Pika Don: The Latest Book from the Stanford Graphic Novel Program
Adam Johnson runs the prestigious Stanford Graphic Novel Publishing Program, a class wherein students work together for an entire semester to create a graphic novel. Every aspect of the book—writing, drawing, inking, publishing—is done by the students, and the results can be impressive. This year’s book, Pika Don, was just recently published, so we talked to Johnson about the work that went into it.
Tell us a little bit about the story of Pika Don.
Every year, we pick a nonfiction story to adapt for a graphic novel, hopefully one that's interesting and readers will find compelling. Adaptation is much easier to do collaboratively, and I personally like the journalistic aspect to the writing. Dan Archer, our art director, is a comics journalist currently doing a Knight Fellowship at Stanford, so this is a format he's dedicated to as well. In the first week of class, we saw the obituary of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the double bomb survivor, and right away we were fascinated by his rare story, especially the way he was going to take his own life and that of his family before the Americans invaded Japan, and it was the bomb that restored his commitment to life. Plus, with our nation engaged in two wars, a story of peace really appealed to our students.
The Stanford graphic novel project is unique and very amazing. Could you explain how all your students work together to create a graphic work?
Once a topic is chosen, and we have a story to adapt, there's much research, both factual and visual. While the students tackle basic craft decisions like perspective, point of view, structure, and scene selection, the artists are developing a style and practicing character turnarounds. Most of our storylines are like five-act plays; as the writers finish act one, it's handed to a thumbnailing team and then finally to the illustrators. The writers draft and draft in group sessions, and Dan Archer works closely with the thumbnailers, helping them to develop a visual flow. And Dan critiques student art from pencil to final inking. Then postproduction: scanning, photoshopping, Illustrator for the text, and InDesign for final assembly. Then there's lots of group proofreading before we export a pdf to the printer.
What fascinated you most about how the story came together?
I loved how, after the second bomb, Mr. Yamaguchi said he was unconscious for a week. Since our story was in the first person, present tense, a move the writer's chose to help the reader sympathize with Yamaguchi's story, we were in a narrative trap. But the students decided to switch to the perspective of his wife, Hisako, and the result was one of the more moving, poignant chapters of the graphic novel.
What are the goals of the book?
My goals as a teacher of narrative nonfiction are to help students grapple with questions of representation, historical accuracy, and creative license, all issues that they'll contend with later in their artistic careers. And I want them to think about how, in the creation of a work of art, every decision they make—from coloring to frame selection to dialog—contributes to a totality of effect with a reader.
Would you like to see the book have further outreach?
I really would like to see the book picked up for publication. It's a powerful, personal tale set against a historical backdrop that would appeal to students and adults alike. The students did an amazing job, and I think the book deserves a wider audience.
What’s the most difficult thing about teaching this graphic novel course?
What is your favorite aspect of the course?