Thursday, September 27, 2012

Blog 8: Designing Graphic eTextbooks,
Part 1: Developing the Narratives

            Time to get practical!

            Theorizing about philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific applications in developing graphic textbooks is all well-and-good, but what is the best way to develop them? Today's blog will look at creating the stories, and Blog 9 will be about art on a digital platform. To be clear, this is not a blog entry about how to write. I will not begin to tell people how to write, and there are too many great books about creative writing out there for me to have anything different to add (Story by Robert McKee is one of the best). What I do want to talk about is how to develop them for the market.

Past is Prologue: Learning From Graphic Novels

            Some people question whether or not a serialized comic that is later collected into one volume should be considered a graphic novel. Serialization is not an uncommon practice in publishing and has provided creators a means of supporting themselves while producing larger works for centuries. For example, Charles Dicken’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836), was originally serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany; Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in 1984, and ran for twenty-four installments;  while Stephen King’s The Green Mile (1996) was published as a six-part serial novel before it was collected into one volume. It can be argued that what has been acceptable in literature should also apply to graphic novels. Yes, I know I said in Blog 2 that graphic novels are not literature, but it doesn’t mean that we cannot appropriate certain elements, and apply them to this literate art form. Why reinvent the wheel, right?

            Many of these questions regarding format for graphic narratives fall into gray areas. If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then how do we calculate the “word” count in a graphic novel? When is a graphic novel truly of novel length? Since there is no mutually agreed upon way around this particular enigma, the appropriation of literary vernacular, such as short story, novelette, novella, and novel, needs to be addressed and adapted—with provisions. Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, the professional organization that administrates the Nebula Awards, defines these literary terms on their website as follows:

• Short Story: less than 7,500 words;

• Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;

• Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words

• Novel: 40,000 words or more.

            In terms of storytelling there is no agreement on a balance between words and pictures for graphic narratives, and there should never be, because revealing the story drives both. Certainly, some creators can do more with less pages than others, and a few silent panels (a wordless sequence) can be filled with emotional and/or connotative meanings that would take pages in a text-only story, so no matter where we draw the line it will be an arbitrary one. Legendary comic book creator and graphic novelist, Jim Steranko believes that a “true” graphic novel needs to be at least 100 pages (Steranko, 2010). While 100 pages is an easy number to remember, it is also very calculated.

            Comic books have traditionally been printed in 16-page sections called signatures. The standard comic book pamphlet is 32 pages, or two signatures. This is followed by books with pages counts of 48, 64, and 96 – just four pages short of Steranko’s magic number. According to Steranko, a graphic short story would range from 1–49 pages, a graphic novella would be between 50–99 pages, and a graphic novel would be 100 pages or more. Though some consider Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin’s 1968 black-and-white comic magazine His Name is...Savage a graphic novel, at only forty pages it is, at best, a graphic short story.

            There will always be illustrated books that blur the line, that make us reassess just what is possible with this artform. How do we re/classify books such as James Gurney’s (1958–) Dinotopia (1992), Jim Steranko’s Chandler: Red Tide (1976), David Michael Wieger and Terryl Whitlatch’s (1961–) The Katurran Odyssey (2004), Kyle Baker’s (1965–) Nat Turner (2008), Brian Selznick’s (1966–) The Invention of Hugo Caret (2007), or David Wiesner’s (1956–) Sector 7 (1999) and Flotsam (2006)? (And if you do not think that Flotsam isn’t really a comic book then have another look!) Whether you call them illustrated stories, visual novels, picture books, graphic novels, or long-format comic books, they all attempt to tell stories using pictures.

Creating Graphic eTextbooks

            It took Jay Hosler four years to write and illustrate Optical Allusions (2008). Hosler’s biggest concern is that “the process [for creating graphic textbooks] is labor intensive and very messy/ugly.” (Hosler, 2012) For Mark Schultz, who is not a geneticist, writing TheStuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA (2009) took “forever” to research, and, if asked, would never attempt another project like it again. (Schultz, 2011) Graphic textbooks are time-consuming to create, and aside from Hosler and Larry Gonick (who has an MA in mathematics from Harvard) there are very few scholars who can both write and illustrate them. So, what is the best way for going about writing graphic eTextbooks for undergraduate students, and getting them published faster? (Here again, understanding that since all undergraduate textbooks will be digital within five years, I am only concerned with graphic eTextbooks)

            One solution to the time-crunch problem Hosler took with Evolution: TheStory of Life on Earth (2011). In that book, Hosler paired with the art team of Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon. The writing for Evolution took Hosler a year; however, the artwork was begun in parallel while he was still writing it. The total amount of time it took for Evolution to go from inception to publication was approximately two years. This method shortened the production time tremendously, but, here again, there are not that many scholars who understand the sequential art medium to the extent that they can write a lucid, readable, and, yes, entertaining graphic eTextbook. So, what is another solution to this problem?

What About the Alphabet Soup?

            In my opinion, Stuff of Life was a misappropriation of Schultz’s time and talent. Whatever monetary compensation Schultz received from that book probably did not make up for what he could have earned doing other projects. There are better ways to utilize the talents of graphic narrative writers in order to create well-researched graphic eTextbooks that can be used in introductory college classes. The best way, I believe, is to pair a graphic narrative writer with an expert on the subject. Note that I said “expert,” and not “professor.” Sometimes the alphabet soup after a person’s name does not matter when it comes to knowledge of a subject, and lived experience. For example, there is a dynamic local high school history teacher who has been teaching for thirty-six years. For creating graphic eTextbooks, ones that are intended to mimic the classroom experience, I would much rather ask a learned expert in the field to help write and design the book rather than someone with a newly-printed Ph.D. Pairing an expert (who can do the initial research and writing) with a graphic narrative writer (who can adapt the text for the artist/s) utilizes the time and talents of the creators more efficiently. Essentially, for the graphic narrative writer, this is no different from adapting a classic novel. This is what I was discussing in Blog 3 when I wrote, “one has to wonder why certain books, such as A Brief(er) History of Time (1998, 2008) by Stephen William Hawking (1942–), has not yet been adapted into a graphic textbook.”

            In terms of academic rigor, ALL graphic eTextbooks that are intended for undergraduate students must be peer reviewed by at least two reviewers selected by the editor. The identity of the peer reviewers must not be revealed to the expert (subject author), and all notes/corrections must be sent through the editor. The review and correction process must be completed prior to the graphic narrative writer ever receiving the manuscript. There is a prejudice towards the graphic narrative art form, a snobbery if you will, that, unfortunately, persists. Because of this, the credibility of the text must never be an issue. Granted, errors may occur, especially when new research and information comes to light, but the wonderful thing about digital textbooks is that they can be easily updated. Only by insuring academic credibility can graphic eTextbooks be accepted for undergraduate study.

Topics for Discussion

1) What existing books, like A Brief(er) History of Time, would you like to see adapted into a graphic eTextbook?

2) What subjects do you feel would adapt best to this medium? Which ones would not?
Next Blog: Designing Graphic eTextbooks, Part 2: Developing the Visuals

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