What Can We Steal From Glenn Eichler & Nick Bertozzi’s Stuffed?

Title of Work and its Form:  Stuffed, graphic novel
Author: Written by Glenn Eichler.  Art by Nick Bertozzi (on Twitter @NickBertozzi.)
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book was published by First Second and can be found at great bookstores everywhere.  If you’re in Reno, Nevada, ask the fine people at Sundance Bookstore to get the book for you if they don’t already have it.  (You’ll also enjoy their frequent poetry readings and other events.)

Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Eichler did in which he discussed DariaHere is an article in which Mr. Eichler describes how he came up with the idea for Stuffed.  Mr. Eichler currently writes for The Colbert Report; watch it on Comedy Central if you have cable.

Here is a very cool video in which Mr. Bertozzi introduces himself, sketches a self-portrait and shows off the comic books he created as a child.  Writers will appreciate the video, but it’s a must-watch for cartoonists and artists.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Dealing with Controversial Issues

Discussion:
I’m mildly jealous of Mr. Bertozzi because my artistic ability tops out at stick figures.  I have tremendous healthy jealousy for Mr. Eichler because he wrote for Beavis & Butthead, co-created Daria and now works on The Colbert Report.  In 2009, the two gentlemen collaborated to create Stuffed, a graphic novel about Timothy Johnson, a health care administrator whose father dies, leaving him, among other items, the items in the “museum,” a collection of oddities.  The most notable of these items, of course, is a stuffed human being.  The “Bloodthirsty Savage,” as his father called it decades earlier, caused a lot of trauma in Timothy’s childhood.  Whenever he misbehaved, his father would say that the Savage would “cut him into pieces” to be thrown into a cooking pot.  Timothy can’t bear to have this preserved human being thrown away, so he takes it home, determined to figure out the proper way to deal with the man.  The matter is very complicated; Timothy’s hippie brother is a fan of trepanation, making it hard to reason with the guy.  Even worse, international diplomacy is such that neither Kenya nor Tanzania will repatriate the body.  It’s not giving too much away to say that the situation is resolved; Timothy works very closely with Dr. Bright, a curator at the museum he originally hoped might take the body.

It bears mentioning that Mr. Eichler is an admitted literary thief.  (The good kind.)  In one of the bonus pieces above, Mr. Eichler explains that he got the idea for Stuffed when he

read a story in The New York Times a while ago about a Spanish museum that nixed an African country’s request to return a stuffed human skin to its motherland.

A very sad real-life story can often become a worthwhile fictional story, even one with as much comedy as Stuffed.  Yes, we’re talking about a stuffed human being.  Is it okay to insert such an object into a comedy?  I contend that the dark humor of the piece is strengthened by the VERY HIGH STAKES involved.  Both comedy and tragedy require us to CARE about what is going on and to whom.  The humor in the book is never really directed at the man who is eventually called the “Warrior.”

While Timothy is scared of the Warrior (thanks, in part, to his father), the whole point of the book is that Timothy and Dr. Bright are jumping through many hoops to try and give the man the dignified burial he deserves.  The humor isn’t directed at the dead man.  Timothy drives through the streets with a stuffed African man in his back seat; we laugh at onlookers shooting him angry looks.  (How are they supposed to know that Timothy is trying to right a wrong?)  There is humor in the racial tension in the book.  Both Dr. Bright and Timothy are good people, and the hippie brother adds some tension with his somewhat less-than-enlightened views.  Mr. Eichler wrenches comedy and drama out of the situation as he talks through big issues.  Isn’t this how life works?  Different kinds of people actually have contact with each other and come out on the other side with a new understanding.

Let’s face it: if everyone agreed on every big issue, life would be super boring.  Mr. Eichler is smart enough to have Dr. Bright’s wife disagree with him slightly.  After the hippie brother acts in an unpleasant manner, Dr. Bright goes home to talk with his wife.  If Dr. and the Missus agreed wholeheartedly, the scene would be boring.  Fortunately, there are meaty issues to discuss.  Mrs. Bright points out that the field of anthropology was used to justify racism in the past.  Dr. Bright (who has an advanced degree in the subject) defends the field.  Mrs. Field points out that her husband changed his name from “Hussein” to “Howard” instead of something more explicitly African.  Dr. Bright explains that he didn’t want to be associated with Saddam and that their child is named Jamal.  While the arguments over race and colonialism in the book are heated, the characters treat each other like human beings.

Most importantly, these discussions are not boring.  There are plenty of works about BIG ISSUES that are super duper boring.  (I won’t name any, but I’m thinking of at least one.)  Your characters should not be treated like clashing ideologies.  Mr. Eichler makes the right choice; each of the characters remains a real person who simply has strong convictions.

I can’t end this essay without pointing out a little something that we can steal from Mr. Bertozzi’s art.  I love the section near the end when Dr. Bright makes an impassioned speech about why it is so important to bury the Warrior in Africa.  The speech is beautifully written, but it’s clear that Mr. Bertozzi understood this was a crucial moment in the story.  He breaks format; instead of planting comic book boxes on the page, he set Dr. Bright on one side of a double-page spread and allowed himself to draw/paint three beautiful images of the African savannah and its starry sky.  Mr. Bertozzi understood that this was one of his showcase moments in the piece and allowed himself to demonstrate his skills.  The same principle applies to opera singers who know when their big aria is about to begin.  To ballplayers who step to the plate one run down in the bottom of the ninth with a runner in scoring position.  A writer must understand the parts of his or her work that are most important and give them a little more TLC; those moments allow you to really show off what you can do!

What Should We Steal?

  • Equip your comedy with the same high stakes as you give your tragedy.  Great comedy, just like great drama, is born of personal pain and must have consequences.
  • Ensure that your discussions of BIG ISSUES are also entertaining, either dramatic or comedic. Arguments are had between people, not ideologies.
  • Indulge yourself in your showcase moments.  Put extra attention and care into the most crucial parts of your work.

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