As anyone who writes comics or graphic novels can tell you, it takes an awful lot of work to produce something that most people read so quickly.
I’ve written often in this column that what we now call “comics” are in fact only the newest form of an ancient legacy of merging words and images. Today, I’ll let you be the judge. My next three columns, starting with this one, will bring you along with me as I go through the process of creating a graphic novel.
First, a caveat: This is in no way a tutorial. It’s a cross-section of how one writer creates graphic novels (specifically, the graphic novels that comprise one particular series), and my process and materials, though adapted from others’, are my own. Another comics or graphic novel writer might be horrified by how I do this, and I doubt any mainstream comics publisher would even deign to read a script written in my nonstandard format. But there is no “right way” to do this, just as there is no one way to sit down and write a prose novel, just ways that will or will not result in an actual final product in the hands of a particular writer. The method I use for this series works for me and for the artists I’ve chosen to work with.
So, all that said, if you’re curious about how a graphic novel is made, off we go.
Let’s start with the series. Way back in 2001, I was living in Japan and working on a 300-page book (my first) that took, by the end, five years to complete. The last two years of that were essentially spent waiting for three artists to complete the monumental task of drawing everything. I decided to tackle a smaller project in the meantime that didn’t require so much research or drawing; this became my first published work, Garlands of Moonlight.
I dashed off the story in a little less than two weeks. I decided to dip into the deep well of folktales and ghost stories I heard when I was a teenager, during the time my family lived in Indonesia. Even though we lived in the capital city, Jakarta, Indonesian society still functions in many ways as a collection of villages. Everything around us—even the expat bubble in which we lived—was organized as a collection of small communities, intersecting here and there. Neighborhoods in Jakarta were often defined be the kampungs—little urban villages—that bordered major areas. Everyone had a folktale of some sort to retell, and belief in the supernatural was absolute. I remember an incident in which a grave was discovered on the grounds of the (international) school I attended, and none of the Indonesian workers would come back to work until the place had been exorcised. The modern world didn’t do much to erase traditional beliefs: these supernatural stories actually proliferated even more in an urban environment.
So I’d jotted down a number of the fables and ghost stories I’d heard during those years, intending to turn them into stories eventually. I dusted off the journal in which I’d captured a few of these and selected one to turn into a short graphic novel.
I had decided that the story would take place in Indonesia, but much of what I wanted to write about concerned the effects of Dutch colonialism in the region. I lived there about a century after the peak of that period. Much like what the British did with their insidious East India Company, the Dutch arrived as traders and turned their economic control into outright rule that lasted for centuries. Indonesia gained its independence officially in 1945, the legendary Sukarno finally wresting the country from a series of occupations by foreign powers (the centuries of Dutch occupation were followed by a brief period during with Japanese forces brutally seized Indonesia during the calamities of World War II).
But even during my time there, half a century after independence, the legacy of Dutch colonialism was everywhere. One of the houses we lived in was an old Dutch bank, its thick walls, dark woodwork and grand architecture a stark contrast to the makeshift, hut-like dwellings to be seen in the nearby slums and kampungs. I was also perhaps sensitive to the intricacies of a postcolonial society, having grown up in India (which gained independence itself just two years after Indonesia, and similarly retains many artifacts of its colonial past).
Watch the author talk about The Malay Mysteries.
I decided to set my story in 1910, near the end of the Dutch colonial period, a time at which most of the Indonesian archipelago was still functioning much as it had for centuries before the widespread appearance of cars, electricity, radio or any of the rest of the forces that came to define the modern world. This gave me a way of writing about a culture in transition, exposed to other ways of thought and doing things (sometimes oppressively so), but holding on to its own tradition.
I also built in a failsafe. If no one read the book, or worse yet, if many did but hated it, I could leave it as a one-off and move on to something else. But it could be the starting point in a series if it proved appealing.
I built the series around a fairly reliable trope: the conflict between scientific reason and magic. This was on my mind constantly as I originally listened to the many fanciful tales (one of which was told to me, in all seriousness and solemnity, by a senior Indonesian government official, who swore that he had seen a sea goddess beckoning to him from the waters of Java’s southern shore). What could explain the absolute belief in these supernatural events and creatures? Was it all just a collective delusion, was there some scientific basis or plausible explanation, or—and here’s where it got interesting—was some aspect of all of it real, as the storytellers insisted?
For my two characters, I decided to use a schoolteacher—representing reason and science—and an old medicine woman. One sees these women on the streets of Jakarta even today, their baskets full of powders, mysterious liquids and unguents, practitioners of traditional magic and healing (and, naturally, witchcraft) in the midst of the world’s most populous Islamic country. For Indonesians, there is no inherent contradiction between these two things, whatever Islam may say; the existence and practice of ancient, pagan arts is totally reconcilable to them with a faith that refutes these things, because that faith originated somewhere other than the haunted islands of southeast Asia. So Marsiti the jamu (medicine) lady and Hidayat the skeptical schoolteacher became the pair of opposites with which I would navigate these folktale.
The story itself features a type of childbirth demon that comes to prey on a little village. Southeast Asian culture is obsessed with this particular type of creature. Generally, they are thought to arise when something goes wrong with the process of conception or maternity. The mother—or the infant—becomes something unnatural and demonic, with the power to take over and disorder a whole community. The first book in the series starts out with Marsiti musing, “there is something wrong in this village.”
The rest of the series meanders through other folktales I heard—like the one about a peculiar rock formation that looked like a hanging woman, or the tale of the sea goddess told to me by the government official. Others were of my own invention or an amalgam of different monster stories I collected—even one family ghost story that I set in a Dutch plantation in Java.
The fifth book, The Dark Colony, the one I just finished writing, is now in the hands of the artist, the amazingly talented M. Reza Aribuwana, who’s reading over the script and starting to draw it.
This episode in the series had a somewhat bumpy start. My original idea was to use the Malay art of batik—itself infused with supernatural lore and magical overtones—as the basis for a story about witchcraft. I planned to set it in a royal capital and make it a sort of courtly mystery. This proved difficult to write. Though the research was interesting, my characters weren’t fitting in the setting I was developing, and I found myself shoehorning them into goings-on in a palace. I wasn’t able to successfully explain what might have brought them there or how they came to be in that setting, so I scrapped the palace idea and went with something simpler.
The fourth book in the series, Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories, stole from Chaucer and used the device of a group of characters—including the series’ recurring detectives, the medicine woman Marsiti and schoolteacher Hidayat, who by this point has become less skeptical and is following Marsiti around on her ghost hunting adventures—telling stories. I decided to sustain this story-within-a-story technique to prolong the break the series was taking from the heaviness of its main story arc, an exploration of Marsiti’s mysterious past.
The result was our characters passing through a market where they encounter a batik artist who is happy to share a tale of murder and the supernatural in exchange for their company as she works.
It was challenging to write in a very short form and to stay away from the major plot events of the underlying series, but I’m satisfied with the result. Next time: a little bit more about the plot of The Dark Colony, as well as some of Reza’s artwork as he draws it.