October 01, 2012

Nerd Rule

By Steve Locke

Taking advantage of the caffeine and snacks on Saturday morning, a bushy-tailed workshop group had a special opportunity to peek into the quirky, cartoon mind of Binky the Space Cat author and illustrator Ashley Spires. Though her picture books and graphic novels are geared towards a younger audience, more than a few full-grown adults have confessed a love for her off-beat characters and positive messages, because really, who doesn’t love a story about a hipster sasquatch looking for friendship.

A brief adjustment period was necessary for Spires at the onset of the presentation, who had spent most of her week at Thin Air speaking to local kindergarteners, who are themselves adjusting to their first ever month of school. Then, returning to the world of grown-ups, she shared a personal picture slideshow of her creative life, including everything from her home-work space, her ever-inspirational cats, and a few old doodles that would eventually turn into something substantial.

This was a heartfelt and effective action in revealing not only her creative process but also her personal life, as the audience was automatically relieved of the burden of their creativity, and possible intimidation, by someone who had found seemingly impossible success through their own art. Spires was on the level, as compulsively creative as anyone else in the room, though ever bent on hard work being the principle means of her achievements. And what a better workshop leader than Spires, who made anything seem possible, and made even hard work sound like fun.

Spires went on to explore the world of graphic novels, which have become more prevalent on bookshelves in recent years, perhaps due to the rise of superhero-themed Hollywood media. Never mind the capes and villains, the form bridges the gap between picture books and novels, for reluctant young readers who may be intimidated by the vastly increased amount of words and pages. Moreover for artists and readers alike, this particular conjunction of text and images offers a dynamic form of storytelling that invigorates the imagination. 

In their conception, graphic novels are written very much like film screenplays. Spires offered us a particular passage of a Binky script, where colour-coded text separated the small amount that would appear on page in speech and thought bubbles, and plenty more on what would appear in each panel: everything from action to perspective, and size of panel. She then explained the process of producing thumbnail sketches similar to film storyboards, and the labourious, time consuming process of hands-on tracing, inking and painting that goes into each page, which can take five to seven days to produce. Where most artists in the field have cut out the middle-man and moved into the digital realm, Spires prefers the hands-on method, feeling more intimacy with her work, as well as appreciating the meditative effects of focus and concentration. 

In the end, workshop participants took away a new appreciation for the dedication that goes into both writing and illustrating works of art. What’s more, we learned to check our egos at the door; to be as weird and off-beat as possible, because let’s face it: that’s the new cool. 

And it’s not like we can help it.

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