1 – CONCEPT
or WTF is BFD?
You have decided to go outside and talk to people you vaguely know, perhaps with the intention of “networking,” but most likely due to the prospect of free food/booze.
QUESTION ONE: Somebody with a good career, and possibly a similarly employed partner, who may even be responsible for multiple children, has just asked you what you do. How do you respond?
A) Tell them you are unemployed or in food service/retail, and hope they don’t judge you as much as you judge yourself.
B) Tell them your job is just “how you pay the rent,” and confess to making comic books.
QUESTION TWO: “Oh comics, do you mean like graphic novels?”
A) Yes, that is correct. I meant graphic novels.
B) Well, sort of, you see, I wouldn’t really call my work novelesque…
C) That’s a publishing term and not a medium, you idiot. Fuck off back to amateur hour.
QUESTION THREE: “What are they about?
B) Oh shit.
It doesn’t matter how many articles have been published in the past 30 years about how comics “aren’t just for kids anymore,” or how many college courses assign Maus or Persepolis every semester, I often feel delusional, or at best ambitious yet wholly misguided, when describing non-Superhero comics to the unfamiliar:
“Well…it’s like…you know Ghost World? They did a movie…not a horror movie, no, it’s more…American Splendor? Paul Giamatti…No? Harvey Pekar, this guy who worked with R. Crumb, you know R. Crumb? Yeah, yeah, “keep on truckin’.” No, nothing like that though…It’s just about kids, hanging out, not really autobiographical, sort of though, I guess “literary,” but that sounds kinda highbrow, which, well…yeah, like Archie I guess, but…” All the while the voice in the back of my head is surging towards the front, telling me to shut up, they don’t care, they were being polite and now you’re making an ass of yourself jabbering away, this is Minnesota goddamnit, and you’ve been talking about yourself for more than two minutes, you are now officially “real different…”
The problem, I’ve come to realize, isn’t so much that the general public is unfamiliar with contemporary comics, it’s that I have no idea how to summarize my work. If I could quickly tell you what BFD is about, it wouldn’t be 250 pages long.
The phone rings – it’s Carl. Scotty answers. Lights go up on stage right, revealing CARL, surrounded by stacks of paper, sketchbooks; his laptop sprouting endless cables – an effective techno-cephalopod. His fingers are covered in ink, which he has unknowingly smeared on his face and t-shirt.
Carl: Hey dude, what’s up?
Scotty: Just trying to write that little process piece thing about BFD.
Carl: Cool. Finishing up layout. You think we should include a summary on the back of the book?
Scotty: Jesus fucking Christ.
Okay, fine, fair enough. I can make like it’s torturous, but it has to be done – hell, it’s why I’m here right now anyway.
What is Big Fucking Deal?
Look at any “Greatest High School Movies” list, the tributes to the late John Hughes, the various critical responses to the High School Musical franchise, or matter-of-fact titles like The Secret Life of the American Teenager and you’ll find a common thread – a search for the story that Finally Gets It Right. The best of the best, it seems, are the movies that capture what it was “really like” being a teenager, that meet the elusive but apparently attainable standard of universal relatability.
And that’s ridiculous. Not only is a story for everybody really just a story for nobody, but it’s damn near impossible to write. Going into BFD I knew the project had fundamental limitations. Chronicling life in the rural Midwest meant chronicling the lives of mostly white kids, and though there’s nothing exactly wrong with that, it certainly meant I had to drop any pretensions of universal relatability right from the beginning.
Nevertheless, I had my issues with the genre, and there were things I set out to fix, to Get Right. The foremost goal with BFD was to write the comic I always wanted to read in high school, but never did, because it hadn’t been written yet. As a teenager I was tired of stories about virginity and prom and cliques and graduation. The shit I thought was interesting about my life seemed to happen just as often in classrooms or basements or backs of cars, on weekday afternoons, in months far away from graduation.
As time went on, and I got older and further removed from my teenage years, I developed a second goal: to not get bored. You know when you’re reading the work of a bored writer. I could tell my story exactly as it happened, pure autobio, but I already know how that story goes. There’d be no surprises in writing it, and likewise no surprises in reading it. In the latter half of BFD (spoiler alert!) some of our heroes go to prom. For two pages. I had a good time at mine, as I recall, and for all I know some people’s lives have changed dramatically on their prom nights. But a bunch of kids just dancing around, having a good time? I’d fall asleep at the keyboard if that went on for more than two pages, and it wouldn’t be a good time at all. And Carl would hate drawing that.
Which brings me to another goal I developed during the project, maybe the most important goal, or at least the most tangible: don’t bore the hell out of Carl. Carl and I went to High School together, and – perhaps more crucially – have spent the subsequent years reminiscing and over-analyzing our experiences together. While the characters and situations and dialog may be mine initially, Carl’s been the first person to hear any idea I’ve had, good or bad, and he’s been right there fleshing them out with me ever since this all started.
But he’s a tougher crowd than most. I don’t say that because he’s hyper-critical (though that wouldn’t be too far off a description). I say it because Carl will have to read and re-read this shit, my shit, more than anyone else ever will. More than me, even. If I’m going to ask one of my best friends to effectively study my writing for a few fucking years, then I better make it damn worth his while. I think I have. I’ve spent plenty of hours worrying about what a reader might think of BFD, but that never gets anywhere and I won’t truly know until some stranger picks it up. But I wrote it for Carl, and I’ve got him hooked. Let’s hope everyone else has his taste. If there were only more like him…
Oh yeah, did I mention that he’s a really fucking good cartoonist? It’d be a goddamned public disservice to make this guy draw bullshit for 250 pages:
Shit, did I just implicitly call BFD a public service?
So, back to the point…what’s BFD about?
In short, Big Fucking Deal is a comic about six high school juniors living in Bluff City, MN in 2006-2007. It’s a coming-of-age story that eschews the traditional rights of passage; a story that says even the smallest moments can be a Big Fucking Deal.
Not too bad. Only took me 1,200 words to get there.
2 – EXECUTION
or Making a Big Fucking Deal
The majority of BFD was written over the course of a year I spent living in Richmond, Virginia, the year after I graduated from college. It was a good year, a great year, one of the best years…but that’s another comic (seriously, with Palmer Foley, it’s gonna be great). Which means that while Carl and I kicked around plenty of BFD in each other’s presence during the preceding few years, the first full draft of the motherfucker was completed while we were half a country apart, while I was working a full-time job washing dishes and chopping broccoli, hosting bizarre theme parties in my apartment, and making a mockumentary. So why embark on such a project?
I don’t know, I didn’t really decide to, it just happened. Like my sexuality or my recurring rabbit dreams or my love of deep-fried seafood (yes, all equally important), the compulsion to create was not a choice, or born out of any rational thinking. You wanna make a comic book about teenagers hanging out for a year? Yes! Why? Too late, I’ve already started!
I can go into the “How?” of it, though. Carl and I get asked about our process a lot, and anybody that’s asked us when we’re both present has had the good fortune of enduring something like 45 minutes of banter between a married couple that raised a comic book instead of a child. So here’s the relatively concise version (thus removing our culpability in talking your ear off should you ask us instead):
Step One: Scotty realizes his outline is bullshit. He wanders around the room, talks to his stuffed rabbits, Googles his name, drinks too much tea, has a beer to balance it out.
Step Two: Scotty eventually cranks out something that resembles a scene. The requisite characters are present, they discuss things that establish their individuality and their potential dynamic, themes are implicitly addressed, and his visual descriptions could best be described as half-assed overcompensation.
Step Three: Scotty does this throughout the script, and finishes it. He e-mails Carl.
Step Four: Carl receives the email. He reads Scotty’s work. He makes note of what he likes, and the times Scotty is asking for way too much (Scotty, that insensitive jerk, totally ignorant to the plight of the cartoonist).
Step Five: Carl and Scotty talk on the phone for hours. This consistently includes a panel-by-panel script analysis, recaps of the last episode of Community, stories of excessive spending at the comic book store, discussions of what should change in the next draft of the script, doom metal, and heaping praises on each other. Aspects of this process were dramatized in their comic “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad…” Here, though Carl is nominally the “artist,” he contributes to the crafting of the story.
Step Six: Scotty, with his sufficiently legible notes from the phone conversation, returns to the script. He is inspired by Carl’s suggestions and enthusiasm and he is focused. The scene gets tighter, retaining the necessary elements, shedding the superfluous ideas, and gaining a visual coherence. Here, though Scotty is nominally the “writer,” he contributes to the visual components of the story.
Step Seven: Carl reads it. It looks good enough to draw. He thumbnails. This will make the initial art less daunting, but also warn of potential problems.
Step Eight: Carl brings the scene to life by depicting the characters as ghosts.
To him, however, it looks more like this:
Step Nine: Scotty approves, because he better. Occasionally he may notice a character’s expression not quite matching his or her dialog, and Carl makes the requisite changes. Occasionally he may notice an issue with a character’s wristbone, but he should keep that shit to himself.
Step Ten: Carl applies ink to the pencils, adding depth and dimension, making the consideration he put into composition now apparent.
He also gets to letter the dialog, which might seem wordy now, but that extended tangent about horse sex is essential to characterization and story, seriously.
Step Eleven: Carl scans the images, and uses software to render it in a clear black and white.
That’s it. A simple eleven-step process, that must be repeated hundreds of times over.
“Archie and the Riverdale gang were a pure and fun-lovin’ bunch. You can’t find dysfunction in those comics, because they were just flat-out wholesome.”
– Banky Edwards, Chasing Amy
I love Archie. Whether I’m writing stories about segregation in America, or comics about the fucked-up psyches of maladjusted teenagers, most everything I write (and read, for that matter) serves as a counterpoint to the unabashedly wholesome world of Archie comics. And that’s why I love them so much. Just as I can find relief in the black-and-white moral universe of Golden-Age superhero or Tintin comics, there’s something appealing about a world where the biggest problem the main character has ever faced is the dual admiration of two unabashedly smitten girls. I can’t identify, but it’s attractive in the same way that any escapist fiction is.
For the most part, however, when I search for Archie books, I search for issues from the 50s-60s. Dan DeCarlo’s pencils and Rudy Lapick’s criminally unsung inks are like a mainline injection of Americana – a medicine I require on a regular basis, especially during baseball offseason. As for what the Riverdale gang was up to in the 80s and 90s, besides solving mysteries on TV and meeting the Punisher, I couldn’t really tell you. There’s 70-odd years of high-school adventures out there to read, which have to get repetitive and can’t be worth comprehensively consuming, so why not just pick the eras with my favorite artwork?
It wasn’t until recently that I noticed the folks over at Archie Comics were up to something, getting mischievous and daring in ways that ol’ Reggie Mantle never dreamed of. Kevin Keller arrived on the Riverdale scene a few years ago, openly gay and proud, and pissing off conservative parents nationwide. A little while later, we got his flash-forward marriage to Clay, an African-American Army Veteran. It’s fucked up and sad that we live in a world where that constitutes provocation, but more power to the not-as-conservative-as-you-think staff of Archie for firing on all cylinders with that character. Then, last month, we got the Occupy Riverdale protests, which gave an explicitly political connotation to the ages-old “Betty or Veronica?” question.
So when I went to the comic book store on Wednesday to pick up the Punisher and Daredevil books I’d fallen behind on, I grabbed the latest Archie as well. They’d been hyping issue 636 since April, and it sounded like another issue with potential for controversy – Archie and the Riverdale gang were swapping genders. What could possibly happen to stir up the rage of the concerned folks across the nation trying to preserve our gender-normative traditions?
As it turns out, very little. Gender-swap stories are nothing new, and Archie #636 does almost nothing new with the idea. Though to be fair, it’d be absurd to expect some sort of 22-page treatise on gender politics in America in an Archie comic. They’d have to make the bigger and bolder step of introducing a transgender character for that conversation to have any real substance. What we get in “The Great Switcheroo” is a universe (brought on by the Sabrina’s cat Salem, himself stuck in the body of the wrong species) in which every character’s gender has been reversed and they don’t realize it. The story sets itself up like many gender-swap story, with characters placing unfair expectations and stereotypes on the other gender, only to be taught a lesson by walking a mile in the other’s shoes. Though the lessons are usually the same and are rather superficial – it’s not any easier being a girl, men can be creeps, it’s so hard to walk in heels – “The Great Switcheroo” gives up on its grass-is-greener setup by not having any character conscious of their switched gender.
There are pros and cons to this. On the negative side, it negates its setup, and the characters don’t learn anything. But positively, and rather unexpectedly for me, not that much is different about the characters fundamentally. Jughead/J.J. is still obsessed with food. Reggie/Regina and Veronica/Ron are still vain, selfish assholes. Betty/Billy is still genuine and well-meaning. Dilton/Dilly is still a nerd. Josie and the Pussycats/Joey and the Junkyard Dogs are still a band. And Archie/Archina is still the most boring protagonist of all time. Too often in the magical gender-swap story there’s the rather unfortunate implication that, at least in regards to male-to-female changes, that common stereotypes are inherent characteristics of the female gender. It’s not worth listing them all here, but if you need some proof, just check out tvtropes and their “laws of gender bending” to see what I’m saying. “The Great Switcheroo” avoids these clichés for the most part, and barring the necessary adjustments in dialogue an character design, the events within the “Reversedale” universe play out almost exactly like they would if the characters were their original gender. So while it (reasonably) ignores the hypothetical questions of how the characters’ personalities would change had they grown up a different gender and experienced different societal pressures, and while the characters don’t learn much about the topic at hand, it at least sends the message to the reader that gender ultimately doesn’t have to mean a thing if we don’t want it to. And while they never telegraph that explicitly, that’s a pretty damn cool claim from people who have spent 70-odd years playing gender straight.
As this post already indicates, I think about gender and sex a lot when it comes to fiction. While it might not be the most visible theme in my comic BFD, it’s certainly one of my biggest concerns as a writer. And, as it happens, Archie is a big influence on BFD for me, as a subject of parody and deconstruction, as well as homage. As a pop culture history snob, it’s a natural habit of mine to view every contemporary work as being written in the tradition of other works, and so for me to write a comic about a group of teenagers growing up in small-town, white-bread America, it’s essential that I have at least a basic understanding of Archie comics. My approach to writing BFD has always been an even mix of tribute and irreverence, and my love/excessive criticism of Archie makes it a perfect source point for a lot of stories. When I’m stuck on a story, Dan DeCarlo-era Archie stories usually bail me out, with my combined reaction of “Damn, that’s clever, let’s try that!” and “Jesus Christ that’s offensive, let’s try subvert that!” Because as much as I love DeCarlo’s Archie work and take it as an influence, my gender-conscious approach to writing BFD runs directly against his career as an artist, especially his pin-up work.
And this points to an ongoing conundrum I have with BFD and my influences. The biggest comics writers that I’m taking cues from in specific regard to BFD are Harvey Pekar, Jaime Henrandez, Alison Bechdel, Frank Doyle, Dan Clowes, and Charles Schulz. You know what all but one of these people have in common? They’re dudes. And while Locas and Ghost World are extremely impressive in terms of female characterization in a world overrun with disproportionate spandex-covered bodies and fridge-stuffing, their work, especially Jaime’s in its earliest stages, is a clear example of male-gazing – the (masterful) work of a young man seemingly obsessed with drawing voluptuous women. Maggie, Hopey, Izzy, and Penny are some of the most well-rounded female characters in the history of comics, yet when it comes right down to it, they are quite evidently a male’s creation. Can I, as someone who identifies as a male, keep my male-ness out of my comic? Can I truly write a gender-neutral comic?
The quick answer is that obviously fucking no one can do that, so I shouldn’t worry about it. But “don’t worry about it” has never kept me from worrying about anything. I know plenty of other male writers who feel the same way (and I at least take that as a better sign than not thinking about it at all). There’s an ongoing stress, especially for those of us who came up through liberal-arts academia, to make something academically bulletproof; a story so ideologically sound that no matter what post-whatever theory class gets their hands on it, it stays untouchable. I know some guys who just flatly refuse to throw their hat in the ring, just bite the traditional male-centric bullet and avoid any unwittingly problematic or flatly false portrayal of a female character. I can empathize. Because with me and with a lot of other male writers, all major characters are Dudes by Default, and it’s usually not until later, either when somebody points out the dearth of women in his work or the fateful day he discovers the Bechdel Test, that women start to enter the picture. And when that happens, it’s a very conscious decision, which means considering all the aforementioned academia-born concerns. And it can feel dumb and clumsy at first. Like most issues, it reminds me of an old Onion headline: “First-Time Novelist Constantly Asking Wife What It’s Like To Be A Woman.” It’s not unlike questions I still get from family and friends about either the girls of BFD or the one story in my book Blackball narrated by a pre-teen girl. “How do you write female characters?” On a bad day, my response is something like this:
“By not asking sexist questions like that!”
But on a better day, it’s a little less aggressive. It’s not about writing women; it’s about writing characters. Kelly, one of the two main protagonists in BFD is a sixteen-going-on-seventeen-year-old girl. When I make decisions regarding what she’ll do or how she’ll react, I do consider her gender and her sex, but only as two aspects of a very multi-faceted person. To be fair, Kelly is my first major female character, and to make things easier, I poured a ton of my own personal and biographical details into her characterization. But as first go, it works. By putting a lot of myself into her character, it forces me to think about my own experiences through a different life, and allows for me to “get into character” a lot more easily. (Yes, I often method act when I write fiction. No, you’re weird.)
So while I will always be a dude and there will always be certain experiences I just can’t ever fully know, I – and other writers like me – can make characters and create universes where gender is almost incidental. For what my opinion is worth on this matter, Incidental Feminism has always struck me as potentially more powerful than the Smart Sexy and Strong Woman. It’s what the Bechdel Test points to – one woman who’s tough and smart and still looks great in a mini doesn’t mean jack shit if all we ever talk about is how she’s a woman and she’s the only woman in sight. When our general cultural output is so male-oriented, a simple story that happens to feature women in roles that traditionally are occupied by Dudes by Default can carry a lot more weight than another story about “kicking ass in a man’s world.”
But of course, no one’s gender or sex is totally incidental. Gender and sex affect all of our lives, every day, in ways explicit and implicit, tangible and intangible. But as writers and creators, we have the opportunity to make universes where things are even just a little bit better. Sure, Archie and Riverdale might seem a little too utopian at times. Maybe the real world wouldn’t accept Kevin Keller and his interracial gay marriage so warmly, but it’s always worth saying that it can.
Oh, and while you patiently for some BFD to surface, check this out: http://www.amazon.com/Parecomic-Michael-Albert-Participatory-Economics/dp/1609804562/ref=tmm_pap_title_0
Carl Thompson takes on Capitalism!