forever, and gave me major hand/arm pain.

So when I was living in Mexico, I started reassessing my drawing style, and plunged into a period of doing exercises and research to develop a new way to draw. The result was a style that implies more than it shows, and so, ironically, feels more "true" to the scene I want to draw than a style that is more specific. It seems to me that the reader's imagination is able to fill in the gaps more effectively than I ever could. Plus it's a lot faster and more fun to do. Of course, I preserved my interest in facial and body gesture in this style as well, it's just a bit more fluid.

POV: How do you feel about your recurring characters? How real do they become to you as you work and live with them over the years? Do you imagine them having a life independent of the comic?

Jessica: I don't use recurring characters. I do get very interested my characters while I'm working with them, and I find the process of fitting them into a story, and allowing them to create the story around themselves, fascinating. But no, I don't imagine they have a life outside of what I make for them.

POV: Describe your working process. Do you work daily? When you begin a comic, do you start with image, or with text? What are the raw materials of a story? Do you always know what is going to happen, or does the story take turns that surprise you?

Jessica: I work daily, but not always on comics. I'm doing quite a bit of writing now, and I teach as well.

When I'm working on comics, I have to give myself a million deadlines, or I'd never get anything done. Comics are just so hard to make — I find it very difficult to motivate myself.

Tintin and I - Jessica Abel - candlelightI start with plot and character, thinking about those elements and working with them for quite a while before I get to the actual writing. I have the story arc and the main plot points worked out before I write. Then I usually just start at the beginning and work straight through, writing dialogue first, then thumbnailing (i.e. making sketch versions of the pages), penciling and inking.

I can certainly be surprised by turns a story takes, but usually not once I'm actually in the writing/drawing stage. In the plotting stage, anything can happen. That's why I try to finish that part before I start writing. I may be exaggerating here — I'm sure there are times when I think of something part-way through that changes the story, but the ultimate outcome doesn't change. Or not yet. It could always happen.

POV: Marshall McLuhan, author of the 1967 book The Medium Is the Massage, wrote about the differences between what he called "hot" media versus "cool" media. Hot media, like movies and radio, he said, were dense with data and therefore demanded only a passive audience, whereas "cool" media, lo-fi and utilizing iconic forms, required active, involved audience participation. His examples of "cool" media are television and comics. Do you agree with McLuhan's assessment?

Jessica: I don't think comics use iconic forms — or they don't have to. But that makes them even more "cool," if I understand the idea. One has to be quite involved to make comics work. Signals have to be decoded on both the verbal and visual level, simultaneously, and, to refer back to Scott McCloud again, his "closure" theory states that the reader must do a lot of cognitive work between panels as well. Comics definitely need an engaged reader.

POV: What were some of the first comics you read? How do you think they found their way into your work, consciously or perhaps unintentionally? Who are some of your other influences, in comics and in other forms, such as art, literature and pop culture?

Jessica: I had a collection of Wonder Woman comics from the 1940s that my stepmother had given me. The collection was a Ms. Magazine publication from the early 70s, with several essays, sort of revisionist-history approaches to women in comics. It also had an introduction by Gloria Steinem. I don't really think it's had a lot of influence on me, however. I still like it, though.

Love and Rockets, and in particular, Jaime Hernandez's work, has had a profound influence on my work, and other cartoonists who had an impact on me early in my artistic life are Gary Panter, Jose Muñoz, David Mazzucchelli, Julie Doucet, Milt Caniff and Blutch.

I love novels, but I really have no idea if any writers influenced me — probably I'm a mash-up of all of them. Jane Austen plus Günter Grass plus Cormac McCarthy.

POV: Although some have approached its widespread popularity, there is no exact parallel to Tintin in American comics. Why do you think this is so? What in American comics comes closest to Tintin and approximating the cult of Tintin? In other media?

Jessica: I don't know — maybe because we had so many kids comics at the time, the interest in any one was dispersed?

Superman, Disney and Peanuts are probably our closest analogues in terms of cultural saturation. Content-wise, Tintin is more along the lines of Terry and the Pirates. But unfortunately that was a newspaper strip and didn't have a life beyond that medium.

POV: Graphic novels and comics have become popular even among mainstream audiences right now, especially with movie adaptations of non-superhero comics like V for Vendetta, Sin City, American Splendor, Ghost World, A History of Violence and, just out at the time of this interview, Art School Confidential.  In the United States, graphic novel sales have more than tripled to $245 million in recent years. Yet bookstores still often have a hard time deciding where to shelve them: some finally have been given their own section, but often you have to look in Humor. Nearly every review or article written about them still includes a definition of the genre, as if a reader would have no preconceived idea of what a comic or graphic novel is, implying that the form is largely misunderstood. Why do you think it's taken so long for comics and graphic novels to become as popular as they are now? Why do you think this implied need to define comics still exists? Do you have your own definition?

Jessica: It's a mystery to me why comics have been so despised for so long. Obviously, it has to do with the history of the medium — arising out of cheaply-reprinted booklets of newspaper strips, just out to make a quick buck, followed by mostly-crappy original work. It took a while for really talented artists to move into the comic-book world from the newspapers. Then Wertham's witchhunt [Dr. Fredric Wertham was a psychologist who promoted the idea that comic books were bad for kids in the 1940s] did a lot of damage, and he certainly helped to define comics as specifically for children, and brain-rotting to boot. But it really is strange that even TV commercials got respect before comics did. I have never been able to figure it out.

And why does the need to explain comics still exist? Because that prejudice still exists. It's fading, but it's still very strong. It's important to keep pushing the boundaries of what people know comics to be so that they are receptive to the whole world of comics, not just one or two genres of work.

POV: How is cartooning different for you than working in other genres, as a creative process?

Jessica: It's completely different from other media: it is closely related to film and prose, other narrative forms, but the skills needed to realize a story are very different, and include not only drawing and writing dialogue and narration, but graphic design and the ability to depict time passing visually. It's a whole suite of skills that has to go into making a comics page, skills that are quite distinct from those that go into writing a page of prose, or making a film.

POV: Hergé underwent a period of despair and anxiety during which he suffered recurring nightmares filled with whiteness — certainly iconic dreams for a cartoonist! Eventually, after psychoanalysis, he emerged with a new direction: Tintin in Tibet, with its stark alpine landscapes and minimalist cast and story, was a major departure for Hergé. Do you have periods when you lose faith in your work? How have you handled them? What do you feel is your greatest creative or artistic accomplishment?

Jessica: I haven't really lost faith in my work (other than for quite short periods when the work is harder than usual), but I have hit points where I want to quit because it's just too hard, too demanding an art form. Basically, there's nothing to be done about that but to keep going (if you're in the middle of something), or stop for a while and do other things while you wait for your motivation to return.

POV: How does politics influence or impact your work in comics (or not)? Has it had a lesser or greater effect over the years?

Jessica: The influence is organic — i.e., my political ideas come out in the context of characters' behavior, not overtly.

POV: What are you working on now?

Jessica: I'm working on a textbook about making comics in collaboration with my husband, cartoonist Matt Madden, I'm overseeing the art on a comics script that I wrote with Gabe Soria, and I'm working on a novel for teenagers, which will be illustrated, but it's not a comic.

Rebecca Bengal conducted this interview via email for POV

Related Links:
Jessica Abel
The artist's personal website.

NPR: Summer's Most Magical Form of Transport: Books
NPR's book reviewer Alan Cheuse placed Jessica Abel's graphic novel La Perdida (Pantheon, 2006) on All Things Considered's 2006 summer reading list. View excerpts from the novel.





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It's a mystery to me why comics have been so despised for so long.”

— Jessica Abel

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