24 February 2010

Busting Your Boulders

by guest columnist Mike Elrod.  Follow him on Twitter.

It’s an obvious thing to point out that comics and graphic novels are a silent medium. Even with the addition of sound effects within the panels all of the audio comes from inside the reader’s head. Superman’s voice, the sound of Spiderman’s web shooters, and even the SNICKT of Wolverine’s claws only exist in our minds. For me, reading a good comic is like sitting down to watch a movie. The major difference however is the lack of a soundtrack. What makes this ironic for me is that most of my ideas for characters and stories come from listening to music.

I, like most people, love to drive. There is nothing quite like it in this entire world. I used to drive at least thirty minutes to an hour to get to and from my last job on what we call Georgia’s Audubon (GA 400). Before that, I was driving two hours one way just to get to work. The truth is, it ate most of my paycheck, it wore my tires down to the rims and put unnecessary miles on my car.

And I loved every minute of it.

This was mainly due to the good old American tradition of rolling down the windows and turning up the volume on the car stereo. The freedom found on the road is something I hope I don’t ever lose. On these long trips I find myself creating scenes that fit the music I’m listening to. It’s nothing for me to spend an entire two hours listening to one song over and over again in order to play the scene out right. 

I bet you’re all dying to take a road trip with me someday.

When it comes to music I’m drawn to the blues and more specifically to the blues that come out of North Mississippi. The R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Mississippi Fred McDowell, blues are perfect for conjuring a scene. While these are my main driving musicians I’ll say that they’re not the sum total of my collection or my soundtrack. However, there is something about this specific style of blues that pulls out the stories from my mind.

A few years ago when I was going through a break up I found these bluesmen. Or maybe they found me. Dramatic enough for you? Either way, I found myself in a theatre sitting alone and watching a film that I had no idea would influence me so much from that moment on. The film was Black Snake Moan and within those two hours I saw, heard, and felt the blues like never before.

Now, when most people refer to “having the blues” it’s understood that they’re feeling melancholy and need a shoulder to cry on. This however, couldn’t be farther from the truth of the blues. These men whose music was featured in Black Snake’s soundtrack and whose lives were the impetus behind the experiences of the characters taught me something else. The blues weren’t just a state of depression, but an admittance of that state and a call to move beyond it. In essence, the blues are about living all of life and claiming the experiences, both good and bad, as one’s own.
They say, “Here I am, every bit of me, and I won’t lie about it.”

So, how does that translate into writing a graphic novel? It struck me one day that the blues had quite a bit in common with the characters I had grown up with. I had found that both pushed me to do something more with myself than wallow in a situation. I finally began to understand that the metaphor of comics and the lives of these bluesmen were telling me one thing; it’s not good enough to stay on your couch and let life go on. 

The stereotype of most comics readers is of course that they live in the basement of mom and dad’s house and never shower. They abhor the sunlight as if they were vampires and the thought of talking to a woman is so foreign to them that they would just as soon cut off their right arm as risk the potential embarrassment of being shot down. This however, could not be farther from the true message behind comics.

I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty of people who fit this description but the fact of the matter is that the medium of comics has always had a different goal than mere escapism. We find a sense of courage in the pages of a comic. What we see in those panels is a person whom we wish to emulate and while we don’t wear spandex costumes under our work clothes we find a connection between their stories and our actions.

Comics have always been about getting off the couch and facing the world. What we don’t always realize however is that the difficulties faced by these characters are much harder to deal with in reality, which is why many of us move away from comics for something that seems more substantial as a moral compass.

Watching our hero smash a boulder with his bare hands doesn’t always strike us as representative of the struggles we face in real life and admittedly, sometimes a boulder is just a boulder. The fact remains though that the reason most of us took up reading comics in the first place is a belief that the boulder could be smashed. This belief is what we are supposed to take with us as we venture out into the world.

The thought of reading a comic or graphic novel and not being motivated by it concerns me greatly. I do think that sometimes a good dose of escapism is necessary but the majority of the time we’re given images and dialogue that are meant to inspire action. While the couch sitters are one extreme there is the other side of it as well. It never ceases to amaze me that someone will wear a Superman “S” and pose for pictures with their fists on their hips striking his pose and never have the courage to look at themselves and see where they may or may not live up to the true example of such a character.

I get it. He’s a part of pop culture and that comes with its pros and cons. Plenty of douchebags wear the “S” and I have to accept it. However, at what point did we lose the insight that he and other characters like him give us? That’s where the blues come in for me. Like I said, they talk about all the experiences of life and do so openly with no shame. They are an expression of those experiences and refuse to let the player and the listener enter into the realm of douchebaggery.

With that being said I don’t mean to come off as perfect and with the only acceptable point of view on what these characters and musicians have to say. It’s the crossroads where these two meet for me however that I can’t let go of. It’s the action of driving seventy-plus miles an hour with a soundtrack blasting that brings me to this place many times. I have a goal, a destination. I’m going to reach it no matter how long it takes and I’ll reach it with conviction and style. For me, the act of writing a graphic novel isn’t an exercise in self-masturbation. It’s a place I want to go to and a place I want to point others to as well.

Take that with the masturbation line any way you want to.

As I said last week, all good writing is honest writing. If you want to be honest you have to first get your butt up off the couch, and if you want to be a writer that means what you say you have to be willing to look inside to find the truth about yourself. If you can’t do that, you’re never going write anything worth reading. Writers who set out to first write their opus usually fall short according to a comrade of mine who writes professionally. He told our writing group that you’re not as good in the beginning as you’re going to be by the end. It’s a process of getting better and that process is what these stories and these songs are about for me. They’re not justification for staying the way you are. 

They’re an admonishment to go be something better.

Mike Elrod is an instructor for a small college in the North Georgia Mountains where he spends his days helping students research their papers as he pines for the city. By night however, he reviews the show Supernatural for Pulptone.com. He also writes a graphic novel along with Michael Carpenter who produces amazing artwork about growing up and the zombie apocalypse in the South that is in the process of being renamed as you read this.


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