My job: Movies on Paper

[This article first appeared on the website – Paul]

They both employ words and pictures, and there’s always been cross influence. Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates aped the wisecracking dialogue of early MGM talkies. Superman, Batman, and Flash Gordon all became serials. And the parade of comic book movies of the past couple of decades, some directed by former cartoonist Tim Burton, shows no sign of abating. With feet planted in both fields, I’ve learned to appreciate their affinities -- and important differences.

Though I'd grown up loving comics, and was active in comics fanzines in my teens, I discarded early on the notion of creating comics as a career option.

Why? In the mid-seventies it was a narrow field in which creators couldn't own or control their work. They were hired hands for the two or three companies still surviving from a once vast field. Some were brilliant, but they received little for their efforts.

Instead, I went into movie storyboarding. It was a way to do drawing and storytelling -- still, I believe, the highest and best use of art -- without ending up in the comics ghetto. I worked for Disney at first, then went from studio to studio, film to film. Some of my favorites: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Miracle Mile, Strange Brew, The Big Easy.

But I watched comics change dramatically in the eighties. Stores catering to collectors created a market for comics aimed at older, sophisticated readers.

What had once been a field confined to children's literature became as diverse as, say, a big city video store. Older work was reprinted in permanent albums. Creators frequently owned their copyrights and a lucky few became multimillionaires.

Today a huge contingent of skilled creators, drawn to this welcoming environment, produces a dizzying variety of comics. While young males still drive the market, there are comics for nearly every taste: from Neil Gaiman’s witty dark fantasy Sandman to Jeff Smith’s innocent pastoral adventure Bone ; from Joe Sacco’s melancholy reportage in Soba to Joe Matt’s hilarious, embarrassing confessionals in Peep Show. While levels of craft very, I’m convinced the best draughtsmen alive today are working in comics. No other profession (except animation) demands so much concentrated drawing time.

We are in the renaissance of the medium, right now, though recent business setbacks may mean it is in its golden afternoon.

I was one of the stampeding cartoonists drawn to the sunshine. My series Concrete began in 1985 and continues, sporadically, to this day. It was worth leaving the thrilling and lucrative movie business for a particular reason: a way to craft stories that were all mine, requiring minimal intervention by others on its trip from my mind to the reader's (films, of course, are just the opposite, requiring armies of specialists to move financial and logistical mountains).

A lot of the skills are transferable from medium to medium. Stories in comics and film have conflicts and climaxes, images and dialogue. Comics panels need to be composed with as much care as film frames, with attention to overlap and emphasis, perspective and shadows.

There are important differences. Comics, in my opinion, ought to be more literary than film; we have fewer shots to work with, and no acting, timing or music to convey nuance. Words should shoulder more of that burden.

But the most important difference, it seems to me, is that direct communication comics offer, which I mentioned above. Working with paper and pencil and brush, I can create what's pretty close to the end product the reader sees. It's mine to control. It’s not subject to the gauntlet of mitigating influences any film must run (having worked on three drafts of a Concrete movie, I have experience with what screenwriters call “development hell.”).

When Concrete is praised, it’s usually for that personal quality. He’s more a thinker than an actor; his fears of displeasing people, of doing the wrong thing, of failing , all make him the most equivocal character in comics. The internal life of this pathetic, smart, oversensitive rock-coated giant is what’s entertaining about the series.

I’ve also drawn on my own life for story material. Fragile Creature, in which Concrete works on a B-movie crew, grew out of my art directing the horror film After Midnight. Killer Smile is an all-out suspense story in which Concrete’s friend Larry is kidnapped and dragged around my old neighborhood in L.A. as his captor sets fires. Think Like a Mountain has Concrete linking up with some EarthFirst!ers in the area where I now live; at one point he emerges from the sea and breaks into my house. Write what you know, they say (and draw it, too).

Inevitably, too, a writer’s psychology bleeds into his work. Concrete’s coating is something I coveted in early adulthood. Many of his obsessions and foibles are mine (though some are not; and I’m not telling which!).

Orson Welles once said a movie studio is the best model railroad a boy could wish for. Maybe so for that Olympian egotist; fighting the battles to get the right image and sound on screen, shot by shot, are beyond me. For me, the best toy is an 11 x 17 piece of bristol board and a soft pencil.

--Paul Chadwick

Friday Harbor, Wa

October, 1998

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