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.
Some Related Asymptotia Posts (not exhaustive):