Friday at Riverside Elementary

One of the things you learn when you're teaching is that, often, you get huge mileage in class out of things that are mostly just happy accidents.

Case in point...

...when I started the cartooning program in the middle schools, years ago, I wasn't really thinking about the kids being published or the books circulating or anything like that. I was just flailing around for some kind of a final project, a place for them to apply what we'd been talking about, and since the original pilot program was sponsored by a printshop I thought we should try and print something. And I remembered my own beginner efforts and thought, we should do some kind of an APA-zine. So we did. And once you have 'zines, well, you want them to get out and around. Which led to our arrangement with Zanadu Comics, and putting together a mailing list, and so on.

The other thing that I kind of backed into was reaching out to the -- well, call it the "wider comics community," because we've had help from both professionals and from fellow amateurs. To me that seemed like a no-brainer -- after all, so many people in comics lament how "we're losing the kids," well, here's a roomful of 'em you can get back. (I am still befuddled at the fact that I'm the only arts guy at school that does this. For example, I'd think the drama teacher would be reaching out to the local theatre community -- Seattle is a great theater town -- and so on and so forth. But apart from me, none of my colleagues teaching arts programs ever enlist the pros in town.)

I am astonished at what amazing dividends those two things -- which were not at all planned -- have paid off for us over the last decade. We've had extraordinary support, from as far away as London and Australia... and most recently, from New Brunswick in Canada.

It happened like this. Scott Tingley, the man behind Comics In The Classroom and a sometime commenter here at CSBG, also happens to be teaching a cartooning program at HIS school, Riverside Elementary in New Brunswick. He was intrigued with the autobiographical book my kids did and suggested we do an exchange. He'd get his 3rd graders to do a book for us and we'd do a book for them.

I thought that sounded like a fun idea and I put it up to the kids for them to vote on. (These are their books, after all; I'm just the coach.) Both the Aki and Madison classes voted overwhelmingly yes, and so we embarked on the Riverside Exchange Project.

I decided to do it as a single flip-book, so as to save paper and printing costs, and also to save arguments over which school got the honor of doing a front cover. This way we'd have two fronts and no back. Since we'd just finished the convention book, I decided against another autobiographical effort. Instead, what I told the students was, "Okay. What's your advice for a group of third-grade beginning cartoonists? Each of you gets one page. This is your chance to pass on what you've learned." That was all I gave them -- just the basic setup. I was curious to see what they'd do with it.

They did me proud. Here's what the Madison crew produced for the Doodle Inc. side of the book.

Pazuzu did the cover.

Page one is Gavin, whom you may recall from this column here.

You can't really tell from the page, but Gavin's a big Halo fan. He gets to lord it over his tablemates because he actually got to meet Eric Trautmann, who wrote the Halo sourcebook.

Page two is Allan.

He's Gavin's usual collaborator, and another one of mine that's obsessed with computer RPG's. (Just as an aside: All the girls got here through manga-- all the boys got here through computer games or movies. Marvel and DC aren't really entry points for my students.)

Page three is Nina.

Nina's starting to get really good but she tends to either A) overwork a page or B) rush through. I keep trying to help her find some sort of middle ground.

Page four is Andrew and Shane collaborating. Andrew is another gamer, he's very into Warhammer. Shane's more about the giant monster stuff, he loves Aliens and Predator and everything Toho Productions ever did. Shane was overjoyed to discover there are Godzilla comics and has been relentlessly tracking them down. He is also very excited to meet sometime Godzilla artist Herb Trimpe next month at The Emerald City Convention.

Note the helpful tips about collaboration. It tickles me that once every couple of years, the kids discover the studio system without any help from me.

Page five is Nash and Marcus, with Nash doing -- I think -- the inking.

And probably the concept. Nash loves him some bathroom jokes.

Page six is Caitlin. Caitlin is one of mine that wants to do manga but I rather like her own sort of scratchy impressionist thing that she is doing.

If she stays with it she's going to get really good, she has a remarkable learning curve. She is the newest of the kids in the book, I think, she joined second semester. This was only her first or second piece for us.

Page seven is Andrea, who was utterly stuck for an idea. She really prefers posters to sequential drawing.

When I said okay to a poster concept for her page, she was so relieved she almost passed out.

Pages eight and nine are Lindon. Teachers aren't supposed to have favorites but privately I will admit that Lindon has become one of mine over the last three years. I am terribly fond of her despite the fact that she's such a hellion; mostly because her prickly, discontented demeanor reminds me of when I was her age and no one GOT IT. This effort of hers got me all puddled up, really, because she is normally a smartass disciplinary nightmare.

The fact that Lindon took this so seriously, did an extra page, and genuinely tried to pass on what she thought was important (and what that actually turned out to be) says volumes about how much comics really mean to her.

Because God knows, there is very little else Lindon is serious about, including the rules. I did have to make her do an edit -- the original line was not "forget everybody else," it was "SCREW everybody else!" (Her language is normally so bad that she thought that WAS the cleaned-up version.)

Page ten is Tiffany.

Tiffany is the one that's been working on the epic Tamora Pierce adaptation; she is another three-year vet, and is getting to be quite a good artist as well, but really I think her heart is in prose. Tiffany's all about the writing.

Page eleven is Brandon. Brandon's coming from a whole OTHER place.

He just likes doing his own thing -- doesn't really seem to be influenced by games or manga or any of the drawing tips we do in class. His one concession to me was thickening up his figures to the spindly geometric shapes you see here; before that it was stick figures.

Page twelve is Pazuzu, who did the cover. She is another new kid that came in already this good to start with, all she wanted was a venue.

This page cracks me up because she listed "fashion" and "hairstyle" as being as important as all the other page components.

Page thirteen is Ian. Ian is never going to be a brilliant draftsman but he has an amazing grasp of how a page should WORK, his strips are models of clarity.

It's funny that he mentions me scolding kids because he is himself so soft-spoken and conscientious. He often collaborates with Gavin and Allan, though, and those two delinquents are rambunctious. ("Sleep Country" refers to a television commercial jingle running here that is incredibly annoying.)

Page fourteen is Kat, who would rather draw penguins than anything else, I think. Naturally, her page had penguins.

I warned her about visually differentiating the two and as you can see, she put pearls on the mother and added a helpful caption.

Page fifteen is Azia, another one who was at a loss for a strip idea. "An encouraging pin-up, at least," was kind of my default place to go for kids who complained about being stuck.

But she did at least come up with a cool lettering effect, taking the black ALMOST to the edge but not quite filling it in. It's actually a trick we stole from Alex Toth, if you've ever seen his page designs for the old Space Ghost cartoons -- he would ink in the black cowl that same way, almost to the edge but never filling it all the way in. Creates an illusion of depth. We've found it's an easy way to dress up a piece of block lettering. Also, Azia decided her hamsters should participate, so that's them extending their good wishes.

Page sixteen is Dasha. She and Pazuzu are the same age and often collaborate. Dasha's another that's more about the graphic impact than the storytelling, her real gift is design.

The challenge with Dasha is persuading her that thick background lines FLATTEN a drawing, and that the detail on her figures gets lost when she puts all the thick marker lines in the back. She is getting better about it though.

Page seventeen is Luke, who is very funny in print, though you almost never see it in person. He's built like a fullback, he's one of the biggest middle-school kids I've ever seen, but seems determined to remain nearly invisible. Luke rarely speaks above a mumble and never more than five words or so at a time.

He's another one that instinctively understands the mechanics of what we're doing but hasn't quite got the drawing chops; he's more of a writer. It's kids like Luke, subdued in person but hysterically funny in print, that make me wonder if anyone but me ever actually sees this side of them.

So that's the Madison side of the book. Flip it over and this is what awaits us on the Aki side.

Representing Sketch:

The cover is Lynn. Lynn works incredibly hard. She is very methodical; she does meticulous thumbnails, then very light pencil breakdowns, then finished pencils, then inks. One-two-three-four. Another quiet one whose antic sense of humor is all on the page, never in class.

Page one is a collaborative effort between Andre and Cheyanne. Basically Andre had got as far as the page pencils and then he got sick for two weeks, and I hate leaving out a kid when he works as hard as Andre did. But our deadline was looming so I asked Cheyanne if she wanted to ink it.

Since Cheyanne is not one to hide her light under a bushel, you can see that she really overpowered it and additionally, made sure she got a double credit. She's a bit of a diva. But the layout and original script is all Andre.

Page two is Carlos, using his character Spark-Man as a spokesman.

His candor tickles me, because I rarely hear him say this sort of thing out loud. Actually I had that reaction to a lot of the pages. This is all them, the only input I gave them was the original springboard, "Some advice for 3rd-grade cartoonists," and an exhortation to keep it clean. To see so many of them talking so sincerely about practice and perseverance does my heart good.

Page three is Luis, one of our newer 2nd-semester additions. He's coming along pretty well.

Luis is another kid that's soft-spoken to the point of being almost nonverbal. He has more words on this page than I've heard him speak in two months.

Page four is Edwin. A really sweet-natured kid, he's not really that good at drawing but by God he's killing himself trying to give me what I ask for.

Seriously, look at all the things he's trying to do here. He varies the weight of his ink line, he changes the point of view, he makes sure the figure is lit, he gives his panels a background and context. The fact that he's so conscientious about doing this -- and thus seeing actual improvement -- is really inspiring him, which is why I didn't get on his case about the sun being on the wrong side. (If you were wondering.)

Page five is Lynn. Lynn is very good but suffers from an ailment that affects many of my girl students -- she only really wants to draw cute manga girls in different poses.

Ask her for background, context, even other figures in her crowd scenes, and she's not interested. Note how everyone that's not her lead girl -- even just her girl from a distance -- is dismissed with stick figures. We're working on it.

Page six is Khalil, another one who got the "at least an encouraging pin-up" pep talk. He got more interested in it when I told him sure, he could include coffee and a donut.

Granted, I work better myself if I get coffee and a donut, but still, it struck me as a little odd for a 6th-grade kid.

Page seven is Erick. Erick almost quit after the first day when he froze up; he was ashamed of drawing badly. So I showed him a basic stick figure with an oval head and a triangle torso that he could do layouts with. He really took that and ran with it, though he got the idea a bit garbled -- as you can see, he's inverted the triangle.

But Erick's another one that is applying the basics and seeing improvement, and the kid's really turning into a factory now. His "Stick Man" stories are showing a remarkable learning curve. It stopped being just a dodge and started being an actual cartoon character for him with real drawing, as you can see. I am almost afraid to point this out to him for fear he'll freeze up again, though.

Page eight is Denny. Probably my most talented, and also my most problematic, student at Aki.

Denny's one of those brilliant-but-unmotivated slacker kids. He is a relentless perfectionist about his drawing -- when he really sits down to draw, his pencils have the meticulous look of a John Cassaday or a Murphy Anderson or someone, his shading looks almost like photorealism. But he hates to actually work and is a terrible procrastinator, and inking is very nearly beyond him. This was shot directly off the pencils. What tickled me was his amazing candor on the page about all this. I reiterate, the content is all them.

Page nine is Cheyanne's own entry. As you can see, she lunged at the opportunity to do some fan art, which is really her thing.

Cheyanne is another one I'm having to coax out of her comfort zone and persuade to do some real storytelling that's more than just shoujo glamor shots. We're getting there, though it irks her to have an art teacher that doesn't just applaud. I think actual "you-can-do-better" criticism is a new thing for her.

That's this year's crew and their words for Riverside.

Want to see what Riverside gave us? Check out their work here -- these are the pages the third-grade cartoonists sent us, their riff on the one-page-introduce-yourself assignment. (Scott outdid us -- the books his students sent us actually had five or six cover variants, and each were hand-colored. You can see photos of the books here.) I thought that was pretty cool, since his third-graders normally confine themselves to webcomics -- like these, posted here.

Scott's put together a press release about the program here. I'd urge all of you to check this stuff out, not just because it's awesome -- though it is -- but because I'm betting traffic stats showing lots of visitors will help keep the program healthy. We in-school cartoonists have to stick together; it's the least I can do, considering he accidentally led us into one of the best projects I think we've ever done.

See you next week.

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