If you were, I definitely didn’t see you; it was such a giant, heaving mosh pit, I literally feared for my life at times. Over the past five years, NY Comic Con has mushroomed from a clutch of comic book collectors with card tables held together with gaffer’s tape into a sold-out, Javits Center media event that’s starting to rival the uber-Con in San Diego. My boyfriend and occasional writing partner, Laurence Klavan, and I are longtime playwrights, TV writers, and novelists (well, okay; he’s the novelist and I’m the TV writer) and are relatively new to the comic world. But we do have two graphic novels out and so were kindly invited to sign books at the First Second booth with the respective artists, Pascal Dizin and Faith Erin Hicks, as well as appear on a panel Friday night.
Considering that the Con officially closed each night at 8PM, we were initially suspicious when we noticed that our panel was scheduled for 9PM. “What gives?” we thought with writerly paranoia. Would anyone be in the audience? Would our fellow panelists even show? What if it was all a terrible scheduling snafu? We grimly fought our way past a vast horde of purple be-wigged Hit Girls, bikinied Slave Leias, and other characters who were waiting for a bigger, more popular event across the hall and were surprised/stunned to see we actually had an audience, and a pretty sizeable one at that, for our panel, “Building a World in Comics”.
I can’t speak for Laurence, but I went in feeling, well, kind of intimidated. It wasn’t just that I still thought there was a scheduling mistake and the audience was actually waiting to meet Stan Lee. “World-building” is an expression you hear a lot of in the comics world, since so much of the form deals with superheroes, aliens, historical figures, and anthropomorphized critters living on different planets or levels of reality. Don’t get me wrong; Laurence and I have both written quite a few surreal and/or supernatural plays, stories, and animated scripts. But our graphic novels in question (City of Spies and Brain Camp) take place, respectively; in New York City and upstate New York (what can I say? We like New York). Granted, one has a sci-fi element and the other takes place in a NYC that might as well be another planet, i.e. the one from World War Two. But what could we say about world-building that might inform or interest anyone, much less the core audience for Neil Gaiman, Bone, and The Dark Knight?
Our moderator was comics journalist and manager of Bergen Street Comics, Tucker Stone, and our co-panelists were cartoonists George O’Connor and Mike Cavallaro. George began talking about his work re-inventing the myths of the Ancient Romans, and Mike described how he depicted the alternate reality that takes over in the latter part of his latest graphic novel, Foiled. Both artists are supremely talented at creating heightened and mythic worlds; given our books, I was starting to feel if not like a bull in a china shop, then like a square peg in a distinctly round-hole kind of panel. Yet it was in response to a question from an intense guy in the front row about “getting all the details right” that I suddenly realized all four of us were all speaking the same language: and that’s the language of character, emotion, and story.
Of course, world-building needs research; details and specificity are crucial to good storytelling. And it’s tempting to research your envisioned universe so enthusiastically, you risk drowning in it. But no matter if you’re an artist or a writer, a good story isn’t primarily about the details of your world, whether it’s Ancient Rome, a far-off planet, 14th century Venice, or a summer camp in Dutchess County. As mighty as it sounds, world-building only exists to serve story; and story is always about character.