Last week, she took to Instagram to inform the fourteen lucky U of W students enrolled in her fall Making Comics class to prepare for a new way of keeping their required daily diaries, using a technique she calls “sister images.”
Those of us at home can play along, above.
Grab a composition book, or two blank sheets of paper, and a black felt tip pen. (Eventually you’ll need a timer, but not today.)
Rather than describe the ten-minute writing and drawing exercise in advance, we encourage you to jump right in, confident that teacher Barry would approve.
Barry aims to tap a deeper vein of creativity with exercises that help students embrace the unknown.
The sister diary’s purpose, she says, is to “let our hands lead the way in terms of figuring out our stories.”
Whether or not you seek to make comics, it’s an engaging way to document your life. You can also implement the sister diary technique for discovering more about characters in your fictional work.
You’ll also pick up some bonus tips on drawing backgrounds, using all caps, allotting enough space within a panel for full body renderings, and staying in the moment should you find yourself at a temporary loss.
Thanks to “the rise of comics as a ‘respectable’ medium,” Ross Johnson writes at Barnes and Noble, graphic novel adaptations now constantly reimagine literary classics for young readers. One Goodreads list collects over 200 recent graphic adaptations of classics from Austen to Kafka. These adaptations “aim to honor and embellish rather than replace the books on which they are based,” writes Johnson, “because how could they?” They do, however, allow us to “see, literally and figuratively, the stories we love from new angles.” They also give kids and adults who may not fancy themselves readers new ways to access and enjoy literary classics.
But are graphic adaptations really a new phenomenon? They may be newly respectable, but they’ve been around since the very dawn of comic books as a medium. Superman debuted in 1938, Batman in 1939, and in 1941, the first issue of Classics Illustrated appeared — an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, followed by Ivanhoe and The Count of Monte Cristo. The series was founded by Russian-born publisher Albert Kanter, who immediately seized on the potential of comic books as educational tools during what is now known as the Golden Age of Comics.
Even as a prestige series supposedly promoting “great literature,” Classics Illustrated did not escape the notice of Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose book Seduction of the Innocent began the moral panic over comic books in the 1950s. Wertham found fault with the graphic adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Uncle Tom’s Cabin for reducing the novels to their most stereotypical and sensationalist elements. It’s the kind of criticism we might find levied against graphic adaptations of literature today, and in many cases, it may be warranted.
Few accused these graphic literary adaptations of being great art in their own right. But they accomplished Kanter’s purpose of getting comics readers excited about classic novels. The series ran for 30 years, ending in 1971, and became an international phenomenon. In Brazil and Greece, it published adaptations of authors from those countries.
A Classics Illustrated Junior series appeared in 1953, bringing children comics versions of folktales and myths. After the series first run, special issues, reprints, and revivals appeared in later decades, as well a series of television films in the 70s and 80s. You can peruse over 200 of these adaptations digitally scanned at the Internet Archive, artifacts of the Golden Age and ancestors of our current explosion of graphic novel adaptations of classic literature. For a deeper study of this publication, you can purchase the 2017 book, Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History.
What is it for a super-hero to represent America? Though the character created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 may have been a way to capitalize on WWII patriotism, it has since been used to ask questions about what it really means to be patriotic and how America’s ideals and its reality may conflict. We’re of course talking about race, a theme explored by Sam Wilson, formerly Cap’s side-kick, picking up the shield in the comics and now on TV (and in the forthcoming film).
Your Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica, and Brian are joined by comic super-fan Anthony LeBlanc (returning from our ep. 56 on black nerds) to discuss the recent comic runs by Ta-Nehishi Coates and Nick Spencer and especially Truth: Red, White and Black, Marvel’s 2003 comics mini-series by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker that tells the story of American super-soldier experiments on unknowing black men (reminiscent of the real-life Tuskegee Syphilis Study). This was the source of the “first black Captain America” character Isaiah Bradley featured in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Disney+ show, which we also discuss.
Here are a few articles that fed into our discussion:
Who wouldn’t love to take a road trip with beloved cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry? As evidenced by Grandma’s Way Out Party, above, an early-90s documentary made for Twin Cities Public Television, Barry not only finds the humor in every situation, she’s always up for a detour, whether to a time honored destination like Mount Rushmore or Old Faithful, or a more impulsive pitstop, like a Washington state car repair shop decorated with sculptures made from cast off mufflers or the Montana State Prison Hobby Store.
Alternating in the driver’s seat with then-boyfriend, storyteller Kevin Kling, she makes up songs on her accordion, clowns around in a cheap cowgirl hat, samples an oversized gas station donut, and chats up everyone she encounters.
At the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, she breaks the ice by asking a bearded local guy in official Corn Palace cap and t-shirt if his job is the fulfillment of a long held dream.
“Nah,” he says. “I thought it was a joke … in Fargo, they call it the world’s biggest bird feeder. We do have the biggest birds in South Dakota. They get fed good.”
He leads them to Cal Schultz, the art teacher who designed over 25 years worth of murals festooning the exterior walls. Nudged by Barry to pick a favorite, Schultz chooses one that his 9th grade students worked on.
“I would have loved to have been in his class,” Barry, a teacher now herself, says emphatically. “I would have given anything to have worked on a Corn Palace when I was 14-years-old.”
This point is driven home with a quick view of her best known creation, the pigtailed, bespectacled Marlys, ostensibly rendered in corn—an honor Marlys would no doubt appreciate.
Barry has long been lauded for her understanding of and respect for children’s inner lives, and we see this natural affinity in action when she befriends Desmond and Jake, two young participants in the Crow Fair Pow Wow, just south of Billings, Montana.
Frustrated by her inability to get a handle on the proceedings (“Why didn’t I learn it in school!? Why wasn’t it part of our curriculum?”), Barry retreats to the comfort of her sketchbook, which attracts the curious boys. Eventually, she draws their portraits to give them as keepsakes, getting to know them better in the process.
The drawings they make in return are treasured by the recipient, not least for the window they provide on the culture with which they are so casually familiar.
Barry and Kling also chance upon the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and after a bite at the Road Kill Cafe (“from your grill to ours”), Barry waxes philosophical about the then-unusual sight of so much tattooed flesh:
There’s something about the fact that they want something on them that they can’t wash off, that even on days when they don’t want people to know they’re a biker, it’s still there. And I have always loved that about people, like …drag queens who will shave off their eyebrows so they can draw perfect eyebrows on, or anybody who knows they’re different and does something to themselves physically so that even on their bad days, they can’t deny it. Because I think that in the end, that’s sort of what saves your life, that you wear your colors. You can’t help it.
The aforementioned muffler store prompts some musings that will be very familiar to anyone who has immersed themselves inMaking Comics, Picture This, or any other of Barry’s instructional books containing her wonderfully loopy, intuitive creative exercises:
I think this urge to create is actually our animal instinct. And what’s sad is if we don’t let that come through us, I don’t think we have a full life on this earth. And I think we get sick because of it. I mean, it’s weird that it’s an instinct, but it’s an option, just like you can take a wild animal, a beautiful, wild animal and put him in a zoo. They live, they’re fine in their cage, but you don’t get to see them do the thing that a cheetah does best, which is, you know, just run like the wind and be able to jump and do the things… I mean, it’s our instinct, it’s instinctual, it’s our beautiful, beautiful, magical, poetic, mysterious instinct. And every once in a while, you see the flower of it come right up out of a gas station.
After 1653 miles and one squabble after overshooting a scheduled stop (“You don’t want me to go to Butte!”), the two arrive at their final destination, Barry’s childhood home in Seattle. The occasion? Barry’s Filipino grandmother’s 83rd birthday, and plans are afoot for a potluck bash at the local VFW hall. Fans will swoon to meet this venerated lady and the rest of Barry’s extended clan, and hear Barry’s reflections on what it was like to grow up in a working class neighborhood where most of the families were multi-racial.
“I walked in and it was everything Lynda said,” Kling marvels.
The journey is everything we could have hoped for, too.
Unsurprisingly, she’s been getting published in The New Yorker a lot of late.
The process for getting cartoons accepted there is the stuff of legend, though reportedly less grueling since Emma Allen, the magazine’s youngest and first-ever female cartoon editor, took over. Allen has made a point of seeking out fresh voices, and working with them to help mold their submissions into something in The New Yorker vein, rather than “this endless game of presenting work and then hearing ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Kurzweil has a fondness for literary themes (and the same brand of pencils that John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, and Vladimir Nabokov preferred—Blackwings—whether in her hand or, conversing with Allen on Zoom, above, in her ears.)
Getting the joke of a New Yorker cartoon often depends on getting the reference, and while both women seem tickled at the first example, Kurzweil’s mash-up of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and the picture book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, it may go over many readers’ heads.
The thing that holds it all together?
Madeleines, of course, though outside France, not every Proust lover is able to identify an inked representation of this evocative cookie by shape.
Kurzweil states that she has never actually read the children’s book that supplies half the context.
(It’s okay. Like the idea that memories can be triggered by certain nostalgic scents, its concept is pretty easy to grasp.)
Nor has she read philosopher Derek Parfit’s whopping 1,928-page On What Matters. Her inspiration for using it in a cartoon is her personal connection to the massive, unread three-volume set in her family’s library. Because both the size and the title are part of the joke, she directs the viewer’s eye to the unwieldy tome with a light watercolor wash.
She also has a good tip for anyone drawing a library scene—go figurative, rather than literal, varying sizes and shapes until the eye is tricked into seeing what is merely suggested.
A all-too-true literary experience informs her second example at the 4:30 mark—that of a little known author giving a reading in a bookstore. Despite a preference for drawing “fleshy things like people and animals” she forgoes depicting the author or those in attendance, giving the punchline instead to the event posters in the store’s window.
As she told the NYPL’s Moore:
A cartoon is always an opportunity to showcase a contemporary phenomenon by exaggerating it or placing it in a different context.
Over the last year, a huge number of New Yorker cartoons have concerned themselves with the domestic dullness of the pandemic, but when Allen asked if she has a favorite New Yorker cartoon cliché, Kurzweil went with “the Moby Dick trope, because whales are easy to draw, and I like a good metaphor for the unattainable.”
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
Imagine that, this time last year, you’d heard that your family’s holiday gatherings in 2020 would happen on the internet. Even if you believed such a future would one day come, would you have credited for a moment that kind of imminence? Yet our videoconference toasts this season were predicted — even rendered in clear and reasonably accurate detail — more than 120 years ago. “My wife is visiting her aunt in Budapest, my older daughter is studying dentistry in Melbourne, my younger daughter is a mining engineer in the Urals, my son raises ostriches in Batavia, my nephew is on his plantations in Batavia,” says the caption of the 1896 cartoon above. “But this does not prevent us from celebrating Christmas on the telephonoscope.”
This panel ran in Belle Époque humor magazine Le rire (available to read at the Internet Archive), drawn by the hand and produced by the imagination of Albert Robida. A novelist as well as an artist, Robida drew acclaim in his day for the series Le Vingtième Siècle, whose stories offered visions of the technology to come in that century.
“Next to Zoom Christmas,” tweets philosophy professor Helen de Cruz, Robida also imagined a future in which this “telephonoscope” would “give us education, movies, teleconferencing.” As early as the 1860s, says the Public Domain Review, Robida had “published an illustration depicting a man watching a ‘televised’ performance of Faust from the comfort of his own home.” See image above.
Though Robida seems to have coined the word “telephonoscope,” he wasn’t the first to publish the kind of idea to which it referred. “The concept of the device first appeared not long after the telephone was patented in 1876,” writes Verity Hunt in a Literature and Science article quoted by the Public Domain Review. “The term ‘telectroscope’ was used by the French scientist and publisher Louis Figuier in L’Année Scientifique et Industrielle in 1878 to popularize the invention, which he incorrectly interpreted as real and ascribed to Alexander Graham Bell.” The goal was to “do for the eye what the telephone had done for the ear,” though it wouldn’t be fully realized for well over a century. When you raise a glass to a webcam this week, consider toasting Albert Robida, to whom the year 2021 would have sounded impossibly distant — but who has proven more prescient about it than many of us alive today.
Like so many major motion pictures slated for a 2020 release, Denis Villeneuve’s Dunehas been bumped into 2021. But fans of Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction saga haven’t had to go entirely without adaptations this year, since last month saw the release of the first Dune graphic novel. Written by Kevin J. Anderson and Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert, co-authors of twelve Dune prequel and sequel novels, this 160-page volume constitutes just the first part of a trilogy intended to visually retell the story of the first Dune book. This tripartite breakdown seems to have been a wise move: the many adaptors (and would-be) adaptors of the linguistically, mythologically, and technologically complex novel have found out over the decades, it’s easy to bite off more Dune than you can chew.
Audiences, too, can only digest so much Dune at a sitting themselves. “The particular challenge to adapting Dune, especially the early part, is that there is so much information to be conveyed — and in the novel it is done in prose and dialog, rather than action — we found it challenging to portray visually,” says Anderson in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter.
“Fortunately, the landscape is so sweeping, we could show breathtaking images as a way to convey that background.” This is the landscape of the desert planet Arrakis, source of a substance known as “spice.” Used as a fuel for space travel, spice has become the most precious substance in the galaxy, and its control is bitterly struggled over by numerous royal houses. (Any resemblance to Earth’s petroleum is, of course, entirely coincidental.)
The main narrative thread of the many running through Dune follows Paul Atreides, scion of the House Atreides. With his family sent to run Arrakis, Paul finds himself at the center of political intrigue, planetary revolution, and even a clandestine scheme to create a superhuman savior. Though Herbert and Anderson have produced a faithful adaptation, the graphic novel “trims the story down to its most iconic touchstone scenes,” as Thom Dunn puts it in his Boing Boing review (adding that it happens to focus in “a lot of the same scenes as David Lynch did with his gloriously messy film adaptation”). This streamlining also employs techniques unique to graphic novels: to retain the book‘s shifting omniscient narration, for example, “differently colored caption boxes present inner monologues from different characters like voiceovers so as not to interrupt the scene.”
As if telling the story of Dune at a graphic novel’s pace wasn’t task enough, Anderson, Herbert and their collaborators also have to convey its unusual and richly imagined world — in not just words, of course, but images. “Dune has had a lot of visual interpretations over the years, from Lynch’s bizarre pseudo-period piece treatment to the modern televised mini-series’ more gritty interpretation,” writes Polygon’s Charlie Hall. While “Villeneuve’s vibe appears to take its inspiration from more futuristic science fiction — all angles and chunky armor,” the graphic novel’s artists Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín “opt for something a bit more steampunk.” These choices all further what Brian Herbert describes as a mission to “bring a young demographic to Frank Herbert’s incredible series.” Such readers have shown great enthusiasm for stories of teenage protagonists who grow to assume a central role in the struggle between good and evil — not that, in the world of Dune, any conflict is quite so simple.
Fred Van Lente has written for more than 15 years for his own Evil Twin Comics, Marvel and other outlets. In this episode of Pretty Much Pop, he joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss comics as an idiosyncratic form of literature.
In the realm of non-fiction, Ryan started with the beloved Action Philosophers! series in 2004 with illustrator Ryan Dunlavey, and this team has gone on to create the very successful Comic Book History of Comics, plus more recently Action Presidents, Action Activists (available free in association with the NYC Department of Education’s Civics for All program), and have just begun releasing The Comic Book History of Animation. While the non-fiction comics format is common in places like Japan, and has a storied history in America, having been used to train soldiers in World War II, this is still something of a novelty in America as comics still struggle to overcome their reputation in (as Ryan puts it) “trash for morons.” Given that visual content is well known to help people learn as compared to text alone, the use of tools like Action Presidents in classrooms shouldn’t be surprising.
The interview also gets into Ryan’s fiction work, from Cowboys & Aliens, which was turned into a 2011 Jon Favreau/Steven Spielberg film entirely without Ryan’s involvement, to titles like Marvel Zombies and X-Men Noir which use alternate dimension versions of popular characters to tell stories too dark and/or whimsical to have much possibility of ever being transferred to the screen. Despite comics’ reputation as being basically like elaborate film story-boards, their low overhead is exactly what distinguishes them so strongly from film: Their creativity is unlimited by budget, and creators can take tremendous risks. Whatever the mainstream palatability of (alternate dimension) Peter Parker eating Aunt May’s brain, this has been one of the most popular things that Ryan’s been involved with among comic book readers.
Get the best cultural and educational resources on the web curated for you in a daily email. We never spam. Unsubscribe at any time.
FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Open Culture scours the web for the best educational media. We find the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & educational videos you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.
Open Culture (openculture.com) and our trusted partners use technology such as cookies on our website to personalise ads, support social media features, and analyze our traffic. Please click below to consent to the use of this technology while browsing our site.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.