“Come for the Comics, Stay for the Doughnuts”: Paul Karasik and students at the Center for Cartoon Studies’ Graphic Novel Workshop

Paul Karasik has good things to say about the doughnut situation here in White River Junction.

“The Polka Dot Diner doughnut is a superior product,” Karasik said when interviewed in The Center for Cartoon Studies’ Schulz Library. “It’s not overly greasy; it’s very cake-like and light.”

The doughnut, however, is not without its flaws.

“It’s a little too sweet for my taste, it could use some nutmeg,” Karasik said, “But I haven’t gotten to the point in my relationship with the owners of the Polka Dot Diner that I feel comfortable enough to make such suggestions.”

In addition to being a connoisseur of fried baked goods, Eisner winner Karasik is a comics luminary responsible for exposing a new generation of readers to the works of Fletcher Hanks, as well as educating scores of cartoonists in the  analysis and close-reading of comics.

Last week Karasik exposed a group of twenty workshop participants from all over the globe to his teaching methods here at the Center for Cartoon Studies. The students, some of whom hailed from as far off as Bologna, Italy, brought their graphic novel projects for a week of intensive workshopping.

Forever changed: Karasik and students on the mean streets of White River Junction. Photo courtesy of Paul Karasik’s Facebook.


Karasik is a noted comics formalist. His graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass (produced with world-renowned superstar creator David Mazzucchelli) is remarkable in that it plays not only with the source text’s preoccupation with semiotics, but with the form and function of graphic narrative itself. It’s this attention to structure and execution that enthralled many of his students.

Six panels from Karasik and Mazzucchelli’s “City of Glass.” Image courtesy of altx.com, copyright Karasik and Mazzucchelli.

“The first day was incredible for me,” Rachel Lindsay, who is working on a memoir about her hospitalization for bipolar disorder, said. “I didn’t go to art school, but I consider myself an artist; I was not used to looking at comics so deliberately.”

The first day of the workshop was consumed largely by an exhaustively in-depth formal analysis of a couple of Nancy strips, a subject with which Karasik is intimately familiar. His 1988 essay (co-written with Mark Newgarden) “How to Read Nancy” has become something of a cult classic in academic comics courses.

“We spent a few hours breaking [Nancy] down,” RISD student Jackie Ferrentino said. “Analyzing why [Ernie Bushmiller] placed a certain line here, analyzing the placement of blacks…[Karasik] really emphasized ‘Form follows Function,’ as opposed to ‘just put speech bubbles wherever you feel like it.’ They have to lead the reader’s eye, same with the blacks.

“In addition to creating good storytelling, [this] adds meaning to whatever it is you’re trying to express.”

“It’s amazing how much was pulled out of those four panels,” Romey Bensen (‘13) added.

Karasik said that this considered analysis was integral to his approach to comics.

“My whole approach to making comics is a very formalistic one,” Karasik said, the lights behind him dimming as if in reverence. “It’s certainly not the only way to build comics, but that’s the way I work effectively, and it’s the way I think about comics, so it’s the method I teach. Another cartoonist who works a different way will probably teach a different method.

“This method…is an extremely intentional, step-by-step process of how to build a comic,” Karasik said. “I intentionally use the word ‘build’ here, because I see comics as a construction site in which you have to know what you’re building first, know the reasons why you’re building it, and then create a blueprint to be able to proceed to make your comic story-by-story.”

The stories the students brought with them varied as widely as their ages. Some had been working on them for years before the workshop began.

“I’d been working on a memoir for a long time, a novel memoir, for like 10 years,” Judith Beckett, 70, a Bradford, VT resident, said. “I got stuck.

“I rented a studio and started putting up photos and drawings that I did to try to work through the block and slowly but surely, it occurred to me that my artwork was not adequate,” Beckett said. “So I took some art courses and everybody said ‘god, that’s so graphic, that’s so graphic’ and it penetrated.

“I suddenly realized that what I was doing on the walls was sequential art, it was a cartoon. I decided to do my memoir as a graphic novel.”

Recent CCS alumnus Romey Bensen is in the early stages of a graphic novel about his hometown of New Orleans.

“It’s a historical fiction about the Battle of New Orleans,” Bensen said. “It’s a long story, but it’s basically about how the Battle of New Orleans was the most underrated battle probably in American History. There was a lot at stake. It kind of gets swept under the carpet because it happened after the actual peace treaty that ended the war was signed.”

Some students’ projects veer away from the traditional into fantasy and the experimental.

“What I’m interested in doing is retelling the story of Hansel and Gretel through illustrated diagrams—like cutaway views, charts,” Jackie Ferrentino said. “I’m reinterpreting the story through these diagrams, adding supplemental information that the original story might gloss over. I’m really dissecting the narrative.”

For Sarah Searle, a Maine-based artist, the workshop “is like boot camp to get [her] trans-media project started.

“I am working on something meant to be shown as a webcomic: it has interactive and game-like elements and a choose-your-own-ending sort of thing,” Searle said.

2013 is the second summer for Karasik’s workshop at CCS. Last year’s offering had a different name and significantly fewer students. Karasik attributes the larger enrollment to the name change.

“The Master Class in Cartooning—well, wait, it was actually even more highfalutin’ than that, it was called the Master’s Class in Comics Narrative, it’s just much more rarified than Graphic Novel Workshop,” Karasik said. “It’s had a huge effect on enrollment. They just kept coming, asking to join the class.”

The increased size of the class has presented new challenges for its instructors, however.

“Having 20 students and 20 stories to keep in my mind all day long is a very exhausting experience,” he said. “A lot of workshops are called intensives, but I don’t think they’re as intense as what’s going on in my class right now!”

The students contend that they have benefited immensely from the workshop, not to mention the spiritual and genetic modifications that continued exposure to Karasik has provided.

“I really got my bang for my buck here,” Rachel Lindsey said. “I see a whole new level for my piece after this.”

“I’ve loved all the lectures for different reasons. They’re all individual pieces of the puzzle that is comics storytelling,” Jackie Ferrentino said. “We’ve really been getting in to the nitty-gritty, the minutiae of comics, to make us examine the larger picture.”

“I think that the biggest problem that I’ve had in the past is that I’ve always thought I wasn’t working hard enough, so I kept putting in more work; kept staying up late, late, late at night, just working on [my comics,]” Romey Bensen said. “I know what to do now, that it wasn’t that I was not working hard enough, I wasn’t working smart enough. It’s a nice feeling.”

Home of the world-famous Polka Dot Doughnut. Photo courtesy of Gordon McAlpin.

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