The Difficulty of Multiple Mediums: Literary Fiction and the Graphic Novel

by Salvatore Pane

It’s been snowing here in Pittsburgh for nearly two weeks now. Being unable to drive anywhere should’ve been a golden opportunity to get writing done, but I wasn’t very productive until this past Thursday. Everybody goes through periods where they feel their work is crap, but I think this time I’ve pinpointed the problem: I was writing in two mediums at the same time.

As I posted a few weeks ago, Arcana Studios recently purchased a graphic novel for publication that I’ve been working on with Mark Kleman and Lamair Nash. Let’s talk about that for a minute. I’ve never written a comic before. I’ve never even written a screenplay–other than a disaster I composed for a college class five years ago. I got the comic gig after writing a twenty-two page sample with Mark. We found Lamair on the internet. He drew it and we sent it to a bunch of companies and Arcana was the one we went with. Now they want 110 pages.

Writing the comic isn’t hard; it’s quite pleasurable in fact and scratches a very different itch than literary fiction. I’m on page 60 currently and plan to have a first draft done within the next two weeks as Mark and I are attempting to bang out the whole script in 45 days. The problem is with my literary fiction. For awhile, I was trying to write the comic book in the morning and work on short stories right after. That didn’t work. I found that scripting comics diluted my prose. So I wrote three aborted short stories before I decided to take a break from writing the comic. Then a short story flowed pretty effortlessly. With that out of the way, I’m back to the graphic novel until it’s completed.

What I’m curious about is whether other authors have such a difficult time transitioning between two mediums. Literary writers have worked on screenplays since the days of Fitzgerald and Faulkner. But comic books? Not so much. Two years ago, Jonathan Lethem did a year-long run on Omega the Unknown for Marvel.

Newsarama has an excellent interview with him where he addresses this topic somewhat:

NRAMA: What’s the experience been like, going from prose to comics?

JL: A learning experience. Reading comics as long as I have was a huge head start, but it wasn’t everything. I needed to feel my way into the form. You quickly realize that in a sense it’s not a written form. The words are important, but the more important part of my work is giving Farel Dalrymple these assignments to draw.

I think the dominant part of the comic book experience is the visual. One reason why I’ve been slow has been that I really have to do this job of storyboarding and visualization in my head, in order to make to my storytelling work in the medium’s terms.

NRAMA: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working in this medium?

JL: Well, I don’t think I think of it in terms of disadvantages. It’s completely satisfying on its level. I could never do only this kind of work, because I’m so engaged with language, and as I say I’ve come to feel that language is fundamentally in the back seat in comic book. Or, anyway, in the kind that I like and seem to be trying to write.

I would be a frustrated writer if I had to satisfy my entire ambition through this narrow aperture of comic book panels. In the most basic sense, as containers for words, panels just don’t hold very many of them! So on the one hand I’m excited about doing this kind of work, and on the other, it confirms my sense that I’m fundamentally a prose writer, a novelist and short-story writer.

It’s interesting that Lethem had difficult moving to the visual medium–so did I; as freeing as it was to write, “(SFX) KaBoom!” it was also terrifying when I had to rely on someone else’s visuals to convey emotion–but this doesn’t address the issue of whether Lethem found it difficult to work on both literary fiction and comics at the same time. Omega was a year-long project. Did he work on it concurrently while writing his new novel? Did he bang out all twelve Omega scripts as quickly as he could before returning to prose? I’m not really sure, but if any of you have any answers I’d be glad to hear them. This is my first stab at multi-genre productivity as you no doubt can tell.

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