Monday, February 23, 2009

Kupperberg's Intuition: What Say You?

In his debut essay on ComicsCareer.com, Paul Kupperberg writes about "Thought: The Enemy of Art." It's not a shockingly provocative piece, but Kupperberg emphasizes that art is more about intuition than rationalization, at least on the creative end. In his concluding paragraphs, he contrasts the constrictive hyper-plotting technique of another writer with his own, looser, style:

Plotting is a mechanical structure: One comic book writer friend of mine creates elaborate charts of story direction, individual character arcs, introduction of subplots, how long they played out, secondary and tertiary subplots and how they evolved to become major subplots and then the main plots. He can wipe the floor with me on the down and dirty connect-the-Legos-level of sheer mechanical plotting. My plotting in comics — even ones I wrote over long stretches — was always ad hoc, based on some broad outline that I sort of knew where it was headed — unless I changed my mind and went somewhere else because my free-form plotting allowed me the room to do that. With his plotting, you start pulling on one thread and the whole sweater unraveled.

On sheer writing ability alone, I kick his ass. I’m not bound by the specs of the plot-machine he builds for himself. He has said he envies my ability to write that way, more from the gut and less from the head. The gut is where the passion and the juice come from. The head is where rational thought lies. You want about 25% of the latter and 75% of the former in your work. Know where you’re going, understand the mode of transportation you’ve chosen to take you there, but don’t be bound by some route you’ve laid out on the map before you even left the garage. Take detours, visit interesting roadside attractions, cut across land marked with “No Trespassing” signs, leave the blacktop and explore some dirt roads, and stop every now and then for a couple or four slices of pie at that diner you pass along the way.

Just do it, but whatever else…don’t think!

Old-fashioned seat of your pants, make-it-up-as-you-go along storytelling has driven comic book narrative for years and has reached giddy heights in stuff like "The Drifting Classroom" and "The Walking Dead," just to name two things I've read recently. But I tend to prefer more structured work. I like when things fit together and narrative strands from months or years earlier turn out to be essential to the overall structure.

And, honestly, I've never read anything by Paul Kupperberg that I thought was all that impressive, even though he's been working in the industry for decades. So when he says, "On sheer writing ability alone, I kick his ass," what is he talking about? What are the great Paul Kupperberg works? I really have no idea.

What do you think about his intuition vs. rationalization approach to writing? What do you think about Kupperberg as a writer?

9 comments:

Timothy Callahan said...

Just for the record: I have no desire to slam Paul Kupperberg, but I sincerely don't know what his best work would be.

slasherfan said...

I really enjoyed The Phantom Stranger mini-series from 1987. For my money, though, his best work is "Born to Be Superman!" from Superman #404, an underrated story that I always found intriguing and entertaining when I was growing up (around 12 when I first read it). I tend to enjoy Kupperberg stories; they are a completely different beast than Morrison but regardless they are the type of story that I often find myself in the mood to read.

Kris Krause said...

I've never read anything by Kupperberg, so I have no idea how kick ass his writing skills may or may not be, but I like a lot of what he's saying in the excerpt if you apply it to the first draft.

That's how I, presently nobody, write larger works anyway. I like going in with well defined characters and then just creating a plot out of what I think is the most interesting turn of events for the combination of characters I'm working with. But then on a second draft I go back in and add more cerebral elements throughout and build off of things that were latent in my "gut" draft where I just let my mind go crazy with all the ideas that I wanted to include.

I don't know that it's any good to apply a ratio of one to the other, but I think both should be applied at different stages of the creative process to put together a more thought provoking and emotionally satisfying work. Comics naturally need some breathing room because they're a sequential format and things will likely pop up that you didn't anticipate if your run is longer than a year, but I too love a good run where little things you didn't pick up on, on the first read have a new meaning upon a second reading after you've seen the conclusion of the run and that's hard to do predominantly on intuition, if not impossible.

Bill Reed said...

I find I like a happy medium between the approaches. I like to have an idea of where I want to go with something, but it's very vague-- and this applies from stories to academic papers-- but by the end, I hope my intuition has enabled the threads to connect in such a way that it seems as if that was the plan all along. In reality, however, I'm just responding to myself in a nice dovetailing fashion. It doesn't always work, but it's fun when it does. I'm sure a second draft could tighten things even further, but I despise rewriting. If one draft is good enough for Alan Moore, it's good enough for me. I tend to jump back and forth as I write anyway, but when it's done, it's done.

Besides, I don't have the patience/attention to plan something out so rigidly-- I want to get to the writing.

andy khouri said...

This essay of Kupperberg's doesn't seem to a point worth making. He's set two goal posts on extreme sides of a field on which most people play somewhere in the middle.

I also find any pontifications on the art of writing -- especially ones that presume to present actual rules for making great "art" or ones that invoke the words "kick ass" in reference to one's own skills -- from the editor of John Byrne's Wonder Woman and the creator of Takion to be dubious in the extreme.

Ben said...

Kupperberg also edited Morrison & Millar's Aztek (perhaps explaining the uncharacteristic slavishness to then current DC continuity) and helpfully killed or maimed his entire Doom Patrol cast in his last issue before Morrison took over, so the guys not all bad.
On the down side though his editorial insistence on clearing up loose ends from Checkmate in my own favourite guilty pleasure, Mike Collins' Peter Cannon Thunderbolt series, was uber annoying.
Off the top of my head, as a child I enjoyed his Doom Patrol stuff but I sincerely doubt it stands up to re-reading today. And if he wrote the DP/Suicide Squad Special thats probably a high point for me. And if Ostrander wrote it then meh...

Matthew E said...

I find that when I write it tends to be like Kupperberg does. (To the extent that he characterizes it in that quote.) I have to know where I'm going and basically how I'm going to get there, or I'm never going to get anywhere... but if I plot it out too meticulously, I'll get all bogged down and it won't happen.

Chad Nevett said...

That's how I write... well, everything, not just fiction. Probably explains a lot. Screw planning! Wing it! See where things take you! That's where the best ideas come from.

Joe Gualtieri said...

Everything I've ever read by Kupperberg (Checkmate, Powergirl, and a few other things here and there) has been godawful. Checkmate was the closest to being good, but it was mostly good ideas, executed poorly.