Notes on Craft | Lee Lai | Granta

Notes on Craft

Lee Lai

One of the pleasures of making comics – and of talking about them – is that there are endless ways of doing it these days, thanks largely to the independent cartoonists of the past few decades who have stretched the formal elements in every direction. There’s writers like Alison Bechdel or Joe Sacco, whose text-heavy style of cartooning allows for great leaps in subject and place. And then there’s those like Conor Stechschulte, who make cinematic narratives without third person narration. In their work the panel becomes more camera lens than bordered illustration.

I’ve found myself leaning more to the latter style: dialogue-driven, with scene changes similar to cuts in a film. I prefer this ‘show don’t tell’ style of comics and all the drama and ambience this can create, but it puts a lot of pressure on the dialogue to convey subtext. I often feel wistful of what’s possible in prose writing: the flexibility around chronology, the ability to provide so much context for characters and situations without interrupting the narrative too much.

In talking about how comics as a form nestles itself between prose and film-making, I end up thinking a lot about the function of the page and the panel. The presence of multiple panels on a page in graphic fiction is an element of storytelling that might be unique to comics alone and it provides its own well of opportunities (and challenges). Early on in my romance with comics, I was taken with the possibilities of the page. The diagrammatic panelling requires such control from the artist to guide the reader through the potential chaos. I’ve yet to meet a reader of comics whose eyes don’t quickly sweep across the landscape of a freshly opened double-spread, and I think there’s something thrilling in the challenge of trying to wrangle someone’s eyes into the top corner (or not!) – it loads the moment of the page-turn with such power.

So many cartoonists have explored this in beautiful ways. Brecht Evens, who mostly does away with the square panel completely, replicates characters multiple times in layered crowd-scenes and uses translucent, colourful dialogue to guide the reader through the maze. Chris Ware uses panel borders to construct houses, and lets the readers wander voyeuristically through them. Lynda Barry’s panels are like tiny moments of candour, turning a page into a collage of little confessions, memories or ideas to be shared.

As a writer of relatively chatty stories, I feel mostly concerned with trying to use pages and panel sequences to serve the dialogue’s advantage. A single frame could be a whole busy vignette, a single intake of breath, or more of a fluid roll into the following panel. This awareness of the rhythm between the panel gutters and the page-turning has built up over time for me. I have sometimes found myself writing my dialogue deliberately to fit into left pages, or right pages, or so that certain statements would land on the final fourth panel of a grid. Each panel gutter provides the chance for a character to hesitate a little, or double-down into pig-headedness or hitch a new expression onto their face that might change the temperature in the room. For certain scenes, the bottom right of a double spread feels like I’m holding a hand up to the reader, saying ‘Wait, just… she’s really got something to say on the other side of this.’

I grew up in the 90s, which meant the era of children’s books illustrations having quite a lot of detail and movement (think Winnie the Witch and Murgatroyd’s Garden), and necessitating the use of a sticky little finger to help guide the eyes across a page. That experience of reading has continued through my adolescence and adulthood in my exploration of alternative comics. I’ve loved experiencing the page as a map, as something to be wandered across. I want there to be some remnant of that experience in my own work – a moment of reveal or release in the turn of a page, a feeling of being ushered across a spread.


Image © Yannick

Lee Lai

Lee Lai is is a cartoonist and graphic novelist from Melbourne, Australia, currently living in Montreal, Canada. In 2021, she was chosen as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 for her debut graphic novel, Stone Fruit.

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