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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Cartooning Taught Me About Writing

Before turning to writing, before the fame and glory that currently surrounds me like a giant halo, I wanted to be a cartoonist. In fact, being a cartoonist was my earliest aspiration. I was seven years old, living in Fort Pierce, Florida when it hit me.  I was reading the Sunday comics, marveling at a Peanuts strip, which seemed to be lifted straight from an experience I'd had with my sister, when suddenly it struck me that the cartoons weren't merely in the paper, that someone had to draw them.  "I want to be a guy who draws cartoons," I announced to my mother.  This is exactly the way I said it; I didn't even know there was such a word as "cartoonist."  I imagined someone who showed up at the newspaper office in a fedora hat, sat at a desk and drew that day's cartoons.
I did achieve my goal, having not one, but two syndicated strips: "Sibling Revelry" and the very short-lived "Hasty Pudding."  I will save the story of what became of them for another blog, but suffice it to say, that as a writer, decades of cartooning left their mark.
My characters are drawn in broad strokes, as is the world they live in.  The Man Martin universe is largely a place of bright primary colors.  Skies are blue, clouds are white, grass is green.  The cartoonist pares everything down to its essential identifying components, which are usually exaggerated, so it is with my writing.
I think I can say I have a very strong intuitive grasp of plot structure.  This too, I owe to cartooning.  Long before I had technical terms such as exposition, rising action, and climax, I knew that in a four-panel strip, there was a set-up, development, and punchline.  I created such little stories over and over again.  In the six years I drew Sibling Revelry," I created a mini-story a day.  Six times 365 is...  Hell, you do the math.  In a really great strip, there would also be something I called a "rim shot," a little extra joke in the final panel with the punchline.  The masters of this were Waterson, Breathed, and Trudeau, but I was able to pull off a rimshot myself once in a while.
Cartooning also teaches you timing.  Arranging pictures and words in space to direct the reader's attention, slow him down or speed him up, is a real art.  Will Eisner was the absolute master of this in The Spirit.  As a writer, you can't manipulate the size or location of panels to create emphasis or freeze time or collapse a year into two frames; you do it with the lengths of sentences and paragraphs, where you place the key phrase in a sentence, and chapter breaks.
Cartooning teaches you a fierce economy.  There can be no wasted motions when you're crowding an illustrated narrative into a space the size of four large postage stamps.
And from the really great cartoonists, Kelly, Schultz, Breathed, and Waterson, I learned about "giving something more."  As a little kid, back when I was a seven year old deciding to be a guy who drew cartoons and imagining how I'd look in a fedora, I never gave much attention to Pogo.  I read it, but for me it was all about Peanuts.  But then I got my hands on my first Pogo book, Pogo in Pandemonium.  As I read, it began to sink in, with an excitement so great it was almost like terror, how freaking brilliant that strip was.  No only was it about talking animals with all the word-play and puns Kelly adored, it featured dead-accurate caricatures of political figures, figures even then I was only just coming to know, and what's more - and for a cartoonist, this part is jaw-dropping - the books were composed of nothing but the daily strips.  Kelly was not only telling the traditional four-panel narrative - set-up, development, punch-line and on a good day a rim-shot - each strip dovetailed exactly into the next to create a longer more intricate narrative of delicious complexity and surprise.  That's the most important lesson, and it applies equally well to cartooning, writing, and any art.  Give something more.
Chabon has written a book, which if you haven't read you need to, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.  It's all about these two kids who set off to create their own comic book.  It has special interest for a cartoonist, but you don't have to be a cartoonist to love it.  I can see why Chabon would be interested in cartooning.  A writer can learn a lot from a cartoonist.

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