An Interview with Josh Neufeld / Sari Wilson

by William H. Coles


Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson August, 2012

William H. Coles

Sari Wilson

Sari Wilson is an author and editor. She attended Oberlin College and was a Patricia Rowe Willrich fellow in Stanford’s Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Program. Her fiction has appeared in Slice, Agni, Third Coast, Shankpainter, and others.Her book State of Emergency chronicles an artist’s and a writer’s experiences in the wake of hurricane Katrina. She is married to cartoonist Josh Neufeld. Together they are editing an anthology of flash fiction in prose and comics to be published by Pressgang in 2013.

Josh Neufeld is an alternative cartoonist and author of the widely acclaimed AD: New Orleans after the Deluge and illustrator of The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media. He was a longtime artist for Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and recipient of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship 2012-2013 at the University of Michigan. He is married to Sari Wilson.

John Neufeld

Sari Wilson and Josh Neufeld Interview

WHC

I’m here in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the Fine Arts Work Center, with Sari Wilson and Josh Neufeld who have just completed teaching their course on the graphic novel. I’d like to thank both of you for your willingness to talk to storyinliteraryfiction.com.

Sari Wilson

We’re honored.

WHC

I’d like to start with what is your basic concept of a story? Cultural influence and for learning. And, I’m wondering, as writers and as artists, how do you define story in each of your disciplines?

Sari Wilson

I think that’s a great question, Bill, and I don’t know that I have a great answer. It’s conversation I’ve been having with myself as a writer. You know, in an Aristotelian method a story is a very, formulaic concept, so there’s a three act structure and there’s a protagonist, an antagonist. And, I think, those are all useful ways of thinking about story. But, I’m not rigid in my own conception of what is a story.

I have tried in my prose to be as minimal as possible and to try to create a story that has as few of those elements as possible, so for example, just an image and a character. And I’ve come to the conclusion that you do need more of those traditional elements than I would have hoped or even thought. And for a while, I tried to adhere to the Joycean concept of a story. . . that is an epiphanic story. So, a story that was character-based and that culminated in that epiphanic moment.

And, I still find that that is of the most powerful form of story. My own attempts have been largely frustrating, and it seems harder to pull off than it looks.

So, therefore, I personally have turned over more and more to some of the traditional elements of storytelling that have been with us throughout the world’s culture [development]–you know, a climax, conflict, an antagonist, even a protagonist. Not to say that I adopt all of those, but I refer more and more to them.

So, I think there’s something very primal about what a story is that’s deeply embedded in our unconscious and that the elements of story that have been handed down to us from our forbearers.

WHC

So you see story as a structured element . . .

Sari Wilson

I do.

WHC

. . . that does progress . . .

Sari Wilson

I do.

WHC

. . . and things happen that . . .

Sari Wilson

I do.

WHC

. . . and purpose matters . . .

Sari Wilson

And the purpose, it’s truly cathartic. I think storytelling provides both personal and cultural catharsis.

WHC

It’s therapeutic . . . and the receiver of the catharsis is the author? Or do you think in a fictional way, an author is creating a [cathartic] response that is not particularly his or her own?

Sari Wilson

I do.

WHC

Josh, is that the way an artist thinks about story?

Josh Neufeld

Well, I’m a cartoonist, so I’m not an artist alone, but a storyteller who uses art in very much similar ways . . . you know, a narrator as opposed to a single image that you draw inferences from, have an emotional response to. . .

I know that’s not necessarily a story, but it may be cathartic or educational. But that’s what I love about this woman [looking to Sari Wilson]. She’s thought so much more deeply and articulated ways about what it is that we do. I’ve been lucky to just to have her by [my side] and learned through osmosis over the years. So much of what she’s really spent a lot of time studying. And I’ve gotten the easy bits from her and simplistically kind of put them together.

Sari Wilson

To be fair to yourself, maybe you don’t articulate things in a theoretical way, but you’ve worked very hard to explore what works. . . how a story works in visual and narrative.

Josh Neufeld

Right.

Sari Wilson

So maybe you can talk about that, what elements of a visual narrative . . .

WHC

I might ask you about something you said in class, which I thought was fascinating is that the Marvel comics in the days when everything was starting out of in the ‘40s. . .

Josh Neufeld

Well, in this case, I was talking about the early ‘60s.

WHC

But in those hero comics there were very simplistic stories. The art was applied and then the writer came back would fill out the story with the script.

Now, in that sense, those stories were simplistic in that there was a disaster coming–a meteor was coming towards earth and Superman goes down and takes the Eiffel tower and jabs the meteor and everything gets okay, the threat obliterated. And those stories were [are] illustrated in a way that’s pleasing.

Now, what audience did those stories appeal to and is that audience still available? If so, do they still respond to that basic story element? I’m interested if basic story illustrated in graphics has changed for a specific reader.

Josh Neufeld

Well, I’m not a reader of those superhero comics anymore, but I don’t want to sell them too short because I think what Stanley and Jack Kirby did with those comics back in the ‘60s, which made them so fresh and why they were like instantaneous hits and seen as a whole new way of doing superhero comics from the way that the other comics, particularly DC, had been doing them up to that point. Those had become incredibly formulaic and really were just seen for kids.

That it was something about the way that those early Marble comics combined an intimate experience of everyday people, real people living in the real world with this sort of cosmic, cataclysmic, melodramatic events of superhero worlds, you know? Say Peter Parker as Spiderman, he’s not like Superman who lives in this made-up city and has a middle class job, and we never even think about his job that much.

But Spiderman’s a working class kid who lives in Queens who’s struggled with getting dates, and with girls, you know, and then after an event he becomes a superhero. But still, he has all these troubles and anxieties and a lot of emotional conflicts that we’re not use to seeing superheroes having to deal with.

And then, there’s this overload of these fantastic stories and stuff. So, I think there was a complexity and a connection more with people’s own experiences with teenagers and, and maybe even kids in college, that was much more, much deeper than, you know, the sort of maybe for eight to ten year old kids what DC comics were at that time.

WHC

There was an element too of a soap opera, wasn’t there. . .

Josh Neufeld

. . . very much so. . .

WHC

. . . in which the character was established and then the reader would love the character and then wonder what’s going to happen in the next episode?

Josh Neufeld

Right, exactly.

WHC

. . . so that it’s hanging up in the air?

Josh Neufeld

Right.

WHC

But that venue seems to be going away or lost in a sense. I mean, you don’t have the people waiting weekly for superheroes anymore.

Josh Neufeld

Well, they’re still doing lots of comics and people are still buying them avidly. As you know, the delivery system is changing. Because of the crisis of print and publishing, the superhero publishers right now are trying to find ways to use digital delivery more–iPad comics and stuff. But, there’s still a lot of interest in those periodical magazine-style cliff-hanger-oriented, superhero fantasy comics. And look at all the movies that come out every summer and everyone of them is based on a superhero movie, that’s Imperial comics.

WHC

Right, of course.

Josh Neufeld

So clearly those stories still have as much, if not a lighter audience, for that kind of escapism. I went through a period where I started seeing all of those stories as these kinds of fascist fantasies or power fantasies of powerless children attached to them because there was this idea you could throw. . . identify with these characters who could do anything and could break any bond and resist anybody telling them what to do and act out the way they saw very simplistically. . . you know. . . just make these decisions about good and evil. And so, that was when I started to lose interest in that form of storytelling, in terms of the kinds of stories that I wanted to tell. And I got much more connected to telling stories about real life.

WHC

Those early stories were really [plot] information oriented and the delivery of information as to what happened. . . whether the asteroid is going to hit or not. But your career seems to have changed. You are now delivering stories, especially in [the areas of] journalism, creative nonfiction.

And that leads me to the your whole career move towards journalism and the use of graphic comics. Your work on New Orleans (AD: New Orleans after the Deluge) is admirable. I mean, it’s a wonderful thing for us because ME and I’ve lived in New Orleans for a number of years. Your graphic novel was very moving for us. And how do you make it moving when everybody knew what happened with Katrina. How do you do that?

Josh Neufeld

You know, it’s funny because it took readers to tell me what was working for me to be able to articulate it. So, I couldn’t have told you when I was doing it, “Oh, I’m doing it because I think through comics I’ll be able to connect you on a more intimate level to these people’s experiences and somehow that will ring truer or have more resonance than any other way that you’ve seen that same story.”

I just did it because I’m a storyteller and I tell the stories through comics. And I have a personal reaction to Katrina. I ended up volunteering at the Red Cross and was very connected to that experience. And then got the opportunity to tell the story with selected group of New Orleanians who have really lived through the storm. It just was exactly the right project for me. I just knew it and I didn’t even analyze it for a second. It was obviously the thing that was to be done.

But since the publication online and people were starting to [read], the responses really started to come in, [and[ I started to understand that there is something about this form that really connects us on an intimate level with people.

WHC

Does it have to do with the pacing? I’ve learned from you that comics require different pacing than prose. When compared to film especially, in the way that you have to slow down. Does that [slower] pacing allow you to get across certain points maybe, points that have a little more depth to them in terms of characterization and meaning?

Josh Neufeld

Phew, maybe. I mean, all I know is that I, when I thought about having structure to story, chose the moments that have resonated the most with me when I talk to these subjects and I heard each person’s story. And I started thinking what were the parts that I was going to make into comics? I just knew which ones were going to work in that form the best and that would be most powerful.

WHC

Right.

Josh Neufeld

And yes, I mean, if you look at A.D., it’s a lot of short scenes and then edits to other short scenes with a lot of inferred things that happen. In between that you fill [it] in yourself. And, somehow that keeps it engaging the reader. It keeps it engaging and moving faster at the same time gives you a lot of information, but visual and character-wise that you maybe aren’t even realizing you’re getting till the whole thing is over. I was lucky that way in a sense to get that kind of subject and for me being, maybe having my own personal experiences that made me connect with it on such a deep level.

WHC

What is a graphic novel? What’s the definition?

Josh Neufeld

[To Sari.] Do you think there’s. . . now that we’ve been doing it so long. . .

Sari Wilson

I think it’s a long form. . .

Josh Neufeld

. . . do you think there’s a difference between comics and graphic novels?

Sari Wilson

. . . narratives, a long form narrative sequential art.

Josh Neufeld

And so, I mean, it was planned to be long form as opposed to taking ten short unrelated, or maybe even related by the same character, stories and then just combining them together and selling them as a collection. It’s not a collection of individual stories, but one novelistic form . . .

Sari Wilson

. . . a long form narrative sequential art that was conceived as a whole narrative.

Josh Neufeld

Right.

Sari Wilson

As a complete narrative experience.

WHC

Is there a graphic memoir? Is there graphic creative nonfiction in a sense?

Sari Wilson

There should be. The publishing world doesn’t have those terms yet because it’s still a new form for the publishing world. So, they just lump it all under the one form that separates it from comics. That term comics has certain connotations that the book publishing industry has thought they’d get away from. So, graphic novel, for whatever reason, has kind of stuck in a literary world. And if the form continues to grow, it hopefully will have more sub genres because everything is not a graphic novel.

Sari Wilson

So there is graphic creative nonfiction, and a graphic memoir.

WHC

I’m particularly impressed with that woman whose father is a pedophile and an undertaker and she’s lesbian. . .

Sari Wilson

Alison Bechdel?

WHC

Yes. I borrowed your book and I forgot her name!

Sari Wilson

That’s okay.

WHC

Much of her work seems to be pure memoir. . . and it seems to me in the comic form it tends to slide towards sentimentality. However, in your journalism approach, it’s not a [major] problem. You’re pretty close to reality objectively told the whole way.

Josh Neufeld

What’s your definition of sentimentality?

WHC

Essentially, sentimentality is asking a reader, as an author or creator, for emotions that are not earned on the page.

Josh Neufeld

Right. But there are ways to undercut that . . . very much so. I think you’re right that it’s a risk, you know, anytime. But the strength of the form is its weakness because it can be so intimate and so easy to tell all those subjective stories so close to the protagonist that it’s easy to slide into some sentimentality. Well, I think the my work with Harvey Pekar and American Splendor, which I really recommend you reading, is that that taught me so much about not doing that because he’s really an expert at telling stories from his point of view that continuously undercut any movement toward sentimentalism. And always pull it out at the end.

WHC

Yes.

Josh Neufeld

And, it’s [good to] look at them–and it’s really hard to figure out how he does it because he structures his stories really differently than most people. They don’t follow a three-act structure most of the time.

Also, like I said, I’ve gleaned so much from being around Sari. . . and her being a writer, her drawings, her short stories, her novels, and her fear and avoidance of sentimentality. It’s something that I’ve been very aware of. So, I try really hard to avoid it as well. But, there are still moments where you have to not be afraid of sentiment. You know, there’s that big distinction between sentimentality and sentiment.

WHC

A huge distinction, yes, and sentiment is so valuable for any artist to keep in mind [and cultivate].

Josh Neufeld

So in A.D. for instance, or in this project I did recently about Bahrain, there’s a character who was at a political demonstration that all of a sudden turned really violent and the police cracked down and killed a bunch of people including one of his best friends. I tried really hard when I got to the point where that was revealed to the reader to show the character crying. You know, I hoped that I had earned that moment, but I wasn’t going to shy away from it.

WHC

Sari, I’d like to ask you about your concept of narration in stories as it applies to comics. As a novelist and short story writer, you have a certain limitation in narration–first person or third person–that is not as critical as the comics.

For example, in the short story or the novel in first person where you’ve got limited distance and you can tell only what is in the perception of the first person. It’s true, in third person you can bring in such a wider story view and provide a breadth of information. But, it seems, this is restricted when compared to comics.

Sari Wilson

Are you talking about in the graphic form then?

WHC

Not specifically. I’m asking how a writer’s concept of narration in the first person and the third person point of view are related to graphic illustration with prose. I saw some times as we were working on our graphic novels this week that there were some issues that would emerge depending on how the narrator was going to speak about this or that, and if first person or a narrator should be used. And I just wondered about you conceive, with a writer’s view, narration, point of view, and voice in graphic novel and similar works, and how it differs from your thinking about prose.

Sari Wilson

A couple things. The limitation of comics or story format of comics from the prose perspective is that you need to be very strict with yourself as a writer about what absolutely needs to be there and what can’t be shown visually.

So, if there’s something that can be shown rather than told, and we talked about this a little bit, it’s taking somebody just show versus tell maxim to another level; it’s just extending that if you’re using caption boxes to accompany an image. So, if you’re showing–let’s see an example from the Playboy comic we did, which is actually first person, so maybe in some ways that’s a good example–and it’s a limited point of view. We never get outside the point of view of that character. If we have a woman walking through the lobby of Playboy magazine, do we say, “I walked through the lobby of Playboy magazine?” You could and maybe there would be a reason for that, but I can’t think of it right now. I think the general rule would be you wouldn’t say that.

WHC

Right.

Sari Wilson

You’re going to use that, that small real estate for that caption box for something that will add to the reader’s experience of that moment.

WHC

I see.

Sari Wilson

So if you’re only getting the visual information, here’s a woman walking through Playboy, the lobby of Playboy magazine, we have a Playboy bunny, we have the images on the wall, we have a kind of streamline shiny magazine. And then, what can I, as a writer, add to this moment?

And because in this case I’m writing in the first person, I’m also filtering it through the point of view of this narrator, which is a very limited point of view. I’m trying to get into the head of that woman in her mid twenties and convey that experience of what young feminists [think] and so there’s that layer.

And so, what I ended up coming up with was predictable. And then the next image was her walking by a bulletin board and there was a breast cancer awareness meeting poster. And, so then, in that case, I thought okay, well, it was surprising from her perspective.

So, I’m in her perspective and to the extent that the story works– and I’m not sure, it was an experiment–we’re in her head and we’re experiencing this, this world or this environment through a young feminist’s eyes. And, we’re sympathetic to her, but we’re also, I guess I didn’t want it to just be that.

I mean, if there’re lots of comics – I think this is actually a problem. I don’t know if this is tangent. But this is a problem with the form that writers and comics tend to be limited in that way. They think, okay, if you’re in a point of view you just have to stay in that point of view and that doesn’t make for interesting comics. I wanted, and this is something that is done better in prose, to have a kind of omniscience as well as have a point-of-view character.

Chekhov does this beautifully, right? You’re in a character’s point of view, but you’re also have the space to be allowing the reader in. And, I guess, I don’t follow through fully enough [on] how you do that in comics. You don’t see it done that often. Maybe that’s the literary quality I do feel in Alison Bechdel’s, Fun Home, and that is first person at times. Does this make sense?

WHC

Absolutely, and it’s exactly what I was looking for in the sense that there does seem to be different problems. The prose writer can learn from the [graphic artists] in the sense that the cartoonist always has to have the scene in mind. I mean, there’s a panel that has to have the appropriate point of view. If we have to be looking through that “I” person at the right door, at the right painting on the wall, [and so forth]. And it has to be consistent, of course, if you’re going to stay in that point of view from panel to panel. But you have a lot of flexibility in prose writing because the visualization is not quite as stringent.

Sari Wilson

Which can be a problem, right? Because, as a prose writer, you can get lost, right? You have so many choices. And especially with point of view. And moving in and out to view. That it’s hard to limit yourself and it feels both constricting to limit but then also ultimately necessary for a successful story.

WHC

And if you’re not successful , then you begin to lose credibility. And as you lose credibility, you begin to lose a meaningful response because you say, “Well, that couldn’t happen.” I’d like to elucidate the techniques that you teach in your graphic novel course because I think they’re very important.

I think they’re almost more important from the prose writer’s standpoint then maybe form the cartoonist’s in the sense that there’s so much to be learned about how you bring the prose into visualization. But then, when it’s in the visualization process where prose writers wouldn’t be going but they should be going because of what they’re going to write and create . . . that needs to have a mental, visual process to keep credibility, to keep in point of view to be sure you don’t say something in your prose that could not possibly happen because they’re not looking at the scene or all those sort of details that fiction [writers] don’t care about much anymore.

[TRANSITION]

So let me propose that we look at Little Red Riding Hood, a common story. Let’s say that the story is–there are so many versions–but that Little Red is going to Grandma’s house and she’s got her basket and her mother says, “Don’t talk to anyone. Go straight to Grandma’s house. Don’t dilly dally, the woods is dangerous.”

And then, Little Red goes running on off and then she’s going along and she goes off the path. And, she plays in the blue bells and then, all of a sudden, she comes upon a wolf. She says, “Hi, Mr. Wolf.” And, Mr. Wolf says, “Oh yes, you’re such a cute little girl. Where are you going?” And she says, “Okay, I’m not supposed to tell but you’re so friendly. I’m going to Grandma’s house.”

Then the wolf says, “Ha, ha,” and runs off to devour Grandma and disguise himself so when Little Red comes he sweet talks her into grandma’s bed and devours her too. This story has basic themes: Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t disobey your mother. Plus, don’t be naive about the world.

If we take that story, how would you guys, working in collaboration, begin to work through this story? I would suspect the first thing you would do is write the story as I’ve sort of outlined it. What’s the next step?

Josh Neufeld

Well actually, I think the first thing we would do would probably be to talk about it in the way that you just did, which would be to characterize, you know, what its themes actually are and like what the morality underlying the actual events of the story is. To try to tease that out. I know the last thing I’d want to do would be to just, “Oh, let’s create our Little Red Riding Hood story” and actually draw a little girl and wolf and all that stuff because it’s been done a million times and it just wouldn’t be interesting to me to do, whether it was comics form or any other form really at this point. So, I would want to find what the key exegesis of the story is. And the characters and the counterpoint to each other and then try to find some interesting way to bring it to life in comics from that would maybe make it layered somehow.

WHC

As you were looking for these themes, is that what you go through to underline or outline where the beats are in the sense that you’re finding the story process?

Sari Wilson

Yes, I think what Josh is getting at is there’s a brainstorming part to our process too.

Josh Neufeld

Yes, before we even start with a script or anything, we talk between ourselves to try to figure out what is the actual story that would compel us to spend the time to make comics . . . to do it.

Sari Wilson

So, but then, I would go and write out the story in prose form. And, and then we would begin to break, look at the prose and break it down into beats. And, I think you, how would you define beats? Beats are moments of action or significance. . .

Josh Neufeld

Right.

Sari Wilson

. . . they’re visual moments, they’re visually potent moments, maybe that’s the best way to say it.

WHC

Are they almost always action moments?

Sari Wilson

No, and I think that’s something I thought from our workshop. I usually think of them as action moments and traditionally, like in superhero comics, they would be action moments. But, I think your story was a perfect example of beats, of sectioning or working on beats that are not necessarily action moments. They are moments of silence.

WHC

Okay.

Sari Wilson

Or, they could be a moment where the girl is rocking quietly.

WHC

Right.

Sari Wilson

Silence canbe action moments. I think that’s what you’re looking for because you’re looking for the narrative, the narrative through-line here. Another way of getting at that could be visual beats. Like, if you needed to break down this story in it’s most elemental way, what would be the scenes, what are the moments that you will need to show.

Josh Neufeld

[To Sari]. So let’s do this one out.

Sari Wilson

Okay.

Josh Neufeld

If we started with a shot of the cottage that the girl and the mom live in. And we’d come into the cottage and we’d have a two-shot of the mom and the daughter together setting up the scene and then like a shot maybe just of the mom telling her, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” The daughter’s reaction to it . . .

Sari Wilson

Reaction shot.

Josh Neufeld

. . . reaction shot. That would be it; then we’d have a shot with Little Red Riding Hood, you know, leaving the house and either walking out the front door or we’d see the house in a distance.

Sari Wilson

A couple shots of it.

Josh Neufeld

Okay, and then, you know, there’d be probably a shot of this scary looking forest with the path going into it. And, she continues on and then, maybe there’s some choices of whether to go on and off the path or not, you know? And then, she sees a beautiful little glen off the path that is filled with butterflies and flowers.

Sari Wilson

Could we do the wolf’s point of view?

Josh Neufeld

I was thinking that we would get her to that glen . . .

Sari Wilson

. . . now, outside her point of view and . . .

Josh Neufeld

. . . and then, once she’s there maybe we’d have some shots of her playing and beautiful moments of a butterfly, or clouds . . .

Sari Wilson

She gets distracted.

Josh Neufeld

But then we . . .

Sari Wilson

So, that’s a key moment.

Josh Neufeld

. . . we all of a sudden we have. . .

Sari Wilson

She gets distracted, like you have. . . okay.

WHC

And that’s advantage [of drama] to comics because you can’t just jump into the wolf entrance without setting the scene. . .

Sari Wilson

No. butyou could get more distance. You could come out of a close third into a more distant third.

WHC

Or you could use a narrator.

Sari Wilson

Yes.

WHC

But going to the wolf’s point of view would be easy in a comic; nobody would even blink twice. I mean, it would be great. . .

Josh Neufeld

Right.

Sari Wilson

Yes.

WHC

. . . that’s one advantage of graphic novel presentation.] Give us a couple more.

Josh Neufeld

So then we have the wolf’s POV of seeing the girl in that glen, but you know it’s framed by dark grass and leaves all the way around, so we know that he’s hidden into the depth of the forest or something. And then, maybe we do have another few shots of her gleefully playing and then . . . looking up and– we see the wolf actually enter . . .

Sari Wilson

. . . she senses something before we even see.

Josh Neufeld

Yeah, but maybe she doesn’t look scared . . .

Sari Wilson

Right.

Josh Neufeld

. . . even though we know she should be scared.

Sari Wilson

Right, well that’s one of the themes, right?

Josh Neufeld

Yes.

Sari Wilson

Innocence.

Josh Neufeld

Right, and I’m trying to think of any other obvious. . .

Sari Wilson

And then, you have the dialogue.

Josh Neufeld

Right.

Sari Wilson

With the dialogue, you’d switch points of view, I mean, or you’d have maybe both of them in one shot and then you’d have wolf face, Little Red Riding Hood face, wolf face, Little Red Riding Hood face. And then. . .

Josh Neufeld

I guess I would want to think about when do we introduce the Grandmother as a character.

Sari Wilson

Sooner?

Josh Neufeld

. . . to really get to the horror of her being killed by a wolf or do we keep more secret and we don’t let the audience see the wolf actually kill the Grandmother? You know, these are choices that we would make . . .

Sari Wilson

Right, right.

Josh Neufeld

. . . in terms of pacing [and limiting too many characters and too many experiences].

WHC

Well, you can do that in comics with flashback too, can’t you? Could you go back to pre-story present and have an interaction . . .

Sari Wilson

Sure.

WHC

. . . between Red and the grandmother then come back

Sari Wilson

. . . anticipating . . .

WHC

. . . therefore, you’ve established the grandmother Red loves and I’m so sorry that she got killed.

Josh Neufeld

Yes.

WHC

You can do that pretty easily in comics.

Josh Neufeld

Sure, yes.

Sari Wilson

I just feel like it’s a little cheesy in comics. I mean, it has to be really earned. . .

WHC

Does it?

Sari Wilson

. . . because it’s such a frequently used. . .

Josh Neufeld

Cliché?

Sari Wilson

. . . it’s almost a cliché. I mean, similar to prose. I mean, don’t you think flashbacks can be easily misused?

WHC

I think they’re way overused [in all genres].

Sari Wilson

. . . way overused so you need to be strict with yourself about whether there’s really no other way to get this information in.

WHC

We’ve at least got her through the forest and assuming that we continue this process all the way to the final gory end. . .

Sari Wilson

But, there is the alternate version where the huntsman comes in . . .

WHC

Yes. I didn’t put that into the thought process. I thought it might become a little confusing if you guys had to work with the themes and emotions of the huntsman. What’s the next step? You begin to drop out. . .

Sari Wilson

Well, no, because it’s still the script stage.

WHC

Okay. Go ahead, tell us about it.

Sari Wilson

So beats, when I do beats, I usually do them very quickly. I mean, really like I would give myself ten minutes and that’s the virtue of the beat process for me and I do use this beats thing for prose now. In fact, when I sit down to work on a scene, I’ll say, “Okay, where are the key elements, like visual moments, that I want to depict in a scene?” I’m giving myself five minutes because I don’t want to think too much. If you start thinking, then you’re off somewhere. And then, I just list them, you know? Ch, ch, ch, ch, ch–five things. I mean, we’re really breaking it down.

WHC

Good.

Sari Wilson

It could be: I would do with like Little Red Riding Hood with her mother, Little Red Riding Hood walking the forest, Little Red Riding Hood meeting the wolf, the Little Red Riding Hood in the Grandmother’s cottage. I mean, obviously, [especially] if it’s a story we don’t know . . .

WHC

Right.

Sari Wilson

. . . then that’s meaningful. So, I would do that and then that is artful craft of writing in the comics format for me, which is similar to writing a screenplay. And that is using the script format, which we’ve talked about. So, a panel each page, okay, thinking about what is a page and actually I would just start with panels, I think like you did. So the description of the panel, which is in prose format, but visualized. And then, whether there’s dialogue or caption of sound effects. And then, going through that, all the way through the script. And, that takes a lot. That could take a week, you know?

WHC

Right. Do you do that together or alone?

Sari Wilson

If I’m writing and he’s doing the illustration, I do that and then he will read a draft and then he’ll feed back on it. And then I’ll go back [and revise], through four or five drafts. And then, he begins to draft out.

WHC

One of the things I picked up here is that you were actually thinking in terms of where you were placing people in scenes visually and you’re placing them in the prose-process theme sense too. It would seem the combination of that is valuable. I say that for prose writers; they work in isolation and they never seem to talk, think a lot, or visualize about what’s going to happen in their story and what the reader’s going to think about it.

Sari Wilson

Yes.

WHC

So the script comes together and you begin working on sketching the characters–you try to get a consistency in how our Red’s going to look and how Grandma’s going to look, and that sort of thing. And you [begin to finalize] visualization of the environment. I mean you’re a creating scene by drawing certainly would be basically creating a scene by suggesting . . .

Sari Wilson

Oh, right, yes.

WHC

. . . suggesting one detail that would allow the reader to imagine the rest.

Sari Wilson

My scripts are pretty detailed. Josh likes detailed scripts. And, when I’ve done more for hire, they ask for as much detail as possible And the artist may use it or has all the freedom to go off on [his or her] own.

WHC

Right.

Sari Wilson

But they, the artists, appreciate as much detail as possible.

Josh Neufeld

Yes, because very often, especially if it isn’t a story that you’ve made up yourself, there are details that the writer has thought of that really help fill in that picture for you as the artist. Because sometimes my process is I end up drawing the most obvious choice of something, or at least most obvious to me. And it doesn’t have some essential thing that really makes it feel real, and unique, and fully imagined. So Sari’s scripts often have some little detail that I never would’ve thought of that really sells what we’re trying to do with the story.

WHC

Right.

Josh Neufeld

You know, and then, there’re a few times when something about her suggestion just strikes me as wrong and I just ignore that and go with my own impulse on that. I love that part of the collaborative process.

WHC

I understand.

Josh Neufeld

But then, the other trick is seeing if the way that she [Sari] imagined breaking the page down into page this story into pages, in terms of how many panels on a page and whether that works with the way that I’m seeing it.

Sari Wilson

Yes.

Josh Neufeld

Because that’s sort of the missing piece. And, even when I write my own scripts, it kind of is always surprising because when I’m writing with my writer hat for a comic, I’m imagining these images, but I’m not thinking too carefully about the way the panels work together and fit on a page. And then, when I put on my artist hat and I start to draw the script, sometimes, you know, I know that a certain panel needs to be really large, or it needs to fit all the way across the page, or go from the top of the page to the bottom of the page or something.

WHC

Yes.

Josh Neufeld

And, if doesn’t fit with the way that it had been paneled out in the script then, I need to kind of rethink it or even maybe blow a page up from one to two pages to make it work, combine two panels, or add a third panel, a beat of silence or a reaction or something. That’s again the fun part where I feel like there’s more the intuitive acts are at play, rather than the laborious, you know, craft oriented part is at play.

WHC

Now, when you get to this process, you’re coming to the point where you’re thinking about what’s going to be said in prose.

Josh Neufeld

She’s already written that in the script, yes.

WHC

But, when you go to put them in, do you edit that prose? The reason I say that is that in comics it it always seems to me and I don’t mean this in a negative way, but that the prose is very restricted in terms what it’s going to contribute to the story and the meaning, that it’s almost like talking heads. You know: “Is the sun shining? Oh yes, the sun is shining, that sort of thing.”

Josh Neufeld

Just giving the most limited amount of information?

WHC

Yes, whereas some of that dialogue would seem to be changing the information and could be more related to theme and that process you’re carrying it over and now you’re setting dialogue in something different in a setting, in the original scene imagined setting, and changing it. I didn’t know if you did that or not, but it seems you don’t. You carry it exactly what’s on the script.

Sari Wilson

He’s very faithful. . .

Josh Neufeld

No, but I often change. I mean, when I draw my own scripts or when we’ve worked on stuff and the story I’m working on now, I often find as it translates to the final art that you realize that a dialogue balloon sometimes is too long, sometimes it is redundant because it’s expressed in the art. But, then sometimes you also realize, wow, you really need a line of dialogue here that wasn’t here before. Or, maybe you need a little bit more to give a little more humanity, a little more idiosyncrasy.

Sari Wilson

Hmm, I guess, yes.

Josh Neufeld

It’s the captions that often are the ones that get cut. The descriptive, narrative, omniscient narration stuff that often you find you can cut as you get to the final [stage]. But, I’m surprised to find dialogue balloons and speech between characters becomes more and more important [as we progress] in some of these stories.

Sari Wilson

Oh, okay, I didn’t. . . actually, didn’t know that.

Josh Neufeld

I think about the experience we’ve had. I’m working on a story right now with a journalist where a lot of the scenes had to be kind of imagined, recreated in a sense to really tell the story because the action wasn’t clear enough or you didn’t get to sit along for enough time within each thing to really comprehend what was happening And, we needed dialogue to almost actually slow your reading experience down and to hit some of the points hard enough.

Sari Wilson

And, the character, that’s really about. . .

Josh Neufeld

And, to help create character. So, Sari actually came in and has been working with the writer who’s a good friend of ours, to really fill some of these scenes up a little more with dialogue. And the woman who wrote the story, it’s her first time writing a comic. She was surprised because she’s like, “Oh, I thought, you know, when you write comics you’re always taking away. Always taking writing away, you know?”

Sari Wilson

Yes.

Josh Neufeld

And, that’s not necessarily the truth.

Sari Wilson

That’s true and in that way, it’s like a . . .

Josh Neufeld

. . . it’s a lot of silent movie . . .

Sari Wilson

. . . a play, it’s like a play.

Josh Neufeld

It’s more of a play. Plays tend to be very dialogue heavy.

Sari Wilson

Yes.

WHC

But the neat thing about the dialogue in comics is you don’t need exposition. I mean a lot of times.

Josh Neufeld

Right.

WHC

You know writers who try to slip in a little exposition in the dialogue. It usually doesn’t work.

Josh Neufeld

Yes.

WHC

As a cartoonist, you don’t need that. You’ve got everything you need on the page.

Sari Wilson

Right.

WHC

And you can actually express feelings and internal thoughts.

Josh Neufeld

Exactly.

Sari Wilson

Yes.

Josh Neufeld

Things that really bring it off the page.

Sari Wilson

Yes, and the best push for the prose writer is to add more dialogue.

WHC

This has been great. I’d like to thank you both for talking about creating comics and your process. This is of great value to the prose writer/storyteller who seeks expanded ways to think about story. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Josh Neufeld

Thank you.

Selected works

AD: New Orleans after the Deluge by Josh Neufeld
The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media by Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld
A Few Perfect Hours . . . and Other Stories from Southeast Asia and Central Europe by Josh Neufeld

Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson conversation

Watch a recording of the live Book Candy TV conversation with writer/artist team Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson.



Read other Interviews by William H. Coles

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