A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Hilary Allison, a student in Cartooning Hothouse at SVA this past summer who went all-out in her pursuit of a new drawing style. Lisa Anchin, the subject of this post, worked just as intensely, but towards a very different goal: the language of comics and visual clarity.
Hilary is an undergrad majoring in cartooning, but Lisa is an MFA student at SVA in the Illustration as Visual Essay program, focusing on illustrated children’s books. She’s got a somewhat unconventional background for an aspiring children’s book illustrator, though. She’s always loved to draw, and had previously taken a continuing ed course at SVA in children’s illustration, but nonetheless this program was a bit of a left turn for her; she was accepted just as she finished a Master’s in French at Columbia.
In her MFA program, Lisa is working on picture books for young children, but an encounter with Persepolis while at Columbia gave her the comics bug. Lisa says:
Hothouse seemed like the perfect way to explore using this genre to tell more serious, older stories that draw on my experiences working as an organizer and my studies in literature and French and Yiddish culture, and maybe someday my experiences as a PhD dropout….
Hothouse was incredible; I learned more than I ever imagined I would in ten weeks, likewise, I worked harder than I ever imagined I could in ten weeks. It was the best possible choice I could have made for a summer class. It was a lot of work in a short period of time, a lot of exploration, a lot of learning, and a lot of growth. The class forced me to really think about storytelling and narrative, pacing, structure, character development, what you can edit from the text (ie what you should show rather than tell), what in fact is crucial to show in a scene, how best to frame a scene, how best to frame the main character within that scene, etc.—and all of these lessons can be applied to the picture book work.
Lisa’s story is called “Amelia Pepper in the Storyteller and the Peddler: a Sort of Beginning,” and as she recounts on her blog, she’d been thinking about it for a little while before class even began. The character of the Storyteller came to her while she was idly sketching on the subway back in April, and working with him led her to the Peddler, Amelia Pepper, and eventually the basis of her story. This is an approach we discuss in the very first chapter of our next textbook, in a section called “Doodling as a warm-up.” It’s a great way to generate new ideas.
She put the notes away for awhile, but when class started, she realized she had material for a good comic. Her intention is to do a longer story using these characters, to which this 10-page segment will serve as an introduction.
Lisa began the class good at thinking visually. But, common to many students who have grand story arc in mind out of which they’re trying to create a short story, Lisa had a tough time giving us the information we needed to get grounded, and also telling a satisfying chunk of story in the ten pages.
Because I do and did have larger ambitions for the story, it was a difficult exercise to try to tell a cohesive story in ten pages. I know the larger background of the characters – who they are, where they come from, where they’re going – the place, the story, the overall plot – so narrowing it down and distilling a solid, self-contained ten page introduction was no easy task. The first round of thumbs is proof. I did a bunch of large dramatic splash pages and very slow introductory exposition panels, and suddenly realized somewhere around page 5 or 6 that I needed to start beginning and ending the actual story. Never having done a comic before, it was tough, and I spent that week doing drawing after drawing, taking an impromptu trip to Forbidden Planet and the SVA library to search the shelves for inspiration, and doing more drawings.
My initial thought was to use the ten pages to introduce the characters. After the first crit, I realized that I hadn’t told a story. I had held up a very tantalizing carrot and then yanked it away after only a few seconds…. In terms of comic-storytelling, that first crit showed me that as in writing, where every word should matter, in comics, each panel should be important. In ten pages, nothing should feel superfluous; each and every panel should move the story, and sometimes you can and should condense three pages into one. I ended up moving page 1 to page 3 after a classmate’s suggestion…. When Peter suggested that I move the page, it was a lightbulb going off. The whole story made more sense.
Lisa revised her first three pages in her thumbs into just one page in her second run-through. She lays out the process very neatly here in her blog.
The location gets a bit lost here off to the right. The road looks like the point, not the “Home for Lost Girls.”
Note how we see the protagonist here in a kind of ray of light, and the treatment makes it look like she’s got some kind of psychic connection to the wagon–not the intention.
The chopping up of these segments makes it very unclear their relationship to one another in space. It even seems possible that the girl, Amelia, is inside the wagon.
Here is the revised first page, combining the three above, and, importantly, introducing the important characters and places. We get the dormitory (but where is Amelia? And where is the window the noise is coming from?), closeups of Amelia crying (why?), then noticing the noise, then the wagon with the title on the side to give us a sense of where we’re going with this. What’s still missing, however, are the other two main characters. Also, Amelia’s up in that window over the door, but she gets lost up there.
Lisa hadn’t worked in ink before, so she dove in and penciled and inked this page. Note the change to the first panel, where she gives us Amelia’s location in the room.
But after she did, we decided in critique that the final panel still wasn’t working. We want to see the Storyteller and the Peddler.
The placement of characters in a panel or on the page of a picture book can tell so much about who they are, their relationships are to one another, and how they interact in their world. There’s a logic and a reason behind all of the little choices an illustrator makes; sometimes they’re entirely unconscious, but sometimes you need to stop and look at the image and ask yourself whether it makes sense within the context of the overall story. This is universal to all book illustration, whether for children, for graphic novels, or for an older audience.
Perspective was a big bugaboo for Lisa to begin with. She’d learned very little about it in the past, and had been able to get along without it, But this story is full of complicated spaces and lots of panels that include a foreground, mid ground, and background that all need to readable and clear. What I can’t show you here, since it took the form of light pencil workups on the pages themselves before inking, is the labor and revisions that went into nailing these grand cityscape panels. The number-one most basic idea we talked about was this: locate your horizon line, and orient everything around it, instead of starting a drawing with some foreground element or character and then trying to get it all to work out.
One trick we taught Lisa was finding centers and making series (see Mastering Comics Chapter 4 for more on this technique), which shows up in her final version of this page: check out the lampposts. The perspective is still a bit wonky, especially in panel 1, where the heads of the beds appear to tilt upward, but overall, the sense of solidity to the space is very strong. (We’ve got a chapter on perspective in our next textbook; I can’t wait to be able to use it in class!)
…As do, finally, the faces of our other two main characters. Amelia is still a bit hard to find in the window, but the school is clearly labeled, and we’ve got all the pieces in place.
Also, the visual style has finally clicked into place (for a discussion of the thinking that went into this, see Lisa’s blog). The nib-inking style suits the project perfectly. The whole town has taken on a concrete (or should I say stony) feel of Victorian children’s illustration. But, wow, that is a hell of a lot of bricks to draw.
However, readers are still left wondering why Amelia is so sad in the first panels. As she suggests above, Lisa decided to preface this page with two others, as a kind of “pre-credit sequence.”
Here are the actual first two pages:
NOW we get it.
Of course, these are just the first three pages. The ten page story Lisa finished gets us as far as Ameila running away from Miss Grunch and hitching a ride on the wagon, unbeknownst to the Storyteller and the Peddler. The first run through of the thumbs felt slow and confusing, but Lisa showed total commitment to revision, as tough as it can be, and remade her story until it’s clear, compelling, downright exciting ride. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
Lisa plans to make her Amelia Pepper minicomic via her website, lisaanchin.com. Write her for a copy.
Even better, if you’re in NYC next week, go to the opening of her show! Her MFA class has an exhibition of books beginning next Thursday.
209 East 23rd Street New York, New York
September 23 – October 13, 2010
Opening Reception Tuesday, September 28, 2010, 6 – 8pm