SCAD Atlanta Comics Arts Forum Report

Back on October 23-25, the Sequential Art Department at the Atlanta campus of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD Atlanta) hosted a comics art forum with Sean Murphy (2003 SCAD Savannah graduate and artist on the upcoming Grant Morrison-written Joe the Barbarian for Vertigo) and Matthew Bernier (School of Visual Arts in Manhattan graduate and currently at work on a book for First Second). Since I'm a Georgia-based member of the Robot 6 crew, Chris Schweizer, a SCAD Atlanta professor and creator of Crogan's Vengeance, invited me to the forum.

According to Shawn Crystal, SCAD Professor (as well as one of the artists on last month's Deadpool 900 [Marvel]), SCAD's Comics Art Forum tradition started in Savannah years ago. Crystal selects the guests that are invited to the forum. "Every year, when I pick guests, I look to pick progressive/passionate artists. Artists who are doing new and exciting things, helping to move the medium forward," he said. "Our Atlanta Faculty throw names around until we settle on the best choice for that year."

Schweizer echoed Crystal's thinking. "When we arrange these events, we try hard to pick guests whose work (and approaches to their work) varies from ours, because it opens our eyes to new ideas, and it does the same for our students," he said.

According to Nolan Woodard, another of the SCAD Atlanta professors (and who also took the photos included in this article), there is a variety of lessons that the students take away from these forums. "They always walk away in awe of some aspect our guests bring whether it be tangible, like a technique or tool, or otherwise," he said. "However, the one [lesson] I personally hope they take away is that evolution doesn't stop for any successful artist. Our guests were once in their shoes but they worked hard, focused, and prevailed. They all bring stories of how they've grown and the investment of time and energy they've made to see this happen is inspiring and informative. It shows our students that their own work won't be done just because they wear a cap and gown and received a piece of paper. This is just the beginning of a larger trek where they'll continue to evolve and learn. As professors, we simply try to help them off on the right foot."

The students clearly get a great deal of insight from the forums, as evidenced by the comments from grad student Pat Bollin (who was recently tapped to draw an unannounced graphic novel for Oni). "Every forum I've been to at SCAD in the 2 years I've been in grad school have been amazing," he said. "I've learned something new or gotten some piece of info or inspiration that filled in a missing puzzle piece in my own process. Not to mention geeking out over all the top talent that comes here to give lectures and review portfolios. My expectations for this particular forum were to get more of the same. Also, I've been working on breaking new ground in my inking technique, and was hoping to learn something new from Sean Murphy who is one of a few artists that inspired me to move in the direction I'm currently heading."

The Comic Arts Forum is just one part of SCAD's effort to provide practical industry advice to its students. According to Crystal, SCAD also hosts:-- The Atlanta Publishers Forum, where editors and publishers come in to educate students on the industry they are seeking to join.-- The Atlanta Writers workshop, along the lines of the Comic Arts Forum, but with writers-- A variety of single guest events (In fact, the week after the Comics Arts Forum, Laura Martin conducted a one-day color workshop for SCAD Atlanta)

The SCAD Atlanta sequential art program has a total of around 50 students.(around 6 Grad students and 44 Undergrad students).

Murphy and Bernier opened the weekend-long forum with a Friday night discussion of their respective careers to date.

In Murphy's opening presentation, he shared a variety of projects that he had worked on, being sure to point out that while some projects never were published, the work led to other projects or opportunities. After the forum, I sought additional insight from Murphy and got him to elaborate on this particular point. "Being a freelancer means a lot of odd jobs and career fluctuations," Murphy said. "Some gigs can seem like a nightmare and can blow up in your face. Instead of getting upset at those gigs, I try my best to flip the situation to some sort of advantage. Sure, I might not have been paid for this or that, but at least I have more work experience and something new to put into my portfolio for future clients"

"Over the years I've tried to stay positive and to continue planting seeds that might bear no fruit at all, " he added. "But once in a while, just when you've forgotten about a certain seed, it'll start bearing fruit. And suddenly you can pay bills again. I've had job offers from clients that have come from left field. And I'll go, 'I'd love to work on your project, but I have to ask: how the HELL did you hear about me?' I get the weirdest answers sometimes."

On Saturday, the morning was spent with both artists presenting workshops on technique, followed by an afternoon of portfolio reviews. With Murphy, he showed the students a number of methods he employs to attain certain effects and elements on his pages. One warm-up exercise he shared with the students was exploring the lights and darks of a portrait (working from a black and white photo of Clint Eastwood). He also revealed a variety of storytelling devices to the students, many too complex and visual for me to capture while observing his session.

"There are usually a handful of points that I try to make when I teach," Murphy shared. While this was his first time lecturing at SCAD Atlanta, he lectures at the Kubert School on an annual basis. In his lectures, he aims to convey "stuff like ALWAYS KEEP PRACTICING, LEARN HOW TO WRITE, GO OUT AND MEET OTHER ARTISTS BECAUSE WE ALL NEED SUPPORT, DON'T GO BACK HOME AND LIVE WITH YOUR MOM, MOVE TO A CITY, FOLLOW UP ON YOUR CONTACTS, LEARN WHAT A WRITE-OFF IS, etc..."

In addition to sharing his perspective, Murphy clearly gained a larger perspective from the students. He noted that "it's been more interesting lately because I've been getting something else from people at shows: they love drawing and storytelling, but they don't like most comics. And they're worried about surviving and paying bills. And they're also worried that they won't find a place for themselves in an industry built on superheroes."

Murphy is unsure why he attracts people with opinions along those lines. "I'm told it's because I'm somehow skirting the line between indy and mainstream," he conceded. "And I don't always know how to respond. But I try my best to tell them that I understand their concerns and that I live it everyday. And even though we're all going to fall into darker moments of self-doubt and depression from time to time, there are ways of preparing for a more stable career where you can write what you want and pay your bills by being a one-man show. That way you're not reliant on men in tights."

For Bernier this was his first opportunity to present live versions of lessons from his blog, Comic Tools. For the first day, Bernier focused his workshop upon habits (stripping you of bad habits; how to execute dark hair on a dark background; effective scanning; and building the ideal word balloon) and "tools that you may not be aware of", according to the artist. On the second day, Bernier conducted a workshop on anatomy in cartooning.

If the number of students' comments and follow-up questions (there were many) is a gauge of the effectiveness of Bernier's workshops, it's safe to say he was quite successful. Asked to share his expectations going in versus how effectively he thought he presented, Bernier confided: "I mainly hoped not to vomit on my feet or be met with sighs and rolling eyes, so yes. I'm not being nearly as glib as I sound when I say that. I think I can tweak it and do things better next time, make it more involving and interactive, but overall the students all liked it and told me so, which is fantastic. I want to do it again."

Both artists also were able to glean lessons from each other, as well as learning from the SCAD Atlanta faculty and students. "It was interesting hearing Sean (Murphy) talk to Shawn (Crystal) about their jobs, because the sort of business they have to deal with is so different from mine," said Bernier. "I'm very much from a self-publish first and MAYBE get a publisher later model, and they're from a work for hire and MAYBE get a publisher for a personal project model. The more I learn about the other world the more thankful I am for the one I work in. I learned some tool tricks from the students while giving one of my lectures, and I learned new things about scanning and coloring from Nolan ([Woodard] The faculty member who teaches coloring.) I plan on drawing from Nolan's knowledge base a LOT for Comic Tools in the future."

According to Murphy, Bernier "taught me a lot about the growing interest in comics coming from book publishers. Usually I'm used to dealing with comic book publishers--whole different game. The possibility of having more places to take OGNs makes our future look brighter." In terms what the students offered Murphy, he said "I got a lot of questions that made me think about aspects of my own art that I hadn't considered. Spending a lot of time alone in a studio means that an artist runs the risk of becoming the king of his own little kingdom, but by describing your processes to other people you're forced to hear yourself out loud. It helps me to either reinforce my ideas or discard them for being frivolous, weird, or narcissistic."

The students and visiting artists were not the only one's learning, so were the faculty. "I always leave these events questioning my work...what's working, why, what's not working, why, etc, " said Crystal. "Sean really cleared up some of the questions i had in my head, about the role of black, white, and grey in my inked work. Matt opened my eyes to the new frontier of comic book publishing, and the opportunities that lie for the next generations. Opportunities that didn't exist when I was coming up."

"Being an artist is synonymous with being a student of life so, no matter what label this world calls you by, everything is a learning experience," said Woodard. "In our department we try to instill this philosophy of learning with our students and promote the exchange of ideas and concepts to further their growth as artists and, hopefully, people. Our events simply bring this to the immediate surface but it's always there. Regardless of whether our guests work in independent or mainstream publication, the myriad of experiences they share enrich anyone with an open mind. Often, I personally find myself coming away from our forums energized and excited about the medium all over again!"

"While there were a lot of things that I felt will benefit me as both an artist and a teacher – Matt’s simplified anatomy workshop, Sean’s career breakdown – what interested me most was Matt’s approach to collaboration," said Schweizer.

"I work solo about 95% of the time, mostly because I feel that the way that comics collaborations are executed is an inherently flawed process," he said. "It’s a steady source of debate and discussion here, and my stance is that the artist should be the interpreter of how the story is told."

"I think that comics would benefit greatly from using more of a screenwriter/director approach to the writer/artist breakdowns, with no panel descriptions, only a notation of what needs to be seen," Schweizer said. "HOW it should be seen should, in my view, be left to the artist (I’m operating under the assumption that the artist is a competent visual storyteller; if he or she isn’t, the he or she shouldn’t be getting comics work). This is ESPECIALLY true in cases in which a predetermined page count is not a factor, such as webcomics or graphic novels, but even in the case of a monthly floppy an artist should be able to determine appropriate pacing for page count."

"To find out that Matt is actively working within this collaborative approach was exciting – it’s one thing to have a theory, another to see it play out in the real world," he concluded. "Picking his brain about his collaborative process was very fulfilling."

Most of Saturday afternoon was devoted to portfolio reviews by Murphy and Bernier. "I was impressed by the amount of students who had a strong hold on storytelling--something often described in comics but something we don't see a whole lot of at the professional level," said Murphy. "The other thing I noticed was that no one was drawing in a DC/Marvel house style. There are a few major hubs where comic book artists are being groomed in the US, and this hub was by far the most impressive in terms of drawing ability, style and portfolios. If these students are the future of comics in the US, then I don't know who's going to be drawing house styles in the next 20 years. And that struck me as a very interesting clue about a future where American, European, South American, manga, etc will all be competing in the same digital, downloadable coliseum."

Bernier, who seemed equally impressed with the portfolios, was pleased to have been helpful to one student in particular: "I totally gave someone an epiphany moment in a portfolio review. Doesn't get better than that."

But at the end of the experience, understandably the students most benefited from the forum and get the last word on the experience. "This time out Sean Murphy talked to us about using a brush and nib in a loose and economic way to produce comic pages with more life to them," said SCAD Grad Student Bollin. "It seemed like magic when he demoed his own technique. I went home immediately and rediscovered the use of Brush and Nib in my work, and finished a tryout for Oni Press using some of his advice."

Wonder Woman feature Jenny Frison
Wonder Woman Is Humbled Before a More Powerful Wonder-Woman... From China

More in Comics