about - Jessica Abel

Who is Jessica Abel?

Jessica AbelIf you’re reading this page, you probably already know I make comics.

But did you know that I’m a super narrative geek? In a lot of ways, my story is all about investigating story. I love finding systems, strategies, and tools that allow me to make the strongest stories possible. It helps that I’m intense and long-sighted, with a gift for understanding deep narrative structure.

As an artist with a head for organization and systems, I’ve put my abilities to good use exploring how to make better stories. I’ve been making comics and (non-comics) books for 25 years, and that’s not because the muse whispers sweet nothings to me every day. Sometimes it’s more of a brutal wrestle with the creative beast. Day-to-day, my productivity comes from a set of tools and strategies that allow me to turn sparks of ideas into real pages.

I’ve found that a period of confusion and a feeling of being overwhelmed by choices (I call it the Dark Forest) is intrinsic to any worthwhile project. And if you have access to someone with the skills to give you the right support, there are surprisingly effective ways to find a way through.

After 15 years of teaching storytelling to hundreds of students, I know how to find the center of almost any narrative, and bring that truth to the surface. While writing my two books on narrative nonfiction radio (think: This American Life) I discovered that the radio producers I interviewed use the same technique I do to make my stories stronger, and doing the work easier: creative collaboration (by which I mean I talk things out).

Now I use this tool to help others to crack open their narratives and create great stories.

We all can find ourselves deep in the dark forest of creative crisis when in the midst of making an ambitious story, and I work together with narrative artists to find their own, unique path out of the forest and to a brighter, better, stronger story. To find out more about how I use collaboration to foment great work, get in touch.

I live in France with my husband, cartoonist Matt Madden, and our two kids, who speak French better than I ever will. Oh la la. (I have trained them to be kind to me when they correct me.) We’ve been here on an artists’ residency at La Maison des Auteurs in Angoulême since 2012, and will be returning to the USA this summer. I used to grow lots of food in my garden, build furniture, and go dancing, and perhaps I will again one day.


My creative life, in bullet point form:

  • My graphic novel La Perdida was featured in hundreds of publications including the New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, and All Things Considered. It won two Harvey Awards (kind of the Golden Globes of Comics) and was Time’s Best Comic of the Year in 2006.
  • I served as co-series editor (with Matt Madden) of the Best American Comics series for six years, from 2007-2013, working with guest editors Neil Gaiman, Lynda Barry, Jeff Smith, and others.
  • I’ve taught full-credit courses for the last 15 years, at the School of Visual Arts, in the masters program at l’École européenne supérieure de l’image, in the MFA in Comics program at the California College of Arts, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, among other places. There’s a more exhaustive list here.
  • I’ve also taught numerous short workshops, lasting from an hour to several-week-long intensives. More here on my workshops.
  • I’ve spoken at venues from The University of Bordeaux to the Michigan Library Association on topics such as storytelling, visual narrative, and becoming a comics artist. More on my talks here.
  • I’ve written two textbooks on comics: Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, and Mastering Comics. Scott McCloud said they are “A goldmine of essential information for every aspiring comics artist. Highly recommended.”
  • Ira Glass called me while I lived in Mexico, on the telephone, to ask me to do a comic book about This American Life. It came out in 1999, and is called Radio: an Illustrated Guide. That book was a turning point in my thinking about story structure and narrative tools.
  • In August 2015 the followup to that book, Out on the Wire: the Storytelling secrets of the New Masters of Radio will come out. Featuring Ira as well as close to 25 other immensely talented radio and podcast producers, this time I was able to test the theories I’d developed in my years of telling stories: not, how do you push the record button, but, how do you think your way through the problem of making unbelievably compelling narratives…

Ten more things about me:

  • I still always make sure I have a rug in my studio in case I get into the Dark Forest in the middle of a project and need to lie down for a while.
  • I bought vinyl records for several years in high school and college before I actually owned a turntable.
  • I made little clay heads of some of my main characters to learn to draw them better. And now they all sit around staring at me.
  • I sang in a band when I was in my early 20s, and was once compared to David Yow of the Jesus Lizard, which was a moment of great pride. No further comment.
  • I think of myself as a major reader—I love big long epic books like Dune and Blood Meridian and Middlemarch—but I haven’t read much fiction in years. And now I fear I’ve lost the attention span for it!
  • I harvested nine pounds of red currants from a single bush in my garden, and made it all into jelly.
  • I have also managed to kill six pear trees (not all in the same year…).
  • I once got pulled onstage to dance with De La Soul, but then everyone started doing the Electric Slide, and I didn’t know how to do it. …slink…
  • I learned to speak Spanish living in Mexico, and French living in France, all after the age of 28.
  • I still can’t use the subjunctive properly.

Want to hear more? Join my mailing list and let’s get things rolling with one of my best tools: the Creative Rhythms worksheet.