So I have to be honest, at the conclusion of last Wednesday night’s literary reading I felt like a bit of a cheater. But for better or worse, a successful one. The zombies (or to be specific the zombie stories) carried the night against their vampire opponents, by a landslide vote of the audience. I can’t claim all the credit, since both the superlative Justin Robinson and an awesome lady by the name of Jade Chang were representing for Team Zombie. Jade self-admitted to us that she’d never really written a genre story before, much less a zombie story, so right away I felt relieved that I wasn’t the only “outsider” in terms of who they’d been recruiting. Also, by the end of her reading you could have fooled me, as she had come up with a captivating little tale of doomed romance in a world where the virus didn’t just affect animal, but vegetable and mineral as well, so that the first signs of its spread was watching *everything* around you dying and rotting/rusting away. Never mind the science on that, because that is a terrific visual.
Speaking of which, I ended up reading dead last, after Justin debuted his new zombie short story set in his City of Devils world (his publisher is having a contest this month! Go look!) and all the vampire authors had read as well. Given all my doubts, I suppose I should have been more nervous about intruding upon the world of prose with a comic book, but it probably helped that I had just watched five other authors read their stories out loud, occasionally having their own problems with the transition (like the need to sound out the “he said” “she said” proliferations in their text).
Now, I would be a damn liar to say that I presented my Zombie Ranch excerpt with no alterations. I’m also certain that many other parts of the book would have been far more problematic to adapt to a non-visual presentation. That’s probably a good thing; as I stated last week, if the visuals aren’t important at all to the storytelling, why use the comics format? But as I also stated, the beginning of Episode 3 was a place I always felt I may have gone too far towards the wordy side of the equation, and maybe here was an opportunity where I could turn that into a good thing.
I sat down at my word processor, dug up the old script, and went over it to see where I thought I might get away with an unembellished, unaltered reading, and where I might dab in an extra sentence or two between lines, just enough so that an audience could get the sense of where we were, what was happening, and (occasionally) who was talking. My theatrical training no doubt helped as I could alternate between a neutral narrative voice and then three more-or-less distinct voices for Muriel, the Sheriff and Deputy Jimmy. I also took the opportunity to inject some fun and visually vivid imagery into my purely narrative additions, like describing Muriel as akin to “a main battle tank wrapped in a picnic blanket.”
It worked. People listened, and laughed, and applauded when it was done, and I don’t think anyone got any more lost in their idea of what was happening than in the previous readings.
My favorite book that I ever read is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and while there are sections of that text that wax wonderfully descriptive and metaphorical in the way good prose excels at, there are other sections where he gets much more economical, establishing a setting and certain characters in that setting and then just letting them go. The scene depicting Clevinger’s court martial trial is one of the latter and it is funny and snappy and everything it needs to be despite Heller letting a lot of the dialogue go unanchored, with *just* enough narrative nudges here and there to address changes in who happens to be arguing. Someone has kindly posted an example excerpt here. Back in the day I can remember reading it out loud to my dad and others, with the only real problem being my trying not to join them in laughing while doing so. It’s perhaps extremely unsurprising that Heller later adapted the scene into a one-act play, but in any case, bless Mr. Heller for showing me at an early age that a novel doesn’t have to “act like a novel” all the time and can still be considered a classic.
So although I wouldn’t claim Zombie Ranch is a classic, I suppose I could interpret that last Wednesday proved to my satisfaction that a comic doesn’t always have to act like a comic. The old adage says that a picture is worth a thousand words, but perhaps sometimes you can get away with less on that exchange. You just have to pick them carefully.