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Comics Aren’t Just For Eyes Anymore

I’ve gotten tired of doing the same thing for the past twenty years. I’ve been going to conventions all that time and seeing the same people over again. Don’t get me wrong, many of my best friends are cartoonists and I’m one of those same people. I have no desire to abandon comics, but it seems limited now. There’s a prevalent fine art and literary aesthetic I appreciate, yet I don’t feel like I fit in. I’ve never done a particularly long story—mainly it’s just jokes in short bursts. I feel my work is not exactly comics, but more comedy in comics form. It must be insulting to those artists who spend a year working on a graphic novel when much of my work is one-panel gag cartoons.

The one common ground all cartoonists have is a self-deprecating narcissism. We all take turns talking each other off building ledges. At the same time there’s a desire to be seen and liked by everyone. That’s why I’ve decided the best venue for my own work is through performed readings, with my comics projected on slides. However, I don’t have the same charisma a stand-up comic would. I don’t aspire to be on Saturday Night Live or in movies. At 43, I feel I’m too old to be “paying my dues.” I’m nervous talking to people one-on-one, but I don’t have the same fear getting up and talking in front of an audience. I could even be naked if I had to. (I have no idea what circumstances would require that, though.)

Almost everyone else I have talked to about this confesses to being shy in “real life” and claims that performing allows the Mr. Hyde in them to come out. Slide readings are like stand-up comedy without the need to memorize material, or even stand up. Tom Hart has taught at the School of Visual Arts and now at his own school, SAW. Teaching is somewhat of a performance in itself. He used to host a semi-annual event at the KGB bar in New York. “I’m a jealous theater-wannabe, so this is my way of being in the theater, of putting on plays, acting and directing,” he says. “I like the shared experience, and the way performing transforms a story.”

Part of the thrill for me is not knowing what to expect. Cartoonists all have different opinions about it. Domitille Collardey agrees it’s a different language. “Reading comics in public is just generally super exciting and scary,” she says. “Because it’s stuff you’ve thought about and made in a weird state of isolation most of the time, and suddenly you’re displaying all this weirdness to strangers.” Shannon Wheeler compares reading and speaking in public to “catching a butterfly with a net and then smashing that same butterfly with a sledge hammer.”

Dean Haspiel feels cartooning and performing are different media entirely. “Most of the text I write sounds absurd when read aloud,” he says. “Like novels, comics are co-authored by the reader, who fill in the blanks, and bring their sensibilities to the story. Reading comics out loud shifts the focus to the author and/or actors. Which isn’t necessarily prohibitive but probably not the best version of the story to indulge. It becomes more of an avant-garde performance piece than a comic.”

Slide readings of one’s work is not exactly new. Vaughn Bode did it a lot touring college campuses. R. Sikoryak has been doing Carousel roughly once a month for years. There are many events like this, usually with four or five cartoonists and comedians and lasting 30 to 45 minutes. Having done it for years, Mr. Sikoryak has the process down pat, and he’s also assisted when it’s needed to promote other publications. Participants at Carousel have included Lauren Weinstein, Jason Little, Emily Flake, Danny Hellman, Lisa Hanawalt, Matthew Thurber, and Karen Sneider, among others I’ll mention further on. (As a cartoonist myself, I know how frustrating it can be not being mentioned. If you’re reading this and you weren’t included but should have been, all I can say is I’m sorry. Please don’t hurt me.)

Not everything’s always perfect. There’s not always the captive audience you expected. Sometimes there’s miscommunication between you and the host. Sometimes it isn’t all prepared in advance and you’ll have to wait for someone to get a VGA cable (nobody actually uses slides). Michael Kupperman once went to the Luna Lounge where he performed Crimestoppers’ Club with Kate Beaton (and now Julia Wertz) to find it closed down without his being told. Leela Corman recalls one time the curtain the pages her book was projected onto constantly kept falling down while reading. I did one event at the New York Comic-Con (which despite the title is more about comic-like things) where nobody cared the we were there. It was in a large room with mostly through-traffic. A kid walked up to me while I was performing to ask when the Star Wars trivia contest was coming up. I shooed him away, and he turned back around to ask a follow-up question. Incidents like this are few and far between, though.

The ones that have worked best for me are the performances for children. There you get a chance to have them participate, which they like. The strips I’ve done for Nickelodeon are all silent but it allows me the opportunity to have kids are picked from the audience make up dialog for it. Another strip involves the characters using bubble wrap, which I pass out for the kids to use in sync. I have to make sure I’m the last performer when I do this, because kids will continue to use it when I’m done and it’s not fair for anyone that might be following me.

Kupperman, Beaton, and Wertz are the names that come up most often when I’ve asked others who they think are the best at this. They are also the ones I know who have done it the most, often in non-comics venues. You get better chops the more you do it, like I’m trying to do, and like a concert it’s an opportunity to try out new material and figure out what works. Practice makes perfect. Domitille Collardey concurs: “Having a live audience can help tell you what’s right and wrong and how to pace yourself better.”

Even when it’s 30 to 50 people, you still get a better response with people in front of you than you do from the hundreds or thousands that read something by you in their own home. It can make people more aware of your work in the future. There are people there who would rather be seen at an adult bookstore than a comic store who would like your stuff but otherwise wouldn’t be aware it. “When zines don’t sell at convention tables,” says Lizz Hickey, “or you don’t have enough hits on your website that week, at least you can feel satisfaction when people laugh and enjoy your performance during a comic reading.” Dean Haspiel also feels these readings woo new readers, adding, “I’ve definitely converted hesitant readers into picking up comic books after performing the bastardized version, and that’s worth it to me.”

Like I said before, this works best with humorous comics, at least when it’s not an event solely to plug your own book. I’m not just saying this because it’s my own forte. It’s different from comics for print. Shannon Wheeler feels his best reactions come when he uses “less words. More pauses. Less subtlety. Sex or farts always gets a laugh.” San Diego resident David King co-hosted a performance last summer to coincide with the annual Comicon. “I feel like you have to do brief humor comics or the audience just goes to sleep,” he says. “I tried reading my more non-funny stuff and it didn’t go over, I completely died.” Timing has a lot to do with it, as well as whether music and sound effects are used.

I and many contemporaries have worked with all kinds of people in all kinds of venues, the only thing missing is … I need to find a way to make money from this.

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17 Responses to Comics Aren’t Just For Eyes Anymore

  1. Chris says:

    The worst “comic performance” I ever saw was during Chester Brown’s book tour for Louis Riel. In the middle of a crowded store, with a noisy Harry Potter event going on upstairs, Chester informed his audience the store didn’t have a projector for his slides, so he picked up one of his books and (nearly inaudibly) read a lengthy strip. We never got to see the art, he would describe panel by panel for us; “This next panel is a drawing a man shoving a psyhciatrist aside and he’s saying…” This went on for an excruciating fifteen or so minutes.

    The best was Dave Sim reading sections of Cerebus. Now that guy’s got a voice for the stage.

    Nice to see you’ve got a bunch of new (to me) stuff on line. I’m sad I haven’t seen a new Magic Whistle in so long, but still read through the old ones for a good laugh. He Aims To Please is perhaps one of my favorite characters of all time.

  2. TimR says:

    I taught a caricature class for a group of kids recently and it made me wonder about those “chalk talks” Winsor McKay and other cartoonists used to do in vaudeville days. I’ve never seen any informative sources about those, just brief references. I wonder if you could adapt some things from what those guys did.

  3. TimR says:

    and now I see that’s being used as the blog art thing today, so I’m being duplicative…

  4. Sam Henderson says:

    Animations from the turn of last century are something I should have brought up. Particular the one where McCay “commands” Gertie. Good point.

    Chris, glad you like my stuff. MW #12 is finished, it’s not all reprints from the web, and should be ready in November. I know periodical comics are out of vogue, but I’m doing them anyway.

  5. The “best” reading I’ve seen was from Ben Katchor at The Art Director’s Club. The projected image unpacks much of the detail that gets lost in the printed reduction and his voice hits his language perfectly.

    It probably stands as one of the top stage performances, now that I think of it.

    Kupperman is great. His stuff is funny on the page. His performances amplify the humor.

    Katchor’s read added a whole new angle to his work making it stronger and somehow different from the reading experience.

  6. For a few years now Bernard Caleo has been getting right into Kamishibai – the “Japanese art of paper theatre”. It’s more traditional storytelling – often with music, not quite so related to stand up comedy as these other events seem to be, but still a good time. He blogs about it here, and there’s a video up here, but obviously it’s not quite the same as in person.

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  8. Corey says:

    I agree, performing a comic is an eye opening experience. I saw Eric Drooker perform parts from his comics Flood and Bloodsong, and it blew my mind. As he went through the the wordless slides, he had different sound effects play, and at one point even played harmonica.

    I’ve since taken to drawing comics to music, and performing it as a musical slideshow with a collaborating musician, and have even taken that a step further and actually draw to the music, presenting the act of drawing as a performance:
    http://youtu.be/3IzOfuWH5ec

    And yes, our best show was in a library for kids. We gave them paper and crayons to draw along to the music and they loved it!

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  10. Sam Henderson says:

    I should also add that Robyn Chapman is continuing the KGB events from Tom Hart and I only made this NYC-centric because that’s where I am. Anybody else is welcome to continue stories of events from other parts of the country (or world).

  11. Lyra Hill says:

    I’ve been running a comics reading series called Brain Frame [brainframe.tumblr.com] in Chicago for the past year, and it’s really be an eye-opening experience. Brain Frame puts a big emphasis on the performative aspects, as opposed to straightforward readings – I did a reading once in a ten foot tall nightmare costume, with live horror movie sound effects, a vocal distortion pedal, and a smoke machine (it was great). Readers bring all kinds of things to the table, from music to actors to avant-garde exercise routines. I’m constantly surprised and inspired and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The audience was about 40 at the first show; the past three events have been completely packed, with people sitting on the floor and and lining the walls (the room holds about 120). Now, I can’t start working on a new comic without also planning its presentation.

    Thank you for this write up. I’ve been interested to learn about other people doing similar things, and you’ve provided a ton of great resources.

  12. Doug Skinner says:

    Hey, Sam, you didn’t mention me, so I’ll have to hurt you. I’ve been doing this for about 30 years; I’ve also performed a lot on stage and TV, so I try to bring that experience to it.

    I was part of that first Carousel series — Bob called it Slidemasters back then, and we did use slides. Perhaps the most memorable evening was the time we showed up to perform in a bar on the Bowery, only to find out that it was a sex club that had just been closed down by the cops. Ah, memories. I’ll be in the next Carousel, Sept. 12; be there!

  13. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    I’ve seen Ben Katchor do his narrative readings twice. I might go so far as to say that this is the definitive way to experience his material.

  14. Agreed. If you can see him talk, it adds another dimension to his work.

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  16. R. Sikoryak says:

    Great article, Sam! Thanks for the plug and links.

    Regarding “making money from this” — for myself, I’ve found that theater (even more so than comics) is mainly a hobby rather than a career. If you come up with something, let me know!

    Still, there’s absolutely nothing like a live audience.

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