Friday, November 5, 2010

Story Toy

As I work on the story for Nonplayer, I'm frequently reminded that I'm not a very good writer. Which isn't to say I can never be a good writer -- after all, I'm just barely making a dent in my ten thousand hours. Clearly, I'm thinking about story much more than I used to -- there's a new dread that seeps into the back of my head whenever I watch a movie or read a comic that has the same shortcomings I'm encountering in my own work. How is it that I walk away from those experiences with the feeling that I've failed somehow? I didn't even write that movie! It's a strange thing.

Here's a tentative first pass at a definition for "story": a story is sometimes more than, but never less than, a sequence of significant events. I might even venture that those events need to have some narrative connection to one another, but maybe a thematic relationship is all that's really needed. Jackass 3D worked fine, right? Well, okay, maybe that's not a story (possible future digression: is story even necessary?).

But what constitutes a significant event? For me (and for many artists who came to drawing through the comics/movies/games side of things), the default list of significant events doesn't stray too far from four basic modes: violent confrontation (everything's either an argument or a fight to the death), chases (at high speed, usually through canyons full of obstacles), rescues (often involving improbably-proportioned women), and gratuitous posing (feet apart, sword or gun aloft). I don't know if it's habit, or nostalgia, or maybe a reluctance to bore the reader, but I still get a little uneasy when I stray from these old chestnuts. Paradoxically, I am increasingly bored by them. So what else is there?

Part of the reason I enjoy Japanese comics is that they exhibit a broader interpretation of what constitutes a significant event. Yes, there is plenty of male power fantasy manga -- but even within the action genre there are some pretty surprising tangents. For example, ping pong can look like this:

Ping Pong by Taiyo Matsumoto

Or how about wheelchair basketball?

Or maybe Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi winning major diplomatic concessions from George Bushes Jr. and Sr. by beating them at high-stakes mahjong?

I suppose these are just different isotopes of the same action element -- note the use of speed lines in all three examples. Still, it's hard to deny that the application of novel settings does seem to inject some new life into the old action-comic structure.

Over the last few years, my wife has coaxed me into trying some new flavors of manga. Her favorite (and one of my favorites, too) is called Yotsuba, by Kiyohiko Azuma. Yotsuba chronicles the day-to-day adventures of a five-year-old girl and her single father. Yotsuba gets into trouble, but it's not Dennis the Menace-type trouble. Instead, her newness to the world causes her to interpret her environment in skewed ways, and sometimes she acts upon those incorrect theories to hilarious effect.

No explosions, no monsters, no robots. Okay, one robot. Made out of cardboard.

Part of what's so charming about this comic is that as Yotsuba learns about the world (where milk comes from, why it's not good to draw on your father's face while he's napping, etc.), the adults around her seem to unlearn their stodgy adultness.

The whole process feels so natural that it sometimes reads like a documentary. I don't know for sure, but I'd bet that Azuma's been observing some goofball kid somewhere. Some of this stuff is too good to have been made up.

Even further down that slice-of-life path lies The Walking Man, by Jiro Taniguchi. The whole manga is devoted to one salaryman's commute -- most of it follows him as he walks home from work. In one story, he checks out a library book to help identify a seashell he's found. In another, he discovers a broken wind-up airplane in a gutter and takes it home to fix it. In a third, he sneaks a nighttime skinny-dip in a locked public swimming pool. To hear me describe it, it must sound like deadly dull stuff. But it's not.

Weirdly, seeing these everyday events drawn with such care (and Taniguchi's amazing draftsmanship is a big help here) has altered my sense of the value of the ordinary things I see around me. Here's an artist who cares so much about the experience of missing a bus stop and taking an unusual route home that he draws a whole story about it. Somehow, a little act of worship like that enhances the real world. This thing you're looking at -- this tree, or this broken toy -- is important enough to deserve its own comic. That's cool!

To any normal person (particularly any non-male one), this is going to sound pathetically naive, but I'll say it anyway: the things that happen in everyday life can be just as significant as exploding robots with swords. That doesn't mean I should ignore my muse if it tells me to draw sword fights. But it does mean that there's significance in nearly everything, and that letting a story move through a few different registers may breathe some life into it.

Watch, now there are going to be a bunch of really boring pages in Nonplayer. Hey man, it's a learning process.

Quick aside: some people have begun to think I'm screwing around with this whole "announcement around the corner" thing. I have been 100% convinced that I was within a day of signing a contract more times than I can count, but publishing a comic turns out to be a process that involves the cooperation of multiple people, all of whom have to have their ducks in a row before anything can happen. All I can say is that when the announcement is finally made, you'll agree the wait was probably worth it.

And that announcement is right around the corner.


  1. I love your perspective on the world.

    -Love- it.

    I also love the "boring" pages in Nonplayer. The world you're crafting is deep and satisfying.

    I'll need to think quite a bit more to give you a decent reply that doesn't just sound like obvious, shallow brown-nosing.

  2. I'm having a hard time putting what I want to explain into words, but here goes:

    The first 3 examples (Ping Pong, REAL, and Legend of Koizumi) are what I like to call Indie Shonen. It has a lot of the staples of what makes something like Hokuto no Ken/Dragonball/Naruto fun to read (i.e. conflicts with rivals, growing stronger phsycially/mentally) but put into a more slice of life setting.

    Yotsubo and Walking Man, are literally Slice of Life books, and the charm of these books is literally getting to know characters who are just like people we know in our own lives.

    I think the most important aspect to take from either subgenre is that you end up caring about the characters and whatever drives them because of a aspect of the characters that makes the reader sympathize with them.

    Shonen comics are popular because people like rooting for the underdog (well, not the case with Hokuto No Ken)

    And readers like Yotsuba because they've either been a kid at one point or have/know a kid who is like Yotsuba. Walking Man is literally living someone elses life and their wants/frustrations.

    Its basically what makes the Original Star Wars Trilogy (ragtag bunch of folks fighting the good fight against a oppressive Empire) more relatable than the Prequels (a bunch of snooty aristocrats going to war over trade tariffs/embargos).

    Regarding your announcement, have you talk to anyone at Image yet? I was always under the impression that Image now of days will print anything creator owned at let you keep the rights/IP etc.

  3. I recommend Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (Yokohama Shopping Trip). I think you'll like it, if you can find it. It's available fan-translated in various places, if necessary.

  4. You may already be familiar with him, but Pascal Campion does a lot of work with a resonance like the stuff you described in this post.

  5. Yeah, Taiyou Matsumoto is a master. If you haven't read Go Go Monster yet check it out. Talk about making the ordinary extraordinary...

    I also like, Daisuke Igarashi. If you haven't already, he's another manga artist you might want to check out if you have time.

  6. The thing that's always fascinated me about manga is how a seemingly unimportant topic can be blown up to cosmic proportions. I think that the "topic"(whether it's basketball, ping-pong, ninjas or mahjong) is just the backdrop to the story though. The real meat and bones is in the characters' actions and reactions to events. It doesn't matter how small the topic, if told from the right POV it can become the most important thing in the world. I think it can be a mistake to think of the event as having an inherent level of significance. Certainly, a sword fight, an explosion or a shoot-out are events that probably would take precedence over any other events if the characters are directly involved in it, but smaller things can also take over our world. The world of a high-schooler running late for her final exams will revolve around catching that bus, and if told well can be just as exciting as a police hunt for a thief on the run. In slice-of-lifes like The Walking Man the action is brought to the microscopic level of one man and his surroundings, but since his world revolves around his still journey, telling the story from his POV makes it just as important to us as well. Significance is relative and I believe that the telling can bring out interest and excitement from just about anything, as long as there are characters there to live through it.

  7. love this post, Nate. Your examples are hilarious and gorgeous at the same time! Also, immersion into the experience as opposed to being told what is happening is definitely a more significant way of storytelling, I think. Keep it up!

  8. Heyo,

    Thought I'd mention the book "Story" by Robert Mckee. It's focused on screenwriting, but if you're interested in learning more about structure, cliches, style, etc, it's a great place to start.

    Here's some thoughts on significant events. All it has to be is a change. Something at the beginning of a scene is one way, and at the end that thing has changed. The story as a whole is simply one big, irreversible change (defeat of evil, obtaining love, becoming accepted, etc) All of these changes lead a protagonist from lacking their conscious or unconscious desire to obtaining it.

    Awesome stuff, Keep it up!

  9. Excellent post , I love Taiyo Matsumoto's work. The visual storytelling in his current Samurai manga Takemitsu-Zamurai is a delight to behold.

    I always feel like there's so much to learn from so many ;-)

  10. Great post Nate! I’m currently working on my own graphic novel and had my own reservations about what kind of a writer I am(see not so great) but I do know what elements of a story I enjoy and am working hard to employ those.

    I’ll second Robert McKee’s “Story.” It helped me more than any other book on writing has. He presents the correctly proportioned skeleton of a what a constitutes a story. This gives you a good guide on where to hang muscles and tissue for fleshing it out; sort of the way asymmetry, composition, contrast, tension, value etc, work in a well made drawing. The book also give you criteria for what makes a story good or I should say more effective, since good may vary with taste but effective is a little more objective (content separate from craft).

    short interview with Robert McKee:

    On thing I enjoy about manga is the equal importance to the “boring” parts. I just see this as contrast and in the story context, good use of pacing. I wish more American comics would allow for such and let stories breath. This is why I can enjoy 300+ pages of Vagabond where the two adversaries with weapons drawn, do not strike each other for the whole book. Tension and conflict can take many forms, not just raw action.. Your post of Yotsuba, by Kiyohiko Azuma is that exactly. I love that sequence and now have a new title to delve into! At any rate, I’m sure even your “boring” parts will dazzle.

    Best regards,


  11. Awesome post and insights.

    Have you thought about shortening your title to 'Non' ?
    Also, I was wondering why you chose a futuristic clean font for the title, instead of something more weathered like the artwork?


  12. Eagle - Thanks, man. It's heartening that you like what you've seen so far -- not too many people have seen the whole thing, and I'm curious how many people will take some of those thematic shifts. It bodes well that you like it, though.

    Peter - I don't know what you mean -- since when were the original Star Wars films superior to the prequels? I'm all about the trade disputes. Also, I like cutting myself.

    Craig - You're the second person to recommend that manga to me. It sounds wonderful. I'm officially hunting it down now. Thanks!

  13. animattor - Wow! Pascal Campion! His color is heartbreakingly good. I love the subjects he chooses to paint, too. Thanks for the link!

    Sam - Taiyou Matsumoto is really climbing up my list fast. I've got a bunch of his stuff on my Christmas list for this year. Daisuke Igarashi looks pretty interesting, too. I'll dig around some more for his stuff. It looks like Children of the Sea may be a good place to start. Thanks again for pointing me towards more radness!

    nana - That's a great point. POV is everything! I suppose one thing the action genre has going for it is a nearly universal point of view -- we can all agree that a giant monster destroying Tokyo is a major concern. It takes a little more character work to get us to care about a schoolgirl missing a bus, but maybe when we do that work the impact can be more personal. Weird how people who create fantasy worlds are always hailed as "imaginative," when it can take as much (or more) creativity to uncover the drama that goes overlooked in our own lives. Thanks for the great comment, Nana.

  14. Cibo - Thanks! I just checked out your online portfolio -- I remember liking the stuff you had posted when you first commented here many moons ago. But wow! How about those Curse of the Pharoah concepts! And those Tarot cards! When are you going to lavish some of that talent on a comic? Give us it!

    eek - Yes, I've read Story (I think there's even a post about it somewhere way back on this blog). It's a very useful introduction to story mechanics, though I sometimes found applying McKee's principles a little stifling. Not because they're incorrect (they aren't), but because writing with a bunch of "don'ts" in my head hasn't worked too well for me. His stuff is much more useful when I've tried to write something and found that it didn't work. I sort of use it like an auto repair manual. It's a great book, though. Have you tried the Writer's Journey? That one has a lot of useful nuggets, as well.

    Dominic - Takemitsu-Zamurai! HOLY CRAP. I had no idea this guy was evolving so quickly. He's out of control! Is this translated into English somewhere? Thanks for giving me something new to drool over.

  15. Sadly it's only available in Japanese at the moment , I've been ordering them through

    They're beautifully drawn. I don't read japanese but can nonetheless enjoy his storytelling all the same.

  16. Myron - Your gallery is absolutely dazzling -- your brushwork kills! You may be the best argument against digital inking I've seen this year. Spectacular stuff. When will your comic be coming out?

    As to the importance of pacing -- you're right on the money. And yes, the Japanese are masters of pacing. I think part of that grows from the manga format -- a page costs much less, both in money and time, so they can stop and smell the roses every once in a while. For my part, I'm a habitual hurrier in life, and it's magnified tenfold in my comics. I end up with some very jerky transitions, all because I'm constantly thinking "I've got 24 pages, and I've got this many plot points to hit, and there's no time for lollygagging." I'm not sure how to get around that, short of starting a new comic in a black and white manga format. Hm!

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Myron!

  17. spleenal - Yes. No, that's too glib. Yeah, you're absolutely right. Hm. Too informal? Indeed! Nah, too twee. I am in deep agreement on your point. Too somber. I concur. Ick. Nah, I think "yes" was the best.


    Hm. Not quite right. Oh well, the Previews deadline is here -- out the door it goes!

  18. ZachC - Thanks for the comment. A few people have expressed bewilderment at both the title and the cleanliness of the font. I hope that when the full story is available, both choices will make a little more sense. Still, some people who know the story still think the title sucks. Oh well, no turning back now!

  19. Dominic - Will ship to a US address? If so, there's our IllustStudio solution!

  20. Really great post Nate. You've delineated a lot of the reason I enjoy Manga. Even in high adventure stories the small moment details are what are the most memorable!

  21. Hey Nate. I've been following your blog for a while, admiring and getting inspired.

    I'm a story artist\illustrator and currently finishing a script for a graphic novel I'm going to start drawing real soon.

    I completely relate to the feeling of impotence and frustration when trying to work with a bunch of seemingly unbreakable rules in your head. I worked very closely with Mckee's "bible" and it was... TORTURE. But- the script I'm ending up with now is so much better than what I would have been able to come up with on my own. Even if I only reffered to literature when I was feeling the story does't work it still wouldn't have been as effective. Checking and consulting with literature and people I trust from the first outline to the last draft has given me something very important: confidence. I know my story works for other people and not just for myself and my friends. When I'll start drawing it I'll know I have a solid foundation.

    In no shape or form do I fancy myself a good writer now, I'm not. But I know what my shortcomings are and the next time I'll write something, I hope it will be a little easier...

    I think that learning to write is a lot like learning to draw. At first you get annoyed at all the rules you have to take into account and remember, those damn rules that keep you from being intuitive and free in your work! But after a while, you don't need to think about the rules anymore. They become automated, ingrained in your software - a part of you.

    Sorry for the long post, got a little carried away... Anyway - I'm a big fan, so keep it up and best of luck with the signing!

  22. I don't see why they wouldn't ship to the U.S. , they ship here to Canada.

    Go for it.

  23. Thank you so much! I read The Walking Man years ago and loved it but I forgot the title so I couldn't find it afterwards; thanks to you I've finally found it!

  24. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  25. So I recently discovered your blog and have been reading every post like a mad man! I love hearing about your experiences and your struggles as you are figuring this all out and I have to say its very very inspiring. I've always loved to draw since I was a kid but never really put time into it until a year and a half ago when I realized wow I love doing this! I am not that great seeing as how I've been at it solidly for a year. In some respects I can relate to the stress of trying to perfect the smallest detail, I don't know where I'm going with that thought but I wanted to say your art is gorgeous and reading your blog has really motivated me to draw even more I bought a sketch book a couple weeks ago and I've filled it already! Anyways I want you to know when this comic of yours is on book shelves you bet your ass I'm going to be buying a copy!

  26. I am also a fan of McKee and believe that, at it's core, a story is a journey which in the end leaves the main character irreversibly changed from the person he started out as.

  27. Vinod - Long time no see, man. I finally made it out to TAG this month, but no Vinod! My eyeballs are hungry for your sweet pencil candy. In a gay way.

    Thanks for the comment. You should visit our studio sometime and join us for lunch.

    Ehud - Spectacular stuff on your website, Ehud! Your character studies are so strong -- I'm really looking forward to seeing all that talent applied to a comic.

    As to your approach to story, it sounds like you're doing everything right. There's a school of thought out there that calls every rule a straightjacket and promotes a kind of free-form approach to learning art and story. As artists, I think we're especially vulnerable to that sort of magical thinking, especially because it provides a convenient excuse to avoid concentrated study. Some things work and some things don't, and the more we understand these principles, the better our creations will fare. From all you've said, it sounds like your comic is going to be superb! Good luck!

  28. Dominic - is a huge, huge find. Thanks for mentioning it here. If anybody successfully obtains IllustStudio through, please post here with your success story!

    7i4f - Glad to help. It's a shame it's so expensive now, but if you're rolling around in cash, it probably deserves a spot on your shelf. Cheers!

    Kelly - Thanks! It's great to hear you're enjoying the process so much -- I can't always say the same, truthfully. Sometimes it's a bit of a grind. Going into it with your enthusiasm, you've already got a huge head start. Post some links here when you've got some stuff to show off!

    DanHale - Right on -- that's McKee in a nutshell, and it's great advice.

  29. Thanks, Nate! So cool to hear you like my stuff!

    I got a cintiq question for you; I recently bought an ergonomic arm like yours for my 21 cintiq.

    I could only get two screws to connect the arm and the cintiq. The rest of the holes in these two devices don't seem to correspond. Is it the same with your cintiq? Or am I missing something?

    Looking forward to hearing some updates about your first issue!

  30. Ehud - I just looked at the back of my Cintiq, and I've got four screws going through the four outermost holes in the Ergotron mounting bracket. I've got this model of Ergotron ( and a three-year-old Cintiq 21UX. Did you remove the circular wire collar from the back of the Cintiq before mounting the arm? The back of the monitor should not have any protrusions.

    Hope that helps!

  31. Thanks! That was fast...
    I still have the same problem though... I'm pretty much certain I have the same ergotron arm as you and my 21 cintiq is of the older make. I've looked carefully at the screw configuration of the mounting bracket and compared it to the cintiq's. The holes on the bracket are arranged as a perfect square and the holes on the cintiq create a rectangle.

    I guess I'll have to become a crazy scientist and improvise something. Let's hope I don't go overboard and make a time machine

  32. Thanks again for sending me that pic of your set up, Nate! That was a great help and now everything is up and running!

  33. Now, picture if you will dear reader the scene: Bleacher loaded with fans, simultaneously stomping their feet in unison and chanting "Update! Update! Update!" with great fervour--almost you could call it "hunger."

    Doom upon ye who doth not feed thine fandom!

  34. Ehud - Glad it worked out, man. How have you been enjoying the Ergotron so far?

    Eagle - I know, I know. Eagle, I don't deserve friends like you. Alas, I can't bear to post again until I've got something juicy, and like a donkey chasing a carrot, that "something juicy" seems to be perpetually just out of reach. There are seriously posts here from four months ago where I'm saying there should be an announcement "next week." I'm both embarrassed and annoyed beyond measure. Anyway. Next week, I guess.