Author Bio

Vibrant, Visceral Things: An Interview with a Young Writer

posted: 12.10.12 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

      Jonathan

In this post, I interview David Lumb, a former student at the University of California, Irvine, where he took a degree in English and, during his senior year, edited the campus’s student newspaper.  David now lives in New York and works as a journalist and is an editor for SPUN, an iPhone app that publishes geolocated stories in your city.

David just recently had his first graphic story published, “Junklords,” for which he wrote the text. “Junklords” is illustrated by Amy Barnum and appears in The Freshmen Fifteen anthology by Old College Comics.  In this interview, David reflects on his introduction to comics, both in curricular and extra-curricular contexts, and his coming to collaborate on a graphic story.  He models some of the enthusiasm—and challenges—of not only reading comics and graphic books but working in comics as a medium.  Note in particular how he reflects on the limitations of the medium—having to work with a set number of publishable panels—as an enabling constraint that forced him to make some productive choices.

1.  How did you first “get into” comics?  What were they?  Do you still read the comics you first started reading?  What do you read now?

My first comics were the Sunday Funnies – I’m indebted to my dad for pointing out Calvin and Hobbes and buying me a few collections. Later, in middle school and into high school, my nerdy friends started collecting trade paperbacks from DC and Marvel – I managed to borrow my way through a friend’s bookcase in a summer, reading very teen-oriented, often-angsty books like Young Justice and Ultimate Spider-Man. Reading those books now is a rough reminder of how seductive superhero power fantasies are for aimless, uncoordinated, desperate teens – and how the static, brand-preserving limitations the Big Two put on their writing teams neuters the danger and drama.

Which has lead me to read lots of indie fare (like anything I’d find in a Flight anthology), though my frugality often drives me toward webcomic serials. Gunnerkrigg Court and Dresden Codak are superb examples of smart, well-drawn online narratives with delicious mythological idiosyncracies (also: Digger). My avoidance of superhero books often leads me to the arms of Image Illuminati like Brian K. Vaughan, whose Y: The Last Man (with Pia Guerra) and Ex Machina (with Tony Harris) are at the top of my suggestion list. Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets is great. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal is a more hardboiled collection of noir yarns. It’s non-cape graphic storytelling that’s willing to kill off characters. I love it. Of course, I still go back and laugh at old Calvin & Hobbes strips, even though I know them by heart – Watterson’s visual comedy, expression of character through behavior, and striking art keeps him an intergenre influence.

2.  Have you ever had a course in which comics were used or were part of the instructional material?  If so, what, and how were they used?  What did you learn?

I took “Rise of the American Superhero” over one summer in college; our instructor, Ph.D candidate Shahriar Fouladi, had us experience the progression of superheroes from the very first Siegel and Shuster panels of Superman. Though I’d read seminal works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns before, it quickly became apparent that I’d had very little exposure to comics before those titles shifted the comics landscape to the brooding, serious 90s. Color! Flair! And a surprising moral relativism that bespoke Siegel and Shuster’s vicarious exploration of agency through their ubermensch, who often toyed with his enemies before solving complex geopolitical situations with feats of sheer inhuman strength. That changed with the introduction of the Comics Code, but the point stands: comics are tossed around by the anxieties of their age far more often than they change it.

My other class with a comic as part of the curriculum, an upper-level English course titled “Gay and Lesbian Fiction,” was taught by…you! Fun Home by Alison Bechdel was one of the later course assignments, but it stood out among the other narratives as a visual exploration of youth and sexuality. Despite repeated trauma in her autobiographical narrative, Bechdel never drowns the reader in her tragedy: unlike the angst of many modern coming-of-age stories, she emphasizes beauty in oft-sad moments. This is implied from the get-go: a Polaroid-style snapshot graces the cover of our edition. Bechdel intends for you to dwell with her in these moments…which, let’s be honest, is a difficult thing to ask a college student to do! Though there were some assigned course materials I (ahem) didn’t quite get to, Fun Home was an absolute treat for its novelty and compelling, relatable story. I wasn’t expecting a memoir to work so well in such an action-dominated medium, but there’s rich expression in Bechdel’s characters. It’s a very human story. Ofttimes that’s lost in walls of verbose text.

3.  What prompted you to write your own comic, and how did you get started on that process?

I’ve always been attracted to telling visual stories and prevented from doing so by a complete lack of artistic talent. Fortunately, my longtime buds in Long Beach started their own label, Old College Comics, and decided to self-publish an anthology to go along with the first issue of their superhero comic Afterman. They had twelve writer/artist teams lined up, which was all they could fit into the anthology until I cannily suggested that they go with the academic theme and name it “The Freshmen Fifteen.” That bought me one of the new two-page slots. My buddies had a couple artist friends who were looking to join a project – one of them was Amy Barnum, who took on my comic.

4.  And what WAS that process of writing, of collaboration?  How did it work?  What did you learn about writing comics….or writing more generally, if anything?

Before I had a slot in the anthology, I started writing the script for my two-pager. I ran some truly awful slice-of-life ideas past my editor, Mike Pallotta, until I relaxed and tried writing a more fantastical story. This was my first script for a visual medium, which was less a formatting issue and more a headache to fit an entire arc — rising action, climax, denoument — into two pages. The limitation was, frankly, a huge pain in the ass. How do you become attached and invested in characters (let alone getting them into and out of danger) with no more space than a centerfold? With so little room, I needed the characters to stand out with a much richer purpose – I drew on the sincerity of comics like Jeff Smith’s Bone, Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, and especially Kazu Kibuishi’s Copper, which has many one-page stories that toy with themes while vibrant worlds swirl around them.

Since I’d moved to New York City for a summer internship a couple weeks before I was confirmed a slot in the anthology, I couldn’t really drive over and chat with my new artist over a cup of coffee. Instead, I traded emails with Amy Barnum, an immensely talented traditional and graphic artist. I sent her a few sentences on the main characters and she sent me back these beautiful sketch envisionings – I was blown away. Her style is very sinuous and evocative, making her elegant figurework stand out dramatically against the comic’s wasteland backdrop she was equally game to bring to life. Unfortunately, I could only add a bit of feedback before she plunged into the work. Not being able to help or make things easier on the artist was the worst part of the process: no matter my effort, comics are visual creatures. I depended completely on Amy to translate words into a fantastic narrative, and boy, did she!

5.  Other thoughts about comics and writing?

The growing pains are rough, but I love sitting in front of a page of written-out panels and imagining how they’d jump or slither out to the reader depending on the artist, inker, and letterer. It requires a lot of patience, I’ve learned, to trust someone entirely with your baby. Of course, “Junklords” isn’t my baby anymore – it’s half Amy’s, and I can’t even remember some pre-sketch notes that described the characters with different features. What you see now is the definitive version, a synergy of thoughts and great artistic talent. I recommend every writer go through that process of giving up control to see if someone can make it better than you could’ve imagined.

I dearly hope that we are seeing the death of irony’s dominance. I’m much more enamored of a story that benefits from clever writing, not one that’s completely dependent on it. Comics have the potential to be vibrant, visceral things. I highlighted some “sincere” comics earlier that’ve inspired me, and I credit their storytelling power to a conscious decision not to detach themselves by indulging in irony.

 


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