Graphic Novelists Argue Medium Is "Twice as Hard" to Create Than Prose or Scripts

Tillie Walden-MariNaomi -Pamela Ribon-Split-Getty-H 2018
Courtesy of Subject; Courtesy of Fiona J. Taylor; Amanda Edwards/WireImage
Mari Naomi, Tillie Walden and Pamela Ribon discussed the comic production pipeline, selling movie and TV projects and losing friends over their depictions in graphic memoirs in a frank discussion on Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival.

As the market for graphic novels continues to grow, an all-female panel of artists including MariNaomi, Pamela Ribon and Tillie Walden argued that the medium requires working "twice as hard" to produce than prose or screenplays at USC's Davis School of Gerontology on Sunday.

During the panel "Graphic Novels: Working Twice as Hard" at the Los Angeles Times' Festival of Books, the panelists frankly discussed the unique idiosyncrasies of graphic novels' production pipeline, the challenges and benefits in selling graphic novels as film and TV projects and the personal pitfalls required to write graphic memoirs — as well as some of the reasons they choose to work in the medium.

"What makes graphic novels unique is the editing process, which is especially vicious," Walden, the author of five graphic novels including Spinning and Eisner-nominated I Love This Part, said at the top of the panel's hour. As opposed to prose, where editing can mean rearranging sections with cut and paste or cutting sections that can be rewritten within a relatively short time, Walden says that cuts can mean taking out panels that she spent a month drawing.  Naomi, the author and illustrator of five graphic novels including Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume and Turning Japanese, concurred, adding that she becomes "meticulous" with editing because she is terrified of cuts.

Screenwriter, novelist and graphic novelist Ribon, who is a credited writer on Moana and whose first graphic novel My Boyfriend Is a Bear released Tuesday, said that the format is more difficult for her because she has to think about layout in addition to story, dialogue and pacing. "I'm working on it as an object when it's normally scroll, scroll, scroll," she says.

Moderator Tracy Brown, the Times' deputy entertainment news editor, asked if artists ever change the story that the graphic novelists originally planned. Ribon — who writes graphic novel scripts — noted that she's had an artist drop out at the last minute, while Naomi and Walden — who illustrate their own work — said that they don't consider drawing an element that makes the work more difficult.

Publishers and the production pipeline of graphic novels, all the artists agreed, however, can present hurdles. Publishers like pre-planned comic scripts "but I can continually refuse to use them," Walden said, adding that she feels more creative when she discovers the story while she writes. Ribon, who only writes scripts and collaborates with an illustrator, offered a different viewpoint, observing that occasionally colleagues can't visualize her writing and so she sends them messy jpegs of her own drawings.

In contrast to the panel's theme of adversity, Ribon also argued that comics in some ways more freeing than working in film or television. "A comic book lets me be as weird as I really am, whereas it's harder in film in TV," she said.

Selling a comic book or a novel can lead to a film or television project that she originally pitched in the latter formats, for example. Her 2017 graphic novel, SLAM!, came out of a television project she had been unsuccessfully pitching for years. Now, she said, she is attempting to sell My Boyfriend Is a Bear as a movie — "Thank you Shape of Water," she joked, referring to Guillermo del Toro's 2017 Oscar winner also about a romantic relationship between a creature and a woman. "It's easier to sell if someone's bought into it already."

The panelists, who have all written graphic memoirs, animatedly discussed the particular pitfalls of the more personal genre, which has seen critical and commercial hits in recent years including Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Jillian Tamaki's This One Summer. "There's so much real-world responsibility. You're dealing with real people and real lives," Walden said. Ribon concurred, adding that she hdsn't written as deeply about a former boyfriend character on one project as she wanted to because she didn't want to spill his secrets. Naomi admitted that she's lost some close friends over the years after writing about them.

Naomi also pointed out that critics can be especially brutal to the author when their work is a memoir. "People on Goodreads will outright judge you when you write a memoir," she said. She admitted that she found Goodreads helpful in terms of curing her of paralysis over what critics will think of her work.

Ribon added that trying to sell her graphic novel or novel work as a film or television could be excruciating. "The Hollywood-ization of it is like, 'she's kind of pathetic,'" she joked.

Giving advice to themselves that they wish they had known when they were younger, Walden said she wished she'd been told to keep track of expenses and avoid comic conventions, which cartoonists can pour money into in order to have a booth. Naomi said she wished she had told herself to do less free work including making logos and writing comics for "exposure." Ribon said she would tell herself that there isn't just one path to becoming an author, or one trick to learn.

Naomi agreed, saying that the previous weekend, after a glass of whiskey, she had begun writing  a list of all the people who had ever given her unsolicited advice and researching where their careers had gone. "There had been so many guys that were telling me what I should do with my career, and not one of those guys have reached any level of success close to mine. But I was still carrying it with me 20 years later," she said.

The 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Festival ran April 21 and 22 at USC, featured panels with artists including Alexander Chee, Whitney Cummings, Jenna Fischer, Patton Oswalt, Juno Diaz, Laurie Halse Anderson, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Maria Shriver.