This Summer in Provincetown: Josh and Sari Comics Workshop Take II

Publicity

FAWC Summer Program

Sari and I co-taught a comics-making workshop last summer in at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and it was a really rewarding experience—for us and for our students. We had a great mix of “serious” comics-makers and those trying out the form for the first time. (In fact, one of last year’s students was recently accepted to the Master’s program at the Center for Cartoon Studies, so we feel pretty proud of that!)

We learned that nothing makes a better combination than writing and art… or summer and beautiful P-town… or Sari and Josh! (*wink*) So that’s why we’ll be teaching the class again this summer, during the week of July 21–26.

Our workshop is called The Graphic Novel: At the Intersection of Writing and Drawing, and here’s the class description:

In his seminal work Understanding Comics, cartoonist Scott McCloud writes, “The art form—the medium—known as comics is a vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images.” This class will explore the dynamic realm of sequential art, and the ways that graphic novels/comics can produce powerful moments of frisson between words and images. Some find their way to the form through their writing and others through their art—comics allows for both options. To that end, we as workshop leaders offer two perspectives: that of a cartoonist and that of a writer. We welcome confident storytellers in either, or ideally both, arenas. If you’re “just” a writer, we believe that you can learn to draw in a way that will serve your words.

Participants should have an idea for a sequential narrative and preferably some existing notes, scripts, and/or art. We’ll unpack how comics are constructed: from scripting to page layouts to thumbnailing to creating finished art. We’ll explore the ideas and images you bring to the table, and through group feedback generate ways you can hone your vision. We’ll also spend some class time on various collaborative exercises we’ve found useful in producing strong comics work.

Although this class focuses on the comics form, experience shows that the skills we develop translate to many other visual storytelling modes—including storyboards, video games, and even PowerPoint presentations.

Please email a one-paragraph description of your project and what you hope to get out of the workshop to workshops@fawc.org by July 1. In addition, please bring writing and drawing materials.

Click this link to find out more about the program and how to register. Please spread the word about the class, and encourage people to sign up soon. Classes fill up quickly.

 

Comics Class Homework: Copying Crumb

Comics, Tribute, Work

Gurl-Crumb2A recent assignment in Phoebe Gloeckner‘s Comics & Graphic Narratives class was to copy a page of another artist’s work, the two choices being Charles Burns or R. Crumb. I chose Crumb, the page in question being the opener of the six-page piece “A Gurl,” featuring his Ruth Schwartz character and first published in Big Ass #2 (August 1971). (Oh, that naughty Crumb and his big-butt fetish!)

Both are great artists to emulate, but I chose to copy Crumb because his cross-hatch inking style is so different than mine. (By the way, the rules of the assignment were no tracing or light-boxing; just to copy the page as best you could.) I ditched my normal tool (the Kuretake Sumi Fountain Brush Pen) and picked up a nib for the first time in… Jeez… thirty years! When I tried using a crowquill pen back in high school, I spattered ink all over the place and threw the thing down after twenty minutes. This time was much better, although it’s still a messy business, especially for left-handed me, who’s constantly smudging ink with the side of my palm. Back in high school I was known as “Captain Wite-Out” because of my dependence on the correction fluid. In recent years I’ve found a system (e.g., my brush pen) that’s much less messy, and as a result all my Wite-Out bottles have dried up. But I needed a new bottle for this project!

I hadn’t tried cross-hatching since my ill-fated Joe Sacco phase back in the mid-90s (still to be seen in a few stories in A Few Perfect Hours), and even there it was to create patterns and textures, not to emulate light and shade. For this assignment, even though I did very minimal penciling, choosing to do most of the drawing directly in ink, it still took me absolutely forever to copy the page—at least eight full hours spread over three days.

What did I glean from the exercise? First of all: What an incredible draftsman Crumb is. Not that I didn’t know that already, but there’s nothing like following someone, step for step, to appreciate their mastery. The nuances of his line work and hatching! I could spend a hundred years perfecting my craft and I would never have his light touch. Crumb’s work is also so tactile, so filled with the mass of real life. As I was working I was transported back to bohemian San Francisco, in that room with Crumb as he created the page. I also appreciated his comprehensive knowledge of anatomy. Even though this piece uses exaggeration for humorous/erotic effect, it’s all still based on the real human form (and real window blinds, furniture, rugs, etc.).

Although I felt the assignment was for me to be as slavish as possible, there were a few tangents in Crumb’s original that threw me off. By tangents I mean places where lines in the picture touch each other in awkward ways that disrupt the illusion of three-dimensionality we crave when looking at figurative art. In panel one, these tangents are the Gurl’s left foot, which seems to rest on the bottom of the panel border; and also the toe of her right foot, which perfectly touches the Gurl’s left heel. Far be it from me to correct the master, but tangents bother me! So in my drawing I lowered her left foot just a tad so that it clearly goes below the panel border. And I added a little space between her left and right feet. Probelm solved!

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this exercise. It’s always good to get out of your comfort zone—especially if, like me, you’ve been doing something for a long time. And who knows how it might affect my future work? Time will tell.

So here’s the big reveal: first Crumb’s original page and then my imitation. Just for fun, I’m also throwing in Crumb’s own original sketches for the piece, preliminary drawings from his sketchbook. Enjoy.

R. Crumb's "A Gurl," 1971

Crumb’s original, 1971

"A Gurl" copied by Josh Neufeld from R. Crumb

Josh’s copy, 2013

R. Crumb, preliminary sketches for "A Gurl"

Crumb’s preliminary sketches


Finally, here’s a detail from the original scan of my page before I started liberally applying Wite-Out. Smudge City!

Smudge City!

Smudge City!

Halftime at the Knight-Wallace program: Course update

Comics, Work

Here it is mid-January and I’m already halfway through my fellowship. My study plan is focusing on Bahrain and the Pearl Revolution (as well as the wider Arab Spring), and last semester I tried to take courses which focused on that region:

I also started taking a yearlong fiction writing workshop held once a week at the fellowship headquarters, Wallace House, with a bunch of the other fellows—and which Sari is taking too. That has been a fun and thought-provoking experience, and the skills I’m learning will undoubtedly help my work as a comics writer.

The America and Middle Eastern Wars class was fascinating, and gave me a very strong background on the recent history of the region, and how inextricably tied the U.S. is to everything that happens there (with Bahrain certainly being no exception). The class was taught by the very brilliant Juan Cole (who is also my academic advisor), and at the end of each perfectly crafted lecture I felt like jumping to my feet to applaud. The Quran class was an amazing experience, getting deep into a topic that I really knew nothing about. (I felt very strongly after completing my Cartoon Movement piece on Bahrain that if I was to truly understand the roots of the conflict there I would have to learn more about Islam and the roots of the Sunni-Shia divide.) The fine line the professor walked was treating the Quran as a sacred text (in deference to the many Muslim students in the class) while trying to really unpack it for a Western audience. A lot to chew on. The journalism & ethics class was relevant in the sense that here I am on a journalism fellowship and I had never taken a journalism class before. In the end, I found it incredibly useful—even if it does seem that I often break the “rules” in my own practice as a comics journalist!

But now here it is the Winter semester—which takes us through April and the end of the fellowship—and it’s time to decide what my final few University of Michigan courses will be. Our “head fellow” Charles Eisendrath always encourages us to stretch our horizons, and I’m acutely aware that this may well be the last chance I get to just be a student. I really want to take advantage of the intellectual resources available here at the university. So with that in mind I really pored over the Winter course catalog, looking at classes in Religion, Art & Design, Communications, English, Screen Arts, History, the Humanities, Political Science, Sociology, and even the School of Information. In the end I narrowed it down to three choices, and now after the first full week of classes, I feel pretty good about them:

The Intro to Islam class may sound a bit remedial, but it’s actually the perfect follow-up to the Quran class—and is being taught by the same prof. (In fact, he wrote the book on the topic!) Now that I’ve learned a bit about the Muslim holy book, I can follow its growth as a religion that started in a small portion of modern-day Saudi Arabia and today has spread to be the faith of over 1.6 billion people worldwide. The Apocalyptic Film & TV course, which is cross-listed in both Screen Arts & Cultures and English, is definitely my “fun” course, but I can justify its relevance to my craft by just citing A.D.: a graphic novel about the near-destruction of an entire city. (And aren’t all comics sort of about the end of the world?) Plus, it’s no joke of a class. Major critical theory reading is in store, from Roland Barthes to Jacques Lacan, Susan Sontag to Walter Benjamin. The teacher is younger than me (damn him!) but he’s whip-smart, with a really charismatic classroom presence. The comics class is being taught by the very great Phoebe Gloeckner, and I’m really excited to take part in my first-ever such class! After all, back in the day when I went to high school (and college, natch), academia wouldn’t touch comics with a ten-foot brush. Times have changed in 25+ years…

As I mentioned at the start, time is running out on this gift of a fellowship, and I’m feeling the pressure to squeeze out every ounce. And, what with the classes, twice-weekly fellowship seminars, the fiction writing workshop, and our fellowship’s upcoming trip to Turkey in March, my biggest challenge—as it was last semester—will be just keeping up with the readings.

2012-2013 Knight-Wallace Fellow, that’s me

Publicity, Work

After working in the field of comics-format journalism for the last six years, I’ve been “officially” anointed as a member of the fourth estate—I’ve been offered a 2012–2013 Knight-Wallace Fellowship in journalism!

The Knight-Wallace Fellowship gives mid-career journalists a chance to pursue customized sabbatical studies at the University of Michigan for a full academic year. The program also includes twice-weekly seminars, as well as training in narrative writing, multi-platform journalism, and entrepreneurial enterprise. Fellows also make two extended international tours to Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and Istanbul.

I’m the first comics journalist to be offered a Knight-Wallace Fellowship, and I believe only the second comics journalist to receive an American journalism fellowship of any kind (the first being Dan Archer, who was a 2010–2011 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford). I’m proud to be part of a growing recognition that this field—exemplified by the incredible Joe Sacco—is legitimate and lasting (as evidenced by the work of folks like Archer, Sarah Glidden, Matt Bors, Susie Cagle, Josh Kramer, Ted Rall, and the folks behind Symbolia and the Illustrated Press, just to name a few).

I was inspired to apply for the fellowship after learning that Archer had done the Stanford version, and realizing how beneficial such a program could be for my craft (particularly the journalism side of things). All during the early part of this year, I worked on my application, essays, and supporting materials, as well as rounding up letters of recommendation. (Thank you again, recommenders!) In mid-March I was notified that I was a KWF finalist, and in mid-April I went out to Ann Arbor for the big interview with the board. During that weekend, I got to tour the Wallace House (named after program benefactor Mike Wallace), and meet the current Fellows. Awkwardly, I also mingled with the “competition,” 30+ other finalists for the final roster of 12 American 2012–2013 Fellows. I came away from the interview weekend with a good feeling, but obviously it wasn’t until that April 30 early-morning call from program director Charles Eisendrath that I knew I had it. (I was asked to hold off on spreading the word until the program put out a press release, which they now have done.)

My study plan is to extensively research Bahrain’s Pearl Revolution (which I did a short piece about for Cartoon Movement, the Eisner Award-nominated “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand“). I plan on taking courses in the history of the Persian Gulf, Islam (specifically the Sunni-Shia divide), and the language and culture of the region. The ultimate goal is to produce a long-form comics-format book on the topic.

(My one tiny regret about the fellowship is that I have to back out of my October “Master Artist” residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Fortunately, however, ACA director Nick Conroy was gracious and understanding about my dilemma, and when I suggested that my long-time collaborator and pal Dean Haspiel take over for me, he was thrilled. And maybe I’ll get another chance to do the ACA residency in 2014…)

I really look forward to this amazing opportunity. I especially look forward to immersing myself in the practice of journalism, a field I’ve long been associated with (going back to my early days at The Nation magazine) but am now a designated member! I can’t wait to pick the brains of my fellow Fellows—both American and international—all of whom have more traditional backgrounds and training. The whole experience promises to be incredibly enriching.

So come September, Sari, Phoebe, and I will be temporarily relocating to Ann Arbor, Michigan. We’re all excited to embark on this new adventure. (Spouses and partners are invited to all seminars, and are Fellows in all but name. And the program is notoriously family-friendly.) Everyone I’ve talked to who’s had this fellowship just can’t stop raving about it.

Sari Wilson & I are teaching a comics class this summer in Provincetown

Publicity, Travel

What makes a better combination than writing and art? How about summer and Provincetown? Or Sari and Josh? (*wink*)

Come experience all three this July on the tip of Cape Cod! Sari and I are teaching a workshop at P-Town’s Fine Arts Work Center from July 1–6. It’s called The Graphic Novel: At the Intersection of Writing and Drawing.

In his seminal work Understanding Comics, Cartoonist Scott McCloud writes, “The art form — the medium — known as comics is a vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images.” Our class will explore the dynamic realm of sequential art, and the ways that comics can produce powerful moments of frisson between words and images.

Some find their way to the form through their writing and others through their art; comics allows for both options. To that end, we as workshop leaders offer two perspectives—that of a cartoonist and that of a writer. We welcome confident storytellers in either, or ideally, both arenas. If you’re “just” a writer, we believe that you can learn to draw in a way that will serve your words.

As workshop leaders, we are most interested in the literary and the idiosyncratic, so if you’re looking to do a superhero, fantasy, or science fiction comic, this class may not be for you (unless you feel a strong personal connection to a story you want to explore through one of those genres).

Participants should have an idea for a graphic novel and preferably some existing notes, scripts, and/or art. We’ll explore the ideas and images you bring to the table, and through group feedback, generate ways you can further develop your concepts. We’ll also spend some class time on various brainstorming and collaborative exercises we’ve found useful in producing strong comics work.

Click this link to find out more about the program and how to register.

Atlantic Center for the Arts “Master Artist”

Publicity, Travel, Work

The Atlantic Center for the Arts, located in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, is a nonprofit, interdisciplinary artists’ community and arts education facility. Their mission is to “promote artistic excellence by providing talented artists an opportunity to work and collaborate with some of the world’s most distinguished contemporary artists in the fields of music composition, and the visual, literary, and performing arts.”

Last summer I was approached by the ACA to be a “master artist” for their 2012 graphic novel residency, taking place this October 8–28. I was honored to be asked, and excited to accept!

During the three-week residency I will be working with eight associate artists on their long-form nonfiction comics projects. As part of the residency, we’ll be spending two hours a day together, conducting workshops, talking about the challenges we face, and working in a studio setting. I haven’t done a lot of teaching up ’til now (though Sari and I will be co-teaching a comics writing class this summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown), but I’m very comfortable in workshop environments. I look forward to working with my associate artists as we explore the best ways to make their ideas come to life.

My residency will be in conjunction with those of two other “master artists,” Megan Kelso and Ellen Forney. I’m particularly excited to be sharing the experience with Megan and Ellen, both of whom I admire tremendously. I look forward to communing with them both, and hope there will be opportunities to merge our three groups for various activities.

A happy coincidence about this opportunity is that, unbeknownst to the ACA, my mother, Martha Rosler, was a Master Artist there back in 2002! It’s a kick for me to be linked with my mom in such a way.

If you’re interested in applying to be an associate artist, or know someone who would, please check out the ACA website for further details. There are descriptions of Megan, Ellen, and my residencies, an FAQ, and lots more information. The application deadline is May 18, 2012.

A.D. at St. Ed’s

A.D., Travel

A.D. event posterSt. Edward’s University chose A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge as its freshman Common Read book for 2011–2012, and last week they had me come down to speak about it. It was the first time I had officially presented A.D. in about six months, and I before I left I re-read it for the first time in a while. This turned out to be really useful — revisiting elements of the book I had long since thought “settled,” and appreciating things that worked, while cringing at things that didn’t. I’m sure the whole exercise will be quite helpful when it comes to future creative decisions.

I flew down to Austin, TX, last week, where I was met by my excellent host, Assistant Dean Jennifer Phlieger. She then set me up for my lunch with St. Edward’s students, a subsequent hour-long Q&A, dinner with some  faculty members, and finally an hour-long presentation for about 300–400 kids.

I didn’t know much about St. Ed’s before I got there, other than that it was a private, Catholic institution that had been founded by the same guy who founded Notre Dame in Indiana. I have to admit about being a little curious about the Catholic aspect, and there’s still a nun in charge of major decisions, but it was explained to me that the school’s religious underpinning is pretty downplayed nowadays. Some of the elements that still remain, admirably, include a requirement that students spend at least one spring break doing some kind of community service, whether it be working for a homeless shelter or helping to build houses in communities like the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The school also does major outreach to the Latino community, offering all sorts of scholarships and the like, to the point that 25% of the student body is currently Hispanic. In most other respects, however, the school is a “typical” private liberal arts school located in the heart of Austin (which, as you may know, is not your typical Texas town).

The first official event was for me the highlight of the visit. About eight students joined me for lunch in the school cafeteria. They were mostly freshmen, and ranged from natives of New Orleans to students in a graphic novel class. We started off with questions about A.D. but soon branched off into the current state of New Orleans, race relations, and politics. I found the students incredibly engaged, not only with the book but with the world at large. They were opinionated, lively, and willing to challenge me about elements of the book. I really enjoyed our conversation.

From there I did a free-wheeling Q&A with about 150 students who had read A.D. I didn’t have a presentation prepared, but there was a video projector in the lecture hall, so I used the web version of A.D. to illustrate various points. In both this class and the lunch, the very question I was asked was about A.D.‘s unique color schemes, so I must make a note to myself to discuss that question in future presentations.

After a nice dinner with about six faculty members I headed back over to the university for my official presentation. As a result of my re-reading of the book, I also made a major revision of my usual presentation, and this was the first chance I’ve had to share it. (Because of a paper written by a U. of Chicago grad student, and my being asked to talk about the “Art of Catastrophe” as part of another event earlier this year, I’ve come to see that a major part of why I was so moved by Hurricane Katrina — from volunteering with the Red Cross to then doing A.D. — was because of emotional trauma I suffered from 9/11. Makes sense, but I never realized that until recently. Duh.) Anyway, the talk went well, though it was such a big venue (they repurposed the university gym) that I felt a bit disconnected from the audience. Still, there were a lot of great questions, and I must have signed about 100 copies of the book for eager (and patient) students afterward.

As always, I was struck and humbled by how A.D. has connected with so many people from so many different ways and stages of life. I really know what it means now when people say that as an artist all you can do is put the work out there. What the world does with it is, poignantly, beautifully, beyond your control.

Me and a few of St. Ed's students

Wednesday, Feb. 2: Walls & Bridges’ “Catastrophe Practice”

A.D.

This Wednesday evening I’ll be taking part in a round-table discussion at the New School on the political, social, individual, and literary imagination of catastrophe. Titled "Catastrophe Practice," the panel is part of the Walls & Bridges series, co-sponsored by the French cultural institute Villa Gillet and n+1 Magazine. Other participants will be French thinker Jean-Pierre Dupuy, American philosopher Jonathan Lear, French geographer Michel Lussault, and moderator Marco Roth.

To quote from the program description: "Catastrophes are the nightmare flip-side to the record of human progress and achievement. The idea of disaster haunts how we think about our lives on every level, from global planning to individual relationships. Could planning more for catastrophes help eliminate/neutralize them, or do already we give them more attention than appropriate? Will we, no matter our precautions, forever be victims of the vagaries of nature and existence in all its complexity? If so, how may we learn to live and think with and within the expectation of catastrophe?"

Pretty heady stuff — let’s hope I can keep up! I’ll discuss both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and will present a 10-minute slideshow of images to accompany my remarks.

The event is free:

Wed., Feb. 2, 7 pm
The New School – John Tishman Auditorium
66 West 12th St (btwn 6th & 5th Aves)
New York City
Click here for more info.

 

A.D. Common Read wrap-up

A.D.

The A.D./Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison Common Read program day went better than I could have ever expected.

After a causal breakfast at Chadbourne‘s well-appointed cafeteria Rheta’s, with members of the CRC Leadership Team, I had a little free time to walk around the campus a bit. Then it was back to the CRC cafeteria for lunch with some of my student hosts, as well as the awesome faculty director Caton Roberts. Caton explained that earlier in the school year, during Convocation, a grad student from Chicago delivered a nuanced and complex presentation on A.D. and its place in the realm of art created in the wake of trauma. (This bit of news was just another salvo in the whole visit’s continuing theme of blowing my mind that little ol’ me and my funny book were being given this sort of official academic acceptance…)

After another little break, I returned to Chadbourne to deliver a "slideshow" presentation on my evolution as a cartoonist, with the culmination of course being Hurricane Katrina and A.D. The talk was part of the CRC’s "What Matters to Me and Why" series, and quite a few people showed up — something in the realm of 75 students and staff. Then it was time fo the Common Read dinner, where hundreds of students sat around big tables and discussed the book and their reactions to it. As "guest of honor," I was ushered around, spending a few minutes with the students at each table, answering questions and so forth.

Finally, after scarfing down my own dinner, I took my place at a signing table, where a long line of kids queued up for autographs and sketches. I really enjoyed meeting the kids and talking to them. (It’s only been during this past year, as I’ve done a number of college presentations and events, that I finally feel "wise" enough to speak to students from the perspective of an "older person." I realize that I do have two decades’ worth of life experience to share — and for the most part they are interested to hear it.) Amazingly (to me), most of the students had no prior experience with comics, let alone graphic novels, but they seemed to really connect with A.D. and its stories of real people confronting disaster on such an epic scale. Hopefully, this experience helped to create a few new lifelong comics fans.

I am so grateful to CRC staff Caton Roberts, Sean Flyr, and Tonya Trabant for making this event happen, and for supporting graphic novels in the academic arena. (Plus, they’re three of the most warm and genuine people I’ve met in a long time!)

CRC students ham it up with A.D.

[See a selection of other photos from this event here…]

“A.D.” door-dec

A.D.

My hosts here at Madison took me into their administrative offices this morning to meet the staff, etc., and I noticed something on their doors that pricked at my subconscious. I quickly forgot about it, though, in the rush of meeting new people. But as I was brought around to their various offices, one of the staff pointed out his "door-dec" which I then realized was laid out to mimic the A.D. hardcover!

As you can see here, instead of the hurricane looming over New Orleans, it shows the CRC‘s main building, followed by the staff member’s name where the A.D. title would be. Then, where in my book are portraits of my protagonists, is a very clever gauge which the occupant can adjust depending on their mood, from "Category 1: Great," to "Category 5: Catastrophic." I love the way the sign refers to both the different categories of hurricanes but also ominously evokes the Homeland Security Advisory System "terror alert level" charts we all become so acquainted with during  those dark days after 9/11.

Door-decs (e.g. door decorations) like these are on each dorm room door throughout the CRC. I believe they are created at the beginning of the term as a community-building exercise. Pretty nice shout-out to A.D., and in my opinion a very clever way to add personality to the institutional university decor. I hope I get to meet the student who came up with the concept.

A.D. door-dec