Comics abroad

Ever since looking at a Romita (Sr.) Spiderman when I was eight, I’d been obsessed with comics. I’d been working on my stories ever since I was a kid, but really dove in head-first when I got laid off in 2008 from my job doing graphics for the fashion industry. I put all my energy into making comics. I won a Xeric and got nominated for an Eisner for the first two chapters of Power Out, but there was a lot of uncertainty about the future.

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Power Out

I got a substantial comics job when Hill & Wang needed someone to step in for an artist who got sick before he could finish a 150-page comic explaining the Affordable Care Act. I have an economics degree, so Thomas LeBien (editor at H&W) thought I’d be a good match with Jonathan Gruber, the health care economist who advised Obama on the ACA. Since my unemployment had long run out, I moved in with my parents to save money while I worked on Health Care Reform. I’m lucky to have parents I could stay with, but when my friend Sarah Glidden told me about a residency program she was doing at the Maison Des Auteurs in Angoulême, France, it sounded like a dream. I was shocked when I got in.

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France didn’t feel like a completely different universe after living in America, but there were a lot of new experiences, like living in a 600 year old building and spending two hours at lunch. The food – I could write pages. French culture loves the arts, and comics in particular. When you tell people you’re a dessinateur (literally, “draw-er”), they’re really impressed, like you told them you were a doctor or something.

The MDA (Maison Des Auteurs) was incredible. I shared a studio with Julien Zanesi, and our studio was in a turret, so we had light from three directions and views of the city and river. There’s galleries and comics libraries and even a museum, but the best resource is all the different artists in the program with you. Everyone takes their work seriously but approaches it with their own unique method, so there’s a lot of good habits to pick up.

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BDVille

While I was there I took Frank Santoro’s correspondence course, which completely changed the way I thought about creating images. There were a lot of things about comics that were getting me down at the time, but I started having fun again, just focusing on the pleasure of creating images. I was in a good mindset for it.  My off-the-plane French was hot garbage, and it simplified things. Some stuff that I used to be hung up on just seemed trivial when trying to deal with satisfying your basic needs while living in a foreign country. So I had a lot of energy to put into comics. I took more chances, both visually (like with Retrofit’s 4090) and emotionally (my diary comic BDVille). Honestly, it was a pretty big transformation in my process and outlook, which is why it’s so hard for me to finish Power Out. I was a different guy when I started that book, and while I still have a passion for the story and characters, it’s difficult to get into the right mindset to finish it.

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4090

My favorite thing I’ve ever worked on is my current project, Science Ninjas. It’s a Dragonball-style action-adventure that actually teaches science fundamentals to children. It’s totally legit too! I’m working with  Dr. Amanda Simpson – she has a phD in chemical engineering and everything! It’s quite hands-on, which is unique for a comics project. I’m integrating it into a comprehensive science education program that involves lab experiments, science games, and design competitions. It’s a ton of work, but it’s fun stuff. I’m playing a lot with animation, which is a blast, and kids really respond to it.

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I’m working with day camps next summer where kids can do science experiments, read (and create) comics, and maybe even learn karate! I know it’s not a traditional path for a cartoonist, who usually think in terms of books. But there’s something about projecting your comics on a screen while kids read the parts for the characters that is profoundly satisfying. Health Care Reform sold something like 30,000 copies, but I didn’t get to see one person really engage with it. Watching children enjoy – and learn from – my work in real time does a lot to reaffirm my love for making comics.

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One Response to Comics abroad

  1. Pingback: My Comic Book Life, Part 2: I Discover Derring Doers | Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson

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