Friday, May 17, 2013

An Interview with Jeanne Thornton

As a co-founder of , author of the novel The Dream of Doctor Bantam, an editor of Rocksalt Magazine, and an inddie cartonist for about a decade Jeanne Thornton is a  Renaissance Woman when it comes to the narrative arts.  She was kind enough to sit down and give us some insight into the nature of the medium of the comic strip. 

Q) There is a narrative nesting doll effect in The Man Who Hates Fun as well as many classic comic strips.  Every strip stands by itself while often being part of a larger story arc at the same time advancing the larger themes and style of the whole project.  What have you learned from the years you worked on The Man Who Hates Fun and how has it informed your plans for Bad Mother?

A) This is pretty much entirely what I initially liked about comics formally, and at this point it’s entirely what I still like about ‘em.In the early Man Who Hates Fun strips, pretty much all I was trying to achieve was this hideously fast narrative pace in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, one of my inspirations for doing comics in the first place. Every week, the basic premise of any given storyline would completely change: in the strip’s 1940s heyday, conflicts were brought up and took at most two or three strips to resolve. (Later, as the comics shrunk in newspapers, this pace became impossible to maintain, and the strips dropped both detail and speed. Later Li’l Abner is an entirely different strip, one I really don’t like.) I tried to do the same thing with The Man Who Hates Fun early on, where every storyline was as close to four strips long as I could get, and the basic premise of the strip would change frequently. You go from the MWHF working in a library to like living off of the Ellison family to working as a kindergarten teacher. I don’t think it holds up well because the reader never gets to spend enough time in any given place to really enjoy it. It’s like this character moving through a cardboard world of malice. But I think if the artist in question keeps up a good update schedule (which I swear I used to do, for about three months nine years ago in 2004), it ends up being the best experience for readers.
In the more recent MWHF strips I tried really consciously to spend a lot more time dwelling in environments and situations: there are a bunch of sequences that are just the MWHF and Dascha Rand like wandering around Dascha’s underground lab or the MWHF and Elvira talking. I did this pretty much because I realized that I didn’t care as much about the daily updates; that as much as I wish doing webcomics was the only thing I had to do, I do have a day job and will for a long time, and I’m not as good as other people at doing both consistently along with writing prose. So a good update schedule just wasn’t going to happen, and the only way anyone was really going to get to read the stories without losing track during gaps between updates was in the books. And the quick pace just doesn’t work as well in the books. It’s far better to spread out, to have pages that one can just kind of dwell on or think about or whatever.With Bad Mother, I want to work a lot more by accretion, because you have the central plot kind of established: this girl is going to grow up, some stuff is going to happen to her during that process. Thus I don’t have to have a good “flow” between strips as much, and can just dip in and out of scenes as need be to make sure all of the character dynamics make sense, to really enjoy interactions between characters, to try to present the world as fully as I can. I wish I updated it more, but already in like fifty or so strips I’ve finished I think the world and characters are a lot more solid than the MWHF crew were at like 300 strips.

There’s also this firm advantage in that the characters grow up in real time, so it’s sad to miss weeks of updates for me in the same way that it’d be sad if work kept me from like spending any time with some actual daughter of mine for like months on end. The bummer thing about the strip is built into the format. I think that’s important.

Q) On the one hand, there are hard compositional constraints to the 3-5 panel traditional print comics.  On the other hand, where webcomics are theoretically unbounded the variety of potential screens/browser and possibility of future print editions provide their own set of constraints.   The Man Who Hates Fun started out with the strict compositional constraints of 4 panels and then became more experimental  Bad Mother seems a little more compositionally conservative.  What are the big factors that have and are currently informing your compositional choice?

A) As far as why I’ve chosen these theoretical constraints: this form appeals to me, and others don’t. That’s the obvious answer, but I think it’s a deeper answer than it’s given credit for. Ideas really only make sense when suspended in a form like sugar in a glass of liquid. I don’t think it’s possible to have a REALLY NEAT IDEA and then to consider which form that idea might work best in. It’s not the same idea in a different form; a seed doesn’t grow the same way in a different soil.But if I did have to justify the format from like first principles: I guess three panels is a really easy format to write for in some ways. (It’s even easier to lay out the strips, saving one of the most tedious tasks from MWHF during its more experimental layout phase.) If I have ideas that can’t be done in three or four panels, I reserve the right to break out one of the larger strips, like the one where Inez and Mona are talking while getting ready for bed. I consciously wanted to go back to the earlier, more conservative style because it’s a little bit easier to establish a world with some hard format constraints, but I did reserve that right to expand when and if the story demanded it without feeling guilty. There are a lot of early MWHF strips where the idea was just 100% destroyed by the format and I wanted to avoid this, because life’s too short to botch ideas for the sake of consistent formatting.The major factor is, again, just thinking of the eventual books as being the real “format that matters,” but I also do want each strip to be as strong as it can be on its own.One of the great strengths of narrative media is that you use the same fairly small formal vocabulary to build fantastic worlds. The video game Earthbound is great because it has a deceptively simple graphic style—outlined graphics, very simplified faces in terms of detail, strict isometric perspective—but because of the simplicity of the style, it really does feel shocking when you go from visiting a small town to traveling through a volcano, or a neon hell dimension, or a cloud castle. It’s some kind of equivalent of parallel structure in prose: you can achieve great effects by setting a context and an expectation, and breaking that context.
The best thing I think I’ve done with Bad Mother are the strips with Mona driving Betty to the gas station at night or Mona slumped on the kitchen floor, one hand on the handle of a pot, talking to the cat about how she feels incapable sometimes of being a decent parent/human being. It works because it uses the same graphic vocabulary of the strips where like Mona’s being a jerk to her girlfriend or Betty’s saying something cute about dinosaurs: this safe family comic world is also the world where there’s real despair breaking through. This is a theme that I want to work with a lot more as the strip going forward, which I’m sure fellow despair fans will appreciate.

Q) Do you feel there are opportunities for certain types of stories and character development that comic stirps are particularly good at?

A) Yeah totally: growth over time. It’s the same thing novels are good at, and I think newspaper comics are possibly better than novels at this. The only thing you lose are the tight control over the pace one gets with a novel, since comics restrict you to rendering every emotional moment visually, which generally means “constrained in time.” There might be a way to get around this—like shojo manga is good at representing abstract emotions. I just mistrust things presented in abstraction, or I’d experiment with those formal tools more, maybe. I want the camera to be pulled back to some extent.What you gain, though, is what I talked about above: you get a very extensive world built with a very small number of graphic elements. There’s something really appealing about that to me, and I think it’s ideal for telling stories about people’s interactions. There are a lot of epic sci-fi/fantasy style webcomics that really don’t do a lot for me because of the same process: over time, the initial narrative energy of The Big Quest gets lost because the characters, their psyches, and their interactions become a lot more compelling to the creators than the question of when the fourth Power Ruby of seven is found. Which is the right thing to happen—we all should become more interested in fellow human beings—but if you’re telling a story conceived from the outside as a quest with a definitive end, it doesn’t work. (I’d actually totally love to see a fantasy comic that’s designed as a picaresque, where each installment is just a snapshot from some larger, stranger quest, and we slowly watch a group of fantasy adventurers grow old and find larger or anyway different things to do in their lives than just attempt to overthrow the Singular Dark Lord. Maybe that exists somewhere already? It oughta.) Comics ought to be about exploring and discovering who your characters really are, what they’ll do over time: this is what interests me about them, anyway.

Q) The traditional newspaper comic stips are highly contextualized by the surrounding news, adds, strips and the daily rhythm of the print deadline.  With webcomics the artist has total control.  How does publishing and promoting your web comics with blogging platforms affect your work?  Also, how does it affect your editorial choices in Rocksalt Magazine.  

A) I guess I don’t think in terms of such contextualization, except the rhythm of deadlines? I can’t possibly think about such concerns without going crazy when I’m actually doing the strip, and usually I just think about how the strip will eventually show up in the books, which I think of as the most permanent medium (even if, realistically, the website is going to last longer and be seen by more people.) Sometimes if I know I’ve got a finished weak strip next in the hopper, I’ll refrain from updating for sometimes hideously long periods of time until I get a good strip finished, so there’s not a weak strip sitting up as the only thing casual site visitors see for days. It’s different practical things like this.For Rocksalt, editorial choices are often just like acts of situational malice. My favorite page is probably the one in issue 4 where literally every ad was on the same page as a comic that said in huge black text, “We demand a refund!” I didn’t even notice until Geoff pointed it out to me. All these things are more a matter of instinct than of consciously thinking about every possible cultural/symbolic valence the position you stick a comic strip on a page might have.

Q) There is a very dry wit in The Man Who Hates Fun and  Bad Mother, who would you say had the biggest impact on your sense of humor?
A) Who could answer such a question! Bill Amend was pretty important, or at least FoxTrot was the comic I read a lot as a kid that made me consciously think it was a good idea to have a second anticlimactic line after the “punchline.” For characters who respond deadpan to absurd situations, again it’s Al Capp and Li’l Abner. Bill Watterson is really important. Dan Clowes. My dad has a pretty dry wit.

I don’t know! I mistrust honest hilarity, I guess.

Q) The style of caricature evolves throughout The Man Who Hates Fun sometimes simplifying and sometimes becoming more baroque.  Am I correct that the experimentation has settled down a little in Bad Mother, and if so, what have you decided to pair down and what are you keeping.  

A) Basically the experimentation is just me learning to draw, and most importantly learning that I’m probably not as awful at drawing as I think I am, and that I can trust things to be more simple and still to seem “good.” This is not something I can take for granted, but I think it’s the necessary place to get to in order to do any work that’s worthwhile. Before, I’d worry that a drawing wasn’t “good enough” and ruin it with a lot of extra details and lines. Learning to trust that people won’t think you’re stupid if you’re honest with them is this basic lesson in life.I think the rule is to keep the faces simple yet as expressive as possible, and keep the background as clean as possible while keeping as much detail as you can. I want environments to get more complex, at the same time, to present as complete a world as I can within the small working space of a comic strip.It still isn’t where I want it to be, but it’s closer, I guess? With prose writing I can get the level of detail I want in scenes easily, and maybe some day I’ll hit this with comics also. Details are vital.

Q) I love that you are working with a 2nd color tone in Bad Mother.  It creates a slightly greater sense of depth and contrast without distracting from the line work.  What was influence and the final push to adopt it?
A)  I’ve wanted to work with multiple tones pretty much forever—there are a couple of Man Who Hates Fun strips that have gray tones, actually. (Here:
I’d have done it much earlier, except I was trying to be “pure” and do like zero work in Photoshop, so the gray tone experiments were always with like Prismacolors, and there was no effective way to scan them (or at least I didn’t find an effective way.) One of the big exciting things about starting Bad Mother was the worry that doing anything in Photoshop at all was not going to work out, and realizing that yeah it did work; it worked Better.In retrospect, I think I’ve been trying to get the look the extra tones give all along: the rampant crosshatching in MWHF was in some ways an attempt to get at the look of tones, but there’s really no way to get that in a world that’s just made up of black and white. In some ways I really prefer the early MWHF strips where they’re all crazy looking and muddy with crosshatching, just because it’s somehow closer to that toned look. (A NOTE: the tone stuff is going to become more complicated than  you realize! Keep reading)