Monthly Archives: August 2016

Children of Transylvania, 1983

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Poor children in Communist Romania were crazy for Bazooka Joe. Who knew?

“Children of Transylvania, 1983” is one of the richest stories in this book. So many strange and beautiful images had to be excised to fit the format, and so much of the plot. Admittedly, when I first read this story, I was kind of impatient with the protagonist’s unfortunate decision-making skills, but taking the piece apart to do this comic, I fell in love with her journey on a more complex level.

But I had to leave so much out! All the details about her encounters with the various Romanians she meets. The part where all the girls ask her for birth control. The food, the water, the milk. Every reference to Count Dracula. Still, it came out much better than I thought it would.

You know what’s hard to find? A source image for a Communist era statue of Nicolae Ceausescu. Right away, I realized why: unlike the rest of the Communist revolutions that happened in 1989, Romania’s was violent and bloody. People died, they gave Ceausescu a 1-hour trial in a kangaroo court, and then they took him out back and shot him. And then they went and smashed the ever loving essence out of all the Communist statues. Both tourism and cameras were limited in Romania at the time, ergo: people have not made a priority of uploading photos of Ceausescu statues to the internet. Almost every picture is of his statue planted face first on the ground, after the people toppled it over.

That’s a pretty cool skull and crossbones spray painted over a sports bra bursting with ripe plums in panel 5, I must say.

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The Greatest Show on Earth, 1982: What There Was

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Today I learned that pregnant women can’t sell cotton candy at the circus.

Another of my favorite stories in this book: “The Greatest Show on Earth, 1982: What There Was.” Stripping out all the circus background leaves a core that I can’t help but compare to “Hills Like White Elephants” if Hemingway wrote race and class issues into the story. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” I think the characters are only victims of their own desire to keep having a good time, to keep drinking new drinks, and making clever but meaningless observations, whereas Buckeye and Black Mike in “The Greatest Show on Earth, 1982: What There Was” have this avalanche of societal pressures, combined with their substance issues, holding them back.  Their obstacles seem insurmountable.

The people in Hemingway’s story seem like they’re most interested in maintaining the status quo: having fun. They could easily go the other way; they just don’t want to. In Campbell’s story, the characters would love the luxury of settling down with a baby, and living mundane, healthy lives but they don’t have the resources to change. It’s not even an option for them. They know that, even in a 2-parent family, their child would be worse off than they had been as children of single mothers.

I like the circus car in the last panel, and I didn’t want to excise the circus theme entirely, but I’m afraid it takes too much focus off Buckeye, sitting on the ground, feeling her own pain, and Mike’s too. But that’s what I believe she’s doing.

Purple Classic Mandala

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Around and around and around it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows.

If I focus only on the good stuff, it’s hard not to be optimistic. Not only did I manage to convert 1/4 of Mothers, Tell Your Daughters into comic format in a single week, the comics were well-received in literary circles. Two professors told me that they intend to teach the comics with the book in the upcoming year, and Bonnie Jo is already talking to a printer about having the comic printed and bound as a comic book, to take on her paperback tour this fall. There are some other good things that could materialize from this, too.

Plus, just on the strength of the story of how I came to create these comics, another author who I greatly admire has stated that she wants to work with me to create a couple graphic versions of her stories for her next book. (Maybe I can name names when the project has a little more behind it than a single conversation, but it seems fairly likely that it will go forward. I suggested the writer scrutinize my work more closely to ensure that my style would jibe with theirs, and was told, “I feel this in my body,” i.e., she didn’t care what they looked like, she just knew she wanted to work with me.) There was a lot of synchronicity going on that day.

I had to tell the Rabbit that she was correct; putting The Hermit into the Kindle store was the right idea. In the fall, there will be  dead tree version, and it will most likely have quotes from several well-known and successful authors on the back cover.

Tell Yourself

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I think we’d all jump off a bridge if Amber dared us to. Am I right?

This comic seems a little graphically threadbare to me, compared to the previous ones, and I think it’s because “Tell Yourself” just doesn’t have as much definitive imagery as some of the other stories in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. “Playhouse,” yesterday, for example, has the peonies and the playhouse and the alcohol and everyone’s hair and the rabbits and the fruit stickers and the Tasmanian devil tattoo. The central visual feature in “Tell Yourself has got to be Mary’s clothes, and frankly, I also find the idea of a barely-adolescent girl wearing low rise jeans and a crop top with a pair of cupcakes over her cupcakes slightly discomfiting. I didn’t want to spend too much time focusing on her “darling new breasts.”

My mother would have done anything to persuade me to dress in a more feminine fashion when I was in 8th grade, but she never in a million years would have let me out of the house in that outfit, even when I was in high school. She would have been highly critical if she saw me dressed that way when I was in college. But I see little kids dressed like that all the time. The supply seems equal to the demand.

After the outfit, the only big visual symbol is the rocking chair, because I couldn’t figure out how to work in the gum-cracking or the terrible baby perfume. For the first time in this project, I was really at a loss for how to illustrate the final panel. I settled on the potatoes; it locates the narrator in this role she has created for herself: being a mother comes first, even though Mary’s already gone. But she did change her shirt. And I’ve left mom with the knife. She’s not wholly defenseless.

Playhouse

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All things considered, the results are pretty pleasing.

This being one of my favorite stories in the book, I wanted to really do it justice. Unfortunately, today was the day that all my equipment decides to rebel: both the computer and the Wacon tablet failed over and over again, in a variety of new and enraging ways. I must have unplugged and replugged the tablet a hundred times, and closed and opened Photoshop fifty times, and rebooted the box twenty-five times. Hundreds of times I had to go back because the tablet either did something I didn’t tell it to do, or didn’t do something I did tell it to do, or just didn’t do anything at all because the power cable is frayed and sometimes disconnects. It was the perfect storm of resistentialism. At least I’ve learned my lesson about saving everything all the time. If only I didn’t require so much technological assistance.

At this point, I’m leaning strongly toward using my savings to invest in entirely new machinery.

Despite all that, the comic seems right. Not sure if there will be a comic tomorrow. Gotta work out these gremlins before I spend another 8 hours cussing at a hunk of metal and plastic.

Special thanks to the Bear, who didn’t mind me freaking out on him and invading his home for tech support just before midnight.

ETA: I went back and fixed the 2 typos pointed out to me oh so gently and lovingly by the trolls at Reddit. I also gave Pinky some eyelashes in panel 6.

My Bliss

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I get wanting to be married once, but I don’t understand how anyone could do it 25 times.

Originally, I thought this would be the hardest story to adapt to comic format. Even though it’s a very short flash fiction–that’s literally the complete text in the comic–it leans toward what I would call “experimental” and doesn’t lend itself to summary. Like, what would the yellow box say? “A woman claims to have married a variety of inanimate objects and non-human animals”? That’s not a story.

Admittedly, when I first read the book, it was my least favorite piece. I thought it was too precious, too blithe. Drawing this comic helped me see it in a different perspective, though. The narrator is much like many other characters in Bonnie Jo’s books: clueless about relationships. Once my brain delved into the layers of the story, the way to adapt it seemed obvious.

My first stylistic idea was to use the full text as a background and draw everything on top of the words, but that makes it even more experimental. If you can’t figure out what’s going on with the entire story, you’re not going to get much out of the entire story with half of it covered up. But as I started writing out the actual words, the idea of putting all the pieces, words and images, together with only one sentence of commentary from me seemed like the way to go.

It’s entirely possible that I have it wrong, and this is not what the author intended.

Then again, I know people like this. The next thing is always the thing. Whatever catches their eye, that’s the thing that’s going to save them. And they drop what they have and run after something new. A lover, a job, a hobby, a car. It’s not really the lover, job, hobby, car that they’re chasing. The reward is hope, because it’s easier to maintain hope about something new and totally unknown than it is to focus on all the problems and obstacles in your current situation.

There are always obstacles, though.

My Dog Roscoe

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For once, I take no credit for the messed up things that happen in this comic.

At long last, the wait is over. Here is the first Bonnie Jo Campbell Mothers, Tell Your Daughters comic.

For those coming in late, after I drew my comic about Bonnie Jo’s mother, some of her legions of admiring fans said they wanted to see her entire most recent book made into a series of comics in that style–6 panels summarizing an entire story–and Bonnie Jo said she would like to see that, too. And part of me was like: who am I to say no to this opportunity? And part of me was like: who am I to say yes to this opportunity?

It was a daunting task. You can’t say much in 6 panels, and Bonnie Jo’s work is so complex and nuanced, both in its use of language and its understanding of human nature. And the thing is, I absolutely knew that I had the ability to do it. If not me, who? But I also doubted my ability. I kicked around ideas. I pondered and perseverated. I realized that I didn’t own a corrected copy of the book, just the ARC, which Bonnie Jo had explicitly told reviewers never, ever to cite, and also to burn, which you know I didn’t do. But I did request the complete manuscript, which she kindly sent.

Then, overwhelmed, I failed to decide where to begin. Originally I thought it should be the eponymous “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” which, in some ways, I think is the most powerful story in the book, but it’s also 20 pages long, and my brain wasn’t prepared to wrap around that yet. Then I thought I should start at the beginning, but it happens that I have a particular relationship with the first story in the book, dating back to more than a decade before the book was published, and, in keeping with the original comic, I knew that if I did that one, I would have to tell my story about the story, rather than the story itself. And that didn’t seem the way to begin either. If anything, that comic would come at the end of the project.

“My Dog Roscoe,” like most of Bonnie Jo’s work, and also like Bonnie Jo herself, has this sort of electric undercurrent of humor. The concept is ridiculous. You want to shake this character and explain to her what’s actually going on, but you can’t, and to the character, the scenario is life and death serious. That’s another thing I love about Bonnie Jo’s work. She writes about people who either have the worst luck or make the worst decisions or were just born into the worst circumstances (or some combination of all 3), but there’s still something funny about their misfortune. There’s this story in American Salvage where this guy is having an increasingly terrible night (mostly because he makes terrible decisions, because, like the woman in “My Dog Roscoe,” he’s missing some key information about himself) and he literally douses himself in gasoline and sets himself on fire by accident. And it’s terrible. He’s badly burned. But you’re also still laughing a little bit.

Comically tragic.

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m a terrible person. Maybe nobody else thought it was funny when that dude accidentally set himself on fire because he didn’t understand women or the rules of safety at the pump.

Then again, if it’s just me, then why does this work so well as a comic?

Also today, I was thrilled to note that my work was used (with attribution and backlinks) in a post about Venezuelan idiom on a language blog. It’s an Australian website. I think the Australian idiom would be “chuffed.” I am chuffed to see my work travel and see the world.