Stumptown Comics Fest: Teaching Comics

Stumptown Comics Fest is a different kind of comics event: one that focuses on the creators, rather than the collectors.  Because of this self-promotion, it's a bit schizophrenic at times. Lots of people have come to sell their own work (and there are some real pearls in there), while panels present topics for both the creator and the reader.  Despite locking my keys in the car, I managed to attend some of the talks and also picked up some cool comics. The first panel I attended centered around teaching comics.

I'd heard about Brian Michael Bendis' stint teaching a course last fall at PSU on writing comics, and I was sorely intrigued to learn more at the "Teaching Comics" panel.  Add Dark Horse Comics editor Diana Schutz, Center for Cartoon Studies founder James Sturm, PNCA professor Trevor Dodge, PSU professor Katya Amato, and Ben Saunders, the curator of "Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Art of the Superhero" show at the University of Oregon last year, and you understand why I was urging my kids to run through the park to the Lloyd Center DoubleTree so we wouldn't miss the beginning of the talk.

Each panelist introduced themselves by explaining how they took up the clarion call to teach comics.  Moderator Schutz said that Will Eisner had been to a college in the Midwest that was teaching comics, and he was so inspired that he urged her to take a class so she could learn to teach comics theory.  Of course she couldn't say no to Eisner, so she now teaches part-time at PCC and PSU.

Sturm always wanted to be a cartoonist, and joined that with his love of DIY to create his own comics.  But, he felt he needed a day job, so he started his own cartooning school which has become very well known.

Katya Amato considers herself a newcomer to comics.  She has a background teaching art history and was previously a law editor.  But as students showed her new comic examples she she fell in love with this "new kind of literature." For a while she studied under her students until she felt she could bring the exploration of comics to class.

Saunders explained that he grew up in the UK where there were few distinctions of genres between superheroes, science fiction, romance and comedy comics. The stories were often mixed together in the marketplace and the comic magazines, and he hopes to continue breaking down distinctions in the US comic business. He feels that there are obvious advantages to creating an educated reader, one who can critique the comic rather than just reviewing it. He gave an example, "students think Ditko is a crappy artist, and it's my job to tell them why they're wrong!"

When Bendis went to the Cleveland Institute of Art he felt  the teachers didn't understand comics. He complained that every time he discussed comics one teacher kept referencing Andy Capp, and he eventually became frustrated with the academic experience. Years later when he was asked to guest teach he began working on creating the class he wished for when he was a student. Bendis claimed that many comics artists feel insecure about their skills and this results in an unwillingness to share secrets, leaving a gap in the knowledge base.  He taught his first full class at PSU last fall, and plans to teach again September, 2010.

This was a good segue into an explanation by Trevor Dodge how he came to teach comics.  Dodge, inspired by Bendis' work "Torso", approached him at a 2002 "meet and greet" and asked Bendis to guest teach a class on the story.  After the class Dodge realized how comics could be integrated into teaching, and pitched a syllabus to his department head called "Illuminating Manuscripts."  Since then his courses have become even more popular, peaking with an analysis of the graphic novel "The Watchmen." He hopes to stretch the criticism of comics into new areas other than just "I like comics."

After the introductions the panel fell into a Q & A session (for the sake of clarity I've condensed the responses by instructor).

Sturm: If you want to be a comic artist, then the best thing to do is to make comics. Focus on stories that have a beginning, middle and ending. Don't just write or draw -- follow through by producing a limited number of copies and distribute them to people. Learn by doing. Also, don't let people tell you "comics can influence your work but can't be your work."

Saunders: Comics are currently considered cool electives. Universities may cut the comic studies budget, but they'll always have Shakespeare because it's considered an essential. His dream is that someday schools will consider comic book studies to also be essential.

He mentions that we need change from within: Don't write your dissertation solely on comics. He says that 237 others applied for his position as a Shakespeare professor. A teacher who focuses solely on comics would not get that position. Practical skills are essential.

The "Superhero" show was the best attended show in 75 year of the Schnitzer museum. The University of Oregon noticed this, and now they're planning more comic art-centered shows.

Amato: Lynda Barry's book "What it Is" is a great reference book and starting point for a class. Amato & Dodge also both discussed class issues. Many people don't read anything at all, and reading comics is a distinct minority of readers. Why? People who have to work all the time might be "too tired" to read. Also, when there's free time to read it's usually a focus on fantasy rather than heavy philosophical issues. But, this leaves a niche for comic writers.

Bendis: Comics have to be taught within the context. He includes the documentary "Masters of the Comic Book Art" with Harlan Ellison and also the film "Wonder Boys" based on the book by Michael Chabon. A rule of thumb is to not teach too much of your own stuff. Bendis had instructor approval over all his students to weed out the "fan boys" and focus on writers who could benefit most from the course. The class was nearly all writers, and some of them fretted over the class project: each person creates and produces a 22 page comic. For the most part students surprised themselves and came up with good results.

Dodge: Currently the term "graphic novel" is mostly a marketing gimmick. But there are novel comics. Why do sentences and paragraphs have to be the province of big ideas? We have outstanding artists and thinkers in comics: Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns and Scott McCloud to name a few. The problem is that comics lack a fine art vocabulary. Teaching comics will help define that vocabulary.

There was an interchange between Bendis and Saunders. Saunders threw out the idea that Tony Stark was metaphorically a robot before he became Iron Man; mechanically having sex and boozing it up without any soul. He puts on the suit to become human: fighting for justice, working toward a common good. Bendis was intrigued by this idea and tossed out that he might use it in a future story. They briefly dickered over whether the idea was worth a footnote or a cameo for Saunders (Bendis promised a background cameo).

The panel wrapped up with a general discussion on funding comic courses at the university level. Ohio State has a well-funded comic studies program, and part of this may be because Milt Caniff donated his originals to the foundation there. Also mentioned is the Gardner Fox collection at University of Oregon, and the Mike Richardson / Dark Horse collection at Portland State University. Mark Wolfman is also thinking of donating his comic collection to create a "comic chair."

Another way of garnering funding for chairs is to directly approach the people with cash to donate. While artists, schools and even publishers might not have much money, there are definitely some high visibility people who do: names like Nicholas Cage, Bill Gates, and others.  One panelist points out: "Scratch a millionaire & you'll find a geek."
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Boody Roundup

As a roundup to my other posts ("Babe and the Dying King", "Wedding Bells", "Slide, Babe Slide", and my review of Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers) I wanted to point out some other resources on Boody Rogers.

Wikipedia has a good succinct entry, the key points being:
During the 1930s, Rogers illustrated cowboy comics for Dell Comics and DC Comics...Sparky Watts began in Big Shot #14 (June, 1941), and the character starred in four issues of his own comic for Columbia, beginning November, 1942.
Back from WWII, Rogers returned to syndication in 1946 with McNaught, and he drew new six-page stories for Big Shot, plus in 1947, he created another six issues for Sparky's own title. Rogers also illustrated Babe and Dudley for Quality Comics' Feature Comics.
Rogers retired from comics in 1952 and began operating a pair of art supply stores in Arizona.

If you want to read more Babe comics, you can find an extended story from Babe #7 here, and part 2 here. In part 1 Babe hatches a 3-legged caveman from a gigantic egg and he eventually becomes her (boy)friend, Tripod. In part 2 Dr. Woeman invents a formula called "WomanMinusWo" that will do away with all women on Earth by turning them into men, and Babe is unlucky enough to drink it, turning her into a hunk of a man. Finally, part 3 resolves the story, but it's so convoluted you'll have to read it yourself.

Pappy's Golden Age Comics has an example of Boody's response to Archie, Dudley #1 from 1949. Dudley only lasted three issues, leaving Archie as the teenage comic king. Or, maybe Boody's readers just preferred Sparky Watts or Babe.

Pappy's is a great resource for readers of golden age comics. Here's a scan of Sparky Watts #6. In this story Sparky Watts accidentally rockets to the arctic, creates global warming, then shrinks to bug size, finding the world of Hubba Hubba, which is also how Sparky reacts when he sees the female inhabitants of the land.

And here's the cover of Big Shot #87, which contains the story of Hattie getting married included in "The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers".

A great reference book is Comics: Between the Panels by Steve Duin and founder of Dark Horse Comics Mike Richardson, but surprisingly Boody wasn't mentioned at all. So, most of my material came from the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide and original copies of the comics.

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Babe #3 - Slide, Babe, Slide (1948)

Although he was creating comics before World War II, the years immediately following WWII were very productive for Gordon "Boody" Rogers. It was as if he felt a need to make up for the missed time when he was away from the comics world.

Big Shot Comics, published by Columbia Comic Corp., came out monthly from May 1940 through August 1949. The first appearance of Sparky Watts is issue #14 in 1941, and Boody drew it until 1944 (#42) when he left to fight in WWII. After the war he resumed drawing and writing Sparky Watts from 1947 (#77) through the last issue of Big Shot Comics (#104). The Big Shot strips usually ran four or five pages.

In addition to Big Shot, Babe, a bi-monthly, was entirely written and drawn by Boody from issue #1 in 1948 through #11 in 1950. He also worked on the very occasional Sparky Watts comic, which started in 1942 and ended 10 issues later in 1949, #6-10 drawn between 1947 and 1949.

If you do the math it means Boody was turning out 30+ pages of comics per month in 1948!

In "Slide, Babe, Slide!", the concluding story in Babe #3, Mr. Teapot rushes Babe in her wedding gown to the World Series between the Brookdale Blue Sox and the New York Hanks. In Babe #1 he enlisted her as a pitcher for the Blue Sox. From the airport Babe tucks Mr. Teapot under her arm and runs through a city that doesn't really look like New York, but it's still entertaining. Arriving at the stadium it's the first of the ninth, two strikes on the batter and the bases are loaded. The Hanks' coach protests Babe's appearance, so she agrees to pitch with her arm tied down (is there a touch of bondage here?).

Babe pitches and strikes the whole team out. Then, when it's her turn to bat... well, just read it.
Here are the other stories from Babe #3, "Wedding Bells" and "Babe and the Dying King"
Here's my review of Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers.

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Comics Cartography

Half-Man | Half-Static has collected some cool examples of comics cutaway drawings.

I love this kind of stuff, and when I was a kid I'd pore over the diagram of the Baxter Building, imagining what my room would be like if I were part of the Fantastic Four.  Of course it would need a secret passageway to the Pogo Plane hangar. I'm sure I spent tens of hours drawing similar layouts for my own secret hideout.

You can see more here.  Meanwhile, here's a map of Riverdale from an old Lil' Archie story by Bob Bolling.

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Babe #3 - Wedding Bells (1948)

Continuing with Boody Rogers' stories from Babe #3 from 1948, "The Mysterious Case of the Dented Cuspidor ~or~ Wedding Bells" (starring Babe and Lippy Hootnholler) starts five hundred miles after the "Dying King" ended. Babe arrives home with Pappy under her arm is as limp as "a ol' dirty dishrag." Luckily Mammy has a fresh batch of Lightnin' Juice brewing and Babe takes a small drink to charge up. Meanwhile Babe's promised husband, Lippy Hootnholler ("--gag gag--"), is getting fed up with trying to cut down a tree with a rubber axe. She takes pity on him, and tells him about the rubber axe. Lippy decides to get a new axe, and they agree they'll be married "--gag gag--" once Lippy has built a cabin.

Returning to the cabin Babe finds Mammy exploring King Phillip's royal jewel box. There are a lot of "purty pieces of colored glass," and a solid gold cuspidor. Pappy believes a cuspidor is a hat, so he swaps it for his own. Just then the Lightnin' Juice is hot enough for Babe to finish the batch, which she does. She bursts out the door and across the forest, accidentally knocking down enough trees for Lippy to build his cabin.

As the family commences the nuptials Mr. Teapot arrives to rush Babe to Brookdale so she can play in the World Series the next day ("We've go to beat those New York Hanks!"). Lippy won't let her play, so Mr. Teapot decides to do something about it. They convince Lippy to wear Pappy's new hat, but first it has to be hung up by the door. Mr. Teapot nails it to the cabin, and when Lippy retrieves it he knocks the whole structure to the ground. Accordingly "th' code of th' hills say, 'No cabin, no wife.'" Thus, Mr. Teapot and Babe head for the World Series.

Read part one and part two of "Babe and the Dying King" here and here.
Here's my review of Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers.


Babe #3 - Babe and the Dying King - Part 2 (1948)

In the 2nd part of "Babe and the Dying King" the vassals find Babe and declare: "Long live the Queen-- at least until we can get her plasma." They ask babe to give her plasma to help save King Phillip. She's uncertain whether she has any royal plasma, but goes anyway. "Pappy an' me is goin' t' th' city -- a man is sick and needs my help!"

The innocent Babe doesn't understand they need every drop of her blood, but she tries to warn them that Lightnin' Juice flows in her blood, and King Baggypants is liable to hit the ceiling when he gets it.

The image I remember most from this whole comics is where Babe turns pale white and dies as the last of her blood is transferred to King Phillip. As the Lightnin' Juice spiked blood hits his veins he leaps into the air, smiles, kicks his heels together and collapses, dead of a broken neck.

Unfortunately since the king left no heir, the vassals decide to revive his nearest blood relative: Babe (they had the same blood running in their veins). They transfuse some of Pappy's blood into Babe and in the King's honor they bestow the royal jewels, and treasury of Boomania at Babe's disposal. But, all Babe can think of is her mammy's fried rabbit, so she picks up Pappy and walks the 500 miles home.

Read Part One here and the next story here.


Babe #3 - Babe and the Dying King - Part 1 (1948)

After reviewing "Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers" I wanted to represent an entire Babe comic book so you can get the feel of the continuing story line. The rhythm of the stories is just as interesting as the art, and Boody strings together episodic stories that are linked, but not tightly bound (much like the cover of my copy! lol). I chose Babe #3 from 1948.

The first story is called "Babe and the Dying King," and it has a theme that oddly resonates with Easter. King Phillip Baggypants the 9th king of Boomania and High Sultan of the Lowlands (also supreme drip of Faucetville and mighty monarch of all that grows, turns green or rusts) has been brought to America for treatment of a fatal disease called Royal Purple Lonesome Corpuscle. This is a blood disease that only affects people of royal birth and only a complete transfusion from another royal ruler will save him.
King: "You mean the person must give me all his life's fluid?"
Vassal: "That is correct -- he must die for you to live"
Meanwhile, in Babe's peaceful little valley in the Ozarks they're having a "hawg-callin' contest."

Babe's powerful lungs win her the title "Queen of th' Hawgs," and she even gets her "pitcher" in the "big city papers". At this point the king's regents discover "Queen Babe Boone" and approach her for help.

Read Part Two here
Here's my review of Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers.