Castellucci, Hernandez & Matt talk Graphic Novels

Thu, May 1st, 2008 at 10:37am PDT | Updated: May 1st, 2008 at 11:34am

Comic Books
Emmett Furey, Staff Writer

On Tuesday we published the first part of our coverage of the Comix Strip -- the new line of comics programming at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the largest literary event in America -- with a report from the Comics: Superheroes of the Page & Screen panel discussion with guests Jeph Loeb, Mike Mignola and Steve Niles. As part of our continuing coverage, CBR News attended on Sunday the Graphic Novels: Every Picture Tells a Story panel discussion, featuring Cecil Castellucci, Jaime Hernandez and Joe Matt.

Moderator Deborah Vankin, whose first graphic novel, “Poseur,” will be published through DC’s Minx line later this year, introduced the distinguished panelists: Award-winning young adult novelist Cecil Castellucci writes the Minx launch title “The Plain Janes.” “It’s about four high school girls in the unnamed Metro city who are all named Jane, and they are anything but plain Janes,” Vankin said.

Philadelphia native Joe Matt is best known for his autobiographical Drawn and Quarterly graphic novel “Peep Show.” “He lives in Los Feliz in L.A. and he’s been threatening for a long time now to write about his adventures in Los Angeles in comics,” Vankin said.

Jaime Hernandez and his brother Gilbert continue to publish the 25-years-young comics franchise “Love and Rockets” through Fantagraphics Books.

Vankin kicked off the panel by referring to graphic novels as a “misunderstood medium.” This stems, she said, not only from consumer confusion about comics’ intended audience, but also from a lack of knowledge about the work that goes into creating them. Further, the average reader isn’t necessarily familiar with the subtle but important distinction between comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, Manga, etc.

Vankin also noted the graphic novels sections of books stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders has been growing by leaps and bounds, and that “graphic novels are becoming accepted as a credible literary medium.” She asked the panelists why the comics medium has suddenly begun to enjoy such a renaissance.

Hernandez believes there are a number of answers to that question. For one thing, he said, comics are finally starting to shed the stigma that it is purely a children’s medium. “It’s also because a lot of people in charge now who run the entertainment world grew up reading comics.”

Castellucci agreed, saying the phenomenon is what “Y: The Last Man” writer Brian K. Vaughan refers to as a “nerd diaspora.”

Vankin said the comic book community had been, until recently, largely a subculture, and asked the panelists what they thought of graphic novels’ acceptance into the mainstream. “I think the biggest danger for something getting that big is, the bigger it gets, there’s a lot of bad work,” Hernandez said. On the other hand, Hernandez admitted that mainstream acceptance might well encourage more aspiring comics creators to follow their dreams. For his part, Hernandez grew up with comics in the house, and his interest in the medium was actually fostered by his mother. “I thought comics were just as legit as The Beatles and TV.” It wasn’t until Hernandez started school that he realized that comics was widely perceived to be a “geek medium.”

"The Complete Love and Rockets Library: Vol. 1"

Joe Matt said he found comics out of the desperation after the college-trained artist became disenfranchised with the world of illustration. “I always loved comics, and it just called to me,” Matt said. As far as he is concerned, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” is the graphic novel equivalent of “Citizen Kane,” the “perfect graphic novel” to which he is always aspiring.

Castellucci’s parents are French, and she grew up reading the likes of “Asterix,” “Tintin” and “Lucky Luke,” and she got her superhero fix by dipping into her brother’s comic collection.

All three panelists live and work in the L.A. area, and unanimously agreed the city is very conducive to being a comics creator. “There’s a history of great cartoonists that have lived here, from Charles Schultz to George Harriman,” stated Matt. That said, the panelists were of the mind that L.A. doesn’t have much in the way of a comics community.

Regarding his own books, Joe Matt said he has an approach-avoidance to his own auto-biographical work. “It’s so painful for me to dwell on a lot of the memories and stuff, it’s overwhelming,” he confessed. “It’s what I need to write about, but I also don’t want to think about it.”

Matt tries to stay as true to the facts as possible in his auto-biographical work. “I’m trying to dig as deep as possible, which is hard, because I’m very shallow.” Matt said that writing auto-biographical work is a bit like trying to be your own psychiatrist, and it can be difficult to look at oneself that objectively. “But I’m not afraid, I can spill everything and not worry about the consequences.”

Castellucci and Hernandez are primarily fiction writers, and both have a great deal of respect for anyone who can write openly about themselves. “That’s why a lot of us do comics, because we want to hide behind the work,” Hernandez said. “We aren’t that comfortable putting ourselves out there.”

"Peepshow" by Joe Matt

However, even fiction writers draw from their own true-life experiences when spinning their yarns. The terrorist attack at the beginning of “The Plain Janes” was inspired by an actual terrorist attack in Belgium that Castellucci experiences when she was 10-years-old. “When I was growing up, everyone thought, ‘The bomb is coming at any moment,’” Castellucci said. In her view, the fear of the Bomb during the Cold War was essentially the same as the fear of terrorist attacks in a post-9/11 world, and she wanted to speak to that universal fear in “Plain Janes.”

Even though Castellucci writes in the full script format, she said there’s a constant back-and-forth between herself and “Plain Janes” artist Jim Rugg. “We talk about the girls, and how they’re feeling, what’s going on with them,” Castellucci said. “That’s really exciting. They become like you know what would happen if you threw them in any situation.” Castellucci said sometimes her characters tell her what to do, and what they will and won’t say.

Of the writer-artists on the panel, Vankin asked which came first, the art or the words. “That’s the cool thing about working by yourself, whatever you want,” Hernandez said. “Whatever comes first you put down.”

Joe Matt said a book’s message was the first thing that came to him. “Part of my motivation is the catharsis of working through my memories and stuff. The ultimate fulfillment of the finished work is what pulls you along the entire way.”

Matt chooses not to work from a script, opting instead to create his stories one panel at a time. “Without that spontaneity, it would really be boring,” Matt said. “It would be like working for one of the mainstream companies, like doing an issue of ‘Spider-Man’ or something.” The cartoonist admitted to being baffled by scribes who write company-owned characters. “Anybody that’s worked on a book that they don’t own, I don’t know how they can actually care about it.”

Hernandez said the creative process is something he can’t force; his ideas come at their own pace. “Sometimes when I finish an issue I’m blank, and I’m just sitting there twiddling my thumbs for two weeks going, ‘I’m never going to draw again,’” Hernandez said. “Then you go to bed at night and you write the whole thing in your head.” Hernandez may be slow to come up with story ideas, but once one gets going, the writer-artist said he can’t stop.

"The Plain Janes" by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

Hernandez admitted to being in awe of any writer who can sit down and write a script chronologically from beginning to end. “I work page by page, and I jump around the whole story,” Hernandez said. “If I had to write from beginning to the end, I don’t know if I could.”

“When I write a novel, I write a skeleton of the whole book, and then I have a year and a half to work on it,” Castellucci said. But for “Plain Janes,” because her collaborator Jim Rugg is working hot on her heels, Castellucci does not have much opportunity to revise the pages she’s already turned in.

Hernandez, too, has been plagued by the immutability of work that has already gone to print. “I’ve written whole stories to make up for a mistake I made a few issues ago,” Hernandez confessed.

An aspiring comics writer in the audience asked the panelists how best to communicate his thoughts to would-be artist collaborators. Cecil recommended drawing stick figures to complement the descriptions in the script. Hernandez said that Harvey Pekar did the same thing when he was scripting “American Splendor,” and urged the aspiring writer to take care when selecting collaborators. “Find someone you can get along with, and that you trust, that’s going to actually maybe even make your work better.”

Matt encouraged the writer to cut out the middle man and draw the comic himself. He noted the artwork for comics like “Peanuts” and even “Maus” was not terribly sophisticated. “Clarity is all that matters,” Matt said.

Then Castellucci let the audience in on a trade secret: there is no set form for comics scriptwriting. There’s nothing to stop comic writers from including thumbnail sketches or even photographic reference in the script for their artist.

Castellucci has close friends read over drafts of her scripts before she turns them in to her editor. The writer asked if the other panelists did the same. Matt said that, as a rule, he has no interest in other people’s opinion of his work. “I don’t want anyone influencing me, I want it to be exactly what I want it to be. You need that cockiness, you need that quiet arrogance, where you’re like, ‘I know what I’m doing, and my instincts are the only things I have.’”

Hernandez said “Love & Rockets” publisher Fantagraphics had occasionally tried to second-guess him, but they quickly learned it was best to leave him to his own devices. “The more you’re left alone and they trust you, you’re doing to deliver the best work you can,” Hernandez said.

Matt added that when something becomes successful, and money starts to flow in ever increasing quantities, ever more cooks want to try their hand at stirring the pot. Matt is a big Buster Keaton fan, and cited the cautionary tale of the late auteur’s descent into a despondent alcoholism when the burgeoning studio system began to wrest control of his pictures away from him. “He couldn’t make another great film because he didn’t have the control,” Matt said.

Hernandez said that Hollywood has long courted “Love & Rockets,” and that every time a new production company expresses an interest he feels like he’s just “going through the motions.” Sometimes, he said, the would-be filmmakers simply don’t understand the material, and sometimes producers with the best of intentions are derailed by executives higher up the food chain. “The older I get, the more I’m thinking about paying a mortgage and things like that, maybe I will give a little leeway,” Hernandez said. “And then I listen to them and I go, ‘No, no, no.’” Hernandez much prefers to create from the safety of his drawing board, where he has no one but himself to answer to.

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TAGS:  los angeles times festival of books, comix strip, cecil castellucci, jaime hernandez, joe matt

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