My name is Tyler Foley. I am not Gillian Polack. And no, I have not hacked her blog, I have her permission to be here. I swear.
I’m currently a Year 12 student studying at Lake Tuggeranong College and have been Gillian’s work experience student for the past week. I’ve been sticking close to her at all times and seeing how the life of an author works, or doesn’t work, on a day-to-day basis. At school I’m studying both a double major in Literature and a double major in Arts; I’m a rather indecisive person.
In sifting through Gillian’s personal trove of books and works, a privilege I was given on my first day in her home, I came across something that grabbed me in a way all of the other works failed to. It was graphic novel. A little thinner than her assortment of hard and paperbacks and just a little bit taller too. What it succeeded in doing that the others hadn’t was that it reached out and grabbed hold of both of my primary interests: My growing appreciation of words and sentences and full-stops and things, and my love for art and design. The graphic novel is titled ‘Ungenred’ and it’s a random collection of comics written by Jason Franks and drawn by a variety of different illustrators, all armed with their own unique styles. Gillian gave the me the extreme pleasure of contacting Jason Franks and asking him several questions about his creative process and Ungenred itself.
1. Ungenred demonstrates your interesting ability to leap to and fro between drastically different genres. Do you actively try to tailor your writing to varying audiences or is expanding beyond a single genre something you’ve always done?
I don’t really think about genre before I start writing a new piece. Unless an editor has asked me for a particular set of parameters the story comes first. If anything I think of myself as a horror writer, and you can probably see that in most of my pieces, regardless of which genres they present.
2. What kind of differences are there between writing a novel and writing a comic? Does the writing process change?
Absolutely. A novel, in some regards, is easier: you can just sit down and write it. The size is the biggest challenge. I don’t plan my prose very rigorously–that rigour comes in the editing and polishing–but comics require a lot more architecture up front. You are constrained by the page-count, the page dimensions and perhaps by the art style. Visual storytelling is an entirely different discipline that you need to master on top of the basics of plot, character, dialogue, and structure. You need to think about how to tell the story with a series of static images, arranged as single pages and spreads. You need to understand how to control pacing using these tools. You need to understand how and when to employ all the tools available to you: words, pictures, dialogue, narration, point of view, sound effects, special effects, shot framing, colour, symbolism, negative space, page turns, panel borders… The artist will help you negotiate some of these aspects, but there’s a cost to that as well. You need to learn how to collaborate on top of everything else.
When you write a novel, every word you write will appear on the page, just as you wrote it, so there is a lot more polishing required. When you write comics you are writing a blueprint and only a small amount of your work will be presented unfiltered to the reader. It’s a very different experience.
3. Your first story, and easily the most impactful for me, in Ungenred is called One More Bullet. The artwork for this is superb and builds on the tone of the narrative. Do you write with a narrow focus on the story you’re telling, or do you consider its visual presentation as well?
One More Bullet was my first comic script, and my first collaboration. It was originally a prose story. I decided to rewrite as a comic so I could submit it to a competition that was being run by Dark Horse Comics. We never did submit the story but it was definitely the point at which I became serious about making comics.
Because I already had the story, that allowed me to focus on the mechanics of the script, which was a huge learning curve. I decided the story needed to be formally structured in a Watchmen-style nine panel grid, which most artists would balk at these days. Most writers, too. It was a difficult way to go about things, but it’s a difficult story and I think it needed that discipline in order to make it work.
So yes, I did consider the visual presentation separately from the story, but that’s not often the case anymore. Partly this was because I didn’t know who the artist would be when I wrote it.
I’d never even met the artist, J. Marc Schmidt, before I wrote the story. He was someone I had encountered on an internet forum who was looking for a script to draw, when I was looking for an artist. I didn’t actually think he would draw the script, so I was a bit shocked when they arrived in the post! The package had his real name on it, because it had to pass through customs, so I didn’t know who it was from. It’s pretty incredible to see a script come to life for the first time and I remember looking at the pages and wondering how on earth we’d managed to pull it off.
Over the next seven years, culminating in the Sixsmiths graphic novel, Marc would be my most frequent collaborator and to this day he has drawn more of my work than any other artist. I have not worked with anybody yet who is a better visual storyteller. He really excels at conveying body language and I learned a lot about the characters from seeing the way that Marc drew them.
4. What enticed you to write the comic about Rodney the Artificial Intelligence? I love how your comics explore interesting views on religion and sentience. Why do you use punchlines to undermine the seriousness of the issues you’re talking about?
My undergraduate degree is in Cognitive Science, so I have always been very interested in consciousness, mind and and artificial intelligence. I came up with Rodney when Greg Vondruska asked me to contribute some stories to an anthology of stories called Robots Are People, Too! Rodney is always trying to figure out what it is to be human–not realizing that the act of introspection itself is what makes us (and him) human. The punchlines aren’t meant to undercut the issues, but to underline them. These are hard questions and the best answers that I have are sad or ironic or sometimes just petty.
5. How close is the Jason Franks in the comics to the Jason Franks who writes the comics?
The Franks in my autobiographical stories is me, although sometimes the artists are a bit kind in the way they represent me. (I write the scripts in third person.) If the stories are even partially fabricated I will make the main character somebody else (eg in Bedding Down), so–if I give him my name, it’s a true story and that’s me.
The first autobio piece in the book, “How to be Cool,” (illustrated by 9mm Ed Siemienkowicz) uses the traditional form for autobio comics: emphasis on first person narration, not on dialogue. The story originally had a self-deprecating ending, but luckily Ed persuaded me to change it.
The next autobio story I wrote was “At Own Risk” for Bruce Mutard, who needs no introduction. For Bruce I wanted to write something that was formally challenging, so we have an autobio piece in which I’ve tried to push my own presence into the background as much as possible. You don’t see my face til the very last page. I wanted this story to be about South Africa, so you don’t get to see my overwhelmed reaction to everything until the very end.
I wrote NYE: 2001 for Joe Pimienta, who’s a genius for presenting quiet, everyday horror. I tried to avoid telling you what I was thinking as the situation unfolded , because I don’t know what I was thinking. I was terrified.
The Swede is a story about how others see me, physically and ethnically, so of course it’s the only autobio piece that I drew myself. Chris McQuinlan’s inks make everybody look a bit more glamorous than they did in my pencil art.
The final story, “Robots of Andromeda”, is me pushing autobiography into science fiction and metafiction. I wrote that for Ed again specifically as an endpiece for Ungenred.
Alright, you got me. I don’t really have an army of killer robots.
6. What advice would you give to someone who knows that they want to dive into literature but doesn’t necessarily know what they want to pursue?
Read widely and without prejudice. You don’t have to like or dislike a book because everybody else tells you that you should. Look for stories that sound interesting to you in their own right, don’t just look for familiar tropes and trappings. (“I like stories about space ships,” or “I like stories about plucky single mothers.”) Don’t be a snob. Do be discerning: you should feel free to critically assess everything you read. There’s gold in even the least reputable of genres, and there’s garbage in even the most lauded of classics. Some kinds of stories are privileged: we call them ‘literature’ and claim they do not belong to any genre, but this is nonsense. The boundaries of genre and literature, highbrow and lowbrow, shift all the time. Don’t let marketing categories limit your tastes.
Hope that is helpful.
Cheers for asking!