artwork by Andrew Godfrey
The theme of this year’s Comics & Medicine conference in Dundee, Scotland is “Stages & Pages.” We aim to look at performance and/in graphic medicine from many perspectives. Our fantastic host in Dundee is Andrew Godfrey, who is doing his PhD dissertation in this area. This past week we’ve been reviewing abstracts for the conference, so the theme of performing comics is quite present in my mind. One of my favorite known examples of performed comics thus far, aside from Andrew, is by Chicago cartoonist Gina Wynbrandt.
I worked my way through the podcast/book with a fantastic Google community of listener/creators this past winter. In “the edit,” a creator reads (or plays) their narrative work out loud to a group and the group responds afterwards while the creator furiously takes notes. The group members tell the creator when they were bored, when they felt engaged, or when they were lost, confused, or otherwise stumbling over the form of the story. The creator can take this feedback and address the problems in the narrative to make it a better work. This applies to many narrative mediums: written story, audio story, maybe even music, BUT… I thought, not comics, right? You can’t “perform” comics for editing purposes, right? In assuming this, I was completely forgetting and ignoring the theme of our upcoming conference.
So when a group of three brilliant women met with me a few weeks ago to do an edit, they read my graphic memoir at home, we gathered to go page by page through the text, and they recalled notes they had made as we discussed the book. It was an AMAZINGLY productive process, because I had chosen my edit committee very, very well. (I enjoy stealing all the credit there.) This process took four hours, a marathon session I was sure would only take one hour.
I made the next round of edits to the book based on their feedback, but there is one trouble area in the book that they confirmed that I’ve still not overcome, even after their edits. It’s the Gordian Knot of this project: how to integrate long passages from interviews into the rest of my memoir comic narrative without making the long passages interrupt the narrative flow. It’s been a tough mix from the start, and I knew I hadn’t quite gotten it quite right. Here’s an example of a comic memoir page:
and here’s an example of an interview page:
I want to keep the content and basic style of both of these, but some work needs to be done to integrate them better. Perhaps when I’ve cracked this, or from the outside, the solution seems obvious, but from inside this process it absolutely has not.
Enter a very thoughtful discussion of the current season of the podcast Serial. (I’m a bit of a podcast addict. There are just so many great podcasts out there right now!) Something the hosts said in their discussion prompted me to consider the chapters of my book as if they were podcast episodes. So I decided to “perform” them as if they were. I recorded a reading into my iPhone as if the comics were audio-only. And it worked! As I read the pieces out loud, I suddenly was able to see gaps in voice, imagine areas where long stretches of text could be more creatively drawn, and pretty much gained enough of a new perspective on my work to untie my Gordian Knot.
There is something quite intriguing about the connections between audio and visual – and how listening to podcasts and audiobooks, at least as I experience them, seems to have a vastly different engagement and impact than reading solid text. Most cartoonists, actually artists, I know listen to much of their “reading.” Is there something there? Have you ever listened to a particularly good book and when you later thought about a scene in the audiobook you could recall with precise clarity where you were standing and what you was looking at when you heard it? Or vice versa, have you ever returned to a place only to clearly recall the scene in the book you were listening to when you were there previously? This stuff happens to me all the time. There is a part of my yard that will forever be associated for me with a scene from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time because I was gardening there during a pivotal scene. I’m fascinated to know what is going on there neurologically.
That said, I don’t think this experience is universal – my spouse can not listen to her “reading.” In fact, she reports being the kind of young person for whom class time was not productive, she did all her learning through textbook reading at home. I was the exact opposite as a kid. I skimmed the reading at home and absorbed knowledge like a sponge when it was discussed by the teacher in class. Again, I wonder what’s going on neurologically there, and what elements of neurodiversity (a word spell check does not like) are at play.
Now back to my editing… I suspect listening to these recordings I’ve made of my graphic memoir, as I walk along with the curious dog, might help me even further. Wonder where in our neighborhood I’ll come to associate with my own book.