Guest blogger, Patrick McEown: Characters (2/3)

One of the challenges Hair Shirt posed for me was developing credible characters over an extended narrative, which I’d only attempted once or twice before and very early on in my career. The results of those early efforts were predictably awkward and ungainly, but if they were largely forgettable (regrettable?), they were certainly educational for me. That said, I spent my journeyman years steering (mostly) clear of authorship, opting to illustrate other peoples’ stories rather than stick my neck out as a creator. While I’d learned my craft under the tutelage of some well-respected veterans of the field, my ambitions didn’t always dovetail smoothly with the genres I was working in. Which isn’t to say I wanted to abandon them entirely, but it took some time to find my voice within them and shape them to my purposes.

'Hormones'

'Hormones'

Being short pieces, these later independent forays were light on character (fig. 8, 9, 10, 11), but gradually shifting their weight towards a self-conscious inquiry into the language, or mechanics, of the medium.

'Sour Milks'

'Sour Milks'

As such, they became more directly concerned with questions of form (insofar as it can be credibly separated from content), particularly external infrastructure, sequence and framing, how the imaginary space of the narrative relates to–or unfolds across–the actual space of the page, how the story and characters (or at least my sense of their possibilities) were, to some degree, determined by these configurations of time and space on the printed page. Hints of this had begun to emerge in some of the page layouts of Zombie World: Champion of the Worms, which I’d done with Mike Mignola, and were then explored further in a short story call Wanted Man (fig. 12 &13) for Dark Horse Presents, finally reaching its apex for me in No Escape (Fig.14), a 9-page snakes and ladders-like puzzle/game/narrative in Dave Cooper’s Weasel that read left/right and right/left simultaneously. Queen of Darkness bears some traces of that kind of structural gambit, but I haven’t employed it to nearly the same effect as No Escape in the intervening years. Until recently, that is*.

'Wanted Man'

'Wanted Man'

'No Escape'

Regardless, these preoccupations are largely absent from Hair Shirt, and I think appropriately so, but they still inform the story indirectly. Far from abandoned, they were happily siphoned off by my Master’s thesis, a project explicitly engaged with the unfolding of narrative through both imaginary and real space (Fig. 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21).

The spillover from my illustrative work into my academic pursuits had begun during my undergraduate degree when I made my first large scale drawing called Half-Life (fig. 14a, 14b, 14c) which had followed from some of the themes explored in No Escape, but weren’t really fleshed out until I’d almost completed my graduate studies.

Fig. 14a / 'Half-Life', 7'x12', mixed media on gessoed canvas, 2003.

Fig. 14b

Fig. 14c

This redirection of more overtly formal questions to my academic pursuits allowed me to concentrate on more conventional character development in my storytelling for print. Reciprocally, some of the drawing that emerged from my large-scale academic work helped to shape the direction and tone of Hair Shirt.

The giant Hair Shirt was knitted to my specifications by Andrea Vander Kooij

'White Volume Grey Area Black Mass'

In fact, the importance of these developments in the drawing to the articulation of the characters shouldn’t be understated. While 120 pages is substantial for a graphic novel, it feels a little brief in terms of fully fleshing out characters through expository prose or plot, so the character of the drawing has to do a lot of the heavy lifting. More than simply atmosphere or style, the line work and composition should convey something about the characters’ state of mind, like a pulse or vibration that gains momentum on the page and echoes in the reader’s imagination that sense of swirling or churning movement. Obviously, the drawing in Hair Shirt demonstrates little of the angular or hard edged, clean line sometimes associated with an emotional detachment or critical distance in North American independent comics, but I hope the nervous and wavering mark at least succeeds in conveying some sense of the unease felt by the characters and the instability or tenuousness of their circumstances.

'White Volume Grey Area Black Mass'

Speaking to individual characters is more difficult than describing more generalized qualities of the drawing and story, especially if I want to avoid unduly interpreting the work for the reader. I tried to let the characters evolve in response to some of situations I set up while at other points the situations grew out of dynamics that developed between the characters. It’s a call and response process with your own imagination that gradually introduces a feedback loop into the mix. Things accrue emphasis as they recur and overlap, but they also distort and transform, revealing things to you as you go.

The sculptures are made from scrap paper and found materials

These drawings are 7'x9' and 7'x10', mixed media on gessoed canvas (2008)

'White Volume Grey Area Black Mass'

'White Volume Grey Area Black Mass'

Through this process John and Naomi unexpectedly evolved into ciphers for different aspects of my own personality–as unflattering as that may be–rather than fully rounded individuals in their own right, but as it turns out this is a crux of the story I couldn’t see as clearly in advance of its making. As for the supporting cast, Shazia, like Chris, Ivy, Ian and Kevin, ends up being a bit of a foil for John and Naomi’s struggle, but maintains some integrity as a believable, autonomous figure in her own right. It’s hard to give all the characters their due even with a generous page count. Limitations make for hard but necessary decisions about where to defer to genre conventions or devices like flashbacks, unreliable narrators, dream sequences, first person POV, etc., in order to fit all the things you think are crucial into the narrative.

* see Mike Allred’s Madman 20th Anniversary Monster.

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Hair Shirt by Patrick McEown is published by SelfMadeHero and is available to buy onlineand in all good comic shops and bookstores.

The final instalment of this blog piece will be posted on Thursday morning

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