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.