DR: Have you always been interested in comics?
PM: Since I can remember, I’ve been interested in stories told in pictures with accompanying words. For me “various combinations of image and text” is a pretty good definition of “comics.” For a long time, I felt guilty if I wrote instead of drew or, conversely, if I drew instead of wrote. There is a tension between these two ways of telling, because they are also two ways of thinking. My brain works differently for words than it does for pictures. That tension dissolves, though, when I put pictures and text together. As a painter, my work had varying degrees of narrative but I was jealous of the amount of time people spend with a text they’re reading as opposed to the few seconds they spend looking at visual art. But, even I don’t spend that much time looking at a visual work of art, unless I am writing about it – then I have lots to say about my experience. Images envelop us amorphously, while words pin down experience, even if ambiguously.
I’ve been interested in how stories are told in image and text separately, and then together. For example, I love how medieval illuminated manuscripts have individual letters and words that consist of florid shapes that morph into pictures while purely visual characters or hybrid creatures curl their way into the text. The images allow the mind to wander, while the text pulls it where it wants it to go.
Many children’s book illustrations partner with words in ways that I consider to be “comics.”
I loved Heidi, that little girl favorite among classic children’s literature. Illustrations of Heidi eating large chunks of cheese and bread spread on a rustic foot stool instead of a table, or illustrations of Heidi climbing Alpine foothills wearing all the clothes she owns at once, felt positively transgressive in some deep psychological way, while the words carried me along this orphan’s story. Another long-time favorite, the Eloise series has snappy writing, a spot-on funny and elegant drawing style with images often tumbling down the page, and a wise-guy voice that is slapstick and transgressive. Is it an example of children’s literature, a long-form comic, or a graphic novel?
Art has become a commodity for rich investors, while comics are cheap or free and flow through daily life. I devoured the daily newspaper funnies as a child and my parents’ Reader’s Digest for the quick in and out of the jokes. My greatest loyalties were with the Three Stooges who saturated my childhood with their songs, hand gestures, grimaces and rude noises. The adult me is surprised that their crude/violent slapstick felt like unadulterated joy but it may be because it was so foreign to the niceties and conventions of daily life that it thrilled my little girl self. Much like Eloise did in graphic form.
In the mid-1990’s, I used image and text somewhat like comics, somewhat like children’s book illustrations. I was writing some fictional stories, and publishing art criticism for magazines and journals. I also created hybrid pieces like Heidiology - comprised of 57 letter-size pieces of paper with computer drawn images and text that hung on the wall with pushpins and “deconstructed” the pull Heidi had on me. It traveled around to a number of exhibitions rather than in a publication, although I did sell some copies in a boxed set. In various artist or literary journals, I published pages of drawings combined with text, some humorous, some metaphysical. I wrote and illustrated some children’s books which I continue to re-write and illustrate as they morph into different stories. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately crafting single-panel comic ‘gags.’ I have a long-form work in progress which could be considered chapters in an eventual graphic novel.
As I look way back at how my artist-self got nurtured, where it’s been and where it is now, I have to answer “yes” to your question, “Have I always been interested in comics?”
DR: It's interesting that you mention the tension in working in words and/or pictures. I found that as a school kid, writing would be encouraged, and art would be encouraged, but doing both together was not.
PM: I teach Art in an all boys inner city high school, but I'm also very invested in getting kids to read and write through comics or children's books. One thing I started doing last year is having students create a one-page 9-panel comic with the first panel the title and then fill each panel with a comic defining each vocabulary word they selected as unknown to them from a graphic novel we're reading. (Clan Apis by Jay Hosler - a very cool/funny story that contains every esoteric fact you ever wanted to know about bees; a great example of fictionalized nonfiction.) The kids love the book and the drawing process which lasted a number weeks as each vocabulary panel was quite time-consuming.
It's been successful having them create a dramatization of their understanding of the word and also has been an outlet for their sense of humor. We had some literacy consultants visit who recommended that basically all the teachers here use drawing to learn vocabulary words!
DR: A lot of image/text mixing artworks interested you. Are there any other artists or works that you are a fan of, and has served as an inspiration?
PW: There are artists whose work makes me so happy that they are who they are. I will never be them, but their work’s gorgeous existence fortifies and inspires me. Below are a few:
I like to check out Rubyetc online - she’s very young and talented. I find her work bracing and fearless and very funny. I like her short-hand but ingenious drawing style. I was happy to hear she’s coming out with a book.
Some years back, The New York Times Sunday Magazine serialized a comic by Chris Ware that he expanded into his Building Stories boxed set extravaganza. It was everything I love about comics – it was part of my beloved newspaper, it seemed to appear without fanfare and it was so good that I thought I must be imagining it. I was bereaved when it stopped running. Ware’s work is a perfect mix of inner and outer life and visual/formal high jinks, it makes you feel you’re in the hands of a master.
I like Dan Berry’s podcast, Make It Then Tell Everybody. I enjoy hearing artists talk shop when I’m busy doing my own thing. It makes solitary work feel downright social.
These Things Ain’t Gonna Smoke Themselves, A Love, Hate, Love, Hate, Love, Letter to a Very Bad Habit by Emily Flake is sort of like reading Eloise if Eloise grew up to be a comic artist with a very bad habit.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life had a concrete influence on me. It’s a collaboration between the photographer Roy DeCarava and the poet Langston Hughes from the 1950s. I stumbled across a used paperback edition from the 1960s. It is such a tangible example of how words can change your thinking and feeling about the picture you’re looking at. It is all of a piece with a brilliant voice that’s both verbal and visual.
DR: What had been your experience in making comics yourself before your contribution to Zero Sum Bubblegum?
PW: My current comic inventory:
100 or so single panel cartoons inked and captioned
25 or so single panels that don't want to be single any more so I will expand on them as time goes by making them multi-panels
One Graphic Novella or Novel, one "chapter" inked, other chapters roughly researched, outlined, sketched some
10-page or so graphic short story, currently reformatting and adding to a work done in watercolor in a different format
15 "Let's Talk" one-pagers or multi-panels
2-page Waltzer comic
Half dozen Hourly Comics
2 illustrated one-page David Robertson stories
...and that's all she wrote.
DR: You've been busy! How did you find the process of drawing “Invigilator”?
PW: Four decisions guided my drawing process:
1. Finding the right female character; at first I thought the encounter could possibly be intended and experienced as sexist, then I realized with the choice of character, it could be about an encounter that was possibly both sexist and racist.
2. Creating a layout in a tight grid. Since this story takes place within a very brief time-frame in the same tight space with the same 2 characters, a tight grid seemed appropriate.
3. Keeping a close view of the main female character's face. Since the story deals with her subjective experience, I kept the focus on her face in most panels.
4. Treating the male invigilator as a symbol of white male power, even if he doesn't see himself that way. He is depicted mostly as a shirt, tie and big belly. He possibly uses his role to invade the physical space of the students or he may be oblivious to what he represents.
DR: To finish off, I'm interested in anything else you want to tell me about your upcoming comics projects.
PW: I’m superstitious about my initiatives-in-progress and generally don’t talk about them. I no longer just post stuff to Twitter like I used to. Although I did enjoy the “frisson” of doing that, the work gets lost in the noise (and some venues want “right of first refusal”). I haven’t yet figured out a web presence. I have a website in need of updating that’s mainly children’s book ideas, some of which I’d like to graphic novelize. I like the idea of serializing a long work or a twice- or thrice-weekly single panel. I attended the NJSCBWI Conference (New Jersey chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) in June, and enjoy being in the mix.
Pam Wye is an artist, mother, wife, art teacher, dog and cat enabler, feminist, registered Democrat, scaredy-cat, Donald Trump denier, born in Boston, one-time citizen of Manhattan and Brooklyn before moving to nearby New Jersey to raise twin sons who are thanking her by growing up and heading off to college in late summer leaving her anticipating fewer dirty dishes but a gaping hole in her heart at childhood’s brevity, but nonetheless still able to write in the third person about herself and to spawn drawings and stories that someone somewhere may find comedic or heartening or diverting.
Zero Sum Bubblegum is available here.
Zero Sum Bubblegum is available here.