Wednesday, March 10, 2010

All Over Coffee

Yesterday I mentioned that I had been reading, and very much enjoying, Paul Madonna's book All Over Coffee. What I didn't say that I was working carefully through book, panel by panel, and that I had not yet reached the end. Today I finished it and was delighted to find an an 11-page Afterword, an extended process reflection which explains not just about the origins and mechanics of the drawings, but also about the stages of Madonna's career as an artist and the various surprises and challenges along the way. It's always tempting to assume, when you see a well-designed product, that whoever put it together must have just sat down and tossed it off. Madonna explains how at one point, before the idea of doing a comic strip occurred to him (I cringe when I write "comic strip;" calling Madonna a comic strip artist is like calling Anton Chekhov a storyteller; it's may be true, to a degree, but not sufficient), he had been working for some time, on a graphic novel that just wasn't working out. And once he did get started on the strip, he found that success bred other challenges:

    Over the next few months, people began to recognize me while I was out drawing. I got everything from "Hey, you're that coffee guy!" to people knowing my name and other work I had done. The Chronicle continued to publish readers' responses where the letters of hate produced letters of love, and a debate picked up with me on the sideline watching. I had never experienced anything like it with my work before. A high school English teacher began using the strip in his class and had students write to the paper. One of the letters read, "People don't want something that makes them think." Disheartening, but no surprise. A reader wrote and asked if I was "trying to make them feel stupid." I didn't know where to even begin with that.
    I did my  best to listen but not get derailed by people's opinions and suggestions—which came hourly—and just keep on track with what I thought worked.

He goes on to detail the considerable challenges associated with producing seven days a week to produce four strips, which eventually led to hard decisions to cut back, first to two daily strips and a Sunday strip, and eventually just to Sundays. He also talks about the process by which this book, a selection and distillation of the work he had done for years, came about. A I write this tonight, I find myself thinking about the texts from two of the strips. I should explain that each strip consists of a drawing of a physical space (often the interior or exterior of a building or set of buildings) in or around San Francisco, superimposed upon which are a series of rectangles in which the words of a short narrative or conversation or meditation appear. There is usually no direct connection between the scene depicted and the words, but there's often an eerie, oblique sort of correspondence between what is being said and what is being depicted.

The narrative panels on page 148 — superimposed on drawing of a path leading into some tree-bespeckled foothills, partially in shadow — read, in sequence:

"And if you're going to do this," she told herself, "You've got to remember,

there are going to be bad times,

and times that you forget what you were thinking

and why you made this choice.

The second, on page 149, over a drawing of a rather ornate and stately residence on a city street, reads,

She suspects secret maps of the city exist.

Maps that aren't sold in stores.

Maps that chart seemingly normal sites

behind whose doors

lives more exciting than hers are led.

Many of the vignettes in this book work like this. They are about moments: the moment a thought arrives, the moment the light strikes the side of a hill or a building in a certain way, the moment when

There's only the sun and a feeling

that you're simultaneously doing all the right things

and completely wasting your life.

(Interested in seeing more? Check out this page from Madonna's web site.)

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