Monday, December 23, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #23: Kristen Shull

Kristen Shull, a second-year student at CCS, is a classic example of a young cartoonist getting better in public. By doing a daily four-panel diary comic, she cranked out a year's worth of pages. Lynda Barry once recommended that every young cartoonist should do a diary for a period of time, be it a month or three months or a year. It keeps your pen going no matter what, forces you to condense events into tight stories, and challenges you to come up with storytelling solutions as a draftsman. Shull's diary strips, collectively titled Ego Gala, were engaging from the very beginning, but it was clear that by June, she had begun to really settle into a more fully realized style. In many respects, Shull's comics are a model for cartoonists considering this endeavor. Let's go down the list of what she did right:

1. Start off in media res. Shull's first strip was about having a hangover, a shitty day at work, and watching TV with a housemate. Diary strips aren't about context; they're about life lived at a moment in time. It forces the cartoonist to make their life coherent to outsiders in just four panels, every day, filling in backstory only when it makes sense to do so.

2. Funny rhythms. Diary strips work best for cartoonists who are funny, and that's certainly true of Shull. Even if there's not a traditional gag in the final panel, that final panel beat completes a thought. In general, however, Shull's enthusiasm and self-deprecatory sense of humor, as well as her willingness to do outrageous and silly things, makes the reader eager to see what she might do next.

3. Spill some ink. The worst thing a memoir can do is gloss over what it truly means to be human on a daily basis in favor of narrative concerns. Shull lets it all out: she shares about being anxious, being depressed, being horny, being excited, being excited, and so forth. One gets the sense that she can't not be honest, even if she later regrets drawing scenes of herself having sex or making references to masturbating. It's all part of a life being lived, and Shull is clearly a person who seeks out experiences.

4. Have a through-line. Shull is telling the story of being a student at CCS about all else. What is that experience like, as she is a full-time student who also has to work full-time? How does she handle assignments? What's her relationship like with her fellow students? The contrast between her daily life as a barista/waitress and student and her frequent travels make each more interesting. The toil of her daily routine compared to her bacchanalian experiences at rugby trips is especially interesting, especially because she's careful to note the lingering effects of certain experiences.

5. Show your style. Once you have the rules down, then you can break them. There's a tremendous strip where she learned that one of her closest friends had committed suicide. She drew ink splattering out and seeping into every other panel before she learned this revelation, as though hearing that her friend had died affected both her past and present. She exaggerated figures and facial expressions to strong effect throughout.

6. Simplify. It's clear that Shull started off wanting to draw in a fairly naturalistic style, but the result was a lot of sloppy figures. Some of those were made worse by occasional attempts at over-rendering. Of course, as I 've often said, illustrating and cartooning are two separate but related fields. Shull doesn't have the natural chops of a top-notch illustrator, but her instincts as a cartoonist are spot on. By the time June rolled around, Shull started to really lean into her cartooning and find her own style. The pages are clearer and more effective. Faces are simplified but also more memorable. Basically, Shull had to figure out simple, effective ways to make her pages work if she was going to continue to do her diary comics, because it is a grind. You can only hide one's weaknesses for so long until you find a way to address them, and it's to her credit that she slowly found ways to evolve over this span of time.

Shull's non-fiction assignment, Howard Blackburn, had a great premise: the story of a man who managed to survive an icy fishing trip, at the price of losing his hands. The layout and imagery were all clever, but the actual drawing looked rushed and Shull's figures interacted awkwardly in space. Shull revealed in her diary how much trouble she had with the assignment, running out of time to do it the way she wanted.

Finally, her end-of-year assignment was a fantasy comic called Terra Viscera. One can see the lessons she learned from her diary comic at work here. While the rendering in this piece is a bit more detailed than in her other work, she kept her faces relatively simple and easy to remember. Shull would add details like scars, elongated faces, and other visual tricks to help the reader keep track of who was who. Shull then nails the complicated battle scenes, and it seems like all of the experience spent on doing nothing but drawing bodies interacting in space and body language paid off here. What was especially effective in this comic was the final-scene plot-twist that was hiding in plain sight the whole time. 

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