Crib Notes: My Learning from Substack Comics Teachers 01
My Horror Story: Letting the Bad Cartoonist Out of My Inner Cave
Substack, the Surprise School of Comics Writing
I came for the comics, but I’m staying for the classrooms. Molly Knox Ostertag is starting to publish comics in this space, but “In the Telling” has been a really nice forum for Ostertag’s insightful, clear, welcoming, and sometimes playful teaching about the process of making graphic novels, soup to nuts. It’s a veritable treasure chest of pro knowledge.
Meanwhile, Scott Snyder’s creator-owned, digital-first comics partnerships are primarily happening at Comixology, but his Substack Our Best Jackett has not only been a cool bulletin board for Snyder’s projects and limitless backmatter-type material, it’s also been the lecture hall for his massive online open course (well, semi-open) on writing and storytelling.
And even those comics creators who aren’t promoting their Substacks necessarily as teaching spaces have revealed the kind of insider insights that leave plenty of material for aspiring creatives and emerging storytellers to chew on. From 3W/3M’s hot cauldron of collective world-building to Stephanie Phillips’ previews-that-double-as-Peter-Krause-process-peeks, from fabulous artist Fabio Moon freestyling about his freestyling process to Tynion’s tell-alls about Bat-writing (and Bat-editorial navigating), there’s much to learn!
So here on the Comics Syllabus, along with features I’m trying to develop like your much loved “Sunday Substack Comics Rack,” “Polybagged: New Comics in Shops,” and of course, the Comics Syllabus Podcast, I also want to share some notes and gleanings from learning how to be a creator from these fine creators!
“So, do you draw comics, Paul?”
You know when someone asks you a simple question that throws you for a loop because you’ve never answered it out loud? Six years or so ago, I got to interview Gene Luen Yang over a bowl of noodles. Besides being my comics hero (and partly attributable to this fact), Gene is also that really kind person who is willing to share about himself but also curious about the person he talks to.
And so he asked me, “do you draw comics, Paul?”
Seems like an easy question to answer. Either “no, I’m just a fan and reader who enjoys consuming the stuff…” or “Yes! Since you asked, let me take out my portfolio now…”
But I laughed at myself and shrugged and said, “oh no, no no no. Just writing about them. Too busy teaching and all that. I mean, I wanted to when I was a kid, but I’m a terrible artist, etc etc etc…”
That bit of our interaction didn’t make it in my interview but stuck around in my memory. I was in my mid-thirties, a doctoral student at Berkeley in Education, raising a young kid. Almost always too busy. In the years afterward, I’d chase all these other goals: taking care of sick mom, trying to publish research, getting projects off the ground in schools, finding a home for our family in the Bay. But the question lingered because my answer was honest and it was the truth… I don’t create comics.
But I wish I did.
What I didn’t have the self-knowledge to say then, and if I had anywhere near the guts to say if someone asked me today, would be:
No, I don’t draw comics. But after two decades of teaching kids and teachers to express themselves, to read and write culture for our collective survival and healing, to find solace and sociality in the arts, I find my own soul hungry for the satisfaction of putting a story to paper (or screen.) I don’t draw comics… but I yearn to.
And if I’m honest, as good as my life gets, there’s always something unsettled. Spiritually unsettled. I feel like there are all these forms of bearing witness that my life is supposed to be about. And a major piece of it, the creative piece, the part that longs to write… is always undernourished and incomplete.
My Secret Self
One reason I couldn’t fully follow the road of an academic is that I could rarely create time and space to write. It always felt selfish, and although mentors showed me how much it was necessary and purposeful, I could never negotiate enough in the push-and-pull of everyday life to get things written.
As you can plainly see, my struggle wasn’t with producing words. My never-published-papers were usually two or three times the word limits for submissions. It was the work of receiving the feedback (which I always welcomed) and then whittling down and focusing my point to the precision and concision that academic writing (rightfully) requires.
That writing and revision process was agonizing and it took my heart and soul. I like to think I was capable of it, but not side-by-side with a life of service, teaching, and solidarity. And when push came to shove, I couldn’t close my eyes to a neighbor who needed a hand or a colleague who needed a backup to continue on in the classroom, not enough to write.
All that needless guilt rolled up into a secret self that I keep hidden in my interior basement of my mind. Here’s what I’m talking about when I talk about a secret self:
One of Scott Snyder’s lessons at Our Best Jackett was about distinguishing the Writer as Writer and the Writer as Person, which interested me as a literacy educator curious about the multiplicity of self and writer identities in interaction. But that piece by Snyder delves into the kinds of horrific subjects he winds up researching and representing as someone who falls back often to being a Horror writer. Snyder the gentle family man, over here Googling about decomposing bodies or serial killer histories or something.
Haha… I realize that you could play a Comics Syllabus drinking game with how often I self-identify as “not a fan of horror.” But that’s exactly why I’m so intrigued with Snyder writing about his “secret self” as a writer, how he identifies that differently from who he is as a person, and how that leads him to write in that genre.
One of the things I teach English teachers is that it can be easy for us to want to teach our students writing, and yet cease to be writers ourselves. We get caught up in the exhausting, consuming work of teaching, and few of us actually have time or mental energy to actually write, after all the grading papers and lesson planning and human interaction.
So in my English teaching Methods class, I try to reserve precious time and opportunity for us to actually write. And one of the things we try to do is stretch ourselves and each other creatively. How do we dislodge ourselves from the familiar grooves in our writing brains that we return to when we’ve written a billion emails and journal entries and first-chapter-of-novel-that-went-nowheres?
The prompt to write something really different. To push ourselves to say something, or say it in a way, that calls upon muscles we’ve never built up, maybe we didn’t even know were there.
The Horror: Paul the Creator
So Snyder tells me he falls back on writing horror because pitting characters against their deepest fears is a means by which Snyder the Writer (hey that rhymes) can vocalize, narrativize, confront fears that Scott the dad or husband or whatever can’t quite face head on.
And I’m reading this in my fragile place just over the crest of 40, wondering how much shrinking from my fears has consumed me slowly on one side while I try to keep a brave face on the other.
The thing that I’m most afraid of? The laughable legacy of another failure to launch in a time when I should already be flying and positioning for a smooth landing.
Because stories that awaken young hearts to brave lives… does that come from 40 year-old teachers? My mind searches for examples.
My teacher, Snyder-the-Writer, suggests that perhaps careening the creative imagination INTO, rather than away from, that scary ditch might be a way to go.
I’m not announcing here that I’ll now be writing my Bong Joon Ho pitches. I’m still only trepidatiously inching into Zdarsky’s “Stillwater” or Lemire’s “Gideon Falls” or Ayala’s “Morbius” out of respect for their craft.
But it feels like a useful prompt to shake up my usual, over-familiar writing habits. Says Snyder:
But the idea is that writing is all about putting your passions on a page, and expressing things that you want others to connect with. And so, ultimately, don't be afraid if what you're writing is something that shows a side of yourself that you don't necessarily offer up in your everyday life.
Scott Snyder, “Your Secret Self,” in Our Best Jackett
“Putting your passions on a page” in a way that’s unafraid, even of showing the deep fears not part of your everyday polite conversations.
I’m terrified of those passions that set me up for further disappointment, for deeper poverty, for more wasted time when I should be working in the mine and saving up my dimes for my kid’s college and my wife’s retirement.
Maybe that monster can be a creative starting point.