Five ways to learn how to make comics your way

For a long time, there were limited options to become a professional comic book creator. Option 1 was to just figure it out yourself, with lots of mistakes along the way. Option 2 was to go to a proper school to study fine art, which usually meant discovering on your own how to co-opt what was being taught for your own comics purposes. Option 3 was to buy How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema.

But as the years have passed, more options have surfaced, reflecting the richer comics field that now exists. More colleges have courses or majors that specifically focus on comics, but if that's not a deep enough immersion, there are now a number of alternatives. Sure, you could still choose between those original three options, or you can consider one of these five venues of learning, each fitting different styles and budgets for all kinds of creators. After all, everyone learns differently.

1. The Kubert School

Originally named The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, The Kubert School was the first and remains the only accredited school in the United States devoted entirely to making comics. The three-year vocational college for cartooning and graphic art is located in Dover, New Jersey, about 45 minutes from New York City. Founded in 1976 by comics legend Joe Kubert (Sgt. Rock, Tarzan, Hawkman), it is now run by his sons Andy and Adam Kubert, who have had a string of hit comics at Marvel and DC.

The school's industry contacts run deep, and it claims a 100 percent job-placement record as of November 2009; turning students into job-ready professionals is part of its philosophy. It's mostly known for preparing artists for jobs in mainstream comics, but it's also led students to jobs in comic strips, animation, video games, greeting cards, advertising, graphic design, illustration and toy design. After graduation, students have landed jobs at Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, King Features Syndicate, Pixar, Walt Disney Studios, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Scholastic Books, Hasbro and more. The faculty, in addition to the Kubert brothers, includes working cartoonists like Jan Duursema, Tom Mandrake, Fernando Ruiz, Kim DeMulder and Darren Auck. Each class is limited to 25 students. Alumni include Eric Shanower, Alex Maleev, Dan Parent, Steve Lieber, Karl Kesel, Shane Davis, basically their entire faculty, and about every third artist you can probably think of who's ever contributed to one of Diamond's premier publishers.

So that's the good news. The bad news is that those amazing three years will set you back about $60,000 for tuition, plus another $20,000 if you want to live on campus. And then another $3,500 for art supplies and materials. Fortunately, because it's accredited, federal financial aid and scholarships can be applied toward tuition. There are also other ways to soak in some of their knowledge, like summer sessions and correspondence courses.

2. The Center for Cartoon Studies

If The Kubert School sounds a little too entrenched in corporate comics, you may instead be destined for The Center for Cartoon Studies. This is a one- or two-year program geared more toward the literary and alternative comix mold of self-publishing and creators as writers/artists or auteurs instead of one part of the production line. While not accredited, you do walk away with a certificate in cartooning, or you can get a masters in fine arts. CCS, which started in 2004, has a prestigious faculty as well, including co-founder James Sturm (The Golem's Mighty Swing), Stephen R. Bissette (Swamp Thing), Jason Lutes (Berlin) and Sarah Stewart Taylor (Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean). The second year is focused on a year-long thesis project, and the center has access to a phenomenal list of thesis advisers like Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Matt Bors, Chester Brown, Eddie Campbell, Evan Dorkin, Stan Sakai and Jeff Smith. There are also workshops, a fellowship program, and a summer cartoon club for kids, as well as access to the Schulz Library. The center has also published some highly praised work by faculty and alums under their CCS Studio imprint, such as Joe Lambert's Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. The school is located in bucolic White River Junction, Vermont, which is about two hours from Boston and four and a half hours from New York City.

If you do the full two years, tuition will set you back about $37,000 plus another $7,000 for housing at the neighboring dorm/hostel facility. Or $19,000 tuition and $3,500 for housing for just one year.

3. Comics Experience

This is 2014. Nobody actually goes to a physical location to do anything. If you prefer the freedom to pick and choose courses and the ability to  complete them all online, Comics Experience might be more your speed. This is probably more geared toward mainstream comics than the Kubert School. While there are courses that cover creator-owned work, the focus is in breaking into the established publishers like Marvel and DC.

Andy Schmidt, who was an editor at Marvel and senior editor at IDW Publishing, and also wrote The Insider's Guide to Creating Comics and Graphic Novels, started Comics Experience in 2007. Drawing from his many contacts in the industry, he's able to have special guests like Peter David, Garth Ennis, Robert Kirkman, Dwayne McDuffie, Chris Samnee, Dan Slott and others give seminars or sit in on courses, which are all done online. Weekly courses in writing and production (which includes lettering and editing), and art and coloring, are supplemented with access to online forums where you can interact with the teachers and other students to recieve feedback. Class sizes are limited and often sell out. Current faculty include Schmidt, Chuck Dixon, Reilly Brown, Chris Sotomayor, Dave Sharpe and Nicole Boose. You can also sign up for a series of workshops, seminars or hire a mentor.

Courses are priced at $500 to $600 each, with most courses generally running four to seven weeks. The workshop series costs $30 a month, or $150 for six months. The mentorship program runs $400 for three one-hour sessions.

4. MakingComics.com

Are you sick of everyone trying to make a buck off of your desire to learn? If you don't have thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars, then look toward MakingComics.com, a nonprofit resource that launched at the beginning of theyear. That's right, it's all free. Geared toward the new and aspiring creator who wants to write, draw and release her own comics, the site focuses on making comics, the distribution of comics, and comics theory. There are tutorials, tips, worksheets and activities. You can sign up for the daily mini-challenge email, a great way to spend 20 minutes warming up. It's meant to be open to all, and then shared and discussed through social media.

That social aspect probably makes it particularly natural for someone wanting to create a webcomic. There are podcasts, a massive open online class, and more in the works as they continue to ramp up. The site is run by Patrick Yurick (The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood), and also includes contributions from Jason Brubaker (reMIND) and Marisa Brenizer (Webcomic Underdogs), and also benefits from guests like Mark Waid, Jim Zub, Douglas Wolk, Colleen AF Venable, Eric Shanower, IDW CEO Ted Adams, comiXology executive Chip Mosher, Fantagraphics' Jen Vaughn and more. New content shows up each week on the website, and already there's a treasure trove to be found.

Oh, did I mention it's free?

5. Schoolhaus

The newest addition is so new, its Kickstarter ended just last night. Schoolhaus is a unique learning experience that sits just outside traditional academia. Geared more toward alternative and underground comix, it also embraces, commercial art, printmaking, zines and other visual arts like photography. In fact, while it doesn't explicitly say so, it seems that a person who practices almost any form of creative expression could be considered to participate.

Created and run by Zak Sally (Sammy the Mouse) and Dan Ibarra of Aesthetic Apparatus, the 12-week educational program focuses on discussion, review and collaboration in creating a finished product. Each student (although participants aren't referred to as students) receives a copy, and sales of the finished product help finance scholarships for the next round of participants. Their Kickstarter raised nearly $11,000, surpassing their $8,000 goal, which means that 10 participants will be going for free. Class size is limited to 20. As mentioned, collaboration is a big component to this, so working together in one location is crucial. Sessions are held in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Each 12-week program costs $2,000 but can be less depending on scholarships available. Also, their application is amazing.

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