In the video presentation for her Kickstarter project, Jessica Abel confesses, "I haven't drawn a substantial comics project since [La Perdida for Pantheon]. That was six years ago." But Abel and husband and fellow cartoonist, Matt Madden, have finished Mastering Comics, the follow-up volume to their comics textbook, Words and Pictures, which will be released in May by First Second. Now the two plan to take a year’s sabbatical and get back to work on their own comics.
That’s also where Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site that allows people to pledge financial support to creative projects, comes in. Kickstarter has become increasingly popular as way for independent cartoonists to raise the funds for new publishing projects. To motivate herself to go back, literally, to the drawing board, Abel sought online donations of $5 to $150 in return for her artwork—much like an NPR pledge drive, supporters are offered premiums in exchange for donations. The Kickstarter project also offered an opportunity to introduce Abel’s promising manuscript-in-progress, Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars.
The six-year drawing hiatus, though a bit of a setback now, was well-deserved. For years, Abel and husband Matt Madden, have been juggling their personal projects while teaching, creating comics textbooks, editing Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s The Best American Comics anthology series, marketing their books, and raising their two young children. Sitting in their studio lined with a threadbare rug in their Brooklyn apartment, Abel says, "We're kind of used to this pace. We have to make a living. How can you be a cartoonist and not have a day job?" However, they are trying to figure out how to focus more on their art without, in Abel's words, "multitasking to the point of insanity." To that end, the couple will take a one-year sabbatical in August, uprooting themselves from Sunset Park and heading to France.
Abel and Madden have taught young, aspiring graphic novelists in the cartooning department at the School of Visual Arts for about a decade. And for the past five years, Abel and Madden have been creating comics textbooks: Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, published in 2008, and Mastering Comics, to be released in May. The Drawing Words manual discusses story structure, lettering, inking, and characters. (In fact, Abel's new character Trish Trash arose from a few prompts by Madden, which you can find on page 140 of the book.) The website for Drawing Words, which they update regularly, provides resources including interviews with fellow cartoonists and social media marketing tips. Judging by the number of tweets and Facebook shares from the website, it has an eager following. Though Scott McCloud called the guide "a goldmine of essential information," it hasn't yielded a goldmine of essential royalties, and the couple is currently working on expanding the book's market share in high schools.
A few years prior to writing Drawing Words, Madden created the book 99 Ways to Tell a Story, inspired by Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style. Not a textbook, more like a treatise, the pages explore 99 retellings—99 distinctive visual styles—of the same, simple anecdote: Madden steps away from his drawing table and gets distracted. Such a project is a natural fit for Madden, who adores playing with visual and narrative structure of his comics: "What gets me going is playing around with the process. Structure is the empty scaffold. It's only after I have the structure that I find my theme." He has also explored different storytelling formats in his short comics. One story took the form of a pantoum, in which sequences repeat from page to page, a device he used in order to illustrate an old woman's slippery hold on her own memory.
Though his earlier experimental comics are out of print, he has been lauded for his translations of others' work including the 2010 French comic The Zabîme Sisters by Aristophane. "I'm not interested in self-publishing my [previous] work," he says, though in the same breath he cites the recent self-distribution success of comedian Louis C.K. Madden does intend to mete out his earlier stories digitally for the web and the iPad and, if the response is enthusiastic, get those comics back into print. After years of working on the textbooks, treatise, and translations, he says, "I want to go back to being an artist again."
Abel, in the meantime, is embarking on a couple of projects. One of them is still in the proposal phase and under wraps. However, she did say that it would be non-fiction and involve reportage, a new avenue for her. The other undertaking is, of course, her aforementioned return to drawing graphic novels after six years. What began with Madden's character prompts from Drawing Words—"cheerful, spiked collar, X-games"—has become a vast world which Abel describes as "kind of serious and grungy." "Trish Trash is long form," she says, "and my first time doing sci-fi." With the help of her assistant Lydia Roberts, Abel is in the throes of drawing the book (hopefully, she says, the first book of a trilogy) for the French publisher Dargaud. Ultimately, she envisions Trish Trash as a full color 250-page story.
She says of her creative process, "The first comics I ever did were boring. Nothing would happen. Now I focus on the narrative arc. That's where the compulsion comes from, making more worlds and building more relationships. I just want to keep exploring and building." If anything, she is overly ambitious: teaching two classes for SVA, marketing Drawing Words, co-curating The Best American Comics, and raising two kids. Abel hopes that the move to France this fall will allow her to home in on her new opus.
Also on Abel and Madden's plate is The Best American Comics series, which they've co-edited each year since 2007. With crucial administrative help from four interns, Abel and Madden methodically sift for the top comics gems, though 2012 guest editor Françoise Mouly, art director of The New Yorker and publisher of the comics for pre-schoolers house, Toon Books, decides who makes the final cut. Says Madden, "The variety of people and stories is just staggering. From looking at all of them, I get a lot of inspiration...and also frustration because I need to get back to doing my personal work."
As Abel and Madden shift their focus from the comics community back to their own projects, they reflect on how essential these past years of toiling have been. Madden says, "I kind of have a nonromantic vision of the art process. It takes hard work, distancing yourself. It's like Chuck Close said," at this point, he consults Google for the exact quote. "'Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work.'" Abel agrees, "The richer the preparation, the better the work is going to be."
"All of which is to say," muses Jessica, "now we need to quit more jobs."