Sunday, November 28, 2010

Frustration and the eventual Fulbright

Coming up with the idea for a Fulbright was a long and infuriating process. The grant writing process is hard. Finding sponsors in your host country is hard. Revising your application a million times is hard. But nothing compares to the difficulty of finding a topic. I decided I wanted to apply for a Fulbright my first year at college and didn’t come up with a suitable topic until the very end of my junior year. Why is it so difficult to find a topic? The topic has to be original, not embarrassing to the host country, and have an immediate and important impact. The topic had to be something that I was interested in and knew about.

During my first few years, I tried to get suggestions from teachers. I asked my economics professors, art history professors, even my economic history and human rights professors in Argentina. None of the suggestions they gave me coalesced into a topic. I sent about 20 suggestions to the Fulbright adviser, but none of them fit the idea for a perfect Fulbright. Once, angry about the fact that he had just rejected a bunch of new ideas, I wrote him:

“I have been talking to you and emailing you for about a year and a half. In this time, I haven't found a suitable subject. We have already gone over everything I know: economics, art history and Jewish immigration. I would really like to continue looking for a subject, but I feel like everything I know is either too controversial, too historical or has already been done a million times before.”

Needless to say, I was pretty frustrated.

Around this time, I attended Vinetas Sueltas, a weeklong international comic book festival hosted in Buenos Aires. I came across the festival at a friend’s house. We were watching the local news, when a segment came on about Vinetas Sueltas. I looked up the schedule online and began attending the next day. I ended up going to one class “El ojo del lector” (“The eye of the reader”) and two talks “Carlos Trillo y sus dibujantes” (“Carlos Trillo and his drawings”) and “Humor a diario” (“Daily Humor”). A constant theme throughout the festival was the difficulties of getting published and making a living off creating comics. In “El ojo del lector” I learned techniques to create an easily readable narration. The class was filled with struggling comics artists and writers who were trying to break into the industry. In “Carlos Trillo y sus dibujantes,” Trillo talked about the limited Argentine market for comic books. The most successful writers, like Trillo, must publish abroad to sell enough comics to make a living. In “Humor a diario” I found out about the business of creating comics for a large audience.

On the last day of the festival, I told my mother about my problems finding a topic. She asked me “Why don’t you write something about comics?” I sent the Fulbright adviser a few ideas including one about graphic novel industry in Argentina. Much to my surprise, he said that it sounded interesting and I should look into it further. After years and constant frustration, I had found my topic.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Interpreting Owly: Part I

Owly makes me manic. I want to laugh, cry, and scream all at the same time. How does Owly elicit this insane reaction? Its overwhelming cuteness.

Owly deals with the trials and tribulations of flightless owl and his many forest friends. Each book has a similar plot involving a challenge, resolution, and tears. Oh, goodness, the tears. These optical emissions change the book from a cute story to an epic adventure of overwhelming proportions. They increase the level of drama by a thousand. Just look:

From Owly: A Time to Be Brave

But in all seriousness, I love Owly comics. The stories are cute, but it’s the pictorial dialogue that most interests me. All speech is communicated through pictures (see above panels). This unique style left me with a question: what is the process that a reader goes through to comprehend pictorial dialogue? I could probably write a hundred pages about this topic and not finish analyzing it. I will probably come back to this idea later, but for now I am just going to explain how I understand Owly.

When I read comics, I view words and images separately, and my attention moves between the two. Because Owly and his crew communicate in images, I don’t need to jump back and forth between text and drawings. Instead, the process becomes much more complicated. I must extract all meaning by interpreting symbols, actions, and emotions, drawing on context and prior events. An exclamation mark could indicate happiness or be a warning. Sometimes, the characters speak in intricate symbols that take a few seconds to decode. In one such scene, Owly is talking to a distressed Wormy. The first speech bubble shows an arrow pointing out an open door, followed by an exclamation point. The subsequent speech bubble shows a smiling sun equaling (with an equal sign) a smiling, happy Wormy. Now how does one interpret that image? Is it “Let’s go outside! It’ll make you feel happy!” or “If we head out the door, the bright sun will make you feel less scared!” The process of viewing makes each individual’s reading experience unique. We each find a way of translating the pictures based off how we interpret these combinations of images.

In future posts, I plan to discuss how children (the intended readers) read Owly, and the various theories on comic books and child development.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Awesome Webcomic Suggestion

I am unfortunately sick with the flu...headache, nausea, etc. So sick, in fact, I almost updated an older blog instead of this one. Instead of a post on Owly, a comic book about a flightless, vegetarian, non-nocturnal owl, I am going to post a webcomic suggestion: Bodyworld by Dash Shaw. I initially came across Shaw's work through an interview in The Comics Journal. I usually read all the articles in TCJ in order, but I skipped ahead to Shaw's interview because his picture revealed that he was young and extremely attractive. I found the online archives of Bodyworld because (I am not ashamed to say) I was looking for more pictures. Anyway, I found the webcomic and it blew my mind and now you should read it. On principle, I usually dislike webcomics because I read really quickly and hate waiting for the next page to load. Bodyworld does away with this by allowing the reader to scroll down and read the comic in large chunks. In some ways, the online format seems almost better than print. Chapter 11 features three parallel and vertical stories and the effect felt while scrolling down could not be experienced in book format.

Read it. Enjoy. I'll update again when I'm feeling better.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"The government's paying me to study comics in Argentina!"

I met Harvey Pekar at a book signing a few months before his death. When I handed him my copy of The Beats, I said “Your work got me interested in comics and now the United States government is paying me to study comics in Argentina.” He smiled, wrote “Good luck in Argentina” on the first page of my book, and then moved on to the next person.

That much-practiced one-liner refers to a research Fulbright award I received to go study the market for the graphic novel in Argentina. I won’t go into the details of the highly stressful process of applying or the stressful months of waiting for a reply. That is a very, very long story. Instead, in this post I will talk generally about my Fulbright grant and what I am going to do.

My project title “Emergence of the Graphic Novel as Mainstream Literature” was a title that took weeks to emerge. My abstract concisely describes this project:

“The Argentine graphic novel defines generations through culturally relevant themes. It is now transitioning to a respected literary form through academic and financial support by universities and governments. I will investigate the conditions necessary for economic and literary viability. My project includes researching at the University of Buenos Aires, interviewing academics, printers and authors, and travelling to provincial communities of artists and writers.”

Some of the highlights and goals for the project:

*Join the research group Historiography of the Argentine Comic as a North American investigator

*Take academic classes on the graphic novel with professor Laura Vazquez and artistic classes at Escuela Argentina de la Historieta

* Attend comic festivals throughout the country

* Teach children the basics of comic creation through the program LIFE Argentina

*Interview writers, artists, critics, owners of comic book stores, and heads of publishing companies

I’ve had a lot of people ask if this project has anything to do with my future career plans. It was classified under “History, Modern,” but really involves economics, art history, history, and literature. Perhaps I will go to business school? Work in the publishing industry? Marketing? I’ll let you know a year from now.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Justification of the blog title for anyone who was disappointed that I didn't take their suggestion

I’ve wanted to create a comics blog for about three months, but couldn’t find the perfect name. “Comics Adventurer?” “Adventure in Comic Land?” Every single idea I came up within that two-month time span involved “Adventures” and “Comics.” Perhaps post-college life has started to rot my brain? So I turned to people that are creative for a living, namely my cousin Liam, to find a name. We brainstormed ideas (“Robert Crumb is an old, lecherous idiot” was my personal favorite). I wanted something catchy that related to comics but not the process of creating them. His suggestions “The Blue Pencil” and “Drawing in the Margins”, while beautiful, referenced artistic implements and ideas. We finally came up with “Thought Balloons,” “Paper Tigress,” and “Growls and Grawlixes.” I then put these names to a vote, relying on my lovely friends on Facebook and my parents. The votes were tied, so I decided to combine two titles.

“Paper Tigress: Growls and Grawlixes of a Comics Adventurer”

I liked “Paper Tigress” for a few reasons. A paper tiger is something that looks dangerous, but in actuality is not. I liked the idea of using a title that explored perception vs. reality, a concept often explored in comics. “Paper” connected to the physicality of comics. Tigers, according to a 20-question online quiz, represent half of my soul. When I took the Daemon quiz on The Golden Compass website, I found out that my match would be a tiger, possibly because of my anti-social tendencies and fondness for stripes. I modified “tiger” to “tigress” because “Paper Tiger” was already taken by like 50 million people according to Google.

“Growls and Grawlixes” provides an auditory connection to the title. Tigers growl. Stomachs growl. I growl sometimes…especially when I’m talking about how much I hate parts of the comics community (fan boys, beware). “Grawlixes” is an exciting comics vocabulary word for swears written with a combination of the symbols @, !, #, $, etc. Because my blog is connected to the Fulbright Program, I am not allowed to swear, talk about sex (hopefully this doesn’t apply to graphic novels or else my discussion of Argentine comics will be limited) and drinking, and write negative things about Argentina/the USA. Basically, I am not allowed to embarrass the Fulbright Program in any way. So, if needed, I will use grawlixes. And finally, I added the “of a Comics Adventurer” because my title must indicate my blog’s connection to comic books.

Now that I’ve gone into detail on the title of my blog, I should probably explain what it is about and why you should care. But I’ll do that during my next post.