With the induction of the MFA in comics program one year in, California College of the Arts have launched an ambitious and altogether stirring month-long lecture series, entitled COMICS IN THE CITY, showcasing four select comic creators with diversified industry backgrounds to speak about a range of topics surrounding the comics medium today. Taking place every Friday for the month of July, the inaugural guest of honor was none other than Cathy Malkasian, an Eisner Award-winning cartoonist whose work also includes directing in such seminal ’90s cartoons like RUGRATS and THE WILD THORNBERRYS film. Using her newest graphic novel WAKE UP, PERCY GLOOM as a model to examine the construction of character within a graphic narrative, Cathy delved into her own complex process of attributing layered meaning and purpose in every character as well as the distinct relationship these characters have within the comics framework.
Cathy began her lecture by diving headfirst into the aesthetics of character and addressing the creator’s vital role in establishing a developed character, a pillar in structuring the core of any graphic narrative and an act that is so much more complex than merely matching a face to a persona. Character conception, according to Cathy, relies on the creator’s willingness to get to know and understand each figure in all of its physical and aesthetic permanence, demonstrating her own method of fashioning 3D sculptures as a means of building character authenticity (a point she nailed by gifting members of the audience with some very special handmade PERCY GLOOM soap figurines). At the core of her process, Cathy values a level of abstractness and emotional humanity for her characters, and through this duplicity, character comes to represent an amalgamation of differing ideas, acting as a composite mirror to the range of readers who partake in her work. Although it is clear Cathy draws a lot of her process from her experience storyboarding in animation, the tools and skills she developed to envision character as a flux of experience showcase her matured capacity as a creator who can successfully shift between mediums.
One of the best parts of the lecture was a selection of panels from WAKE UP PERCY GLOOM, neatly organized to perfectly break down each facet of character that serve to unify and strengthen storytelling within a comic. Beginning with exposition, Cathy stressed an awareness of entertainment value, detailing how the use of certain dialogue and visuals can be fed through different characters. In this sense, certain characters can be used as reader’s proxy, therefore allowing particular revelations or truths to unravel for the reader and character simultaneously. Emotional involvement, or sympathy, is key in both comics as well as film and can be executed in similar paralleling fashions. Cathy spotlighted the proximity of character to reader in a panel as a vehicle in establishing sympathy, sharing that the close-up in a still or panel compels a level of connection the reader can feel, and it is often that depiction of vulnerability that can create an emotional link. Similarly, placing a character amongst a sweeping landscape background can reinforce feelings of loneliness or pensiveness, also allowing the reader to feel a deeper sympathy and understanding for a character, for the emotions of the character are communicated without text. Characters have an almost limitless number of ways to create compassion, from characters as foils to flashbacks to shifts in pacing, and Cathy exhibits a quality rare in cartoonists to have work like PERCY GLOOM or TEMPERANCE that effortlessly contain distinct and diverse characters, all of whom require various attention, time, and participation from the reader. From the soft spoken, tight-lipped Percy to the arrogant, loud-mouthed Mr. Tetzel, Cathy knows exactly how to make use of every fragment of a character’s being, making sure every editorial choice ultimately enhances and supports the narrative as a whole.
Continuing on the subject of utilizing the space within the comics form, Cathy then focused on how placement of character can manipulate the reader experience in terms of speed and pacing, also including the type of interaction that plays with the confines of page structure. The inclusion or omittance of text and dialogue can oblige a slower rate of reading, giving the reader room to explore and collaborate with the story. Without dialogue or text to guide the reader’s eye, the rhythm of reading is stunted and allows the reader to linger within and even outside the frame, obstructing the panel page design. Cathy noted how she cherishes this act of lingering, acknowledging the enjoyment in including sudden shifts from chatty and vibrant panels to silent, emotional panels because the reader has to fill in blanks for themselves rather than allowing the narrative to dictate how to go through the story.
No stranger to the artistic forms of animation, painting, acting, and even film, Cathy clearly draws from the breadth of her varied experience, harnessing that multiform repertoire in her process in her newest graphic novel. Besides the kind of casting call she employs in developing her characters, Cathy applies a number of techniques associated with filmmaking, notably through established shots. Voicing an aversion to the sense of disorientation and confusion of location as can be seen in film, Cathy shared her thoughts regarding the depiction of space when constructing a storyworld so fantastical and absurdist, of which can be seen in WAKE UP PERCY GLOOM. Using a wide established shot to begin, the viewer is able to orient him or herself within the storyworld and its landscape. Cathy then uses the next shot as the launching point to divulge and expose more of the surroundings, mimicking the very real sensation of being thrown into a bizarre, new space and the time needed to process an unfamiliar site.
Listening to Cathy speak with such knowledge and insight was truly an inspirational event and perfectly fitted for a new class of MFA in comics students. The amount of precision and undeniable heart Cathy puts into every ounce of her characters, panel construction, and worldbuilding is commendable, filling WAKE UP PERCY GLOOM with the kind of rare wonder that make it a gem in the pool of graphic novels. What made the lecture so refreshing was the opportunity to hear from a comics creator who doesn’t consider herself within the “comics world,” yet whose work is surprisingly inventive and informed. Cathy’s presentation gave weight to the uncertainty of which field of study comics scholarship should exist in, demonstrating the indefinite number of ways comics can be studied and applied.
There are still two more lectures remaining in CCA’s COMICS IN THE CITY series, Jason Shiga and Dash Shaw, which will undoubtedly be as fruitful and stimulating as Cathy’s lecture on character building. Definitely worth checking out if you find yourself in the Bay Area on a Friday evening.
Please take a look at CCA’s COMICS IN THE CITY page for future presentations and further information about the MFA in comics program.
(Photo Credits: Jackie Lo)