Stephen R. Bissette talks about the tangles and pitfalls of writer/artist collaboration on graphic novels.
Okay, here’s my big response that probably almost no one will read.
(I should edit to emphasize this is not a direct response to Bissette or even the article. This is me dealing with personal anxieties which I think are related.)
This is a very, very interesting article, and I think it’s very important for people to see it. It struck a rather confusing chord for me [this is Emily speaking] and I’ll tell you why.
When we decided to put Berlin Confidential on the internet, we mostly wanted to design it like a webcomic, despite its being a novel through and through. We wanted it to be read in a serial fashion, we wanted it to be followed closely by eagerly waiting readers, and we wanted art to be an important element in the storytelling. As time has gone on, the illustrations have become more and more integral to the process, as well as more complicated, and this may have been in a somewhat subconscious effort to move ourselves ever so slightly more toward the comic aesthetic. But our fans (few yet that there are) do not approach this like a comic, and they aren’t going to. It’s NOT a comic. Nonetheless, for me anyway, the influence of comics, and the desire to be I guess “part of the crowd” of webcomic creators, is still an important motivator at the root of this project.
So, approaching this article from the writer perspective, I found it terribly depressing. I understand completely everything that’s being said, and how difficult and nigh impossible good collaboration can be. Allison and I work together very well, but it is a partnership that has literally taken YEARS of work getting used to each other and knowing how to talk to each other. It has been exactly as tricky as actually being in a relationship, and I think it is no small coincidence that these two things developed simultaneously between us. On the whole, this project has been extremely rewarding for both of us. We’re still learning what the nature of the collaboration is—we have come to accept that I am the more experienced writer and she the more experienced artist, however I would never for a moment claim full authorship. She contributes quite a bit to the writing, and in the same respect I have a huge hand in the art. Even taking this into account, the question of “equality” in the partnership is a murky subject. It has never been a real source of tension between us, but I know for my part that I often feel like I’m not pulling my weight when my role in the art is essentially storyboarding. What we’re doing is less complicated and far, far less time-consuming art-wise than a graphic novel, but even one to five illustrations a week is very difficult. By the same token I know that Allison sometimes feels guilty that I have personally shouldered almost all of the outlining, not to mention online maintenance, itself a very difficult, stressful process.
Right now Allison and I are struggling with the added difficulty of collaborating long-distance. We started it working together from the same room, and now we’re having to contend with an hour of time difference, the added stress of her new job, and the general loss of shared enthusiasm that goes along with this kind of separation. I’m hoping to be able to join her soon, but in the meantime we are pressing onward. Just today we’ve been wrestling with the latest illustration, for which I have a very, very clear idea, and which is proving rather difficult for her for a variety of reasons. It was in this state that I came upon this article about the very subject.
Even though what we’re doing is not a comic, I felt that the article was speaking pretty directly to me. I am definitely “the writer” in the situation. I could easily ALSO be the filmmaker—I come from a strong filmmaking background, which is a lot of the reason my storyboarding ideas are often so specific. Also I have definitely spent a lot of valuable daydreaming time thinking up ideas for films that would also make great graphic novels. The idea of someday doing a graphic novel is very tantalizing to me and always has been, and I have often hoped that someday Allison and I will be able to attempt it, and with this strong collaborative partnership of ours, I choose to remain optimistic about the prospect. I suppose what depresses me the most about this article is not so much the great potential difficulty of a more elaborate collaboration, but more this great divide between authors and artists. It strengthens for me the knowledge I am reluctant to accept, that our novel is not a comic—this time not because of the different sort of response it will get from an audience, but because it does not benefit from the kinship that seems to exist between illustrators and comic artists. Everywhere I go in the webcomicking world has demonstrated for me a great sense of camaraderie between webcomic creators, whereas webfiction writers seem more like regular writers—alone. It’s tough to get this project noticed, tougher when you’re broke, and tougher still when you have this sometimes overpowering sense of existential loneliness. (I know being on Tumblr doesn’t help, and I promise we’re working on that.)
I suppose what I’m getting at here is that even though Mr. Bissette brings up some very good and underrepresented points, and does so fairly and eloquently, I feel a little bit burned by it. It makes me feel (and this I know is somewhat irrational) like as a writer I am going to immediately be viewed as a self-centered outsider. A well-meaning one perhaps, but self-centered nonetheless. Writing is a lonely business, and even when the writer hungers for artistic collaboration there are countless pitfalls awaiting. So while I want this article to get out and get read, I also want to speak up as a writer who also feels like a misfit, and who will remain ever-optimistic that art and writing don’t always have to be so segregated.
Hopefully that makes some amount of sense.
(P.S. I’d like to add that in the article’s comment thread, which is full of artists speaking up against “pain in the ass writers,” Bissette returns to argue against this same dualism I’m speaking of. He’s a good guy.)