from "Johnny Hiro" by Fred Chao
By Patrick A. Reed
Saturday evening, I lucked into attending one of the more interesting and off-beat panels of the entire New York Comic Con weekend. The World Of Graphic Novels was moderated by Scott Robins (author of "A Parent's Guide To The Best Kids' Comics"), and featured a variety of writers and artists discussing the importance of setting their stories in believable worlds, be they real-life settings or alien planets. (Raina Telgemeier was scheduled to take part, but had to cancel her appearance, leaving this as one of far too many panels over the weekend that proceeded without a single woman participant.)
Fred Chao, creator of the "Johnny Hiro" graphic novel, described his process as one that usually uses the real world as a springboard, citing his life in New York as a source of constant inspiration. He takes an idea, researches the details, considers what he learns from different angles (economical, political), and then throws in unexpected elements to create a dramatic conflict: "For example, what happens when a dinosaur appears in New York City at night? What does Bloomberg do to keep the real estate up when people are scared?"
Tyler Crook, artist of "Petrograd" (a historical graphic novel about WW1 Russia), stressed the importance of research and internal logic: "setting up rules not just for the way things look, but the way the world works".
Zack Giallongo discussed his work creating "Broxo", a YA fantasy tale of young barbarians on the run, and the amount of work that gets put in for virtually invisible effects. He spoke of the importance of making something that feels right on an innate level, that works without too much thought, the neccesity of "understanding the realities of what people understand".
As with most discussions of this type, things really took off once the panelists stopped simply answering questions and began to interact with each other. Ben Hatke, creator of the "Zita The Space Girl" series, commented that an individual vision is more important than worrying about absolute originality, that "you're not gonna make anything new, but you can make it yours". Orpheus Collar (artist/adaptor of "The Red Pyramid") agreed, expanded on how important research is to an artist, cited google images as a great source of inspiration, and even offered an enthusiastic endorsement of freeze-dried animals for life drawing reference: "You can get these bats in great poses!"
Hatke told of how reference is a vital part of his process, even though the stories he tells are set far from earth – he looks through old Smithsonian books to come up with ideas for new creatures, and goes from there. Chao commented that again, he simply gets inspired by his everyday surroundings, and it doesn't take much to add elements of the fantastic to that: "It all feels real! New York is the craziest place in the world!" Crook offered the advice to creators that "the world exists, so you should just go and look at it". And Hatke summed it up nicely: "most of us can only pull experiential knowledge from this world…you're not going to come up with anything more fantastic that what exists here".
Despite the process-oriented discussion, this panel was an absolute blast to listen in on – it could easily have gotten overly heady and technical, but the group's passion and enthusiasm for their work kept everything entertaining and quick-moving.
My personal favorite moment was a small one: the moderator asking the crowd "how many aspiring creators do we have here?" A smattering of hands were raised, and were met with applause from the panelists onstage. It was a great moment of interaction with the audience, and a sincere gesture of encouragement for everyone out there with a desire to create.
(Supplemental note: "Zita The Space Gir"l and "Broxo" are published by First:Second, "Petrograd" is published by Oni Press, "Johnny Hiro" is published by Tor Books, the "Red Pyramid" graphic novel is published by Hyperion, "A Parent's Guide To The Best Kids' Comics" is published by Krause Publications.)