Friday, June 10, 2011

CCS: The Eddie Campbell Experience

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 to supplement that article. This Q&A will focus on one advisor whom everyone spoke of in glowing terms: Eddie Campbell.

Eddie Campbell

TCJ: Why did you choose Eddie Campbell as your advisor?

Al B Wesolowsky: I’ve long admired his autobiographical work, its introspective nature, his delineation of characters, and his sense of inviting one to experience his life.

Bill Volk: I chose Eddie because he was a thesis advisor for previous classes, and they all had nothing but praise for him. More specifically, I chose him from among the previous positively-reviewed advisors because I wanted someone who was thoughtful and literate.

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

ABW: From earlier academic work in the liberal arts, I understood that the thesis was to be a demonstration of one’s ability to produce work that showed one’s assimilation of the curriculum, earlier assignments, to work on an individual project, to plan and budget one’s time and resources, and to end up with a finished comic that one had written, designed, drew, lettered, did digital prepress, printed, and bound. The thesis is not intended to be a masterwork, but simply the best work of which one is capable at this stage of one’s career.

The first year at CCS we produced a lot of shorter comics; the thesis was to be a longer work, although minimum page-counts were not specified. The sense among students that the thesis was expected to be at least 40 to 60 pages long.

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

ABW: For being in Australia, and me in New England, Eddie was uncannily quick with responses via e-mail. I sent him my earlier work from CCS and he provided quick, helpful observations. As I progressed into writing, thumbnailing, and drawing the thesis, I would ship segments to him and he would respond. In my case, he did not need to be hands-on (I was 62 years old at the time and knew how to plan my work); but had I requested a more hands-on approach, I think that he would have obliged.

Bill Volk

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

ABW: A profound influence, ranking with Alison Bechdel and Joe Sacco among current comickers. As we corresponded, I became aware of Eddie’s lively wit and easy communication skills. Also his intellectual curiosity.

BV: Since I started working with him, I've been more conscious of spatial cues in my art. According to his suggestions, I've been moving my "camera" less to provide more of a frame of reference for subtle character actions. Though he hasn't mentioned it, there's a good rule attributed to him that says that you should show feet somewhere in every page. I've also been making pages with more panels in them.

Art copyright Bill Volk

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

ABW: To look at what I was doing. Really look at it. And to work at word balloons, their shape and size, with regard to the amount of text within them, and to try to integrate the balloons as part of the page design. I think I improved a bit with balloons, but have a long way to go.

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

ABW: That I couldn’t just sit down with him and say “look at these thumbnails/roughs/etc. and tell me what you think.” Distance precluded such, and I’d have to scan work to send to him, a time-consuming process. I would have enjoyed more spontaneity had I been able to meet with him in person.

BV: Sometimes the long distance between us caused a little frustration. I also felt extremely self-conscious about staying on schedule, which often made me avoid contact with him until I'd caught up. That was a mistake.

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

ABW: I really had no idea of what working with Eddie would be like, but I was eminently satisfied and was happy when I could send him a printed copy of the thesis via the posts. I learned a lot from him (although it does not show yet) and the experience was most worthwhile. We continue to stay in touch, so he must not be too disgusted with me.

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

ABW: Choose an advisor who does work that you like, to which you respond, who tackles some of the same issues and stories that you want to do, and be prepared for some candid remarks. Judge the rate of communication by the timing and nature of the responses from the advisor, so you don’t overwhelm them or appear to be grudging with output. If they suggest something that you don’t think will help, try it---if it doesn’t help, tell the advisor.

And if the relationship isn’t working out, tell CCS and see if you can be assigned someone else. Advisors and students are not all created equal, and you cannot tell how things will work out. Don’t go running to CCS with minor quibbles, though, just for when the relationship is not working.

Suffice it to say that Eddie was the ideal of an advisor.

My impression is that most students had positive experiences with their advisors. There were a few occasions where, for one reason or another, the match proved not helpful, but CCS was quick to work out arrangements with another advisor for those students.

BV: Your thesis advisor is not a ghostwriter, nor is he a supernatural saviour. He is just another pair of eyes, to help you point out things you may not notice when your nose is buried deep in the work. The work is still all up to you.

1 comment:

  1. You're all marked down for not finding a more up-to-date picture of me.