Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Neon Love Through the Fog of War
Sparkplug released The Hot Breath of War a couple of months ago and since then it has provoked some positive reviews, as well as a bit of puzzlement from readers. So, it was suggested to me that I go a bit into my process and execution of the book, for the benefit of the casual reader.
THBOW's storytelling is very straightforward and readable, but it lacks a conventional linear narrative. A reader might assume the book was scrawled out on bar napkins and thrown into a hat. In fact, the stories that make up THBOW's narrative were conceptualized more or less all at once, early on in the planning of the book. I'm probably not the only artist who experiences this planning stage as a strange time, when you constantly experience synchronicities in your daily life, in song lyrics, in the books you're reading. It seems like once I've settled on a theme for a book, everything in my life conspires to reinforce and elaborate on it. From there, I drew the individual strips, one at a time: (Photo: Press Democrat/Merlin Images)
Finally, they were deliberately arranged, much in the way a record album is sequenced. The order of the stories was not chronological, but for artistic reasons. As an example, the final story drawn, "There's a Monkey On My Back..." forms the centerpiece of the book.
The stories in THBOW relate to one another in thematic and incidental ways, but they don't seamlessly mesh in plot or tone. In some parts the transitions are jarring. It seems to me that many cartoonists attempt to create a smooth, immersive narrative, to make a movie basically, and in so doing unintentionally bleach all the nutrition out of their work. And what we can end up with are breezy graphic novels that look big on the shelf but are insubstantial.
Beyond simply telling a story, what I tried to do with THBOW was approach war as something central to human experience, something within and among us, and not something outside that blows in like the weather. To that end, I broke the work up into stories of people actively in war, as either soldiers or victims, and also passively, as a member of society that supports wars. As people we do not fit completely comfortably into those imposed roles. For example, the soldiers in the book are often as much passive observers as active warriors.
I think comics as a medium deals well with that kind of fluidity. You can use its visual vocabulary to talk about big things in a light, offhand way.
I wanted to use that stealth vocabulary of comics to take the metaphors that we use for love and violence, and they are by and large the same metaphors, and make them literal:
Since we use the same profanity to talk about loving someone as we do for hurting them, are we using it for the same reasons? To make both actions palatable? Much of the action in THBOW lives in the ambiguous realm between those two poles. It was not my intention to communicate "War is bad" to the reader (though obviously, if one needed that lesson and took it away from the book, I could hardly object). A more reasonable goal was to tell stories about people who live in times much like our own, and in the telling, explore the limits of language to make sense of, or to temper their irrational impulses.
addndum: Partial THBOW Bibliography