I‘VE BEEN INTERESTED FOR AWHILE IN HOW comics authors do live readings of their work. Douglas Wolk is fond of saying that when we “read” a comic book, we aren’t just reading; we’re also looking. He points out that we don’t really have a word for the way we get the information from a comic book (in fact, I put quotes around “read” in the sentence above and the title because I couldn’t come up with a better word).
So, you can imagine why coming up with a good way to do a public reading is a challenge. At readings I’ve attended, authors have always had to get around this obstacle. Judd Winick read the words and described the pictures. Paul Hornschemeier invited members of the audience to act scenes out with him in a puppet show. Mike and Laura Allred simply handed out free comics and invited the audience to read along.
Add Shannon Wheeler to the innovators. Thursday night at the Powell’s Books on Hawthorne, Wheeler gave a reading from his latest book, Screw Heaven, When I Die I’m Going to Mars, aided by a projector, but that was only part of the event. To give an insight into his creative process, he first drew a comic strip with audience participation, taking suggestions as to characters, action, and the punchline. It was quiet at first, but one of Wheeler’s twin sons got the game rolling with the first suggestion, and after that the rest of the crowd spoke up.
Next, the reading. Since Screw Heaven is mostly a collection of comic strips, most of the individual stories don’t offer lengthy reads. However, Wheeler was able to increase our investment in each strip and give them time by actually re-drawing each one on the projector as he explained where the joke came from. This was both an engaging window into his thought process and a way to enjoy the strips without them speeding by.
The longest part of the reading was the “Architorture” story from the book, eight pages on sleepless nights spent completing a project at UC Berkeley. Here Wheeler came up with one of the better methods I’ve seen of mixing words and picture live (though it’s hard to beat free Madman comics): projecting each panel individually with the words removed, reading those himself from the book. When a panel finished, he swapped transparencies, sometime adding limited animation by having an image scroll from one side to the other or, in one instance, fall from the bottom as a character passes out.
Comics readings are becoming more common as bookstores come to accept comics more and more, so this is an issue that authors are increasingly going to face. I find it really exciting that they’re coming up with so many different and inventive ways to present their work publicly. I hope that authors continue to try new ideas at readings and that the events continue to feel so unique.
The Oregonian‘s Steve Duin covers the rest of the event, including a discussion of the Too Much Coffee Man Opera.