The evening on which I am writing this article (Tuesday, the 14th), marks the third year I’ve been an “Artist In Action” for a small program run by a local elementary school. The day finds me giving a presentation (alongside two other fine artists) on how I make art via the computer, in 20-minute blocks, for every class in the school. The kids themselves range from kindergarten through 5th grade. Their teachers range from fully interested in what I’m presenting, to completely happy they don’t have to do much more than tell Billy to stay seated for an hour. It’s a long day, all things considered. But suffice to say: it’s a soul-satisfying experience that I hope will continue for years to come.
As in years past, I’ve actually felt a bit embarrassed. Next to oil painters, and collage artists… my work has often felt sub-par or perhaps juvenile. And my techniques – which include lightboxing (“Your mother’s a tracer!”), flatting (“Because good boys and girls know how to stay in between the lines!”) and other tricks of the Comic Book trade (“What? That’s not a filter!”) – leave the real artists often scoffing under huffy breath over my end-product. Yet today, my two adjoining artists were technophiles in their own right. A sculptor with work experience in Auto-CAD, and a collage / multi-media artist who squeed at the very mention of a GoPro. It was a breath of fresh air knowing that only three years into the program, the message to the children was not of the Luddite bible. But I digress.
The largest lesson I took away from the day hit me early in one of my presentations. Ever the eager-beaver, and teacher-pleaser, this year I came prepared with a take-home lesson for all the kids. I included an assignment sheet asking children to make their own six-panel strip, and included the simple steps Unshaven Comics takes in producing our own work. I also included the page with the panels (just-in-case), as well as a sheet for coloring (just-in-case the assignment wasn’t their speed). The unmitigated glee hit me after this exchange:
Me: Kids! Since you’ve been so attentive and awesome here today, I have a gift for you.
Kids: Boo! Noooo! Why! Awwwww!
Me: The homework is to draw your own comic!
Kids: *Undecipherable cheers, hoops, hollers, and genuine joy*
Watching the kids throw their arms up in cheers over the idea that they could make a comic was something that at first my snarky brain could not process. Certainly these video-game addicted ne’er-do-wells could give two poops about making a hand-drawn comic! But nay, in fact there they sat – Indian style, of course – all buzzing and humming over who would collaborate with who on this story or that. Shortly after, their questions came at lightning pace.
How do we start? Where do we start? Can it be about Pokemon? And with my cheeks literally in pain over the unyielding smile, I told them the truth: Start anywhere you want, just write out what you think is exciting, scary, funny, or cool. And yes, it absolutely can be about Pokemon. It took several minutes to calm them down. And with that, the presentation ended, and the next group sat down ready to figure out why their friends were high-fiving and jumping off the walls.
It’s here of course I have to take a step back. In the eyes and minds of children, comics represent infinite possibilities. Long before printer quotas, direct market subsidized pricing models, future IP copyright options, online distribution platforms, or dreaded convention travel and table costs amortization ledgers, there truly is imagination at the heart of our industry. There, amongst two-dozen ten-year olds, comics were an opportunity to collaborate, and entertain. And to their teachers, comics were an opportunity to converge lessons on writing, observation, comprehension, and visual communication into a single assignment.
As I left the school for the day, I saw several teachers lining up at the copy machine; it was all I could do not to fist pump the air like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club.