Plus ça change — except they really do

Good nails, not great much else
Good nails, not great much else

This photo is a year old, which means that last year right now I was also sick with Whatever Is Going Around. The timing is awesome (well, extra awesome) because despite earlier reports, the coldest day of the season is actually going to be this weekend, with polar vortex-esque temperatures and all that attendant fun. My decade-plus in Chicago has prepared me well for this terrible time, but it’s sort of a no-brainer solution: hiding in my apartment, chugging down tea and cold medicine, paying huge tips to delivery guys if for some reason I run out of food.

Well, you say to yourself, this could be all right. You’ve run out of Parks & Rec on Netflix and you could really use this time to focus on self-improvement fun. This is always true! I keep having books I could read for pleasure, food-and-travel shows I could bask in and Hamilton songs to finally learn. I have a lot of practice in all those things. I’m an expert in many kinds of loafing.

Except here’s the thing. Last week I finished up Summer Pierre’s online comics-making course. Short version: It was wonderful. Making comics with no pressure to be perfect, surprise surprise, makes it so much easier to get in there and actually make comics. Can’t recommend the course enough, it starts again in April, you should definitely do it if you’re curious but think you can’t. It has nothing to do with drawing ability, just a desire to do it.

That’s actually really good for me to relearn. See — surprise, surprise — I’m a lifelong perfectionist. I keep forgetting that everyone is a beginner at some point, and that you get good at things by experimenting and practicing, not by doing it really well out of thin air or panicking if it’s something you have to work at. Somehow this is not obvious to me, but luckily my therapist is very patient about it. Summer’s comics course is wonderful because she insists on using the most low-stakes materials right out of the gate — some index cards, two pens and a cheap composition notebook for drawing in (so you don’t get caught up in the fear of ruining the pristine perfection of a brand-new fancy blank sketchbook — how did you know, Summer? it me!). That’s it. You just throw yourself into it and don’t give yourself the time to get caught up in your head.

My favorite for practice is the list comic (see also: Nine TV Shows I Love to Rewatch, Nine Things I Miss About Chicago). If I accidentally leave a page blank in my daily planner, it’s just the right size for a simple grid of nine and either organizing some organizables or observing what’s around you. I used to draw all the time as a kid, and I probably fell out of it because I didn’t think I could catch up to the people who were really good, even though every other class I’ve ever taken post-college — singing, social dancing, improv — has been about embracing your beginner status and rejecting the idea that you’re “bad” at anything you don’t know how to do.

One of the amazing things about Tumblr, probably my favorite time-waster, is getting to see all kinds of incredible art all the time. I really love it when these artists share progress updates — this is how far I’ve come in a year. If you just discovered me, I’ve been growing a lot, and you can too!

I want to make comics a habit. It’s an art form that’s excited me my whole life, and actually sitting down to try it, to experiment with visual language and challenge myself to use fewer words, is exhilarating, actually. Getting stale is the worst. Trying new things is great. So, without revealing too much about the process (take the class!), here’s the rough draft of the final, real, nine-panel comics story that I made, with thanks to Virgie Tovar and Agent Carter:

Merle-cards
Her name is Merle Van Der Ellis, and she’s a fashion designer. At least, she started out that way. Turns out I made some discoveries when asked to play around with her. My improv teachers would be so proud!

And here’s what happened when I sat down, smoothed it all out and… actually made a comic, ohmygod:

Merle-final

I know I’ve literally blogged before about how buying art supplies will not make me an artist, but I’m not going to lie: Yesterday I went to Dick Blick and bought some slightly heavier drawing paper, because printer paper was making me nervous about erasing too much and I have all kinds of things I want to keep making and trying. I resisted all the gorgeous pens and colored pencils, but the notepad, I think that’s a good present to myself.

(Sidebar, for real: Summer’s class is a great present to yourself. She’s warm, welcoming and so, so good at what she does. I’ve been admiring her from afar ever since her book The Artist in the Office saved me at my first desk job, and I’m so glad to have gotten to learn from her and my amazing fellow classmates. She makes comics so accessible! Look at me — Miss Perfectionist central, and I’m all ready to keep scribbling and developing my style and skills. Like a beginner. Which is a pretty good place to be.)

Comic: Telemachy, first panels

I look forward to coming back to this image one day and congratulating myself for how far I’ve come. Still, I have to say, despite noseless Odysseus and alien baby Telemachos and any of the other flaws, I liked thinking about how to put this together. Let’s break this down a little.

First panel: “Your father never wanted to go.” Close-up on Telemachos, as he looks down over the island. When I’m a better artist, he’ll have a much more emotive face. He’s frustrated, bitter and resigned to doing nothing about the suitors overrunning his home and courting his unwilling mother. He’s certain his father is dead, and the rest of his family has given up too. His grandfather, Laertes, a king himself, spends his days ragged and sad on his farm, far away from everything. His grandmother, Anticleia, died of grief while her son was away. His mother, Penelope, spends her days in her room, sleeping, crying or weaving. Telemachos lives his life bullied, thinking he deserves better but without the confidence to make that happen himself.

Second panel: “But he did.” A view of the empty harbor. That blotch to the left is supposed to be the town. Ithaka is a society with virtually no men of age left. All the able fighters left with Odysseus for Troy, and are lost. All the nobles of the area are laying siege to Penelope’s bower, and are young themselves. I’m still trying to decide who is narrating these panels, whether it’s Penelope, who may blame her son, just a little, for their circumstance, or Eurykleia, Telemachos’ nursemaid, a slave who basically reared him and loves him dearly.

Third panel: “Great Agamemnon came for him himself. You were just a boy.” Flashback to Odysseus atop the same hill, spotting the black ships of Agamemnon, High King of Mycenae and brother to Menelaus, Helen’s cuckolded husband.

Fourth panel: “Your father wanted nothing to do with that war.” Baby Telemachos cradled in a woman’s arms. He looks like a prop from The X-Files; sorry about that. I had already inked it before I thought of a way to represent him as a toddler (holding onto a woman’s skirts, or leaning against a woman’s legs), which is, from what I remember, more approximately the age he is when Odysseus leaves.

Last summer I took a trip to the Mediterranean. We didn’t get to Greece, sadly, though we did fly over it (I saw the Acropolis from the air!). One of the highlights of the trip, and, if I’m honest, of my life so far, was hiking the trails through Cinque Terre, a series of cliffside villages in the Liguria region of northwest Italy. It’s not an exact match for Ithaka, but as I think on it now, some of the essentials are there.

The bay at Riomaggiore
The cliffs, mid-hike and very high up
The harbor at Monterosso at sunset
I can't help but approve of this. From the Lovers' Walk, the easiest (and first) bit of the trail.
Of course there's a spot for my guy Homer. He's my dead Greek boyfriend from time out of mind.
It would figure that someone would scrawl Odysseus' name right on the rock, unofficially.
We also made it to the Vatican on that trip. This bust of Homer is gorgeous in person.

This post brought to you from my very serious business work space and incredibly highbrow new Domo-kun notebook. It is a response to This item will give you talent! Now you see why I’m craving (though needlessly) a drafting table.

This item will give you talent!

One day, all this could be yours.

Most of the tabs I have open right now are for drafting tables. I am not allowed to have one, but I can’t stop myself. Looking at drafting tables gives me wild, extravagant dreams of using drafting tables, and these days I have one ambition above all: I want to draw comics.

Not just any comic. I want the comic that is the movie I will never get to make. I want the comic about Telemachos, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, who I feel has always gotten short shrift from others who love the Odyssey. I can see it all now: it’ll be so good! Gunnerkrigg Court good! Dare I say it? Sandman good! I have devoted years of my life to this story already, and maybe, just maybe, having all the stuff one uses to make a comic will enable me to churn it out myself.

There’s a snag, of course. I have no experience either writing or drawing comics, and supplies do not an artist make. Not all is lost, though. I do have one thing on my side: I love this story more than I can possibly say, and I think loving the story will compel me to learn how to tell it in a new medium.

When I think about it, this has already been the case in my life. I was introduced to the Odyssey when I was 7 years old. We were on a family car trip, and my mom got the audiobook from the library. I was enthralled from the get-go. The Odyssey is an oral poem, meant to be heard more than read, and I was introduced in the best possible way. When we got to the end of the tapes, I promptly asked to hear the first cassette again. I wound up renewing the audiobook so much that the Athens Public Library banned me from borrowing it, and my parents had to buy it for me.

Some fruits of a lifelong habit

Two things happened. I began seeking out other books related to Homeric epics and Greek myth, and I began writing my own related stories. Hardly a day passed when I didn’t have my nose in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths or Black Ships Before Troy or The Firebrand, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist take on the Iliad. This last I must have read two or three times a year from the time I was 8 until I was a teen. Meanwhile, I was working on my first chapter book. I had been writing little stories since I could type, and making them up since I was much younger. Theatride’s Odyssey was my own sequel, in which the goddess Athena gives a long-lost daughter of Odysseus a magic ring. The ring enables Theatride to turn into any animal she wants, and will aid her in her quest to defeat a far-off tyrant.

I was devoted to that story. I kept a notebook where I jotted out plot ideas and scenes and characters. I wrote it out longhand and then typed it on a typewriter, to make it more official. I even provided a few illustrations. The whole thing lived in a crisp new folder specifically for the story. It wasn’t short, either — by the time I finished it, I think I had twenty-five double-sided sheets. I’ve been writing epics ever since. (Somewhere on an old Macintosh Performa may also be my attempt at epic poetry, a Redwall-style story called Lilywood. The prose stuck more than the poetry, but it was also a direct attempt to mimic Homeric texts.)

The Odyssey was also my gateway into academia. It’s the reason I got into my major at school (we called them concentrations), and I wrote my junior paper, the equivalent of a senior thesis, on Telemachos and why he is both a worthy successor to Odysseus and his own person within the poem. My junior paper remains the hardest I’ve ever worked on a piece of nonfiction. I had never bothered as much as I should have with things like revisions and multiple drafts, so on a technical level, my advisor demanded much more than me just coasting by. Trying to please her made my writing much better, but it was in conversation with her that I truly learned how to analyze and argue. I remain incredibly proud of my junior paper. As I reread it recently, I found myself missing that kind of rigorous engagement. If Homer becomes the reason I go to graduate school, I will laugh.

Telemachos gets me where I live. His story has always been the one that’s moved me most. Odysseus and Penelope may speak to me more when I’m older, but Telemachos is the child of two famous parents who has yet to define himself. He must take control of his actions and his place in society, and he must leave home to do it. Over the course of the poem, we watch him grow up tremendously, and when the poem ends, he is faced with enormous ethical and political questions, not to mention adjusting to a life with his absent father at home. There is nothing dull about him to me, and I am champing at the bit to share that with other people.

Two weeks ago, I wasn’t nearly this passionate. But, as the Homeric poet might say, the god intervened. As I was walking up Broadway with a friend, I spotted the spine of a familiar book on a sidewalk sale cart. It was The Firebrand, which I hadn’t read since I was 12 or 13. I had exact cash in my wallet. I was doomed from the start.

Communing with my childhood

Rereading The Firebrand has been an experience, and a story for another time. I still see why I loved it, and I also catch things that went over my head as a kid. This was the first time I’d encountered a transformative account of the Trojan War, one that didn’t take all the heroics and myth at face value. Achilles is a petulant, amoral brat; Odysseus is a low-class pirate; centaurs are just wild men on horses, and women rule their city-states as Queens with upstart consorts. Our narrator is Kassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, whose prophesies of disaster always come true and are never heeded.

At one point, Odysseus relates how he was conscripted into war against Troy. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae himself, came to Ithaka to fetch him. Rather than leave his wife and young son for a war he wanted no part of, Odysseus feigned madness. He dressed in rags, harnessed an ox and began plowing a field in crooked, erratic lines. Agamemnon was brought to see proof of Odysseus’s unfitness for himself. But he was no fool either: he scooped up toddler Telemachos and set him in the path of his father’s ox. Odysseus had no choice but to swerve, proving him sound of mind. He left for Troy that very day.

Wow, I thought as I read this, what an opening shot. It was totally involuntary. That was the moment it seized me, this need to make this story into a comic, which wouldn’t require all that a filmed version would. The next weekend I found myself in a Border’s liquidation sale, shelling out for huge sketchbooks and a truly lucky find, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, a fabulous textbook for a comics-making course. It’s reading through this that’s made me want a drafting table. I’m dreaming now of t-squares and Ames Lettering Guides. But I’m holding myself back, and not just because I need that money to eat and do laundry.

There’s no sense in buying all the supplies before I know I’m going to use them. I hope this isn’t just a flash in the pan, but I have to earn these things with a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes before I invest in them. Even the storytelling, something I have a lot of practice doing, will need some adjusting as I figure out this new form. If I can make drawing and lettering and panels and ink a regular part of my life, if it becomes something I will do consistently, then maybe we can talk materials. First step: closing these tabs and breaking out some pencils.

I’ve got this, though, cheesy as it might sound. I love this story. Hopefully, when I’m finished, so might you.