Saturday, August 29, 2015

Recap: Cartoon & Comic Arts 2015

   Just going to do one motherlode post here to try and encapsulate the UAF Summer Sessions Cartoon & Comic Arts course (see backposts under the topic index here) in it's entirety as much as possible. Fifteen folks enrolled this year - now in it's ninth - including four at the Advanced level - but by no means was that skill-set designation restricted to them alone, as the overwhelming majority of the "Beginners" displayed some truly amazing talent. Mainly what separates the two divisions is the scale + scope of the individual efforts with regards to their independent projects, in addition to the incorporation of color, and utilization of the web for self-promotional purposes. More on them later - but for now follow me below the fold for an overview of this session's activities and highlights...

   As per usual the walls of the drawing studio and the rest of the art department slowly became infected with funnies as the inexorable tide of sequential art spread throughout the hallways. Sure there also was some amazing works on display by the Beginning/Intermediate/Advanced Drawing students as well, but hey, I have my biases. Over the duration of the six-week session I swap out a rotating smorgasbord of samples culled from student exercises with the ever-growing pile of assignment and critique pieces. These in turn get slowly shifted to the department's main gallery, where the intermediate and advanced folks host their own dedicated display areas within which one can see firsthand the accumulation of their effort as evidenced by the impressive output of completed works.

   In conjunction with all that, I always try and leave up on the studio walls the many prompts and reminders of some of the exercises we go through, so as to continually reinforce and remind the meta-lessons - like for example how sometimes it doesn't really matter so much how good one can draw as how well one can express a concept with as few, descriptive lines as possible. Technical craftsmanship cannot supplant basic, simple visual communication, only serve to enhance (or obfuscate) the point of the piece, panel or page. It's demonstrated time and time again that folks with comparatively less ability to render well can often consistently create better works when not hampered by obsessive attention to making a beautiful drawings. Put better by James Sturm: "you can can decorate construction, not construct decoration" ie the foundation must first be put in place in order to foster a more effective piece.

   Several timed exercises that we routinely do in the class reinforce this, and it never hurts to return to the basics of cranking out stuff in a matter of minutes, even seconds - versus agonizing over it for hours. One interesting phenomenon I observed in this particular course was a peculiar tendency for the students who opted to complete their assignments using digital drawing tablets (Wacom et al) got consistently time-sucked down into their work which hampered completion of the overall pieces. On a few occasions I observed folks almost down to the pixel level on a selection of an image, obsessing over a comparatively insignificant detail which at 100% and/or after printing would simply not be an issue to the majority of viewers. Having such a powerful tool at one's disposal can be at times a detraction from the big picture, literally in these instances, as it constantly throws up visual speed-bumps that derail the process as opposed to speeding it up. Above & beyond the practical logistics, I also felt that compared and contrasted to the hand-crafted (penciled>inked) work produced by the very same students were immeasurably better, at least as far as the look and feel of the pieces, more organic or evidently drawn by a human being if you will. As a result I'm drafting a critique of the aesthetics of line quality and rendering forms using a computer versus some degree of the drawing done with traditional implements that I'll publish here later, including examples.

   More and more, after courses and classes like this, I've come to anticipate and rely upon the inevitable accumulation of the inspirational mulch pile: these banks of promps - index cards and scraps of paper derived from the many jams and in-class timed exercises, can serve as invaluable seed material, with which anybody at any time can pull an idea for virtually anything at all. It's a physical manifestation of what organically occurs in any artists' head, but regardless of how extensive one's own inner resources are for coming up with random concepts on the fly, having a ready-made catalog of cartoons makes for a handy supplement... hey, just like carrying a sketchbook.

Left to Right: Daphne Dewey, Yebin Ha, Shayla Sackinger, Mason Schoemaker, Melanie Post, Olen Seim, Kelly Wilson and Bethany Eisenman.

   Just a few of the variety of weird & wonderful folks met during the character critique at the end of the first week of the class. It's always been one of my personal favorite sessions, as it's the first time we really get a chance to all sit around as a group and look over everybody's initial work together... and when introducing characters one inevitably also introduces one's self. Individual styles are expressed along with a wide range of interests and abilities, and many different genres and mixtures thereof can be teased out just on the basis of this assignment: always a good sign when characters by themselves seem to suggest a story.

Jackie Wilson, Shannon Hammond, Zahra Joseph, Bethany Eisenmen

   Students are required to turn in five different sheets of Bristol: one with a full 3/4 profile of their two characters, a second with a side-view, a third with a back view (going off of an exercise in identifying popular/historical characters based purely on their silhouettes with prominent features), a fourth with the two characters with props in an environment (this in particular elicits much discussion and provides an immediate context to the characters as a de facto establishing shot), and lastly, emoting the six basic facial expressions, which in theory are universally recognizable.

Image: Shannon Hammond

   Purely on a more practical level, it's ostensibly also an opportunity to experiment with pen & ink techniques, play around with line + texture, start getting familiar working with some of the tools of the trade. Still, some great backstories ensued along with interesting, diverse and unique personalities being displayed. In other words, your basic attributes of the usual classroom, but this time in an art course devoted to the medium of comics and cartoon art specifically. The networking and simple camaraderie is cause for much support of classes like this: yes, one can make a legitimate argument that two of the crucial, underlying attributes of cartooning are 1) anyone can do it - without any formal training whatsoever, and 2) you can do it with just about anything at all that makes a mark on a piece of paper, so there's no need for expensive materials or training in techniques.
   That being said, learning within the structure of a classroom is the opportunity to avail oneself of the many different approaches, styles, techniques, and it is an ideal environment within which to foster and support and encourage various efforts to these ends. It's easy to isolate oneself, laboring away in limbo (or a small cabin in the middle of Alaska), and indeed many creative results come as a result of operating in a vacuum. And these days one can just as easily ferret out relevant information on-line whether it's in tutorials or comment threads and emails to supplement one's self-guided education; in much the same way as repeated hauntings of the public library, attending conventions, and subscribing to trade magazines were and continue to be other valuable avenues. Would that I had anywhere near as many options when first starting out in the field as people do nowadays, from those with a casual interest to the makers themselves.
   Rubbing elbows is another aspect that has its own worth in the overall mix of methods, and there are benefits to physically interacting with creators in much the same way there is an aesthetic component to reading a comic that one is holding in ones own hands - or even better, checking out the original artwork, and better still, watching it get made right in front of you. It's all good, especially when looked at as a metaphor of a crockpot where all these different ingredients get to simmer together, and there are many variations as there are recipes and cooks in the kitchen. Point is to make some and share it.
   The comparatively new academic and institutional legitimacy for this artform is hand in glove with the corresponding rise of the cartoon and comic arts in both the dual fields of literature and fine art. Through incursions into the popular media, the walls of galleries and even valued at the auction house, on many different fronts the movement has been maturing, evolving with a nuanced sophistication evident in the field of contemporary comics - along with scholarly appreciation of the rich history of cartooning and comic arts.
   Still, even after all of that, nothing ever takes the place of the honest and simple joy of practicing the craft and sharing it with fellow aficionados. To say nothing of having ones work recognized as legitimate, and taken seriously enough to be critiqued.

   Monday: One should probably expect such things on the first week of working on gag cartoons. Presumably somebody in some cubicle somewhere for the Office of Risk Management wouldn’t get it though. Next: the classic exploding pen gag! But really though there isn't any other class I've either taken - or taught - where there's anywhere near as many laughs to be had. All joking aside, I know there's a lot of folks who come away somewhat dismayed at the workload, as it is an actual college-level studio course worth 3-credits, and so - more meta here - the discipline & drive is as much an element of success within the walls of the room as it would be, and is, outside.

   It’s the little things Exhibit "A"… Best moment from the class was from after renting a van to ferry folks on our last-day field-trip to the local comic shop. While leaving campus with a full load of my fellow cartoonists I started playing a CD of classic scores/comic book movie soundtracks. First up was the main, opening theme from the Simpson’s, and so while careening around a curve I honked the horn at just the right moment not thinking anybody would get it… but the entire van cracked up. And so yeah, I thought to myself: these are my people.

   On a related note: this is my kinda office desktop: taken while the course was segueing from single-panels to strips, with a mix of contemporary + classic comics thrown into the mix of the rotating lending library. So the samples for that particular week included: Hank Ketcham “Dennis the Menace,” Lynda Berry “One Hundred Demons,” William Steig “Strutters & Fretters,” Harry Bliss “Death By Laughter,” Tony Millionaire “Maakies,” New Yorker’s “Rejection Collection,” Brad Anderson “Marmaduke,” Charles Addams, Mark Tatulli “Lio,” Mike Peters “Mother Goose & Grimm,” Berkeley Breathed “Bloom County,” Bill Waterson “Calvin & Hobbes,” Lee Post “Your Square Life,” Jeff Pert “How’s The Water Bob?,” Shannon Wheeler “Too Much Coffee Man,” Max Cannon “Red Meat,” Jim Toomey “Sherman’s Lagoon,” Patrick McDonnell “Mutts,” Cyanide & Happiness “Ice Cream & Sadness,” Dan Piraro “Bizarro,” Doug Urquhart “Eyes Of The Husky,” Robin Heller “Mukluk The Eskimo,” Alsion Bechdel “Dykes To Watch Out For,” Walt Kelly “Pogo,” Roz Chast “Unscientific Americans.”

   Yay… a day “off” – ALL WORK AND ALL PLAY. I’ve found if when a student has a question, and you turn around with this expression, they’ll usually ask if YOU need any help instead. In all seriousness I cranked out a lot of demos over the duration of the course - I perversely like the chance to screw things up right there in front of folks: as opposed to undermining confidence in the instructor it's instead a meta-lesson on how normal it is to totally botch things up every once in a while, and in the grand scheme of things ain't really no big deal. If it is, just draw the dam thing again. And it bears mentioning just how much of an influence it is directly upon my own personal work to have the honor of teaching this course: over the six-week session there are innumerable instances of how after a 12+ hour day I went home and picked up a pen or pencil despite being a wee bit worn out myself. Call it testament to the collective energies being displayed on a daily basis - one really can't help but but be inspired on a purely cause-and-effect level by being in close proximity to such constant output + enthusiasm.

   Here's a sampler of one of the variations on the Cartoon Jam exercise: on a provided pre-cut strip of drawing paper with a Sharpie, student #1 draws the first of three panels (in approximately two minutes or so): the strip gets passed on to student #2 who continues the narrative sequence by drawing in the second panel, which is finally completed in the third and last panel by student #3. Another version, which is also explored in the same class, is a much more challenging one: after the initial panel is drawn by the first student, it gets folded under out of sight, and second person then completes an totally unrelated non-sequitur panel for the ending (the third panel in the strip), and after passing it to another student it gets unfolded and they then have to somehow stitch the two scenarios together. Not only for the collaborative aspect these sorts of quickies help to get the creative juices flowing, which can be especially helpful after a long day and one is confronting a blank page - either physically or mentally.

   Big special thanks to Brianna Reagan and Alex Bates for dropping by the Cartoon & Comic Arts course one awesome evening: they gave an amazing show & tell with some outstanding samples of their collaborative project + original works from the portfolio: super inspirational to see + a real kick in the creative pants for all of us in the class. Both Brianna and Alex will be appearing at the upcoming the Emerald City Comicon, for the slated official release in bookform of their currently unfolding epic "The Clockwork Queen of Oz." This link here is to the archive for the online installments… and the corresponding Facebook Page is linked here. It's a monumental undertaking which we were privileged to see firsthand from script to finished pages of original art.

   Brianna showcased some of the most beautiful work I've ever seen in the Interior, not surprising as she was far and away one of the most talented + successful graduates of the BFA program in the UAF Fine Arts department. One of the more prolific and visible members of the local art scene her work can be viewed, purchased or commissioned here and/or followed via her Facebook page as well. And if you haven’t yet checked out Brianna’s table in person at the Tanana Valley Farmer’s Market she also has an online store here.

   We got a chance to check out the beginnings of these pieces as written and laid out initially by Alex. Besides a looming presence in the local bouncer circuit he's is a great writer, concept man + does some pretty spiffy gaming miniatures which he collaborates with other artists on as well – check ‘em out here at the Forge Of Ice.

   We also had another Extra-Special Guest drop in for our class this year for the first time ever: "Tundra" creator Chad Carpenter gave us some sage advice on succeeding in the industry + the funny business in general. It was a way-cool capstone to an intense six-week session since it happened on the last day when everybody's pages were due for the final. Also there will be an upcoming collaborative piece between the two of us debuting here sooner than later that was based off of a demo drawing he did for us. 
   Of notable significance in the photograph above is that book on his table: it was a copy of the just-released (as in only a few days fresh off the press) graphic novel adaptation of "Moose: The Movie" which course alum Lucas Elliot drew from the screenplay. And of course everybody knows that the book is always better than the movie...

   Excerpted panels from the strips assignment: this phase of the six-week session sees the previous material begin to expand into perhaps a fuller realization of the term "sequential art," where arguably the crucial dimension of the illusion of the passing of time (as implied through the usage of gutters) is experimented with in three to five panels. One option is for students to incorporate the same characters that were previously developed first week, and further adopt and adapt the single-panels drawn for their previous assignment as potential material to riff off of - hence the accordion of cartooning begins to expand and contract in new and wonderful ways. And as always the specific content doesn't necessarily need to be funny per say, like the syndicated strips (itself a subject of one of the related lectures) published in the newspaper.

   The following week the class works on the collaborative page assignment: four different students each work on a page (script>pencil>ink>color in succession), playing off of their respective strengths and weaknesses to reach an amalgamation that ultimately, more often than not, is a surprising and rewarding experience in what is a unique aspect of the medium. It also doubles as a creative exercise in verbally & visually communicating, interpreting and editing. Posted here is a sample where occasionally myself + advanced students have to step up and fill in for any absentees during the week-long exercise.

   In the end a half-dozen different folks chipped in on this one, each adding a unique ingredient to the final piece. Sometimes the process goes hilariously off the rails when working off of a hastily written script (bring up again the crucial component of lettering cleanly + clearly), as evidenced by the typo in this script of a classic quote from American naturalist John Muir (one of my favorite sources of inspiration) about "I never saw a discontented tree" that eventually made its way into the finished art after undergoing an amusing reinterpretation.

   This was also a great point in the class to review the film “Stripped,” a fantastic documentary on comics that was released just last year: highly recommended with some indispensable insights on the industry + practice, with interviews by a wide range of creators. One of my students mentioned it was even on Netflicks now – check it out sometime if you are remotely interested in cartooning... along with a previously reviewed film "Independents" they are the best encapsulation of the craft on film.

   Photograph from another highly useful exercise in Timing, Pacing + Editing, where students, working in small groups on sections of the provided narrative and specific scenarios, went from a 20-panel story to a 40-panel one, and then from a theoretical 120 narrative all the way back down to a 4-panel variation using selected excerpts that retain the essential elements of the original story.
   Much as it's tempting to continue on with a succession of "open studios" wherein we can focus on completion of the final pages for the class, I still interject a series of related in-class assignments that hopefully dovetail with their respective current critique projects. It's always a perennial challenge to emphasize the importance of doing homework outside of the class, therefore freeing up time in the department studio for related activities, versus the fact that for a significant majority of folks this course is the only real free time they get to devote to the required assignments. I certainly empathize with the situation that faces many if not most of the people striving to achieve and/or maintain a career in the creative arts: learning to juggle the logistics of doing art + a 9-5 job and/or family duties is more often than not the point of much frustration if not failure.

   Speaking of such endeavors to persevere here's a sample from yet another frequently used in-class exercise which points up the importance of editing in conjunction with the adding in/taking out of visual elements ie expansion + contraction of content. Students are given nine initial index cards on which to draw how they each came to class, using Sharpies and images only (no text). Then after posting + review, they return to their tables and ink out another additional nine panels which illustrate the same exact scenes, but this time emphasizing the point-of-view by exaggerating the camera angles. This may be accomplished by pulling out for more landscape or wide-angle establishing shots and/or zooming in for micro versus macro. These have the value of adding in different compositions which potentially promote intimacy through poignant, pregnant pauses or beats that affect the timing and pacing of the piece. After shuffling the new images in with the first batch up on the board we examine how the story now reads, and experiment with adding in another expository scene or two along with removing others which may impede the narrative.

   The only occupational hazard I face would be the annual callous that builds up on the thumb used for pushing in + pulling out innumerable thumbtacks - thousands of times for replacing and replenishing hallway displays, critiques, assignment reviews and posting in-class exercises on the studio walls. It's a visual reminder to me that, as per the no-prerequisites listing of the course, regardless of intrinsic drawing ability at the outset of the session, there will be an inevitable improvement of skills that is built up in a similar fashion as this callous - through repeated exposure and exercise.

Excerpted images by: Bethany Eisenman, Tara Maricle, Shannon Hammond, Chaweinta Hale.

   Besides my being easily amused, it’s pretty common to be impressed with much of the work coming out the other end of the pen from my students – it’s much more rare to be moved by such an unusual degree of poignancy + skill as was displayed this session by one piece in particular from Tara Maricle (link here). More simply outstanding examples of Advanced work here from Bethany Eisenman, and wonderful work by Shannon Hammond here, along with Chaweinta Hale's here. All amazing efforts and output that I'm positive will yield some future contributions to the field 

Excerpted images by: Melanie Post, Olen Seim, Kelly Wilson, Zahra Joseph, Yebin Ha, Valerie Robancho-Andresen.

   Thanks for sticking with me through this rather laborious and lengthy post - I felt that after last year's rather feeble follow-up I was overdue for a more detailed accounting. In closing, the very first image posted at the beginning of this recap was of the traditional release party for both the annual edition of the course comic book + the four advanced independent publications. In my humble opinion there's simply nothing else that so effectively drives the meta home more than hosting it within the context of an actual comic book store: amidst a sea of creations we are the creators of our own content, and holding in one’s own hands a comic book of your own work that could conceivably sit on the very same shelves alongside all the other ones, perfectly illustrates the power and the possibilities.

That being said, the last class is always only the starting point… back to the drawing board.

Photo: Devante Owens

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