(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2015)
“I’m a comic book artist. So I think to myself, what do I like to draw? I like to draw hot chicks, fast cars and cool guys in trench coats. So that’s what I write about.” Frank Miller
Last night we watched a DVD of the new movie People, Places, Things. The film did not have a theatrical release, which is the fate of most movies made in America these days unless they are massively expensive blockbusters. People, Places, Things is not a blockbuster and probably didn’t cost much to make, and Marcia and I both very much enjoyed the movie.
The male lead is played by Jemain Clement who has a strong New Zealand accent, so should you rent the film, turn up the volume. Also be sure to watch the opening credits; they are a graphic novella about the five years preceding the beginning of the movie.
Clement plays the part of a graphic novelist who teaches graphic novel writing and drawing at a college in New York, Stephanie Allynne plays his stressed out wife, and Aundrea and Gia Gadsby play their six-year-old twin daughters.
A few hours after seeing the movie, I realized the blocking of the scenes in the film mimics the static nature of scenes in graphic novels, otherwise known as comic books printed and bound as if they are novels. The writer/director of the movie James C. Strouse refers to graphic novels as comic books throughout the film, which I found refreshingly honest. American publishers have been striving for decades now to convince readers that graphic novels are not comic books, but they are. Calling a cow a bovine does not mean that particular bovine is not a cow.
My favorite scenes in the movie were those in which Clement is speaking to his class of aspiring comic book artists. These scenes took me back to the early 1990s when I oversaw the Creative Writing department at the California State Summer School for the Arts and many of my teenaged students were disinterested in novels and poetry, but keenly interested in comic books.
These bright young writers were in the first wave of humans to have their brains programmed since childhood by watching thousands of hours of music videos—messages conveyed by streams of swiftly changing images underscored by walls of sound and rhythm that cause viewers to hunger for more such streams of images and sound. My students were also among the first wave of humans to grow up with personal computers, thus many of them were incapable of writing longhand or speaking in complete sentences.
As a consequence of my collision with this demographic, I was given several comic books to read, each comic book touted by the giver as his or her favorite. I had not read comic books since I was a kid, and even as a kid didn’t so much read them as flip through the pages in search of arresting images. These comic books given to me by my students were essentially storyboards for shallow unoriginal movies. What, I wondered, did intelligent teenagers find so compelling about these comic books?
So I asked my students to enlighten me, and the gist of what they said was that these comic books provided them with armatures on which to hang their fantasies. Indeed, each comic book starred a lead character superficially similar to the person who gave me the comic book. What were these comic books about? Young, lonely, alienated outcasts doing battle with the dark forces of a cruel world, the line between good and evil blurry, hope a flickering candle in a tempest.
“You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.” George Burns
I screened a number of movies for my teenaged writers, movies I was fairly certain they had not yet seen and would appreciate. Alas, The Maltese Falcon bored them to tears and they hated Stardust Memories. As one erudite student said of Woody Allen’s magnum opus, “That is one fucked up dude.”
However, they loved Diva, despite the subtitles, and no wonder. Diva is about a lonely, alienated young man doing battle with the dark forces of a cruel world, the line between good and evil blurry, hope a flickering candle in a tempest, with great music and fabulous cinematography. As much as I love Diva, there is no denying it is a comic book brought to life.
“To me, it’s a matter of first understanding that which may not be put to words.” William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams likened a poem to a nude, a novel to a strip tease. Williams was born in 1883 and died in 1963 and was claimed as a major influence by the San Francisco poets I most admired in the 1960s and 70s—Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. My favorite collection of William Carlos Williams poems is Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems.
As a young writer inspired by Williams’ poems about the stuff of every day life, I practiced writing detailed descriptions of simple objects, a practice I found challenging and valuable. However, many years later when I asked my teenaged students to write descriptions of simple objects: a pen, a bowl, a piece of paper, I was startled by the dismay this exercise aroused in many of them.
“What does this have to do with writing?” asked one angry young woman.
“It’s just a stupid pen,” opined an outraged young man.
“This has everything to do with writing,” I replied. “And the pen will only be stupid if you make it so with your words. In order to write stories or poems that someone else can read and relate to, we must be able to clearly describe things with our words. And the way to get good at that is to practice. With your pen. On a piece of paper.”