A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.
Poetic Cadence and Comics
In a recent entry on the process of writing the Black Panther comic series, Ta-Nehisi Coates breaks down the importance of poetic cadence to comics writing. It’s an characteristic of the comics genre that is often highlighted as a crucial and difficult to come to grips with. The typical issue of a comic book is twenty-four pages long, each page ranging anywhere from one to nine panels (and sometimes more). Each issue needs to end in such a way that gets the reader wanting to buy the next; each page needs to end in a such a way that ensures they will keep flipping through the book; each text bubble needs to end in such a way that draws the eye inexorably on. And as Coates notes, they must do these things while establishing theme, character, and plot. Thus, while the poetic cadence of words is an important element of any type of writing, in a serial medium it is an integral part of the craft that must go hand in hand with narrative development and character growth. In a comic book, it is a necessary complement to the visual storytelling components.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit this week as I’ve been reading two titles (one a webseries, one a traditional print comic) that differ greatly in their stylistic presentation: Cucumber Quest and Astro City. Thematically, there are interesting parallels between the two: Cucumber Quest is a deconstruction of the Hero’s Journey motif that focuses on how the stereotypical elements of the trope are impacted by societal perceptions—particularly perceptions of gender and gender roles; Astro City is a deconstruction of superhero comics that explores the concept of superheroism from the ground up by looking at superheroes through a multiplicity of lenses—from masked vigilantes tackling the subject of family planning to existential investigations of the drive behind the call to arms. Stylistically, however, they are quite different.
Cucumber Quest, as a webcomic with a cliffhanger on almost every page, has been almost endlessly readable—each page leading me further and further into the narrative. Astro City, on the other hand, which began with a series of self-contained one-shots, took far longer to rope me into the story. Indeed, it wasn’t until the introduction of interconnected story arcs that I was finally pulled completely into the world. One-shots, though they can serve as excellent building blocks of a narrative world, don’t exactly constitute page-turners—especially when they are presented without a larger context to anchor them. The first issues of Astro City didn’t feel like a verse in a larger ballad to me, and that made it difficult to jump in and stay in. The fact that Kurt Busiek and co. decided to lead off with a collection of one-shots is, from a storytelling standpoint, very interesting, and the critical acclaim of the series suggests that my initial lack of interest in the series may have been due to my own persnickety attention span. Unlike many readers, I have little patience with belabored world building. Give me a compelling story that is happening to intriguing characters, and I’m set. Bombard me with set dressing, and I get a little tetchy.
Into the Black
The ebb and flow of language is of major concern to me at the moment as I struggle to complete the rough draft of a short story that is—at present—eluding me. I often rely on dialogue to moderate the rhythm of language in stories, but my next project features remarkably little talking, leaving me in the position of attempting to create a lyrical flow through the reconstruction of a single character’s interior life and the exterior world that they are interacting with (hopefully with a minimum of world building). It’s a different kind of writing than I typically try my hand at, which makes it incredibly interesting as well as deeply frustrating in places. I regularly feel like I’m stumbling about in the dark, hands outstretched and expecting to feel something very unpleasant indeed on the tips of my fingers any minute now.
But perhaps that’s just the story’s inspirations talking…
Animals of the Deep Sea (Monterey Bay Aquarium)
Monterey Canyon Stunning Deep-Sea Topography Revealed (MBARI)
Final Thought: Character Death Redux
In a recent article, Katharine Trendacosta of io9 investigates the explanations that an assortment of writers give for killing off their characters, a topic that is of great interest to me. (You might even go so far as it say it’s one of my hobbyhorses.) Naturally, the need to imbue the story with an element of realness ranks high on the list of reasons given, but the responses range: from JK Rowling and George R.R. Martin, who seem to feel there’s a kind of quota that has to be fulfilled regardless of how death serves the narrative, to Nicholas Meyer, who argues that any character can be killed as long as they are killed off well. Needless to say, I’m in the Meyer camp.
(Tip of the hat to my friend, Ben, for bring this article to my attention.)