Storytelling: Night Shift
July 22, 2016
Writing my comics is always very personal for me since everything I’ve ever done has been woven out of my own experiences or from people I’ve known personally. I draw an annual comic book called Blammo which is comprised of short stories that are all mashed up pieces of me and my life. And if a story is too big for Blammo then it becomes it’s own book, like Saint Cole or even The Hypo.
Recently, a collection of my short stories has been published by Fantagraphics called Disquiet. As an example of how I write I’ll use one of the stories at the end of the book called Night Shift. The story is pretty simple; a 4 page comic about a young woman who lives in her sister’s closet because she can’t afford a place of her own in the gentrifying city she’s in. She get’s an overnight bakery job so that she can save money to move some place cheap.
I know that I have to create a character that wants something and for short stories the earliest I let you know what they want the better. She wants to get out of town. She wants to find somewhere cheap.
One thing I always have around is a notebook to write in. I write little notes or phrases down that I can use as springboards whenever I want to draw a comic. This particular comic came from a pocket composition notebook I carried around with me in 2013. Here’s how it started:
At the time I was working at Panera Bread bakery early in the mornings. It was brutal waking up everyday so early, especially in the winter, but what would’ve been worse would’ve been to be the overnight baker that was clocking out while I was clocking in. I started imagining what their lives were like. The backwards aspect of living your life at night. The alienation of it. On my lunch breaks I would scribble down little ideas and speculations about how that life would feel.
Living in Denver was getting difficult for me as the rents increased every year while I still made the same money. The fantasy of moving away was becoming more and more appealing to me, and as I continued messing around with this “night shift” idea the main character took on that same desire. Suddenly, my story had an engine. I had forward momentum. The desire to move with the means being that night shift job at the bakery.
At this point in the notebook the main character wants to go to Seattle, which is where everyone seemed to be moving to from Denver. Also notice the talking bird questioning her in the corner, a quirky idea I abandoned.
The next phase is to take all of the loose scribbled notes and turn them into loose thumbnail sketches of a comic.
Whenever I’m working from thumbnails like this I’m never strict about anything. I believe that even when it comes down to drawing the final page there’s always room for improvisation. I’ve noticed that if I’m standing around thinking up details for a comic character it’s almost impossible, but as soon as my pen is on the paper it becomes a direct line to my subconscious and suddenly the characters reveal themselves to me in ways that are surprising. I am always working on a gut feeling about details. Very often when I’m writing I’ll have a character with a specific trait, or a small detail which magically winds up solving a problem for me later on in my story. Some things I can’t plan. Many times I will finish a comic without even knowing what it’s about until much later. Then after I’ve had some distance from it I can see it with fresh eyes. “Oh, wow, that’s about the way I felt while living with that woman and she would come home really late” or something like that.
By the time I got around to drawing the Night Shift comic for print, the character’s destination had changed from Seattle to Columbus, Ohio, which made more sense to me since Columbus is still a very cheap city to live and it was where I was planning on moving to.
Our main character is sleep deprived in this comic and often feels like she’s sleepwalking. To express that surreal feeling I chose a basic color palette with colored pencils.
This comic is anticlimactic. There is no big reveal or loud ending. Night Shift is very simply the story of a young woman who wants to get out of town and she finds the means to do it. The End. It’s exactly what I wanted to do. My goal was to write and draw something that’s actual. Like maybe this girl is real and this is how she got out of living in her sister’s closet. It’s mundane enough to hopefully be more universal. Because universality is a powerful storytelling tool.