by Toni L.P. Kelner
My husband Steve was the first Kelner to discover Knight's work, either on the web or via our comic book haven The Million Year Picnic, but we've been hooked ever since. All the strips are terrific, though I tend to prefer the art in Knight Life just a bit. The strips are funny, his wordplay is witty, the characters are hilarious, and Knight makes great points about the world without hitting you over the head with a stick.
We were tickled to find out that Knight grew up in Malden, MA, where we live, so every now and then Malden shows up in the strip along with other area landmarks. He shows up every now and then in the area to visit family, and this time his appearance was fabulously convienient. He came to the Malden Public Library--right across the street from the high school he attended--to give a demonstration of drawing comic strips for high school students.
Since I've got two teenaged daughters interested in art careers, we jumped at the chance to attend. I figured they'd learn more about how a professional artist works. I was just there as a fan but I think I came away from it with as much as the girls did. (Not just the autographed books, though we did bring home several of them.)
You see, I always enjoy hearing creative people talk about their work, but I was suprised by how much of it seemed applicable to me. He's a black man who grew up in Malden and moved out west to Califorina--I'm a white woman who grew up in the South and moved up north to Malden. He's an artist and has always drawn at every opportunity--I'm write prose and I'm not even a decent doodler.
But here's the commonality: we're both storytellers.
Well, that and we both like comics and Star Trek. But for the purposes of this blog, we'll stick with the storytelling. And an awful lot of the things he said that ring true for me.
- "People learn the language of comics." Knight was talking about how certain graphic conventions convey surprise, distance, cuss words. But it's true in mystery, too. Writers and readers learn the conventions of the genre: spotting clues, following investigations, establishing means-motive-opportunity, don't wait until too late to have a body.
- "You only need a picture of a pyramid--it's Egypt." Knight meant that it's much easier for a cartoonist to establish a setting than for a filmmaker. I'd say it's easier for a writer, too, and not just because you don't have to wait for good weather to film. A few very carefully chosen words of description set the scene immediately. Robert Heinlein once started a book like this: The door dilated. Three words, and you know you're reading science fiction.
- "You don't need to be realistic." Knight was referring to stylized art, and at first I was thinking this didn't apply. Then I remembered I'm working on a series about an ambulatory skeleton. He has a point. It's also true that writers don't need to be hyper-realistic anytime. Nobody needs to see my characters go to the bathroom, burp, or blow their noses unless it's important to the story.
- "I use routines, repeated pieces of business." The examples of routines that Knight gave were the myriad Charlie Brown strips where Lucy was sitting in her psychiatric help booth or Snoopy was on top of his doghouse. In my series mysteries, these are the moments recur without being duplicates: Laura Fleming catching up on family members, Tilda Harper's horrible roommates. The trick is to make these routines fun for the new readers and the established fans.
- "I start with real people, but they fall into a character. I'm not sure if they evolve or devolve." Knight's technique is defintely one I use. A lot of my characters start with real people, though by the time I'm done with them, they're nobody recognizable. Laura Fleming started from me--Southerner living up North, working in computer industry, husband in academia--but she never managed to adopt my sense of humor.
- "To see if a character is designed strongly enough, draw a silhouette of it and see it it's recognizable." I think the comparable technique for writers is dialog. If you pull a bunch of dialog out without attribution, and you can just tell who said what, then you've got a strong character.
- "You only have to hit every third time to get into the hall of fame." Knight works every single day: Halloween, Christmas, his birthday. He started the demo late because he had to get a strip finished. Obviously, he said, some of his strips are going to be better than others. But here's his view, given to him by somebody whose name I did not right down. To get into the Baseball Hall of Fame, you need a .333 batting average--one hit out of three. So he figures if one strip out of three is really good, then he's doing fine. I don't think I could survive if only one book out of three was a homer, but maybe I can think of paragraphs that way. Not all of them are going to be golden.
If you get a chance to see Keith Knight in person, don't wait until it's fabulously convienient. If you can't do that, treat yourself to one of his books. I bet you'll learn a lot more than what I've put here. I know there are other lessons I could have come away with, but for the rest of the talk I was following Knight's advice: I was doodling.