Abigail Hing Wen
Author, Speaker, Traveler, Dreamer

Dear Abby,

I was wondering...

How UNDERSTANDING COMICS helped me write more powerful novels.


How UNDERSTANDING COMICS helped me write more powerful novels, a review by Abigail Hing Wen.

Through The Tollbooth welcomes guest poster Abigail Hing Wen.

When I first arrived at VCFA in a cold, brittle winter, I knew how to string together some 70,000 or so words into a manuscript, with characters and happenings and new worlds to explore. After my editorial work on a law journal and clerking for a judge, I knew how to polish up the baby and make her shiny.

I loved words. I was coming to VCFA to get a masters in writing. But I didn’t just want to grow to be a better forger of them.

I wanted to grow as an artist.

And when I shared this presumptuous desire with my brilliant first semester advisor, Amanda Jenkins, she recommended Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

Understanding Comics gave me the opportunity to study the path of artistic creation in a cousin medium to the novel—yet largely divorced from words. The book helped me to

-Distill the essence of storytelling into panels and pictures.

-Wordlessly consider sequencing, fracturing time and space, the level of granularity with which to depict a character, and how to build an event or idea in a reader’s mind with critical but limited brush strokes.

-Transition from scene to scene, mood to mood, thought to thought.

While I highly recommend reading the whole book from cover to cover, in this post, I focus on the six-step roadmap Understanding Comicsgave me, of the journey beneath the polished surface of story—and how the book pushed me deeper down a path I’d longed to travel, without knowing that such a path existed.

McCloud writes, “Any artist creating any work in any medium will always follow these six steps, whether they realize it or not… But the more a creator learns to command every aspect of his/her art and to understand his/her relationship to it, the more ‘artistic’ concerns are likely to get the upper hand.” P. 182. While these steps of an artist’s journey of growth can develop in any order, “the learning process for most artists is a slow and steady journey from end to beginning.” p. 183.

First, the artist learns surface matters—studying books on anatomy and perspective, drawing techniques combined with months of practice.

“But often,” McCloud writes, “if we bite into that shiny new apple…*crunch!* –hollow.” P. 171

Hard work then gets the artist to the next stage—craft—in which she develops into a skilled scripter and draftsperson that can get her work as an assistant to others, but no further, until she understands the structure beneath the craft, such as pacing, layouts and story.

The artist at this next stage—structure—has the ability to look beneath surface and craft to the whole pictures of pacing, drama, humor, suspense, composition, thematic development and irony. This artist lands his own book and establishes himself as a creator of great skill. For many artists, McCloud suggests, this could be a safe landing point, and before reading his book, I would have been satisfied to reach this milestone.

But McCloud pushes on to yet another stage. The artist begins to invent her own personal idiom. And she “finds the whole of her work changing to suit that idiom.” She is finding her voice, the gift that VCFA gave me, for which I am enormously grateful.

Even here, however, McCloud isn’t satisfied. He pushes onto the last two stages, which he views interchangeably. He asks the fundamental questions: “Why am I doing this?” and “Does this artist want to say something about life through his art or does he want to say something about art itself?” The former McCloud calls the pioneers and revolutionaries, artists who want to shake things up. And the latter are the great storytellers, creators who devote their energies to conveying their messages effectively.

After reading McCloud’s book, I felt motivated to dig deeper—not just beyond surface, my original goal, but beyond craft, structure and voice to finding those core ideas and seeds to plant. I found myself asking my own fundamental questions about my work: do I write more like an impressionistic Monet or a realistic Renoir? Might I try my hand at a more radical Cezanne in a short story? Who are the characters that only I can bring to life? What are the values I hold most dear? What are the stories and struggles that only I can tell?

In my writing, I sometimes find myself swaying back to tried and true archetypes. But increasingly, as I dig deeper, I find myself writing characters and experiences I’ve never read anywhere else. It’s a sometimes frightening place to sit in, but McCloud’s book gives me confidence that it means I’m reaching those deeper places.

Abigail Wen