One of the things I love most about comics is the way things move. I love how from panel to panel you can watch something small change, and because you notice it, you know the change is important. For example, if you read a comic with four panels showing a girl walking, sitting down, putting her head in her hands, and sitting with her head in her hands, you’d see her loneliness. The movement, slow and deliberate, gets right at a central emotion.
I’m working on an owl essay right now, and I wanted the illustrations to show movement. I decided I’d work in four panels — a format I’ve never played with before — to see if I could show time using light and shadow. This was kind of silly, because I really don’t know how light works. I think about it sometimes, but I can’t figure it out. It’s something I really should take a class in — it's kind of central to all drawing stuff. You’ll see in some of these pictures, if you look closely, that I’ve done shadows that are literally impossible; they creep huge in some places and are nonexistent in others. The sun would have to be on the person's shoulder.
But I still I think these images move, and I like that about them.
This essay was supposed to be about moving. I thought it was about moving, until my advisor told me it was about love and that was all. I didn’t want to be person who wrote essays only about love, and so I tried to make a convincing argument that I was NOT writing about love and was OBVIOUSLY writing about migration; moving; motion; survival. But maybe for me those things and love are all the same. In any case, the realization that I was not writing something cool and deep that worked on dozens of layers meant I had to cut a lot out of this essay. It was 10,000 words when I finished it; now it’s down to 6,000. I cut a whole essay out of this essay!
Here are a few parts I had to cut; they didn’t fit anymore. Also, just a few of the images I traded in when I went for these four-panel black-and-white ones.
The Chicago Audubon Society has the same quote on its homepage as we kept in the teacher’s lounge the first few years I worked in New Orleans. It is attributed to the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I used to sit in the lounge eating chocolate covered pretzels from the vending machine and think about what it meant. How did we hope to change the world? Really, what right did any group of people have to decide what about the world needed to be changed? I was supposed to be a “good guy,” but I knew I was a bad teacher. It didn’t seem right that I was tasked with leading a group of 30 kids whose lives didn’t resemble mine at all; whose suffering I could not even begin to understand. One day a five-year-old student told me that she was the person who’d found her brother’s body the day after he hanged himself. Lots of days my students told me that they didn’t have enough food in their house for dinner.
I took my students on bird-watching field trips a few times a year. We usually saw blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, and a handful of sparrow varieties. I never told my students that there was a chance that they might see an owl. It felt wrong to try to get anyone’s hopes up.
The journey from New Orleans to Chicago was a challenge. I thought about Homer’s Odyssey a lot. I thought about home a lot. I noticed that I was noticing how few birds there were to see on the drive. For a long time, there seemed to be nothing but time and space. I felt a distinct hollowness: like I was moving along the hinge of a door between two rooms.
There is a learning curve to love. You have to find ways to climb up to it and sink into it so that it is real but so that the fall will not kill you. I don’t know that I have figured it out yet.
You know those calendars banks send to you at Christmas full of high-definition color photographs so steeped in cyan and bright green that you can’t recognize the photographs as of this earth? And you recycle them because they’re unbelievable; because you aren’t going to use a wall calendar that does not speak to you? Trying to describe Oregon in summer would come off like that.
It’s crazy that you spend dozens of hours on something — an essay or a stack of watercolors of owls — and then you kill the thing off with the single flick of the thumb against the delete key. And who knows if it’s even any better? What does “better” mean, anyway? No way to know. You just put one foot in front of the other, and you move.