Hey there true believers!
This reporter recently sat down with those terrible titans of comics coaching, those inscrutable instructors of sequential storytelling, those profound professors of paneled pomposity, Alec Longstreth and Jon Chad! These erudite educators had just finished up what was, by all available reports, the best year of Cartooning Studio Workshop that The Center for Cartoon Studies has ever seen.
Carl Antonowicz, Ace Reporter: Gentlemen, I’m here to talk to you about the success or absolute failure of the Summer Workshop Programs at CCS this year.
Alec Longstreth, Bearded Mystery Man: Success!
Jon Chad, Master of Weird Science: Yeah, absolutely the former.
AL: Actually, the best we’ve ever had. Of the three that we’ve taught [together], we’ve beaten all landspeed records in terms of getting projects done.
JC: Yes, you’re right! The most efficiently-run year.
AL: We’ve had some nightmare years in Create Comics where we ended up trying to get a book done at 11 o’clock pm.
JC: And we got it done before 9 this year, which is a record.
CA: These summer programs were the school’s first test before it opened, right?
JC: Yeah, kind of a soft launch.
JC: In 2007.
AL: And then we’ve both done it ever since, pretty much.
CA: Aside from the resounding success of this year’s programs, what was different?
JC: We’ve really dialed in the Create Comics workshop, which is the first one we run in the summer. I don’t want to say it’s a beginner class, but it focuses more on the nuts and bolts of cartooning. Instead of setting students adrift on their own iceberg of comics, we focus on collaborative projects and in-class exercises. It’s more structured and the scope is smaller. I’ve said for the past couple of years that we’ve dialed it in but this year we Dialed. It. In.
I think that was the difference with the first workshop. Everything was firing on all cylinders: All the facilities stuff was working really great; the TAs Tom O’Brien and Josh Lees were just phenomenal in the classroom; I co-taught the whole thing with Dakota McFadzean, and he did an absolutely awesome job. In the past we’ve had a large net of faculty to give students a wider range of exposure, but I think the trick to Create Comics is to have a smaller, elite team focused in. That’s not to discredit the wide range of teachers we had before, but having the whole team there from half-a-week before class started to be able to laser-point focus on what needed to be done really helped.
AL: One of the great things about CCS being such a small program is that the iterations are fast. We do a semester with MFA program students, and immediately after that’s over, the next day we have a staff and faculty meeting and look at the feedback to see “How can we change this for next semester? How can we make it better?” We do that every summer.
JC: Every summer and on a day-to-day basis in the workshop.
AL: And so for Cartooning Studio, the workshop we just wrapped up, we’re still experimenting and seeing what works and getting feedback about that. For this one, the students bring their own projects; it’s less structured. We give them a deadline of Friday at 3pm that looms over them the whole week.
JC: We do goal-setting the first day. We go around to the students and we ask them “What do you want to do with your project this week?” And we push them a little if they’re not sure, either to the number-of-finished-pages realm or towards wanting to have a finished book. Over the course of teaching this for several years, Alec and I have both learned what are and aren’t reasonable goals.
AL: If on the first day, a student says “I want to get a 12-page comic done,” we can take a look at their portfolio and go “ehhh…”
JC: On the first day we’re really open to whatever peoples’ pie-in-the-sky dreams are. “I wanna get 12 pages done and print a book.” Great! But we get to day two and that’s where the cream rises to the top.
AL: “Oh yeah, she pencilled six pages last night! 12 pages, pfft! You’re gonna do 16!” Or if someone comes in with half a page: “Okay, let’s adjust our goals a little bit and try to get four pages done this week.”
JC: I think it’s a combination of us synthesizing realistic goals with theirs.
CA: What’s the age range on these workshops?
AL: Create Comics is 16 and up.
JC: But what you end up getting–and this is interesting–is half the class aging from 16 to 18, and the other half being 18 and up. Becuase this is the only CCS workshop aside from the Cartooning Camp, which Joyana [McDiarmid, CCS 2013] ran, that caters to students under 18. So if you’re under 18, that’s what you flock to. I think this year we had 10 people in the 15-18 range (because we’re sometimes a little loosey-goosey) and then 10 students who were over 18. And as far as that over 18 chunk, I think this year it got up to early 40’s. But there are some some years where we have students in their sixties, their seventies…
AL: We had a student in the extended studio who was in his seventies. There’s a wide, wide range here.
JC: Cartooning Studio is 18 and up, but you don’t see the same kind of lopsided dispersion in terms of age, where half the class is really young and the other half is all over the place; Cartooning Studio is just all over the place.
The average age this year was 25 or 26, which is about equal to what the graduate program runs.
CA: Was there anybody in Cartooning Studio this week who was looking to enroll in the CCS Master’s program?
AL: Yeah, definitely! We did portfolio reviews. Every day there would be four slots for students to sign up for reviews, and that was an opportunity for people to ask us questions. This week I had students asking me “Do you think this would work to get me into the school?” From an administrative standpoint, that’s one of the big benefits of this program: students can come up for a week, try out CCS, see what it’s like here, spend some time in the library and the lab, and decide “Oh, this is where I want to go for graduate school.” There are people who are enrolled even now–Simon Rhinehardt (‘14) was a workshop student.
JC: There have been others as well–Alexis Cornell (‘13) for example.
AL: There’s always a couple in each group we recognize from before. There are some people who can’t get two years off in their life to come to CCS, but keep coming back. But I do think of these workshops as being a stepping stone for enrollment. And it’s great for us, because we don’t have to just look at prospective students on paper, we get to interact with them for a week.
JC: As far as workload and the pressure we put upon them, we don’t pull our punches. We really make ‘em sweat. And it’s useful to see them in that high-octane artistic environment.
AL: If you come out of the week and you’re saying to yourself “Uggh, that was too much,” you’re not going to make it through the Silver Age [Project].
[The Silver Age Project is a grueling two-week pastiche project at the start of the second semester in the first year at CCS--Ed.]
But if you come out of a week and you’re saying “That was great, give me more!” Then you can probably make it through.
CA: To whom would you recommend these classes?
JC: A lot of different people! Like we just said, for people who are maybe interested in attending CCS, I consider this a taste-test or the CCS Sampler Platter; people who can’t make the commitment to being in Vermont for two years; depending on the workshop, people who haven’t gotten their beak wet in comics before, who want to learn the building blocks of stories; and, for cartooning studio, people who have gotten their beak wet, but want to take their storytelling to the next level.
AL: I always see it as two camps: in one we have people who really want to be here, but they have two kids and a full-time job or whatever–and these are some of my favorite students–and the other is the younger students. You know, people who are excited about cartooning, but don’t know what they’re doing. They can come here for a week and we’ll set them on the right track– “Here’s the kind of paper most people use, here’s some nibs and ink, here’s how to use them, once you’ve got a couple pages done we’ll show you how to slap them together with a photocopier.” It’s sort of arming people so they can be on the Path. We’ve got some really young kids, but we’re giving them that knowledge that we wished we’d had when we started cartooning. And that’s what’s exciting for me–a lot of the time, those people will go off into the world, draw comics for a couple of years, then they come back ready to go to CCS.
JC: It’s confidence! It’s not like we’re doing some sort of magic trick, but I think a lot of the time, people need to have the veil lifted around comics.
AL: We’re demystifying it.
JC: We’re showing them that the common thread is telling stories. Just because you don’t have a perfect-bound, glossy-covered thing doesn’t make it any less of a comic. I think seeing the wide range of work that we self-publish here demystifies it.
AL: That’s one of the thrills of the Summer Workshops. By the time people come to CCS, they’re gonna know what a minicomic is. We’re not blowing anyone’s mind with that. But with these workshops, we can blow minds.
JC: Everybody takes away something. Whether it’s adding gutters to the page, or drawing your lettering before you draw the word balloon in, or pencilling and inking, or erasing…
AL: And a lot of the upper-level students are very accomplished, and I think a lot of what they take away is the excitement of this place. If you’re already on the Comics Path, what better place to be than here?