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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