Monday, June 13, 2011

CCS: Off-Beat Advisors

This is a companion piece to my article "Cartoonists Leading Cartoonists", which will appear in the epic issue #301 of The Comics Journal. I interviewed nearly three dozen students, alumni, mentors and faculty from the Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT regarding how the mentoring process works for second-year students. These students spend the year working on their thesis, turning to their advisors for guidance, suggestions, and critique. The nature of that relationship differed from student to student and advisor to advisor. I didn't have room to include every interesting response in my article, so I will be publishing some bonus material here at High-Low. This article will focus on some advisor choices that were off the beaten path, given that two of them work on kid-oriented, highly mainstream properties and another is best known as a publisher.


Holly Foltz, '10

The Comics Journal: Who was your thesis advisor?

Holly Foltz: Jim Lawson (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Planet Racers, Paleo)


TCJ: Why did you choose this individual as your advisor?

HF: Jim is both a writer and an artist and has been working on one of my favorite comics since their humble beginnings in the 80s. Looking at his work, he's really a master of his craft. His experience is really well-rounded and he knows how to work the comics medium to its full storytelling potential.


TCJ: Before you started working with your advisor, what was your understanding of what the thesis process would be like?

HF: I thought the thesis process itself would be a lot easier than it turned out to be. I hoped to have very frequent interactions (via Skype and maybe in person) with Jim.


TCJ: What was the process of working with Lawson like? How hands-on was he?

HF: Jim was very encouraging. He always told me what was working and what I was doing well in addition to what needed improvement. One story of mine went through several edits before I got to the thumbnailing stage, and Jim was really helpful in that editing process. He was a great problem solver,too, so if something (for example, too much text in a small panel) wasn't working, he'd have a solution (break up the text in a couple panels or simply fill the whole panel with words, with a small character head on the bottom).


TCJ: How much of an influence do you feel he had on you as an artist and in what ways?

HF: Unfortunately, I didn't send Jim a whole lot of finished art, because I was struggling with one story for long, but what art he did see, he liked. I'm not sure if my style changed at all, but it was validating to hear from Jim that he enjoyed it.


TCJ: How much of that influence was pre-existing, and how much came as a result of how he worked with you on your thesis?

HF: I definitely entered the student-advisor relationship with stars in my eyes, as I've been an admirer of Jim's for awhile. I might have been influenced just from reading and enjoying his work. After having him as an advisor, I pay a lot more attention to detail and the small things that can make a comic stand out.


TCJ: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your advisor?

HF: I learned that my work can hold its own, which was something I doubted for a long time. I really gained a lot of confidence.


TCJ: What was the most frustrating aspect of working with your advisor?

HF: I probably didn't take advantage of Jim as a resource as much as I could have. Our communications weren't too frequent and I think I could have gotten more out of our relationship than I did.


TCJ: Was the experience all that you had hoped it would be?

HF: My experience was different than what I anticipated, and I do regret not taking more initiative when it came to asking advice from my advisor, but I still learned and gained a lot and having him as my advisor made a difference in my work.


TCJ: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

HF: I would advise other cartoonists to request someone with a lot of experience who has seen success in the business for a long time. If someone's work has held up for years and been consistently well-read and received, they must be doing something right!


Jim Lawson, Foltz' Advisor:

TCJ: What was it about this role that appealed to you enough to take it on, given your busy schedule?

Jim Lawson: I think that I’ve been a frustrated teacher. I even looked into going back to school a few years back, to get my teaching certificate.

However, mostly I probably have to blame it on this girl, Maddi Yale. I met Maddi and her family here at the studio two years ago, easily. Maddi was a sweet kid- in high school at the time and one of the most hardcore Turtle fans that I’ve ever met. The meeting was pretty normal but after Maddi returned to California she contacted me with a request. For her senior project, she asked me if I would mentor her in the creation of a comic book. I agreed, and for that year, we established between us a teacher/student relationship towards the goal of completing that book. That experience was a very positive one for me, so when Holly approached me with basically the same request, it was pretty much a no-brainer.


TCJ: What did you see as your role with regard to the student, or did you leave that up to each individual?

JL: Because I was a working comic artist at the time, I must admit that I was pretty much hands off. I was here for questions or to provide feedback when Holly asked for it. However, the responsibility to make creative decisions or to get the work done on time was up to her. It’s a tricky thing; for instance, when Holly decided which story that she wanted to go with, I had a suggestion that there was just too much content, and that we begin the story at another point and try to fill in some of the backstory through a series of flashbacks. I don’t know if this helped her, as it seemed to cause a new set of problems as to how to do that. I think Holly had a certain vision in her head about how her story would unfold and I messed with that—it caused us to get bogged down.


TCJ: What was your understanding of what the mentor role would entail when you
agreed to participate, and how has that changed over time?

JL: No change really. I’ve only mentored twice though, so my experience here might be somewhat limited. In both instances, the students would email me scripts or art, and I would review it and give feedback. Maddi, my first student, was very much a beginner. She was particularly anxious about her drawing-- everything from her characters to her panel layouts to what to use for her borders. Holly, on the other hand, was more experienced, and seemed to have all her fundamentals down. I think with Holly, my job was basically telling her how good she was, hah.


TCJ: What has been the most satisfying part of being a mentor?

JL: These kids are doing it because they love comics. As tough a business as this is to get work in, they’re in it for the love of it, and that’s what’s going to get them through the tough times.

It helps me to be around people like that. I feel really fortunate that I’ve been able to have a career where I get to draw every day and work with characters that I love- I’ve been blessed. If I can somehow help someone else to realize their dreams then that’s a pretty special thing.


TCJ: What has been the most frustrating part of being a mentor?

JL: It’s got to be getting the work done. I think there’s an underestimation of how much actual work that goes into a comic. That and getting stuck on all the little details. For example, get the entire book laid out. If you have issues with some of the thumbnails, you can always go back later and fix some of the pages that you might not like. I think that it’s easy to lose momentum or to become overwhelmed. There’s nothing an Editor hates more than a late artist.


RANDALL DREW, ‘10

TCJ: Who was your thesis advisor?

Randall Drew: Tracy Yardley! Penciler/Cover artist for Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Universe monthly series.


TCJ: Why did you choose this individual as your advisor?

RD: He was actually my third choice. I chose him because I've followed his work with Archie Comics since he came on in 2005 and immediately saw he was bringing a unique experience and style to a comic that was drifting between many artists at the time.


TCJ: Before you started working with your advisor, what was your understanding of what the thesis process would be like?

RD: My understanding was that the thesis was to be an entirely self-developed and driven project, and that the advisor was to work closely with you in critiquing and guiding your work, helping you to keep focused and set goals.


TCJ: What was the process of working with this person like? How hands-on was he?

RD: Tracy and I communicated almost exclusively through email, tho we did speak on the phone a few times. I would send him work I had completed and wait for a response. Unfortunately, Tracy is working on several books a month, raising a newborn and in the proccess of buying a house...he's a very busy guy. It took, at times, a lot of effort on my end to get a timely response out of him, occasionally forging ahead without his input.


TCJ: How much of an influence do you feel he had on you as an artist and in what ways?

RD: I was always intrigued by Tracy's panel layouts. They were different, exciting, full of angles and lines that moved your eye around the page. Each one felt like it matched the needs of the story at that moment in time perfectly. I've tried often to emulate this.


TCJ: How much of that influence was pre-existing, and how much came as a result of how he worked with you on your thesis?

RD: Most of that specific influence was pre-existing. Tracy sort of let me move on with my project in whatever direction I wanted to go, allowing me to feel out what was wrong and right about the development of my pages.


TCJ: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your advisor?

RD: Patience with the early stages. He helped me mostly slow down my process into a few more stages than I would have gone normally.


TCJ: Was the experience all that you had hoped it would be?

RD: Not entirely, but it's hard to judge how exactly these things are supposed to go. Over all I'm pleased with the effort Tracy made to advise me, despite his hectic schedule. I'll probably continue to send him my work long after CCS.


TCJ: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

RD: Be patient with your advisor, they have lives to live as well. Also, don't be afraid to ask your questions, that's why you're here at CCS in the first place.



JP Coovert ‘09


TCJ: Who was your thesis advisor?

J.P. COOVERT: Chris Staros, co-publisher of Top Shelf Comix


TCJ: Why did you choose this individual as your advisor?

JPC: I entered my second year at CCS with my fiancee moving away to Minneapolis to pursue a career. I thought this would be my chance to work hard and make comics my career (my original thought was to become a teacher of comics.) I chose Chris mainly because he has always been a big supporter of my comics, but also because I thought he would be able to help me craft my book into a better and more saleable piece of literature.


TCJ: Before you started working with your advisor, what was your understanding of
what the thesis process would be like?

JPC: My plan was to work on a graphic novel, getting Chris' input along the way. My idea was to spend a year getting an outline, then thumbnails, and the first chapter (basically a book proposal) finished.


TCJ: What was the process of working with Staros like? How hands-on was he?

JPC: I talked on the phone with Chris 3 or 4 times throughout the year after mailing him thumbnails. I thought it was best to send him large chunks of work and then really dig in. Chris was extremely thoughtful in his criticism. Thinking back, he gave just the right balance of constructive criticism and encouragement to keep me moving forward.


TCJ: How much of an influence do you feel he had on you as an artist and in what ways?

JPC: I think there is a pretty significant influence. I believe Chris and I share a somewhat similar taste in storytelling and I think that especially rubbed off on me working on my thesis project.


TCJ: How much of that influence was pre-existing, and how much came as a result of how he worked with you on your thesis?

JPC: Being able to talk to Chris about my project at length really provided a great insight into what he looks for as a publisher and reader. It's hard work constructing a longer story, be he was able to get me pointed in the right direction.


TCJ: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your advisor?

JPC: As I was working on the project, interesting characters were paramount. Later I realized that trying to work on a book as a stepping stone to a career in comics is the worst possible way to move forward in a positive way on a project. He never spoke to me directly about this, but I think my short time talking to Chris helped me snap out of that mentality.


TCJ: What was the most frustrating aspect of working with your advisor?

JPC: I wish I could have sat down with him face to face at least a couple of times to talk comics. He seems like a rad dude to hang out with!


TCJ: Was the experience all that you had hoped it would be?

JPC: It was! He definitely held up his end of the bargain. If there was one regret I had, it would have to be that I didn't take enough advantage of his willingness to help me write and craft an awesome story!


TCJ: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

JPC: Take FULL advantage of your advisor. The wonderful thing about CCS is all the amazing talent and knowledge that is attracted to the school. They want to help, so let them! Ask them to!

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