A Thing About eCOnoMICS


Sonia pointed out to me the other day that I never did write an anniversary article for my first year writing for iFanboy. It hadn’t slipped my mind that the day had come and gone. I’d simply let it go like an old man with an equally old catfish finally snared on his hook. What’s a year, I though. Not so much had changed. But with the iFanboy offices mostly to myself this week (Jimski’s been in the rumpus room all morning monopolizing the Ms. Pac-Man machine) there’s no better time to reflect on what I’ve learned this year.  Because, come to think of it, there are a few things I’ve come to appreciate in writing about comics.

Much of this has to do with economy. Not the bears and bulls and suspenders economy, but definition two. As my dictionary widget puts it, “[the] careful management of available resources.”  By this token, it’s quite possible to be fiscally irresponsible with more than just money. It’s safe to say I’m unabashedly passionate about words and pictures. Much of the time, I don’t like writing as a gerund, but as the cliche goes, I do love having written. I love new words, and even more than that, I love new word groupings. It’s those discoveries that keep me coming back again and again. Imagine the insane combos you could pull off if your Street Fighter II console housed as many buttons as there are words. (I pause here to report that Jimski has apparently just beaten my high score. I can tell because he’s now firing Nerf products at my neck.) 

Where was I? Words. Right. You’ve no doubt noticed in our months together, perhaps even over the course of this very sentence, that I have a tendency towards the baroque. If it can be said in four words, I challenge myself to express it in forty. That’s a confidence issue. Victorians funneled all their passion into their flowery prose because they didn’t really have any other venue for relief. If prose were paint I’d be an impoverished artist cartwheeling naked toward a giant canvas, globs of acrylic clenched in my fists, poised for collision. It has to be an explosion, otherwise nobody will hear me and I’ll die alone and forgotten and my tombstone will be one of the flat ones people trip over on their way to the important people. Go big or go home. 

But that, I have found, is hardly the case when it comes to comics.

When telling a story, it’s perilously easy to slip into that god complex. I’m creating something! I hath spawned a race of men and the world upon which they live and procreate and die! That’s really exciting if you’re as deranged as any writer has to be. With every tap of the keyboard comes another concussion in your own personal Big Bang. So everything feels important. But that’s not how life works. Life doesn’t have an orchestral score. There’s very little gravitas in the ZipLoc bag of grapes I’m picking at as I write this. Sometimes, sometimes, there’s just as little fanfare when a hero dies. We’re so used to the cinematic model, that life seems helplessly, hopelessly, ordinary.

This weekend I started reading Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country, a series about very big things happening in very small ways. It’s one of the best comics I’ve ever read. A year ago, I wouldn’t have called myself a Greg Rucka fan. I thought his dialogue was too simple, too cold. Lately, I’ve come to respect and admire his minimalist approach. His economy. Major moments, world shaking moments, come and go with nary a firework. When an operative falls, no one gathers them up and holds them in imitation of the Pieta. No violins. Just the cruel zip of the bodybag. Such terseness is appropriate for a story of spies tumbling through the tangled web of bureaucracy, but it’s also a powerful storytelling style. Negative space. What isn’t said. What’s left to be said. John Arcudi and Mike Mignola do much the same thing in the Hellboy universe. Word balloons and the words contained within are all tools. And like any tool, use them only when needed. 

In Jeffrey Brown’s autobiographical Funny Misshapen Body, the cartoonist describes his own creative methods as being wholly from the heart. After mapping out ten pages of story, he fills ten pages of a sketchbook with words and pictures. No pencils, just straight to inks. If he makes a mistake, he keeps on going. He’s only ever aware of the trajectory of those next ten pages. He writes and draws what he feels is the natural progression, without pretense. If the narrative comes across as slightly out of order, that’s to be expected. Call it artistic therapy, but he’s working his way through the story of his own life, not as he experienced it, but as he’s digested it. Nothing is purer than this crude, matter of fact approach. It might not be as refined as Queen & Country, but it shares that simplicity. It’s the details that matter. The tiny moments that deserve to be highlighted. It’s a rookie mistake to try and mine any more resonance out of the big moments. Go little. 

A screenwriting professor once told me that stories ought to be complex rather than complicated. It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned, though I still struggle with it. Start from some place simple, something pure, and in the process of writing it, it will become the complex and sophisticated story we all strive for. If you try to write something complex, all your machinations will probably lead to complication, confusion, and economic ruin. 

In other words, speak softly and carry a big Nerf Crossbow. 


Paul Montgomery is still trying to figure it all out. Find him on Twitter or contact him at paul@ifanboy.com

Comments

  1. This is why the latest Detective Comics worked so well. It told so much, with so few words. 

  2. You got me all excited for "suspenders" economics (clearly you have seen me in my teaching garb) and then you hit me with a post about being economical with words. Trickster.

    You make some excellent points. I am in the process of triming a research paper from roughly 30 pages down to 15. I am trying very hard to abate my verbosity.

  3. Well written, Paul.  You make good points.  Clear ideas are nice.  Short sentences can be useful.

    I like Ms. Pac-Man.  Also, Nerf.

  4. Great article Paul.  I also just finished reading Queen and Country and am now a full fledged Rucka fan.  What I got from your article, being the Jason Bay of comics is not something to aspire to (hear that Loeb?).

  5. PS No trying to create Kelly LeBrock out of your computer while wearing bras on your head while the rest of the crew is out in SD.

  6. I now find myself to be a Greg Rucka fan too!  Currently reading Walking Dead and it is fantastic!  Currently tracking down the rest of Queen& Country

    Very insightful article Paul.  Often times I struggle with trying to make my post short and sweet, while still getting my point across.  I think I fail more often than I would like to admit. 🙁

  7. This was actually very inspirational. I kinda want to go write now…

  8. I’ve recently been re-reading ’52’, and almost my favorite part of the TPB’s (I say ‘almost’ because just as a story it’s one — or really several — of my favorite stories) is the the author/artist/editor’s commentary section between each chapter.  Two things I’ve noticed about Greg Rucka’s contributions: 1) He knows a whole goddamn lot about everything he writes about and 2) He’s spare and selective about what gets on the page.  There are at least two places where he talks about wanting to scale back big moments happening to Renee Montoya (one where she was originally shown vomiting in reaction to an act of violence — a fight he won; and one where she has a tear streaking down her face at an emotional moment — a fight he lost and still thinks he was right.)  I think he’s dead-on in both instances.  There are things Rucka wrote in 52 — and in Queen & Country and Whiteout — that affect me emotionally the way few things in a comic ever have; he writes some of the most emotionally-driven comics out there.  He just doesn’t force the emotion on the reader — and I think his ‘economy’ is a great way to look at it — and also that it’s something he can afford because he knows every damn detail that DOESN’T make it onto the page.

    I’m pretty sure I’m a volume behind on Queen & Country.  Thanks for the reminder.   

  9. What else do the iFanboys have in their "rumpus room" ? Im guessing a free taco bar and a laser canon

  10. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Galaga and a Bob’s Big Boy statue. 

    Oh, and a George Foreman grill. But Romo hasn’t cleaned out the tray in weeks. 

  11. @Paul – How could Romo be expected to clean out that tray? He was in Europe finding himself.

  12. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    He’s perfectly capable of finding his way to everything but the kitchen sink.  

  13. I’m an idiot.  Michael Bay.  Suffering from a cold and allergies.  My pitiful attempts at humor are worsened by my inaccuracies.

  14. I’ve found regularly rereading Strunk and White helps keep prose sparse.

  15. Great article Paul. I’m the exact opposite when it comes to writing (although I appreciate those who can right wonderful sounding word couplings). I love the short, sparse sentence. It might be from reading a lot of Hemingway. It might be having a background in joke and sketch writing. The sooner I get to the point the better I’ve found. Again, not to discredit those who work differently.

  16. Good. Helpful. Thanks.