Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Will Eisner’

REVIEW: Dear Creature by Jonathan Case

Title: Dear Creature
Author: Jonathan Case
Pub Date: October 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An excellent, heart-warming and hilarious novel told through sequential art.

So in my brain, I had a great blog post all planned out for today. It was going to be a nice and meaty post about different schools of writing process, and the dangerous temptation of superstitious totemic twaddle that so many of us fall prey to. But then I went through my mail from last week, and found a review copy of Jonathan Case’s debut graphic novel Dear Creature. And then my plans went the way of all those of mice and men. I cannot stress enough how excellent this book is, as a work of sequential art, as a story, and as an exercise in writing.

I didn’t even mean to start reading it: I intended to put it on my to-read shelves, and to get to it maybe sometime in the next couple of weeks. But somewhere in the twelve feet between opening the envelope on my kitchen table and putting it on a shelf in my library (probably because I “just took a peak” at the first couple of pages), Case’s story sucked me in like a whirlpool. Dear Creature is the literary, quirky, heart-warming, and deliciously pulpy love story (yeah, I know, right?) of an atomic sea mutant named Grue. Living in a sunken nuclear sub, and to the chagrin of a crustacean chorus, Grue is no longer content to devour lustful beach-going teenagers. With his eyes and heart opened by pages of Shakespeare’s plays found in soda bottles, the lonely sea monster naturally tries to seek out whoever has been sending out these messages.

It’s tempting when reviewing a graphic novel to start with the art. After all, the art is intrinsic to a graphic novel’s storytelling. But what really set Dear Creature apart for me was the writing. While many people who write sequential art are uncomfortable drawing distinctions between comic books and graphic novels, I’m afraid I’ve never agreed with Douglas Wolk’s claim that the sole difference is their binding. A true graphic novel – like Dear Creature, or Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up – is paced and constructed very differently from a bound-up collection of serialized 24 – 32 page comic books.

Most prose novels, whether we’re talking about Dickens, Calvino, or Ian Fleming, cannot be split up into neat episodes without losing some degree of their resonance or storytelling unity. But a graphic “novel” that began life as a series of smaller comic books, like Allan Moore’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, or Garth Ennis’ Preacher can never be more than the sum of its parts, however good those parts may be. That’s just the nature of the beast. But Dear Creature, while it is divided into chapters, coalesces by its very nature into a resonating, cathartic story that draws us in, makes us laugh, and satisfies us only when we have experienced its entirety. Case does not construct his individual chapters the way a comic book writer constructs particular issues: he constructs them the way a prose novelist constructs chapters, relying on the story’s over-arching flow, compelling characters, and emotional narrative to carry us along.

Case builds his characters through a flawless union of art and dialog. Grue, his lovelorn atomic sea monster, speaks in iambic pentameter entirely oblivious to its idiosyncrasy in 1962 California. With all of the book’s focus on Shakespeare, it’s tempting to try to find models in the Bard. But really, I trace Grue’s antecedents more to Cervantes than Shakespeare. Grue is like a modern day Don Quixote, in that for him the high drama of Shakespeare has applicability to every facet of his contemporary life. And if it doesn’t? Well, then by God it should! Case captures this touching quixotic earnestness in Grue’s every pose, centering our attention on his larger-than-life actions whether dramatic or comedic.

Grue is accompanied by a Greek crab chorus used to great comedic effect. If Aeschylus’ Oceanids in Prometheus Bound represent a “perfect audience’s” reactions to the Titan’s plight, then what do Case’s crabs represent? It’s not like they’re sympathetic to Grue’s concerns. Instead, they poke fun at the beleaguered monster and exhort him to return to feasting upon human flesh.

And Grue’s Dulcinea del Toboso? Like Aldonza Lorenzo, the woman who captures Grue’s deep and soulful heart with torn pages of Shakespeare sent into the briny deep is not your stereotypical love interest. First, she’s crazy, as in violently agoraphobic. And she is old (well, middle-aged) in the same way that Aldonza is plain. But just as Quixote looks past the simple truth in the interests of his higher truth, so too Grue simply does not notice. The love that forms between a man-eating atomic sea monster and a middle-aged agoraphobe is poignant, touching, and tragic.

Artistically, Dear Creature is equally clever. Case chose to draw it in a style that made me instantly think of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Like Eisner, Case uses solid black shading to add depth to his panels, while relying on iconic lines to draw his heroes. This quasi-homage seemed most apparent and appropriate in the case of Henry Craw, a retiring policeman who particularly reminded me of an aging Denny Colt.

By combining excellent character development with superlative dialog, and a heartfelt emotional arc, Case has written one of the best novels I have read in years. And yes, that is novels as opposed to graphic novels. Yet since this book is structured so much like a prose novel, and with characters and writing that clearly trace their lineage back to classic literature, it did raise a question as I was reading it: does Dear Creature need to be sequential art to tell its story? Similar love stories, characters, quirks, and pulpiness have all been captured in prose by other authors before, and in particular this book made me think of A. Lee Martinez’ great books. But what did Case gain through choosing to tell this story visually? I think the answer speaks to Case’s prodigious and multifaceted skills and talents: by writing Dear Creature as a graphic novel, Case was able to get out of his own way. The use of sequential art in this book obviates the need for exposition. By relying on the art to show us what is happening, the dialog is able to stand on its own and remind us of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and classic drama undiluted by descriptive text. Which makes the story tighter, and in some ways purer, than it would otherwise have been.

I commend Jonathan Case for this excellent graphic novel. It is very rare to find a storyteller who is able to write something that is at once literary and meta-textual, while remaining touching and hilarious. To then combine that ear for dialog and prose with artistic talent is even rarer. If you enjoy sequential art, then hands down, you should pick up Dear Creature.

And I think that it should be on everybody’s short-list for the Eisner award.

Some Assembly Required: Building Pacing and Emotional Flow with Legos

The other week, I pulled a sentence at random out of John Crowley’s classic Little, Big. I used it to illustrate a point about narrative voice, but a couple of days later I had an epiphany: the same sentence can also illuminate pacing and a story’s emotional flow.

Legos Tell Stories

When I was a kid, I spent just about every waking moment building adventures out of Legos. Back then (despite my fiancée’s assertions, dinosaurs did not roam the earth), Legos lacked variety. There were blocks…and blocks. A handful of different sizes, and that was about it. But despite their limited palette, I could tell just about any story my five year old self could imagine using those blocks. I built castles, and spaceships, and horses, and windmills. Fantasy, science fiction, monsters: I was only limited by my imagination.

Handful of Standard Lego Bricks

Lego Color Bricks, via Wikipedia

Fast forward a few years, and you’ll still find me playing with building blocks. Only now, I use words, sentences, and paragraphs to tell stories instead of little plastic bricks. At its most basic, a story is composed of letters. Those letters build up words, which in turn comprise sentences, then paragraphs, then chapters, then acts, then books, then series, and so on. But those letters are not necessarily our story’s real building blocks: instead, think of them as the long-chain polymers that make up our true Lego pieces. And the specific mix of Legos will differ across stories and media.

Literal Building Blocks: Panels, Scenes, and Shots in Visual Mediums

Jumbo Comics #1 (September 1938) “Hawks of the Sea” by Will Eisner, via

It’s easiest to see these building blocks at work in visual media like sequential art (comics, graphic novels) and film. Some people might argue that dialog is key to these media, but I disagree. Dialog doesn’t frame the story: dialog is what gets framed.

For sequential art, Scott McCloud1 and Will Eisner2 both explained brilliantly how the page is the medium’s real building block. Each page is composed of one or more panels that depict some action occurring in time. The composition of each panel and its relationship to others on the page establishes tension and moves us from one state to another. The page frames a finite emotional progression, while the panels that make up that page control our sensation of time (the story’s pacing) throughout the journey.

The same paradigm works for film. A screenwriter’s scenes function the same way as a comic book page, where each scene represents a finite emotional arc through which the audience and characters travel. Each scene takes us from an initial point A to a subsequent point B, and the director uses one or more shots to get us there. Shots structure and control the flow of time and tension throughout the encapsulating scene, just as sequential panels structure the flow on a comic book page.

Visual media impose structural constraints by their very nature, which helps make their building blocks easier to spot. But when writing prose, those constraints go right out the window.

The Building Blocks of Prose Pacing: Sentences

The structure of our prose affects how we perceive the flow of time. Hemingway’s short declarative sentences communicate speed. Proust’s meandering sentences, with their convoluted clauses and tangential commentary, establish a more laconic feeling. Short paragraphs and short chapters read faster than longer ones. But it is their relationship to emotion that determines the real pace of the story.

In Little, Big, Crowley uses the sentence as his primary building block. Practically every sentence in that book takes the reader on its own miniature emotional arc:

Sentence #1: “Then an expectant silence, followed by a firmer start, and the station wagon backed warily out into the drive, making two soft and delible marks in the wet leaves.”
Sentence #2: “That there was such a house in the world, lit and open and empty, became a story in those days; there were other stories, people were in motion, stories were all they cared to hear, stories were all they believed in, life had got that hard.”
Sentence #3: “But life is wakings-up, all unexpected, all surprising.”
John Crowley, Little, Big, 1982

Even the utilitarian sentences that describe an almost-incidental action contain an emotional arc. If Little, Big is composed of Legos, then they are sentence-shaped.

The sentence length, structure, punctuation, and emotion-laden words control the story’s pace. Each sentence demands that we pause and savor what it has done to us. Without those miniature emotional arcs, the text would be meandering, dull, and lifeless. But by employing brilliant tricks of emotional association, Crowley’s manipulation of our emotional state becomes transparent and, like Smoky Barnable, we find ourselves enraptured in the liminal fairyland of Edgewood.

Paragraphs as Building Blocks

Compare this to G.K. Chesteron’s The Man Who Was Thursday. While his individual sentences lack the emotional depth of Crowley’s, we remain moved by his paragraphs (again, selected at random):

Paragraph #1: As the wood grew first thinner and then smaller with distance, he could see the sunlit slopes beyond it and above it; and across these was still moving the square black mob like one monstrous beetle. In the very strong sunlight and with his own very strong eyes, which were almost telescopic, Syme could see this mass of men quite plainly. He could see them as separate human figures; but he was increasingly surprised by the way in which they moved as one man. They seemed to be dressed in dark clothes and plain hats, like any common crowd out of the streets; but they did not spread and sprawl and trail by various lines to the attack, as would be natural in an ordinary mob. They moved with a sort of dreadful and wicked woodenness, like a staring army of automatons.
Paragraph #2: Syme’s laughter at all this had about it a wild weakness of relief. He laughed at the idea of the paralytic Professor being really a young actor dressed up as if for the foot-lights. But he felt that he would have laughed as loudly if a pepperpot had fallen over.
Paragraph #3: At first the large stone stair seemed to Syme as deserted as a pyramid; but before he reached the top he had realised that there was a man leaning over the parapet of the Embankment and looking out across the river. As a figure he was quite conventional, clad in a silk hat and frock-coat of the more formal type of fashion; he had a red flower in his buttonhole. As Syme drew nearer to him step by step, he did not even move a hair; and Syme could come close enough to notice even in the dim, pale morning light that his face was long, pale and intellectual, and ended in a small triangular tuft of dark beard at the very point of the chin, all else being clean-shaven. This scrap of hair almost seemed a mere oversight; the rest of the face was of the type that is best shaven—clear-cut, ascetic, and in its way noble. Syme drew closer and closer, noting all this, and still the figure did not stir.
G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, 1908

Taken individually, the sentences are utilitarian. Most are solely descriptive, with no emotional imagery employed to direct our mental state. Yet in each paragraph, certain imaginative descriptions are employed with laser precision to manipulate our emotions (a “staring army of automatons”, “wild weakness of relief”, or “deserted as a pyramid”). Each sentence is just a sentence, but with his paragraphs Chesterton increases and decreases tension like a sound engineer mixing in a recording studio.

Still other authors use scenes or whole chapters as their basic building block. While I won’t quote entire chapters here, I recommend taking a look at how Steven Erikson or Yasunari Kawabata manage it (particularly in Gardens of the Moon and The Master of Go, respectively).

Picking Legos out of the Box

So enough theory: what practical conclusions can we draw from this? If each story has a set of natural building blocks, then we have to identify it. The set will depend on the story’s medium, its audience, and the emotions we want to evoke. I suspect a spy thriller is unlikely to use sentences as its building blocks: to get an emotional response from individual sentences would slow the action too much to work within spy thriller conventions. By contrast an introspective memoir might luxuriate in the kind of sentence-level emotional manipulation that Crowley executes.

While this may just be my own idiosyncrasy, I find that once I know what the basic building block of a story is, it becomes much easier to write. If I know that I start a [sentence / paragraph / scene / chapter] at emotional point A, and need to get to point B by its end, the amorphous task of writing becomes easier. It’s not just a question of knowing where to go: that’s just plotting. Instead, it’s grokking the space I have to operate in. While I’m not a painter, I imagine it’s like understanding the bounds imposed by a piece of canvas. Within those bounds, I am limited solely by my imagination. But by figuring out which Legos I’m really using, it lets me have fun building stories.

In Conclusion: Some Fun Lego Constructions

And to conclude with the Lego metaphor, here are some fun Lego projects that some amazingly talented people have constructed:

10,000-piece Sandcrawler

Functional Antikythera Mechanism

%d bloggers like this: