This second article of my I Am A Public Artist series is about making a comic book featuring information on the King County Household Hazardous Waste Management Program. Read Part 1 here.
The preliminary sketches I had worked on for weeks are not what the panel wants.
Don’t you hate that, when you are in shock, yet at the same time thinking “I’ve got to be mature, I can’t let them see how confused I am!”?
I mean, they love the color and the humor, but this commission is supposed to be a comic book—and I am a cartoonist. It sounds simple enough to get around. But it isn’t. A comic book uses sequential art—multiple panels—to tell a story in time, whereas cartoons are single-panel gags that occur in one moment. I brought a stack of cartoons—”vignettes” if you want to get all euphemistic about it.
I tried to sketch out a comic book story but the results were so phony I couldn’t handle it.
I was way out of my single-panel comfort zone. I was so uptight and created what I thought a story “should” be—a cerebral approach that surely makes all Muses run for their lives.
My panel wants me to use stories (i.e. sequential art); make the comic book a springboard instead of a bible (I had jammed in a ton-o-facts); and to show more than tell (this doesn’t only apply to writing!).
They told me a few months back that they prefer my images to tell the story. I got sidetracked into my usual “more makes me a better person” mode. My favorite part of the meeting, near the end, was when the Project Manager looked at me with a pained smile and said, “Don’t be afraid of leaving space on the page.” I looked back at her as though my finger was getting sawed off, and I couldn’t show it.
I took what the panel said to heart, and I took notes.
Deep into my discomfort zone, I now take midnight walks with no radio on, inviting the Muses. And they come! They deliver images that I describe into my phone’s voice memo app.
In one story I “saw” while walking, a man who has been using weed-killer from a spray bottle has a household hazardous waste epiphany and purchases a . Over time (as Scott McCloud writes in Understanding Comics, “…space does for comics what time does for film!”) using the manual weeder causes the man to go from flabby to buff, a physique that is rewarded in the last panel by his partner’s delight. I won’t draw what happens next, as this is a family book.
In another vision my cartoon alter-ego stands at a sink about to pour solvent down a drain. She has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and behind each are long lines of people who via distance turn into little dashes. The dashes head into the sky, where they align to create a giant pair of eyes.
I am having fun! This book can be art! I can be a public artist!
As Theodore Roethke would say, I am learning by going where I have to go. It’s scary, but who wants to go where they’ve already been, creatively? I am on a crash course that feels like Evelyn Wood Speed-Reading Dynamics adapted for comics. It doesn’t matter anymore that I have Garrison Keillor’s in my head, repeating, “If you can’t tell a story don’t write.” I am doing this and it’s finally me.
Illustrations by Edie Everette.