Interview with: Nathan Holic
writer of “Between the Panels”
Your story, Between Panels, tells a narrative that uses comic book panels as an essential part of the plot. When did you first begin combining artwork with writing and how do you think this method affects your storytelling?
When I was a kid, I loved comic books and I loved novels that had illustrations. My parents, in fact, bought me a copy of The Hobbit filled with still shots from the animated film (and sketches, conceptual artwork, etc.), and although this didn’t necessarily change the narrative itself, it was interesting to see the difference in storytelling and description and imagination when comparing the text to the image. The same was true of Stephen King’s The Stand and Cycle of the Werewolf, both of which had great Bernie Wrightson illustrations scattered throughout (and became my favorite books in middle/ high school), and made me wonder why more novels didn’t incorporate artwork, but neither of which used the illustrations as anything more than a nice complement.
Most important, though: I also owned the Watchmen graphic novel (and countless boxes of less-stellar comics, which my parents have recently cleared from my old bedroom and dumped on me), which feels to me like the ultimate embodiment of “mixed-media” fiction: we’ve got traditional comic, newspaper clippings, magazine stories, letters…To be completely honest, it was probably Watchmen that opened my eyes to the possibilities of mixed-media fiction, and to comic and prose sitting side-by-side. And of course, as a kid, I drew my own comics, invented a thousand different superheroes and antiheroes and villains and alternated between drawing them and writing about them. I could never quite decide which was best, which I enjoyed most.
“Between Panels” was the first serious comic/prose mixed-media piece I’ve written since all of those comics and stories I wrote/drew as a kid. I wondered a great deal about why one character’s story would need to be told in comic form, and why another character’s story would need to be told in prose: this, I think, is the biggest issue an author must resolve if he chooses to write in mixed-media. It’s just as important as point-of-view. Why tell a story in first-person POV? Why would Philip Roth choose to write one Zuckerman novel in first-person, and the next in third-person? As the saying goes, “form must follow function,” so although I’d always wondered about comics and prose existing together in a story, I needed a reason for one character’s narrative to be conveyed in the comic form.
The easiest reason? The character is a comic artist. And as it turns out, the only way that the story’s other characters can ever truly know him is to read the comic story that he has started to write.
Have you ever written a piece of work that was strictly prose, without any illustrations as an essential accompaniment? Which do you prefer and why?
Most of my other published work is “traditional prose,” and while I loved comics as a kid, prose has been my primary love (and my primary canvas) for quite awhile. But again, I think that it comes down to the character and to the point-of-view. Is there a reason that a story should only be told in standard prose? Is there a reason (aside from authorial flourish) that Jeffrey Euginedes’ narrator in Middlesex writes like a poet, and the characters of a Cormac McCarthy novel speak in dusty, stripped-down prose, no quotation marks? The voice in a piece of fiction is shaped by the character’s attitude and desires, not the author’s (well, most of the time anyway).
For me, then, I think “voice” can step outside of traditional prose if the characters demand it. In “Between Panels,” I think the characters demanded it. This summer, I’ve published a short story called “My Wife’s Receipts,” in which a character draws conclusions about his wife and about his own life by investigating the thrown-away receipts from his wife’s personal bank account. It made sense that I would incorporate typed-out receipts into the story itself. I’ve also published a short story called “Gold Saturday,” in which two characters edit and revise the same Wikipedia page in order to ensure that the general public knows the “true” story of what happened between them; for the story, it felt appropriate that the entire narrative be told as a single Wikipedia page (complete with sidebars, hypertext loops, etc.).
I love both traditional prose and mixed-media fiction, but it’s got to be honest. Especially mixed-media fiction. If it’s not honest, it just feels like a gimmick.
Lana, the main character of your story, is female. The business of comic book illustration is stereotypically a male-oriented business. Were there any specific reasons that you decided to make the protagonist of a comic-book themed story a girl rather than a boy?
I think I just wanted to create additional conflict between the characters, to ensure that my narrator never came across solely as a “fanboy.” You always want to make things as difficult as possible for your characters, and if I’d put a young man into the same situation, we might not have been able to understand why he would abandon his father, why he suddenly gave up on comic books, etc. Right or wrong, a woman will face social pressure when it comes to comic books, no matter the subject or genre. I don’t think I had aspirations of any deep social commentary with “Between Panels,” but there is an aspect of this story that’s tragic: Lana gives up on her talent because her mother (and other girls at school) do not think it is acceptable or appropriate. That aspect of the story simply couldn’t have worked if the narrator was male.
What do you feel are the difficulties in composing a story that makes illustrations necessary to the general understanding of the plot?
The difficulties are about the same as in composing any fiction that alternates between point-of-views. It’s tough to write/revise the first-person text narrative in the same day as when you write/draw the comic narrative. Both are supposedly coming from different characters, different minds, and if you try to draw one narrative at the same time as you are writing another, you’ll confuse yourself and go cross-eyed.
The same is true of a novel that alternates between characters in different chapters or sections: if you want to stay true to a character, you don’t want to do anything that will disrupt how you—as an author—understand and connect with that character. So—just like eating a saltine between different wine samples—you’ve got cleanse the palette before you switch to write another character. Take a break between characters.
As long as you can dedicate blocks of time to an individual character (i.e. “I will write the first-person narrator right now, and tomorrow I will write the comic narrator”), the process is easier, less disruptive.
The real difficulty, though, is in finding someone that wants to take a chance in publishing something with illustrations! And I do want to make sure I thank Matt Bondurant and The Saranac Review for taking a chance and for (most likely) complicating their own lives and schedules in order to lay this story out; many small-press publishers and literary magazines cannot publish illustrations (restraints with funding, or with their printing houses), and many others do not have expertise in publishing text and image together. I’m just very thankful that I found an editor who believed in the basic form of the story.
As you mention in the story, film adaptations of comic based media have recently become very popular. As a comic artist, do you feel this is positive or negative concerning the future of comic books?
This is actually a very interesting question, because—at The Florida Review, where I am Graphic Narrative Editor—we recently had the opportunity to interview Robert Venditti, who created the graphic novel The Surrogates. Venditti’s work was widely respected in its original form, but he was also lucky enough to have his comic adapted to film, also (Bruce Willis starred in the film version, which was released in Fall ’09).
As Venditti might tell you, the film individuals adaptations can be a good thing or a bad thing (some are fantastic, and some miss the mark), but based solely on the comic format, they’re a natural adaptation. After all, movies are first storyboarded before they are filmed, and a storyboard resembles a comic page pretty closely. As long as the filmmakers are creating a version that is respectful of the original, but also offers something new and interesting that the comic format cannot, it’s always worth exploring, right? It’s never going to stop, the same as with novel adaptations, simply because there is a built-in audience for the film.
And to be honest, comic adaptations will generally work better than film adaptations of novels. Graphic novels are generally shorter (100-200 pages) than novels (200-400 pages), and so there’s a better chance that the pacing can be maintained, that sub-plots and characters will not need to be removed for time constraints. (Of course, everything is dependent on the filmmakers!)
What do you hope to be doing in the future in terms of your work?
Hopefully, I can continue to find publications like The Saranac Review that are committed to publishing work that crosses traditional boundaries. There are a great number of talented writers and artists who explore these boundaries, but I hate to see it categorized as “experimental” and given page space in only a handful of super-daring journals and magazines. I don’t think that mixed-media fiction is an “experiment,” any more than traditional text stories dealing with brand-new characters in brand-new situations are “experimental.” Good fiction should be new and innovative, and I think that mixed-media fiction will be absolutely critical to truly tell the stories of a generation whose daily communication crosses text and image, back and forth and back and forth, all day, everyday. I don’t know which new mediums and formats will make their way into fiction (facebook? iPhone apps?), but I can’t wait to see.
Nathan Holic’s WEBSITE