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At first glance, the topic of rhetoric doesn’t inspire a belly laugh. Still, when professors Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander wrote the script for their comic book Understanding Rhetoric, they found themselves guffawing over bottles of wine in Alexander’s kitchen, reading aloud in the voices of the characters they’d created and playing around with sight gags that would help university students speak and write more effectively.
Undergraduate composition students have responded with gratitude. “Often, teachers will assign books in writing classes that don’t get read because people feel like they’re there to write,” Losh explains. “But students have been extremely positive about the book. It’s nice to hear that they actually read it.”
Vibrant illustrations explode from the pages of Understanding Rhetoric. The authors become comic narrators, explaining the principles of compelling communication succinctly. At times, they draw on narratives of superheroes and campus infestations of wild coyotes to help make their points about persuasive writing and collaborative learning. “Sometimes, seeing a comic book, students think they’re being given remedial material,” Losh says. “But everything in our book is comparable to a traditional textbook on the subject.”
Call them comic books, graphic guides, or graphic nonfiction – the genre speaks to readers of all ages who appreciate the blend of quirky imagery and text in stories designed to convey information on topics that range from coral reefs to the history of flight, from explorations on Mars to the Serbian refugee crisis. Remedial? Absolutely not. Difficult to write? Absolutely: Losh describes nonfiction comic book writing as “the hardest kind of writing you can do.”
For those wanting to study the craft, the quintessential textbook is Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud – itself a graphic nonfiction book that explains how to use narrators and story structure in conjunction with imagery in traditional comic book frames. McCloud went on to write Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels.
Narrators shape the story
Alison Wilgus is the author of Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared, written for upper middle-grade readers. “You want to convey a lot of information in a kid-friendly way with a narrative that builds momentum,” she explains. To do this, she decided to tell Orville and Wilbur Wright’s story – parallel to the history of flight – from the point of view of their younger sister, Katharine.
“I became completely obsessed with her,” Wilgus explains. “I read decades of Wright family correspondence in the public domain – letters to her brothers over the course of their career. Katharine was hugely important; women family members kept early aviators’ lives running while they were flying around in these ridiculous machines.”
Often, authors of graphic nonfiction books choose a narrator to lead people through a story designed to convey information in an entertaining manner. Wilgus begins with an outline of what has to be documented – facts and breakdowns of scientific principles – and thinks about how she’ll structure them on each page. She submits text to the artist (Molly Brooks, in the case of Flying Machines) and they dialogue back and forth about characters, text, and how to convey scenes in panels on the page.”
“Unlike film, there’s no industry-standard format for comics scripts, so some writers include more visual direction than others – and some artists appreciate that more than others,” Brooks says. “Everyone has different preferences, and if you know your artist-collaborator ahead of time, it can be helpful to check in and ask what they’d prefer: barebones page breakdown with dialogue? Panel-by-panel ‘camera direction?’ Little thumbnail drawings of where you think panels should go? No one’s going to see the script except the writer, artist, and editor, so you’re the only ones who need to be able to read and understand it well enough to turn it into a comic.”
Not all nonfiction comics are humorous, but plenty of lighthearted moments balance out the scientific information in Wilgus’ and Brooks’ Flying Machines. “For me, all the humor comes when I get to write the dialogue,” Wilgus says. “In Katharine’s case, I kept a list of funny things she would say in her letters – turns of phrase like ‘scarce as hens’ teeth.’ All the best lines in the book are Katharine’s.”
She notes that even though she’s writing nonfiction, she relies on fiction techniques such as characterization and narrative arc to shape the narrator’s story. For example, in the first panels of Flying Machines, Katharine Wright, dressed in period clothing, is trying to explain early aircraft to a classroom full of contemporary students who just want to talk about jets. “You weren’t there, and these conversations wouldn’t have happened,” Wilgus explains, “so you’re functionally fictionalizing the dialogue.”
She also notes it’s tricky to distill a great deal of information into pithy speech bubbles, especially when explaining a complicated concept. Wilgus worked closely with Brooks to hone the text in each comic frame. “Every once in a while, she’d send me a blank template with my script filling half the page, and I’d be like ‘Yeesh, OK,” and we’d break it into two pages or I’d take half the text off the page,” Wilgus says.
Losh and Alexander had the same challenges when writing Understanding Rhetoric. They themselves were the narrators in the book, drawn as cartoons. “We found it hard not to be ‘talkie,” Losh says. “In early scripts, speech bubbles would fill the entire panel. Jonathan and I would read as our characters, since we wanted the dialogue to sound natural, and then he’d cut words and I’d cut words, and we’d go back and forth again trying to cut words whenever we could.”
Their scripts included extensive setting and character descriptions, panel by panel, so that the artists would know exactly how each should look. The script for panels 11 and 12 from the introductory chapter read like this:
“Layout of a commercial block with a series of storefronts featuring permanent store signs, temporarily painted windows announcing sales and new products, public notices from the city about permits, warning signs, commercial billboards, political advertisements, educational posters, graffiti, etc. JA and LL are walking by as if window shopping.
For instance, just think about the actual real-life material SPACES in which writing occurs…
The block continues on to a school, where janitors are removing the graffiti and advertising. A defaced “teacher of the month” sign is being pulled down by the school principal.
All of this writing is public, and yet some of this writing is done without first seeking the permission of others. Rules about ownership, authorship, and customary behavior may prohibit some kinds of public writing in certain situations.
Since Losh and Alexander could create new characters rather than relying on those from history, they paid particular attention to ensuring that students in the book represented the diverse demographics at their respective universities.
“The character Luis is Latino, and Cindy is Vietnamese American,” Losh explains. “We had a nontraditional student character in the book, as well – Carol, Cindy’s mom. We thought through their backstories and motivations. Some of Carol’s experiences are based on those of students I taught when I was first at U.C. Irvine, where a lot of students were part of the Vietnamese diaspora.”
The artists, Kevin and Zander Cannon, contributed a great deal to characterization in the book as well. Losh and Alexander discussed the backstory of each student character with them and gave insight into the habits and idiosyncrasies of contemporary college students who filled their classrooms.
“The artists often had great suggestions – visual jokes and ideas about how to explain concepts more clearly,” Losh says. “You want to open up the possibility for collaboration and creativity. An artist isn’t going to want to do layouts for something that doesn’t let them express themselves and be creative.”
Research reflects the reality
Don Brown has been a writer and illustrator of a wealth of graphic nonfiction books for children and teens for 25 years. Most of his books are short on sight gags and one-liners, more focused on straightforward descriptions of historical events and people.
He works from home in an office full of drawing tables and large computer monitors, with art covering the walls. He describes the marriage of words and pictures as magical. “It’s a unique art form, and I can feel good about reaching readers who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily read,” he says. “[Besides] that, it’s fun for me.”
He began his career with Ruth Law Thrills a Nation, a book about a young woman who tried, in 1916, to be the first person to fly from Chicago to New York City in one day. “My daughters were little at the time,” he says. “I wanted to read to them about real women who were brave and heroic and accomplished things on their own. I wrote a manuscript, and an agent sold it immediately.”
Since then, he’s written graphic nonfiction books about Dolley Madison, famous “newsie” Kid Blink, the Gold Rush, the 1930s Dust Bowl, Hurricane Katrina, and the book America is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell. He’s currently at work on a graphic nonfiction book about the Syrian refugee crisis. For that, his research took him from his home on Long Island to three different refugee camps in Greece.
“I wanted to see with my own eyes the life in a refugee camp, to see their living conditions and what types of people they were,” Brown says. “I wanted to confirm that the things I read were in fact true and accurately reflected the reality on the ground.”
At the camps, he picked up small details that he hadn’t found in his extensive reading back home. “One of the refugees said they get a lot of donations of T-shirts, which they don’t need,” he explains. “What they need is diapers for older kids because tweens are so stressed out that they’re wetting the bed. And they need shoes for men. The men in the camps are so bored that they wear out their shoes pacing the camps. That speaks volumes.”
Each of Brown’s books takes about a year to create in a process that includes research, writing, creating a mock-up, soliciting editorial comments, rewriting, and drawing all the art. “The creation of the art is the slow part. It takes months and months,” he says. “It’s very labor intensive, more labor intensive than a conventional book. But it’s an artistic and intellectual puzzle that appeals to me.”
To succeed in graphic nonfiction, be tenacious – and network
Brown describes the genre of graphic nonfiction as relatively new – new in the sense that there are no hard-and fast rules about what a book should look like. “If you can figure out a way to do it differently and better than another book, you win,” he says. “You’re not breaking a canon or convention that stands in the way of a reader.”
He tells potential graphic nonfiction writers to be tenacious in honing their craft and pitching to agents and editors. “I’m stubborn. That’s carried me through,” he says. “You’ve just got to keep at it. Someone has to write a book. Someone has to illustrate a book. Why not you?”
Losh reminds writers intrigued by graphic nonfiction to read a great deal in the genre. “Understand the back end,” she says. “Look at scripts and learn how to give instructions to an artist. You have to write text like a movie script and offer instructions on scene and layouts.”
Wilgus cites a large and supportive community of cartoonists eager to welcome new members. She tells beginners to practice creating graphic nonfiction with a subject they know well. “If you can’t draw very well, that’s fine,” she says. “If it’s well written, you’ll learn how to draw better.”
She urges people to exhibit their work at local comic shows and ‘zine fests. “Make a little photocopied, stapled book of your comics,” she says. “If there’s someone whose work you really like, you can trade.” She notes that this is a good way for graphic nonfiction writers to find an artistic collaborator, as well.
“[Creating] comics is a difficult job,” she says. “It’s lonely, but if you can find other people to be on the journey with you, you’ll stick with it.”
Graphic nonfiction books to get you started
- Feynman by Jim Ottaviani
- Oil and Water by Steve Duin
- Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer
by Alberto Ledesma
- Everything Is Teeth by Evie Wyld
- The March Trilogy by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
- Filmish by Edward Ross
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
- Science Comics: Bats: Learning to Fly by Falynn Koch
- Maus by Art Spiegelman
- American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
- El Deafo by CeCe Bell
- District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, D.C., edited by Matt Dembicki
- Palestine by Joe Sacco
- My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
- Older Than Dirt: A Wild but True History of Earth by Don Brown and Michael Perfit
- The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (Graphic Edition) by Amity Shlaes
Contributing Editor Melissa Hart is the author of the forthcoming Better with Books: Diverse Fiction to Open Minds and Ignite Empathy and Compassion in Children (Sasquatch, 2019). Web: melissahart.com.
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