CONTENT WARNING: illustrated depictions of gore, violence and body-horror.
Every artist’s piece captures a moment in time.
Katabatic is a graphic novella, 124 pages long, about a sky nomad chasing a plane across the clouds and avoiding the terse relationships she left behind. It took four years of creative battle, which began small but like many comic projects, became a complex maelstrom of emotions.
Before I tear away the curtains laying my original musings pink and bare, you should read the story for yourself first. The magic of art lies in its interpretation, and I want to get into the habit of allowing that to happen.
I’ve noticed few artists share the messy internal (if not infernal) monologue as they grow with their work. Process and techniques, yes, but not so much the subconscious nonsense. Trying to put those into words is, as Aussies say, ‘bloody difficult’. But with so many artists struggling to discuss style, vision and voice, it’s worth an attempt!
Katabatic came into existence through a local writing competition in 2017. They accepted short fiction, poetry, and comics. There was no prompt… terrifying! But it had restrictions, one of which was that the work had to target an adult audience (so applicants wouldn’t send in childrens’ stories, there was a different competition for that).
Tongue-in-cheek, I used that as my ‘prompt’. I explored the idea of a comic intended for adults, but not relying on the usual hallmarks of what would make a story ‘adult’. You know, the classic themes of bed fun-times, dubious substances, violent shredding (not on guitars) and humour from the gutters. They can be written with tact, mind you. But they’re oft the first tools grabbed off the shelf without regard for their utility. Turns out that becoming an adult involves a lot of reading-between-the-lines which you can’t address with a hammer!
Katabatic was my attempt at re-framing a ‘second coming of age’. Focusing on an exploration of maturity, rather than the mature.
But, should any critic review this work, I know what the primary feedback would be:
There’s no set up of conflict.
And a few other issues, like plot holes where character intentions are unclear and change over time (that’s what you get when you improvise plot, I’m not doing that again!) and stylistic inconsistencies. Rhipi’s drive for her journey isn’t apparent until the very end.
I had rhyme and reason for this, but it could have used with more research and a dose of a teeeensy bit more experience.
Around 2013-15, in the expanse of Tumblr, with its enthusiastic analyses of the true purpose of banana peels (among other things more strange), I came across an article about a story structure I never heard of before 1 : Kishoutenketsu (Japanese: 起承転結).
It’s a four act structure, utilised in Japanese, Chinese (called qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé: 起承轉合) and Korean (called gi seung jeon gyeol: 기승전결) narratives 2. It originated in Chinese four-line poetry, and became prevalent in Japan 1400 years ago through poets such as Meng Haoran. In modern art forms, it shows up in comedic 4-panel comic strips (yonkoma manga: 4コマ漫画), much of the manga market 3, and horror. For sake of simplicity, I’ll continue to refer to the story structure as Kishoutenketsu from here.
I need to note: I don’t come from any of the aforementioned cultures, so I can’t give an accurate account of how this structure works. It’s a method of communication that you have to be surrounded by on a daily basis. 4 There’s not a lot of material in the English language out there either; the resources I link throughout this article are, more or less, all there is.
I will give a general outline of the story structure, but after that discuss my understanding and what I found valuable.
To summarise, the story builds up a situation in the first two acts, provides a very different situation or context in the third act, and finally shows how the two relate in the fourth. To give an example by Utako Matsuyama: 5
(1) The typical plot would be as follows: the main character is an honest and kind person who happens to help a trapped animal, helpless jizo [statue], or hungry god.
(2) Following that event, many good things happen to him.
(3) Then, a bad person, usually the good person’s neighbor, sees the good person’s fortune and tries to get the same luck.
(4) The ending at the story level is that honesty and kindness are rewarded virtues.
The rest from now is my interpretation.
For Katabatic, I used it in each chapter, and the whole story. Here’s an example:
The Whole Story
Writers familiar with this structure talk a lot about the move away from classic conflict. Meaning; the character isn’t running into a problem which they need to overcome as the central plot string. Of course, conflict could exist as a series of events to build rapport between the reader and the characters. The third act can feel like in conflict with the rest of the story. But the structure lends itself towards curiosity rather than conflict. In the example from Matsuyama above, the main character is a goody-two-shoes until the end!
In other words, the reader is asking “How do all these things relate?” rather than “Will they succeed?”.
One established element of the story does not need to prove itself greater than the other. The protagonist vs. the villain, the need vs. the want, the situation vs. the person. The third act, Ten, provides a new element that puts the rest of the story into a different context, without overriding it. We can’t quite compare it to the classic ‘twist’ as we understand.
It seems like Kishoutenketsu is an additive format, that shows two things can exist simultaneously (multiplicity of sorts). Rather than confrontational, where two things are at odds (mutually exclusive). There’s the sense of solving a mystery or observation.
Parallels to this exist in Buddhist Zen Kōans6; impossible logic challenges which test a monk’s understanding of the teachings. Such as accepting mysteries as forever unsolvable, and, most relevant here, how to reject binaries.
This is a big departure from the goal-oriented way of the west, but it’s not completely foreign to us. Comedy uses the idea of marrying two unrelated elements together all the time, like Joe Lycett does when he starts with a story about a walrus7, goes to parking tickets, then somehow returns to walruses again. And if you browse TED talks, speakers often will contrast their theory with a personal story, or a seemingly left-field analogy. Like Brady Wilson does here8 by weaving ‘being a hero’ with anecdotes and brain chemistry. Classic crime novels play a similar tune; the detective doesn’t have to develop as a character, they’re only ‘overcoming’ the mystery. But we expect them to! It’s how all the disparate pieces come together that keep the reader compelled.
“Combine an ordinary idea with an extraordinary idea.”
(I could talk about this for hours, but I’ll leave that for another time.)
The classic example being ‘cowboys in space’: Star Wars. Again, a form of allowing two seperate ideas to co-exist, their unlikely combination sparking vibrancy.
Kishoutenketsu felt like the right fit for a comic about maturity: a process which requires introspection and acceptance.
I used to imagine I had wings.
When the quips and jabs from peers at school became too much, I could show them they have no control over me. And fly away. What would it be like to stay on rooftops, in trees, looking down? Condescending, away from the nonsense of arguments and disagreeing for the sake of reaction.
This mental image permeated my sleep, where the daydream became a reality. I learned to fly like it was a skill; first hovering over the ground when I was five, then against walls. Soon I was using my arms like kids that run around the playground pretending to be birds. Until, as a young adult, I could almost glide, sometimes zoom around, without effort.
You’d think, with this capability, I’d fly through marvellous dream landscapes, or between fantastical architecture. Which was sometimes true… but I didn’t get to indulge in them very much…
Flight granted me one story: get away.
It never had a face, or a body. Often it was a ‘force of nature’; a syndicate, a group’s attitude, or foreboding. I didn’t know for sure what would happen if it caught me, but the dread warned me of a future prison.
Despite the nature of this recurring theme, it wasn’t a nightmare to me. The exhilaration of escaping, of having that power, was freeing. It felt more real than sitting in that circle in the school yard, trapped speaking in circles.
Group conversations were a haze, community was a loose wireframe. First I thought immigration was the source, that being German/Polish gave other young Australians a case of uncanny valley. I was western enough to be mistaken for a local, but foreign enough to sew doubt. But, according to my father, the bubble of enthusiasm for learning and weird humour I displayed was my own creation. German culture can be, after all, stringent at times.
So I was a whisper. Strumming everyone else’s rubber bands. Should I add my own, it would snap under the tension, the friction. I could sense when the room was turning vicious before voices raised. I felt the invisible network that pulled us together and apart, but could never partake in that dance.
Everything existed simultaneously, a chorus about me, and I was invisible within it.
Every artist’s piece captures a moment in time.
As I hit chapter 3 and 4 of this story, around three years in, I experienced a double-dose serving of teenage crisis in my twenties (don’t skip it while you’re 16!) I finally made connections that resonated, but with the territory came facing challenges for real. Like learning that a team needs to be honest with their problems, not softening it up. Stating when a friend is being unreasonable, rather than bottling it in. Seeking relationships with meaning, not for a purpose.
I found grounding. And, refusing to return to the suffocating nebulous haze of before, Katabatic’s vision lost steam.
It embodied conflict avoidance, social disconnection, personality loss. All things that are neither here, nor there.
This wasn’t my first attempt at such an abstraction. I worked on a fashion comic (Neverland), an animatic (Invaded by Memories) and a game (Orunge,) which was also a compact four-act-structure attempt). All told meta-stories. They were really valuable collaborations (with a fashion designer, composer and writer, respectively), pieces that have charm. But, for me personally, after completing each, they felt like desperate pleas to prove that my imagination is worthwhile. I covered it up in a facade of the academically bizarre, or cute, or airy.
And what was hiding beneath the facade, this whole time? What was the stuff that everyone close to me knew I was good at, but I was afraid to take centre stage?
The monsters, the dramatic characters and faces, horror, things full of energy and grit and heart. Yet, after all this time, project after project, it’s like I have nothing to prove it. Nothing to show for the compelling stories I know I can create, if my tabletop-roleplaying-groups laughing and weeping over my characters, and other creatives squealing in delight over my story drafts being any indication.
What makes it worse is this disappointment: that the story-telling philosophy that I believed in, which accompanied me for so long throughout my experiences, a wisdom I knew was important to see in the world… turned out not to be my voice at all. The very things that I was sick of seeing done poorly in media - gore, misunderstandings, destruction, relationships, survival - were precisely what I wanted to work on. Anything committed to calm moments in the rain, or the nostalgia of traveling between locations, mindfulness, and anything in that ballpark, came to represent the dulling of the senses. Dulling of myself.
But that’s not what it is.
This article[^10] summarises in words better than I could what Kishoutenketsu could teach:
This lack of [plot] resolution makes Kishōtenketsu stories appealing in an important way. They are true to life. We rarely get a clear and neat resolution to the conflicts that emerge in our own lives. Things can happen to us, positive or negative, that are completely out of our control. We just have to deal with them.
It’s a lesson that we loathe to learn in the west: we don’t get to be the hero, we don’t know for sure if we’re right or wrong, many things are both. How can we achieve serenity if we don’t accept loneliness too? How can we be complete as individuals, if we trash the pieces of yourself we think we don’t like?
I made that error. In chasing Kishoutenketsu, in the hopes it may help me overcome my wandering, I didn’t practice Kishoutenketsu. I pitted my world lens against my interests; to deny one or the other. When they both could coexist at the same time.
The liminal is not a solveable conflict. It’s a space that exists between the comfortable, and it will always be uncertain. Like an earworm you can only swap out for something else, but never remove. You have to accept it, as is.
So I will accept Katabatic. I achieved a lot, despite its mess. I went through the entire production process, adjusted scope when it became too big, ‘turned up to work’ when I couldn’t be bothered. I developed drawing and colouring techniques, created something visually balanced and beautiful. And I wove two parallel stories and half a dozen symbols (and characters) into a rich tapestry of quaint surprises. Thanks, fan-fiction years of dealing with 12 characters at once!
Is Katabatic a breakthrough story that proves conflict is not the be-all?
But you know what? Turning a gut feeling into something palatable is, as we say, ‘bloody difficult’.
Perhaps you can give it a try! In the meantime, I will apply the rules of discovery and the liminal in a format I speak: scary and heart-wrenching stories.
Finally, what better way to celebrate finishing a comic than with a comic (featuring my characters eagerly awaiting their story turn, of course):
P.S. Hope you noticed the structure of this article 😉
You can find a digital copy of Katabatic and a companion PDF offering more insight into the artistic process (classic stuff: the drawings, ideas, yelling at colour schemes) here:
Or, read it on Tapas.io for free, if you haven’t already!
Still Eating Oranges. 2012. The significance of plot without conflict. [online] Available at: https://stilleatingoranges.tumblr.com/post/25153960313/the-significance-of-plot-without-conflict [Accessed 16 December 2021] ↩
SMAC! - THE SILENT MANGA AUDITION® COMMUNITY!, 2016. The FOUR Part construction “Ki-Sho-Ten-Ketsu” - Japanese Manga 101 #049. [video] Available at: https://youtu.be/pPxjTVpY55w [Accessed 16 December 2021]. ↩
Iwane-Salovaara, M., 2011. Who is responsible ? Kishoutenketsu and the 5-Paragraph Essay. [online] Core.ac.uk. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/236043993.pdf [Accessed 16 December 2021]. ↩
Barrett, R., 2014. The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction. [online] Tofugu. Available at: https://www.tofugu.com/japan/japanese-horror-structure/ [Accessed 16 December 2021]. ↩
Sanderson, B., Tayler, H. and Wells, D., 2008. Writing Excuses Episode 2: Blending the Familiar and the Original. [podcast] Writing Excuses. Available at: https://writingexcuses.com/2008/02/17/writing-excuses-episode-2-blending-the-familiar-and-the-original/ [Accessed 16 December 2021]. ↩
Taylor, J., 2020. Kishōtenketsu: Exploring The Four Act Story Structure. [online] Artofnarrative.com. Available at: https://artofnarrative.com/2020/07/08/kishotenketsu-exploring-the-four-act-story-structure/ [Accessed 16 December 2021]. ↩