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26 October 2005

Frame your storyboard

“Not equal to

Not metaphor

Nor standing for

Not sign.” – Minor White

Patti_comicImagine Beetle Bailey’s surprise.

As Aldous Huxley said, perhaps Earth is another planet’s Hell. And maybe on that other planet, gargantuan people sit down with their oil drum vats of coffee, butter their big-as-car bagels, and open their 12-foot Sunday newspapers to find human Earth lives splayed above the fold as comic strips, our daily living played out for their amusement and edification in frames of our own choosing, and sometimes in boxes we wouldn’t choose—those defined by cancer, leukemia, dementia, racism, jealousy, hatred, boredom, inhumanity, wrong choices, name your fear, your awful regret, get inside that tiny box we draw for ourselves sometimes.

But comic strips are, by definition, funny. Aren’t they?

What if life’s trials and tribulations are really the panels of comic strips, acting themselves out? What if my whole life is a comic strip of sorts, storyboarded out – if not ahead of time – then as is it happening or after the fact, creating a visual representation of me, my choices, my unfortunate hairstyles through the years (um, that perm of my very thick orange hair in high school, hello? Block Head? Helmet Hair? Unfortunate?), all the fuzzy complicated parts made blankly clear, leaving just the core elements in black and white (and sometimes colorized for emphasis).

Life is complex; comic strips usually aren’t, a fact that might lead you to believe that the one can’t fit in the other. I think it can.

Comic strips reduce life to its essential elements – the black and white of it, the sense of it, the life within a definite container, where things stand out in either the foreground or background, bounded by sure lines. No, I can’t recall ever seeing a comic strip drawn in the manner of those wacky Pointillists—instead, the lines are clear and sometimes bold, not dotted, not tentative, the captions provided in the precise hand of an architect, so boxy and neat and imminently readable.

What would I change about my day, my year, my life, if I thought it was being captured in broad strokes, my grumpy morning without coffee, my flash of impatience when Tess screams up a lung as I pray she’ll take a nap, my avoidance of the laundry piles, light and dark and undecided—what would it look like in black and white, my head in my hands, my messy desk, my forehead furrowed in disbelief or judgment, the way my body moves through the universe, those sometimes unfortunate clothing choices—white shoes after Labor Day? What was I thinking!? Would I eat Emma’s last Raspberry Frosted Pop Tart, made with “Real Fruit” and Sprinkles, if I knew you’d see it all drawn out in a big frame? Probably not pretty; certainly not flattering, no Pop Tart, no. It would be like living in the Big Brother House, life as a reality show without all the bikinis, looking for a way to avoid the cameras so I could sneak a scowl, a tiny mid-day nap, a respite from keeping track of my intake of high antioxidant veggies.

What would your life look like as a comic strip? What about you would provide that distinguishing characteristic—your hair, those glasses, the ever present pencil over your ear, that cigarette or Twinkie, a large watch to symbolize your obsession with time, an oversized mouth to represent how much you talk, an omnipresent briefcase, a Blackberry fused into your thumbs? Would your comic strip be heavy or light, fun or ponderous, full of adventure or boring as hell? Would it be in black and white or in color? Would there be lots of “POW, CRUNCH, SHABAM! SPLAT!!”? What big Truth would it reveal about you, about Life, as most strips do in their own unique way? Would your character change over time or remain steadfastly the same, frame after frame?

Moms_cancer_cover_1Watching his mom get her chemotherapy treatment one day, Brian Fies began drawing her and realized that her journey through metastatic lung cancer was to be documented, with her help, in the way he knew how—as a graphic novel. Mom’s Cancer, as one reviewer put it, leaves readers “shocked by the level of honesty that was put into the work. This is not a story that sugar-coats the emotions and thoughts of the storyteller, they're all there for the reader to experience. This is brave, compelling storytelling…”

Shocked also, perhaps, by the juxtaposition of this form with this subject matter, his book takes readers to places they have never been, or if they have been there, it provides a déjà vu journey that not only reminds but also consoles them – that they did all the right things, the only things they knew to do; most importantly, they hung in there for the terrible journey. Fies’ book will be published next spring; his 66-year-old mother, Barbara, died on October 1st, just a few weeks ago.

I first read his moving and honest and clear story three days ago on the one-week anniversary of the death of a young woman leaving behind her three small children to long for her their whole lives. Tara’s long and awful and clarifying journey left its indelible mark on me, and took the ultimate toll on her and on those babies and everyone else who loved her, a family left behind to look at the blank space where she used to be and will never be again, her children changed forever by her giving birth to them, by watching them with what must have been a heart broken by the leaving, less than a year after the youngest was born, a miracle baby, that one.

[Rant to self: Yes, I know that every week many people suffer and die, and many too young like Tara—before the living they deserved was up. Too young, too soon, too hard, too much, too awful, too infuriating. I just wonder why good people with big love-filled hearts die when there are so many old bad ones, ones that have survived too many years of cold heartedness and pettiness and are still above ground. Ones who hate before loving and who blame before helping, who take before giving and belittle before saving, those ones. They’re still here, while Tara isn't. And I wonder how we can send people to the moon, put thousands of songs into an iPod Nano, pinpoint a building from miles away and send a scud missile through one specific window of it, talk to people 15,000 miles away, figure out how to map the human genome, watch Paris Hilton act out, and rehabilitate Martha Stewart at taxpayer's expense, but can't cure cancer. How is that possible?]

SuperpowersWhat was remarkable about Tara’s journey toward death was the hope and joy and energy and love that emanated from her family’s emailed updates. The most terrible of information was framed in the very strongest of faith; so much so that it was both invigorating and almost confusing at the same time—how bad could it be with such light and glory and grace emanating from it? Surely she would live.

But not, because it was bad, very bad. It was so bad that she is gone now, that smile, that joy, that mom. But it appeared from this distance—this safely immune place where I heard that worst of news in the pristine and antiseptic medium of email, opening messages only at my leisure—how dare I?—that Tara and her family responded with unlimited peace and grace in the midst of the agony and pain, that living testimony giving us all hope, a gift. I’m the one left wondering now why so many rude and arrogant and self-centered people live on while someone so young and loving is gone, I’m the one who is angry, I’m the one who shouldn’t miss her, but feels the loss, not only of her, but of a tiny part of myself with her. Perhaps I’m journeying with her to finally learn the lessons begun with my father’ death, lessons I hope will stick this time, for their sake, for mine.

As Fies wrote in “Mom’s Cancer,” “when people face an emergency, they just become more of what they already are, like they get superpowers” (comic strip images used by permission of Brian Fies).

So, if people are arrogant jerks before they face an emergency, they are Super Jerks during. If they are hysterical and needy and selfish and whiny and inflexible before, those beloved character traits explode into sheer inutterable glory during. If they are loving and generous before, they will be loving and generous caregivers; if they are avoiders and shirkers before, they will be caregivers who turn away. And if, like Tara, they are kind and loving and big-hearted and giving before, they are so much more of that during the crisis, which is what I saw come shining through those emails.

What Superpower costume is hanging in your closet for those Amplified Moments of Life? What big letter will be on the front of your spandex when the crisis comes? I want mine to be a slimming rich maroon number with a floor-length crushed velvet cape swinging behind me, an extravagance of sumptuous textures, a floppy hat the size of an ottoman and jewelry “borrowed” from my neighbor, Pam, for those special occasions (smile), a big “W” or “K” or “Pippi” on my chest. (No, not that W). You?

Unspoken_subtextA man from Jerusalem wrote recently about storyboarding his life: “A storyboard is an apt metaphor for how we make sense of our own life history. Storyboarding can be used to sense emergent patterns in our own life story and to envision the life experiences that we wish to welcome into our future.” To see the patterns and to create new ones, the spoken and the unspoken ones.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Download some storyboard templates and start creating your life’s comic strip. What will you call it? What are the daily frames of your strip? What’s your costume look like? How’s that flattering Spandex doing?

By the way, who’s drawing your comic strip, anyway? Take back the pen. Draw it yourself. Make it what you want it to be.

(And how many frames are already completed in your comic strip? If we all get 20 frames, how many have you used so far? What are you going to do with the rest of them?)

Remember Tara.She won’t have died in vain if you use her story to catapult yourself into your Superpower life today, not tomorrow. Remember her and hug the ones you love more tightly. She deserves that honor, that remembrance, that bit of influence in our lives, even those who will never know her. Keep her children in your hearts.



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Thank you for posting.

i noticed that Rilke is on your reading list. i highly approve! not that you needed my approval, anyway ... he, he, he ....


Caroline - Rilke is high on my list. My favorite poem of his is The Archaic Torso of Apollo...yours?

I love this storyboarding idea. Not the first time I've thought of it--but previously thought of in terms of storyboarding a life as film...hadn't occurred to me to storyboard as a comic strip. Brilliant. As I thought about downloading the template, I could feel one of my earliest fears rise to the surface like an Alien monster..."But I can't draw!" Maybe if I stop saying that, I could. :)

Thanks for your inspiring ideas!

My 'Storyboard your Life' essay is now available here:

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