Now, this doesn't mean how did the whole art "thing" start. Or where did I get that Von Allan name. Those are questions (and answers) for another time. Instead, this will delve into the creative process of the road to god knows... - from the early idea stages to actually getting the book "out there" to the world at large. 'Course, the odd thing right now is I still have no idea how successful the book will be. Anyone who knows anything about the publishing knows how much of an uphill battle it'll be. I actually plan on doing some commentary on this front, too, but for now, I'll be looking at the specifics of creation. Why this story and not something else? How'd I get the idea for this one, anyway? And on and on!
So, let's start simply. Why this story?
To answer this, we first gotta take a peek at how I do the idea stage. This is pretty straightforward. Anything that pops into my noggin,' anything that seems even somewhat interesting as a story idea, I write down. Sometimes it's just a fragment of a narrative. Sometimes it can be just a simple sentence. And other times it can actually be very fleshed out. So, as I was still teaching myself to draw and taking a few classes, I was at the same time jotting down story ideas.
One of these ideas, actually jotted down sometime ago, was what I called simply a "coming of age" story. Had very little content in it, really. Just a few ideas of a story dealing with poverty, hardship, and possibly the realization that the main character was gay. A lot of this latter theme was inspired by a fantastic Swedish film I saw many moons ago called Show Me Love. It also touched on themes of my own life, too, since I knew a lot of gays (especially young women) who had to wrestle with coming out. So, it seemed like a good story theme. Poverty, homosexuality, love and life. I think Warren Ellis called this "social fiction" - some of the Love and Rockets stories immediately spring to mind. Writing believable characters with no sense of the fantastic thrown in. Just real characters in a real world.
It wasn't that fleshed out, of course. Just ideas roaming around my head. What eventually became the road to god knows... is very different from the above, though, since the story doesn't touch on homosexuality at all. Or rather, it doesn't comment one way or the other. Readers of the completed story may have their own ideas of what's what!
Now, at this point, the story fragment represented only one of a myriad different ways I could go. I had also jotted down everything from horror and sci-fi story ideas to some historical plots that interested me, too. So why did I choose to flesh this one out at all? This is perhaps the hardest thing to answer since it touches on a variety of different points. The main one, though, is fairly simple. I had always had the sense that a lot of the background details of the story (poverty, etc...) would be developed from my own life. Especially for my first script, writing what you know (as the ol' cliche goes) seems to make a lot of sense. I don't have first hand experience being gay, but aside from that I knew I wanted to add a fair amount of my own experiences to the script.
As I continued to think of the coming of age story, I realized that I was coming up on the 10th anniversary of my Mom's death. I also knew, by looking at other first time creators and the successes (or failures) they had had, that I would be far better off doing a story that meant something to me then trying to jump on any particular bandwagon or try and catch a wave of what's popular (zombies, anyone?!).
A quick aside: this is usually pretty good advice. Do something, anything, that means something to you. Doesn't mean you don't do market research. Doesn't mean you don't explore other titles that may comment in a similar fashion to the work you want to do. But you have to have something to hang your hat on. And you absolutely need something to say. Regardless of what you're working on, have something to say. Even with all that, it's very difficult to enter the comics industry doing superhero type stories. If no one has heard of you and you have no track record, it's a tricky thing to try and enter the industry doing these kind of stories. If you're passionate about it and have something to say, it may work for you (look at Robert Kirkman) but it's a rare thing. For me, it wasn't a direction I wanted to go with my first professional work.
Chewing this over a bit more, I realized that very few books tackle "social fiction" - plus fewer still deal with mental illness or abuse. There are some (Bryan Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat is probably the most notable) but not many. I started to think that it might be better to drop the homosexuality theme that I had been exploring and doing something more autobiographical. But how much autobiography?
Well, this isn’t actually a simple question. While autobiographical comics have been popular in the past, it’s actually a genre I’m fairly uncomfortable with. Why? Well, the trick with “pure” autobiography is that you have to be honest. Or rather, as honest as you possibly can be. That’s a pretty soul-bearing exercise at the best of times and my feeling on it is that you have to do this or it just ain’t factual. You can be creative in this, of course, but pure autobiography is a very difficult thing to do.
On top of it, I was faced with a reasonable problem. The events that I wanted to talk about didn’t occur that quickly. They were spread out really over a few years, with large gaps of time in between. The only way to make an interesting narrative based on that would be to fudge things up a bit. Play with time for dramatic reasons to make a (hopefully!) more gripping narrative. ‘Course, to do that would mean I wouldn’t be honest with the events as I knew ‘em. I’m probably a little more militant about this than I should be, but considering I was going to be touching on my Mom, I felt it only “right” to think about it this way. Weird? Probably…!
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that it would be a lot easier to fictionalize my life to some extent. If I approached the story this way, I would be free to play with elements and time. Move things around and make things flow better. This chunk of plot could go here and this other one could go there. Instead of dealing with events that took place slowly, maybe over months at a time, I could arrange them so that a lot of tension could be maintained. It doesn’t matter nearly as much to be factual – I’m not reporting my life here; I’m just trying to tell an interesting story with an interesting idea behind it.
In some ways, this approach is a lot closer to Matt Wagner’s approach with Mage than it is to the works of guys like Chester Brown. Wagner’s Mage is fictional (obviously!) but he built the plot on events that happened in his own life. So while his characters are larger than life, they are based on either real people or amalgams of real people. This seemed to be a sensible model to follow. While I knew road would be very different than Mage thematically, I liked how Wagner felt free to play with “his” narrative. I wanted that freedom – and the more I thought about the story, the more this approach made sense.
So, with the decision to base the plot on a fictionalized version of my own life, I needed to start figuring out exactly what would happen and who it would happen to. With it being a fictionalized autobiography, I already had some sense of the main characters. And right off the bat I had some ideas of the plot. But I also knew I had a problem at the same time.
Stories have definite beginnings, middles and endings. Life, on the other hand, doesn’t. Or rather, there can be little endings (quitting a job, leaving home or school, breaking up with someone you love, etc…) but the next day you still get up out of bed and keep going. You do that ‘til your either in a coma…or you die. My “story,” of course, does not have a definite end – at least not yet! I knew no matter how I chose to tell the story, there wasn’t a natural ending point for it. No “happily ever afters.” Now, I could end the story with my Mom’s death (she did die when I turned 20) but doing so would create a whole can of worms that I was pretty sure I didn’t want to open. Namely, I didn’t want the story to focus on my Mom. Sounds kinda harsh, but I didn’t want her to be the main character. And I also knew I didn’t want the ending to be a downer - I didn’t want it to be hopelessly optimistic, either – but I didn’t want it to wrap up all nice and neat with a big bow tie.
See? Tricky! In many ways I had a story without an ending and that’s obviously no good. So this was the problem I had to chew over and figure out. I should point out that at this point the entire story idea was just little paragraphs – there wasn’t a tight narrative by any stretch of the imagination. When I brainstorm, I’m just tossing whatever pops into my head down on paper (or in this case, the ‘puter) and trying to figure stuff out. I liked where it was going (the idea) and I liked the fictionalized autobiography element – but I still had no plot.
Actually, why don’t I give you a better example? Here’s what I wrote back in March 2003:
“Plot Thoughts: Growing up in a poor environment with a single Mom who’s really unwell. Tied into the main story of a young girl who’s trying to find her way in the world. Search for identity – possibly using my own background (having to leave to find my own life even though my very ‘leaving’ probably hurt my Mom quite a bit). I’ll have to chew that over. I’m not absolutely sure of the structure yet, but the main point is this – it would be fun to talk about my Mom and mental illness but couch it in a coming of age story at the same time. That would make it from the point of view of ‘me’ as opposed to using my Mom’s point of view (which, frankly, is not something I could really get a grip on narrative-wise right now. I’d have to do a lot more research to grasp on to it). The tension would really come from the conflict between worrying about ‘her’ mom while trying to grow up at the same time.”
Not what I’d call tight writing, eh? But at this point, it’s ok – I’m just trying to get ideas down on paper. That way, I can not only crystallize my own thinking but I can go back and review my own thinking, too. I kept adding to it (i.e.: do I make it a coming out story, too?), trying out plot thoughts, until I started to get a firmer idea of what I wanted to do. What that eventually became is covered in the next post.