Can graphic Novels make you smarter? Read on…

Above page from Earthling!. A graphic novel due out in July of 2012 from Chronicle Books.

There’s no doubt that picture books, graphic novels and comics offer a rich combination of words and pictures that create something greater than the two base elements. And this immersion attracts interest in them from people of all ages. I often get emails asking about how to make a graphic novel. And I have some posts on this blog about how I do it. But I think a more important question to ask is, why do you want to do a graphic novel?

That’s a serious question. Because a graphic novel is like writing an entire novel and then adding drawings to it. A lot of drawings. What I am saying is, it’s as much work as writing a novel, and that is a demanding task, and THEN drawing a hundred or two hundred or more pages. Are you still sure you want to do one?

Now, the art in a graphic novel usually carries some of the story load. Some creators tell 70% of the story in the art, some not even 20%. It’s up to the creator to decide that ratio. And I don’t think a successful graphic novel is simply one where art carries more of the narrative. It’s more complicated than that.

But the the drawings offer a rich opportunity to visually communicate elements of your story. They could demonstrate beats of the plot (e.g. the small boy faces a massive monster with no dialogue or voice over needed to explain the situation), they could add depth to characters by contradicting what a character is saying (e.g. the character says “I’m fine. Never been better.” while you draw them crying.). Most importantly they can create depth of experience in a story when you don’t have prose to rely on. (e.g. Instead of writing “It was a dark and stormy night”, you can show it.) Think of it this way, does ‘rock-n-roll’ music always have to have drums? Can you have a rock song without a lead signer? Does it have to have a bass or can it just have lead guitar? Obviously the definition is greater than its parts. The same for a graphic novel.

Now my take on this is different then some of the authoritative texts about graphic novels, of which there are new ones every 14 days.

I believe there are countless ways to combine words and pictures and end up with tasty and fullfilling graphic novels. It helps to have a handle on the rules of visual story telling, but I have some indy books that are not the creations of highly trained artists and they tell much better stories than the stuff that’s overly developed and ‘properly drawn’ by an artist that has mastered the various rules of creating addictive, visual imagery.

I’m not going to put up a ‘how to’ because for the most part there is no ‘right’ way to do a graphic novel. There are some tools that you can learn to make it easier, or look more professional, but again, those are technical questions and very learnable. The way I did Earthling! is just one path. There are a lot of sites and people out there who are willing, for a few dollars, to walk you through the technical process. But that isn’t as important as understanding why the story you want to tell is the best fit for a graphic novel. And that’s a more complicated issue to teach. I feel uncomfortable offering too much general info about this. I’m better with the discussion when I can sit down and listen to you describe your project or look at samples of what you are doing. But I can say that if you want to do a graphic novel the idea should facilitate interesting imagery. BUT ‘interesting imagery’ is subjective.

See what we come back to? You do a graphic novel because it works for you as an artist/writer. You create a graphic novel because you don’t want to tell your story just in prose, or write a play or a screenplay. You create a graphic novel because in your minds eye, you see the story unfolding on pages with drawings. Because those drawings let you present more issues than just the words on the page would allow. The images are an opportunity to fill out the world of your story in an immediate and powerful way. It goes straight to the cerebral cortex in a way just words can’t. (interestingly enough, 3D films require the brain to do much more work processing the imagery and therefore your pre-frontal cortex, which handles impulse control and future thinking, is inactivated to a great extent, which might help explain the deeper immersion we feel in a 3D film.)

But I have often wondered if the combination of reading and looking at pictures doesn’t have a similar effect. It makes the brain focus more sharply on the experience and you get more involved. I think this may be true in younger readers especially. Processing the words and the images may set two slightly disparate processes of the brain to work together and search for the combined meaning. I’m just staying…maybe comics and picture books make you smarter. Anyway…

Most often my favorite graphic novels are the creations of a single person who is a writer/artist. This isn’t always true…there are exceptions. But if you are a writer who has some graphic abilities or an artist that can write a decent story, the combination can be really engaging.

That, and you have a lot of time on your hands.

About mfearing

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3 Responses to Can graphic Novels make you smarter? Read on…

  1. Rock ‘n’ roll without bass guitar? Are you MAD?!

    You have excellent advice in this and previous graphic novel posts, and I’ve received great advice from you in the past as well. When you started Earthling!, did you decide early on it would be 248 pages, or did you just DO it, and 248 pages is just what it ended up being? Does the page count dictate the story, or does the story dictate the page count? Thanks!

  2. mfearing says:

    Sure, go ahead and ask a tough question! I’ll break it down a bit below, but in many ways, 248 pages is just how long it turned out to be.

    In early discussions with my editor we were imaging a story in the 200 to 250 page range. This page count came from looking at the very detailed outline and the early drafts. We both understood that it was a big story, a long story.

    Typically you can say a script page would equal, say 3 pages of art. But of course that’s just an average. (With screenplays it is a general assumption that a page equals 1 minute of screen time. But it varies depending on many factors). The final draft of Earthling! was 95 pages. So I averaged approx. 2.6 art pages per written page.

    Once I started the doing rough art, after we had a final script, I looked for places to condense and the editor made cuts and a few additions. We really worked hard to make sure we had the room to tell the story we wanted. Earthling! Has a lot of dialogue and that made for a longer page count. In the future I would try and keep a GN for younger readers slightly shorter. That’s mainly because drawing that many pages is exhausting!

    But to answer your question, it’s an imprecise art judging how many pages a given idea needs in order to be executed well. Only experience can make you a better guesser. I should mention that there are different formats for writing comic books and graphic novels. You can write your script in a more traditional comic book format, where you detail frames and layout. That way you know exactly what goes on each page from the start. I did my script more like a screenplay as this format is easier for me to think and write in.

    And Earthling! has a screenplay sense of narrative mode. Where the story isn’t truly omniscient, nor is it completely split first person. I don’t enter into the heads of any characters (I don’t think…) but I also jump to various charters and observe them alone. The action is ‘first person’ but the main character is not ‘telling’ his story.

    Now my head hurts thinking about narrative structures… Here’s my answer- just make it a hundred pages.

  3. Pingback: Pictures vs. words. « Illustration

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