UPDATED 5/23: Fantagraphics and Woodruff have responded to the contriversy with a statement. Scroll down to read.

Controversy erupted on Twitter over the weekend concerning the four Eisner nominations for Thomas Woodruff’s Francis Rothbart! The Tale of a Fastidious Feral,published by Fantagraphics. Woodruff, the retired head of the illustration and cartooning departments at SVA, was nominated for Best Graphic Album- New, Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (interior art), Best Lettering and Best Publication Design, tying him for second on the list of most nominations, after Zoe Thorogood. 

The controversy spread among former SVA students, who alleged that his teaching methods were unnecessarily harsh, and included inappropriate overtones of sexism and racism. In addition, it was claimed Woodruff had consistently looked down on the cartooning students – making the acclaim over what Woodruff called a “graphic opera” a bit hypocritical.

francis rothbart thomas woodruff

A second wave of controversy spread over the seeming cultural appropriation of the $75 book – which follows a rather Mowgli/Tarzan-like narrative about an orphaned child, seemingly of South Asian heritage, who goes feral and is raised with indigenous trappings – while also scaring the wildlife with erotic urges. According to the Publishers Weekly review “This grotesque-erotic epic will call to curious and particular collectors, while raising eyebrows and questions about the boundaries of art publishing.”

[Note: I originally wrote that the child was white, based on the name Francis Rothbart and a description of the story as being about a downed ballooning family, making it sound like some kind of “white savior” trope, but as mentioned here, Francis is definitely brown. My apologies.]

The charges of cultural appropriation also led to scrutiny over the makeup of this year’s Eisner judges: a laudable but far from diverse group.

The logline for Francis Rothbart reveals an eccentric narrative, and the visuals are undeniably detailed and lush. It was reportedly a passion project for Woodruff for a decade.

Francis Rothbart! follows a feral child who is raised by magpies and other creatures and is repeatedly struck by lightning. Because of the phenomena, the child develops eccentric talents, which he then abuses, leading to his ultimate destruction by the same natural world that once nurtured him. Written mostly in rhymed verse and lushly drawn and painted, each scene in Francis’s picaresque saga is a verbal and visual feast that transport the reader to a mythical pastoral world. Thomas Woodruff’s imagery recalls the fictive gardens of a paradise lost that echoes somewhere deep in all our souls. Woodruff’s debut book is a “graphic opera” unlike anything ever created, a tour de force of words and images in harmony that will be one of the most talked-about books of the decade.


Among the charges against Woodruff from his former students: making a painting of Donald Trump from Woodruff’s own feces, and then using the school scanner to make a scan…and asking students to clear up the machine after him. This painting definitely exists:

Another former student alleged that during a review of a “Lolita” assignment,  Woodruff once asked a female junior if she had ever had sex “because this is the most sexless Lolita I’ve ever seen.”

A former student who was the admissions counselor for the illustration and cartooning departments from 2016 – 2020 alleges a continual drip of racist comments, including:

All female Chinese students that are coming into our program being lesbians.

Being told to not include certain nationalities or to limit said nationalities on the international student scholarship lists that he reviewed because of his racist views.

If I tried to say anything, it was my word against his.  Me, who is a perceived failure to him because I’m not a practicing illustrator.  Versus him, who makes “graphic operas” and is the kind of showboat that makes the school and department look “cool”.

Multiple people attempted to escalate their concerns about him (on the admin side), all to fall on deaf ears.  

Another rather bizarre comment attributed to Woodruff was when a student ask why there were no “business classes for the Comics major.”

Illustration had a business class! Animation had two! Why not Comics? He told me he didn’t want the students to become too “business savvy” and “lose their artistic soul.”

Complaints about Woodruff’s methods and reported dismissive attitude about the cartooning department can be found in a couple of threads by former SVA students.

The School of Visual Arts (SVA) is one of the most prestigious art schools in America, and had turned out an immense number of cartoonists, illustrators, filmmakers, graphic designers, and animators since it was founded  by Silas H. Rhodes and Burne Hogarth in 1947. An extremely partial list of alumni includes Raina Telgemeier, Kyle Baker, Rebecca Sugar, Bill Plympton, James Jean, Dash Shaw, Yuko Shimizu, Molly Ostertag, David La Chapelle and dozens and dozens more.

Woodruff was named head of the Illustration and Cartooning departments at SVA in 2000, and supervised both for 20 years before retiring in 2021, according to this NY Times profile. The cartooning department had an associate head, Keith Mayerson, for a period during that time. The current associate head is cartoonist Jason Little, who works under Viktor Koen, current Chair of Illustration and Comics.

The controversy has been bubbling on social media all weekend, combining many threads about art school, the illustration profession, comics awards, representation, the place of manga in American comics and more. Neither the Eisners, Woodruff nor Fantagraphics have made a formal statement as we write this. One of the Eisner judges wrote a blog post about the controversy but quickly deleted it. 

It is extremely rare for an Eisner nomination to be withdrawn, and the cases we recall were over technical issues. Judges are instructed to judge the work and not the creator, and have generally adhered to that policy.

UPDATED: After reaching out, we received statements from both, via Fantagraphics’ publicist. We have elided a word in Woodruff’s response, otherwise running them as received. 

From Fantagraphics:

Francis Rothbart! is an allegory of an outsider child, who is orphaned in the wild as a toddler. He is different, trying in vain to be accepted by the local townspeople. He is an avatar of innocence, devoid of savagery, attempting to survive. His ethnic origins refer to The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, but Woodruff wanted his character’s personality to appear more gender fluid, with a feminine side. With all his attempts to fit in, his mother-figure is stoned to death by a gang of intolerant thugs; and in the ending sequences, the townsfolk come after him with pitchforks and torches.

In our current culture where the “other” is constantly under attack, and creative, challenging, and underground art is being maligned and banned, this story seems eerily prescient.

From Thomas Woodruff:

This book was carefully made over nearly a decade. It was never made with the intention for accolades, awards, or even an audience. It was made only with love: my love of comics, of drawing, picture-making, storytelling, design, type and letterforms, grand opera, Venetian painting, and heartfelt sentiment. These are themes I have explored for years.

When I took the position of Chair of Illustration and Cartooning in 2000, my dedication to both departments was strong and sincere. The Cartooning department grew from 121 students to 166 students in 2020, the Illustration Department grew from 312 to 746. During my tenure, we presented the students’ best 20 page comics in a large end of the year Junior exhibition. I instituted and oversaw the creation of  a  full color annual Cartooning Magazine, designed to showcase the impressive work of our Seniors. I worked closely with our library to assemble one of the best Cartooning collections in the country. A Cartoon industry leader referred to the department as the “Harvard of Cartooning” referring to the impressive faculty I assembled over time, and the level of sophistication of our students, (many of them Eisner award winners and nominees, including this year). In working with students, my frank critiques were intended to help them develop keen minds and strong spines.

As a openly gay man in my late sixties, I have been called “f—-t” more times than I would choose to remember, and seen too many die too young during the AIDs epidemic.

In my work as an artist and educator in my over 40 year career, I have attempted to help break and blur some cultural barriers that are still deeply enmeshed within our present day society. Artists must be brave, particularly telling the stories that they need to tell. Francis challenges the torches and pitchforks, he is stronger than the misunderstandings, the bullying, and the hate. I am too!

[This story has been updated to clarify the current structure of the cartoning department under chair Viktor Koen and associate head Jason Little.]


  1. The Eisners are as useful as the Oscars. Just an incestuous bunch of industry folks sniffing each other’s farts.

  2. Are the instructions to the judges public?
    How are the Eisner judges selected?
    Where can one read the rules?

    (And given that the Eisners and Harveys were born from controversy, it’s not too surprising that there will be controversy. Even AMPAS has drama, both this year and last.)

    As for any judgement on the creator, these awards are voted by industry professionals, so controversy might hinder his success.

  3. I taught under Thomas Woodruff for almost 20 years at SVA. Personally I had a great experience working for him and consider him a friend. I consider his graphic novel worthy of the Eisner nominations it has received. It is a masterpiece of applied effort and imagination. This is my view. Awards in general are not something to die for. They are icing. Don’t worry much about icing. Do the work. Find your audience.

  4. I interviewed with him for a teaching gig in his department and I was told I was hired. One week later, he withdrew the offer, citing other teachers with tenure wanting the hours. I’ve always wondered about that excuse.

  5. You can hardly call this a “response”. More accurately “author and publisher refuse to directly comment on racist tropes in book or past abusive history of author, saying only they tried really hard”. Have some journalistic integrity and point this out directly to your readers in the text and in the headline!

  6. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course. However, in my view, Tom ran an amazing department and together the teachers and students all transformed cartooning and illustration with his dedication, lead and vision. Teaching comics in the 90’s before Tom became Chair, I and students from that mid 90’s era can attest, despite remarkable students, and that SVA began as a school for comics and illustration, that cartooning had become “the armpit of SVA.” Tom completely supported and lead the resurrection of cartooning there to a new decades long era, with fantastic teachers and great numbers of successful students. He was tough to but fair, a great teacher who many students and faculty revered, and he celebrated the many achievements and accomplishments of countless cartooning students of all ethnicities, backgrounds and genders.
    Especially in our era, where Florida and much of the country are demonizing LGBTQ+ teachers, and work, Tom’s graphic novel is remarkable and unique, a decade long undertaking that is unapologetically queer and about celebrating diversity. There have been too few LGBTQ+ Eisner nominees and winners, and too few queer graphic novels that have nominated/won….
    Tom was no gay villain or Captain Hook at SVA, but someone who deeply cared about the students and school, including cartoonists as much as illustrators, and spent his adult lifetime expertly critiquing comics before embarking on his own, inspired by his students, faculty, and the history and contemporary worlds of cartooning, illustration and fine art. His work deserves recognition and his legacy for SVA deserves respect.

  7. It’s pretty stunning how a “graphic opera” more aligned with dehumanizing freak show attractions and minstrel shows of the 1930s is being painted as transgressive art, as if the ability to cause offense is enough to validate the depth of one’s non-message. Explorations of queerness and being othered has been traversed through the racialized other for decades now and all it got us is hoards of white queers misusing slang from folks they otherwise lock their doors to. So what exactly will this work accomplish beyond short lived offense, soon to be memory holed and forgotten by most?

    The problem isn’t that Thomas Woodruff can’t explore the lives and experiences of queer people of color, it’s that he absolutely doesn’t have the respect nor expertise to do so. To add insult onto injury, he spent decades disrespecting the very artform he presented his work in. He can’t even bear to call his work a comic, as if naming it a graphic opera will afford it innovative gravitas it doesn’t live up to.

    I really cannot overstate this: every single shred of critique aimed at Thomas Woodruff is long overdue. He abused and ruined the careers of fellow creatives for little reason beyond fear they could reveal the long shadow of his inadequacies for two decades. A few days of him receiving justifiable call outs concerning a consistent pattern of harmful behavior and beliefs, some of which are evident in his magnum opus, is warranted.

    May he have even a shred of the humility demanded of those he saw as beneath him

  8. I’m going to copy and paste here what I wrote in response to Gary’s instagram, which Gary just blocked me for, much to my dismay, because I know I’m not out of line by any means.

    Tom is human, as we all are. I don’t think at all that he’s a bad person, I genuinely think he wanted the best for many of his students, but there were many issues with his teaching methods. I dealt with them myself–he made accusations that didn’t “fuel a fire” for me because they made no sense. They just left me angry and confused. I saw a lot of his needling firsthand with a number of students, and knowing what I know, I think they’re genuine. In my experience, I tried speaking with SVA admin about it and nothing came of it–not that I wanted Tom fired, but I wanted him to gain perspective. Judging by others’ comments, I wasn’t the only one who tried speaking to SVA about this. Please understand this is coming from frustration. As cartooning majors, we spent so much $$$ and so many years to be there, and we so many years to be there, and we had a chair who very much thought less of us as students, at least compared to the illo majors. He made this very clear. I’m very sure he treated fellow professors quite differently, but we all had something to prove and went through the wringer. And I do, frankly, find it a bit ironic that his book is receiving so many accolades when he “piled on” comics back in the day. People can change, but I wish he’d just admit that he has.
    I just wish there was more nuance in all of this. I think we all have valid points. None of our experiences are wrong. Humans are complicated.

  9. Damn nothing more satisfying then watching the absolute wall of Drumpf Derangement Syndrome whiners have to turn on the guy they would have propped up like a hero 3 years ago for “dunking” on that orange boogieman

  10. Being a teacher for decades means you’ll get some angry students along the way.

    The issue here isn’t that he may have had opinions that frustrated others. The issue is that he is saying that he can make a story about “feral” native peoples, because he is gay.

    In our current culture where the “other” is constantly under attack, and creative, challenging, and underground art is being maligned and banned, this story seems eerily prescient.

    That is some real Jedi magic from Fantagraphics. “It’s not an offensive racist stereotype…if the baby is gender bending!”

    As a openly gay man in my late sixties, I have been called “f—-t” more times than I would choose to remember, and seen too many die too young during the AIDs epidemic. In my work as an artist and educator in my over 40 year career, I have attempted to help break and blur some cultural barriers that are still deeply enmeshed within our present day society. Artists must be brave, particularly telling the stories that they need to tell. Francis challenges the torches and pitchforks, he is stronger than the misunderstandings, the bullying, and the hate. I am too!

    Maybe write about that. Or, if you’d like to do a story about a feral child, try not portray the natives like savages.

    Also, as someone who does type for a living, that cover is not from someone who loves typography. It’s an abortion, very similar to what you’d see in a very junior designer’s portfolio, before they learn taste. Seeing this even be nominated shows how these awards are powered very little by content.

  11. Okay, so can we just point out that the fact an illustrated book is being pushed as a ‘graphic opera’ rather than what it is paired against (actual comics) for a comics award? Comics are always treated like some sort of bad word in the fine arts world, and personally if Fantagraphics can’t even get an actual comic put up on the pedestal for the award, should it simply not be disqualified or put in it’s own category all together?

  12. “Also, as someone who does type for a living, that cover is not from someone who loves typography” The typography seems typical for the artsy-fartsy stuff that is published these days.
    The typography was most likely done by someone other than the artist so to criticize that along with the bogus claims of racism seems very petty.

    Are you a petty person, Calico? Are you the kind of person who spreads rumors because someone said your work was terrible?

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