Bridge City Comics, in the Mississippi neighborhood, hosts a monthly Graphic Novel Reading Club where the public is invited to read and discuss the book chosen for the month. The selection for May was Volume 1 of Family Man, by local artist Dylan Meconis.
Family Man is the first webcomic-based book covered by the GNRC, and Meconis dropped by Bridge City to answer questions about her second book as her Periscope Studio-mate Jeff Parker did before her.
Meconis began Family Man as a webcomic in 2006, a year after graduating from college, and self-published its first collection in 2010. Her previous book, Bite Me!, was a less serious work about vampires and chickens during the French Revolution, and for Family Man she felt “forced” to perform more research.
“During the first book, I did a little research and saw how wrong I’d been,” she said. “This was a way of not getting yelled at by grad students.
“It’s part for credibility and part for fun.”
The author also noted that her research frequently affected the direction of her story. Encountering previously unknown facts about the German university system, for example, gave her new options for events.
Meconis uses endnotes in the book to provide more background information from her research, inspired by Carla Speed McNeil’s similar technique in Finder. One scholarly reader even found the Family Man notes to be their favorite part of the book. Additional tidbits that Meconis finds interesting or that provide more context for the events are included, but she stressed that they are not integral to the plot.
“You can read Family Man without the notes and not lose anything,” she explained.
The story, which deals with life in an 18th-century German university, is not typical of the subject matter being published in comics today, and Meconis attributes that to her atypical path to the medium.
“My work is more informed by prose novels,” said the former history student. “I feel weird in comparison to my peers at the studio, who came from an animation and comics background.”
Meconis’ intellectual influences came through to the readers as well.
“I felt smart from reading it,” said one attendee. “I couldn’t read anything else right after because I didn’t want to ‘dumb down.'”
Other readers commented that the book was “pretty riveting” and “very ambitious,” with a story and pacing that was “different from the norm.”
It was suggested that the open-ended nature of webcomics allowed an author to be much more deliberate in developing a story, as opposed to a 22-page book which needs to have a distinct beginning, middle and end every month. A regular comic book’s purpose, some might argue, is to make the reader want to purchase the next issue. While webcomic creators do want their readers to return, the publishing schedule is much more frequent, making it easier to keep interest alive. There is more time for character development, but the tradeoff is that there is not always an identifiable arc to a webcomic’s story.
“Most writers are in too much of a hurry,” said one reader. “This had a slower pacing, but by the end I was really engrossed.”
Some confessed to a feeling of guilt over having read the entire book, which was created over five years, in one sitting. Meconis pointed out that there was always additional value possible in re-reading a comic, and added that she felt the process was easier than re-reading a prose novel.
The conversation then turned to the art itself, which was compared to Dave McKean’s work in Cages by one reader.
Meconis performs a great deal of research in order to make Family Man‘s world accurate for the period, but she does take time for herself as well.
“Some [of the art] is just me drawing what I want,” she said, when someone mentioned a panel decorated with taxidermy projects.
One of the most striking images in Family Man, the interior of a church which houses the University’s library, was based on a real location, the John Rylands Library.
“It’s a library in Manchester [England] that was built in the style of a gothic church,” Meconis said. “They have one of the earliest fragments of the New Testament there.”
After drawing solely from photo references, she got a chance to visit the library on a trip to England and take pictures for herself.
One question which Meconis admitted she always expects is the reason for certain characters’ exaggerated noses. Protagonist Luther Levy’s nose, and that of several others, appears unrealistically long, and this fact is not widely remarked on within the story.
“I wanted the noses to be distracting at first,” said Meconis, “but eventually become ignored.”
The author did create this feature with a purpose in mind, however.
“It will come up in the story eventually,” she promised. “It has to do with Luther’s own state of mind.”
The noses and the more cartoony nature of the figures in Family Man stand in contrast against the richly detailed backgrounds, which brought to mind the epic comic Cerebus. In Dave Sim’s series, the protagonist is a cartoon aardvark in a world with similarly realistic details and characters, and little fuss is made of the dichotomy. The group agreed that a slightly more cartoony figure allows the artist to exaggerate expressions more easily, communicating emotional states to the reader.
Being both the author and the artist of Family Man, Meconis said, is “great for control freaks,” but leaves the creative burden solely on her shoulders. She is responsible for creating the layout of each page, which she described as “the most agonizing part.”
One reader complimented Meconis on her layouts, saying that parts of the story could be recalled simply from the way the pages were laid out.
Meconis revealed that she intentionally reused panel layouts in similar parts of Family Man in order to create a subliminal connection between them.
“It requires the most problem-solving,” she said about the process. “I have to find the more evocative and efficient way of arranging the panels on each page.”
On the other hand, Meconis added, Jaime Hernandez was able to take a 9-panel grid and tell a moving, near-wordless story in his book Flies on the Ceiling.
“Sometimes,” she admitted, “a structure can free up an artist to expand in other areas.”
The group noted that the art style obviously changed over the course of five years, and Meconis agreed. She also explained how she used the first section of the book to hone her craft.
“I used the early part in the family home to figure out pacing and character interaction before the ‘real’ story started,” she said.
Several readers pointed out that the art seemed to change once Levy left his home, and that Meconis’ storytelling continued to improve as the book went on.
Luther Levy’s story is a work in progress, according to the author. The events are written in advance of the art, but Meconis does not have the entire story fully fleshed out.
“I’m building the bridge as I go,” she said.
Meconis has published sixty more pages of the Family Man story on her website.
The Graphic Novel Reading Club selection for June 9 is Green Lantern: Secret Origin, written by Geoff Johns and pencilled by Ivan Reis. The group meets at 7pm and is open to the public.