Student Reflection – The Shadow of Turning (3.1)

Two Project Reflections

By Hannah Charlton & Hannah Hall

Reflection by Hannah Charlton
For me, comics have always been a magical medium. The combination of words and pictures can explain concepts together, touch emotions as neither would have alone, and create an experience for the reader that engages the eyes and the mind. Craig Thompson’s Blankets, for example, freely blends abstract art with his narrative to create an emotional climate. Bliss is expressed in paisleys, agony by jagged lines, sadness by stark shadows and skewed perspective. Comics are a highly emotional medium: a mood can be created by different styles and tools, and be sustained throughout the piece.

In my interpretation, the poem “The Shadow of Turning” is about a life in quiet chaos, with faith offering peace and order but also offering an additional burden. There is frustration at a God that won’t respond, a weariness at life and religion, and a fear of abandoning religion, the speaker’s “shadow of turning.” It touched me deeply, and I wanted to give this poem a new medium to live in.

When I started this project, I wanted to put my readers into a place where I and the poem’s writer, Hannah Hall, had been. Though Hannah Hall and I each had our own interpretations, I think we agreed on many points and both feel that the poem and comic work together well. Rather than creating a comic “story” to illustrate the poem, I wanted to create a visual and emotional space that stayed faithful to it.

When the project began, my first obstacles were my own limitations as an artist. I tried to draw a main character, a girl whose thoughts would be narrated by the verses. But the expressions I drew lacked the subtlety I wanted; I realized that these drawings of a sad, musing girl would cheapen the poem. I decided instead to populate my comic with still life drawings–trash, pine trees, jars, bowls of fruit. These required minimal stylization and references were easy to find and sketch. This, of course, changed the entire feel of the comic I had been planning. Without many humans to populate the panels, the comic feels quieter, more contemplative, more private. The girl did make an appearance, but as a sort of bookend.

In this way, I tried to direct more attention to the text in what might be called a “parallel” relationship between words and pictures. The pictures and words do connect, but this connection is not immediately obvious. To create pictures that would run parallel to the words, I would read a verse or two and see what image (or images) would come to mind. Some were obvious: the verses about pouring sins into jars would get a page of canning jars and arranging fruit on a table. Small, repetitive panels showed the repetitive cycle of confessing sin and “arranging” one’s life to fit God’s expectations.

Others did not have such obvious imagery. With verses like “The sharp sweetness of the bread and the wine / Throw me back to a time before habit,” I would try to re-create with images the same emotional response I had to the words. The pictures of garbage make an image of chaos, a life that has to be “thrown back” and shaken into order by the familiar, sacred taste of bread and wine. It is a life full of worthless things: used Post-it notes, old coffee cups, tissues, candy wrappers.

Once the basic image, word, and page count combinations were decided, I sketched several rough books to decide layout. Since the drawings were mostly realistic, with no pure stylization (except for the “shadow” near the end), the panels would be regular and rectangular.

Finally, the final comic could be drawn and “inked.” This was a much less theoretical process, full of ink bottles, pens, and T-squares. I had chosen my style at the beginning: it would be mostly realistic, with a few stylized panels of “the shadow.” These drawings required careful sketching of pine trees, fruit, and, yes, trash. For the second panel on page one, I emptied a few friends’ trash cans on my floor and arranged the contents in a shape to resemble a girl’s head. My sketchbook was soon filled with drawings of cups and crumpled papers.

Working on this project has made me eager to do more in comics, and to see what else this medium can do. I have found that what I have learned about making comics can be applied to my other classes. When my Cultural History of China class studied the Tao te Ching, I wrote short comics about the “eternal Tao” and things that were nearly impossible to explain with words alone. For painting class I wrote about color theory, using cartoons to illustrate color bias and proper color mixing. I am beginning to see comics possibilities everywhere, and I am excited to explore this new medium.

– Hannah Charlton, Whitworth University, Art Major (Class of 2014)

Reflection/Comments by Hannah Hall
When Hannah Charlton first asked me if she could use an old poem of mine for a school project, I gave her permission, expecting her to do a few nice illustrations that I’d never see. Instead, she produced a wonderful piece that expands and fulfills the text without straying from the fundamentals of the poem.

“The Shadow of Turning” was originally about identity: about finding the balance between one’s self and one’s religion, about integrating one’s gender with one’s worldview, and about reconciling oneself to God. The way Hannah chose to illustrate the speaker of the poem captures this perfectly: the speaker is merely a form, a “hollow” shape that could be filled with any number of objects or expressions.

This poem was written right after the end of my first semester of college, when the issues of religion and gender and worldview first began to become important to me. Hannah captures this time of my life aptly; the comic is scattered with images of dorm rooms, university libraries, feminist textbooks.

I had none of these images in mind when I wrote the poem; you’ll find none of them in the text itself. But Hannah was in her freshman year of college when she drew this, and it seems she knew what I was driving at, even if I didn’t.

In many ways, then, the comic met and transcended the meaning of the poem. The strongest point of difference between our interpretations was the sheer amount of clutter on the page. There were several instances where there were panels full of things, mostly trash, which is interesting because the words themselves are very stark and abstract. The lack of detail is partially a writing flaw on my part. I had only just started writing poetry seriously at the time. But the lack of physical objects in the poem is also purposeful: I didn’t tend to think about these issues during the light of the day. If I had to put a setting to the poem, it would be the empty space in the mind, one caught between the dog watches of the night and the moment one swallows the elements during Communion. It’s an empty space, one that can only be filled with thoughts of the eternal.

But you can’t draw the eternal, can you? Hannah chose to fill the comic with the stuff that fills up our daytime hours, creating a strong dissonance between the visual and the verbal aspect of the poem. I found it startling at first, but I think it works well, when I consider that the thoughts we form in the night are the ones that shape us during the day.

Hannah’s panels seem prophetic in retrospect. At the time of writing, the biggest concept I was struggling with was the symbolic concept of women as vessels: the aforementioned “hollow beings.” Hannah, however, started studying feminism long before I got around to it, and she knew what the poem was moving towards even if I didn’t.

Take, for example, the portrayal of “the shadow of turning.” The line itself merely references a line from a popular hymn, one I wanted to twist the meaning of. Hannah took the poem a step further, however, and made the shadow a character, one far more developed than the empty, undefined protagonist. That two page spread is my favorite part of the comic, because it’s the crux the poem, and Hannah captures that perfectly. Up till that point, the comic used almost no grey. Everything is defined in harsh black and white until the point where the protagonist and the shadow reach the land where “women creep along.” That land contains the largest grey area in the comic, physically and symbolically. It’s incredibly fitting, as the poem does not conclude so much as it merely ends. A conclusion would presuppose that I had found a way to consolidate my identities as a woman and as a person of faith, something that might take a lifetime.

– Hannah Hall, Simpson University, English Major (Class of 2012)