The Line Must Be Drawn Here
A couple of years ago, I decided that I should write a children’s book. My theory behind the decision sounded good at the time: Why write a 300-page novel when you can write three 100-page children’s stories instead? J.K. Rowling—with her carpal tunnel-inducing tomes—obviously doesn’t operate under this theory, but plenty of successful authors do, notably Daniel Handler, who knocks out his delightfully dreary Lemony Snicket books like they’re haiku. As an added bonus, children’s books give you free reign to name characters “Snobby Funpf.”
Within about ten pages of my foray into children’s literature, it became apparent that I was merely substituting one style of hack writing for another, as these two excerpts illustrate:
My eyes returned to my suddenly important book. Unsure of what to say, I looked hopefully at the woman’s glowing brown eyes. My chest fluttered a bit as she asked, “Do you know how to say mirror in German?”
That was from my stalled historical thriller The Loneliest Monk, which I really should delete from my hard drive. It gets worse, but I’m too embarrassed to include any more. Well, maybe I’ll give you a couple more lines:
This woman was one of the great ones. It must have been the synthetic strawberries that sold me on this. I wasn’t sure if she felt the same magic. After all, I probably just smelled like popcorn.
Contrast this with my attempt at children’s lit, from an untitled work about little kids caught up in a battle over potable water supplies:
The giggles were drowned out by a noise that all in the group knew and dreaded. The Call of the Tapir, the sound of danger. Caarooha. Caarooha. Tak-Tak. It echoed off the dam and valley walls. Caarooha, Carooha; tak-tak. Carooha Carooha taktak, faster the call came. A dark shape hurtled from the trees and crashed into the embers. Everyone in the group knew the shape, but none had seen it up close before.
What the hell is this nonsense? Shame on me and my Caarooha tak taks. After I realized that my fiction—both grown up and kiddie—was gawdawful, I revised my theory: Why write a 100-page work of children’s fiction when you can write five 20-page picture books? The added bonus here was that picture book dialogue can be really short:
Jaime Boll Weevil: “I’m going to the BIG CITY to become a dancer!”
Mrs. Ram: “Watch out, Jaime. The BIG CITY bustles!”
After a couple of readings, parents get sick of picture books and make up their own words anyway, so it doesn’t matter as much if the words aren’t too good. Therefore, my new plan was to write a short children’s story and then get a talented friend to draw the illustrations. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to devise a simple plot and my 20-page picture book ballooned into a 100-page graphic novel about a genetically-engineered Lippizaner stallion who attempts to monopolize the dry goods industry in California’s Central Valley.
I was lucky enough to get Henry Fong—a talented artist trapped in the legal profession—to design the menagerie of characters. He created fantastic drawings, but it was too difficult to collaborate further on the roughly 600 illustrations that I’d mapped out for Prancy Horse (later I also would learn that it is tougher to sell collaborated books to publishers). Consequently, I tried to recreate Henry’s drawings, but I found it tough to motivate myself. While my drawings of lemurs and locusts showed promise, I had only a rudimentary grasp of perspective, which is an important element in children’s picture books, now that the Ancient Egyptians no longer dominate the market.
Therefore, I revised my plans yet again: Use only Henry’s drawings and hope that nobody notices that they never change positions. This plan didn’t even satisfy children in the 12-18 month range, who have notoriously low standards in literature, so I moved to Plan C: Learn to draw. In the interim, I would work to my strengths and settle for mediocrity.
It turns out that I do have a few strengths, down on the doodling end of the art spectrum. I excel at drawing pant legs. I can also draw a mean coelacanth and skink, but these aren’t as useful as pant legs, which are everywhere you look.
The revelation that I can draw pants was particularly surprising because when I was in graduate school, I passed through a brief phase where I imagined that I could produce competent acrylic paintings. I was mistaken. I had no talent, as was proven by a poorly rendered portrait of the shin portion of my brown jeans—tangible proof that I had neither an eye for moving subject matter nor the technical skill needed to paint parallel lines (nor good taste in jeans).
My newfound mastery over pants led me to table my work on Prancy Horse and once again reevaluate my goals. Plan C, therefore, revolved around pants.
I concocted a fable about a boss of a crime syndicate, who calls himself Fancy Pants and—for fairly complex reasons—wears flashy pants and a lavender mask (I can also draw masks quite well). His foil is an Average Joe, who favors stylish pants. Through a series of misunderstandings, the media begins to think that the Average Joe is the criminal mastermind Fancy Pants, rather than merely a connoisseur of a well-tailored—albeit fussy—pant.
While no doubt a sure-fire hit in the hands of a graphic artist like Art Spiegelman or Todd McFarlane, I will eventually need to include a little use of perspective or more than brief flashes of the corners of character’s faces if I hope to realize the story’s potential. With this in mind, I’ve enrolled for beginner drawing classes in January, although I can’t say that I’m looking forward to four straight hours of drawing shaky pictures of oranges, or whatever it is the junior college art classes do.
In the meantime, I occasionally practice drawing faces, to disheartening results. For example, here’s a picture of a friend who—for privacy concerns—I’ll refer to as “Rik”:
First off, I tried to capture his essence in a whimsical caricature:
It looked a little like him, sort of, I guess. Actually, it looked more like a drunken Kermit the Frog, so I decided to try for something more realistic, and therefore took the advice of a couple of friends who told me to sketch while looking at the picture upside down. Here’s my first rendition of him using that technique (don’t ask why I’m sketching pictures of “Rik”):
There's no doubt that this is a drawing of a person, but as you can see, “Rik” has aged horribly, as if he were a Ukrainian political candidate. With the picture right-side up this time, I tried to get fancy and draw "Rik" in semi-profile, facing the other way, and without his glasses. I have no idea what happened, but here it is. Meet Pat “Rik” Stewart:
Too bad Paramount already has the rights to his likeness. This looks like a man who appreciates a fussy pant.
Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004