Jessica Abel talked to me from France a few weeks ago about her new book, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. In the book, she offers an in-depth look at the processes that producers and on-air personalities follow to create the stories we hear on podcasts and radio. Her experiences as a DIY cartoonist, comics journalist, and teacher are all fully utilized in this new work, which follows up from her earlier comic, Radio. Abel is currently living in Angoulême, France, producing a podcast to complement the series and working on Trish Trash, a science fiction graphic novel.
ERIC BUCKLER: What is the advantage of comics over more established forms of journalism?
JESSICA ABEL: I have not worked in other media, so I don’t have a really strong point of comparison as a journalist.
I think one of the advantages that comics has, that comics has always had, is that it can compress a lot of information into a small amount of space using non-verbal communication and metaphor. That can be a disadvantage too, depending on what kind of story you are doing. But for the kind of thing I am doing it’s an advantage, because you can telegraph things like the pacing of a quote. You can show the way it falls in time by how you place word balloons in a panel, for example. And you can do things like evoking soundscape by drawing backgrounds in a certain way. So there are certain things you can do by using non-verbal communication to convey information. I think that is the greatest strength of comics as a journalistic medium. Different people use it in different ways. If you were to ask Joe Sacco, he might say the same thing, but the thing he is doing with it is totally different than what I am doing with it.
Take me through applying your own artistic style to something like a journalistic story.
I’m more on the straight-up information side of things. I think certain people who do comics journalism take a lot more artistic license than I do. The majority of the images that I drew in the book are straight from photos. I mean it’s in my style, it’s comics, but it’s not notably altered from reality. One of the advantages for me in doing this kind of work is that I am really fascinated by the way people’s faces work, their bone structure and the way their faces change when they make certain expressions. I just like drawing those things. That’s good when you are drawing a book full of talking heads. I like gesture, I like thinking about body posture, and I like thinking about how people convey information non-verbally; body language. All those things are things I am doing here.
In terms of style, I have two basic styles I work in in the book. One is a somewhat more stylized, cleaner line, simpler background style that’s meant to indicate a more intellectual level as opposed to a "this happened in real life" level. When I was working I called it the "meta-level." I use that clean line style when we are commenting on something that someone said or some example from a story or whatever. It’s up a level in terms of commentary.
Those drawings are more simplified than ones that are straight from photos, but it’s not an interest of mine in this particular book to get crazy with style.
Is there anything you have to keep in mind while drawing someone like Ira Glass or Jad Abumrad? Anything you do differently than when drawing someone like a character you created or yourself?
No, I don’t think so. I suppose if I had a tendency to exaggerate people in unattractive ways and that was my style, that maybe I would have to be more careful with people who were well known, but I don’t, you know? It’s not my thing.
Again, I like people’s faces and I like their individuality. Like I liked figuring out that Jad [Abumrad, of Radiolab] had a scar under his bottom lip, because he probably cut his lip when he was like a kid or whatever. I figured that out, and I spotted it in all the different photos I had of him, there were moments when it showed and I could really tell.
There were things I observed about these guys’—it was mostly guys—faces that they may have never thought about concretely. Because I have looked at them so much, and drawn them so much. Like Ira’s eyes have a sort of downward angle on the outside corners, I’m not even looking at a picture of him and I can remember that. I know the color of Jay Allison’s eyes. Like, why would I know that normally? I have a familiarity with their faces that is a little odd [Jessica laughs]. I spent a lot of time staring at these producers' faces.
One of my favorite people to draw in the book was Mark Ristich. When I was there—this isn’t always true—but his hair was kind of overgrown and his beard was kind of overgrown, everything was kind of overgrown. So he had all these weird little curls around various places and this kind of swoopy hair and he has a big toothy smile; all of those things made him fun to draw.
How did you become interested in podcasts?
The journey does not really start with podcasting. It starts with This American Life on the radio in Chicago in the mid- ‘90s. I started listening to it before I left Chicago, and then when I moved to Mexico, Matt [cartoonist Matt Madden, Jessica’s husband] and I would stream it on RealAudio on a laptop in Mexico City over like 56.6K baud, dial-up service. It was a nightmare. But we were totally into it, so we did that. Then, when Ira called me and asked me to do the book, it was like this totally insane thing. I was in Mexico City and who was on my phone? I mean, This American Life was a phenomenon at that point, it wasn’t like I was the only person listening to it. It was still niche, we’re talking like 1998 here, but still.
So I did the book and continued to have somewhat of a relationship with Ira, you know, not like seeing him often, but we cross paths. And then I came back to him to talk about doing this new book in 2011, I guess.
Meanwhile, as a cartoonist—I am sure you have experienced this talking to cartoonists at The Comics Journal—we are a core public-radio audience, because we spend insane hours in front of our drawing tables. I can’t listen to talk radio when I am writing, but when I’m not writing I need something to fill that part of my brain. When I’m drawing or sketching and trying to get something down, or especially if I’m inking or doing something that is… it’s not mechanical, but it’s not using the intellectual part of my brain. As soon as that happens? Oh my god, coloring? You need something interesting to listen to. And music, of course, fills the bill to a certain extent, but scratch a cartoonist and you find a radio fan. We listen to radio all the time.
I have this weird history with This American Life and Ira Glass, but beyond that I’m just a cartoonist who listens to the radio like everyone else does. Now, especially living in France, but even before I lived in France, I switched to podcasts. I went from listening to radio, just turning WNYC on all the time, to finding all these shows to listen to, when I want them. Because I’m in France! The only time I can listen to live radio is like when cooking dinner, I can put on like Morning Edition from L.A. So I made that switch 100%.
Meanwhile I am also working on this book, so there’s all of that going on. So, in terms of me writing this book and being involved in it, I don’t make much of a distinction between radio and podcasting. I am not as interested in live radio, I mean, I do like some live talk or interviewing or whatever, but to me that can get sort of samey-samey. There is an incredible variety of things people are doing that have much more of an artistic vision behind them, that are just way more interesting to me.
Also the word podcast is totally stupid. [Buckler laughs.]
Yeah, “radio” as a label has a much more classic feel to it.
You have your own podcast now. Can you tell me about where that came from and what you are doing with it?
As I was working on the book, one of the things that kept coming up was that I had a wealth of material that I couldn’t use. And that is always true, especially when you are doing nonfiction, you always have all this stuff you can’t use. But this was like “this is a lot of really good stuff, maybe I should do a series of blog posts about this?” You know, use my outtakes.
And then I thought, “You know what I could do, I could just cut little bits of audio and stick them in the blog posts.”
And then I was like, “Oh duh, podcast, hello?” That’s what I should be doing.
After I started thinking about this, I realized that there was someone else who has a residency at the Maison des Auteurs [in Angoulême, France, where Abel is also currently in residency] who is American named Benjamin Frisch. He’s a cartoonist who happens to have background in radio production. Which just seemed to me like a sign from fate that it should happen. So he’s been the producer on the thing from the beginning and he is great. He’s been a huge part of what I am doing.
So the podcast is basically jumping off from the book. The book is based around certain storytelling concepts. I am taking that same structure and exploding it outward a little bit, bringing more tape from my archive, a slightly larger variety of ideas surrounding each piece.
I’m also getting more explicitly pedagogical, because the book Out on the Wire is not pedagogical, it’s just sort of talking about these things. It’s specifically meant for anyone who listens to that type of radio, it’s not meant to be a manual, a how-to guide.
But I have that impulse in me [laughs] as an author who has done two textbooks about comics. So there is a part of me that wants to talk about it more explicitly like: Here’s how you do this! So there is an element of that. It’s also more explicitly referencing people who do all sorts of narrative media, not necessarily just radio. It’s a limited series; we’re making one season.
What’s it called?
Out on the Wire. Each of the primary episodes has a topic and is fully written and narrated. It has tape, there is music. I am attempting to make the same style as I’m writing about. So there’s a subject and at the end of each episode there’s a challenge. Not an assignment, but more like ... Here, try this. The challenges build on each other so that ideally a listener builds a story over the course of the season. We have an online group where they can post their work and get feedback.
Every other episode, between the main episodes, there is a workshop episode where we choose work from the online group and have a free-form conversation about it, you know, critique it and talk about it.
When does it end?
Probably in January? It’s gonna be probably 18-22 episodes.
Is it available on iTunes?
Oh yeah. Go to jessicaabel.com/podcast
You appear as the “host” of the book throughout the novel. Can you talk about how you figured out how to pace that, what the rhythm should be of your appearances?
Definitely lots of feedback. It was written with the editorial feedback regularly from Matt and also from my editor Meagan Stacey. Once it was fully formed, she was very involved in the editing process.
I look at the way the thing is structured as being parallel to a radio story, where it is fully written and you have a script, like, there is a reporter who is reporting a story and then plays tape. So the story that I want to tell is my story, and the tape is supporting the story. The tape is saying here is example A, example B, whatever. So, whenever I needed to tell the story, whenever I needed to say here is what my thesis is, then my character would need to be there and tell you that thing. Then, as often as I was able to, I would back off and let somebody else say it. It’s kind of a dance, but I don’t know if there is an overall answer to that question.
How have the producers and hosts you portrayed in the book reacted to it so far?
Mostly they have been over the moon. The response I have gotten has been really, really positive. Anybody I have talked to who actually teaches this stuff or has any contact with younger people who are coming up who have been given the book or being taught it, the response has been great. It has already been adopted at Transom Story Workshop and in various classes in media studies, so yeah, the response has been really great.
Your latest story, available on your website, is a fictional story about a roller derby girl on a future colony of Mars. Do you work on multiple stories at once?
I don’t love to work on multiple projects at once, but I have been doing that. I am not done with Trish Trash. I have one more book left to do. That is what I am launching into now in terms of comics work.
Is it difficult to switch gears?
Because the books are so different, it’s not that hard. If they were more similar and more emotional… For example, I was working on Life Sucks and La Perdida at the same time. That was hard. And I was working on another book then, too. All of them had different tones, everything was different.
Often, I don’t work on them in the same day. One day for one, one day for the other. I don’t recommend this, I don’t think it’s a good idea, but sometimes it’s just where you end up. Out on the Wire is such a totally different intellectual project than Trish Trash, switching is not actually that difficult. They have a different drawing style.
When I was drawing Out on the Wire, that was pretty much all I did for like eight months because we were on a super tight deadline. Matt drew all the backgrounds, I had an intern [Ryan Brewer] helping me lay stuff out...it was just like a production line, like just get this thing out.
Trish Trash is a totally different process and I wasn’t doing it at the same time. Right now I am trying to edit the script for the third volume. I will do that for a couple hours in the morning and then work on this podcast in the afternoon.
Do you prefer one over the other, fiction vs. nonfiction?
They are just different, I’ve always liked having both. I’ve worked in nonfiction anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of my time. Often it’s been the way that I have been able to make money on comics. I had a long-term relationship with my alumni magazine at the University of Chicago. I did a strip for them every two months for six or seven years. I did a number of feature stories for them that were five or six pages long. So I did a bunch of stories over time. You know, nonfiction stories are demanding and annoying in their own way. But it’s a different intellectual project that I appreciate. I don’t think I would ever want to go entirely to one side or the other.
Can you talk about the progression from Radio to Out on the Wire?
The first book I worked on the script and the structure with Ira. So, it’s not entirely written by me, although to great extent the final script is. It’s based on a talk that he used to give about how he made his show. I added stuff to it and codified the stages. Basically it walks through how one show is made, temporally.
What’s the first thing? Well, you have to form a story idea, there is a pitch, what are good pitches like, how do you figure out what the theme of the show is, how’s it gonna stick together, story meetings are like this, how do you interview, how do you write. There are examples literally of a script page and a notes page in the book.
I think it’s still really valuable, people still use it as a textbook even now that the technology has been superseded, because the system has not been superseded.
So at that point I was learning the system, how is a story made in this world, how were they thinking about story structure, how they literally put the thing together. and then I knew that for 12 years until I started working on the next book.
I had this kind of background of knowledge about it, what it’s like to build a radio story. I had done a little editing here and there, I had done a little audio. I felt unintimidated by doing a little voice-over for a comic strip, or something like that, you know recording and then editing it, because I knew what it looked like. So that’s empowering.
And when I started working on the second book my first idea was to follow a chronology again. Initially it was going to be all the shows, then it was going to be Snap Judgment or Planet Money and follow one show, or one piece through. But very quickly I realized that would be super-boring because you would just be going back and forth and seeing the same stages over and over again.
So the I reworked the idea [for Out on the Wire] even before I finished the research. It was gonna be concept-based, not story-based. Then I was really looking at totally different things, and talking to people about totally different things. The line of questioning just totally changed. I got to talk to people about some very interesting intellectual ideas.
The people who’re in the book, they are super-smart people, they know this stuff like the back of their hands. Yet when I come in from the outside, and I take 35 different people’s responses to these questions and I kind of line them up next to each other and say, “look how A B C and F all do the same thing” and I highlight things. It’s been interesting to see how much that clarifies things for the people in the book as well. They are like, “Oh, we do do that, now I understand.” Like, things that they couldn’t see in themselves.
Has making Out on the Wire changed the way you tell, or will tell, a story through comics?
You gotta listen to my podcast! While I was working on the book, I used the concepts in the book on the book. The ideas I was learning from these producers helped me make the book itself. They also influenced my work on Trish Trash, they are influencing my work on the podcast. Going forward, I feel like I have a whole new set of understandings about story that will help me teach better and be a better thinker about story.
The biggest thing that I think has come out of this, the most glaring thing, is the idea of collaboration. Editorial collaboration and brainstorming, the value of that. That is built into their system, it’s hard-baked into how they work. And it’s not in most other narrative art forms, except for maybe TV, with the writer’s room.
We should have it, because it fucking rocks. It works. So that’s what I am trying to build into the podcast, a system where people can actually get some sliver of that kind of creative collaboration in whatever they’re doing instead of feeling isolated in their own home, in their own creative practice. You know, doing something without any kind of creative feedback at all.
Finally, why black and white?
I like black and white. Black and white works. Black and white is like 100 times faster than color. I don’t think that my publisher would have published it in color. What would be the point in a book like this, doing it in color?
I guess, yeah, why wouldn’t that be something dynamic to do?
It’s a very talking-heady book. Certain scenes, the ones people remember, are the ones that are more dramatic and they could have been really nice with color. You know, the Thai river scene, or whatever, would have been really nice in color. The pilot in the centrifuge, I could have done some cool stuff with color. But, like, most of the pages? Would have been like people sitting in front of computer screens. We know what that looks like. Color is not going to add anything to that. And nor would I have done anything creative with it, because that’s not the point, the point is what they say and what they mean.