By Jay Duret
I have regularly used this space to report on the status of my Imagined Conversations project. While I started the project with the most modest of goals, I find that it has taken me in a surprising direction. Let me explain.
For those not familiar with Imagined Conversations, a year and three months ago I began to post – on a daily basis – a single-panel cartoon on my website. The cartoons were the drawings of a face and a line of text snipped from an imaginary dialogue, monologue or soliloquy. An early example:
Initially I worked with ink and watercolor. Later I experimented with other media and I began to use Photoshop to clean up the imperfections (of which there were many). Though my work had some of the earmarks of conventional cartooning, I didn’t use that term to describe the drawings and I did not follow the conventions of cartooning. Rather I saw these pieces as little stories, complementary to the story-writing that absorbs most of my day.
I liked my work. There was a funky, home-grown feel about the best of the Imagined Conversations drawings that seemed – at least to me – to be distinctive and appealing. But I found that my biggest challenge was to create context. The snipped lines of speech made sense to me, but that of course is not the test. The real question is whether a reader approaching the drawing – most likely a reader not in the mood for sleuthing – would understand the context. Too often I found that what was clear to me was confusing to others. To remind myself of this failing I awarded myself a prize:
As I thought about how to address the issue I focused on the tools I had available to me: the text, the drawing and the caption. Taken together, the three should tell the story I wanted to tell. I analyzed single panel cartoons drawn by famous cartoonists. Most of them only had two parts – the drawing and the caption. The drawing created the context and the caption told the story. But that model did not work well for my material. My premise was that the drawing would always be of a person’s face and the text would be words spoken by, about, or to that person. In that construct there was frequently a need for more context than the drawing could provide. While the caption was the logical place to provide that additional context, I realized that my captions were titles, something to keep the piece identifiable on the website, not the speaking caption that you would find in a New Yorker cartoon. I needed to try something different.
After working the on different approaches over several months, I had a breakthrough: I discovered comics. Not that I was going to create comic books, but comics – particularly comic books – have created a set of tools that can be used to create context in far more nuanced and sophisticated ways than I had developed.
The most obvious are the bubbles: First, the Talk Bubble. The Talk Bubble tells the reader who is speaking and what they are saying:
Next are Thought Bubbles. This tool easily tells the reader what a given person is thinking:
The way you arrange bubbles on a page show sequence. You know what comes before and after; that is, how one thought or statement relates in time to what another person might be saying or thinking.
While the different Bubbles add depth to what can happen in the small space of a single panel, there is much more. Comics frequently use a Narrative Box. This is what I was looking for – a way the narrator can explicitly set the stage. Look at what I was able to do in the following cartoon:
As I worked I found that there are dozens of other tools in comics. There are shorthand ways to show that a person is talking on a phone, that the speaker if intoxicated, that there is a menace just outside of the field of vision. As I began to appropriate these tools for my work, I found the range and nuance of what I was able to say was greatly enhanced.
While I loved the greater range, I started to feel that my Photoshop-drawn bubbles were too polished for the look and feel of my drawings. In borrowing liberally from comics, I had lost some of the funky home grown look I had liked at the beginning. More experimenting.
I wanted to keep the flexibility that the thought and speech bubbles gave me but I wanted a more organic feel. I tried drawing the bubbles by hand .
That looked better and was more consistent with the original concept, but still it was not just right. I came up with the idea that instead of creating white bubbles with black lettering, I would reverse it.
I liked that look a lot, particularly when I added a black frame and a space on the bottom where I could put the title.
I found that with the new look and tools I was able to range much further. Now I felt I could take on political issues. And with such characters as Trump and Christie and Cruz I had so much material:
Once I started drawing political cartoons I found I could not get through my day without a regular fix of Politico and Real Clear Politics and 538. And so 15 months after beginning the Imagined Conversations project, I find myself booking tickets to Cleveland in July to draw cartoons about the comedy and drama of the Republican Convention. Not where I expected Imagined Conversations would take me, but I can’t wait to go.
Jay Duret is a San Francisco based writer and illustrator. His first novel, Nine Digits, is available from Indigo Sea Press. Follow Imagined Conversations on Instagram @joefaces or on Jay’s website.