Behind the scenes of visual storytelling

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Published:  September 14, 2016
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Visual artist and storyteller Pat Grant takes us through the arduous design process of putting a graphic novel together.

It was December 2005 and aspiring writer Pat Grant found himself in the middle of the Cronulla beach when the riots broke out. He got out unharmed but what he witnessed changed his perception of the social fabric he was once used to.

Grant, who grew up by the beach, felt that the incident connected this ugly Australian bigotry with a landscape and culture he was so familiar with. “It felt like it was my culture that was being compromised,” he says. Being the storyteller that he is he decided to channel all his thoughts and feelings surrounding the incident into a story and with that, Blue was born.

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This 96-page book is Grant’s debut graphic novel. Published in 2012, Blue touches on the themes of race and identity and is a fascinating blend of autobiography and fiction with a sci-fi twist surrounding a trio of teenagers in a seaside Australian town. It received raving reviews internationally and was translated in three languages.

Grant had no design background apart from the zines and short comics he created such as Toormina Vide. “I came to drawing through storytelling. I was an aspiring writer and I found that it is easier to get things published if there was a visual component. So I used to send off three short stories and a cartoon to a journal and the shitty cartoon will get published,” he explains.

“So I started started incorporating more visual work into storytelling and I kind of fell down a rabbit hole and sort of rediscovered comics and graphic novels.”

Visuals as a vehicle

But it’s not easy putting together a graphic novel or even a short comic, explains Grant.

“It’s ridiculous amount of work. You’re basically making 3000 illustrations and each illustration is only going to be looked at for a second and a half each. So you know you have to be a writer, a storyteller, an illustrator, an information designer and a publication designer,” says Grant who currently teaches at UTS Sydney and does freelance design on the side. He is also the creative force behind this year’s Yours & Owls Festival branding – a music festival to be held on Wollongong this October.

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That’s a lot of balls up in the air during the whole process. And it’s a time-consuming and arduous task to script the visuals into the story.

“I always say “The best way to make a good comic is to make a bad comic first”. With Blue, I made a really bad-looking rough draft and then I sat in the studio drawing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pictures.”

It took about five drafts and two years for Blue to finally come together.

“And then people get the book and it’s a 20-minute read or a 40-minute live read with music,” he adds with a laugh.

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Creating a support structure for comic artists

Today, between teaching and doing freelance design for his clients and festivals, Grant is also working on his new three-volume graphic novel series. But it can be difficult to sit in the studio alone with drafts stacked up on the desk and the end goal of the publication far away in the horizon – all of this while jugging a full-time job and other commitments. Does he ever feel discouraged?

“Every single day! I’ve got a son, a mortgage and a job. And I’m constantly filled with despair because I can’t get to the studio. Instead of having 300 days in the studio in a year I have to fight to get 100 and that means I don’t get much work done. Things don’t happen as fast as I’d like them to,” Grant explains.

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It’s a common problem faced by many creatives and the way Grant approaches this is to “learn how to be okay with that”.

“And then fight to carve out and defend your time that you have put aside for your own stuff. That can be tricky because it’s a negotiation with your family and with your other clients and commitments and you have to say, “No, I’m not going to do work for you during this period because I’ve out aside three months to work on my own project”.

Because comic artists work mostly on their own, creative blocks are also another problem they face. To help them, especially those who are working on complex projects, Grant launched the Comic Art Workshop,  which is a professional development initiative for graphic storytellers and first of it’s kind in Australia. Launched last year, the program entails taking 14 artists on a workshop retreat with an industry heavy-hitter to work with them on their projects and ideas.

“It’s really hard, you know. I’ve been working on this new book for five years now and I’m sitting alone in the studio working on it.

“We [comic artists] sort of need rituals and traditions based around sharing work and solving problems and making better projects. That’s what novel writers do and thats what screenwriters do. And that’s what this workshop aims to do,” Grant says.


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