On Comics and Role Models by Ceri Riley '16
I interviewed one of my favorite professors because she’s amazing
Towards the end of any semester, emails start flooding into our inboxes advertising last-minute events, study breaks (the best of which have puppies), and classes that will be offered next term. It becomes second-nature to skim through these emails, glancing at the subject lines, letting them digitally rot away until you forget about their existence or they are no longer relevant.
Last spring, one such email caught my eye with a snazzy graphic.
21W.758, normally a genre fiction class with a variable focus, would become a comic script workshop for this semester, and I jumped at the chance of signing up (as did Chel R. ‘15, who wrote a post about the class earlier this semester with a very similar introduction).
Our professor for the semester was Marjorie Liu, a New York Times bestselling novelist who also writes comics for Marvel. She helped us dive right into reading and writing comic scripts from day one of the class. We began the semester by learning some basics: how to format comic scripts, what information to include and focus on, and how to write for a comic artist in addition to your future audience. As time progressed, our writing assignments grew in length (from a 1-page comic to a 20-page full issue with a summary of the rest of our anticipated plot), but so did the size of the stories we were yearning to tell. Each week, we focused on new aspects of storytelling: strong characterization, sources of tension and conflict, the balance between words and pictures, worldbuilding, and pacing. And each week, we read and discussed a new webcomic or graphic novel to see all the different ways writers and artists are pushing the boundaries of comics as a medium and creating compelling stories.
There were nine of us in the workshop, and, even though I can’t speak for anyone but myself, it felt like we all experienced incredible growth over the course of the semester. Everyone’s characters became more interesting, our stories had greater depth and better pacing, and we were paying more attention to small yet vital details like the realism of dialogue and the right amount of visual information to include in individual panels.
Our class wrote comic scripts on topics from lady superhero duos to Hawaiian mythology to being backstage during a show to sci-fi adventures to a boy whose drawings came to life. To give you an idea of the things I wrote, here are loose descriptions of the prompts and the titles of my stories:
9/10 – Includes words (1pg) – Wondering
9/17 – Focus on character and conflict (5pg) – Shipwrecked
9/24 – Superhero origin story (5pg) – Afraid of the Dark
10/05 – Female protagonist, focus on world (10pg) – Guardians
10/22 – Marvel fanfic or myth adaptation (15pg) – Gambling Man
11/12 – Historical (15pg) – La Maupin
12/09 – First issue/chapter of comic series (20pg) – Augmented Reality
I’m really tempted to go back, revise, and maybe attempt at writing and drawing a couple of these ideas. That might happen as a side project during the infinite/amorphous time void that is IAP.
Although I had plenty of wonderful humanities teachers throughout high school, this was the first time I’ve been in a rigorous writing workshop with hard deadlines and brutal (and therefore oh-so-helpful) critiquing sessions. After taking this class, I just feel so inspired to tell stories and practice writing and drawing more in my free time. I can’t thank Marjorie enough for how kindly she guided us through learning an entirely new medium, and how much of a role model she’s become to me as a female novelist and comic book writer who started out thinking she was going to do something totally different with her life. It gives me hope that I might find a similarly convoluted path to happiness and (dare I even hope) success someday in doing something that I love.
So, of course, I ended the semester by meeting up with Marjorie over hot chocolate to interview her about her life and her thoughts about teaching at MIT.
How would you describe yourself/what do you do?
I would describe myself as a former attorney who managed to break free of the legal profession and start writing for a living, and I’ve been really lucky to be able to follow my passion and write novels and comic books. I’ve been able to explore writing video games and movies, and who knows what will be next? Right now, I really just love the fact that I can tell stories in so many different mediums.
How did you find MIT and what compelled you to teach the comics class here? And what was your favorite part about teaching?
I love MIT! Years and years and years ago, I applied to MIT for undergrad because I was so impressed with the school and the campus. Even though I wasn’t a science person, I loved what I read about their humanities program. So I actually wanted to come to MIT – and, of course, that didn’t happen. But years later, when I was asked whether or not I’d be interested in teaching a course on comic books, I jumped at the chance! This is my passion, and the idea of sharing that passion and teaching others how to write comics, especially the undergrads at MIT, was really exciting to me.
I didn’t know that I would love teaching comics as much as I did. I write comics, but I don’t actually think about what I do; I just sort of ‘make it happen’ when it comes to putting out a comic book. But to break it down into all the different parts, articulate what those parts mean and how they fit together, was energizing. I felt like I was seeing my work – everyone’s work – in a whole different way.
We definitely learned a lot, but did you learn anything from teaching us?
You guys were incredible. Really smart, really intuitive, and you all had so many fun ideas. You were pushing at the boundaries of what comics can do. All of you were fearless, you just threw yourselves into it and that was really exciting for me to see. On a day-to-day level I do this work, I’m watching other comic book writers do this work, and it’s not that we take for granted what we do, but it’s part of our profession. To see all these really young, super creative voices pushing against the medium was invigorating, because it was also a reminder that there’s all this raw talent out there. And maybe you guys won’t end up writing comics – but maybe you will, and that would be such a boon to the industry.
When did you figure out you could be a professional fan/author for a living? How does it feel?
It feels really weird, because I always loved to read. I had all my favorite authors; I was a huge fangirl of everyone from Ursula K. LeGuin to Steven King… you name it. When I got older it was my dream to write novels, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to. So to write books, to actually tell my stories and see them go into print, is sort of mind blowing. It’s also surreal and very humbling. The same thing happened with comics. I didn’t start reading them until I was eighteen, and I never actually thought it would be possible to write them. But, once I started, it was also humbling and deeply, deeply exciting. It allowed me to use a different part of my voice that I hadn’t before, and I realized there were all these other stories cooped up inside me – stories that would never work as novels, because they were meant to be graphic novels, comics.
But I’m definitely still a fan; I still get nervous around other writers, whether or not they’re writing novels or comic books. I get sweaty! [My response: Don’t we all.]
Do you have any role models or heroes? Who are they and why?
I have so many… oh gosh. The thing is, every time I read a good book, that person is my hero because it’s not easy. Writing a good book, writing a good comic, writing a good graphic novel – none of that is easy. And so, when I read something that’s fun and exciting and moving, I’m like, that person is my new hero. As another writer, it’s really beautiful seeing a story where all the pieces just fit.
What is something you always want to remember or keep telling yourself over the course of your jobs/life?
Stay true to my voice and follow my imagination. Follow my ‘freak,’ as we say, no matter how strange the idea is or how unlikely it might seem.
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people tell me “oh, you shouldn’t write stories that are set in other countries because no one will read them” or “you shouldn’t write stories with heroes of color because no one will read them”, or “you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that.” And I ignored them all.
What is it, the Joseph Campbell saying? “Society is like a dragon, with scales that say either Thou Shalt or Thou Shalt not;” and you always need to slay the dragon. Because if you are compelled to tell a story, no matter how strange it is, no matter how bizarre, no matter how many people say, “you know, that’s just weird”, if you’ve got it in you, just follow that impulse. And follow it as far as it’ll go. At a certain point, you’ll know, as a creator, whether or not you’ve pushed it to the limit or whether or not it’s crap. But you actually have to go there and explore it before you actually say no to it.
For sentimental value, here are a couple photos of all 10 of us on the last day of classes! The selfie is definitely my favorite.