powerpoint as a comic panel

Powerpoint (or Keynote) slide software solves the problem of presenting an audience with a narrative that demands both verbal and visual elements. A slide presentation succeeds when the visual display works with the verbal communication of the speaker to create a narrative in the audience’s mind. The juxtaposition of pictures and words conjure connections and meaning that pictures or words alone could not.

Some of the best uses of Powerpoint come from the masters of verbal/visual, picture/word communication: cartoonists.

On her tour for Fun Home, Alison Bechdel projected panels from the graphic novel as she read the narration aloud:

alison bechdel powerpoint

Scott McCloud uses an epic slideshow to take his audience through his theory of comics:

Chris Ware and radio host Ira Glass have collaborated on “Lost Buildings“—basically a radio story accompanied by a slideshow:

My advice to all who want to use slide software for stronger presentations: read some good comics. Pay attention to pacing, sequence, and the way cartoonists weave verbal and visual elements to tell a story.

Trash the templates, abandon the bullet points, and find the right combination of pictures (your slides) and words (your voice) to communicate your narrative.

Any other cartoonists I’m missing here? What are the best slide presentations you’ve witnessed?



The comic strip is the definition of quotidian: it comes out everyday, you read it on the toilet, it just weaves itself into your everyday life. It’s about little details. It’s not about grand sweeping dramas. Graphic stories are able to show incidental life without having to describe it.”
Alison Bechdel on the everyday in comics

I’m passionate. I’m disciplined. I play a lot…[When I sit down in front of a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen,] I do a mark on the page, whether it’s virtual or actual paper. Once there is a mark, there’s no fear of not drawing something. It’s a funny thing, but it works every single time…


The way I work nowadays usually is…I don’t really draw a lot….I’ll go months without drawing, but I do keep a notebook…and write down dreams or ideas I have for stories. I just kind of keep filling in those pages and six months or eight months or twelve will go by and I’ll start to panic and I’ll say, ‘I’m never going to do another King-Cat,’ and then at some point…all this work that didn’t really make a lot of sense the day previously, it all just kind of comes together and I’ll think, ‘Ah, this is what the next issue’s going to be,’ and I’ll sit down and I’ll write the stories. I’m a person who allows myself some leeway. If a mistake happens in a comic or I sit down and draw and it takes me off on some tangent I didn’t anticipate, I’m open to following that wherever it may go. But I do usually have it pretty well thought out. But at this point I just see the comics in my head before I ever draw them. So when I have that thing kind of put together, I’ll draw intensely for a period of a couple weeks or a month or so. My comics are so simple, it’s a lot of work that goes into them before the drawing point, but when I actually sit down and draw them it actually goes pretty quickly. And then I’ll put it together, sit down with the pages, edit things and try to make an issue kind of cohesive. Nowadays, it’s still a kind of random thing for me, but I do try to kind of have the issue be a cohesive thing, like an album where these are independent songs but if you take them as a whole they’re a unified expression.
John Porcellino

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I am more greatly moved by people who struggle to express themselves….I prefer the abstract concept of incoherence in the face of great feeling to beautiful, full sentences that convey little emotion.”
Daniel Day-Lewis


My book review of Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME ran this month in Cleveland Magazine as part of Cuyahoga County Public Library’s “Choice Books” advertising series. We don’t have a working scanner at the library anymore, so I had to settle for a photocopy:


FUN HOME is a really hard book to do justice in 200 words. Its complexity is its genius: it’s so many things at once. If you still haven’t read it, I’ve done it better justice here and here. Alison is a tremendous cartoonist and a really gracious person.

Weird that I should find the review today, because tonight we’re going with Meg’s dad to Harvey Pekar’s booksigning for the Best of American Comics over at Joseph-Beth. Harvey introduced Alison at her reading in October. Remember: there are no coincidences.

Okay. I’m going to go grab a hotdog and spend the rest of the day reading Eddie Campbell’s THE FATE OF THE ARTIST. (Campbell has a new blog worth checking out.)



After scarfing down some tacos with about 50 soccer brats at the Chipotle across the street, last night we went to see Alison Bechdel read at the Joseph-Beth in Legacy Village. (Here’s Alison’s own blog of the event.) They had the reading hidden upstairs in this special conference room that had a fantastic projector. Then Harvey Pekar got up and gave an introduction that emphasized her skills as a writer:

Genuinely thrilled, Alison said, “That’s like the Grateful Dead introducing Phish.”

She started out by reading from the first chapter of Fun Home. Using Powerpoint, she projected the individual panels onto the projection screen while she read the narration from a script. (She let the speech bubbles inside the panels speak for themselves.) It was really soothing, and blowing the panels up several times bigger than their actual size you could see every hatch, every stroke, every variation in the inkwash. Meg said it was like seeing slides in architecture studio — you could see the way the imagery was working in a way different from reading the book.

“The thing about doing a graphic novel is that it’s a really physical process,” Alison said. “You have to know every square inch of the book. So there’s no way for me to talk about the book without showing it to you.”

It was truly using Powerpoint for good and not for evil, and I’m convinced now that Powerpoint is the key to presenting comix readings.

After she finished the chapter, she went into a slideshow detailing how she wrote the book.

What blew me away is how much writing leads her process. She used this panel from page 189 to illustrate:



She starts out by using Adobe Illustrator to type out her narration and dialogue into boxes. (She also includes a textual description of how the art will look.) Then she arranges the text around the page how she wants. At this stage, it looks very much like visual poetry. In her senior thesis, an undergrad colleague of mine, Elisabeth Price, reverse-engineered a Frank Miller page this way:



After getting the text just right, she rough pencils the panel on the typing paper.


The next step involves lots of photographic research — for this panel, she researched pictures of gay men from the period, fireworks, rooftops, water towers, and random people sitting on rooftops.

“I couldn’t have done this book without Google Image Search.”

She also takes digital pictures of herself in every pose that takes place in the panel.

“After this step,” she said, “the work is ninety-percent done.”



And yeah, the next steps are pretty standard comics stuff — tight pencil, then inking, erasing the pencil. Then the whole thing is scanned into Photoshop and cleaned up.


She did a gray inkwash for the shading that was later turned green by her publisher.
“It was weird because I never knew how it was all going to come together.”

Watching her describe her process, I thought once again about how I believe that comics is really collage — cobbling together layers of text and images. It’s the style that unifies the work — the style that convinces you that all this stuff is supposed to be in the same place.

After her process presentation, she read from chapter four, and then it was time for questions and answers.

She talked about her relationship with her mom, about the unexpected success of the book, and the bizarre mix of excitement over its success, and the burden of having her family story everywhere. Harvey chimed in by telling an anecdote about Robert Crumb and his reaction to Terry Zwigoff’s documentary about him.

“Crumb didn’t want to be bothered,” Harvey said. “He figured Terry would do the film, and everyone would forget about it.”

Then Harvey’s wife, Joyce Brabner, said: “Crumb’s first wife, Dana, has been trying to get a book published for years. It’s called, It Was My Life Too, Goddamnit!

Afterwards, Alison signed books. Here’s a funny story about how much of a perfectionist she is:

She was going to draw a portrait of one of the women in line, but she said she didn’t have a pencil. “Does anybody have a pencil?” So I gave her one of those golf pencils you get at Ikea, and she did the sketch, then inked it.

I tried to draw her several times during the night, but just couldn’t get it right. Part of the problem was that I was caught off guard by her looks: from photos, she looks very, well, masculine and angular (butch hair, dark suit, glasses), but when you really start trying to draw her, looking close at her face, you realize that her lines are much softer in real life…

Meg and I, we’re always arguing about whether it’s more invasive to draw someone or take their picture. You certainly see a person much clearer by drawing them.

A lesson that maybe Alison has learned herself.


Last night I finished Alison Bechdel’s excellent comics memoir, FUN HOME. I don’t have a whole lot to add to the raves (it’s been on on NPR, it’s gotten fabulous reviews, it’s selling like hotcakes all over), but it probably ranks up there with some of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read.

While it’s a genuinely enjoyable read, with a subject matter as engrossing and complex as any prose memoir, the carnivorous, thieving cartoonist in me solidified some of my feelings about the form, and found some good things to steal…

Disclaimer: Gerry over at Backwards City recently linked to this Wired article about academics at Comic-Con, so more than usual, I’m fully aware that writing about comics is pretty lame. “You have this dog and you love it, and you want to find out why you love it. You dissect it, and you’re left with this dead bloody dog on the table. That’s one of the things that academics do.” But I’m going to do it anyways, and haphazardly at that.


For me, the greatest technical accomplishment in FUN HOME is the juxtaposition of Bechdel’s written, first-person narrative with her panels and speech bubble dialogue. This might be a “duh” observation, as word/picture juxtapostion is something you might take for granted as a pre-requisite for comics, but that’s simply not the case. Take something like Brian K. Vaughn’s equally excellent Y: THE LAST MAN, for instance: it plays out like a really intricate movie: there is no narrator, only a camera’s eye. The same for most gag strips, like PEANUTS and KRAZY KAT: there is no narrator, only the characters and speech bubbles.

What voiceover narration (for lack of a better term) allows you to do in comics is make bigger jumps in between moments in time and images, thereby freeing you from the kind of static, talking head syndrome of plays or scenes in film. It also, through juxtaposition, allows you to cram a bunch of information into a tiny amount of space. My favorite folks who use the technique (and consequently, my favorite cartoonists) are Lynda Barry and James Kochalka. What it really is, I think, is the perfect integration of writing and art.**

Anyways, in creative writing classes, they’re always harping at you to show, not tell.*** Use concrete language verses abstract language. If you notice, much of the voiceover narration is ridiculously abstract, but combined with the concrete images and dialogue of the panels, you get this sweeping, novelistic effect…a soothing voice that takes your reader by the hand and leads them through the world, reflects on what is happening. Less voyeuristic, I guess, and more like a tour…


As Hillary Chute in her Village Voice review pointed out, “Fun Home ‘s narrative is recursive, not chronological—it returns again and again to central, traumatic events.” This is something that I think begs to be looked at in terms of world-building. FUN HOME isn’t so much a chronological retelling of events as much as it is a world.

Dylan Horrocks, once again:

…the panel is a unit not of time or space, but of meaning (a kind of sememe). And rather than being arranged in a sequence, Kochalka’s units are arranged in rhythmic patterns. The purpose of these patterns, he claims, isn’t merely to depict the flow of time, but to “create and activate a world inside us.”

Now, most discussion about comics (or fiction, for that matter) assumes that their main purpose is to tell a story – a narrative that moves through time; hence McCloud’s description of comics as a “temporal map.” But here, Kochalka seems to suggest something quite different: that comics create a world, a place. Instead of SPACE = TIME, this is SPACE = SPACE.

Bechdel returns again and again to maps and explaining events in geographical terms, and FUN HOME is like a map of Bechdel’s brain, and her archive: it contains “handwritten letters from [her] father, typewritten letters from both her parents, her father’s police record, dictionary entries, her own childhood and adolescent diaries, and many maps. Bechdel re-drew—re-created—everything in her own hand.”

That Bechdel chose to re-draw all these elements in her own hand is a trick to graphic novel writing: the style unifies the disparate elements, so you can turn to any page, and it looks like it comes from the same world, filtered from the same mind.

Okay, that was kind of a pantload. I promise tomorrow I’ll just post a pretty picture and call it a day.

**Dylan Horrocks recently said on his blog: “[Comics] allow you to be both an artist and a writer all at once. And many (James Kochalka is one example who comes to mind) seem to me to defy any attempt to place them in either of two such arbitrary ‘camps.’

***which makes me wonder, really, if there’s any hope for applying the MFA workshop format to making comics. Check out this great interview with Francine Prose about the sorry state of MFA programs.