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New UC Courses Teach the Serious Side of Comics


The University of Cincinnati is part of a growing trend – art schools realizing the creative and commercial value of comics.

Date: 10/30/2007 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Lisa Ventre; video by Jay Yocis

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Comics aren’t just cutesy kid stuff anymore. They’ve grown up into full-length books (graphic novels) that often deal with weighty, even troubling subjects – from suffering cancer to surviving the Holocaust. Moreover, these works can earn their authors fame (one graphic novel has received a Pulitzer Prize), as well as fortune, since the best known graphic novelists have literally written and drawn million-dollar books.

And just as comics have grown up, the study and teaching of comics’ cultural history and the creation of these works is becoming an established field of study in the nation’s art schools.

For instance, award-winning graphic novelist Carol Tyler, adjunct instructor of fine art in the University of Cincinnati’s internationally recognized College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), first offered a comics course in the fall of 2006. Demand was so strong that unexpected sequels followed each quarter thereafter. That same sequence is currently underway in DAAP’s School of Art: A fall quarter course focusing on black-and-white basics is to be followed by courses focusing on color and production. (And a handful of students from last year’s courses now meet with Tyler as part of independent studies – coming together every Wednesday evening to continue their training.)

One of those Wednesday night students who took two courses with Tyler last year is fine art senior Danielle Mahar, 21, of Cleveland. Following her two comics courses with Tyler last year, Mahar spent the summer illustrating a soon-to-be-published children’s book.

Said Mahar, “I’ve always been interested in becoming an illustrator. It’s what I’ve always hoped to do, but there were no classes to help guide me, help me make contacts. I just didn’t know how to take those first steps.”

Then, Tyler and her classes came along. Mahar has since received guidance and her first contract to illustrate a book via these classes. She explained, “The classes helped me to unknowingly prepare for my first book illustration job. A children’s book author contacted the school and looked at our work, met with us and chose me to illustrate her text. These comics classes have been my greatest experience at UC, not just as preparation for that undertaking, but also for the specific instruction we receive in the art of illustration.”

Fellow fine art student Nancy Williams, 60, of Bond Hill, feels much the same. She has enrolled in Tyler’s comics courses not only as a part of her humanities minor but also to   complete a graphic novel regarding her own family’s history during the 1937 floods of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Stated Williams, “I found letters from that time of crisis that members of my family wrote. They speak of the threat of typhoid fever and more. The most challenging part for me is to capture the realness of those times,” when 50,000 locals had to flee their homes as the Ohio River reared up to an unimaginable 80 feet.

Mahar and Williams aren’t alone in their pursuit of expertise in illustration and the production of graphic novels (comics). According to information from the National Association of Comics Arts Educators, a collaboration of artists, teachers and scholars, there is a growing list of art and design programs teaching courses on comics, and some even offer full degree programs. A growing number of fans have been drawn to the genre after graphic novels like Frank Miller’s noir crime-novel-inspired Sin City series first made USA Today’s list of best-selling books in 2002.

Carol Tyler with her book
Carol Tyler behind her graphic novel, Late Bloomer.

UC’s Tyler hopes her own upcoming works might do the same. She’s created one graphic novel, an autobiographical work titled Late Bloomer, published in 2005. She is already working on another that details her father’s experiences on and behind the front lines of North Africa, Italy, France and Germany during World War II. (That work, You’ll Never Know, is due out in 2009.)

Explained Tyler, “Comics as we know them today began to appear in books and newspapers in the 19th century. In the 1940s and 50s, the comic book per se emerged. And at times, the subject matter could be intense. That’s when politicos called for reining in comic creators through a little thing known as the ‘Comics Codes.’ Censorship eventually led to a revolution in publishing that resulted in the rich variety of comic genres that we enjoy today.”

User-friendly technologies made possible this expansion and proliferation of comic genres thanks to the advent of photo copiers, computers and digital processes. Artists at all skill levels were free to explore all manner of topics and techniques.

That trend has intersected with a growing market demand for comic works, according to Tyler. “I’m a baby boomer. Comic books like Superman and Little Lulu were part of my childhood experience. I loved Mad Magazine as a young teen. Like other readers, I don’t necessarily want to go back to those same characters and plot lines, but I remember that comics era with fondness. Now, I look for something more sophisticated.”

Others feel the same. In fact, museums now collect pages of comic art, and The New York Times Book Review regularly reviews graphic novels. Many end up on the bestseller list.

Carol Tyler and Mariel Wood
Carol Tyler, left, with student Emily Williams in a UC comics course.

Tyler’s comics classes are open to any UC student; however, don’t expect to laugh off the work. In addition to comics’ cultural history, students must master the fine motor skill of inking by hand. For instance, in one exercise, students create a detailed pattern on a tree leaf using a fine, sable brush until the leaf is completely covered – front and back – with a delicate pattern.

Said Tyler, “It’s harder than it sound because the leaves are brittle and not at all flat. Students have to really focus or the leaf will shatter. It teaches them control.”

She added, “I’m teaching technique and cultural history, but beyond that, students are free to pursue their own vision in terms of subject matter.”

It’s Tyler’s goal to eventually create a series of comic courses, perhaps leading to UC as a destination program in what’s commonly known as sequential art (comics). Currently, only about half a dozen schools in the U.S. offer a two- or four-year degree in sequential art.

Such programs encompass the wide range of skills necessary to complete a graphic novel. These include study of life drawing, perspective, design, typography, color, computer art, literature, writing, editing, research and more. “Creating a comic is like staging a play. You are responsible for the plot, the sets, the costumes. You create an integrated, credible world that comes alive on the page. Comics are the original multi-media world. Many skills are required, skills that are transferable to many creative arenas – advertising, film, teaching (where graphic novels are used to promote literacy), journalism and other fields where sequential thinking applies,” Tyler explained.



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