The Project – 2

A graphic novel. Yes, of course. (Continuing a series of posts revealing The Project. This is the second. Read the first to see how I got here.)

It makes perfect sense. Rather than hide the visual aspects of it all away in background, I’ll have it right up front. Having both images and words in my arsenal at the outset frees me up to do so much of what I want to do, in bringing the reader into the conversations through the characters, the locations, and in being able to go wherever I want either realistically, metaphorically, or representationally, in illustrating ideas and story. In fact, it is so utterly natural, given how we, the scientists, actually work on a day to day basis and talk to each other!

Actually, immediately it occurred to me that it is a graphic novel I needed to do, I wondered why nobody else in my subject areas (physics and so forth) has done it before. It it rather obvious, in retrospect, even though it took me a while to get there. Before you jump in and start telling me about all the “science comics” out there, please note -given all I wrote in the last post and above- that this is not just more “science comics”, with some fun pictures employed to show things in various subjects. People usually mention things like the Cartoon Guides, and so forth. Those sorts of things are great, but definitely not what I am talking about. I’m getting at, or trying to get at, something quite different, at least in part. We shall see. It seems it me that there is way more to do with this incredibly powerful genre in science than has been done, and certainly in the corners of physics in which I lurk. I want to try.

It is still surprising to me, but when I say graphic novel, it is not uncommon for it to emerge that people have an odd idea of what I am talking about. Some think that it is cartoons for children. No, it need not be for children, and it need not be cartoons. Some think it is something to do with violence or pornography, I guess spurred on by the term “graphic” (actually, early on in my time at USC I spoke with someone teaching writing, and asked her if she had an interest in teaching graphic novels. I got an oddly cold response from her and never heard from her again. I realized later what I think the likely misunderstanding was. She probably thought it was some sort of thinly veiled attempt to move the conversation into another direction. Sigh.). No, the graphic refers to the visual component, as in pictures.

In short, the craft of narrative using both words and (typically) sequential images is an old one that got a huge boost in the 20th Century and really took off, but spent – and still spends – a long time being misunderstood, looked down upon, and somewhat ghettoized. In fact, it is a growing and uniquely versatile narrative form, and also art form. I think it is potentially a perfect tool to employ in the goal of communicating about science and so much that surrounds it, supplementing traditional forms, widening the audience, and exciting be already interested. I simply don’t think it has been explored enough, and so that is what I have decided to do.

Now that my ideas are “out there”, I know that I risk someone else running off and producing something along the lines I’ve been discussing, but such is life. Ultimately, I want to help expand the ways we can bring science to the general public and I cannot expect to do it all myself. In fact, it fits with my core ideals that I tell people about this so that others are encouraged to try new mores of communication. Science wins, ultimately, and hence society wins. That’s the big picture. I’m not going to rush on implementing it all. I will let it take as long as it needs to. If it works at all. As I said in my February post:

Beware that I’m allowing myself the freedom to try something that won’t work, so it is also possible that you won’t hear about it at all because it failed. So it is with the process of trying to do something new and worthwhile. I like it this way.

So you’ve heard about it, but it still might fail. We shall see. So what have I been up do in making this idea (rather, this set of ideas) turn into something real?

It was important enough of an idea to me for me to decide to devote my sabbatical to in the Spring of this year, and that is what I was doing, although I was not telling anyone about it. I wanted to explore the idea, start laying down some of the big arcs of the narrative, design characters, explore locations, and so forth. In ways not out of place for a colleague in the arts or humanities in their scholarly endeavours, I set out to study aspects of the genre in depth and in breadth, and decide on what aspects I would bring to the work. I wanted to see if the whole thing was feasible, and there was a very major aspect I need to explore.

My sabbatical time was charged with at least one Big Question (there were lots of little ones too) that I wanted answered by the end of it. You see, a lot of the graphic novel industry works in a collaborative mode. There are words and pictures, you may have noticed. Often, the creative load is split among several people. Typically artists are hired in to illustrate the work, but to be sure, this is not like illustrating Peter Rabbit, where there are some nice pictures to look at along the way. The pictures are key in the story telling, and in fact can actually drive the story (the way the individual images are composed is not accidental, and the way the images are laid out on the page isn’t either), so the collaborative team needs to fit together in various crucial ways for this all to work. Go and look at some graphic novels in your bookstore and you will see that it is mostly teams of people working together….writer, penciller, inker, colorist, letterer… These are all separate people, often, and the middle three are the ones doing the “pictures”. In reality, for the best works, there needs to be a huge amount of communication among all these people to affect the narrative impact the book delivers.

So the Big Question for me was centered around this issue. Do I want to try to do what I want to do within such a collaboration? My instincts were, to cut a long story short, to go the route that seems insane. Do it all myself. Be writer, penciller, inker, colourist, and letter. All of them combined. The main reason is because ultimately it gives me the most creative control of what I want to do, serving the work better. I want to be able to write one of my conversations/dialogues and not have someone illustrate it, but write it in a way that from the ground up uses the vocabulary and narrative toolbox of the graphic novel. A good way to do this (not the only way – there are so many good collaborative teams out there producing amazing work -) is to have the writer be involved at all stages. Ultimately, have the writer draw, colour, letter, etc.



This leads to the obvious question. Can I produce work at the level required to do this? This was the Big Question of the sabbatical. I set out to see if I could develop a whole new set of skills, and raise them to a professional level. I would explore the craft of producing graphic novels, make decisions on story, character, and visual styles, and at the end, ask whether I can really do it all myself. I wanted to do this all before trying a different tack, and before asking the next, difficult, question – how to find a publisher crazy enough or open-minded enough to publish this, and what modes of publishing to use (it is all so deliciously rapidly changing with things like the very iPad I am typing this on playing a role).

So, in addition to not wanting to have the idea out there before I’d found my way into it and decided how to move it forward, now you know why I kept quiet about what my main sabbatical activity was. Even to my closest colleagues. People don’t think of outreach as that important in general, although they’d get it if you were working on a book. But if that book is in a genre that is misunderstood as graphic novels are… You see where I am going. And most of my time was going to be spent sitting around “looking at pictures” in books, in art museums, and… Drawing pictures. Hard to explain that your sabbatical seems to be largely sitting around looking at and drawing pictures. So I said nothing until I was ready to do so. Now I am ready to talk about it, and hence these posts. Sorry to have kept you in the dark so long, but broad chatter about it before I’d set it properly in my head would have resulted in unhelpful distraction.

So I spent a lot of delicious solitary time – since February – developing ideas and technique, working on raising my technical skills to a level they’ve not been at before, and also teaching myself whole news ones, since there is more to producing graphic novels than just drawing. Much more. At some point, I decided that I should work on a prototype story, as a sort yes/no answer to the Big Question of whether I can/should do this all myself. I’ll be able to step back and look at it and decide if I really can do it all myself.

So here it is. What you’ve been waiting for – A sample of the work:


(Ok, I am kidding, a bit.)

To Be Continued…

Next: A sample! A little deconstruction of the process, for those interested in details. Projections for the future of The Project.


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17 Responses to The Project – 2

  1. Mary Cole says:

    Love the sample! That brightened my day. A completely fascinating venture.

  2. Ele Munjeli says:

    Don’t know if you’ve ever taken a life drawing class but I find working from a live model for a while completely resets your perception of figure: it can erase anatomical misconceptions you never knew you had. Contact me if you want to talk about inking! Pen work is among my favorite…

  3. Clifford says:

    Thanks Mary!

    Hello Ele – so the stick figures were not well-proportioned enough for you? πŸ˜‰

    Seriously: Yes – working with live figure subjects is part of the fundamentals. I don’t do classes. I am self-taught, and sort of muddle along happily, figuring things out as I go. I draw a bit of everything when time permits, and that includes a lot of work with live figure models. It is, as you suggest, vital to do the latter. See posts to come.

    As for inking. Oh my… I can tell you stories. It is a lot of fun, yes! Plenty more to come.



  4. Ele Munjeli says:

    I didn’t fall for the stick figures: I’d been looking over your shoulder while you were drinking coffee, and I know already you can draw better than that!

  5. Clifford says:

    Gadzooks! A network of spies in various cafes! πŸ˜€

    (Actually, you missed a lot of detailed inking work that I did while sitting in BL, long after you had left there.)


  6. Jonathan says:

    This is a wonderful idea! I can’t wait to see the results.

    I spent a very enjoyable plane journey recently talking with a guy who is involved with dragging education kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Have you considered tying in scientific pedagogy with some of the technology we have at our disposal these days, not that you don’t already have enough on your plate!

  7. Blake Stacey says:


    On the off-chance you haven’t heard of it: Scott McCloud has a nifty book called Making Comics (2006) which you might appreciate.

  8. Clifford says:

    His books are good. That one is a sequel to his classic, which I much prefer, “Understanding Comics”, which I wish everyone would read. Learning how to get the most out of a form/medium you are looking at (or listening to in the case of music) is a great thing.


  9. Blake Stacey says:

    Indeed — Understanding Comics is great. To my surprise, I once saw it on the “required books” shelves in the MIT campus bookstore; apparently, a design class in the mechanical engineering department used it as a textbook!

  10. Jude says:

    No wonder you wrote so much about art museums while you were on sabbatical. You know, Clifford, it doesn’t much matter if someone “steals” your idea. It isn’t as though the market for graphic novels (or popularized science books in general) is only open to one interpretation. Yours would be better than theirs because it’s written by you. As a former high school librarian who loves graphic novels I find this quite exciting, not least because my mind instantly moves along to *SCHOOL AUTHOR VISITS* We had a graphic novelist visit our school, and he was like a clod of dirt in his lack of charm. Your author visit would be amazing. You could discuss the process of creating the book, discuss the content–okay, I realize it isn’t available yet, but I’m already excited about the marketing phase when we get to listen to you in a tour venue or somewhere else and get our copies signed.

  11. Clifford says:

    Jude.. exactly. Indeed, I said: “In fact, it fits with my core ideals that I tell people about this so that others are encouraged to try new modes of communication. Science wins, ultimately, and hence society wins.”

    As for posts about art and art museums. Yes. and No. I guess I would have posted about them anyway, since I’d have visited them anyway (as I do) but yes it is also true that I spent a lot of my research time in such places.

    In fact, a tour of my old posts will find them full of clues, now one knows what I’ve been up to! That mysterious library I worked a lot in, for example, (I had a picture in a blog post), was in Madrid, and attached to the Riena Sofia museum, just down the way from the Prado. I loved that library! Started some of my first experiments with digital inking there…


  12. Clifford says:

    Jude… yes, I’d be happy to talk at your school if we could make it work one day. But… perhaps you should wait to see if you like the material first! πŸ™‚

    I like that you are excited about the marketing/tour! Evidently you are publicist/manager material, since you’re way ahead of me…! Do go ahead and find me an agreeable publisher while you’re at it! πŸ˜‰


  13. Tevong says:

    It is strange how different the status of comics/graphic novels are in the US/UK compared to Japan/France (those are the only countries I have first-hand experience on to comment). In the former comics are either viewed as those newspaper cartoons or superhero comics, and have a relatively niche status within society. In the latter comics are as much a part of society as books and magazines, with just as much variety serving all ages. One only needs go to a department store like FNAC in france and see the comic section. For british people the mere mention of the word “comic section” will bring to their mind a few shelves with calvin & hobbes, peanuts, superhero comics and a few other stuff they would never associate with serious literature. A comic section in france brings to mind nothing separate from the rest of the book section, where young and old alike will be browsing. In japan where the top grossing movie is a miyazaki animation the comic culture is even more pervasive in society.

    Anyway I think it’s a great idea, I had already thought about doing it a while ago and came to the conclusion that while the format seemed perfect in principle, when it came to actually putting panels together the explanations were just too lengthy and wordy. But I might have been aiming at something different.

    One thing I would really recommend though is to seriously consider doing a storyboard style sketch of the graphic novel and giving it to a professional artist to render. I grew up drawing a lot, me and my brothers had a natural talent for it given that our dad was an artist and taught us to paint at an early age, and I drew weekly comics for a couple of years at university (, but I wouldn’t underestimate the gap between an amateur that draws in his spare time and a professional. It’s like squash or tennis, anyone can get very good, but even the best amateur is miles away from a professional. Of course the illustrations only need to be as good as the purpose they serve, which is why XKCD works perfectly well with stickmen and Penny Arcade’s art is good enough to carry the crude videogame humour, but for a graphic novel art like tintin seems simplistic but it’s harder to make everything look right than it seems.

    I hate to sound so negative, it’s just that I have a lot of respect for the medium and the work that goes into being a good artist, as someone who once wanted to be one. It’s like when you see certain amateur short movies, you appreciate how good professional actors and directors are. But then there are amateur short movies out there that are of professional quality, and there are some very well drawn webcomics by amateurs, so don’t listen to me and have fun! πŸ˜›

  14. Clifford says:

    Tevong:- Yes. I know about it. Candace also nmentioned it in the comments to previous post. It is a very nice piece of work. When I ran into it a year ago I was at first dismayed a lttle bit, thinking that my thunder had been stolen, as it were, until I realized that it is really not at all close to what I’m doing, and, of course, it is in an entirely different field. It’s essentially a lovely lecture about thhe history of logic. They tackle the problem of how to get across a lot of the material by having you sit in on an actual lecture, which, well, is not really what I want to do, for sure.

    As to decisions about the rendering, that was the point of the Big Question, as described in the post. Yes, sure, professionals rock! Hurrah for them, and long may they prosper. See my next post, however. You can decide or yourself whether you agree with the direction I chose to go in. Ultimately the key issue for me is time, and the other aspects are less of a concern now. I can work at a level that, for me, is good enough. I certainly don’t expect to match the finish work of a professional, but that was never the point.

    See the next post.



  15. Clifford says:

    Oh, and yes, I have a huge respect for the medium too. However, I don’t think that is, in and of itself, a reason not to try. Do we say the same thing about writing prose? There are masterful writers out there – I am proud to have some as friends. But does that mean that if I try to write prose I am expecting to achieve their mastery overnight, or in a few months? No. Do I have any less respect for them if I try to produce a book anyway? No. Actually, if that was an inhibitor, the popular science book market would be all the poorer, since a lot of the writers are not full time professionals.

    One of the wonderful things about the graphic novel genre is precisely the fact that people are not waiting to have professional artists to Be involved. It has enlarged and enriched the medium so very much, and brought numerous voices to the table who would not otherwise have contributed.



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