Stumptown 2011 worldbuilding panel notes

With exquisite timing, crud struck me down on the Friday of the Stumptown Comics Fest. However, I did manage to drag my carcass to the convention center for Sunday’s panel on worldbuilding.

The fact that it’s taken me this long to post my notes is an indication of the baseline level of CrazyBusy that has been operating around here. MORE TO COME.

For now, return with me to Sunday, April 17th. Evan Dahm, moderator, with Barry Deutsch, Kel McDonald, Larry Marder, Carla Speed McNeil, and Jenn Manley Lee.

Everyone introduces their work and says a bit about how worldbuilding plays into it. (Click above links for more.)

Barry: Set in a fictional community based in real traditions that I made up.

Larry: Easier to read than it is to explain. Separate reality, self-contained with own laws & geography.

Carla: I like to call it speculative fiction.

Jenn: Science fiction comic with more talking than spaceships.

Kel: Sorcerer learning magic from an angsty vampire. World is based on ours, but I’ve slowly been changing things as it interferes with the stories I want to tell.

(Evan initially doesn’t want to participate as well as moderate, but he is persuaded.)

Evan: Psychedelic, atmospheric kind of fantasy stories.

Why work in invented settings?

Barry: Usually start with a main character and figure out a world where they fit. Appeal is to be able to create the world and then mess it up for the characters.

Larry: Built a world around my strengths and weaknesses; have a strong sense of design & iconography, weaknesses as a renderer. Came up with characters I was comfortable drawing and built the world around them. Took 10 years from invention of the beans to the first Beanworld story.

Carla: I’m easily bored. Whenever I come up with an interesting idea, my brain wants to spin out “Wouldn’t it be cool IF…” The simplest things can change the way people live. The beautiful thing is that no matter how weird that thing is, to someone it’s completely ordinary. It’s completely ordinary to sit down with your iPad in the morning, watch Netflix streaming, talk to friends all over the world. It’s also completely ordinary to roll out of a taro leaf bed, strap on a penis gourd & go kill someone.

Jenn: Started with characters first, and used sf motifs b/c I wanted to play with metaphors that people could accept. Folklore & metaphors translated into sf so it has more relevance — play with a social hierarchy that’s extinct & reintroduce & repurpose it — I wanted to do science fiction b/c I wanted to do magic.

Kel: Creative part of world deals with the magical part — my more built-up parts have to do with how demons deal with each other, supernatural communities in different cities. Demon politics.

Larry: Disclaimer in the books that the laws of science and the laws of magic have nothing to do with what’s in Beanworld. Everything you need to know is in the book.

Evan: I get to make everything up and draw from every source I can possibly see in the world. Give everything a distinct visual character.

How do you keep settings internally consistent?

Larry: It’s hard, and I forget stuff all the time, and thank god for my fan sites. A lot of times you get these great ideas and you end up reinventing the wheel. Every time I make a choice I close doors. I always feel like I’m building a house of cards, some fan could say ABC and it all falls apart, but that’s the challenge, that’s the thrill.

Evan: Your readers will always know more about the setting than you do.

Carla: If you approach your world as though it is not in fact being made up by you, you can treat it the way we treat our knowledge of our own world — limited and incomplete. Something that appears insanely inconsistent can represent a whole dinosaur skeleton’s worth of knowledge to unearth about the society.

Kel: Decided what I wanted to do and decided what would have happened in the world to make that possible.

Carla: When you’ve got this incredibly complicated world, how much are you gonna burden the story with explaining things? It really can’t slow down the story — in my case I did extensive footnoting, like a director’s commentary in the back of the book.

Kel: I cheated, my main character teaches history.

Someone: “That isn’t cheating, that’s a strategy.”

Barry: I cheat in the opposite direction b/c character’s 11 years old and doesn’t know so many things. She knows the details of her life as an 11 year old — her school, and things like that. But she doesn’t know how the economy of the town works so I’m excused from having to explain that. Depend a lot on book research and trying to present it in a fairly straightforward manner.

Evan: Inject a character who knows nothing about the setting.

Jenn: I keep it consistent b/c story is based on an area where I grew up. And it’s based on social interactions, when people cross-pollinate they have to explain themselves to each other. Also, it’s very good to have a character who hides a lot of their past and tells lies.

Evan: I keep very good notes — but also I rely on the wiki maintained by my readers which is ten times more accurate that anything I’ll ever write.

What advantages or disadvantages do comics offer in working in invented worlds?

Barry: Comics have a great advantage over prose because you can very easily embed the reader in the experience. You can just show your characters living in the world very naturally rather than having to spend paragraphs describing.

Jenn: You can also interject something again and again — seed things very very subtly until they become important in the story.

Carla: Only real disadvantage is that comics take so much longer to produce. Do whatever you can to your work method to prune things off to get you faster.

Kel: I do a lot with the eyes of different creatures — the eye color is a key to what type of being a character is. On the downside, I have characters with accents and that is super hard to convey through dialogue.

Jenn: To contradict Carla — in 1 page of comics you can get 10-20 pages full of prose. It is kind of grueling and isolating. But it takes a long time to write, too, and a lot of people do it badly.

Barry: Readers definitely are a pain in the neck, but I mean that lovingly. The Internet has made it so much harder to put things over on readers.

Larry: I’m not a professional cartoonist, I’m a marketing person, but I love comics. The only comic I’ll ever do is Beanworld. Can’t imagine doing anything else.

Evan: You can be more subtle in how you reveal things than you can in prose or film — I like to have complete tyrannical control.

Jenn: I have some odd-looking characters and I don’t want them to become prettier. If you’re reading a novel and you start liking a character, they start to get prettier, you definitely see it in fan art. But no, it’s very important that this person is over 40 and has no ass!

Many people are daunted by the apparent size of making a world.

Jenn: Start with what you know. Based my main planet on my old neighborhood in NJ. Media, social, work, manufacturing center with waves and waves of immigrants, and old families, with an established hierarchy. Make it real for you first, cause that’s the only way you’re going to convince anyone else.

Barry: Write something that you don’t think you’re going to get tired of.

Larry: Design characters that you are not going to hate drawing over and over and over again because you will draw them a lot.

Carla: I can talk on for days about character design. Draw characters as simply as possible in chibi style and if they’re still recognizable the design is probably sound. It’s important that what you draw is what you dig, what you really like.

Evan: If you’re daunted by the size of the entire world, focus on the story you want to tell and build the world around it.

Barry: Scott McCloud says don’t build too much of the world. Draw enough of the world so that the story is breathing and has a place to inhabit, but not so much that it gets in the way.

Kel: That’s why I start with our world but change what gets in the way of the story.

Larry: Can’t remember if it was Ursula LeGuin or Joanna Russ, but one of them said that you’re really working with a sense of touch out there — you can’t really see it, but you can kind of feel it — it’s a lot like being in the woods and you’re not really sure what’s behind that tree or around that bend — and that’s a good place to be starting out from, you certainly don’t know where everything is.

Carla: If you can work those revelations in as plot points then you’ve got your world-building and storytelling at the same time.

Evan: Interesting to look at it as kind of a teaching process, give the reader an elegant way of understanding the world without stopping the storytelling.

Carla: I wanted to create an environment that would allow me to tell any kind of story I wanted — building the Winchester Mystery House.

Audience question: What are the built worlds that have inspired you & your creations?

Evan: China Mieville, books mostly about cities and he makes these incredible but entirely believable settings that you just drop right in the middle of and have to figure out.

Larry: Marcel Duchamp’s entire body of work, but especially the Large Glass and the Green Box. Looks like a painting but it’s actually a schematic of an animation that you do in your head. Contemporary to the popularization of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Duchamp started out as a cartoonist but quit because he never got paid.

Kel: I like Discworld a lot because he took a sort of stock fantasy world and made it far more interesting — taking fantasy tropes to their logical conclusions.

Jenn: John Varley — he’s way out there but very consistent. Favorite thing is the peek-a-boo uterus. Pregnant police officer with a porthole so she could watch her fetus. Also some not safe for work things that I won’t go into but they’re awesome.

Carla: I’ve read such a mulch-heap of stuff since I was a kid, all of which has had some flavor, but the thing I’ve gotten so nerdily into is Nickelodeon’s Avatar — such a beautiful exploration of such a cool world with so much depth, mind-bogglingly good.

Kel: Super-into The Meek right now.

Barry: What influenced me the most are things that are less world-spanning and more the feeling of really being embedded in a community, the small culture that’s being described — Jaime and Gilbert HernandezGreat Brain booksUsagi Yojimbo.

Jenn: Good point, worldbuilding doesn’t have to be completely fictional.

Evan: Nothing is ever completely fictional.

N.B. These notes, while admittedly extensive, are incomplete.

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  • Twitch
    May 22, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Thanks for posting your notes – it’ll take a while to find the time to listen to and digest the whole recording.

    (Sometimes I get mad at news sites that post video clips with little or no explanation. Makes me feel like a five-year old stamping his foot – “Why can’t you just *tell* me what they said?” :)