Saturday, September 8, 2018

Recap: Summer Sessions - Cartoon & Comic Art 2018

Confluence of Comics: Drawing a demo comic for the drawing class, who are all drawing their own comics, while in the background I'm playing a documentary about drawing comics, next to a huge table piled high with comics. Not to put to fine a point on it, this is one of the few days a year that I absolutely live for. When all the elements are aligned a sort of mystical + magical moment occurs that's truly on a Stonehegian scale of cosmic transcendence. And then it's back to reality for the other 261 days of the year.

Following closely on the heels of a return to the 2018 Visual Art Academy after last year's hiatus, I rebooted the Cartoon & Comic Arts course for UAF Summer Sessions for the twelfth year. Again and again, without fail, every single class is my absolute favorite one of the year, filled with my favorite students doing their best artwork ever. Of course there are always a couple who become quickly disabused of the naive notion that it's all fun & games, like a slacker student's dream opportunity to have fun and get some easy credits... this really is a boot-camp of creativity, an everybody puts out an impressive amount of energy and artwork.

Couldn't include the titles in the second photograph with the first because they were being used

Going off of the assumption that it's a good class if I myself learn something, I picked up on a few new things. One of the wonderful side-benefits in teaching this class is the picking up on new and different artists and techniques, particularly all the favorites from my students - so over the years they've turn me onto some amazing stuff that, left to my own devices holed up in the cabin alone or online communities I would otherwise have remained unaware about.

Caught up on some classic DC back titles (a lot of Batman... "Long Halloween," "Killing Joke," "Hush," … plus "Flashback" and "Kingdom Come." Also scored remastered Asterix Omnibus #1 & Bernie Wrightson’s collected Creepy & Eerie stories… plus recent work by Evie Wyld/Joe Sumner (“Everything Has Teeth”), Brian K. Vaughan/Cliff Chiang (“Paper Girls” vol. one) + new releases from Jim Broadbent/Dix (“Dull Margaret”) & Dave Gibbons (“How Comics Work”). Also "Killing and Dying," short stories by Adrian Tomine, “Why Comics? – From Underground to Everywhere” by Hillary Chute, “This One Summer” by the Tamaki cousins. Oh yeah, and working on my own stuff…

Another educational avenue I wound up turning down and researching was the historical genre of Kibyƍshi comics, arguably one of the earliest manifestations of the comic art form. This was in rebuttal to the of-repeated claim that comics are a uniquely American institution, such as baseball and jazz. It is more accurate to refine the terms to say superhero comic books per say.

In my history overview lecture, we see examples of early image + text with Egyptian papyrus scrolls ("Ward equates visual humor in Egyptian art to the “modern cartoon.” Sometimes the image demanded an explanatory hieroglyphic and sometimes the image was enough of a joke"), Mesopotamian cylinder seals, church doors and chapel frescoes. These Japanese influences make for a splendid cultural addition to the mix that evolved into contemporary comics. 

Speaking of such, another thing that got me all excited was to stumble across a concerted effort by a dedicated community to showcase a hybrid genre in the field of comics: comics poetry I was personally so delighted to read across so many different approaches to this juxtaposition of image + text, though by no means limited to using panels, gutters and other conventional hallmarks (in many instances, restrictions) of the medium.
"Comics poetry is a hybrid creative form that combines aspects of comics and poetry. It draws from the syntax of comics, images, panels, speech balloons, and so on, in order to produce a literary or artistic experience akin to that of traditional poetry. Comics poetry" can be used to differentiate the genre from written poems later interpreted in comics form, which is also called "poetry comics." (Wikipedia)
" the end of the day, more than any other practitioner, a poet is just dealing with words.... Words aren’t necessary for comics, but of course they’re there to use. Panels aren’t necessary, but they’re also there to use. Where the poet’s toolbox contains every imaginable arrangement or manipulation of words, the cartoonist’s holds analogs for the visual elements of the page." - Alexander Rothman, editor-in-chief of Ink Brick

“Comics poetry isn’t poetry as text with comics images; it’s the whole comic as poetry. The images, the words, the structure, the rhythm, the page, all of it is used together to create the poetry, to create comics in a poetic register." - Derik Badman

It's been immensely gratifying to see a long-running exercise that I have done with my drawing classes for all these many years get recast within an academic framework from a scholarly perspective. It's akin to that feeling of validation that I've been giving to my own students in turn: the place, the space and the time to make comics because it counts.
Here's some backlinks to previous posts on my own classroom project variation on "Vignettes," and sample demo pages: here, here, and here. And a few additional online resources about comic poetry here, here, here, and most importantly, here.

This year I had a few solo (ie independent) advanced students who spiraled out and orbited the class while getting right into the rhythm of their own individual publication. Their six weekly deadlines as outlined on the board above provided the rest of us with an opportunity to not only offer some additional insights and suggestions, but also afforded everybody (especially the advanced folks) the chance to see how well - or not - they can task themselves with producing such a focused output resulting in a finished product. It's an extension of the old 24 Hour comic - but extended with much higher stakes. Maintaining a disciplined and inexorable progress amidst all the other pressing duties is a skillset unto itself - life gets in the way.

A couple of other first-time advanced students had to also instead make their own individual comic books  but they had the option to just "simply" publish a 'zine that largely consisted of the required daily and weekly assignments ie basically follow along with everyone else. Check 'em all out:

Chaweinta Hale, Jacob Odom, Cydney Lybrand, Shayla Sackinger and Sydney Priest.

The incessant barrage of timed exercises begins to ratchet up right off the bat on day one, culminating with a five-second sketch. Somewhere along this continuum is a character and an emergent style. Style is what happens naturally when you're not paying attention - say like a signature for example.

Another interesting item of note that distinguished this session's group was the successful execution of an occasional add-on to the set of character sheets is the recasting of their characters into an opposite extreme of style. In other words they take their character, and if the drawing is complex with a lot of textural details, try instead redoing them as simplified, or the reverse. Experimenting with with a variety of rendering styles can often provide a valuable insight into an aspect that informs their personality.

A small sampling of excerpted panels from the strips critique... seeing the evolution of characters as they progress into longer narratives is such a cool aspect of this comics course. Almost as much fun as surreptitiously observing folks make funny face as in reflective mirroring as they channel the energy of the assignment on paper and in person.

By this time, the characters in context (in an environment with props) will show both personality traits of themselves and their respective creators - individual styles can be easily ascertained. This is one of the hallmarks of comics, and inherent in the descriptive power of the line itself.

As a counterpoint to the caricature exercise I make the drawing class do when introducing figure drawing and portraiture as well as their final critique assignment, I put the cartoonists through a similar process, but instead of charcoal on easels, we just simplify use copier paper, pencils + our omnipresent Sharpies.This exercise is purposefully nestled amidst the character development phase so as to hopefully provide more grist for the mill. Besides, we are our own single best source of inspiration and endless material to, eh, draw from.

 I always try and put out there an example for all to see of the endless parade of non-sequiturs, bisociations and random juxtapositions that fuel the mental Jacob's Ladder.

As of late there have been several friends and recent survivors to suicide who have been in my mind, which made me particularly keen to the tremendous loss currently rippling throughout the Fairbanks community. Half-way into these 2018 summer sessions classes, I had one particular friend in my thoughts, as I always do during the several times a semester that I take classes up to the top floor of the library. That’s where he shot himself six years ago. The next day a student jumped from the Gruening building, and it cast a heavy shadow over the next week.

On that somber note our editorial cartoon critique took place, and I had one exceptionally informed and aware student adapt the e e cumings poem "L(a." While I've had several students have meltdowns and start crying over the years, this is the first time I was hit hard enough to sit for a few minutes in my office.

Gradually over the years of teaching this course, I've collected and kept thousands of index cards with random doodles on them that students have whipped out in 60-seconds with their trusty Sharpies. Eventually, like a glacier accumulating enough critical mass to begin it's inexorable journey, all these individual flakes of funnies amass into my portable morgue of material. I like to keep this box of ready-made inspiration (think prompts) as a resource for struggling students.

The same goes for a massive stockpile of accompanying captions, ready for randomizing.

Jams are an excuse to introduce the secondary feature of funnies: that of learning how to generate vast amounts of material in a relatively short period of time so as to facilitate fast and faster gag reflexes. Sometimes all you really need is a few seconds to spit something out.

Here's a hilarious outtake from the end result, after all of our invested energy into exploring the potentials and possibilities by using the element of humor. Still, at it's core is the foundation of a good drawing, and all of the associated elements that constitute a successful cartoon.

Strips are where we begin to manipulate the very rules of time + space... through the conventional usage of closure, ie by means of employing panels + gutters. One subtle sign of sure success in surviving the ever-ascending succession of assignments is how well students remember to incorporate each little lesson in all the previous pieces. Applying what worked so well for a single panel translates in paying time + attention to detail to each individual panel within the context of a formal strip.

I'm never really sure as to whether or not take it entirely as a compliment to see myself manifested in the work of students. On the other hand, what the hell was this guy even doing sleeping? Got no time for that! That said, flattery will get you anything, or at least a gold star for effort.

The panels above are just selected excerpts of student works, which they each had to complete several 3-5 panel strips, inked on Bristol, for the third critique in our class. This also when we really get to see the characters stretch their legs, not necessarily always for comedic effect.

An exercise from one of my instructors back in the MFA days... this one dovetails with discussing the lessons from Eisner's instructional comics for the Army.

The challenge is to effectively render a concept clear enough to be understood through visuals alone. Studying the greats in pantomime comedy is a useful way to examine the range of expression possible in pure physical comedy, and serves an important lesson in how much meaning can be imparted with non-verbal means. Another example I like to bring up is how my father, who taught English, Latin and French, would use foreign language editions of Asterix as an educational tool. These were the very first comic I was ever exposed to as a youngster, and would learn to piece together the narrative through the pictures alone.

Resurrected the classic "Think Before You Ink" exercise as way to prime the proverbial pumps and begin pushing the boundaries of the form past our last threshold. What a world of possibilities in only five panels on one single page.

Selected excerpts from the collaborative page exercise. I frequently mull this unique aspect of the comic arts medium, especially while riding out an indulgent obsession (again) with a wave of mainstream comics (ie DC + Marvel). There were some inevitable disappointments along with the usual winning combinations, but just like creating in the kitchen, you don't stop eating on account of one bad dish do you?

We utilize hundreds and hundreds of index cards in many transitional exercises meant to drive home the singular importance of editing - so often overlooked and an absolutely critical aspect when playing the accordion of comics. As the narrative expands + contracts it retains it's essential form yet can produce an amazingly wide and different variety of notes, coalescing into altogether new stories.

After all the different variations on the minicomic theme that I've done both on the side and in the classroom, this is the latest to get incorporated as a stopgap between shifting from strip format to single-pagers.

While waiting for everything to get printed off in time for the final day release party, we collectively cranked out a spontaneous, collaborative 10-page comic
... starring Lucy Goosie, Reginald Featherbottom and Dr. Goat “Take a gander at what happens when the pharmacy across the road from the farm runs out of meds, and Lucy has an episode before migrating with her flock of personalities on the drunken doctor’s orders.”
Oh yeah, editor-in-chief fail with the typo on the freakin' title, which hilariously escaped the notice of everyone including me right up until scanning the pages for reformatting, converting to PDFs and sending off to the printers. Everyone is so damn fried by this point at the very end of the session I'm just ecstatic for the simple fact they still show up and can summon one last page.

There ultimately wound up being over ONE HUNDRED PAGES of comics up throughout the art department hallway showcases + hundreds of other sketches, drawings & doodles on display... representing only a fraction of the total output this class generated over this 6-week session. I was also a total meanie this year by holding everybody's work hostage at least until after the first couple of weeks had happened in the new Fall semester, so as to at least have examples of student work actually up on the walls when everybody shows up. 'Cause there's nothing sadder than an empty wall, much less in an art department of all places. And it indisputably drives home my meta-point on the holiest of trinities for any aspiring art talent: have your work on the web (establishing an on-line presence), on the wall (say for example originals in a gallery) and reproduced (ie in print like an illustration).


  1. Have you run across "My Giant Nerd Boyfriend" yet?

    1. I have - courtesy of my much more hip students who clue me in on what's happening.