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Chris J. Thompson is the editor of Pop Culture Hound. Chris attended the Comica talk by Dan Clowes and Chris Ware in London on the 24 May 2010.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a very special evening with best-selling author Audrey Niffenegger (The Time-Traveller’s Wife) interviewing comic legends, Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes. Organised as part of the COMICA festival which takes place in London throughout the year, this once in a lifetime opportunity was even more enjoyable than I had anticipated. While each of the individuals involved is a genius in their own right, no one dominated the proceedings or hogged the limelight - it was truly a shared platform. Since Ware and Clowes usually work on long-form or stand-alone stories, there wasn’t the typical discussion about continuity that one might expect at a comic panel. Instead it was very much a frank and open talk about the creative process and just what that entails. This is what was so amazing about the evening and left me feeling inspired afterwards - we got a small glimpse into what motivates these people, what makes them tick, and just how they come up with the things they do.

Niffenegger began by asking the two creators about Chicago. It turns out all three are from Chicago at some point (although Clowes was quick to point out he was the only one born there), so the city plays upon and impacts their work. Clowes seemed to indicate there is a certain mindset in being a Chicagoan, since Chicago will always be viewed as the ‘second city’ to New York, and even locals see it that way. He suggested this is one reason why he often supports the underdog or the one who is second-best, and admits he felt second-best when Ware moved into town (a sentiment which was reciprocated). They went on to talk about how Chicago was in the 1970s and 80s when Ware was attending art school. Back then the city was zoned differently, so outside business hours it was desolate, except for students and homeless people.

The discussion then moved to ambiguity in their work and Niffenegger asked just how much it was used. Did they intend their work to be clear-cut and complete or was there a degree to which the reader was required to interpret the work and draw their own conclusions? Both creators agreed it’s something they’ve incorporated in their work more over time and as they’ve matured. Clowes cited his latest work, Wilson, as a clear example of that. He explained how he drew a lot of material for the book then edited it right back to its barest form where there was just barely a distinct narrative people could follow. He said comics often jump from page to page, but with this book he also wanted the reader to jump from panel to panel and fill in the blanks between. The story was all there, but people could still draw their own conclusions as a result.

Ware, on the other hand, said he had trouble editing his work, and when he did he was more additive than subtractive. He’d just keep putting things in, which is why people wouldn’t let him cook. This kind of humour was typical of Ware and what made him so enjoyable. At one point, he was explaining how his life and work had changed five years ago when he had a baby girl, then he corrected himself and explained it was his wife who had the baby. He’s disarmingly self-effacing, yet never annoying or false, and comes across as incredibly sharp and witty in his responses. Clowes is also incredibly witty and dry which makes these two such an incredible double-act in this setting.

The floor was soon opened to audience questions, and once again the calibre of questions made you aware this wasn’t a regular comic panel. All three creators were asked how they come up with their characters, and Ware got laughs when he said, “I just stare at the wall.” Clowes talked about writing within the ‘sphere of [his] experience’ and not attempting to write characters outside of it. He couldn’t write about life on the streets of Rwanda because he’s never experienced it. He felt doing so would be deceptive and false, but with his characters he could always find a piece of himself inside them.

Niffenegger shared about her experiences teaching a writing class. She would set exercises where students had to come to class with a character idea, but quite often the characters were either too fantastical or just plain bland. Unsure how to proceed, Niffenegger decided she need to make her approach to character creation more ‘synthetic’ for her students and she created a kind of guide sheet to be used, with all the essential questions asked of a character: the basic who, what, when, where, why and how. With the right guidance, and by asking the right questions of their characters, the students came in with a much more interesting selection.

One of the last questions was about the physical creative process and how long it actually takes to complete a page. Chris Ware said he works every day between 8:30am and 2:50pm, so he can take his daughter to and from school. An average page takes him 2-3 days on that schedule because he is writing and drawing it at the same time. Inking and colouring are much quicker when that’s done and take about a day each. Colouring plays a big part in Chris’ work and he borrows from the classic Tintin/Herge style of using starker primary colours for the main focus and more muted colours for secondary objects. For Dan Clowes, a page can take anywhere between one day and two weeks, depending on the page. Sometimes he’ll push himself to do a page a day, which happened a few times with Wilson, but other pages simply take longer and he gives them the time they need.

This only gives a brief glimpse into the fascinating evening I had in the presence of these wonderful creators, but it’s the best I could manage. Each had so much to share and, in their own humble ways, offered an inspiring look into the creative lifestyle. There’s no denying the genius of Audrey Niffenegger, Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, yet by the end of the evening they had you feeling like you could do it too. Not that this was intended as a motivational talk - that wasn’t the point - it was just a natural by-product of being in such a wonderfully creative and non-judgemental atmosphere. My thanks go to Paul Gravett and the Comica Festival for arranging this special night (in collaboration with Komics.DK and Foyles) and I shall remain eternally grateful.


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