Todd Mitchell on Graphic Narratives: The Frontier of Visual Storytelling

Todd MitchellTodd Mitchell is the author of several award-winning novels, stories, and graphic texts, including the young adult novels Backwards (Candlewick Press, Colorado Author’s League Award winner), The Secret to Lying (Candlewick Press, Colorado Book Award winner), and the middle grade novels Species (forthcoming from Delacorte Press) and The Traitor King (Scholastic Press, Colorado Book Award Finalist). He’s also a writer for the graphic novel, A Flight of Angels (Vertigo, YALSA Top 10 Pick for Teens), and the graphic series, Broken Saviors (made possible by grants from the NEA and Colorado Creative Industries). In addition to his books, he’s published short stories, essays, and poems in national and international journals. He has over fifteen years of experience teaching creative writing at college and graduate levels, and serving as Director of the Beginning Creative Writing Teaching Program at Colorado State University. When he’s not traveling, he lives in Fort Collins, CO with his wife, dog, and two wily daughters. You can visit him at www.ToddMitchellBooks.com

Katy Avila interviewed Todd Mitchell via phone call in August 2016.

Katy Avila: I took a course in my undergraduate English program where we studied the development of pulp fiction and comic books through the 1950s. Last term, I was assigned Fun Home (2006), a graphic memoir. Do you have anything to say about this transition of graphic narratives from pulp fiction into the more “literary” world?

Todd Mitchell: I think everyone would see that turning point differently. It probably has a lot to do with personal bias, but in terms of mainstream culture the big turning point was Maus (1980-1991), because Maus won the Pulitzer, got some critical praise. It cued the larger public on how comics can be used to tell stories; they weren’t just for kids. More recently, you mentioned Fun Home, which won several best book awards. That was a mainstream crossover.

Since then, I feel like we’re in this golden age of comics, where a lot is happening with independent comics as well as the traditional comics. If you look at Hollywood, most of their movie development for big blockbusters are coming out of comics, even some indie films are coming out of comics too. YA literature. Hybrid texts. There’s room for writers to explore how images can be used to tell a story in ways that haven’t been done before, that isn’t just sequential narrative. All of these different forms of graphic texts are now becoming a big part of our general culture and not just a subculture.

If you think about a frontier, there is this undiscovered country that we can go into, and it is the country of graphic texts, and it’s just opening up now.

KA: You mentioned technology—do you mean graphic narratives are gaining popularity because of the internet?

TM: Yeah. It’s a new territory to discover new stories. Technology has enabled graphic mediums to spread, and they’ve increased publishing costs. There’s a lot of authors who are realizing, “Oh wait, there are whole new stories we can tell with art.” We can use art and stories in ways that haven’t been done before, and that’s what really excites me. If you think about a frontier, there is this undiscovered country that we can go into, and it is the country of graphic texts, and it’s just opening up now. I’m seeing a lot of books now where they use art and image along with narrative as a way to tell stories using an online format. The internet is very graphic—it’s a graphic medium. People want pictures with their texts so readers are getting more accustomed to graphic texts.

KA: It’s like memes. Those have blown up in social media in the last several years. Pictures and words are easy to connect to. They try to catch some familiar feeling like, “That time when you…” along with an expression, working in juxtaposition of what’s said in the text and the image, and it plays with your image of familiarity because you’ve probably heard the phrase or seen the picture before. I feel like comics do the same thing by playing on what you know and what you don’t know.

TM: That’s a really good connection. Readers are inundated with graphic texts all the time without realizing it. Memes are a great example. The problem right now though is that a lot of readers are pretty lazy at reading graphic texts. If we look at a picture of a chair, to be good readers of graphic texts we have to think about why the chair is depicted the way it is. Why is it empty? A lot of readers aren’t asking all the questions that they need, because we’re used to receiving information from images.

The challenge for writers, for creators, is to try and elevate the ways that readers read these graphic texts. It demands that readers get more critical and thoughtful about how they read. If you don’t know how to read a graphic text, you only get about one-tenth of what is actually on the page. Schools need to do a better job at developing graphic literacy.

KA: What was the first comic or graphic narrative that caught your attention—were you a kid or an adult?

TM: I actually came pretty late to comics and graphic narratives. I didn’t read any as a kid. I had a roommate in college who was big into X-Men and others, so I started reading some of his. But really the first one that that blew my mind is a very surreal comic called Stray Toasters (1988). I’ve never even met anybody who has read this, I don’t know how I got it, but it has these very painterly panels and text, and it’s put together in a way that utterly baffles me and I read it multiple times just trying to understand it. Like what is this? What does it mean?

But if your question is what is the one that made me think about graphic narratives as a writer, that one was probably Maus.

KA: You said Stray Toasters perplexed you, not knowing what it meant and how it was put together. What caught your attention with Maus?

TM: For Maus, I put off reading it for years. The idea of a comic about the Holocaust kind of appalled me. When I finally did read it, I was utterly surprised that I was affected more by this book than any other book I had read about the Holocaust. I wanted to know why there was this particular power to graphic narratives that I had overlooked. In the case of Maus, it comes from the fact that it is a comic so we know it’s going to be a story about the Holocaust, but we think it’s going to be more light-hearted, more cartoonish. The characters aren’t depicted as people, they’re depicted as mice, and at several significant points in the text we are reminded that these are people, and that this is a memoir. The book gets through all the barriers we put up, goes in through the back door and surprises us with feeling. That’s when I realized there are ways graphic texts can tell stories you can’t with ordinary texts.

KA: Do you think there are certain stories that led themselves better to graphic narratives, or is it more about the storyteller’s vision?

TM: Absolutely. There are certain stories that need to be told graphically. There are certain stories that are better told with just text. When a story starts knocking on the door and saying, “Hey, you need to create me,” one of the first questions I ask myself is: “What form does this need to take?”

With one project I’m working on, there’s a story about an alien invasion and it has to do with the scope of the story. There’s a lot of spectacle and the scope is bigger than any one character, so that story demanded to be visual early on. If I were to write that as a book I would get too stuck in one character’s consciousness, and the larger story wouldn’t come out. Represented visually, the reader can participate in viewing the spectacle to see it and experience it as a spectacle, which is the character’s’ experience.

In the graphic essay, “The Two Questions” (2008), Lynda Barry represents the stream of consciousness through these large, very busy panels that you have to navigate on your own, and she teaches you how to read images as symbols, and then recurring images. The essay itself is about how you take what is in yourself and represent it externally, so there’s a match-up of form and content. It activates different parts of our brain. 

When a story starts knocking on the door and saying, “Hey, you need to create me,” one of the first questions I ask myself is: “What form does this need to take?”

KA: Is that something that makes the graphic narrative “work?”

TM: There needs to be a reason for the image, sometimes that’s a matter of having a contrast between image and text. Like Maus, that’s what really gives the book power. Sometimes it’s a matter of having images do something that words can’t. That different way that our brains navigate images. A graphic text is good when it haunts me, when my brain keeps going over the ways that the image and text interact. You’re constantly looking at the two, thinking about how they merge, and you’re getting a third thing that is ineffable.

KA: And that third thing is a process of your own creation. I like that participatory element that comes along with graphic texts. When I read Fun Home, I felt like I was writing a part of it while reading. I had to slow down to do that. I couldn’t do that at first.

TM: That’s what I mean about being a good, active reader. A lot of first time readers of graphic texts don’t realize that the story actually lives in the gutter, the story is in the spaces between the panels, which we animate ourselves. The reader is invited to participate in the creation of the narrative.

KA: As an author of graphic narratives, what is your process in creating one?

TM: This depends on what graphic text you’re doing. If you’re talking traditional comics, they are super fast-paced and there’s a lot of “compression” of information in both image and panel, so you have to give it a sense of how that pace works on the pages first. How many panels you’re going to have on each page, you don’t want to crowd them in a series, each issue is exactly twenty-two pages, so how do you get a story arc, or two-and-a-half story arcs across in twenty-two pages with maximum nine panels per page…

KA: That’s like a math problem.

TM: You have to break every narrative down into essential parts and pace those parts out. That took me a long time to learn, but it’s helped my writing. It has tightened my sense of story structure.

And stories are changing shapes. You can see it through TV: character arcs spread out over four seasons. That changes our notion of story structure. It’s not a three-act story anymore, it’s a 100-act story, and comics arrived there first, by having this visual medium telling complex character arcs over many, many issues. I think that’s paved the way for some of the great TV we’re seeing now.

KA: More complexity can be revealed. I saw on your website a how-to for writing a comic book. Do you do a drafting process, like a storyboard? Are the images and panels the first idea and then you nail down what words you want, or is it simultaneous?

TM: I script first, because when you make changes, what’s easiest to change is in the script, but when I write out a script I have to ask myself, “how do you get this into images?” so I write image descriptions. Artists always like to work with as few panels as possible because they can have bigger, more painterly panels. It’s a question of which moments you can combine, how you can make it more concise.

Graphic storytelling gets so compressed, I almost see it as a medium closer to poetry because it’s how you can say the most with the least, and that pressure to both get minimal wordsbecause you don’t want the words to cover up the art, and you want the image to tell as much of the story as possiblebut also minimal images. That’s where I think the story possibilities come out, because as you’re compressing it’s not just about simplification it’s about a discovery of what is essential to the story, to the characters, and helps you see the story in a new way.

KA: More specifically than images, what affordances, or elements do graphic texts have that traditional texts don’t? I know a little about how writers use the white space between panels, which is similarly poetic in the spacing, and what get’s left out. Are there other specific elements of craft used?

TM: You want as much of the story as possible to be told through the dialogue, so that forces you into a “showing” mode. How do you show this externally—that’s the story focus. But yeah, other aspects of the form: gutters, the layout, the panel structure, the page turns, the pace, and color. You write a book in black and white; you get to use color with graphic text. Color changes mood, color is just used representatively, artistically, sometimes they contrast or are used expressively. There are all different ways to apply it, to shock the reader to look at an image in a different way.

There’s also hyperbolic elements. Manga often has a realistic style but gets very comical in moments. Like in a realistic comic a character will get angry and suddenly their features become overly cartoonish. There are different ways of telling a story better. And one thing that really struck me when I first read Manga was how the writer/artist breaks down the fourth wall even in the midst of a very serious story. Suddenly the writer or artist will have this offstage dialogue directly with the reader, and you don’t see that kind of editorial interruption in western comics or literature. 

A lot of first time readers of graphic texts don’t realize that the story actually lives in the gutter, the story is in the spaces between the panels, which we animate ourselves

KA: I really enjoy when literature breaks down that fourth wall. It jars you. There’s almost an element of graphic narratives that encourages you to read on even though you don’t know what’s happening. The synthesis is slower, so you’re turning pages, confused…

TM: I find it exciting when there’s something new going on.

KA: What about collaborating with an artist?

TM: That’s a part of what attracts me to graphic texts. Writing can be very lonely. I also enjoy getting to have an interaction with an artist through a story; it’s really fun and can add a bit of synergy to the story. Finding the right artist is the hardest part. Somebody who is invested in the story too, who is not just an art monkey. They’re going to be a co-creator in the vision. The story changes as I see how the artist visualizes it. They’ve got to have the right style and the right vision, they’ve to be somebody you can have a good working relationship with.

And graphic narratives aren’t as bound by language barriers. When I was looking for an artist for Broken Saviors, over 120 artists sent me portfolios. I looked at them all and most of them were really good. There were artists from Brazil, Argentina, Malaysia, India, China, Poland. There were certain areas actually where it seemed like hot spots for graphic art, but each had different styles and approach.

KA: Have you always considered yourself a visual thinker?

TM: I’m a visual thinker with very little visual ability. Visual thinker trapped in a writer’s body. I did art well before I did writing because I’m dyslexic and I struggled a lot with writing. I think what we struggle with is what attracts us too and interests us. So I worked more at writing because it didn’t come naturally to me. I definitely have always been a visual thinker, even when I’m working on a novel without any graphic elements I’ll storyboard it with thumbnail sketches. That can be very clarifying, and if you’re working with image you can’t show everything.

KA: In the same way, if someone is reading a non-graphic novel, they aren’t necessarily thinking “what’s being left out?”

TM: Which is exactly why one of the best ways to become a better reader of graphic texts is to take a practitioner’s approach—to try and create one. Telling a story graphically, whether it’s in sequential images or single images, or with a hybrid text, once you start engaging in that process I think it opens your eyes to all the choices that go into storytelling.

KA: Do you have any advice for writers who are interested in graphic narratives for the first time?

TM: The biggest thing is to explore. Stories can be told in new ways, and they might discover an entirely new story once they start making graphic stories. Don’t worry about it being good, do your own little thumbnail sketches and ask, “Okay, what does this experience say?” rather than “how would I write a short story about it?” Ask how would you fit it into a short comic, and see what comes up, because it takes the story in a different direction.

I love to keep graphic travel journals because graphic narratives are good places to train your mind to pay attention to what’s going on around you. I like to draw characters, places, it’s a way of sorting through your experience, and what images are important to the story, the story of your life, an experience…

KA: That seems like a great practice even for people who don’t want to try a graphic narrative. As a writer, sometimes it’s hard to know which details to pick or include.

TM: Because if you’re like, “I’m going to include everything,” when you go to draw it you very quickly realize it’s not an option. You must choose!

It gets you out of your own head. It puts you in a position of being more of an observer yourself. Phillip Lopate’s “Turning Oneself into a Character” talks about how the essential thing for creative nonfiction is to get some objective distance on yourself. The reader doesn’t know you, you might think you know you, but you don’t always know you, either. So the work of creative nonfiction is to stand outside yourself and create some of your character. That’s one of the hardest things to do as a writer because we know what we mean when we use a word. We know what we’re thinking when we write that line, and we lose sight that the reader doesn’t. With a graphic text, you’re bumped outside yourself and you’re able to get this new view.

KA: Writers are always looking for something to make them think about their stories differently, to jar them out of their perspective. It seems like an interesting practice to start playing with and creating images.

TM: I come reluctantly to the graphic narrative table because so much work goes into making a graphic text. It is so much more labor intensive. I’ve got this theory. It’s something that I didn’t know until I started trying to create graphic texts, but it’s the narrative mediums that take the longest to create which are often the quickest to read. There is this inverse relationship. Thirty seconds of film might take several people a week or a month to create, and yet an audience will view it in thirty seconds, and think, “Ah, I got it.” Or as a writer, I could spend ten minutes writing something that’s going to take a reader five minutes to read.

So much work goes into graphic texts—people create a plan and an idea of how long it takes to get every panel right, and they’re fairly quick things to read but they take a long time to unpack. We’re getting more information than we realize at once. A painter could spend two years on a painting that somebody could walk past in a museum, spend less than a minute looking at. But the beauty of these mediums that are quick to take in is that in a year or two, that image or painting might come back to us for reasons we don’t know. Maybe that goes back to your question about what makes a graphic narrative work—when that compression of information stays with you so you are left thinking about it long afterwards. So yeah, that’s my inverse relationship theory.

KA: That a perfect way of stating what works. When it strikes a chord with us, kind of gives this real response that we don’t understand completely, it comes back.

TM: It’s the images that come back, the stories that come back.

Katy AvilaKaty Avila lives in Los Angeles, CA where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University. Her obsession with Victorian pseudoscience, literature and culture, and interest in medical humanities have inspired her to look closely at the relationship between body and story, and how narratives attempt to embody (or disembody) modern experiences.