Greetings, and welcome to the August edition of the Tin Can Audio newsletter.
My name is David Devereux, I'm a writer, musician, sound designer and audio producer here at Tin Can Audio, and I'll be sharing a little bit on what we've been up to in the past month, as well as some thoughts and ramblings on sound design, music, podcasting, writing, and, it seems, other stuff as well.
We've begun the (more complicated than you might think) process of recording Middle:Below II. However, as we are wrapping up the release of our latest show, The Dungeon Economic Model, we'll be releaseing some extra bonus content for our Patreon supporters, including an extended interview with the team behind the show.
Last Month's Links
We are at the end of The Dungeon Economic Model. The last episode will be out by the time you read this. It's been a strange experience, which we'll get to in a moment.
We also released the soundtrack to the show on our bandcamp. Featuring music inspired by J S Bach, Django Reinhardt, Franz Schubert and that weirdly specific genre of 'BBC Radio Broadcast Music.'
One of the episodes of Murmurs, the BBC Sounds show I was involved in making, featured in this list of 'The 50 Best Podcast Episodes of 2020 (So Far)'. It happens to be one of the episodes I directed, which was a nice surprise. I'm still very proud of my work on Murmurs and it's a shame it never quite got off the ground in the way it should have.
The big thing that happened last month was that I appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Extra show Podcast Radio Hour to talk about The Dungeon Economic Model, sound design and all the other stuff we make here at Tin Can Audio. The show also featured Travis Vengroff and Kaitlin Statz talking about VAST Horizon (I show I coincidentally happen to be a voice actor in) as well as an interview with Neil Gaiman about the new audio adaptation of The Sandman (which is excellent) as well as his thoughts about audio drama and comics. It was a surreal experience hearing myself on the wireless (the title of this newsletter is what my mum said to me right before I was due to be interviewed, it was not helpful) as well as being featured alongside a creator whose writing helped to form my creative outlook and approach to making stuff.
This Month: Audio Fiction, Comic Books, and Neil Gaiman
Something that I found interesting during the Neil Gaiman interview in Podcast Radio Hour was when he said that there were similarities between audio fiction and comic books. It's something that I've thought about a lot, and has been swirling around my brain bits for quite some time. Last year I read Gaiman's brilliant collection of non-fiction work The View From The Cheap Seats, and found his writing on comic books to be profoundly interesting as someone who made audio fiction, even though at that time I hadn’t read a lot of comic books or graphic novels.
Since reading View From The Cheap Seats I've been making an active effort to read more graphic novels and comic books, as I think there's a lot that audio fiction can learn from comic books, both in terms of storytelling, how to view our industry and, I think, to be encouraged at where we are and where we might be going.
(I would highly recommend The View From The Cheap Seats for anyone interested in storytelling as a whole, it is filled with good advice, good stories, and wonderful writing.)
(admittedly a lot of these belong my partner, but I'm quite proud of our growing comic book shelf)
Listening to Gaiman’s interview reminded me of my experience of reading The View From The Cheap Seats, and also gave me a convenient excuse to write about my thoughts/ramblings on audio fiction and comic books, and where I think the two can learn from each other.
(In the interest of clarity, I'll be referring to both listeners of audio fiction and readers of comic books as 'readers', as I don't want to confuse people and I refuse to use the word 'consumer' when it comes to stories)
The main link between audio fiction and comics is something I call 'words plus'. There is an additional medium to tell the story alongside the words. In comics, it's pictures; in audio fiction, it's sound.
Both have their own strengths, weaknesses and unique rules when it comes to creating a narrative (comics are better with large casts as you can see all the characters, audio fiction does fear better as what the listener imagines is always scarier than anything you can think of). Fundamentally they both give the reader an extra sense to heighten their experience of the story and, for the writers and artists, an additional storytelling tool. This can lead to interesting experimentation and innovation, like how Art Spiegelman shows visually how much the past defines the characters in Maus (as explained in this excellent Nerdwriter video) or how the difference between internal and external voice and time is blurred in the BBC Radio 4 drama Death of a Cosmonaut.
(this is the page from 'Maus' discussed in the Nerdwriter video, note how Spiegelman's father takes up the whole page through the positioning of the panels. It adds to the story in a completely visual way that can only really be achieved in a comic.)
Think about how the theatrical principle of 'Chekhov's Gun' could be applied to both mediums. In a comic, it could be a gun in the background that appears in multiple panels, meaning it appears all over the page, like a recurring, intrusive thought. In audio fiction, it could be the sound effect of someone playing with a gun in the background of a scene, or maybe there's hunting or clay pigeon shooting happening underneath the dialogue, underlining it, making it feel almost like subtext.
(notice how 'camera movement' is achieved in these panels from 'Watchmen'. The newspaper leads to the stairs, which leads you to the bay window, which leads you to the sign, which leads to the upper window. It's an interesting way of creating tension)
Both mediums also give their readers an active part to play in the creative process. This is something Gaiman talks about in the Podcast Radio Hour interview. He describes prose as giving a reader 'raw code' to build the story, and describes watching a film as a 'passive' experience, whereas audio fiction is somewhere in the middle of the two, wherein the listener is taking the sounds and using them to build the world of the story. I think this is true, but I think that images drawn from sounds are much more visceral and 'real' as they have a real life analogue as an outline. It’s what drew me to sound design and audio fiction in the first place, reading about how legendary sound designer Ben Burtt constructed the sound design for a little-known indie film known as Star Wars:
“The trick, I guess, is taking a sound which has a perceptual familiarity and then inject it
into an exotic context. It loses its specific identity,” Burtt says. “What remains is just an
emotional association. The fog horn has a sense of space and distance to it. Put in the
soundscape of Bespin, it no longer is a San Francisco fog horn, it is just some sort of
distant beacon or vehicle or something. It was the kind of sound you could put in a
soundtrack and it would sit there in the background without catching too much
attention… but create a sense of depth. It has a haunting feel to it, and that emotional
tone is important.”
- Kristin Baver
How Ben Burtt Turned a Bathtub of Raccoons
and Industrial Noise into a Star Wars Soundscape,
I expand on this thinking about sound design and storytelling both in my interview on Podcast Radio Hour as well as in the sound design workshop I gave at PodUK Goes Digital, which you can watch here.
I think the same idea can be applied to comics. I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes and one of the reasons the author, Bill Watterson, refused to license and merchandise the comic strip was that he hated the idea of giving either character a voice for the seemingly inevitable movie or TV adaptation that would follow.
‘I don’t want some animation studio giving Hobbes an actor’s voice, and I don’t want
some greeting card company using Calvin to wish people a happy anniversary, and I
don’t want the issue of Hobbes’ reality settled by a doll manufacturing company.’
Introduction to The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, p11
Each individual's experience of Calvin and Hobbes (from the story, to the characters and how they sound, to the environments) will be unique to them. It is based on their own experiences and thought processes, and will always be so, as:
‘Calvin and Hobbes was designed as a comic strip and that’s all I want it to be. It’s the
one place where everything works the way I intend it to.’ (Watterson, p11)
This is true for both audio fiction and comics, but in different ways. In comics, the reader imagines voices and sounds based on pictures; in audio fiction, they imagine images based on sounds.
This creates a very intimate relationship with the audience, and it's interesting to me because, for both audio fiction and comics, they both tend to be experienced in isolation. People listen to podcasts on their own, with headphones, on their commute, or (in my case) doing housework, or any work for that matter. People read comics as they would a book; on their own, quietly, again, maybe on their commute. It is hard to experience both mediums in a group setting which means everyone's experience of the story is their own. It creates a very powerful and personal connection with the story, but in a way that kind of meets you halfway between the immersive-ness of film with the ‘raw code’ of prose.
There are a number of stories about the comic industry Gaiman writes about in View From The Cheap Seats and, given the fledgling status of indie audio fiction (not to mention podcasting as a whole), I felt like there might be parallels and lessons to be drawn from them.
'When I go on tour I like to ask people how they started reading my stuff.
Mostly it's word of mouth. Friends tell friends. Friends force friends to sit and read it.
And, in a lot of cases, store assistants tell customers they'd like it. Sometimes it's
- Neil Gaiman, 'Good Comics and Tulips: A Speech,'
The View From The Cheap Seats, p242
Comics weren't taken seriously as a creative medium for a very long time, and the media industry didn't know what to do with them or how to write about them, something I think all audio fiction creators can relate to. The beginnings of the comic book industry started very much at the grassroots level, spurred on by passionate people who just wanted to make stuff and experiment with a medium where the rules were still being written (the UK indie game industry in the 70s & 80s is also a great example of this). I think to find the future of audio fiction as an industry, it is worth looking critically at another creative industry that is slightly further along. I say critically because, as Neil Gaiman writes in View From The Cheap Seats, there have been mistakes. There was a bubble, and it burst, and we should be wary of audio fiction becoming a hot investment item, we're already starting to see it with podcasting as a whole.
'You aren't selling investment items. You're selling dreams.
Never forget that.' (Gaiman, p243)
I'm a firm believer that all mediums should influence other mediums. I take most of the inspiration for my own work from video games (Tin Can is basically FTL: Faster Than Light fanfiction), music and, increasingly, comic books. When mediums cross-pollinate, they both learn something, and they move forward together.
Podcast Radio Hour: ‘Neil Gaiman and Audio Fiction’ - BBC Radio 4 Extra, first broadcast 10/07/2020 - link
Nerdwriter1, How To Design A Comic Book Page - Youtube, released 22/11/2017 - link
Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus - Penguin Books, 2003
James Fritz (writer) Becky Ripley (director), Death Of A Cosmonaut - BBC Radio 4, first broadcast 01/06/2019 - link
Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Watchmen - DC Comics, 2014
Kristin Baver, Empire at 40 | How Ben Burtt Turned a Bathtub of Raccoons and Industrial Noise into a Star Wars Soundscape - starwars.com, published 06/07/2020 - link
Bill Watterson, The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book - Warner Books, 1995
Neil Gaiman, The View From The Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction - Headline Publishing, 2016
(also a huge thank you to Ella Watts, Sarah Grant for helping me put this together and for making sure it actually made some sort of sense)
If you like what we do and you want to help us make more, you can buy us hot beverages on ko-fi. You can also support us by buying something from our bandcamp, where we have the soundtracks to our show as well as extra music.
If you want to support us long term, you can sign up to our Patreon, where you'll receive additional content such as blooper reels, live content and interviews with our cast & crew.
All that being said, the best support you can give is listening to our shows and telling other people about them. Word-of-mouth is everything to small indie podcasters, and hearing from people who have enjoyed our work is what keeps us going.
Thank you for listening.