A review of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature edited by Kelcey Ervick and Tom Hart

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature
edited by Kelcey Ervick and Tom Hart
Rose Metal Press
2023, $24.95, July 2023, 296 pages, ISBN: 978-1-941628-30-0

Rose Metal Press already has an impressive catalog, boasting such genre-bending titles as The Fact of Memory, The Anchored World and Ghostographs, but their “Field Guide” series and “how-to” books in general are unique and outstanding as they map the borders of hybrid literary forms. Now joining The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, and The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction comes The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature. Other useful Rose Metal Press titles in this vein include the introduction to novels-in-flash, My Very End of the Universe, and The Best of Brevity, another flash non-fiction handbook centered on Dinty Moore’s venerable journal, Brevity. Family Resemblance is another anthology that explores hybrid literary genres which, like the others, includes essays about the craft as well as gorgeous examples of the kinds of literary forms they celebrate.

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature is edited by Kelcey Ervick, a professor of English at Indiana University, and Tom Hart, executive director of The Sequential Artists Workshop in Gainesville, Florida, a school dedicated to comics and graphic novels. Ervick is the author of a graphic memoir, The Keeper: Soccer, Me and the Law that Changed Women’s Lives, as well as several fiction titles. Hart’s graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning, concerns the untimely death of his daughter. He is also the author of The Art of the Graphic Memoir. They have collected and arranged over two dozen essays by twenty-eight contemporary innovators in the field of hybrid texts. 

Justine Mara Andersen, for instance, has worked as an inker and illustrator for DC Comics and Lucasfilm, among others. Her essay, “Beyond Memoir,” is about creating a Comics Alter Ego. Keith Knight, a comic strip creator whose syndicated strips include The K Chronicles and The Knight Life, writes about how to present humorous cultural commentary in his essay, “Satirical Comics.”  Marnie Galloway is a Chicago-based cartoonist whose graphic novel is titled In the Sounds and Seas. She writes about the challenges of panel and page displays to convey meaning – layout. These are just three of the experts whose knowledge of craft and creativity make this a valuable volume.  

Organized in broad categories that address character, plot and story, setting, language and technical details about line and page as well as archival and historical materials, erasure and collage, Field Guide to Graphic Literature is concerned, as Ervick says in her comprehensive introduction, with “literary works – e.g., stories, poems and essays – for which images are an integral, and not merely illustrative, component.” Removing either would drastically alter both the meaning of the work and the reader’s experience of it.

Each essay follows the same format. The author writes about the problem or challenge that he or she wants to give insight into, whether it’s composing characters from found images (Oliver Baez Bendorf, “Released from Forms”), or how to write authentic dialogue (Mira Jacob, “”Dialogue”) or how to portray real-life characters in journalism (Josh Neufeld, “Drawing the News”). 

Then, the author presents an exercise for the reader/student to perform and thus gain further insight. These exercises are detailed and explicit: real homework assignments! At the end of her essay on composing graphic poetry that is inspired by Japanese Emaki picture scrolls, “Merging Traditions,” Naoko Fujimoto enjoins the reader to choose a poem or short piece of prose and then create two different illustrated versions of it, one Emaki and one graphic poem. Sharon Lee De La Cruz, in her essay “Comic Selfies,” asks the reader to create a single-panel cartoon selfie using the principle of amplification through simplification, perhaps inject pop culture references to enhance the image. Thi Bui, at the end of her essay “Capturing the Light,” whose challenge is rendering “place” with historical accuracy, assigns the reader a two-page comic, one that includes the main character in the space and one without that character. (Vintage postcards and family photos may be sources.) Details of the setting can be weather, landscape, sounds, whatever is most relevant and conveys the particular location/venue.    

Finally, and this is the part I love best, each author includes an example of his or her own  work to illustrate the lesson.  Bianca Stone’s hilarious line drawings and color panels at the end of her essay, “The Poetic Line and the Comics Panel,” which addresses the complex problems of coordinating images and texts, include lines that wink at the reader: “Why does poetry comics feel like yearning?” and “Poetry comics are always failures!” Alexander Rothman has his reader draw four even panels on a sheet of paper. His three examples – “Little City: Warm Winter” – show exactly what he is getting at as the images of tree branches spill from one panel to the next and the cryptic poetic phrases emphasize the mystery. Trinidad Escobar’s essay, “Comics Magic,” dealing with page design, comes with a generous 5-page excerpt from her book, Crushed, a “biomythography” – graphic memoir. It ends with a Whooshh!

Kelcey Ervick’s introduction alone is an impressive part of this book. After defining the crucial terms that drive the guide, she details the long history and development of graphic literature, all the way from the oldest surviving illustrated papyrus roll, dating back to 1980 BCE, to the present.  From William Hogarth’s 18th Century illustrated satirical moralizing books like A Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress and Japanese manga (literally, “whimsical pictures”), likewise developed in the 1700s, to the development of comic strips in the 20th century, comic books and graphic novels – Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are classics – Ervick summarizes the history of the genre.

Field Guide to Graphic Literature is dedicated “For our students, for our friends and fellow creators, and for those about to begin their journey,” and fittingly, the text concludes with a section on teaching resources – classroom, curricula, materials and tools, obstacles and how to overcome them, both practical and administrative.

Ervick and Hart deserve copious kudos for this vital collection, but so, too, do Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney for their innovative vision that makes Rose Metal Press such a unique, cutting-edge publisher, leading literature through the Twenty-first Century.

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Mortal Coil, was published by Clare Songbirds Publishing, and his book, A Magician Among the Spirits was released by Blue Light Press in late 2022.