Rogue Element #131: C2E2 2016 The Panels

By Avril Brown

Your Brain on Comics
Kerry Freedman, Meryl Jaffe, Joe Magliano, David Rapp
Moderated by Josh Elder

In order to more fully explore the effects reading comic books can have on the brain, and how teachers, parents and mentors alike can utilize said effects, particularly in aiding children who are struggling with reading, comic creator Josh Elder moderated this panel of several brain-focused PhDs.

Elder is the founder of Reading with Pictures, a Chicago based organization which focuses on getting comics into schools and helping children learn how to read. He opened this panel with a story of a little boy who, when his mother was unable to finish reading him his bedtime comic book, would pick up the book and read the story himself. Though too young to understand the words on the page, he nevertheless was able to follow the story via the pictures and comprehend how his Transformer heroes saved the day. Thus began Elder’s foray into reading, and comics, both passions he clearly has fueled over the years.

Though getting brain-based brainiacs to explain their research in layman’s terms is a challenge, Elder was able to do just that, and all of the panel members contributed their two cents on the mental mechanics which go into reading and processing a written and illustrated story.

While reading is something which has to be learned, the ability to recognize a scene is built in, and this core concept is what allows children to follow a story without being able to read it. Kids are willing to engage in reading a comic, but more importantly they CAN; they already have the knowledge base in order to process it. “A block of text for troubled readers may as well be in Sanskrit,” Elder explained, but images are innately understood.

Kerry Freedman studies visual culture and has done research on groups of adolescents who gather around specific visual pop culture (such as gamers and fan artists). She explained how our brains have an incredible visual memory capability, and in particular we have a sweet spot for images accompanying our narratives. We enjoy seeing things we recognize but we crave variety as well, which is why most people tend to get bored watching the same movie over and over again but get excited about a series of films as the characters are familiar but presented in new circumstances.

Joe Magliano is a psychology professor and he helped explain the challenges comic creators face. Artists have to use their work to expand upon ‘mind-reading’ by showcasing emotions on the characters faces, thereby letting the reader learn what is happening inside their mind.

There were some stunning revelations regarding colors as well when the team explained that certain color schemes can provoke particular emotions. Children’s comics tend to have more complimentary colors as it presents a more calming portrait. Contrasting colors show up more in action comics and can cause more stress and conflict. In fact, colors exude such a strong emotional influence, whether we’re conscious of it or not, that they can be the reason a person picks up a comic book or passes it by, according to Freedman.

There was plenty to take away from this fascinating panel, not the least being detailed proof that comics can truly help make reading a less stressful and more successful process for children, especially for those who need a little extra help. Perhaps one of the best moments came at the end with the final question from the audience. A woman declared herself a writer and an artist but stated she always felt comics were ‘junk food’ reading and held no intellectual value. Elder put it best: “Well, as I explained earlier I learned how to read because of comics; they opened up a whole new world to me.” He grew up on welfare but it was his love of reading, originating with comics, which drove him to earn a National Merit scholarship from Northwestern University. “Then I got a film degree and disappointed everyone. I may have wasted my life since then,” he joked, “but comics transformed my life.” Translation: ‘junk food’ my ass, you ignorant woman.

Let’s Make a Villain
Adam Withers, Comfort Love, Dirk Manning, Mark Waid

These four comic creators armed with a vast array of backgrounds and styles, aided by an eager audience, helped bring a brand new villain to life, and explained the process along the way. Adam and Comfort (I guess her parents were hippies?), who are so married you just can’t even, have produced several original comic titles available on the market today. Dirk Manning holds a torch for the horror genre, and my first experience with Mark Waid’s work was ‘Irredeemable,’ a comic which begged the question: What if a superhero with nigh limitless power went batshit crazy?

Needless to say, this was a fun panel to experience, and I do say ‘experience’ because not only did these creators really dive into the details of creating a villain, and thereby a story, they invited the audience to help create such a creature on the spot. With prompts and questions from the panelists a scarred, greedy, idealist pirate queen was born as Adam sketched her out over the course of the hour.

Villains, they explained, can shape the story. For example, if you are reading a story with a zombie bad guy, you already know something about the environment and structure of the tale. The villain guides what’s going to happen because her/his role is to propel the plot forward. They are the ones who want something, be it an item, the success of their villainous scheme, revenge, etc., and part of what makes them the villain is what they are willing to do in order to get it. The villain is the proactive character, the hero reactive, thus fueling the plot. After all, what would the hero do if the villain didn’t do anything?

The antagonist has a special relationship with the hero; they are uniquely intertwined as the villain is the one who brings traits out in the hero, a feat which no one else can accomplish. Batman’s villains were brought up as an example: each one of his challengers shows in their own particular way why Batman is a hero.

As important the villain is to the story, you cannot let your readers care more about the villain than they do the hero, the creators stressed. “Mind the sympathy line,” Manning advised. “You can brush up against it but don’t cross over otherwise people will start rooting for the villain instead.” The hero should always be the more sympathetic character, the more relatable, no matter the species or setting. Plus, s/he needs to be in danger of some sort, otherwise there’s no urgency to the story.

While the creators were unified in suggesting creating the setting first, as the environment shapes the story and therefore the characters, they cautioned to not get bogged down by it either. “As a writer, there are only so many plots to pursue,” Manning explained. “What do you want to say about the world around you? That should be the tone of the story.”

“Plot doesn’t matter apart from the structure you hang your story,” Waid declared. “People remember characters, they remember emotion.” Villains can be fun to create, but make sure they balance out the story. Also, sometimes you have to kill a character off to make the story work. “Don’t take a character away to be cheap, do it to drive the story.” A character death can be a gateway into a new world. Manning used Sirius Black’s death in ‘Harry Potter’ as an example of a death that proved they were no longer having fluffy children adventures; that there was a cost to their actions. “I mean, I’m a grown ass man, and I was like, ‘WTF man?,’ but it served the story and made the stakes real.”

When asked by a certain Spider Jerusalem whether one’s emotional state affects their writing, the answers were a resounding ‘YES’ across the board. “Find the project that channels the emotion you’re feeling and power on through, get it out,” recommended Waid. Manning referred to another writer who wrote under a pseudonym for one particular series because, as he put it, he was a different person when writing that book.

“Nothing is scarier than someone who has no business smiling that cannot stop,” Withers declared as he put the finishing touches on the pirate queen. “A villain’s way of wrecking the hero’s day should be iconic,” he stated as he turned one of her hands into a gun, “and because guns for hands are cool.” Well stated, sir.

While the Adam and Comfort comedy act was tough to weather through in the beginning (I fancy even Dirk and Mark thought them a bit much; they looked bemused, like watching toddlers trying to keep the adult’s attention past the allotted amount of time), I am thoroughly pleased to have attended this panel. As a writer I learned a lot and watching a creative process in action is always a joy. Now onto creating a dastardly villain!

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