Form & Function With Ryan Claytor (Part 1)

Regular readers of 13 Minutes will remember reviews of the autobiographical work of Ryan Claytor from Elephant Eater Comics. Since Ryan and I met at FCBD 2008, and my subsequent reviews of his library of comics work, we’ve kept in touch through con season and his move away from sunny Southern California, often corresponding about whatever topics organically come about. Recently, we began an innocent discussion around what the medium was (and was not) capable of. We decided to capture that as a collaborative project that proved to indeed be post-worthy. Allow me to introduce you once again to Ryan…

Ryan Claytor is a comics artist and teacher living in Lansing, Michigan. In 2007, he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from San Diego State University with an emphasis in multimedia, researching autobiography in comics. Claytor's achievements have included a Cartoonist in Residence position at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, California, visiting lecturerships at the Dallas Museum of Art and Michigan State University, an internship with Marvel Comics in New York City, and judging the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailing Award in 2007. Starting December 2008 the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco will feature an exhibition of his work. Claytor is most widely known for his self-published, autobiographical, comic book series And Then One Day. Most recently, in the summer of 2008, he released a republication of his Master's Thesis on autobiography in comics entitled Concatenations. For more information about Ryan Claytor or any of his work, visit his website. http://www.elephanteater.com/

Justin: Ryan, you've spent a good part of your career addressing how the medium "works" functionally. What started you on this path of considering the craft? What are the medium's strengths; what can it do well?

Ryan: My interest in dissecting the medium probably stems from my art background. I have my B.A. and M.F.A. in Art from UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State University respectively, so an academic emphasis on over thinking art is probably to blame. Ha-ha! Honestly, though, I've enjoyed my time in graduate school which allowed me to research my medium of choice: comics.

I thought your suggestion to discuss comics' strengths and weaknesses was a good one. As an advocate of the medium, I'm sure you can relate to combating the popular opinion that still seems to downplay, or at least not understand, what comics are capable of accomplishing. Since I'm guessing most readers of our respective websites have heard the comics cheerleading before, perhaps, for a change of pace, we can discuss some things that comics are NOT capable of doing.

The first inability of comics that comes to mind is their ability to produce sound. We cannot hear what people's voices sound like. We will never know the sound an object makes when it hits the ground. We, as comics artists, can, however, make an attempt to artistically portray these things. We can suggest intonation of voice by strategically emphasizing certain words of dialogue over others. With sound effects we can hint at the type of action taking place by varying letterforms and even experimenting with typography. For example, I'm thinking of a more liquid type of font for the sound of water splashing or a cracked and splintered font for the sound of a door crashing open. Occasionally comic book letterers will even design a custom speech balloon and/or dialogue font for a character to evoke a specific type of voice (robotic, dark and sinister, or countless others). However, the fact remains; we cannot produce sound in this medium of paneled images on paper.

Before I monologue too much longer, I'd like to turn this question over to you. What other limitations of comics can you think of, Justin?

Justin: I can definitely relate to addressing popular perception about the medium. Before moving on to limitations, let's touch on that for a second. Without getting into the "comics are just for kids" rehash or invoking the Adam West Batman, where do you yourself think that comes from? I mean, I work at a Contemporary Art Museum, but am still constantly... defending is a strong word, but... explaining the medium, particularly that it's capable of more genres than just the superhero; that misunderstanding of diversity still seems to be the biggest stumbling block in my corner of the world.

As for limitations, sound is a great one to start with. I just mentally ran down the list of five senses and that seems to be the one that jumps out. Heck, comics can smell, they can even taste like something, and unless you concede sound on a technicality (ie: the pages "fwipping" together when you thumb through a book), then sound is definitely something they can not do from a content, or storytelling standpoint.

You bring up a good point when explaining the limitation of sound, in that there are many things an artist can do to attempt to portray sound. This never actually achieves sound; it just attempts to influence the reader into understanding the notion or intent of sound. That concept of influencing a reader leads me to a couple other suggestions. First, as an artist yourself, do you feel that you can control time, or control the reader's eye movement? One of the things I noticed about your work is that you use "beats" very well. Character speaks in panel one, silent look in panel two (beat for emphasis, which pauses the reader), then character speaks again in panel three. Dash Shaw does this exceptionally well in the recent Bottomless Belly Button. I would argue that you can attempt to influence, but never control pace (time, the readers eye) completely. How do you feel about that? To what degree do you actively consider this dynamic when you're penciling a page?

Ryan: I think your first question was, "Where do I think the perceived lack of diversity in comics genres originated?" This misconception probably stems from the fact that comics are such an under-promoted medium. Think about other pop culture mediums like movies, music, or prose books; it seems like everyone in America knows the latest blockbuster event, the hottest singer of the month, or the fact that "Twilight" is making everyone bonkers about vampires. However, the national promotion for comics-related properties is usually reserved for the company with the deep pockets, which, until recently, has been Marvel and DC.

What do those two deep-pocket companies produce?

A bunch of men in tights.

If capes are all the public hears about from the comics industry, it's no wonder people think that's all we do. I'm hopefully optimistic that with the "graphic novel" boom, these newer and larger companies to enter the comics field will start shedding some big-dollar promotional light on more thoughtful works being published in comics form. I'm thinking of companies like Scholastic, who reprinted a full-color version of Jeff Smith's "Bone," and First Second, a subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Publishers, who is producing a line of stellar, genre-defying, book-length comics. Maybe with this kind of budget backing these new-to-the-industry publishers, we'll start to see a slow shift in public perception of comics. What's your take on that, do you think a massive shift in public perception is possible, or am I the ever-hopeful, yet hopelessly naïve, optimist?

I believe the next question was, "As an artist, do I feel that I can control time, or control the reader's eye movement?" I'm not sure about control, but guide, yes. Artists learn about the way in which the viewer's eye tends to travel around the canvas due to things like subliminal "S" curves suggested in the layout or a particular use of color to emphasize or deemphasize a subject in the arrangement. It's somewhat akin to a reader learning to look from left to right and top to bottom (in some cultures). As a comics artist, you have both of these systems of viewership to use, experiment, and exploit to influence the reader's eye as the narrative requires.

You also commented about my use of "beat" panels or attempted pauses in the flow of time. First of all, thanks for the compliment, and yes, it is certainly something I think about when scripting a comic. I still haven't read Dash Shaw's "Bottomless Belly Button" but it is now on my Amazon wish list. Another artist that comments on the use of panel pauses is Scott Kurtz of PVP fame. In his new-ish book, "How to Make Webcomics," Kurtz discusses his possible over-use of the pause panel for dramatic effect. Just like any technique or practice, it is most effective when used in moderation. If overused, the reader will become aware of the mechanics behind creating the comic and no longer be magically swept along by the narrative. Ultimately, I think one of the goals of the comics artist is to tell a story so engrossing, that the tricks and techniques of the art form pass by unnoticed.

Justin: Two, I'm really fascinated by the ability of art to produce texture. I recently saw a Jackson Pollock panting at the Seattle Art Museum and when I was able to get up really close on it, inches away, I was so impressed with the depth it had, the layers; there are thousands of little ridges and big chunks of paint creating a very tactile sensory experience. I think comic art can attempt to emulate that depth with perspective, but can't actually create the texture or visual depth that an oil painting can. Is this another limitation? Perhaps this is partially because what we see in a comic book typically isn't the original art, but a reproduction?

Ryan: I'm going to respectfully disagree with this assumption for a couple reasons. First, I think that comics can produce a great sense of depth, even in pen and ink drawings. Look at the backgrounds of Yoshihiro Tatsumi (“Abandon the Old in Tokyo”) or the detail in a double-page spread by Sergio Aragones (“Groo the Wanderer”). Using techniques such as overlapping subjects, perspective, varying the width of line to evoke a sense of layering (thicker lines for closer objects and thinner lines for objects further away), as well as emphasizing a fore, middle, and background within the panel, I've been amazed at the sense of depth that can be achieved in comics. Second, who's to say that comics cannot be produced in a painterly fashion, or even AS paintings? The successive images of comics can take form in any style or be produced in any medium, whether it's painting, pen and ink, or even photography. Imagine a triptych of oil paintings that portray sequential images of a single subject performing an action. In my book, that's comics. What do you think?

Please visit us next Friday 12/5/08 for the exciting conclusion of this discussion!


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