First, to get this out of the way: I don’t like comics. Or at least I didn’t think I did. I definitely don’t like the cartoony aesthetic or formulaic narratives that I thought defined comics.
Then again: when I was a kid I loved the Sunday comics. I had a page-a-day Far Side calendar that never ceased to amuse me. In high school, after a particularly traumatic loss to the cross-town rival soccer team (I was the goalie and took it hard when I got scored upon), I stayed up drawing copies of comic characters late into the night: Charlie Brown, Garfield, Calvin, Hobbes.
Fast-forward a few decades, and this summer I was awarded a grant to work on a graphic narrative. How did I get here?
There are probably all sorts of grad-school, elitist, even gendered reasons why I decided I wouldn’t like graphic narratives, but I’m in the midst of discovering a form that has both been here along and that is also coming into its own, and it’s pretty exciting. I would say my gateway artist was Maira Kalman, an illustrator with a quirky style and a witty, beautiful voice that emerges in the short commentaries she pairs with her images. Here are a couple pages from her awesome Principles of Uncertainty:
Her work inspired me to create short graphic narratives from painted pages in my journal, and in my book, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, I created art and images to pair with the text.
More recently I discovered Poetry Comics, especially the strange and wonderful work of Bianca Stone:
Then I came across the dreamy work of Aiden Koch:
And it was as I tried to find out more about her work that I first found the Sequential Artists Workshop, known as SAW, where she had recently given a workshop. SAW was conceived, created, and is now fearlessly led by the amazing Tom Hart (author of Rosalie Lightning, which I’ll discuss in my next post). SAW is a small, unassuming space with a fully stocked library and terrific artistic energy. In the video below, Tom (on the left) calls it “bare bones” and a “work in progress,” but that’s exactly what makes it such an exciting and inspiring space. You can get a great sense of it in just the first few minutes of this online open house (which is good because you can get seasick from the live cam!):
SAW has a year-long workshop, but once or twice a year they do a low-res, week-long workshop, which is what I did in May of this year. I had never been to Gainesville, and I sort of fell in love with it. All the UF students were gone, and the town had great restaurants and outdoor seating, all within walking distance of SAW. There were just a handful of students in the workshop, so it was intimate and focused. There are three main faculty that teach, and each of them took a day or part of day for artist talks and instruction:
- Tom Hart gave an engrossing thematic overview of his work over the years and led us in some exercises including a scavenger hunt of images and texts from his library that we copy-and-pasted into our own mini-comic books.
- Justine Andersen gave us some real-talk about the life of an artist, shared her amazing portfolio, and gave instruction in inking (how to hold a brush, how to use the ink, how to make lines, even how to clean brushes).
- Jess Ruliffson shared her comic journalism projects and gave a lesson in working with gouache.
There was also time to work on our own projects, and I managed to finish the art on something I’d been thinking about and had roughly drafted: a story about an aquarium fish I had that would not die and that lived through several of my major life changes.
Since I’ve been home, I’ve been delving deeper by enrolling in a couple of SAW’s online workshops: Comics for Writers, Nonfiction Comics, Creating Your Graphic Memoir, etc. The online classes are organized well and offer short videos that walk you through excellent examples of whatever is being taught in each lesson. Every time I watch a video lesson, I add new books to my reading list.
Because the cost of the low-res workshop was so reasonable (<$400 for the week), we could afford to rent a great AirBnB house and were surrounded by Spanish Moss and a lake full of gators.
Thanks for reading. My next posts will be about the graphic memoirs I’m reading (and loving) and, if I’m feeling brave, about the graphic memoir I’m trying to create from scratch this summer.