Monday, October 24, 2011
Notes from a Nobody Comic Writer
by Tauriq Moosa
Finding a new love is not always a good thing. Having started with writing prose fiction, I drifted away since I found fiction to be too self-indulgent. But, recently, due to events beyond my control, I found myself loving the comics medium. Indeed, I want to create these beautiful things. The problem is, I am on the worst side of the comics medium: an unknown writer who can’t draw. Here, I look at why I think the medium matters, though and why I’m in love.
I have been writing as soon as my wrists could hold up a pen and I (mostly) understood the purpose of words. I wrote stories as soon as those words could formulate into sentences. But I stopped writing stories when reality sucked out the marrow of fiction for me, when I studied something called “Literary Theory” that, instead of making me see The Craft as worthwhile, only showed me to be a self-indulgent buffoon. This was not the intention of the university course I studied; but intentions are irrelevant here. The best thing studying literary theory did for me was to make me realise why I should not be doing it at all. I was one of the top students in my graduating year, without attending a year and a half of lectures; I read none of the articles, studied none of the theorists.
This is not an indication of my intelligence (what little remains) but of the idiocy of (large parts of) literary theory. I won’t go into it here, nor is that central to my point. The only reason I mention it is for autobiographical purpose to indicate why I stopped caring and writing fiction. Indeed, I wrote two novel manuscripts before I was 20 and published several short-stories. Being a horror “aficionado” (which is like being a proud collector of dead kittens’ eyes), I tended to focus on the less accessible sides of reading. I liked that readers would have to adjust to a slightly difficult writing-style, that the stories were sometimes gory, but, more importantly, complex.
Or at least, I thought they were.
In reality, they probably are not. Nor do I think I am a particularly good fiction writer. Anyway, I decided to use my writing ability – which is not “ability” so much as an insatiable need to put words “on paper” – on more important, real-life matters. Here, I found that because I could mostly form coherent sentences, I could write and publish articles that people were interested in. Many were interested in the fact that I was, for example, an ex-Muslim who spoke about non-belief. This went into writing science and philosophy articles, until eventually I decided I should learn more. I then enrolled in a Masters’ course in Applied Ethics.
Back to loving fiction
All of this leads to me telling you about how I’ve come back into writing comic fiction, after I had had the opinion that fiction was self-indulgent.
That’s of course a broad generalisation (is there any other kind?). But that is how I perceived it and why I didn’t engage in it. Did I admonish good fiction writers? Of course not. Indeed, I still read (past and present-tense) and continued to discover amazing fiction writers during my years of writing nonfiction.
I remember discovering Thomas Pynchon as a significant moment in my life. As he says in the introduction to Slow Learner and Other Stories: “Everybody gets told to write about what they know. The trouble with many of us is that at the earlier stages of life we think we know everything- or to put it more usefully, we are often unaware of the scope and structure of our ignorance.” That was me. I started writing when I was young and yet had never thought to truly grapple with the assertion that one must write what one knows. How much could I possibly know being both young and immature (two separate properties)?
I couldn’t believe there was a fiction writer openly discussing his own ignorance and others’, yet proudly and willingly putting it aside to tell stories. Here he begins in Socratic fashion – openly discussing the extent of his ignorance – then diving straight in to tell stories he thinks matters about people who don’t exist.
I decided to read Pynchon’s debut, V., as a starting point, to understand this strange, mythical beast. Reading V. was confusing, exhilarating and made my brain turn to mush. But Pynchon captures moments and feelings of entire eras easily.
I am the twentieth century. I am the ragtime and the tango; sans-serif, clean geometry. I am the virgin's-hair whip and the cunningly detailed shackles of decadent passion. I am every lonely railway station in every capital of Europe. I am the Street, the fanciless buildings of government. The cafe-dansant, the clockwork figure, the jazz saxophone, the tourist-lady's hairpiece, the fairy's rubber breasts, the travelling clock which always tells the wrong time and chimes in different keys. I am the dead palm tree, the Negro's dancing pumps, the dried fountain after tourist season. I am all the appurtenances of night.
It’s wonderful (even the word “appurtenances” is appropriately used despite being seemingly pretentious). It captured moments of my past, as if I was looking at photos of my childhood. He has done this merely with words and that was breath-taking.
Despite this, I wasn’t convinced to try writing again.
Through a complicated series of events which are entirely uninteresting, I started reading comics. They were accessible enough for me to pick one up, finish quickly and weren’t an investment of reading time that could be allotted to more important, nonfiction books.
But then I read Watchmen and everything changed.
Discovering Moore as well as Bad Comics
Here is one of the greatest works of literature of our time. There is little doubt of this. Moore and Gibbon’s beautiful work indicates just what can be done with the comics medium. I had never read a comic like this – having been reading mostly Batman comics before. Here was a creative team making full use of the medium that could not translate into a TV-series or movie, which appeared to be the intention of every comic I had been reading. All the teams seemed to be creating nothing but glorified story-boards, with the goal of obtaining mountains of cash for the rights to use the story and characters.
I fell in love with comics then. It was a hard fall, but it was worth it. That was about a year ago. Since then, I’ve read hundreds of comics.
It was through reading comics that I’ve come to despise superheroes. Really, utterly, despise almost the entire genre. For example, Superman is the worst fictional character I’ve ever encountered: no one seems to be able to handle him, except when they make him horrible (as Brian Azzarrello and the amazing Lee Bermejo did in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel). Grant Morrison’s incredibly boring All-Star Superman is so mundane, badly written, tedious, uninspiring, inconsistent, weird, and juvenile I can’t believe people rank the series so highly (there’s a scene in All-Star Superman where Superman must best two other superheroes to “win” Lois Lane’s affections. She’s not in danger; indeed she encourages the fight. Indeed she acts like a stupid, obnoxious and spoilt brat the entire series. What the hell is this?! Why is Lois Lane like someone from Jersey Shore, Grant Morrison?)
I also realised that I wasn’t wrong to hate things like the awful Silent Hill comics, despite being a huge Silent Hill fan (I’ve played most of the games, own all the soundtracks and know most of the mythology. On an unrelated note, I didn’t have a girlfriend then).
Comics were far from perfect and indeed I had no doubt about it. Because I was – and still am – new to the medium, I felt that my opinion might be missing the mark. For example, perhaps I just didn’t understand what Morrison was doing in Superman. But now that I’ve read more and have seen what good comics are, I have understood my initial despising of Morrison’s Superman is not unfounded.
This was one of many catalysts to try and create my own.
One of the prime motivators for writing is to see a story or a view that you so far have not read or engaged with. If there isn’t a story out there that uses the superhero genre to make us realise that superheroes are more than likely psychopathic, that real people also inhabit the world of superheroes, then one must be created (thus, Watchmen). The need to fill the gap of what you feel is missing is a good reason to create it for yourself.
Do I think that I can fill a gap? Am I a better writer than Grant Morrison or Scott Ciencin (who wrote the Silent Hill comics)? More than likely I’m not. I’m just someone who loves comics and has particular tastes. But I wanted to try, anyway.
I tried to find artists to work with here in South Africa. Unfortunately, that has been difficult. Almost all are “struggling” and won’t work without guaranteed payment. This is, indeed, the case with most artists. This is perfectly understandable: this is their livelihood not, like me, merely a hobby. And who the hell am I? I’m a nobody writer, with not a single published and good comic under my belt, either.
However, after much stalking/searching, I discovered a ridiculously talented artist willing to work with me. I sent him the script for a short 8-page comic and left it up to him. A week passed, then I received an email which contained one of the pages.
I had felt a deep love when reading Pynchon; I have stopped and breathed sighs of relief and satisfaction when reading Faulkner. I have been ecstatic when someone has praised and/or loved a piece of my writing. I have sat next to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as he tried to force-feed me a delicious cupcake, while discussing religion. But nothing – nothing at all – prepared me for seeing my page brought to life by the hands of a talented artist.
Looking at it, I couldn’t believe I had created the skeleton for it. When I saw that page, I knew what I wanted one side of my life to be. This is exactly what I want to do with half of my life: write comics.
Aside from the feeling of watching your script come to life, the medium is accessible. Anyone can look at the pictures and surmise what is happening in your comic (unless you’re Grant Morrison – see, for example, Seven Soldiers of Victory #0). This is obvious: it’s why pictures are often included in educational books.
My entire goal in studying and engaging with ideas like killing, war and science has been to make it accessible: to myself and therefore to others. I don’t think I’ll ever be a creator of any thing profound, in the arena of politics, philosophy, science, and so on. I will however constantly try to understand it, judge it, assess it by reading those with expertise on the subjects and use what I’ve learnt from critical engagements to make it both clear to me and therefore to others. And because of this, I decided that it’s too restrictive to locate important ideas only within the domain of nonfiction.
Fiction serves as an amazing place to test and engage with powerful ideas. For example, Philip K. Dick writes about what would happen if we made machines which resembled people so closely, we almost couldn’t tell them apart. What would happen if these machines “went wrong” and needed to, say, be exterminated? In Watchmen Rorschach walks out at the end to his own demise because he has to be consistent with what is good, despite being apparently hated by most people and never being able to fit into the very society he’s attempting to save. In one of the first issues of John Constantine: Hellblazer, the titular character must decide what to do with his friend who can summon and be possessed by a powerful being – eventually, John decides that he has to sacrifice his friend for the good of all.
These pose questions of consistency, morality, knowledge and personhood. What would we do? Is Constantine right to sacrifice his friend? Is Rorschach right to have his attitude? Why should he die for this? Should we respect those who die for their ideas?
The point is that if my goal of writing is to get people to think, there’s no reason why comics cannot be a wonderful medium to do just that. However, it requires a way on my part to not be self-indulgent. I must constantly focus on trying to convey ideas, dilemmas and so on, which will not only resonate with many people but be such that they try grapple with the problem. Perhaps sometimes this will work, sometimes it will not. However, that is what I am trying to do in my scripts: at the very least, create an interesting scenario (a mother who becomes a serial-killer to “support” her family; a child who turns reality into whatever he wants and how his father manages to control him for his own ends; a city in the middle of a desert whose inhabitants believe themselves to be the only people in the entire world but who are obviously and horribly wrong; a necropolis inhabited by people who celebrate the dead and whose lives are invested in funerals and death ceremonies; etc.). And, at the best I’d like more (can murder ever be justified if it’s for the love of a family; what do cemeteries say about how we view life; how much should religion influence what a society believes and is it ever justified to maintain a great lie?).
Thus, I think comics can do something which fiction (and indeed movies) cannot. I need not mention how something beautiful arises when skilled creators use the interplay between words and art to tell a further story; or how beautiful art is itself simply pleasing but more so when it forms part of a great narrative.
The difficult part is getting interested and talented artists more than anything. I am more interested in telling stories than money (since this is a hobby and passion, rather than career), and this where things get difficult for us nobody comics writers – the conflict is I can’t pay due to insufficient funds and the artists need either guaranteed pay and/or publication. However, I’m just starting and telling you why, despite my initial loathing for all things fiction, I’ve decided to try again with a different mindset. Whether I succeed is a different question and given that it’s more difficult for writers than anyone else, the future is not hopeful (it never is).
But it is rewarding. I’m not going to tell other aspiring comics writers to not give up, carry on trying and so on. I’ve said before that giving advice to writers is difficult to me, since most of it is part of simply being a writer (if you have to tell someone to write and read often, then chances are, they probably aren’t the appropriate people to write at all!) What I will say is the reward of seeing your work come alive is incredible and worth it. Add to this, it’s an accessible medium (unless you’re Grant Morrison) which can communicate ideas and try engage readers critically, and you have a winning formula. Comics isn’t appreciated by many people as a “proper” form of literature – but this only shows only these people’s ignorance rather than their accuracy. But in order to prove them wrong, we need to continue to produce good comics and not merely glorified storyboards.
Posted by Tauriq Moosa at 12:10 AM | Permalink