Root Hog or Die: Professor Beth Hetland on books, academia, and progress

One of The Center for Cartoon Studies’ most notable graduates, Beth Hetland (’11) is a character, to say the least. Hetland’s infectious enthusiasm and near-boundless energy make her a nigh-unstoppable educational and creative force. In addition to her professor duties at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she produces somewhere in excess of one hundred pages of comics per year, performs onstage with writing partner Kyle O’Connell as Brain Frame Lit, and somehow still found time to chat with your humble reporter a couple of weeks ago.

Carl Antonowicz: You’ve just recently released the collected edition of Fugue, the single editions of which were the majority of your thesis here at CCS.

Beth Hetland:  Yes!!!! Victory!!!!

The complete Fugue. Hetland turned in the first two chapters and an early version of the script for chapter 3 as her Master's thesis at CCS.

CA:  What’s different about the collected edition?

BH:  Well, I think the biggest difference between the collected version and the single issues is that there are no more screen printed covers. As much as I love screenprinting, the books were, thankfully, selling faster than I could print sometimes. To be able to block off that amount of time became harder and harder as my attention shifted to more projects.

CA:  Is it still hand-bound?

BH: They are still hand-bound, believe it or not! My school got an electric perfect binder and I run them through that puppy. Even though collating, cutting, scoring, and gluing takes time, it’s SIGNIFICANTLY less time than actually screenprinting 2 colors per cover for three books. Plus the interior pages are cream, like my original thesis, not the single issues, and there’s color chapter breaks, and a new cover and a fancy pants ISBN and barcode for stores. But those are more surface changes, the art and story are generally the same with only a few minor nudges.

CA:  Now that it’s done, are you planning on pitching Fugue somewhere for publication?

BH:  Yes, sir! That was one of the big reasons to collect it. Not many publishers are interested in 3 separate books, they would much rather have everything in once place. I’ve been doing some research both on literary agents and publishers and getting my ducks in a row. My goal is to bring collected Fugue to my shows this year and then retire it maybe? Or perhaps catch the eye of a publisher and pitch something new, different and fresh since Fugue has been out for about 3 years now. I would be happy with either of those options.

CA:  In an ideal world, where would you like Fugue to find a home?

BH:  I suppose they go hand-in-hand, but I think that my silly and big dream would be Scholastic or First Second. Just because I admire and love the books that come out of those publishers and so incredibly wish I could work with those people and be listed in their catalogs.
Demographically, it feels like folks interested in memoir and/or coming of age stories would be most interested in it. Plus I get a lot of moms who like it. Truly, I would be happy just knowing it was nestled happily on the shelves of people I’ve never met.

This was one of Ace Reporter Carl Antonowicz's favorite comics of 2013.

CA: Now what about the comic you’re cowriting with Kyle O’Connell, Half-Asleep?

BH: YEAHHHHH this comic is so much fun. Plus I love collaborating, it’s kind of nice to just “show up” and do the parts I like to do.

CA: I was going to say, it seems like your projects with Kyle have a very different thematic focus than your solo work.

BH: Oh yeah. They really do. And what’s funny is that these are still things I’m very interested in, but I view collaboration, or at least the idea of collaboration, as a way to practice and refuel my batteries while still making creative progress.

Hetland and O'Connell's first big collaboration, Cycles.

CA: Kind of freeing, would you say?

BH: Fully freeing. He loves to write and I love to draw and we started collaborating because I was burned out on Fugue and I said “Hey, I wanna do NaGrNoWriMo, but I don’t wanna write. I’ll draw anything you write up to 200 comics pages… you in?” I needed to just completely forget about myself and just play with some fictional characters that were going on an adventure. That was our first big collaboration, Cycles. And once that project was done, I had some major breakthroughs with the ending for Fugue which was entirely necessary. Once Fugue Part 3 was done, he and I launched into Half Asleep.

CA: I remember you were having some difficulties with Fugue 3 after you graduated.

BH: Yeah, it was rough. I was really disappointed in having to turn in a placeholder for my thesis, but that story just wasn’t ready. I wrote and re-wrote part three completely, start to finish, over 10 times. I have all 10 versions still but holy god are they wretched.

CA: Do you think it was just time that allowed you to finish it to your liking, or was the work on Cycles more integral to your pro(gr/c)ess?

BH: Oo I like that word! pro(gr/c)ess!! I think it was both. I got some great criticism on part 1 and 2 and I needed that to sink it and practice improving my weaknesses, so that’s where Cycles was helpful in the process. But I think it just let that part of my brain relax and go through the meditative process of drawing and problem solving rather than charging my way through it, which was a very different approach coming from me. Since I went right from undergrad to grad, charging through was my only tactic for a large portion of my creative growth. Now that I HAD more time, I was finally able to use it. I still get critiques about being “too fast” and not “taking time” by some of my friends but that doesn’t bother me. I have my reasons for being shark-like in creation.

CA: Excelsior.

BH: Root Hog or Die, and so on.

CA: Speaking of time, after you graduated from CCS, you went on to teach comics at your alma mater, right?

BH: You betcha! I have yet to live a day not on the Academic Calendar…

CA: How did that come about?

BH:  Well, I think it happened around January of our last year at CCS. My favorite teacher from SAIC (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) emailed me.  She and I are good friends and were at the time too, but she said “Hey, I’m applying to a new teaching job at University of Oregon, and if I get it, I want to be able to give SAIC a name. Would you feel comfortable if I put your name in the running?” and I said, “Sure, that’ll never happen but go right ahead!”
And over the last stressful months of working full-time, finishing my thesis, I was also building and finalizing my CV for her to give to her Department Chair.  The same weekend as our physical commencement, I got a call asking if I had time to interview in the next week.  Turned out Surabhi, my teacher buddy, got the job and recommended me with high regards as being a fresh new graduate. I interviewed, submitted a few sample lessons, and the next thing I knew I was packing up my stuff and sobbing at a goodbye party. It happened incredibly fast, and even though I knew this was what I wanted, I still felt like I wasn’t prepared.

CA: But your classes have been a hit the students, haven’t they?

BH: Yeah. To be perfectly frank with you, it was touch and go for a little bit this past year.  When I started, I had a feeling that Surabhi’s classes were full and they were looking at me as if I was a temporary solution and I would just get fired the next year.  Lucky for me, my students gave me exceptionally positive course evaluations. But over the next year, my course load was reduced from 4 a year to 2 a year. That second year, my job was posted and I had to reapply.
BUT I got rehired (hooray), and now I’m teaching 4 classes this semester, 2 of which I pitched on my own and they were accepted with open arms.

CA: Is having to reapply for a position you’re already in a standard practice in academia?

BH: It’s tricky to say, because as a part-time instructor, you are only hired based on class proposals. So it’s the Chair’s decision. However, since it was only my second year, I didn’t know a lot about the politics of what it means to work in academia.

CA: Did it take you by surprise?

BH:  Immensely. And then it was really hard to have to tell my friends who were applying for the job, asking me about writing them a rec for it.  Under any other circumstances I would have LOVED to support them, but as it was my current job… well you can see how much that sucked.
My theory is that since I was hired originally last minute, they wanted to make sure that they were choosing a faculty member that added a lot to the school and departmental curriculum as well as finding the best candidate for the students. Which I wholeheartedly agree with. But wasn’t fun.
That being said though, without that terror, I wouldn’t have had the balls to pitch new classes.
And It taught me some valuable lessons about branching out, and being experimental in my way of teaching and thinking about comics at a Fine Art school.

CA:  How so?

BH:  Well I was only teaching Comics in Writing for a while, as Painting and Drawing had their own classes. I also taught a class in Fibers that was about narratives. This was a class Surabhi created.

CA: …Fibers? Like textile art?

BH: Yep! But as other parts of my income I travel and review portfolios, I saw a lot of comic interest in first year students, so I pitched a class to the first year program, called Contemporary Practices, and it was accepted.
And another department at my school is Arts Administration and Policy, so I pitched a class that is similar to the professional practices class at CCS but this one is geared toward freelancers, illustrators and cartoonists. Having my courses in different departments made me feel more grounded because there was more exposure to what I was doing, as well as a variety for the students and gave me an opportunity to articulate why I think comics can be taught in these different areas of the school rather than only in Writing or Painting and Drawing.
Does that make sense?

CA: Yeah! So comics, as the marriage of the written and drawn images, deserves a berth in both of those disciplines.

BH: Yeah, and I think expanding what comics are to talk about Narratives helps them find a home in places people may not initially think of.

CA: In my experience, though, most of the fine artists I’ve brushed up against tend to look down on comics as a form. “it’s not obscure enough! anybody can read this!” Whereas most literary types I’ve talked to about comics are more open to the idea of the medium. have you run into much of that at SAIC?

BH: And that’s some of the stigma I think I’m helping to remove.  Cause whether fine artists like it or not, more and more people are interested in narrative, and if the schools that value abstraction over story don’t even offer classes in the latter they’re missing out on a huge demographic of potential incoming students. There are hurdles like any other place. But I think more and more people are accepting the idea and willing to experiment, especially at a place like SAIC. Lots of my students now are coming in saying they read Scott McCloud in 8th grade and they think it feels outdated– WHICH BLOWS MY MIND–and, even more strange, is that we’re reaching a point where that book was written before they were born.
So they’ve grown up in a world where comics and comics theory and language is bridging “common knowledge.” It’s a fascinating point to be in, to be able to discuss with my seniors comics theory and appreciation as a literary form, and to discuss with my freshmen comics common knowledge and Understanding Comics being used in their high school AP English classes.

Soon, everybody will know what a page turn is

CA: So they tend to be able to talk more in-depth about formal concerns?

BH: Sometimes yes, but they’re also still juggling how to be adults too. I mean that in the nicest way possible, but they can get really hung up on one point they disagree with and it can derail any other in-depth comments that may have begun previously. But I have to say their conversations go in a very different direction than I anticipate.

CA: I imagine it’s fascinating to watch these kinds of conversations from the other side of the podium.

BH: Oh yeah! One of my favorite parts is having a class read a comic and then discussing it the next week. They come up with some astounding conclusions and I love listening and guiding them to conclusions. Or letting them fly off the handle bars about how gorgeous it is!

CA: What have some of your assigned readings been?

BH: Well this semester I’ve got: Understanding Comics (Scottie M), The New Ghost (Robert Hunter), The Ticking (Renee French), Book of Leviathan (Peter Blegvad), The End of the Fucking World (Charles Forsman CCS ’08), The Lagoon (Lilli Carre), Meanwhile (Jason Shiga)…I have a bunch more but I’m blanking on some…They read a lot for me.

CA: Good, they bloody well ought to.

BH: Yeah my thoughts too.

CA: You’ve got a fair amount of interest in bookarts and self-published comics–particularly ones that feature interesting formal experiments, as I seem to recall. How do you approach those ideas with your classes?

BH: Each class has a little bit of a different goal, so sometimes this fits and sometimes it doesn’t. BUT I’ll give you a few examples:
My freshman class is called Extracting Narratives, and I’m not allowed to dictate the mediums they work in for their projects, so all their assignments need to be created with the freedom of being able to make anything but it must include narrative. For their final project, I molded a project that Surabhi gave to one of my classes once where we had to make a “One of a Kind Gallery piece” and a corresponding “Multiple or Book.” The point is to see how both related to and are inspired by source material or an original narrative and explore the way in which an audience or reader will experience each piece.
So we do a lot of book binding demos, and visit the Artist Books collection and I’m giving a lecture about Oulipo and Artist Books as a way to help frame their inspiration for this project.
In another one of my classes, they make 3 8-page comics over the semester. And the class is titled “Complex Narratives: Engineering Comics” this one is in the Writing Department, so they are encouraged to consider not only the complexity of structure within their work, but the complexity of structure outside of their work.
In a class I teach in the fall, I give a “one pager” assignment where students need to make one of the three one page comic formats and create a story that works within that format. They can do the “8-page folder,” Expanding comics (ala CCS faculty Jon Chad) or the Choose your own Adventure (ala Jason Shiga) and some great things come out of that project too.
Plus I can’t help but talk about what I love, and that happens to be Artist books, creative formats and narratives that work with how they’re housed.

Those pizza slices are books that Hetland was assembling for her Brain Frame Lit performance while talking to me for this interview.

CA: Is there a book arts program at SAIC?

BH: No, but there are various Artist Books classes in different departments, Viscom (graphic design) has a letter press, Print Media has artist books and offset, Writing has a book lab and an artist books course as well as some art history courses focused on book arts.

CA: You’d done a lot of teaching even before graduating CCS. Was it your plan to teach comics on a collegiate level all along?

BH: I’m pretty sure it was. When I made the decision to invest both time and money into an MFA I spent a lot of Pros and Cons lists thinking about what an MFA, or MFA program, could offer me that just comics creating or workshop experience couldn’t. And at the end of the day, I love teaching. I love having students. I love the “performance.” I love critiquing. I love the ever growing and expansive community of learning and academia. When I decided I was going, my base goal was to teach college age students.
I’ve done some young kid workshops, and some middle grade ones too, and I even gave a guest lecture at a high school last fall, but i still think college age is my jam.

CA:  What’s different about college-age students (aside from the rampant hangovers)?

BH: They’re just a bit more serious. I can push them harder. I also think I view them more as peers in the comics world rather than apprentices. I don’t feel worried about moving too fast in lectures, discussing more matured content comics, and they don’t have to call me “Ms. Hetland.”

CA:  “That’s Ms. Beth to you, bro”

BH: Actually I go by Professor Beth.

CA: So what’s coming up in the future, Professor Beth?

BH: Good question, Ace Reporter! I’m not even sure how to list it. There’s still a lot! Next year I’m teaching still at SAIC, I have 4 classes for the year of 14-15, I’m planning to debut some new parts of Half Asleep at the conventions I’m attending this year (TCAF, VanCAF, CAKE and SPX), I’ve got some solo project ideas on the back burner, I’ll be hanging out in Vermont for a little bit this summer, I’m getting an intern, and umm… I don’t know, long term is still up in the air. I’m hoping I can continue to ride the wave of teaching, new projects and staying happily busy.
That sounds really hokey but I’m honestly just trying to make it to the end of the semester. I’m ready for this winter to be done and I’m ready to spend some time working on my projects.

CA: Once more into the days of short sleeves and inky fingers.

BH: Yes, and bicycle rides.



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