Two Saturday Student Outings

A good time was had by all.

Last weekend was the finale of the Seattle Public Library's third annual Comixtravaganza, a month-long series of events and workshops with an indie, alt-comics focus. It's all put together by the downtown library's made-of-awesome Teen Services librarians, Hayden Bass and Jennifer Bisson.

I've always encouraged my cartooning students to participate in previous years, and those experiences are documented here and here. This year it appeared things were scaled back a bit, and Hayden told me, somewhat regretfully, that they were a little jammed for space so I wasn't asked to set up a table this year.

Which was actually kind of nice, since that meant that I could simply attend the event and enjoy myself. That is something of a rarity for me when we do these school field-trip things, and it was a real treat.

In addition to Julie and myself, we also had Katrina, a cartooning graduate who has now come back to work for me as a student aide, and our friend Carla and her son Phenix. At first I'd thought we were going to be it -- even though I had pushed the finale hard in class for the entire month leading up to the event, I'd had pretty apathetic student response. So I was delighted to see that Tino, a Madison 6th-grader new to Cartooning this year, had decided to come with his grandmother.

The first part of the day was a workshop on page layout by Greg Stump and David Lasky, who collaborated on Urban Hipster.

Greg Stump I had never met, but David I knew from previous comics events and it was nice to see him again. I see his work showing up every so often in our local alt-weekly paper, The Stranger, and it always makes me smile.

The workshop itself was completely awesome and I am stealing a lot of this stuff for my own classes. First the guys led the kids through basic caricature -- how you can build pretty much any kind of cartoon figure you want through circles, squares, triangles, curved lines and straight ones.

They had everyone design their own character and the kids dug in with gusto. Here you can see Katrina and Tino leaning into it.

Then they talked about how to pace and lay out a page. For this, they used an exercise that I am totally stealing for MY next workshop.

First, Greg and David solicited suggestions from the audience for a situation to occur to their sample character. Then, a conflict, an escalation, followed by a complication or a twist, followed by a resolution. This list they then wrote on the board as a series of numbered points.

The list was:

1. A cat enters a wrestling ring. 2. His opponent is -- his own father!3. The cat bites off his father's ear.4. Father retaliates in kind. 5. The hand of God comes down to admonish them.6. ...and the cat wakes up and it's all been a dream.

The end.

Then -- and this is the part that is awesome -- on the board, side by side, Greg and David each did their own page layout based on this simple script, so you could see two different artistic sensibilities at work.

This was really an amazing process to watch and I'm extremely bitter that I wasn't able to get better shots of it all.

The reason I loved it so much is hard to explain, but I'll try. One of the hardest things to get across to my students, the thing that they probably struggle with more than anything else, is the idea that comics isn't really about drawing. It's about storytelling and choices.

How do you decide which moment to draw in a panel? How do you decide what to emphasize in that frozen moment once you've chosen to draw it?

And here was a way to bring that home in a demonstration, in a way that was fun and entertaining and that involved and engaged the audience.

I am so sorry that I wasn't able to get better pictures of this, especially David's final version. Because this pointed up not only the differences between them but also why they're such strong collaborators -- Greg's take was written funnier and overall just had a denser approach to the content, whereas David's was far more open and visually striking and had funnier sight gags. One was a writer's strip and the other was an artist's. It really was the hell of a demonstration and I know everyone got a lot out of it.

Certainly, it fired up the audience. Even Carla decided to take a swing at a strip of her own.

And five-year-old Phenix was unstoppable. He churned out three or four strips starring a demon fighting a robot, narrating it all the while. "And then the demon punches him and he blows up! Because he's bad!" Then he added gleefully, "Say hello to my little friend!!" which brought the house down.

(Carla is always horrified when Phenix says that in front of people, because it makes everyone think that she lets her five-year-old son watch R-rated movies like Scarface. The truth is that Phenix is actually quoting the genetically-enhanced mobster gorilla, Spanky, from the pilot for The Middleman. Which I screened for him. So it's really my fault. I suppose I should feel guilty but the truth is that it cracks me up every time, which encourages Phenix. I'm afraid I can't feel guilty about that either. I'm going to Hell, I'm sure.)

But Phenix was having a great day anyway. He loves comics and cartoons, and he has also been learning to read. So there was a great deal of pointing at words and sounding them out going on that afternoon, and you couldn't have asked for a more supportive group of people to be surrounding him as he was doing it. I think even Jennifer and Hayden got in on helping Phenix read a hard word at one point or another, despite being as busy and frazzled as one might expect the coordinators of a citywide event to be.

The workshop was definitely the high point for us. I even persuaded David to contribute a drawing to the student scrapbook I keep, something I've been meaning to ask him for a couple of years now.

That self-portrait depicts the actual shirt he was wearing, by the way. I felt that odd fan mixture of shame and smugness at knowing instantly what it was from -- the bulls-eye in the O is impossible to mistake. It's one of the sound effects from the Adam West Batman television show.

The shirt itself is apparently available from local coffee shop Kapow! Espresso. We all wanted one.

Tino and his grandmother didn't stay for Peter Bagge's talk, but the rest of us filed into the auditorium to hear it.

We enjoyed it a great deal, but the truth is that we made it a point to get front-row seats because I was still too crippled and sore from moving the printshop the day before to even think about trying to climb the steps. Yeah, I'll admit it.

But it did give Phenix a chance to spread out on the floor. He alternated between drawing and reading one of the student 'zines I'd brought along.

(I always tell my students that their books really do have an audience, but I don't think they believe me. I wish more of them had been there that day, because the pile I had with me went smoking out of my hands as soon as the teen volunteers saw it. I am assured by Jennifer and Hayden that the books are among the more popular items in the library's 'zine collection.)

Anyway, Phenix was occupied with the zine, and the rest of us were fascinated by Peter Bagge's talk.

It was essentially a slideshow and career retrospective, talking about the origin of various pieces and the occasional fallout from the audience reaction to them. I won't attempt to reproduce it here, but he was a very engaging and funny speaker, and I'm always interested in hearing about an artist's creative process. Each slide he showed had an anecdote to go with it.

Bagge talked about how he'd decided to call his new comic Hate because his previous effort Neat Stuff was often mistaken for a kid's comic, how caricaturing musicians in the early 90s got him labeled the "grunge cartoonist" (a label that persists to this day, he says) and other things like that. It was a lot of fun.

There was a book signing afterwards, but we decided not to stay for that -- the kids weren't interested and I was still kind of a wreck from the previous day's move, so we called it a day. But despite the low student turnout, I'm still filing it in the Win column.


That was last Saturday. This Saturday, a few hours ago, we had another sort of Cartooning class event that I thought was pretty damn cool.

The Seattle Department of Neighborhoods does this thing every year in February called Neighbor Appreciation Day. It's a series of events all over the city designed to promote, well, neighborliness.

How did my class factor into this? Well, a few weeks ago at the Alki Art Studio, Sarah handed me a flyer and suggested I might want to mention to my students that the Department of Neighborhoods was holding their annual contest among Seattle schools to find a design for the Neighbor Day greeting cards.

I always pass along stuff like that to the cartooning students, especially if there's some kind of prize involved. And so far, every time I've done that, one of the kids has won or placed in the competition. Brianna did the winning design for the Alki Art Fair T-shirts a few years ago, last year Veronica won the contest for designing the logo for the South Seattle Crime Prevention Association... and so on.

For this competition there were over 125 entries. Twelve were chosen as winners. Of those twelve, three were from my classes.

Rahel, Marie, and Lynn. (Technically Lynn's not in my class any more, she's my high school volunteer TA at Aki this year -- but the contest was open to students K through twelve and she wanted to take a shot.)

That's three winners, out of the four kids of mine that entered. (I still feel Emma was robbed, but never mind. I'm probably biased.)

Anyway, today's event was the awards ceremony at Dunlap Elementary to honor the winners. Julie and I were there with bells on. Sadly, Rahel couldn't make it, but Marie came with her dad, and Lynn brought her parents.

It actually was quite a shindig. Catered lunch and cake, and photo ops with the mayor and other city officials.

But for us it was all about seeing the kids shine. It was held in the Dunlap Elementary School library, which meant that Marie immediately settled in with the first book that caught her eye.

And Lynn was delighted to discover that there were paper tablecloths that attendees were encouraged to draw on.

Lynn's pretty easy to please. All she ever needs to be happy is to be allowed to draw.

As for Julie and me, well, we were talking the kids up to the various parents and city officials, all of whom were impressed at hearing how the Cartooning program was "integrated into the community" (that's cityspeak for "We circulate the zines and go to shows") and I even got to make The Speech to the girls' parents, a city councilman, and the Department of Neighborhoods' Lois Maag at different times.

The Speech goes like this. "You have no idea how important it is for these kids to get this kind of validation."

"You have to understand, this is a real thing for them."

"It's not just goofing off, or doodling, or daydreaming. They take this very seriously, it is genuinely hard work, and it lifts them up like you wouldn't believe to have adults like you appreciate it as such. Thanks for taking the time."

I make that speech a lot, usually at Emerald City Comic-Con to the various student parents that decide to attend. But it was a kick to get a chance to aim it at a city councilman. (Sadly, I didn't get a shot at the Mayor, but we did briefly shake his hand and thank him for coming out.)

But for me the real high point of the day was watching Lynn and Marie bonding.

Marie is terribly shy and bookish, and I don't think she has many friends at school. I suspect she might have a slight case of Asperger's, she's often awkwardly formal when she speaks -- even to the other kids. I know she struggles with her classwork, especially math. But cartooning is something she can do, and she has been slowly blossoming in class over the course of the school year. Nevertheless, she still tends to isolate. So when Lynn invited her to come sit by her and talk, Marie was almost awed.

But all it took was that initial invite. Soon the girls were chattering away about anime and manga and getting all excited that each knew about the other's favorites. You know, just geeking and being all fangirly.

Except I don't think Marie ever got a chance to do that with anyone before. And the joy on her face was really something to see.

The other photographers were all about shooting the kids with the mayor, and I imagine those pics will end up on the net eventually. But the shot of Lynn and Marie was the one I wanted, and I'm thrilled that one turned out.


So those were our outings. I've often thought that of all the places I could have ended up doing this job, Seattle is just about perfect, and Saturdays like these last two are why. It's a great comics town.

See you next week.

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