In an age of touchscreens, desktops, and video-on-demand, the ability to handle visual communication is an advantage for every writer. It’s not always about artistic technique, but a willingness to embrace the use of images to get your message across. Matt Finch talks graphic storytelling with Pat Grant.
“Visual metaphor is an incredibly powerful force,” explains Pat Grant, the creator of acclaimed comic Blue, who is currently writing a Ph.D. on cartooning at Macquarie University. “Think of Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis.’ Gregor Samsa has been transformed into a giant insect; if Kafka takes his time to describe Gregor’s mandibles, it draws attention to them in a very specific way, but the illustrator can embed metaphors like this into a text without putting so much of the spotlight on them.”
As a prose writer who moved into cartooning, Pat appreciates both the power of language and the way visuals can shape a finished tale. “There’s nothing like the sheer intimacy of a human voice: once I find the voice for a story, images seem to string themselves along it; I then build the pages of my cartoon around those key images.”
“Making a comic is a bit like making a movie in that it’s a ‘production’, and writing a comic is similar to screenwriting. A script is a blueprint for a movie, but also a sales pitch to studio executives. When I script a comic, I’m not selling it to some Hollywood financier, I’m selling it to myself. I’ve got to convince myself that it’s worth spending months or even years of horrible work to tell that story!”
Not only can it take many months to create a relatively short comic like Toormina Video, Pat’s recent memoir of his relationship with his father, but, as the Illawarra-based author points out, “Cartoons are quick to read. If I’m going to spend up to a year making something that you’ll read in just ten minutes, it had better be the best possible use of your time and mine!”
Once drawing is underway, the process of illustration may transform a tale even as it is being told. This was the case with Blue, which explores attitudes to immigration, and is set against the complex landscape of the Australian beachfront: “The book’s register changes after the first twenty pages, moving from a less self-consciously formalist look to something more cinematic in the final part. And originally I planned for a 250-page comic. I found that I was able to say everything I needed to say in a concise form – the published work is effectively just the first chapter of the original outline.”
Above all, says Pat, comics, and other forms of visual narrative, require planning and patience. “There’s no received, pro-forma way to edit a cartoon. Novelists and poets have the advantage – it’s so easy to prune a sentence or a line, but when you’re telling a story with images there are many points of no return, where you have to live with decisions you’ve made. Images have a nasty habit of locking together and preventing authors and editors from meddling with them.
“Prose writers get to sweep the messy, tattered process of drafting and redrafting under the rug – the act of editing text tends to obscure the writing process. Writers who want to tell a long story using visuals need to lay careful foundations: a mistake early on in the process can become deeply woven into your text. A bit of early workshopping can help overcome these things.”
Pat Grant will be teaching Graphic Storytelling: Writing with Pictures and Drawing with Words on Sunday 27 October.
Matt Finch will be teaching Storytelling for a 21st Century Audience on Saturday 9 November.