What makes something funny? Is evoking laughter a priority, a bonus, or irrelevant?
DRESEN: Hmmm. I think sarcasm is funny. But then again, I'm the queen of sarcasm. Seriously, though, I think Jen is a really funny woman, and I'm known to have my moments and that's bound to come through in the work we do. We can be serious for seriousness' sake, but we aren't heavy-handed goths who lurk in the doom and gloom. So if people find what we do funny and it makes them laugh or smile - that's great! But I don't think we consider Manya a straight-forward humor strip. It's a strip about life and all of it's moments. Max & Lily, though, is supposed to be humorous.
BENKA: Horribly tragic things can be funny but not really.
Something is made funny by the way it's told. A little hyperbole, wide-eyes, and good timing. Heat to a slow boil.
When I write the text for Manya, I don't set out to write funny stories or make people laugh. But I think humor is an important element in any relationship, and also something that occurs spontaneously in conversation. So as I'm writing dialogue between Manya and Saul, it may begin as a neutral exchange, but eventually they'll start jabbing each other a bit.
The third Manya book, falling, dealt with the loss of a friend who died from AIDS without a single crying scene. How much thought goes into avoiding melodrama, or telling the story in a new way?
DRESEN: I don't think there was ever a moment where we said "no melodrama." I guess probably because we aren't melodramatic women. God, we'd be insufferable if we were...But I never noticed the lack of a crying scene. I guess because crying seems - to me anyway - to be a public display of grief and falling is more about the internalization of the grieving process.
What I adore about falling is that it's about the survivor. So many times tragedy is told with the victim as the focus. I lost a very close friend many, many years ago and his death affected me deeply. Those kinds of emotions never completely go away and Jen captured the internalization of that grief perfectly. When I was drawing the book I tapped into those emotions and the art flowed out of me. It was quite cathartic doing that book. I didn't necessarily think that we were telling about loss and grief in a new way at the time. But looking back, I can see that it is a unique take on the subject.
BENKA: What an interesting question. I don't know that I consciously avoided a breakdown scene or consciously chose to tell a story of grief in a new way. I am committed to Manya approaching things differently, and on a more internal level than other characters. But honestly, I wrote Falling after a friend died from AIDS. When I found out he died, I felt nothing. I went blank. I wanted to document this response. It felt important.
Virginia Woolf once said that the novel was created for and by men, and is less well-suited to a woman's voice. Is Manya's infrequent use of traditional conflict/resolution format a conscious attempt to storytell through emotional development rather than external events? How intentional is the usually-offbeat formal structure of Manya?
DRESEN: Well, I don't ever consciously decide to do anything that I do in the comics. I go purely on instinct. I read what Jen gives me, and I draw the pictures her words put in my head. Maybe it's also because I'm a more internalized person myself - I find the inside of my head more interesting than the outside world. I don't know. But to relate to emotions rather than actions is definitely a more female thing. So I guess we're just being the chicks that we are when we do our comics.
And I don't consciously experiment with non-traditional forms. I just draw comics the way I "see" them. And if the way I draw them does break form then so be it, because comics desperately need to break tradition. Comics are in such a rut visually that they need more artists to play with the form to make it more appealing and interesting to a wider audience. And if I'm one of them...well, it's a burden I'm willing take (note: tongue planted firmly in cheek).
BENKA: Woolf and the other Modernist gals definitely have inspired the general way I approach writing by making more room for non-linear telling. Throw in a little Jung and too many years copying Plath poems and you'll have me pegged.
I don't consciously choose to depart from traditional storytelling. I write what makes sense to me in a way that makes sense to me as I'm writing. I definitely borrow from the voice I use to write poetry or songs, but the narrative becomes intentional only when it's completed.
I laugh when Kris' characters' eyeballs turn into stars or hearts to express excitement, and I've seen this technique feel cloying or insincere in the hands of other artists. How do you make it seem natural? How much thought goes into the degree of iconicism or naturalism you lean towards?
DRESEN: Once again - instinct. I really do make it up as I go along. If I get to a panel and the text inspires the image of a character with stars for eyes... well, then that's what I draw. I guess that's the Tex Avery in me. I don't come from the school of hard-core realism - these are comics, I like to have some fun!
How important is it to evoke an emotional response in the reader? How do storytellers accomplish this? Film critics sometimes derogatorily refer to films as "button-pushers." Are some response-producing techniques illegitimate?
BENKA: I think all writing is an attempt to evoke a response from a reader, and I'd say all responses are emotional.
As far as trying to evoke a set of emotional responses by employing certain techniques... There are certain elements you want to have in a story or performance to move it along and keep people engaged - things like conflict and resolution... I don't think any of these techniques are illegitimate, but they can absolutely be used in excess (not that I didn't love Hope Floats). The thing is, the audience or viewer or reader will let you know if they feel manipulated. Writers or artists or filmmakers can try to push as many or whatever buttons they like, but we have to let them. And we don't always. Yeah, the people have the power. Sing it Patti.
How does Kris decide how the script breaks down into images? Why an opening splash page for falling? Are the telephone-pole images interspersed with the telephone conversation to slow down the pace, or increase the reader's feeling of isolation? How difficult is it making sure each page ends on an appropriate "beat"?
BENKA: I have no idea how Kris breaks my text into panels, but please let me know as soon as you find out, because it amazes me. I really feel that her process of doing this is a kind of writing.
DRESEN: Well, I know what Jen's speaking voice sounds like. When I read her script, I "hear" her voice in my head. So I break the text according to how I hear her read it. It's all based on her speech patterns.
But I do try to have each page or spread end on a beat - as Jen's writing is very rhythmic. To have a rhythm continue onto the next page, well, the simple act of the reader turning the page would cause them to lose the beat. Luckily, that hasn't been a problem so far. I guess Jen's natural beat is nine panels per page.
As for the telephone pole images - and let's keep in mind that I drew falling nearly three years ago - I swear that I put them in because I thought that they looked cool. That may disappoint people because I do get quite a reaction from those images. But I never went "OK, I'll slow down the pace and make everything feel more isolated by putting in telephone poles." It was probably more like "Ooooh! Telephone poles would look neat-o here!" OK, yeah, they do serve a purpose in pacing out the sequence, but if I recall correctly, I wanted to do something other than just showing individual panels of Sal and Manya talking into the phone. If you want to go into the symbolism of that scene, telephone poles look somewhat like crosses. And it also allowed me to introduce the crow that Manya later finds dead in the park.