University of Houston student Zach Martin had been struggling with a literary story for years about a theater family unraveling in the middle of putting on a play. "I could never get the story to work purely as a written piece," he says. So he decided to adapt it to a new genre - that of graphic novel.
Tonight, from 6 to 8 at Alabama Song, 2521 Oakdale Street, several student writers will be celebrating the release of the first edition of Cougar Comics' Tier One, an anthology that's the product of professor Mat Johnson's graphic novel workshop.
Writers could illustrate their own work, or be matched with professional artists as part of this course of study, a joint effort by the university's Creative Writing Program and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.
Ted Closson participated in the class twice as a graduate student. "The workshops are an opportunity to make comics work. You write. If you're an artist you may also draw. If you're quick, it can be an opportunity to craft as many as two to three short works or a short comic and the beginnings of something longer. And the workshop is valuable whether you approach the class with a writing or an artistic focus. Mat works to show writers in the class how to think visually and to help artists understand the nature and pacing of a narrative. Even if you already have something of a background working with comics he has an inside perspective on the industry that is really priceless for those trying to see inside a publishing process."
"I began a graphic novel, which became my thesis project in the painting program at the University of Houston, School of Art, the first time around. The second time, since the class is a workshop it can be taken more than once, I worked to flesh out the visual parts of the work and finalize the novel. I've been working to complete it since I graduated."
Closson says he found the feedback he received was crucial from peers and his teacher. "The creative process is something we do alone. It's easy to forget how a peer as well as a teacher can give insight into work we're very close to."
So this time around, already graduated, at Johnson's invitation, Closson pitched in as a visiting artist to work with some of the writers in the class. "Working formally as the artist you start to see how tricky it can be to get an idea down on paper when two people are trying to put it together. It requires patience on everyone's part and strong ability to communicate with one another. I worked with Dickson Lam who put together a very personal story about events from his childhood."
An MFA student in the Creative Writing Program, Lam says he decided "to write a graphic adaptation of a chapter in my memoir. The story begins with a scene from my childhood where I wake up and see my father slap my mother. The rest of the story deals with how this may have affected my brother and I as teenagers."
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He had to learn how to tell a story visually. "You're not only the writer of the script, but you are also the director, giving instructions to the artist about the angle from which they should draw the particular scene," Lam says.
Martin says he also had to learn to think of telling a story in a different way. "It was also just very interesting to try to think about a story visually. How do you convey movement through still images? How do you use images to convey information you would normally put into a sentence (in the type of literary stories I usually write)?" Martin says.
"Then there's the fact that a graphic novel breaks down into segments a fiction writer doesn't typically have to think about. You have to think about each page as a kind of mini-story that has its own mini-cliffhanger that keeps the reader turning pages." And: "Writing is usually a solitary activity, so the experience was very interesting for me. I think of collaborative storytelling as a kind of oxymoron -- it's what produces bad Hollywood movies, not great art -- but I realized that if you find the right match between writer and artist, the collaboration can really enhance the work.
For a chance to see what these writers and artist put together, check out the free reception tonight. The first 100 people in the door will receive a free copy of the book and authors and artists will be on hand to sign copies.