Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Student Work From Duke University

I had the honor of giving a lecture to Bill Fick's comics drawing class at Duke University a couple of years ago. Fick and I co-founded the DICE comics show in Durham, along with cartoonist Eric Knisley. For their final project, Fick's students were required to create a minicomic. Most of his students were not avid comics readers going into the class (some had followed him from his illustration class), though some read webcomics. Here are the results.

Farewell, My Lovely, by Jon Frizzell. This was certainly the oddest of the entries from this group, as this is essentially a highly raw "cover version" of Frank Miller's Sin City. This is a super-crude version that's nonetheless bursting with energy on the page. While Frizzell copies some familiar Miller light/dark effects, the crudeness of his figure work makes this a fascinating read, in part because of how visceral the scratchy art is. Those unfamiliar with the original story will no doubt be completely baffled, because Frizzell does little to set things up for the reader; the comic is more an interesting exercise than an individual's personal expression.

Batwoman, by Amanda Giddon. This isn't a superhero comic per se, but rather a treatise on how shoddily women have been treated in mainstream comics as characters for nearly a century. Giddon uses Batman and gives him a gender switch while giving him a tour of characters like Tessie the Typist, romance comics, Marvel superheroines, and various other tropes. Giddon treats the subject with wit and does a nice job laying out each page clearly. It's also obvious that she really did her research on the subject.

How To Save Money At Duke! by Natalie Ferguson. This is one of several Duke-centric minis, which is not surprising considering the powerful pull of college as a narrative device. The cover of this mini is either an homage or a direct swipe of a Jaime Hernandez drawing of Hopey Glass; either way, it's uncredited. The comic itself eschews narrative and instead each page is its own unit, describing a real or funny way to save money as a Duke student trying to have fun. It's all a bit in-jokey, but some of the pages are nicely designed. Others are too text-heavy, and most of them read more as illustrated text than as comics.

A Freshman's Guide To Duke University, by ?. This one was uncredited and looks like it was done by someone more interested in illustration than comics. I did like the pencil drawings and funny take on college life. The artist gives advice as to what kind of identity a freshman might choose and what kind of activities they might engage in, lampooning various easily-discerned personality types seen every day on campus (frat star, hipster, intellectual, Cameron Crazy, etc) as well as concepts like "pregaming", the monotony of Orientation Week, etc. The way this mini goes from sincere advice to sarcasm keeps the reader on their toes. This was one of several comics in this bunch that I wish had been redone with a bit more polish; its raw qualities detract from the final product.

The Code Of The Modern Gentleman, by Alex Lark. This is another comic that has plenty of good ideas that seemed rushed. It combines Duke in-jokes (Duke students really enjoy going to a seedy nearby bar with a mechanical bull for some reason) with the conceit of reintroducing the concept of being a "gentleman", mocking both concepts. I liked the production values and aesthetic gestalt of this comic, but it once again has more to do with hastily-drawn illustrations than it does a carefully-produced product.

Eleven Of Tiamat, by Liz Novaski. This is a retelling of the Babylonian creation myth, done in the style of a western. This is the most stylish and conceptually interesting of the Duke minis, one that mixes the grittiness of a Jean Giraud western comic with the sheer weirdness of Babylonian mythology. There's also a great deal of wit to be found in this story of revenge and more revenge, mixing in cinematic, tightly-focused close-ups with the sweep of the supernatural. There's also some subtle commentary on sexism in the story as well. Of this group, this is the most professional looking of the minis and the one that I could see being sold online or at shows.

The Dukies: Human Vs Squirrel, by Jae Cheon. Anyone who's ever spent time at Duke knows that the quad squirrels are aggressive and entirely unafraid of humans. Cheon uses a big, bold line that sometimes isn't entirely coherent in telling silly stories about squirrels that they're human, a devious squirrel that follows her around, and a squirrel that thinks Cheon's a squirrel. Some of the pages are over-rendered and others are minimally illustrated, with the latter drawings being far more effective. It's undeniable that Cheon has a certain eccentric style in how she tells a story, even if that style is frequently disjointed.

Untitled, by Kevin Jian. Based on Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn, this mini cleverly uses time fracturing to show how various female animals suddenly and mysteriously disappear. The reason is less important than the impact their leaving has and how suddenly life changed for everyone. Jian's simple and clear line make this the most fluid read of the Duke minis, and by jumping back and forth in time, he manages to up the stakes for the reader while still concentrating on the essential "humanity" of these characters and how losing out on the women in their lives is a devastating experience.

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