Jessica Abel sees each of her books as part of a continuum. From Radio: An Illustrated Guide, to co-editing The Best American Comics series, to Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, to her latest, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio (Broadway Books, August), she views her nonfiction comic books and anthologies as ways to both indulge her curiosity about storytelling and to refine her own way of thinking about narrative. With Out on the Wire, she not only writes for a new generation of radio and podcast producers but for anyone who aspires to push their storytelling skills further – including the author herself.
Abel grew up in Chicago in the '70s, when comics were widely available but largely relegated to the kids' section. She says that she didn't consider herself a comics fan per se, but that changed when she entered high school and began to buy the eye-catching comic books on the spinning metal rack in her local 7-11. She began to read comics on a weekly basis.
During her freshman year of college, she encountered books that fueled her enthusiasm for the medium. One series in particular drew her interest, the Hernandez Brothers's Love and Rockets (Fantagraphics). "There was a huge explosion of comics that weren't for kids anymore," Abel says from Angoulême, France, where she is currently on a Maison des Auteurs residency. She recalls the avant-garde comics that were emerging at the time, including Raw magazine, Maus by Art Spiegelman, and Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise by Gary Panter. Of Love and Rockets in particular, she tells me, "That was the turning point for me, I went from reading comics to wanting to make comics." Soon afterward, she transferred to the University of Chicago to complete her undergraduate degree, where she began to make comics with a student group of aspiring cartoonists.
Why pursue the medium of comics? She told WNYC's Studio 360, "Even though comics is so hard, prose is so limited in its ability to depict facial expressions...It's so incredibly clunky to talk about how a character blinked." She said, "I think in terms of how characters move and act."
She says of making her early comics in the late '80s and early '90s, "I really liked it, and I was getting good feedback from it, right from the very beginning." Between 1992 and 1999, she self-published a series called Artbabe. In 1995, she won a Xeric grant, an award for alternative comics artists, to produce the fifth issue of Artbabe. Two years later, she won the Harvey and Lulu awards for "Best New Talent." (Ultimately, her Artbabe stories were collected in Mirror, Window (An Artbabe Collection), published in 1996 by Fantagraphics.)
In 1998, while living in Mexico City with her then-boyfriend (now husband) cartoonist Matt Madden, she was creating new comics work and listening to the human interest public radio show "This American Life," hosted by Ira Glass. In her blog, she looked back at a pivotal moment: "Imagine my surprise when the phone rang five and a half months after I’d moved, and the voice on the other end said, 'Hi, you don’t know me, but my name is Ira Glass.' Of course, I knew who it was before he even said his name."
Glass and Abel decided to co-create a comic about "This American Life" called Radio: An Illustrated Guide. Sourced from a lecture given by Glass as well as interviews with the show's producers, the book takes the reader through TAL's process of pitching, interviewing, writing, and editing. "As I wrote the book," Abel said in her blog, "I was astounded and pleased to find so many resonances between comics and radio, which I tried to imbed in the work itself. And in some ways, carefully examining Ira’s storytelling style helped me to move forward with my own ideas on storytelling, which one could see as leading me to writing textbooks on comics."
As her career accelerated, she published several graphic books: fiction, nonfiction, and anthologies. There was her graphic novel about a young woman's quest for her roots and search for identity, La Perdida, released as a series by Fantagraphics and then as a graphic novel by Pantheon. She and Madden collaborated on the comics tutorial Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (First Second, 2008) and its follow-up Mastering Comics (First Second, 2012). Most notably, in 2008, the duo became the series editors for The Best American Comics series (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), working with guest editors including comics luminaries Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, and Alison Bechdel to curate the most compelling graphic narratives of the year. Abel says, "It's great because there's so much richness available, but it's really tough" – in part due to the recent influx of online comics content. She and Madden also became teachers at the School of Visual Arts in the B.F.A. program in cartooning. She tells me, "It's part of my whole journey as an artist, thinking about storytelling and narrative. How do you think about it? How do you describe it? Trying to explain that to students...was a really big part of [Out on the Wire]."
Out on the Wire, the follow-up to Radio, is about mastering radio nonfiction storytelling and comes out at a time when radio and podcasting has achieved new heights in terms of its production tools, its reach, and its quality. In the wake of the hit true crime podcast series "Serial," there's never been a greater hunger for true-life, narrative storytelling in the radio format.
The depth and the complexity of Abel's line of inquiry is much more rich in the full-length Out on the Wire than in the slim volume Radio. She invested much more time speaking with top radio producers at NPR and elsewhere. "I was struck over and over again by how thoughtful these producers were about their work," she says, "how much thought they put into really subtle details, like finding authentic voices, finding people who can speak from the heart and embody stories." What emerges from Out on the Wire are not only tips on how to produce radio but, more importantly, guiding principles for telling narrative stories and cultivating honest and unique voices.
But readers of the book need not be limited to aspiring radio and podcast producers. Aside from the chapter on sound editing, she says, "The other four chapters are completely transferrable to almost any other narrative art." She points out, "It was the most amazingly 'meta-' writing process that I've ever participated in."
At the close of Out on the Wire, she reflects on her journey to create the book itself. "It's a weird feeling to be working through all the stages of a massive, unwieldy, unknowable creative project... But it was the book itself that showed me the pathway out of the forest. The things I was investigating and writing about: learning to pay attention to what interests you, finding your voice, building solid structure, collaborating editorially, and even the use of sound, if you think of sound in a comic as the images that play with and against the words – those were exactly, precisely the things I needed to learn in order to make the book."
It's a trajectory that applies to Abel's career overall. By interrogating story structure through her writing and teaching, she has ultimately taught herself how to think more strategically and more ambitiously about the art of the narrative, whether it's told through sound, images, text, or all of the above.
Grace Bello is a freelance writer who writes regularly for PW about comics.