Ann Nocenti has been a part of comics so consistently since the 1980’s as an editor and a writer that it’s hard to process the fact that she has also been a writer, a journalist, and a documentary filmmaker in that time. Her new comic series, and her first ever creator-owned book, with David Aja, The Seeds, is coming up in February from Berger Books, editor Karen Berger’s new imprint at Dark Horse.
The Seeds explores many of the themes that Nocenti sees as clear and pressing in modern society, including the construction of a “wall” between the US and Mexico and the role of media and social media in our perception of reality. The comic even features a journalist, someone trying to make sense of their strange world, as a central character.
We spoke with Ann Nocenti at New York Comic Con last month about The Seeds and her wider career, and Part 1 of that interview can be found here. Part 2 debuts today, where Nocenti speaks more widely about journalism, technology, and comics.
Conversations With Ann Nocenti, Part 2
I reflected that comic readers often don’t know how comics are made in terms of having an editorial process, or think that the driving editorial process of mainstream comics are the only possible process, so Nocenti’s explanations are helpful for the purposes of this interview.
She said that another type of experience that’s a little unusual for her is when fans bring comics up to her to sign that she only remembers as being very, very flawed because of the conditions under which she wrote them. And yet they “love” those comics. She remembers all the things she should have done, but it’s interesting to her that fans find things to “like” anyway. Things are rarely perfect, but sometimes they produce interesting results.
I said that I’d certainly been there myself when it came to deadlines and producing imperfect results that were then released on readers.
Nocenti said that journalism is a particularly interesting subject to her to explore.
The Seeds is about a journalist, in fact, who gets “corrupted through the process of telling stories”. Nocenti has often found herself, as a journalist, and as a documentary filmmaker, far “too close” to her sources. In the case of working on the documentary about a falcon hunt (which was then the subject of a written piece published by fellow Berger Books creator Anthony Bordain in anthology that he edited of travel writing), she found herself on the hunt in the Middle East with Sheiks and other influential people. They were bringing her “into their world” and creating her “journey”, and if she should “see other things” than they intended, she was expected not to talk about those things. In this case, it was seeing extreme poverty around her in contrast to the opulent wealth of her traveling party.
As a documentary filmmaker, she finds herself in the “editing room” realizing that depending on the editing choices she’s about to make, she could create “fifty different movies”. And then she has to choose one. In that case, she had to decide whether to simply tell the story of the hunt, to tell the story of being a female trying to keep her head covered while shooting in an environment that demanded separation of the sexes, or a number of other roads she could go down.
I added that she must have also known from the outset that they’d be setting up a narrative for her, and would be trying to control the narrative, so that must have been quite daunting.
“They set up the narrative”, she agreed, “Though there were other narratives there”. The most interesting narrative, she said, may have been the way that she and her film crew discarded the gender divisions and coverings required, over time, simply to get on with the project, which was deemed extremely inappropriate and risky.
— ExplorersClub (@ExplorersClub) March 23, 2016
Nocenti added that even a “little piece about a comic creator” could be told in fifty different ways. I agreed, though I doubted my imagination stretched that far on any given day. However, I said that I could certainly compare notes on finding oneself in a situation where a narrative has been clearly constructed well before you arrive on the scene, and you have to decide whether to re-cast that story or to simply go along with what will satisfy all parties.
“That’s very dangerous”, she said. Accepting and taking part in a constructed story is an issue, “because as soon as you start thinking that you have a little gem of a story, and you’ve polished things off, that’s when you get in trouble”, she said. “You shouldn’t trust yourself”, not even your memories, she advised. She said that she’s often asked to tell stories about the 1980’s, and after telling them for a while, she’s beginning to wonder if they “even approximate reality anymore”. So as soon as you start thinking, “This is my story”, that’s when the trouble starts, Nocenti said.
A case in point was a childhood story she had told for many years about riding a horse alone as a young child, and then one day she watched an old video of that day, her birthday, and in the photo, her father was riding the horse with her, keeping her safe. That was a massive shift from the proud story she had always told about being independent at a young age. She was horrified that she had “edited” her own father out of her memories. She thinks that “most memory is like that”. We constantly “remove and reshape” memory until it no longer resembles the truth, Nocenti reflected.
I asked her if there’s any way to “combat” that process. Nocenti said that we “live in an age now where everything is recorded, but I don’t think that’s going to help”. People are still “polishing the little gems of what they think their story is”, she explained.
“Perhaps even more desperately”, I added. “Much more desperately”, she said, commenting that it’s obvious on social media like Facebook that people are constructing their own stories, not their reality. Nocenti sees people she knows presenting their worlds in certain ways, and she knows the people in question well enough to know this presentation doesn’t really resemble their lives. She struggles herself with whether to post on social media when she’s “miserable” since people only tend to post when they are happy and can show their lives in the best possible light.
“But that’s why comics are great”, she said, especially comics by people like Harvey Pekar, that can “tell the truth” and “lead people to the truth”. Nocenti thinks the “bottom is going to drop out” of the overly cheerful presentation of life that people post on social media.
I said that I feel like people are more self-consciously creating their own narratives than ever before and so it’s veering further and further from accuracy. This is based on the fact that we have too much power to change the narrative.
— Karen Berger (@karenpberger) July 21, 2017
Nocenti said that there’s a “big aspect of tech” in The Seeds and a lot of this conversation pertains to the comic. A lot of what goes on in the comic is about the “use of tech” and “what happens when you have to give it up”, she said.
People now wonder if they can go offline at all, but then when they do so, they feel very relieved. It’s something people are dealing with “right now” and is going to be in the comic.
Nocenti doesn’t consider herself a “superior creature” about any of this, she said, since she feels totally addicted to her smartphone and feels like her arm has been amputated if it isn’t in her hand, she assured me. But some things in the comic will address, “how human nature changes” when you don’t have that connection.
She recalls being a young person without the ties of a smartphone and being free and discovering things, and that’s such a strange contrast to life now.
I told Nocenti about Gerry Duggan’s book at Image, Analog, announced at New York Comic Con, which would address a world post Internet melt-down and the demise of being connected at all times, and she said she would definitely like to read it when it comes out.
She said that she feels comics, and comic creators allowing their subconscious into their work, will continue to address this problem, this “addiction to tech” in helpful ways.
Many thanks to Ann Nocenti for sharing her time and her insights with Comicon.com. We look forward to The Seeds!