Cartoonist Jessica Abel Talks Storytelling, Radio and Her Visit to MU | KBIA

Cartoonist Jessica Abel Talks Storytelling, Radio and Her Visit to MU

Mar 22, 2016

Jessica Abel's self-portrait
Credit Jessica Abel

Every storytelling medium has its own set of rules and challenges for how to tell a successful story. Radio is different than print, which is different than Internet, and so forth. It can be hard to cross between them, both for those who tell stories as their job and for those who just use stories to communicate with the people around them. 


Cartoonist Jessica Abel built her career on telling stories through drawing and writing, but more recently she's figured out first-hand how to move between mediums. 

Abel made her first foray into radio 16 years ago with the help of Ira Glass, when he recruited her to draw a comic book about how his radio show, This American Life, is made. Her most recent project is an expanded version of the original book: a graphic novel called "Out on the Wire." It’s an illustrated guide to narrative storytelling in radio with advice from some of the most popular shows and radio producers in the business.


KBIA’s Emerald O’Brien spoke with Abel about how she made the leap from comics to radio, and what’s in store for the talk she'll be giving this week at MU.

O’Brien: So it sounds like you fell into radio in a similar way that you fell into comics, like you were interested in radio as a listener but not necessarily as a maker and it took you a little while to get there.

Abel: Oh a little while is kind of an understatement. I mean, yes, I was a listener. I've said this before but scratch a cartoonist and you find a radio fan because we have spent so much time at our drawing tables alone in the dark trying to get the comics done that while music is of course really important too, the vast majority of cartoonists will also listen to radio and now podcasts are just kind of the savior for cartoonists cause there's just always something you can listen to, whereas when I was getting started it's like, if there wasn't something on it just wasn't on, you know. I found This American Life very early because I was living in Chicago and that's where they started and so I was listening to it even before it was a national show. And I was a big fan, I spent a lot of long lonely nights drawing my comics and listening to Ira Glass. And then when he called me to work on the book, Radio: An Illustrated Guide, you know it was a total surprise. I had absolutely, absolutely no reason to expect that would ever happen. I had no relationship with him or radio or anything beyond being a listener.

O’Brien: Didn't you say was it in the book or did you tell me that you like recognized his voice as soon as you got on the phone and it was kind of like, ‘what is going on?’

Abel: Oh yeah, like two words.

O’Brien: So and once you started working with him, did you see similarities between the storytelling they were doing and what you were doing in comics?

Abel: What was interesting to me and interesting now especially in retrospect, is how much my encounter with Ira's ideas about story were the first time or almost the first time I encountered any formalized system of thinking about storytelling. And I was an English major. So it's not like I shouldn't have had any background in this. I was not an art major. But when you are in a literature department and you go to do literature classes and stuff, people don't talk about narrative arc and stuff very often. It just doesn't come up. It's more about whatever, there's a lot of lit crit things that happen, it's sort of not seen as being all that important. But to me it's fascinating. And so seeing how Ira did that, I think my brain almost immediately kind of clicked into gear and started thinking about ways other people did something similar. But I think it took quite a while for me to be able to do anything with that. And there were many other stages of research that came later having nothing to do with radio at all that then helped me when it came to do my textbooks about comics and then Out on the Wire.

O’Brien: So what can people expect from your talk at Mizzou?

Abel: Really what it's about, what I want to be talking about specifically, is that whole process of taking, and that's kind of what we're talking about right now, is the process of taking the principles of story, the things that I learned, take them from audio, into comics, from comics into my podcast and from the podcast into prose because I'm writing blog posts and things about them. And the idea of how these storytelling concepts have legs in different media and what the differences are and how you can kind of utilize those things.

Jessica Abel's talk, called Sound and Vision, is free and open to the public on Wednesday, March 23, from 6-7 p.m. in Gannett Hall, Room 88, at the University of Missouri.