Talking Comics with Tim: Nick Bertozzi

A few weeks back when I heard about Iraq War Stories, Nick Bertozzi's project with his School of Visual Arts Comic Book Storytelling Workshop students, I wanted to immediately interview him. Here's the advance write-up that caught my attention: "I’ve been teaching cartooning at The School of Visual Arts for a while now and this past year I asked the students in my Comic Book Storytelling Workshop to adapt stories that take place in Iraq during the War. Most of the students found stories from bloggers on the web, a few adapted stories told to them by friends, and one student, himself a veteran of the Iraq War, wrote and drew a story based on his own experience.

My good friend Dean Haspiel was wise enough to suggest that we put the stories up on the internet for all to see at the internet comics site that I’m part of, ACT-I-VATE.com.

The purpose of this anthology is not to wave a flag for or against the war—though some of the stories certainly have a political bent—instead, I asked the students to give me stories that would give the reader a sense of how the War has affected individuals, both American and Iraqi."

The anthology series will release its second installment this Sunday.

Tim O'Shea: The anthology series will feature 13 stories ultimately--selected from the Comic Book Storytelling Workshop, how many students in total submitted stories?

Nick Bertozzi: I'm waiting to hear back from two more students who are making very slight tweaks to their comics, so there may be 15 comics when we're all done.

O'Shea: Did the students help edit each other's stories--or did you serve as the editor? How much revision did the stories undergo?

Bertozzi: The students were an enormous help to one another. There's nothing like having someone else read your comic in front of you, mistakes and omissions are suddenly glaring. Having been edited myself many times, I would say that I asked for a heavy amount of revision from all the students. There were a couple of instances in which I had to ask for specific changes, but I prefer to teach by the socratic method, leading the students to solutions to storytelling problems.

O'Shea: These stories are for educational purposes only, as clarified on the announcement of the project. How hard do you think it will be for people not to react strongly to the stories--or are you expecting visceral reactions to the tales?

Bertozzi: When the subject is war, there's going to be readers on both sides and I welcome any and all constructive criticism. The students took the stories seriously and I hope that will come through on the page. To paraphrase my own press release, these stories are not about the countries that went to war, but what happens to the individual soldiers and people on the ground.

O'Shea: In preparing to work on the project, did the class study any war comics or artists?

Bertozzi: We read Harvey Kurtzman's Corpse on the Imjin from Two-Fisted War Tales and Bernie Krigstein's Master Race from Shocking SuspenStories in particular, among many other comics.

O'Shea: Is the first time you've gathered a collection of stories from a common assignment? If not, what other topics have your students covered in the past?

Bertozzi: For the '07-'08 school year, those students adapted O. Henry stories. You can see the results here.

And in prior years I've had students adapt stories by Haruki Murakami, Leo Tolstoy, Frederick Douglass, and Kate Chopin.

O'Shea: While you're the teacher, I was wondering if you've learned any storytelling lessons while teaching students in situations like this?

Bertozzi: Teaching forced me to present my ideas in a clearer fashion and there's no question that's made me a better storyteller.

O'Shea: Do you think the Iraq veteran who is in your class found the assignment to be cathartic on some level?

Bertozzi: Trent's story, The Day that Never Comes,  will be among the first batch to go online and I hope someone asks him directly. He was very open about his experiences and was the class ringer, correcting us on some of the little details, where the turrets were on a humvee, how many soldiers would go out on patrol, the little details that are hard to find even on line. O'Shea: There are a variety of perspectives offered in this anthology--how hard was it to stay objective and not get riled by certain people's opinion. Are you able to detach yourself when you're in the teacher mode?

Bertozzi: I asked up front for students to find stories that were personal and avoided cliché. That said, any artist working in this genre is going to have a hard time not sounding jingoistic to some readers. As for detachment, I'll try not to come off as too pretentious here, but I think stories are a useful way to get inside someone else's head and at least recognize the motivations of an opposite point of view. I would never try to get between an artist and their subject to impose my own values---I only want their stories, clearly-told.

O'Shea: Is there anything else you'd like to mention about the anthology?

Bertozzi:  I'd just like to mention that for many of these students, this is the first time that readers outside of class will be seeing their work and if you have an extra minute or two, let them know what you think via the comments section.

Tags: harvey kurtzman, nick bertozzi, war stories, bernie krigstein, act-i-vate, talking comics with tim, Iraq, O. Henry

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