Mining the Linefield

In our effort to define comix and to locate our own behaviors within it, we need to turn from drama and poetry, or ideas and images, and turn to the marks that we make when we’re drawing, or those personal xxx we bring when we are acting, directing, filming, etc. These marks that are infused with narrative intent and poetic power, while evincing and evoking the human efforts behind them, I call the “linefield.” You can’t really talk about one without the other two.

“Linefield” is a word I have been looking for for 20 years. It’s not what aggravatingly has been called “the art.” What has traditionally been called “the art” by most people is a simple word to define: we call it style, or drawing. It often combines the ability of the artist to convey our concrete world into 2-dimensional representations, with a sense of exaggeration or emphasis that distorts for a psychological and emotional effect.

The linefield is much closer to what people should mean when they look at the visual landscape of a narrative work. It’s the drawings of the character and character of the drawings and also the reading and navigating experience. It’s the soul of the creator poking through to the material world like spring buds and weeds through a sidewalk. Shards of the creator’s intention and confusion (because who isn’t confused just being alive?) making it’s way to wall, papyrus, cloth, paper, screen.

These marks enhance the drama because the act of drawing is made up of decision-making, searching and struggle. They enhance the poetic as they restrains, they’re economical. These almost unquantifiable evidences in our work create and reflect the linefield.

In the case of a word used to describe an emotional and subterranean action you are involved in, you are perhaps better off not being able to entirely nail it down, and possibly this word can’t be precisely defined either. Like a sufi chasing Allah, we chase after our ideas and images through ritualized devotions- work, attention and practice- and never really find them. Not whole anyway, not the way we would like.


Because our senses are wrong and our perceptions are limited. We need art to refocus what we see, and allow us to create other pathways to experience our world. The linefield is that new pathway. It is visual record of a creative experience incorporating elements of drama, poetry, mark-making, dance, acting, imagining, crying, celebrating and just about every verb a human is capable of. You can use the word for any visual art form, but in our medium, comix, and for the sake of this exploration, we’ll define it using the first three: mark-making, dramatic action and poetic reflection.

In the best comix, the linefield is a powerful new manifestation into the ordinary world. Gary Panter has one of the most powerful linefields you will see. In his best work, you are united with Jimbo-spirit, walking his denuded landscape, navigating the hatches and lines of his apocalyptic, commercial, anti-commercial, historical limbos. The linefield in Jim Woodring’s comix shimmer and constantly spin off into new characters and visions. E.C. Segar’s Popeye comix did something similar; sweat, desire and ferocity spinning and shaking off from the linefield into weird compact myths about giant birds and witches, injustice and hamburgers. Those stories and myths happen in our brains. The linefield connects artist with reader. The connection is new to them both.

My first book, Hutch Owen’s Working Hard, got a lot of decent reviews. I was suprised when reviewers would mention details that were in my head, but never came through well in the book’s linefield. One detail, in particular stands out: that the character had a history of being called a “street-pole pissant.” I did nothing to really dramatize, poeticize or visualize this. I merely had a character mention it in the dialogue as in a superficial outline.I didn’t make it believable, but a reviewer caught it and liked it enough to mention in his encapsulation of the plot. I was lucky, because something else was charming him and other readers into believing my world as my ideas and images failed to unite in the linefield. That book couldn’t have survived if it didn’t charm readers enough to convince them to give a little as they read. I suppose my linefield was full of poetic charm that I wasn’t in control of.

Similarly, my colleague Josh Bayer hasn’t always controlled his linefield well but boy, does he have one. Lack of control may sometimes be a strength sometimes. Above in the first panel, you can see Bayer search for the drawing, searching for the reflective and dramatic meaning of the image even as he manifests it. What is that bush or creature to the woman’s right? It feels like a manifestation of the main character’s bizarre obsession.In the second panel, the eyes of the main character only become visible after you’ve read through most of the dialogue. He only starts to clarify his own thoughts as he verbalizes himself. The eyes become visible, the wall behind him crawling with darkness, he becomes heavy and solid as the woman’s words work through him. Meanwhile the woman in front, empty, disappearing, shadowy, distant, possibly objectified as the dialogue unfolds around them, the intent of the male character manifesting, pushing her to the edge of the panel, the intent of Bayer himself understood only as he draws.

Jessica Abel, Joann Sfar, Paul Pope, Harvey Kurtzman are all creators with powerful linefields. They have bodies of work where their drawings are so tied into what drives the artist(s) their creative process, that you can’t possible separate “art” from “story.” Dupey-Berberian. Jack Kirby. Walt Kelly. Harold Grey.

Writers from William Faulkner to Ray Bradbury are illuminated through theirs. They use typewriters, presses and typesetting machines, but have a linefield all the same: drama, emotion, marks and language.

BusbyBerkeley’s was constantly in motion.



I’ve heard that people think it’s dangerous to analyze such connections, and that there’s a magic in not knowing how certain connections work. I don’t buy it. First and most important: emotion will always work faster than analysis. Second: there will always be new things to be moved by. Third: let yourself be moved by the understanding, too.

For me, this is perfectly embodied in a song by Kiki and Herb. Kiki and Herb are a faux torch-song duo who perform as if they are on a reunion tour of sorts. Their supposed heyday was decades before and now Kiki, damaged, drunken, spiteful and absolutely, desperately human sits on the piano basically dying, telling old stories and singing other people’s songs.

They perform a version of the 80’s hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that is hilarious, powerful and desperate, the final minute or so of the song is frighteningly moving. A crescendo has been building for minutes, Kiki is now riffing on the original’s “turn around bright eyes” motif. Kiki is quoting The Byrds, Joni Mitchell and, getting louder and louder she begins yowling Yeats poetry (with Herb shouting like a lost sailor his background parts into the storm of Kiki’s desperation) “The falcon cannont hear the falconer... Surely the second coming is at hand...”, riffing more, “Turn around.... turn around... don’t turn your back on me... don’t turn your back on Kiki!!! Kiki loves you! Kiki needs you! Kiki would die for you!!!”

All this crazy manic energy has coalesced, and you realize that the decades old “turn around” of the pop hit has been transmutated, now its a plea: “Turn around, come back. TURN AROUND, STAND STILL AND BE LOVED BY ME GODDAMMIT.”

Kiki -and if anyone is a falcon who can’t hear the falconer, it’s her- is crying for you to believe in her transformation, her second coming. She is turning and turning, and transforming and transforming, watching you walk away, but she won’t have it .TURN AROUND! TURN AROUND! The song ends with her demanding to have her love accepted. DON’T TURN YOUR BACK ON ME! KIKI WOULD DIE FOR YOU!

It’s perfect. The emotional tone is complex, gigantic and terribly human. Every word and note in this finale has been precisely thought through, and it’s still delivered with the real investment to carry the listener to an emotionally powerful place.

It took me dozens of listens to this song at full volume to realize all this. It gets more powerful each time I hear it, and the more I decode, the more it moves me to shivers... And of course, then I realize that these moments too, are about being heard, about brazenly demanding what you feel you’ve worked for, like most of the moments that are moving me right now.

More About Drama and Poetry

What I’m calling poetry, Roland Barthes has called “the obtuse meaning.” Describing it as outside the superficial message (meaning for the purpose of narrative) of an image as well as outside its symbolic meaning (bringing in other specific secondary ideas from the culture), he claims the obtuse meaning is the “epitome of counter-narrative” and “it can come and go, appearing and disappearing.” This continuum between narrative and counter-narrative is what I have called “drama” and “poetry”, and it has obsessed me most of my career. I have spent most of time WAAAY believing in the far end of that contiuum, toward the poetic.

At that time when I was failing, I was inarticulately substituting vagueness for rigor. Empty space is a part of the poetic part of the continuum, but it still requires work to prepare for the reader, and requires work to create. I didn’t realize at the time, but poetic images are created using the images of our society: people, places, and time etc., not just our own vague imaginations.

UMBERTO ECO: “I would define the poetic effect as the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed.”

Now to this day I tell certain students -those shooting for emotion and a certain complexity in their initial stages to write dramatically and over the top. To imagine the murder, the betrayal, the villain, and then to tone it down later if need be. To tone down the drama once the extremes have been entertained and rejected.

The instincts for dramatic narrative were never within me very well. As I began to learn the tools, I tried to create stories and characters that were unique, with believable inner struggles and outer problems. And I began to create more interesting situations, and more compelling poetic moments.

Still, I believed that this was all training to go back to attempting to create the completely poetic image, the moments that exist outside of specific narrative, the story that the reader is guided to daydream, and images that open internal landscapes in the viewer. It’s an ideal that still haunts me.

How much do you give the trusting reader to create a dialogue between her/him and the art? Can you create a space in the reader for something else to appear? And how penetrating or powerful is that thing that then happens? In comix, this is the best place to see the transitions between panels at work.

((What can the transitions between the panels mean? Often the key here is the transitions.))

In examining this further, I realize I can identify artists who do this well and begin to quantify what it is they leave out. Yoshiharu Tsuge, first and foremost, noting his story “Screw Style” (though to my Western eye that may border on surrealism). His peer Yoshihiro Tatsumi does it well also, though what he leaves out is the characters beliefs, thoughts and feelings. In Western comics, I always though Anders Nilson was getting there. Ben Katchor. (Left out of Katchor comix: specifics of reaction, sometimes, or specifics of internal thought, or exact explanations of dialogue.)

Of course, drawings alone can be “poetic”; And though it gets hard and weird to define, I’ll try to describe it more in the next chapter. Renee French and Gabrielle Bell have a poetry in their drawings. In Gabrielle’s case, what is left out is how she feels about what she is drawing. There’s attention and grace, but the absolute understatedness of emotion allows a lot to happen between the viewer and the drawing. This is what Barthes refers to, describing again “The Third Meaning” when he says “no parody, no trace of burlesque.” Unlike Bell, Dave Cooper, leaves little out emotionally, but his visual interest lies in the weird tensions he creates between thought and emotion while provoking the reader to experience the whole thing viscerally.

In French’s case, there’s such a vivid investment in the drawing that it’s hard to know what she’s feeling. Seems like everything: rage, joy love, fear. Her poetry lies in there somewhere.

JOHN GARDNER: “...The writer must rise above his physical plot to an understanding of all his plot’s elements and their relationships, including those that are inexpressible.”


Poetry in Comix

As described elsewhere who knows where on this blog, drama is a narrative sequence, a manipulation of characters and events in opposition with each other. In its most extreme, it is superficial and distancing: tired action movies about good guys and bad guys. In its best examples, characters are deeply drawn and oppose each other, communicating and exploring the themes of the drama both in their actions and thoughts.

At an opposite pole is the poetic. This is the moment that causes reflection, the image that allows the reader in somehow, to commune with the characters, to interact with the surroundings, and to unfold his or her web of experiences and memories and mix them with the elements of the image. It can be lingering or over in a blink but almost always requires efficiency to create. This can be intertwined with the narrative, or cause a delay in the narrative, unless that reflection is being used to inform dramatic decisions (i.e. Hamlet.)

At its most extreme and superficial, “poetry” is cloying, simplistic: Hallmark cards and childish posters. At its most astute, it uses hints of drama and a deft handling its medium’s languge to offer up just enough motion and opposition between the elements to suggest worlds within the audience and to allow meditative space inside.

I think these two poles, dramatic narrative and poetic images have traditionally -in comix vernacular- been called “the story.”

My earliest attempts at trying to tell any kind of story were completely blind, I had no idea of the two poles, and no tools to understand my own inclinations or responses or anything. I just threw something down and quit when I couldn’t push at it anymore. It was an ineffective way to work, relying a lot on luck. Only when I stole outright from “Star Wars” for Hutch Owen’s Working Hard”, did I learn some of the elements about drama discussed in the previous chapter and did my working become slightly more efficient.

But eventually I found that boring. I’ve never liked formula; it seems completely unlike how life works. What was missing was spontaneity, and poetry, which I saw around me every day.

And so when I later began experimenting with smaller pieces, what I wanted was as LITTLE STORY AS POSSIBLE. Instead what I wanted was poetry, poetic images, internal surprises., a little character... So my earliest stories and sketches were light on drama-as little as I could get away with, with as few specifics as possible. I was equating “vague” with “deep.” This was often unsuccessful, as you could guess.

There’s an Iranian film by Marzieh Meshkini (written by her father, Mohsen Meshkini), called “The Day I Became A Woman “ a film in the three parts on the theme of womanhood in rural Iran. It reminds me of my initial instincts as a storyteller, or as a non-storyteller, let’s say.

It’s a film with three separate stories, with the gentlest of “story arcs” in each. In part 1, “Hava”, a young girl conspires during her last hour as a child (before she turns 9) to play in the dirt with her male friends. After she turns 9, she must don the chador, and hide from male attention. Indeed, this entire section involves Hava playing her last hour away. Part 2, “Ahoo” features a woman in a bicycle race. Her angry husband rides up on horseback, demanding she put a stop to her crazy evil biking ways. He divorces her (while both still on horseback), and her older family members and then members of her tribe all ride up to her demanding, requesting she return to her man. Finally, in the distant final shot, her brothers come and put a stop to her pedaling, and take her away. It’s not pretty. Part 3 “Hoora”, an old woman buys a bunch of furniture and appliances she never had as a young woman, with some help, she arranges them on the beach before putting them and herself all out to sea on makeshift boats. (And we realize at this point, that we saw these makeshift boats on the ocean in the first story as well...)

Watching this, I realized this was the closest piece of art I’ve found that did I what I was trying -in my young cartoonist’s way- to do with my 1995 booklet, “New Hat.” In that piece, also a three part story, my main concerns were contrasting rhythms and formal structures, and crashing sequences of narrative which may or may not relate to the others.

Part 1 of this book was the most like this movie, I think: a man gives a last diatribe before being stoned to death, and then we see a local daydreaming belltower operator rouse himself to climb the stairs and do his job. It’s probably my most successful small piece of storytelling. It meant little specifically, but it raised a mixture of emotions and put them all in the same frame and asked for them to be treated as related.

The Day I Became A Woman doesn’t feature the same limited range of simplistic emotion; instead it features more human characters, deeper insights to the human heart and especially the societal mind, both things I was shooting for.

Soon after that booklet, when I was still a beginning cartoonist, I submitted a small 7-page story to a large publisher that was beginning to publish works by thoughtful “alternative” cartoonists like my peers and myself (or not myself, as we’ll see.) My submission was rejected via a very nice phone call from the editor who told me the story needed more “edge.” At the time, I took this to mean it needed something that I had already rejected, which was that it needed to be a “hipper story”, more typically young, urban, or it needed drama with wilder elements. I was already fully in a mode of rejecting drama outright. I was more concerned with poetry, and especially with the types of story and images that (American) comix hadn’t dealt with.

I was never the kid in rock bands, never the kid reading or writing cool sci-fi. I was spending my adolescence in the bath tub listening to ambient music and traipsing around the woods trying to resonate with what I found there.

In one wooded area around me, there was an old living room chair, rotten and stained. I never once imagined who might have put it there.

I never thought until recently that there might be a story behind it (I’m reminded now of a Jaime Hernandez story about something similar), and that there could be long dramas behind the decision to abandon this furniture, and the action of getting it there might have been something one could imagine, watch, or engage with.

Let’s let
Stanislavski summarize:

It took singer/songrwriter John Darnielle 1 minute and 45 seconds in his song “The Best Ever Heavy Metal Band in Denton” to make “Hail Satan” seem like the most life-affirming, humane thing a person could ever shout at the top of one’s lungs. It’s incredibly powerful, but had to be set up with story. One minute and 45 seconds of story to prepare the listener for the release valve that are the last moments of the song. Go find it.

I looked at my mildewy chair in the woods, photographed it, but never tried to go deeper into its story. All I wanted to do was allow it to make me feel something. But “How does it make me feel?” is too simplistic a response to art. And though an artist should aim to provoke feelings in the reader, it requires work to prepare the reader to respond.

That editor was right to reject my piece, but I wish he had asked me to tell him more about the characters, and asked me to give him more of a reason to care.




There is this moment I think about all the time from The Young Ones. The Young Ones was an ensemble comedy TV show from the early 1980s on BBC about 4 horrible college students who hate each other, and live together in squalor. Vivian, the house “punk” has devised a trick involving a fake finger and a kitchen knife. The other three roommates are hollering and fighting amongst themselves, while Vivian is shouting over them, trying to get their attention, wildly brandishing his cleaver, screaming “Watch my trick you bastards!”

That’s it. That’s the moment. For some reason, this image resonates with me, sings in me, stops me in my tracks and makes me smile sometimes. I don’t know why. I don’t need to know why for it to move me.

But if I think I about it, I understand: It echos my need for attention, my glee for silly grotesqueries, and my delight in brazenly demanding what you need from people. Something about those qualities make me love this moment- this dramatized, actualized, manifestation of those themes in my life. I am haunted by the Jon Lewis image below of a frog, caught by humans and put before a microphone, for the same reason, I think.

In fact, when I look at the last 2 1/2 years of my comic output, I now realize this was the governing theme of that work: trying to be heard. No wonder these images speak to me so much.

We all experience images from narratives this way. There are always moments that sticks with us, for reasons we may uncover later.

I asked a couple friends for their “images that sing” and here’s what I heard.

One friend says he always remembers a moment from a 40s-era Dick Tracy comic strip, where the villain, The Brow is being squashed by a Spike Machine. The brow is desperately crying: “Oww. Somebody stop the spike machine.” Another friend said that an image from the movie The Shining always haunts her, of the Shelly Duval character dragging a knocked out Jack Nicholson character down the hall and locking him into a food closet.

The first image is about pain, helplessness, and a desire for some sort of human connection. The second, about empowerment after feeling victimized by someone you love.

What are your Images That Sing? What are they about? Pay attention to those, like anything you attend to, they will grow. More will appear, and they will strengthen your own work.


Do this yourself. Right now note a moment from a story that sticks with you. This might be hard except when you’re not trying. That’s ok. Remember this exercise for a week. Write down all those images that pop into your head the ones that yank or push you forward or backward in your day.

Draw one. Transmute it into a drawing with your characters.



EXERCISE: Holding a character

EXERCISE - Holding your character

Sketch, or doodle a character. Like the above, attach an image or idea or two to it. Carry this sketch around with you for a few days.Like exercise xx, stuff him or her in your bag. Is that character calling out to you from your pockets? Remember that character as often as you can as you go through your day, and continue to allow other images and ideas to attach themselves to that character.

Maybe you’re reading a newspaper, remembering to hold your character, and an image appears to you suddenly. Doodle it or jot it down.

For instance:
-Benny shopping for wading boots in a tiny arctic fishing village.
You wonder: What’s he doing there? (He is looking for a magic fish used for a love potion?)

Add images, add ideas, add notes in your sketchbook. Do this for a week.

By then you’ll probably already have too many ideas. Plan to let most of them go, but some will literally work like a dream.


EXERCISE - Character Creation Intensive


Johnny Cash once sang, “flesh and blood needs flesh and blood” and so do characters need characters. It took me forever to realize this. Characters need characters to respond to, to interact with, to care for, sometimes to flee from.

So for fun, let’s create a bunch of characters, quickly.

Get a small stack of scrap paper or those index cards. Give yourself 2 - 3 minutes for each of the following drawings.

1. Draw a self-portrait again. Use one of the drawings from exercise 8 as a model if you like, or create some new symbolic way to represent yourself.
2. Draw the “low self” that we wrote down in exercise 2
3. Draw any figure of authority
4. Draw any monster or real jerk
5. Draw your “high self” from exercise 2
6. Give any one of these doodles a spouse or parent

Let’s play some games with these characters. How might one be related to another? Put some of the word balloon/ideas you’ve got lying around over some of their heads.

I’ve drawn a figure of authority here- the FASHION POLICE! And I’ve thrown the “When oh when” spider-man word balloon over his head, and immediately I wonder, is this his main concern? Is he ready tom comment on the costumes in all the superhero flicks? I could imagine later moments with my cinemea obsessed character and this character, through mere combining of things I’ve generated have lying around, creative fires are being lit and and my store being wildly expanded.

This method of attaching and expansion seems silly here, but it works equally well for graver stories or images. The characters and obsessions YOU harbor will create their own fire.

In chapter 6 we’ll detail many more ways of experiementing and engaging with these characters.



Back to our images: let’s say this guy below appears in our sketches one day: Who is he? To me he looks tired. You may be young and crazy and love rollercoaster, so to you he looks like a carny. To me, he looks like an angry librarian. Or someone who’s just bowled a very bad score.

A face isn’t a character, and an image isn’t a character, and a character certainly isn’t a list of traits listed like a Dungeons and Dragons report card:
-Personality: angry
-Age: 40ish
-Careful on elevators
-Hit points: 29
-Wears denim and orange sneakers.

They say god is a verb. And so our character must be active. Our characters need to do something, need to WANT something, and need to react to something to be worth paying attention to. Humans and characters are complex.

To that end, we keep adding ideas or images. Here, we’re doodling from our starting place of that FACE from above. We let whatever else come out that wants to come out. Hopefully the character DOING something will emerge. Here, I’ve doodled another image, right.

Or we can throw out some ideas: Maybe he loves to ski. Maybe he’s an architect. Maybe he’s a construction worker. Sure- a crabby construction worker who plays piano.

But let’s keep playing. How about some dialogue? What’s distracting or motivating him?

A character is a starting place. Just about EVERYTHING is a starting place, imploring us to explore, question, and develop as we aim towards some sort of art-thing we can share with the world. For now, let’s keep playing, dreaming and attaching.

Create a visual sketch of one character by combining ideas and images. It doesn’t have to be a great sketch, or a creative idea.Start with any idea, or start with any doodle. Add a few more ideas. What’s could be happening in the sketch to the left?

1. He is waiting for a pie to bake
2. He’s practicing for his job as a concert pianist
3.This is the first time he’s ever laid hands on a piano. Why?

Now let’s give our character a name. Benny.


There are a thousand other ways of finding ideas, such as overhearing conversations in parks or on buses, and I’ll detail some of those ways in Staying Engaged Forever. But for now, for our larger goals of figuring out what the heck it is we need to say, I’m recommending we try to overhear the conversations of our own subconscious.

We maybe have already been listening, in which case, maybe we have already ideas and images. We just need to trust them, commit to them and attend to them.

It’s always about ATTENTION. When we pay attention to the images in our heads and bodies, they grow. When we pay attention to the images we’ve committed to paper, they grow into stories, poetic images and other living things.


EXERCISE: Unrelated images and ideas

Could any of these random images be associated with the image you’re holding?

1. Allow yourself to imagine a situation combining your image and the one you’ve chose from below. Add a version of this image adjacent to the others on your brainstorming sheet.

2. Do the same thing with any image you come across, in a magazine, movie, ad, photograph. Or click here for a set of random Flickr images.

If I were to combine these with the image of the man with his hands in the pail, I might imagine he is preparing a medical mixture for the alien lying in the bed, or maybe his methods are a part of creating the smoke signal that the Native American woman and her friend are responding to.

Any ideas and images can be combined. If the combination resonates with you, it’s worth expanding and exploring.

Even unrelated images and ideas are related

EVEN UNRELATED IMAGES and IDEAS will create some connection in the minds of most readers. The question is what do they create in your mind? If they feel charged, urgent, dangerous or exciting, then keep them. Especially dangerous. If not, keep moving.

When we do this, we are daydreaming, we are dreaming when awake. Creative fires are being lit.

Below, Brian Sendelbach added one seemingly unrelated idea to this image. Just two words, and a whole world of possibilities opened up.


EXERCISE: Image to idea

Take your image from exercise #3.

Next to this drawing, instead of other doodles, we’ll write down at least three possible ideas that can relate to this.
-Ali’s children come in and ask to lick the inside of the pail (let’s then assume he is making date cookies)
-Another character comes in wanting Ali’s help washing his car
-Ali’s elderly father shouts from above demanding dinner

Or maybe we’ve got a few random ideas lying around:
-a parachuter lands nearby
- a swine flu outbreak
- a bowling tournement

Allow yourself to combine three of these ideas and images into a sequence. For instance, the image prior of Ali plunging his hands deeper into the pail can work with one of the above combinations, like the image of Ali plus the character who comes in wanting help washing his car. Suddenly, Ali plunges his hands deeper into the pail, to look more busy and to get out of helping in this menial task.

Ideas begin small and easy. Attention makes them as big or complex as you want them to be.



So what’s going on in the image we’re holding? In my example, I can throw out a few IDEAS:

-He’s trying to read the tea leaves.
-He’s washing his spare fez or his toupee
-He’s cooking soup
-He’s washing the couscous
-He’s warming or cooling his hands

Note that cleverness is not called for. What’s so clever about “washing the couscous”? Nothing- but it can bring us to good usable ideas and powerful images if we let it. We needn’t be clever, to be unique. We merely need to be honest and diligent.

So if we pick one, of these, we can begin to slowly daydream other images. Slowly is key; frantic energy can get desperate. Desperate energy can be a good motivator, but is not good for generation. What we want right now is the genuine slow pace of the material world. The pace of breath.

We can begin to do is to imagine other moments that might be related, like I’ve doodled above: here he is pulling his hand out with a fish attached, or trying to shake the hand of someone who has just arrived, his hand full of goo or whatever foodstuffs was in the bucket.

Note that my doodles here are starting to get silly, because that’s just how I am. Yours may get dark, or may even stay “unclever” as I’ve mentioned above. Maybe the bulk of your originality will come out in dialogue, or maybe it will come out when a new character is introduced, or it may come from a soon to be introduced thematic jump, or maybe it will come out in the drawings, or the “linefield” as I’ll later call it. The important thing is too keep working, keep attaching ideas and images together with your attention.

The important thing to understand is that ideas and images attach themselves to each other.


EXERCISE: Holding an image

Begin by drawing or doodling any image, an image of a character doing something. Or clip something from a magazine. Allow this image to include some clear action; make sure someone is doing something, even over-the-top if you like, to come to your head. Use action verbs. See the list below for inspiration. Don’t worry too much about character creation- we’ll get into that next chapter.

You can pull from the list of actions below to get you started, or invent your own:
-Cooking stew
-Defending against martians
-Befriending martians
-Cleaning car
-Running an end zone pattern

Continue to hold this image in your mind. Remember it now and then. We'll bring this back later.


Starting With An Image

I remember reading a comic in the studio of cartoonist Brian Sendelbach. He had tons of his comics, unpublished pages and paintings lying around. He was always busy, always creating. He had a recent comic that made me laugh, with a fellow in a top hat and a cigar acting like a rock star. I asked him how he came up with this character. At the time I was still new at this and his answer surprised me: “Oh he just appeared in my sketchbook one day.”

“He just appeared? Like, by accident?” Until then I thought sketchbooks were places to consciously experiment, but not places to daydream. Brian treated his sketchbooks like a place to let his mind wander, or like a wild field where wind-blown spores and seeds were sometimes sown and harvested.

We have to allow ourselves to daydream. What we do as artists is HONOR those subterranean images that have sprung from somewhere and grabbed our attention. We need to treat these images like seeds and water them, using work and attention to grow them.

Here’s a doodle, an image from my notes for Ali’s House. It’s not wild or interesting- it’s a guy with his hands in a bucket or pot. But it moved me, so I stay with it. I hang on to it, move it around in my imagination. I hold it.


Ideas and Images Part 1

Ideas upon images upon ideas

So how do we start? How do we say everything?

By starting small- with a single image or idea. Fine, but what are they and where do those come from?

IMAGES are pictures, moments frozen in time that seem to suggest other images, ideas and worlds. They provoke the mind to imagine further and they tend to be more subconscious than ideas.

IDEAS are descriptions of actions and other thought-out details. They tend to be more conscious than images. We can come up with them in words. Words are often our best tool for articulating them simply, but not always for manifesting them.

If you want to create art, create stories and characters and drawings, then let’s start with a single image or idea. Anything will do, so long as it has even the slightest real resonance when we pause to reflect upon it. Everything need not be organized and brilliant in the beginning. If you have all the answers in advance, I’d recommend doing something else with them, like teaching. This is about art that will fufill, suprise and engage us during its creation.

So, we START WITH AN IMAGE, mingling other images and ideas with it.



EXERCISE 1: Your own personal timestamp

This first exercise is all writing, and it’s easy.

Write down these five items right now:

1. Write down the thing most distracting you away from this book at this moment. (lost keys, spousal troubles/ wars in the hemisphere, family drama, whatever…)
2. Write down something that generally happily obsesses you (and focuses you, rather than distracts, like above): gardening, music, the state of the environment, the history of China, color, etc.
3. Write down one thing you have a lot of information about. Knitting, train schedules, electronics, etc.
4. Write down who you would be if you were the perfect awesome version of your life. Would you be an astronaut, superhero, Dr. Manahattan? Let’s call this your “high self.”
5. Write down who you would be if everything went wrong. Would you be a bug, a lizard, a hobo, a weed? Let’s call this your “low self.”

Let the answers that pop up first be the ones that you write down. You can do the exercise again a different day and have different answers. Put these away for now. We’ll use them soon.(My answers at right.)



This blog is about cartooning- or comix- as a method of self-expression, creative exploration, and a way to devote yourself to finding and articulating what you want to say.

This blog is also about the visual nature of any storytelling, and offers useful ideas and practices for non-cartooning storytellers. Visualizing their stories in these ways will make their job easier, their work freer, and their story truer to their own hearts.

What stories and actions and images am I? What else lies at the heart of being human and what lies at the heart of most arts? What lies at the heart of this words and pictures medium, and more importantly, how can we let it guide us to the spirit of our work?

These postings, ideas and exercises come from 20 years of dedicating myself to little else except asking these questions.

I’ve always passionately believed I had something to say, and that that something was EVERYTHING. I wanted to say everything.

I wanted to say everything, but didn’t have the tools. This blog is about those tools

In my 10 years of teaching, I may have come across ideas and practices that work again and again. I developed some and I’ve stolen many, but even in teaching I’ve never settled, and I’m always trying to find the next right method for for the subject and student at hand. The important thing is to have the tools to question intelligently and creatively, and to explore productively.

The exercises offer a lot of surprises for the dedicated creator. It doesn’t require you to even be aware of your ideas, or be certain of your theses or themes. This book doesn’t require you to know what you already want to say; it assumes you want to SAY EVERYTHING.

If you’re going to create forever, you have to allow yourself to be surprised. Allow yourself to not know what will come next, to not be always in control, to not plan everything.

Werner Herzog:

Be brave, be adamant and even arrogant. Be open and be curious. Expect to find yourself on shores you didn’t expect. Arm yourself with pens or brushes or whatever visual tools you like, and read ahead for the tools to go subterranean, digging into your past, present or roiling insides, to recruit your senses to make your readers, your characters and yourself feel more alive.