FILM REVIEW: CARTOON COLLEGE Gets Under the Skin of Making Comics

Representing comics production in popular culture has long been missing a piece of the puzzle. We’ve had excellent documentaries about ground-breaking creators like Will Eisner, characters like Wonder Woman, and even explorations of rising con-culture in the USA, but the least likely to receive attention, the mode of indie comics production right now, has come out as the lead story in Tara Wray and Josh Melrod’s CARTOON COLLEGE. This is a documentary ahead of its time, since the subject could easily have languished for another decade or more in the shadow of further works on superheroes, the history of the big two, or just worthy single-creator features. However, in an instance of remarkable commitment to a pressing, immediate subject, Wray and Melrod have delivered not only the stories of aspiring comics artists as they grapple with real-life issues, but also a film rendered so professionally and decisively that it can stand alongside documentaries of other art forms in the public arena right now.

 Banner_Color with Laurels

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Jason Lutes’ new project: games influencing comics

BY JEN VAUGHN – For anyone who has ever performed any improv, there is a simple rule: ‘Say Yes.’ Say yes to a situation when presented to you because your fellow troupe member has a story line. You can add even more “yes and…” The same rule applies to a game called Fiasco, which calls itself the ‘make your own Coen brothers film’ game. You create a story without props with high stakes, characters with high ambition and low impulse control AND with a traditional story structure. The first time I played was with Comics Journal editor and gaming partner Kristy Valenti and the heat was oppressive, adding to our Western setting. Center for Cartoon Studies professor and cartoonist (most notably for BERLIN), Jason Lutes, has taken the narrative he created with five CCS graduates and turned it into a 72 page full-color comic book called BINGO BABY.

Bingo Baby

The creators include five CCS graduates Donna Almendrala, Bill BedardJoseph Lambert, Amelia Onorato, and Denis St. John and Jason Lutes is their whip-cracking editor. It’ll be interesting to see this story that was created rather on the fly by creative storytellers and then coaxed into comic book page submission. Each of these young cartoonists are drawn to rich stories, no matter what genre or style.  Based on the video, they draw a lot from the quiet mountain town of White River Junction, full of its share of characters from the meth addicts to the Vietnam War veterans to the bougie retirees to the dueling bingo venues crammed with hardcore players. You can do the ol’ Kickstarter pre-order now for only $10.

Lutes is known at the school for his board game nights. Wish there was a reward that included Lutes coming to YOUR board game night and teaching you a thing or two about wheat or stone trades. Rewards include the book itself, a shirt, hell—some original Lutes artwork!

Jen Vaughn is a Seattle-based cartoonist and marketing manager at Fantagraphics. CAVEAT: she’s played board games with all these creators and they are magnificent bastards.

Monsters, Zines, and MonsterZines with Stephen Bissette

Weird tales and comics naturally go together. From the days of pulp stories with enthralling illustrations, through EC’s Wertham-harried evocation of the fantastic and grotesque, to the heydays of Vertigo and Darkhorse, readers want to see an artist’s interpretation of the strange and bizarre. And the most exciting weird comics bring visual elements to the narrative that the reader could never have predicted or expected. Stephen Bissette has spent a great deal of his life contributing to shock and wonder for readers, and through his work teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies, making sure that tradition continues.

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End of a Hair-a

BY JEN VAUGHN - The date was December 9th, 2011 when cartoonist and Center for Cartoon Studies professor Alec Longstreth shaved off his beard and shaggy do. A promise to himself in 2008, he decided to chart his progress through pictures of his hair and beard growth, called The Basewood Beard, that would undoubtedly remind him daily of his commitment. Living in a small town with a beard as his shadow, Longstreth went from industrious Fellow of the school to an instructor of both summer workshops and graduate classes to the Acting Director (while James Sturm takes a much-needed sabbatical) . Even after all the excitement, he is still growing and evolving, deciding to learn watercolor on the side.

August 1st, 2008 and Alec doesn’t at all look like a prison inmate. He answered a lot of questions throughout the three years of hair growing: do you get food caught in there, is it hot, what does your family think? And he bore it all with quiet grace. But now that Basewood is done, he is moving on and was nice enough to answer some questions for The Beat! Venture on to read more about the amazing cartoonist Alec Longstreth. Now that you have lived through the coldest part of winter, do you miss your beard? I’ll admit, the beard did do an amazing job of keeping my face warm. I’ve tried a bunch of different scarves, and nothing even comes close to protecting my face like a bunch of long facial hair.  That being said, I do not miss the beard.  I’ll take that cold morning slap in the face, and gladly.  The beard was a constant reminder to me about how long Basewood was taking, and that I needed to finish it.  Now each morning when I head to the studio, the cold air against my face is a reminder to take everything I learned from Basewood and to apply it to my new projects.

It’s done! 100% of Basewood finished

You’ve mentioned your next project in your classes before but can you tell the public a bit what it is about? Well, I intend to keep self-publishing Phase 7 for the rest of my life.  I’ve got all kinds of stories I will to tell, but the one I’m working on right now is a three-part story all about my favorite band Weezer (to be released in Phase 7).  The other big project I’m working on is going to be a webcomic.  It’s a fantasy story for kids with wizards and dragons and lots of bad puns.  I’m currently workshopping the first storyline (about 100 pages) with the CCS seniors.  Once I’ve gone through and tightened up the script, I’m going to build up a hefty lead before I start posting online, which will hopefully be later this year.

Melanie Gillman, CCS student, draws the haircutting process

Exactly how much smaller you plan on working? 50%? Yeah, about 50%.  Basewood was drawn at 18″ x 24″ which I do not recommend!  From now on I’m going to draw at 11″ x 17″ or so.  It’s crazy – even if I drew with the same insane level of detail, with all the crazy textures and everything – I could draw twice as fast, just because of the surface area.  But on top of that, I’m going to be drawing in a much simpler style, with no crosshatching, so I’m hoping I can push that up to four or five times faster.  My role models are cartoonists like Raina Telgemeier and Chris Schweizer who can ink like five pages in a day, and still make great comics that are enjoyable to read.

Alec making snow ALL the same size in 2009.

How did your family react to the end of Basewood and to your clean-shaven face? I was actually really surprised by my Mom’s reaction.  She really hated my beard, and I thought she would be so excited to see my face again.  But when she picked me up at the airport a few weeks ago, all she said was, “Tsk!  Did you shave this morning?” because I had a day’s worth of stubble from traveling from White River Junction to Seattle.  I guess there’s no pleasing her…  The funnier reactions have been from the people around town.  I got carded at the bar the other night, which hasn’t happened since my first week here, years ago.  Once the bartender saw my ID she was cracking up and passing it around.  I’ve been getting similar double takes from my students who are confused when I say hi to them on the street, only to turn around a few moments later and say, “Oh, hi Alec!  I didn’t recognize you!”

Alec’s lady, Clair, cuts and shaves the monster

Have you and Claire started making those bookmarks MADE from your beard hair? Most people were creeped out by the idea of the Basewood bookmarks, so sadly the project has been shelved, literally.  The remnants of my beard (minus the braid that was given to Liz Prince) are in my Darth Vader cookie jar on our shelf of DVDs.  I’m currently working on the French collection of Basewood to be published by L’employé du Moi.  Maybe I’ll do a Kickstarter, so maybe I could break out the beard bookmarks as a backer reward!

Alec as drawn by Max de Radigués of L’employé du Moi

What are your plans for the West Coast? At first, I will just be holing up in my studio and drawing as much as possible.  On top of my teaching duties, I have also been acting director of CCS this semester while James Sturm is on sabbatical. It has been an amazing learning experience for me, but I have been busier this semester than any other time in my life.  I have barely been able to scrape out an hour a day to draw, very early in the morning while the town is still asleep.  I have two graphic-novel length projects all scripted and ready to go, so my plan for the rest of 2012 is to just draw as much as humanly possible.  In 2013, I will start taking on new freelance illustration and coloring projects.

If you have caught Longstreth fever, FEAR NOT, there is a cure. He provides a subscription service to the public for comic remedies as well as many comics that are available to read online, like the Dvorak Zine! Transitions is available to read digitally via Facebook and here.  You can also buy Phase 7 and Alec’s collaborative pinball zine with fellow teacher/cartoonist Jon Chad, Drop Target #4, at MoCCA in New York City this weekend.

Jen Vaughn has followed the Cult of Beardstreth since late 2008. Paying rock tribute below:

Vermont names Cartoonist Laureate: James Kochalka

By Jen Vaughn
What do you do with a man with a wild mind of his own and a pair of drawing hands that just won’t quit?

You make him KING.

James Kochalka is the one of forerunners of autobiographical diary comics with his syndicated comic, American Elf, which is also available online and began way back in October, 1998. He is also the creator of other excellent comics like irreverent SuperF*ckers and children’s books like the Johnny Boo series and most recently, Dragon Puncher. His comics are published by Portland-based comics publisher, Top Shelf. Brett Warnock of Top Shelf had this to say about his new Laureate: “James Kochalka mines the depths of the comics medium in ways that most aspiring cartoonists can only hope to achieve. Simply put, he “gets” comics… the narrative flow, panel and page compositions, line quality and color palette. Of course, all would be for naught without his charming, funny, and engaging content. And he makes it all seem so damn effortless. The world is a much better place for Kochalka’s impressive body of work.”

All over the state of Vermont, Kochalka has spread his love of comics and drawing. He is a regular visiting artist/faculty member at the Center for Cartoon Studies, a renowned cartooning school also based in Vermont. The Center for Cartoon Studies appointed Kochalka after a selection process. CCS Director James Sturm believes, “Whether they are funny, philosophical, or naughty, James Kochalka brings a childlike intensity to all of his work. With his diary comic he has influenced countless cartoonists and has forever altered the landscape of cartooning.”

Kochalka is also known for giving back to his own Vermont town, Burlington. Once a year, Kochalka and a rag-tag group of fledgling cartoonists (usually from CCS) take over the 4th and 5th grade classes to teach youngsters the joy of comics, sequential art and panel play.

When not inspiring the minds of children and cartoonists world-wide, Kochalka occasionally sings in his band, James Kochalka Superstar or creates 8-bit digi-tunes (my favorite track from Digital Elf was The Golden Eagle). The coronation of James Kochalka , the first Vermont Cartoonist Laureate, will take place all over Vermont in a day long-celebration. So mark your calendars for March 10, 2011 and take a trip up to Vermont for the celebration! Visit the official decree of coronation at the Center for Cartoon Studies site, where more details will pop up the closer the day approaches and the snow melts.