A book or story may be about a boxer’s return to the ring, or a pig with a heart of gold who wanders into the wilderness, or a or a chopper pilot’s biggest adventure , but hopefully what these stories are really about are their themes.

Craig Thompson’s Goodbye, Chunky Rice is a graphic novel about a morose turtle leaving town. It’s the story of him and his companion mouse and the other characters he’s leaving behind, but the book as a whole is about LOSS; it’s about leaving one’s friends and family and about the many separations we experience in life.

Thompson smartly created secondary characters and situations which would help him explore these themes: A hobo with a sad history full of separation from the animals of his childhood, now attached to a stray bird he keeps in his apartment; A pair of siamese twins who can’t separate; a ship’s captain (brother to the hobo; they are essentially estranged) who claims his “only friend is the sea.” Even the book design is about loss, where the inside cover, indicia image and author photo all have little bits taken out from them. These slices coalesce later in an acknowledgements page at the back.

Thompson knew his themes, and foraged his way to resonant images and ideas that helped him explore those themes: what kinds of loss can we experience? What happens when we can’t get free? How does separation echo through the years of a person’s life? It’s a very powerful book as a result of being about human themes.

In the class I teach with cartoonists Matt Madden and Jessica Abel, we discuss our different strategies for creating our work. Jessica traditionally works from character. She envisions a character and develops a plot from there, via processes much like those in this book. Matt tends to work from form. He looks at categories of rhythm and structure he hasn’t created in yet and creates characters and plots that relate to those forms.

I discuss in this class how I have worked mostly from THEME. This is especially true when I already knew I was using my Hutch Owen continuing character. From a starting point of him and attendent continuing characters, themes would appear to me from the outside world that I would want to explore.

A quick list of Hutch Owen stories I’ve created and the themes or questions that prompted them:
THE ROAD TO SELF: How do our ideals change or not change over time? What affects these changes?
ARISTOTLE: What is freedom and creativity? How does this character misunderstand these issues?
EMERGING MARKETS: How have we colonized other cultures through commerce and religion?

Mind you, some of these stories were also excuses to draw people with sticks and bats pounding on a guy dressed up as a goat. But first came the idea to explore: the theme, the question. Then came the ideas and images. Hopefully by then, the characters and stories begin to develop organically to become their own interesting narrative entities.


When you know your themes, you can systematize your aggregating, your assembling.

For instance, for every image that pops up, ask yourself three guiding questions. Let’s say you know one of the themes you’re exploring is jealousy. Let’s say you’ve got a character.

Systematize your next steps. For any idea or image that arises, you can ask yourself three (always a good number) questions:
1 What was our character jealous of to put him in this situation?
2 Who could be jealous of this particular image?
3 What is our character jealous of at exactly this moment?

Now an image pops up, say, of Benny relaxing poolside on a very very cloudy day.

Answering these questions will help your daydreaming be focused. Three possible answers to the above questions:

1. What was our character jealous of to put him in this situation? Our character, living presently in the cloudy Pacific Northwest, got a call from a friend in Hawaii. Pissed off and jealous, he found a pool and was determined to have a good time, despite it being dreary out. Add drizzling.
2. Who could be jealous of this particular image? Our character has a brother or sister who thinks he’s got it all easy. She lives in Canada and it’s February. Our character, while a bit cold maybe, is at least outside and relaxing. His sister is shoveling snow. Benny is texting her.
3. What is our character jealous of at exactly this moment? Our character could be jealous of someone in the scene. Maybe it’s not visible here, but he’s spying on his object of affection and her new boyfriend. Or his wife and her lover. His next step- hire some muscle.

EXERCISE - Guiding your themes

1. Figure out the themes of your work, and list three questions you should ask yourself each time an image appears. Make sure you explore both sides of the theme- the positive and negative poles if that applies, or at least try to imagine opposite situations. These opposites, at least in our beginning assembling and daydreaming can help us keep the work dynamic. We need only keep in that which feels right to your editorial mind.

2. In exercise 10 (coming soon!) we wrote 4 story ideas and then 10 sentences. Did you notice any trends? 2 of mine were about disease, 2 more featured colors.

Maybe what is emerging is a sort of seseme street affinity (obsession) with cookies or trash, or sudoku or linen or artichokes. Keep going. Honor those repeat surprises . Write down 5 more, stay focused on whatever themes and motifs emerged in your list but this time, begin with those themes and... Suddenly you’re dreaming while you’re awake. You’re creating a language of story and character to explore themes that are meaningful to you.


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