Kay Carmichael Experiments With More Personal Storytelling In Kay's Comics

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 8 September 2016
Category: Features
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Comic creator Kay Carmichael is a fan favourite due to the sword-wielding, giant-slaying female protagonist in her speculative fiction series Sophie The Giantslayer but her new, more intimate, storytelling experiment, Kay's Comics, offers amusing observational commentary on real life.

Most South African comic creators are self taught. They come from fine arts, graphic design, or writing/publishing backgrounds and have been learning as they go along in a community in which there are few paid professionals and even fewer publishing opportunities from media houses, comics publishers, and book publishers. In the past few years, however, the work by certain creators has begun to mature. Kay Carmichael is one such example.

Carmichael is best known for her comics-series epic Sophie The Giantslayer, which features a girl with a big sword who becomes tasked with saving the world from giants, but recently she has begun experimenting with a more intimate small-format cartooning series, titled Kay's Comics, that draws from her life and personal experiences.

Kay Carmichael Experiments With More Personal Storytelling In Kay's Comics
Above: The first comic, which debuted in June 2016.
Kay's Comics is an ongoing series of observational vignettes that delve into Carmichael's experiences as a freelance artist in Cape Town (when not working on her passion project Sophie The Giantslayer she earns a living in the film and animation industry as a storyboarding artist for commercials, television shows, and animated features, and more recently was one of the finalists participating in the Triggerfish Story Lab, which aims to identify people with promising storytelling talent from Africa who can then be trained and guided in developing a feature film or television series).

Kay's Comics follows a very loose format - the drawing styles differ at times, as does the physical size of the comic as Carmichael experiments with landscape, square, and skyscraper formats, using whatever works best for what she is trying to say. Occasionally a very rough cartoon is also posted on the site and it's clear that she uses the series to experiment with shading styles and lettering, usually lettering by hand but sometimes working with fonts.

"I've been wanting to do a journal web comic for a while now," Carmichael says, "and was enjoying comics like Maya Kern's comics, Sarah's Scribbles, Bouletcorp and Erika Moen's work - and I've been wanting to get a bit more experimental and finished with my own work, and make a format that was open to whatever I felt like drawing about on a given day rather than locking me into the one story for all eternity. I've been working on Sophie for going on four years now and I needed the change."

She adds: "I also wanted strip down the format to something that felt more immediate and doable that I could turn around quickly and share easily. I want to widen my comic audience by properly marketing on social media so I took a cue from Sarah's Scribbles to do a square-format comic that shares well on Instagram and most web browsers, feels bite sized and not overly demanding to write and draw, and can be a two-, three- or four-panel story. I'm not limiting myself to drawing in squares though; I will experiment with longer stories. Boulet's comics scroll on for ages and they're gorgeously detailed. I definitely want to experiment with more in-depth subject matter that way."

Kay Carmichael Experiments With More Personal Storytelling In Kay's Comics
Above: Comic posted 15 August 2016.
The series has been going since June yet within all the experimentation there are very clear storytelling threads and themes. It explores the highs, lows, and angst that freelancers go through when managing a career that's filled with uncertainties and curveballs, and also draws upon her life experiences and perspective as a Millennial to offer pointed observations about the current state of the world and our digital connectedness - or, in some cases, disconnectedness.

Such personal storytelling is difficult for many comics creators to achieve - most would rather retreat into the comfort of speculative fiction or crime, in which their personal experiences might still be present, informing the narrative, but well enough disguised that it creates a wall of privacy between the creator and the reader. Putting such personal content out there in the world, often unfiltered, requires a level of comfortable vulnerability that most people would ordinarily run from, wide eyed, with no regrets.

"I think the personal aspect of the comic is the reason it exists in the first place - I was finally ready to start packaging my thoughts and ideas and putting them out there," Carmichael says. "Doing a comic like Sophie is personal, in its own way, but a lot is obscured by the bigness of the story. In the journal comics the idea is to be clear - and I didn't know that I could be so blunt as to even commit to a caricature of myself. That's changed in the last year or so; I'm more comfortable writing and drawing about myself and the sorts of things I think about. I think I'm still trying to be funny and please people, so perhaps the challenge is to get more honest as I go along and not worry too much if something seems a little too 'rough' for people to take. Being funny is being honest at the end of the day, and it's risky."

The short-form format is also brand new to Carmichael, whose Sophie The Giantslayer is epic in scope, both in length and the complexities of the world building and the storytelling, and is currently planned as a five volume story. (The first three, plus a short prologue comic, have already been published.)

Kay Carmichael Experiments With More Personal Storytelling In Kay's Comics
Above: Comic posted 13 July 2016.
Short form, in contrast, requires a different way of thinking and a focus on being succinct - you have to make your point, and be engaging, in very little space. For some creators this is harder to achieve but for others it makes it much easier for them to reduce their work to its essence. Carmichael is one such creator who has found the format to be liberating and a way to communicate more clearly with readers while requiring less effort.

"Short form has taught me so much about clarity," Carmichael says. "Clarity of writing, intention, joke construction, choice making - all of these things are so overwhelming in a big story that it's nearly impossible to master them. Three or four panels you can master. You can tell pretty quickly what people are laughing at and when. People who aren't critics can more easily tell you what they like about a short-form comic as opposed to what their favourite part of your big epic was. There's less room to pity the artist and writer in a short-form story. You get it or you don't."

She has found that "having to 'explain'" is another storytelling area that the short-form format has made her rethink and approach differently. "I've always hated the thought that I had to explain things or 'be obvious' in a story," she says. "I see this now as the hallmark of an immature artist and storyteller - I wanted to be subtle and subliminal and layered without learning to be clear first. What I really wanted was to avoid the criticism of an audience not knowing what I was trying to say by being able to tell myself that they just couldn't follow my superior logic; I'm that subtle I can't be known at all. It's the same way that a youthful artist will use a lot of shading to obscure the fact that their structure sucks."

Kay Carmichael Experiments With More Personal Storytelling In Kay's Comics
Above: Comic posted 10 August 2016.
It's clear that the training and guidance Carmichael has received from participating in the Triggerfish Story Lab has had a major impact on the way she now approaches her work, as has the wisdom that just comes with experimentation and experience.

"What I've learned [over the years] is that detail is the real key to subtle communication; the details in what a character's wearing, where they're looking, nuances in expression, in reactions, in background, in how their room is decorated, and so on. That still takes a lot of clarity; is this shoe a high heel or a heeled boot? Is that expression disapproval or mock disapproval? That's real subtlety. If I'm harping on this, it's because I can't unsee this mistake now and it feels like a hallmark of a lot of otherwise very good South African storytelling."

Indeed, while the artistic ability of many of the South African comics creators is comparable to professionals all over the world, storytelling is the one area that still needs a lot of improvement locally. It's good to see that creators are beginning to think more carefully about what they are trying to communicate - and whether they are being successful.

Kay Carmichael will be making numerous appearances at the 2016 Open Book Comics Fest this week. Her workshop on Friday is fully booked but you can catch her on Saturday at the Comics Fest Demo Table (District 6 Homecoming Centre Gallery) from 11:15 to 11:45, where she will be demonstrating techniques, and at the Readers Den Comic Shop stand (District 6 Homecoming Centre Marketplace) from 15:00 to 16:00, where she will be signing copies of Sophie The Giantslayer. On Sunday she will be joining Benjamin Chaud, Hippolyte, and Pete Woo (District 6 Homecoming Centre Workshop), from 12:00 to 13:00, in a draw off to benefit the Open Book Library Project. (See the full calendar of events here.)

Tags: #books, #cape_town, #comics, #open_book, #sacomics

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