I seem to be on a bit of an autobio comic kick. The latest is Johnny Wander.
Now I've picked up some less-than-appealing autobio comics recently, and I'm trying to figure out why exactly they are so unappealing compared to Johnny Wander or to Vanessa Davis' Make Me A Woman. Why is that? What it is that some people get so right, and some so wrong?
Well, let's talk about what's right, which is right here: in Johnny Wander. Every fourth page of this collection had something that made me laugh out loud, or gasp, or smile. Some of the other pages just didn't have as much of an impact on me, and some I didn't really "get". But the ones I got, I really loved. I think being able to have that kind of impact in one page of storytelling of a snippet of one's life is a real skill. Some of the simplicity of what's here isn't that different (in terms of what's being portrayed) from what I read in other non-fiction diary style comics, but in Johnny Wander, I found it engaging. (Whereas the last one I looked at before Make Me A Woman just repulsed me.)
To my mind, there's an art to boiling down the poignant or funny moments from a day into just a few frames, but there's still work to be done (work I see in many of Wander's pages) to have those few frames really land on the reader. In the educational theater field, and probably in other sociological and psychological fields, at the end of every lesson plan is a reflection exercise. It's a practice that stems from the belief that we learn more if we take some time to reflect on what stood out for us. That reflection can take any of a multitude of forms, from journal writing, drawing, even dramatizing favorite moments in "snap shots". In an organization I'm involved with now, we're using a means of "digestion" that we call "Favorite Frames." (It's a term of convenience.) Reading Johnny Wander, it struck me that autobio comics could be interpreted as a series of "Favorite Frames" of one's life. And yes, in one sense, anyone could do them. But to have some kind of impact beyond a personal diary writ large, there has to be some kind of acknowledgment that these things are for an audience--they're personal expression, but not of a kind that can go to far into inscrutable navel-gazing. In Johnny Wander, the best pages are the ones that are set up like jokes or good short stories in two or three frames: there's a set up, with the action in the first frame, a ramping up of the situation or the insertion of conflict in the second, and a conclusion or punchline in the third. It's the newspaper strip format, and I've spent some time wondering whether that's a format that naturally occurs while doing this work or if it was a considered decision. (It's not a question I'll ever be qualified to answer, but I'm leaning towards it being a considered decision, because "natural" implies that it happens on its own, which seems a bit unfair.)
The other ingredient that is very subtle is point-of-view. The frames don't seem to be narrated from one person's point-of-view, but rather from that of a person who might be observing it from afar. This somehow keeps judgement and negativity and even typical sarcasm out of the picture and just allows for the observance of the inherent humor in human behavior, or cats, or the dynamic of roommates and living situations, etc. Everything is presented benignly, with joy - even when it involves fire and the fire department.
That's another thing: I loved reading the "Extras" at the end of this book. It's a selection of several of the comics they used while testing the web comic format, and a brief explanation as to what didn't work and what they changed. In the very beginning, they show and explain how the first few comics were too negative. That's when I got to really appreciate how difficult it must be to find one's own voice in a comic. Those first few frames really are in stark contrast to the vibe and feeling of the comic as it is now. Besides being a neat piece of education for me, it got me to fully appreciate what's been accomplished in the final product, and how difficult it must have been to get consistent with the tone they established.
This was a lovely, easy, enjoyable read - complete with perfect instructions for making a homemade heating pad as well as Yuko's Dream Curry. (Both of which I am going to try!) These are the kind of people you want to bump into and spend time with, but if that never happens, the comic is an excellent substitute.
-Nina Stone, 2010