In Between the Panels: DC’s Emergence on the Graphic Novel Scene

Despite a rise in prominence, it’s safe to say a good portion of readers don’t quite understand what comics and other graphic literature is about. Even if they want to know more, it’s such a diverse medium, it can be hard to know where to start

Hosted by Washington, D.C., chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, In Between the Panels: DC’s Emergence on the Graphic Novel Scene featured local creators Carolyn Belefski, Molly Lawless and Matt Dembicki and was moderated by Mike Rhode of ComicsDC. While there were many comic fans and creators in the audience, this event was obviously for the WNBA members. That was actually a cool thing — we knew about comics and liked them and they wanted to learn.

After introductions, Rhode started with the questions that were submitted by WNBA members. The first presented to the panel asked what age range comics and graphic novels are for, noting that children and teens seem to like them.

Belefski said that while some of her work, like Curls is for all ages primarily, there are comics like The Walking Dead that are obviously aimed at adult readers. Lawless said that comics are for everyone, but she understands that they’re more accessible to children overall. Dembicki said he tends to create comics about things that interest him. While the anthology Trickster that he edited was aimed more toward younger readers (and it, by the way, just made Kirkus Reviews’ 2010 list of Best Graphic Novels for Teens), his upcoming Brewmaster’s Castle (with Andrew Cohen) is not.

Dembicki also pointed out that up until the late ’80s and early ’90s, comics were, overall, geared more toward children or all-ages audiences. He said he’s noticing a shift back to kids’ comics in a way.

The next question was about the process — basically, “How are comics made?”

All three creators seemed to share a similar process — an idea or script, then thumbnail sketches and then the creation of the final pages. Everyone had a little bit different take on collaborating, although each said they were flexible. Dembicki said he general starts out with a straight script when collaborating. Belefski’s process was more involved — she often collaborates with Joe Carabeo on several projects and they’re happy to listen to each other’s ideas when it comes to story or art.

None of these creators said they primarily use the computer to create comics. Belefski uses a tablet to draw a nightly sketch, but that’s it. They said they may use the computer to clean up art a bit, but all of them prefer drawing on paper.

Question three asked “Are some graphic novels more literary than others?” And while the answer is obviously “yes,” it did provoke a good discussion. Dembicki said there’s an entire range of comics — there have been some adaptations of Shakespeare, there are journalistic comics like Joe Sacco’s work, and then everyone talked about Chris Ware for a while. (Ware is undoubtedly important, but I’m not a fan, so admittedly, I kind of stopped paying attention for a bit.)

The next two questions were related — how each got into comics and the challenges of pursuing it as a vocation. Lawless said she always wanted to be an illustrator, but she found illustration work wasn’t fun. Comics gave her something to draw. Belefski said she liked cartoons and animation, citing Bugs Bunny specifically, and creating characters and world-building was exciting for her. Dembicki’s story was a little different — his immigrant parents bought him comics to help him learn to read and he was hooked through childhood. As an adult, he got back into comics after picking up The Sandman from his wife but didn’t feel interested in the superhero stuff any longer.

Belefski said that of course she’d love to do comics full-time — who wouldn’t? — but it’s nearly impossible. Lawless said “it’s very exposing” and it’s a challenge to make comics even when you love it. Dembicki joked that comics were a way of “avoiding contact with my family” but said he never wanted to do it full-time and is happy to do it part-time.

Belefski discussed how hard it can be to promote your work — it’s not enough to just make a comic, you have to go sell it to people. If you’re lucky, she said you may have a “staff of five volunteers” who help out, but no one is really getting paid.

After a discussion of inspiration (it mostly came down to that everyone wrote about what interested them and were making comics mostly to entertain themselves), there was a question about technology’s role in comics. Belefski said that while she still likes to make printed books, webcomics are easy — you just upload an image — and getting feedback is quick. Lawless said the Internet gives people a way to find you quickly and print-on-demand means you don’t have to pay to get your books printed upfront.

Dembicki said he uses his blog and Facebook to promote his work or to provide previews but he doesn’t really do webcomics and thinks it’s something that’s still emerging. However, he also brought up his District Comics project,which will be exclusive to the web at first.

There were another couple of questions that were basically already covered previously before Rhode turned it over to the audience. The first question asked if any of the creators had any formal art training. Both Lawless and Dembicki said they’d taken art classes growing up and in high school, but not in college. Belefski went to college for art but did communication/graphic design (which she said is the best way for artists to make money). She did also take a sequential art class and an animation class.

The most interesting audience question to me asked if there was any benefit to making comics in the DC area. Dembicki said it doesn’t matter with technology now — we can all be connected — and also pointed out that it’s a very transient area. However, he said there are a lot of different creators with a lot of different styles and it’s still an interesting place to be.

Belefski said it’s taking steps toward becoming a comics town. In the area, we have Small Press Expo and Baltimore Comic-Con a little farther to the north. Groups like DC Conspiracy provide resources and networking opportunities.

That’s something I’ve thought a lot about and I tend to agree with Belefski’s stance that it is growing but may not quite be there yet. The DC area isn’t necessarily cheaper than New York, but at the same time, there are cheaper areas around here (depending on how far away from DC proper you want to be) and people around here are actually hiring. I doubt we’re going to supplant any of the major comic-creating hubs any time soon, but I think we’re worth watching.

I enjoyed it, even though I already know quite a bit about comics (I do love any discussion of the creative process, though) and I hope those who didn’t know about comics learned something.

10 thoughts on “In Between the Panels: DC’s Emergence on the Graphic Novel Scene”

  1. Thanks for the coverage, Eden. And I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to talk to you – again! You seemed to have a pretty good-size posse and a crowd around you most times.

  2. Thanks for writing this up! Sounds like it was fun — my schedule has been completely inflexible for ANY comics events that have arisen of late!

  3. That sums it up nicely! Thanks, Eden! We should get another panel together and really get into the weeds about the D.C. scene. That would be really interesting, I think.

  4. I think part of the thing with the “DC scene” is that everyone has different definitions of the area. A place like NYC is easy to define, but with the DC area, do we include places like Woodbridge (where the Luna Brothers live) or even go down to Fredericksburg? And if we’re going to Fredericksburg, should we also consider Richmond with AdHouse Books and VCU’s art school? Baltimore should probably be included in the DC area, but at the same time, Baltimore has its own thing going on.

    I do think that’s part of the problem with the sense there’s not really a DC scene since no one actually can agree on the boundaries of this area.

  5. Actually, I don’t think it’s so hard to define. At least, it’s never been an issue with the D.C. Conspiracy. We have folks who come to our meetings and other group events from Baltimore, Frederick, Woodbridge, Fairfax, etc. A 50-mile radius seems to be the general rule of thumb folks are willing to travel or to consider themselves part of metropolitan D.C. Aside from NYC, which is so compressed, I think other parts of the country have the same thing (Columbus, Portland, Philly). Few people actually live in city proper limits these days, even with the urban resurgence. (How’s that for talkin’ out my ear? :)

  6. I do think a 50-mile radius is a good rule of thumb, but there’s still matters like “inside the Beltway” vs. “outside the Beltway” that crop up when it comes to try to define what the D.C. region is. I guess from my perspective it’s a matter of how inclusive or how exclusive to be — and both have their good points and bad points.

    I do think ultimately it does come down to how each person defines where they’re from — I know I’ve told people I’m from DC just because it’s easier (although I will often say “Arlington, in the DC area”).

    Of course, the entire Mid-Atlantic is still on its way to becoming a megalopolis so these things may not matter too much longer. (:

  7. At ComicsDC, I usually cover from Baltimore/Frederick MD, down through DC and its ‘burbs, and out to Fredericksburg, VA, with an infrequent glance at Richmond.

    Of course another split is editorial cartoonists vs comic book artists vs illustrators vs part-time cartoonists vs webcomics…

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