Neil Gaiman Talks Comics in Union Square

New York City fans of Neil Gaiman, Bryan Lee O’Malley, Gabrielle Bell, or just comic stories in general were treated last night to a discussion between the aforementioned creators and the editors of the recently released Best American Comics 2010 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) collection, illustrators Matt Madden and Jessica Abel.

Gaiman was the guest editor for this year’s collection, responsible for paring down a field of over 100 greats to a small selection indicative of the quality of the comic medium published in 2009. The book features more popular titles such as O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” series, or Robert Crumb’s graphic interpretation of the book of Genesis (aptly titled “Book of Genesis”) alongside quieter releases like Todd Brower and Steve MacIsaac’s “Ex Communication” and Gabrielle Bell’s “Mixed Up Tales.”

The discussion itself was short, limited to about an hour before the audience was lined up for signing, but the topics in no way suffered from the relative brevity. The evolution of comics and their artistic growth in the current day was a particular hot topic, and the atmosphere was congenial and easy.

Click below the cut to read an edited transcript of the proceedings. Enjoy!

Matt Madden: This is the third volume [of Best American Comics] that we’ve been on board of the five total so far. And we have a few guests with us today to talk about the new book and later sign some copies. Our first guest to introduce was born in England and now lives in the U.S. I’m speaking of course, about Gabrielle Bell.

Gabrielle, like Jessica and myself, is a self-taught cartoonist. A lot of cartoonists find their own way and make their way into pro comics by doing self-published mini comics, photocopied books, and recently, webcomics. Gabrielle started self-publishing with a series called “Working at Dead End Jobs” and has gone on to publish a popular semi-autobiographical comic called Lucky, which was also published by Drawn & Quarterly. Her most recent book was Cecil & Jordan in New York, the title story of which was made into a short movie in collaboration with Michel Gondry. She lives in Brooklyn and she is currently working on a top secret graphic novel project.

Gabrielle Bell: Thank you.

Jessica Abel: Our next guest here is Bryan Lee O’Malley, a cartoonist best known for the “Scott Pilgrim” series. Bryan initially went to film school but dropped out. He went on to work on various projects with others for Oni Press until finally convincing them to publish his first graphic novel Lost at Sea which came out in 2003. And we’re very happy that they did because they proceeded to publish his “Scott Pilgrim” series, which began publication in 2004 with volume 1 and recently concluded this year with volume 6. And as many of you know, “Scott Pilgrim” was adapted into a motion picture this year, directed by Edgar Wright and co-written by O’Malley. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Hope Larson, also an excellent cartoonist.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Hello.

Matt Madden: This next bit feels a little bit pro forma but I’ll go through with it anyway. Neil Gaiman is an American author. His first published book was apparently a biography of Duran Duran, if I am correct. Later, he started writing comics, starting with the infamous U.K. science fiction-y series 2000 AD and of course went on to write the seminal Sandman series. Writing comics wasn’t enough for him so he started writing novels and pretty soon he was writing bestsellers like American Gods, Anansi Boys, Coraline, and most recently The Graveyard Book.

That not being enough he also decided to get into writing for TV and film, including a BBC mini-series called Neverwhere and also a recently scripted Doctor Who episode. Obligatory Doctor Who shout-out there… He’s also written scripts for film and had films adapted from his various books, the most recent of those being the animated version of Coraline. Ladies and gentlemen, Neil Gaiman.

Jessica Abel: We wanted to start out very briefly by telling you how we choose the comics for Best American Comics as it tends to be a much debated topic. Basically, Matt and I, as series editors, our responsibility is gathering in everything we can possibly gather, reading as much as we can possibly read, and sifting out the best 100 to 120 comics out of the year. Our year, of course, doesn’t go from January to January but from September 1 to August 31, so [this volume] is for comics from September 2008 to August 2009. And then the way production happens, the book doesn’t come out for a year.

Everything in this book was published by a North American authors making his or her home here, written in English or translated by the author into it.

Matt Madden: Canadians count! We have yet to have a Mexican author but we’re looking for one.

Jessica Abel: We get plenty of books, about 12, 15, 20 boxes of books a year. We read them all—we skim them all—and we’re always going out into the community and asking people to send us stuff, especially if these are things we’re not going to see easily. If it’s an obscure comic or a webcomic we ask you to let us know if you see something great out there that we may or may not have seen.

And once we get those books sorted out we send some boxes out to our guest editor and we ask him or her to come up with a top quarter or fifth of what we send.

Matt Madden: Usually that means sending it to someone’s house but in Neil’s case that meant sending it to his house and then rebounding them off to all the various places in the world. I believe you were in China in one point when you were reading the works that went into this book…

One other thing I wanted to mention was that all the stuff we were reading was stuff that we really liked. Additionally, beyond the things that we send to the guest editor is stuff that the guest editor doesn’t choose but which we really want to promote, so we put that in the back of the book under “Most Notable Comics.”

Neil Gaiman: Things that didn’t get in were fascinating. One artist failed to get in because she was Swedish. I didn’t know she was Swedish! It was a silent comic and the line work looked thoroughly American, but unfortunately, it was Swedish! I still think that we should declare all cartoonists and writers honorary Americans. Nobody would know.

Matt Madden: Comics are considered a very all-American form of media and in that sense all comics are American, even though that’s been complicated by the discovery of much earlier European people making comics, but still…

Neil Gaiman: At that point you get into the way of Scott McCloud and madness and “Are hieroglyphics really comics?”

The nearest that we ever got to having a fight about the selection in this book—and it wasn’t really a fight because it solved, and solved very elegantly—was over the R. Crumb comic “Book of Genesis,” which was far as I was concerned was the most interesting and important comic to come out that year. But it didn’t come out that year! Technically, the publication date was September 2nd.

Matt Madden: Right after the cut-off.

Neil Gaiman: But then we got brilliant, because the first 12 pages were published three weeks before that in The New Yorker summer fiction supplement so technically it had been published. Which is why I got to have some Crumb “Genesis” in there, which made me ridiculously happy.

Matt Madden: What else can you tell us about the experience of sorting through these books and making the decisions about what was going to go into the book?

Neil Gaiman: It was delightful, frustrating, strangely random, eye-opening, and it took me by surprise. And it’s perfectly possible that if, you know, the day that I made my final list…if I had waited another week and made another final list it might have been completely different.

When I started writing comics. And before I started writing comics when I was a journalist and I was trying to write about comics in, um, 1986. ’85 or ’86, I was a journalist in London and I went to my editor and I said, “I want to do a whole article. There’s all this really cool stuff going on. There’s Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore is doing Watchmen, you’ve got Maus happening, Frank Miller’s doing Dark Knight…,” and I said “I want to get a hold of these guys and I want to interview them all and I think I want to write about this.”

And he said, “Well you can’t write about comics.”

And I said, “Why not?”

And he said, “Well, it was [English comics character] Desperate Dan’s 50th birthday in February and we wrote about that. So we can’t write about comics twice in a year.”

And at that point I had this sort of vision of a promised land, this utopia with those golden gleaming spires in which you could write about comics whenever anything interesting happened in comics. And furthermore in which all comics were happening and in which women  did comics and wrote comics! And it was this wonderful magical dreamworld that I lived in.

Matt Madden: [completely deadpan] Sounds amazing.

Neil Gaiman: I actually wrote, I pitched, another article. A big article for the London Sunday Times magazine where I interviewed all the usual suspects and Brian Bolland did a piece, some artwork, all these guys… And I remember never getting a phone call from the editor after I sent in the article. I didn’t get a call back and I was very puzzled so I phoned him and asked, “Did you like it?” and he said, “AH. Yes. Well… I’ve read it and I feel, honestly, Neil I think it lacks balance.”

And I said, “Er, well, I put in balance. What, what…what’s wrong?”

And he said, “Well, these comics…you seem to think they’re a good thing.”

And I realized that I was not going to be able to put the balance that he wanted into the article. He sent me a kill fee that was literally twice what I’d ever been paid for any article ever, but I would have given up the kill fee to have published the article.

So now…we are in that utopia, you know. It’s actually really amazing for me to see how far we literally have come. The joy in editing this book for me is that I got to put in many genres, I put in biography, I put in history, I put in adventure, I put in romance, I put in sort of adult mainstream novel-y stuff, I put in dreams, I was like…whatever you can put in. I got to put all that stuff in there.

And that for me, in terms of what it was like…I got to read everything I wanted to. And then I was spoiled for choice. Then it got hard. And it also got hard from the point of view of—and I don’t know if the other editors had this problem—but for me comics are all about narrative. So the short pieces that were self-contained like little vignettes or short stories, like Gabrielle’s, that was easy. I put it in. I liked it. It went in. Something like “Scott Pilgrim” was horrible! It’s like…it’s a book! It begins, it middles, it ends.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: 8 pages out of 1200!

Neil Gaiman: Exactly. How do I choose? I only get to choose 300 pages because that was all that was going to be published in the year but I’m still going “How long a sequence do I do? What am I trying to say?” It’s not designed episodically…I want it to be satisfying. I want anything you’re getting to give you a flavor of something. Enough of it that you’d go, “You know I might like this. I think I might like this. I like this!”

Matt Madden: Your edition has much longer excerpts than any of the previous editions [of Best American Comics].

Neil Gaiman: Which was mostly because the Linda Barry comic irritated the heck out of me! I love Linda and I love her work and I thought her choices were great. It was that every time something started getting going it would stop and we’d get the next thing. And I was like, “No! You can’t!” It was like four pages of a random novel and then another four pages of a random novel. So I really, that for me was I think the biggest hurdle and the thing that I looked at the most. How long could I get and what would satisfy?

Jessica Abel: I think that’s an issue for the series in general because much of the best work these days is long. When you’re looking through what the best of the year is much of it is going to be longer works, like Bryan’s, and we would prefer to send nothing but short stories to the guest editors, but it’s just not possible.

Matt Madden: Best American Short Comics! I love to brainstorm about an e-book edition where you’d get the entirety of the comic. So it would be, like, all of “Scott Pilgrim,” and all of Asterios Polyp in your one little tablet. Maybe that’s the future.

Neil Gaiman: I certainly think there is a glorious randomness, though. I love the fact that the collection takes you from R. Crumb’s “Genesis” into “Scott Pilgrim” into Asterios Polyp. And from there into that marvelous New Orleans story. You’re bound to get into things that you might not otherwise encounter.

The act of juxtaposition leads to something interesting. It absolutely delights me that we go from Robert Crumb’s “Book of Genesis”—and because we were limited to what was in The New Yorker, it was Adam and Eve happily romping in the Garden of Eden and (if I can use this word in a Barnes & Noble) fornicating, very enthusiastically—but I love that it’s immediately followed by Peter Bagge’s “The War On Fornication.” It’s these lovely strange little juxtapositions that you don’t really plan for but suddenly you have them. You kind of hope you’re creating some kind of weird new art.

Matt Madden: Gabrielle has the distinction of being in more volumes of Best American Comics than anyone else. She’s been in almost every one except for one, maybe? What’s been your experience?

Neil Gaiman: And are you blasé yet?

Gabrielle Bell: No, I’m very excited! It sounds like if I was a week later maybe I wouldn’t have even gotten in… Maybe it’s also because I do do very short pieces, maybe that’s one reason I always get in.

I’ve noticed about all of the stories that have been in Best American Comics is that they’re all about my mother.

Jessica Abel: So all your stories about your mother are in Best American or all the stories in Best American are about your mother?

Gabrielle Bell: No, all of my stories that have been chosen for Best American have been about my mother.

Jessica Abel: Do you feel like that reflects something about those stories?

Gabrielle Bell: People like to see people speak about their mother…?

Jessica Abel: Having chosen three of those stories, I have to say that there’s something really strong about those pieces. The narrative grows out of something very essential.

Matt Madden: Your contributions bring those whole family history element to the book that’s really rich and which I think people are really responding to.

Gabrielle Bell: That’s another thing, usually I just write about my own life, my own existence. And I think the personal, the background of a person, is compelling.

Matt Madden: And Bryan, regarding the issue of truncated excerpts and choosing 8 pages from “Scott Pilgrim.” How many pages is the series?

Bryan Lee O’Malley: It’s just under 1200 that those pages were chosen from. The art [for Best American Comics] got blown up, though, so it feels like more.

Jessica Abel: What did you think about that once we did that?

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Yeah, the original digest size is the official size, but I really like this.

Matt Madden: Would you consider doing a large print edition?

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Yeah, I just saw this book last night but I was like, “Oh wow, this is great!”

Jessica Abel: You do all your screentone—all the greys—not with digital greys but using dot-screen so you were wondering if this would even work…

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Yeah, but I found that blowing it up is okay. Shrinking it down is not okay. It screws up the pattern. It’s all weird.

Jessica Abel: I remember Matt actually really liked the section that Neil picked.

Matt Madden: It was hard to choose…in such a great book what do you pick?

Jessica Abel: There are many, many sections you could pick, but the overall part is so hard…

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Well, the section that you picked is where the characters notice their heads glow, which I thought you picked because the language of comics becomes literal there.

Neil Gaiman and Matt Madden: That’s exactly why.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: I figured it out!

Neil Gaiman: Unfortunately, the next editor won’t go in for that trick!

Matt Madden: I’m also very fond of the word “emanata,” which refers to the sort of flying sweatbeads and motion lines and those little curliques that emanate off of characters in comics and this use of that…the reason is that this was not just a fun silly thing [in this excerpt] but something you can use in a narratively rich way which you do in this sequence in “Scott Pilgrim.”

Bryan Lee O’Malley: I had been throwing it out there for about 800 pages without commenting and then suddenly these characters were commenting on it.

Jessica Abel: It could be interpreted that, before you had the characters comment on it, that it was for the readers.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Yeah, an “it’s for YOU” authorial statement.

Jessica Abel: It indicates an emotional state but as soon as the characters talk about it it becomes a physical condition.

Questions were taken at this point and have been truncated down to their main questions. My recording missed two of them, unfortunately, one of which was the answers to what comics were everyone’s personal favorite in the collection.

We begin with a question about webcomics.

Gabrielle Bell: Getting feedback from the internet has really intensified my artistic process. I mean, I really still love getting a big book, but the internet definitely has its place.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: On the internet. Which is where it should stay.

Matt Madden: Bryan do you feel a sort of kinship with webcomics, is that something you follow?

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Yeah, some of my best friends are web cartoonists and I always kind of have this itch. I kind of started out on the internet before I started publishing “book” books but I don’t know that I would want to serialize something because I’m just drawn to long stories. I did a short story with my wife [Hope Larson] that we put out recently.

Matt Madden: Yeah, we found that; we liked it. It was under consideration in one of the previous editions.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: I don’t mind reading comics on the web, I do read comics on the web. The thing about it is that everyone is on it so there’s tons of comics, just an unimaginable number, and some of them are extremely terrible. It’s unavoidable! But, you know, that’s the internet. That’s how it works. You just have to find someone to find the good stuff…

Jessica Abel: That would be us!

Matt Madden: Neil do you follow webcomics? People of our generation and people of Bryan’s aren’t too far apart in most things but tend to be pretty far apart in this considering that webcomics just came like a tsunami a few years ago.

Neil Gaiman: For me, one minute I was mocking Scott McCloud for his conviction that pretty soon everyone was going to be doing comics on the web and the next I was sidling over to him and saying, “Well, yeah, you were right.”

But I love the fact that actually he was only right in his very basic presumption. That actually the great thing about the web is that you can put them out there. And you do because they’ll have an audience. He was wrong about the reasons why people would put comics on the web, like how you can do animations, or you can fall down for a hundred screens at a time and all these sort of wonderful mad Scott ideas that you can do on the web that you can’t do on paper but actually, no, people were happy doing the same kinds of things they do on paper, they just don’t have to print it!

I love the potential of the whole iPad, tablet-y, Kindle-y, Nook-y electronical [sic] world. I’m perfectly happy to say look, this is really cool, and it’s brilliant. And one of the reasons that I’m convinced that comics—I love the books, but—why the electrical comics have a future is because… I’m almost 50. When you guys sent me my first giant box of comics I had a really really miserable day. I sat there reading comics and thinking, “You know? Maybe I’ve just lost the ability to read comics. I’m not enjoying this work. Maybe I’m becoming a cranky old person. Am I going to be foaming mad and saying, ”Look I know I said was going to do this but I’m not…“?

And then I had an idea. I went down to my local drugstore and I bought the cheapest pair of we-will-blow-things-up-to-an-enormous-size reading glasses and I brought them home and I started going back to these comics and I went, ”Oh!“ I can read the smallest lettering there is and suddenly these comics are re-unfolding for me. And that, that little thing, I’m going, the joy for me of iPads and such is that you can go… [Neil makes the touchscreen expand finger motion].

Jessica Abel: Also you don’t have to carry an enormous box of comics across China.

Neil Gaiman: I don’t! You were sending comics everywhere. I was sending comics back to you from everywhere, it was… I still run into people who say they found some comics after I was there with some notes in them…

Audience Question: What do you hope this book achieves?

Jessica Abel: For me it’s the hope that audiences will pick this up and find work that they’ve never seen before and really delve into the Notable Comics list.

Matt Madden: For really hardcore comics fan, chances are you already know the stuff in the book but will still find something new.

Neil Gaiman: I want two things for this book. I wanted it to act as a sampler. That someone will pick it up and find things that they wouldn’t have known that they liked and that will impel them to go off and explore that creator’s work more. So that was part it.

I also love the idea of something that was a snapshot of comics in 2009. It’s a good cross-section. You can actually look at it and go, ”Oh! This is where we were at in comics in 2009!“ Here is a kind of a taste of everything really interesting that was going in that media in that time. Here are interesting creators that are somewhat famous and interesting creators that no one had ever heard of. Here’s every kind of story that can be told in comics. And that’s what I want.

Jessica Abel: I actually think that that particular function of the book is going to be more and more visible as time passes. So when we get to the 20th volume and we look back at the 5th volume it’s really going to come out that these are the books of 2009.

Neil Gaiman: When I was a kid growing up I used to love things like ”Hugo Award Stories 1967.“ You’d look at it and, oh, this tells me what was happening in the world of science fiction in 1967. It wasn’t what was happening in 1971. I wanted to get that kind of thing in this book.

Gabrielle Bell: I’m also really proud to be part of this Best American series because I grew up reading series like ”Best American Short Stories“ and just the fact that comics are part of that really pleased me and the fact that I am part of that is really exciting.

Audience Question: Do you think it’s getting harder to choose what comics go into Best American Comics as time goes on?

Matt Madden: It gets harder for a couple of different reasons. The main thing is that there’s so much good stuff out there and it’s so spread out. We actually before talked about how when we were first getting into comics in the ’90s you walked into a comic book store and in a single bag you’d come out with everything you would possible want to read that week. A couple pamphlets from Fantagraphics, a couple superhero things, a couple mini-comics… And today there’s such an overwhelming variety of stuff in the comic book store alone, and they’re also in major book stores and major publishers are getting into this.

So it’s very hard to corral the herd of cats that comic publishing is now! New imprints are coming up all the time. Really high quality self-published comics are coming out and of course you have webcomics… It’s just getting harder to track stuff down.

Making the choices isn’t too hard because from our point of view we’re just trying to get to the good stuff.

Jessica Abel: The good stuff still rises to the top. Once we get that stuff it’s not hard to tell what’s really good. Neil’s job was harder than ours because he had to narrow it down out of a large group of good comics. And when you’re talking about the best, 100, 150 pieces is plenty out of 3000 or 4000 comics published in a year.

Another difficult thing is that comics publishers and major publishers procrastinate and we’ll get a lot of stuff in August.

Matt Madden: Send us your books on time, publishers!

Jessica Abel: Yeah, send now!

The process for guest editors is that our editor, Meagan Stacy at Harcourt, gets a list of cartoonists from us who are high profile, have a large body of work, or who we’d love to work with. We also determine based on who we’ve worked with before and who has a book coming out and alternating tastes and approaches. We try not to try and follow the same taste. So we ask them if they’ll do it and sometimes they say, ”Are you kidding?“ and run screaming and sometimes they say ”I would love to!“

Neil Gaiman: In my case I said I can’t do it this year but if you’re interested can I do it the year after?

Matt Madden: I’ve been very pleased with our three year run so far. Last year we had Charles Burns, Neil this year, and we’re not at liberty to announce who our next celebrity editor will be, but it’ll be some time in the next few months. He or she is awesome and you are going to be thrilled.

Neil Gaiman: They told me who he or she was back there and I can assure you that he or she is actually awesome.

Audience Question: How do you come up with your ideas?

Bryan Lee O’Malley: I’m just gonna pass that off to you, Neil. I’ve only had the one idea…

Neil Gaiman: You WORKED that idea. You made it work.

Where do you get ideas… First of all you should never ask people where they get their ideas because we will mock you. And we mock you normally because we are scared and we don’t know, either. Mostly you get ideas from sort of half-daydreaming and sort of half-thinking about something else and very often putting those two things together.

It’s that weird intersection. One moment you’re thinking about goldfish and the next you’re thinking about werewolves and then it suddenly you think, ”What happens if a goldfish gets bitten by a werewolf? What happens at THAT full moon?“ And suddenly you have an idea. And that’s where they come from. Goldfish being bitten by werewolves.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: That’s his next book.

Jessica Abel: Most ideas start out bad but if you work on it enough, you really tease it out, most bad ideas can turn into good ideas. Not always…

Gabrielle Bell: I have a theory about ideas. I was thinking about it and I think it has to do with trauma and suffering… I think that if you go through something difficult the way you can rationalize the pain of it is with an idea. I think if something difficult happens and you learn something new then an idea comes out of that and it’s sort of the price, or reward, for the pain.

I have a story about a girl who turns in to a chair and my friend had this idea because she was having a really hard time living in New York with her boyfriend and she was just feeling all closed in and she just wanted to…turn into a chair. And it was because there was this pain behind it, this intensity of feeling, this experience. And we don’t understand what this experience is but we get the feeling through the idea.

Jessica Abel: Twyla Tharp talks about this in her book. That an idea is the result of two or more disparate elements coming together under pressure.

Gabrielle Bell: Some sort of outcome-able process happens.

Jessica Abel: Where the pressure is essential, and that can come from a kind of personal pain.

Audience Question: What are the themes that have emerged in the American comics landscape in the past few years, or how has it changed?

Neil Gaiman: In my opinion the biggest way the landscape has changed is just in its willingness to kind of go anywhere. The glory of comics has always been that comics is a medium that gets mistaken for a genre. People look at comics and go, ”Well, comics is a genre” and that actually allows you to do anything, any kind of genre, any story that you can tell using words and pictures can be told in comics. And sometimes anything that can be told using only pictures can be told in comics.

And for me, really, the biggest change has been watching the embracing of that becoming more and more mainstream. Again, just the idea that we live in a world where the bestselling comic of the year was Robert Crumb retelling—completely literally—the Book of Genesis. There are weird things that does to my head…

Chris Greenland was impressed by how orderly the event was. It was as if everyone had already finished queuing up in their heads and were now using their free time to buy a book or eat a sandwich.


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