Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Another Look Inside the CCS Student/Mentor Process

In honor of the graduating class of 2013 at the Center for Cartoon Studies, here's some heretofore unreleased interview material that I did for my article on CCS for The Comics Journal #301. I asked each student the same questions. Here are some selected answers regarding my topic: the student/thesis mentor relationship.

Steve Seck
Steve Seck is in the middle

RC: Why did you choose Alex Robinson as your advisor?

SS: As someone who is attempting a serialized comic, I was interested in hearing his thoughts on how he went about serializing Box Office Poison (which works remarkably well as a book). I am a great admirer of his storytelling ability, sense of humor & drawing style & saw a lot of things he was doing well in his work that I needed to improve on in mine. He also seemed like someone who would be approachable & relatively easy to work with.

RC: What was the process of working with Robinson like? How hands-on was he?

SS: I had a great experience working with Alex. My girlfriend & I had moved back to New Jersey from Vermont in the fall of 2008 - I was one of the first low-residency students in the CCS program - so I was able to meet up with Alex in Manhattan a few times to review work, have a couple drinks & discuss comics with him. I would bring copies of my inked pages with me for him to sketch revision ideas on & show him my (very rough) thumbnails for upcoming pages. I always emailed him my scripts before I got started on a new comic to get input from him about what to add, remove, revise, etc. before I started drawing. His comments were thoughtful & he never tried to dramatically change what I was trying to achieve with a scene or line of dialogue. He was always very respectful of my work - he was encouraging & his suggestions were mostly in line with what I was going for.

RCHow much of an influence do you feel he had on you as an artist, and in what ways?

SS: It's hard to say exactly how much of an influence Alex had on me as an artist - he was really much more into guiding me through my own way of working than telling me explicitly how to do things. If he felt something wasn't quite right with how I had done a panel,line of dialogue or gag, he'd often give me a few suggestions as to how he'd do it & leave it up to me to figure out my angle on it. He was always responsive if I came to him with a problem I couldn't solve, but mostly let me do my own work & guided or encouraged me whenever I'd give him a new batch of pages. He never imposed the ALEX ROBINSON WAY OF DOING THINGS on me, but rather helped me to further realize my own vision for my work.

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

SS: Box Office Poison - being one of the first books that got me into indie comics - had a pretty big impact on me; I'd say most of the Alex Robinson influence on my work was pre-existing. As stated previously, as an adviser Alex seemed interested in helping me continue to develop my own style & voice.

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

SS: First and foremost, giving my work to one of my favorite cartoonists was a big deal for me - I had never done anything of the sort until I gave Alex my CCS first year final project at MoCCA 2008. (I'm relatively "green" when it comes to cartooning - I didn't really start seriously pursuing it until right before I had been accepted to CCS.) Having him actually agree to be my adviser after reading it was also a huge deal - hey, he
thinks my stuff is worthwhile enough to spend a year helping me get better at it! Working with him gave me the confidence I needed to not only trust my instincts but also to keep at it & push myself to improve.

Alex Robinson

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

SS: I really didn't have a frustrating experience with Alex at all - he was responsive & encouraging.

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

SS: My advice to future CCS cartoonists when choosing an adviser? Look at what some of the cartoonists you like are doing well that you'd like to see yourself do better. Don't be afraid to choose someone whose style isn't exactly like yours - look for someone who excels at the stuff you want to improve at.

Casey Bohn

RC: Why did you choose Paul Karasik as your advisor?

CB: I had previous positive experience working with Paul on a class project in my first year. Beyond that, I felt that an editor, especially one of Paul's standing within the industry, would be the best choice for an advisor. Someone who is expressly a cartoonist isn't necessarily able to explain in words how something is or isn't working. Paul has a lot of experience doing exactly that.

RC: What was/is the process of working with Karasik like? How hands-on was he?

CB: Paul was most involved in revising sketch versions of my comics. I would email him sketches, he would give me notes, I would revise it again, and he would give me more notes, until he was completely satisfied. The magic words were, "This is looking good. Now start pencilling." From my second book on I pencilled from blowups of my thumbnails, and while I showed Paul my pencils every time, once I started doing that there was very little that needed to be said.

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

CB: Paul's focus was graphic storytelling. Does it make sense, does it read smoothly, is it getting the intended message across, is it compelling? These were the unspoken maxims that every critique was predicated upon, and I intend on taking a lot of that to heart from here on.

RC: What was the most valuable thing you learned from him?

CB: Getting to hear him laugh. We spoke on the phone twice and in person once, and hearing him laugh at the funny bits I had written was really satisfying. It was also much easier to…

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

CB: Disagreeing with Paul. I didn't want to ever have to do it. Just before inter break he sent me suggestions for new endings of my second book, and I ddn't like any of them, but I didn't want to tell him that. So I just said I would table my thesis until after winter break. He came to the school in January for Visiting Artist Seminar and he read over the last email he had sent me about my thesis, and he couldn't believe his suggestions, either. "Was I high?" he asked with disbelief. I preferred to wait until Paul could
disagree with himself than to speak against him.

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

CB: Choosing someone for their editorial experience really helped me. Settle on a project in the first week, stick to it, and get cracking. Do multiple smaller projects, with the goal being to complete everything you start this year. Don't try to do a graphic novel. The momentous work that gets made by Seniors begins life as a bit of fun that snowballs.

Alex Kim

RC: Why did you choose Chip Kidd as your advisor?

AK: I chose Chip because I greatly admire his work. His book covers are some of my favorite pieces of art out there. Also because he loves comics and understands how they work but isn't a cartoonist himself so I thought his feedback wouldn't get caught up so much in the mechanics of my process, which I knew I would get a lot of in school, and more on the final product.
RC: What was the process of working with this person like? How hands-on were they?

AK: Well, the process we set up was that I'd work on my thesis and present when I thought I had enough work to show. It was more presenting finished portions of my comic rather than presenting an outline or thumbnails, etc.... I was able to get a lot of feedback from my teachers and classmates during the process and wanted the use the time w/ my advisor to go over more finished work. I thought this would be more helpful since it would allow me to keep working and working and then get feedback on a chunk of work. This was also driven by how I wanted to work - I wanted to try and get as much drawing done as I could and then take a step back and look at what was produced. I thought it would be an interesting way to work and that there would be a lot I could learn.

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

AK: A lot and on composition and using words and images together effectively.

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

AK: To draw everyday.

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

AK: I ended up wanting more interaction with Chip. In the end, I think it was my fault. I think he would have been open to more interaction but I had to ask for it.

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

AK: Don't hesitate in asking for more face time with your advisor. Sounds like that goes without saying, but I know I should have asked for more.

Josh Rosen

RC: Why did you choose Aaron Renier as your advisor?

JR: It was James's  (Sturm, head of CCS--RC) idea, actually. It'd been the end of the first year, and I was at sort of a loss for who I wanted for a thesis advisor, so I met with James and asked his advice. And James just started rattling off names, and with almost all of them I was instantly, like, "that's a great idea! Why didn't I think of them!" And Aaron was one of them. On top of which, I remembered Alec Longstreth (who's good friends with Aaron) mentioning that Aaron was really good at "world building," which is something I was really interested in at the time. And I'd heard that Aaron was a really nice, positive person, which seemed like a good thing to have in a thesis advisor to me.

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

JR: I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, partially because I'd heard that the thesis advisor relationship often tended to vary from person to person (which makes sense). I knew I'd be sending them my work in progress over the course of the year, and getting their feedback on that, though I wasn't sure how involved the process would be. And I guess I assumed they would be a good potential resource for professional advice as well? I don't know, I suppose my expectations going in were ultimately sort of vague.

RC: What was the process of working with Renier like? How hands-on was he?

JR: Well Aaron lives in Chicago, which is far enough that we never had a chance to meet in person. However, we managed fairly early on to set up a schedule of meeting on Skype once a week, and having an hour or so long video chat about whatever it was that I was working on at the time. So we ended up working together a fair amount

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

JR: One of the earliest things was that Aaron's influence got me starting to use brush a bit more, something I hadn't had a lot of experience with before (I'd mostly just stuck to nib or technical pens previously). My main project for this past year ended up being doing a large thumbnail draft for a graphic novel that I plan to begin serializing after I graduate, and he ended up having a huge influence on that process as well. Honestly, that whole draft probably wouldn't even have existed without him. He encouraged me to just lay down a straight six panel grid, not to worry about layout or how the drawings look or anything like that, and just fill up the panels. Just write out the story. And the whole process proved extremely liberating, and made the whole writing process easier than it had ever been. It's a way of going about things that probably wouldn't ever have occurred to me on my own, and now I absolutely love it. So that probably turned out to be the biggest influence ultimately, just in terms of process.

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

JR: I think the influence Aaron has had on my work came out more through working with him than anything pre-existing before. I of course really admired his work before, and I would look at a drawing by him and be like "woah, I wish I could do that." But I don't think I really tried to consciously emulate his work until I started working with him during my thesis year. And I think part of that is because his work is so obviously brush-y, and I really only started working with brush over the course of the past year. And part of that as well is just that when you're working with someone really talented like Aaron, you sort of can't help but be like "Aaron does this really well. Maybe I should try doing something a bit like that too, while he's still around, and see what tips he might have on that." And the influence that comes about just through going through that process.

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

JR: Oh, lord. I'm not sure, I find it hard to gage what's "most valuable" at this point. Again, starting to use the brush and the altered thumbnailing process I took from him both spring to mind as pretty big things. Um, I think setting personal deadlines was a pretty important thing Aaron helped me to learn a bit too. As soon as we decided to start setting deadlines for the project I was working on, my productivity went way up. And I don't know, there's little stuff too, like when he encouraged me to try to just draw the shading on a rock or something now and then. I suspect that stuff'll stick with me too.

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

JR: Um, well I think we both tend to occasionally be somewhat absent-minded (and overly busy) people, so even though we did manage to more or less maintain a weekly meeting schedule we did both have a bad habit of occasionally accidentally missing, or needing to last-minute reschedule meetings, or even just changing the day we were supposed to be regularly meeting on several times over the course of the year. Which could occasionally become a little frustrating. Haha, but whatever, I think we were both just as guilty in regards to that, so what can you do.
Aaron Renier (on the left)

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

JR: Well originally I was imagining it to be absolutely magical and full of rainbows, and we would become instant best friends and dance off into the sunset. Haha, which, you know, wasn't entirely accurate. Although on occasion I felt like it would come close! Heh. But yeah. It was still fun. And I still consider everything I learnt from it to be pretty much invaluable.

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

JR: I'd say if you can figure out a regular schedule for talking/meeting with your advisor, and if you can establish a good rapport, then you're already a huge chunk of the way there. And, you know, remember that your thesis advisor is a person too, and they also have their own work and their own life. So remember to allow them time for all that.

Finally, here's the view from one of the advisors, Jeffrey Brown:

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

JB: There were a few reasons. One, I feel like I've been extremely fortunate to have an older generation of cartoonists who have mentored me in various ways to various extents, and I think it's good to pass that on. I also think that there's a lot one can learn from trying to help someone else understand their work, things which can then help one see their own work in new ways. I've also thought about the possibility of teaching, and this seemed like a good baby step toward seeing if that's something I'd really like to do.

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

JB: For the most part, I tried to let the student guide things. I saw my role as having two basic components. One, that I would respond to any questions or needs the student expressed, be a foil to them in examining their own work, and give any insight I could that they may not be able to get elsewhere. Two, I felt that I could be a system of support as a fellow cartoonist, and as someone who'd been through what they're going through.

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

JB: I don't think my understanding changed at all, except that maybe I felt less pressure as time went on, and I became more comfortable with the student-mentor relationship, as well as getting to know each other better. I saw my role as somewhat reactive rather than proactive; that is, to respond to the student's needs and desires, without being any kind of taskmaster or trying to push the student in a particular direction. After my experience, I felt like this was the right way to go about it, and that I was more helpful in that way - just being available and offering feedback, rather than telling the student what they need to do.

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

JB: Seeing a student's work improve, as well as seeing their working methods improve, and feeling that I played a role in helping that happen. It's nice to know that I could have a positive impact like that.

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

JB: Schedule-wise it's tough, and that was a constant frustration - both sides forgetting their was a phone call schedule, one or the other of us not responding too quickly. That said, those were relatively minor frustrations and tended to not distract from the experience at all, I think.

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