I first met Tom Hart on the pages of Rosalie Lightning, the graphic memoir he created after the death of his daughter who was not yet two years old. I know the precise day I read the book, January 24, 2016, because I instantly tweeted a picture of the cover and this flash review— “One of the most beautiful and soul-touching books.” Despite being a social media newbie, I wanted everyone to read Rosalie Lightning.
Yesterday, Hart’s new book, The Art of the Graphic Memoir: Tell Your Story, Change Your Life, arrived at my doorstep. I intended to read the whole book through before writing this post, but I’m too excited about sharing it with you! Once I finish this, which includes a brief interview with Tom Hart, I’ll get back to devouring his excellent new book.
When I read Rosalie Lightning, I was astounded by Hart’s generosity in sharing this story with strangers, and by the raw honesty and emotion conveyed in his words and images. My manuscript and drawings for By the Forces of Gravity, a cartoon/free verse memoir, was under review at the time, so I had just spent several years writing/drawing a story that had broken my heart. I could imagine the sorrow he must have endured in creating Rosalie Lightning so soon after his daughter’s death. I was stunned by the hugeness of his heart to share such loving memories of Rosalie.
I soon learned that Tom Hart taught comics art in Florida, and contemplated ways to take time away from life to enroll at the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW), a comics school he started in 2011. I’m still trying to figure this out. For those of you who, like me, can’t move to Gainesville, there are online and low residency alternatives to the year-long program.
But for starters, I recommend you get your hands on a copy of The Art of the Graphic Memoir. It’s the only instructional book I’ve ever read that moved me to tears. It’s that amazing. Using his experience in creating Rosalie Lightning and the work of other renowned comics artists like Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel and Lynda Barry, Hart guides you through the making of a graphic memoir from start to finish. As the subtitle promises, working through the book will help you tell your story and through the experience you can change your life.
Fair-warning: this book does not teach you how to draw. Rather, it offers ample inspiration and encourages you to discover your own visual voice. If you’re a writer who declares “I can’t draw!” with little or no provocation, fear not. This book is a treasure trove of wisdom and inspiration, gleaned from Tom Hart’s decades of teaching experience (he taught in an art college before founding SAW). He will empower you to try to draw, or paint, or collage your personal story. And even if you cling to your belief that you’re a never-drawer (a truth you perhaps haven’t revisited since you arrived at it in 3rd grade, along with other truths like that you’ll love Timmy Fudbottom until the end of time or that you’ll always wear pig-tails like Baby Spice), The Art of the Graphic Memoir is a fabulous guide for writing a words-only memoir.
I’m so excited to share this interview with Tom Hart. Please read it, while I finish The Art of the Graphic Memoir!
Why Graphic Memoir? What do you find most compelling about telling true life in comics form?
My particular book, Rosalie Lightning, was an act of desperation. I don’t know if I have a compulsion towards memoir other than in that instant. I love art and story, and I especially love transmuting our experiences into art and story, but often I like some fiction or myth-making tied into it. I feel like lies and creations can lead us to truths we don’t always see.
But in the case of my daughter’s book, the intensity of the experience made me need to tackle it directly.
Do you storyboard, thumbnail, write a script or have another creative process, like, do you draw every day, in bursts, at home, in a notebook, only on a certain kind of paper?
It depends on what I am doing. For comic strips, which I have been doing lately, I tend to write them as 6-sentence outbursts, and then draw them a week or two later. For longer pieces like my memoir, I had a general structure and then thumbnailed 3-5 pages at a time, and then would pencil and ink them before moving on to the next section.
Drawing well is pretty difficult for me, so I go through many drafts, tracing and refining as I go.
You are very engaged as an educator, how does teaching inform/impact your art?
I think teaching has raised my standards in so many ways and opened my tool box of potential creative solutions exponentially. It’s hard to be lazy when I’m constantly asking students to open their minds, try new things and push their abilities. I got better at drawing when I started teaching what to look for in a drawing. Same for writing.
What’s your favorite drawing tool(s)?
I was raised on pen and ink, and I still love it. Dipping a pen into ink and drawing with it connects you to your breath, connects your hand to the paper. It’s one of my favorite experiences.
What advice would you give to writers with a hankering to draw?
Ok, three big things:
- One: Let your characters have real gestures and expressions. Move past the emoji and traffic sign to real physical expressions. You can do this with a long deep drawing practice, or you can do it with stick figures (Matt Feazell’s Cynicalman is a good example, so is Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half ), but either way you have to push your drawings to represent real human emotion and narrative, which is deep and complicated.
- Two: Study graphic design, and how shapes work together in a drawing. There’s a clarity that comes with making sure all the parts work well together.
- Three: Be present when you draw. That presence is your gift to your readers.
Thanks so much, Tom, for sharing your experience, skills and love of sequential art. You’re an inspiration! And now, readers, let The Art of the Graphic Memoir guide you into the magical world of telling true stories in words and images!
Cartoonist Tom Hart started The Sequential Artists Workshop, a school and arts organization in Gainesville, Florida, after teaching at the School of Visual Arts for 10 years. His graphic memoir about his daughter, Rosalie Lightning, was a NY Times #1 bestseller and has been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese and Chinese, was featured on many best of 2016 lists, and was nominated for two Eisner Awards. His new book, The Art of the Graphic Memoir, a survey and how-to book about creating a graphic memoir, is now available.
Rebecca Fish Ewan, a poet/cartoonist/writer and founder of Plankton Press, teaches landscape architecture in The Design School at Arizona State University. She grew up in Berkeley, California, and now lives in Arizona with her family. Her cartoon/free verse memoir, By the Forces of Gravity, was published in 2018 through Books by Hippocampus. You can connect with her at rebeccafishewan.com