When was the last time you analyzed the pages of a comic book? I’m not talking about reading, I mean really analyzing, like how multiple panels on a single page interact with one another or how an artist can say more with a silent panel than a loaded word balloon.
Whether you wish to pursue a career in the comics industry or simply desire the tools necessary for a more fulfilling reading experience, you may want to consider enrolling in one of the growing number of colleges and universities that host academic programs focused on the comic book craft.
Yes, what was once nothing more than a fantasy for many readers is now a reality – comic books have become a part of school curricula.
Enter: Pine Manor College
Nestled in a rural part of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, sits Pine Manor College, a small liberal arts school with several hundred undergraduate and graduate students. Take a stroll through its Dane Estate building and you might feel like you’ve entered Professor Charles Xavier’s mutant school, and home to the X-Men.While cool, the cosmetic similarities to Wolverine’s home aren’t what attracts students with an interest in comics – it’s the fact that Pine Manor has launched a Comics & Graphic Narratives concentration for its Low-Residency Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program. Those who enroll focus on the creative and technical aspects of comic book storytelling, according to the college’s website. As students move through courses on topics such as character development and critical analysis, titles like Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels by Scott McCloud and Comics & Sequential Art by Will Eisner are their textbooks.
Leading the concentration is cartoonist Josh Neufeld, who is no stranger to the comics world. In addition to penciling American Splendor for the late Harvey Pekar, Neufeld wrote and illustrated the New York Times best-selling nonfiction graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge.
In his role of lead instructor for the MFA concentration, Neufeld is charged with guiding tomorrow’s cartoonists. For Neufeld, who was approached by Meg Kearney, director of the school’s Solstice MFA Program, serving as an educator and mentor to the concentration’s students was an attractive proposition.
“In a way, it gives me an opportunity to do things I can’t do in my own creative life,” Neufeld said. “I really have no ability to write fiction at all – like not the slightest talent for that – but I love fiction. I love fictional stories. I love entering into other realities and different people’s perspectives. So getting to work with somebody on their project, helping them achieve their vision, sort of identifying fundamental storytelling questions that really apply to all sorts of different types of narratives and giving any advice I have that I’ve learned over many years of crafting my own comics is something I love doing. So I love being involved in this program in the sense that I’ll get to work with people who are doing all sorts of cool stuff that I’ll never do, but I’ll be able to dip my hands into a little bit.”
Back to School
The Solstice MFA team was kind enough to invite me to sit in on one of Neufeld’s classes so I could get a feel for this new concentration. It’s been 11 years since I graduated from college, but as a lifelong lover of comics, how could I turn down the opportunity to go back to school and talk about my favorite art form? In a classroom. Not at lunch with my friends!
I arrived at the 3:45 p.m. class and took a seat in the back of the class. It’s been a few years, but I remember the cool kids always sat in the back – it totally had nothing to do with the fact that I was there as a journalist, I swear. The class was comprised of a small group of eight students and, surprisingly, one dog. This particular two-hour session was titled Comics & Graphic Narrative Adaptations, in which we’d do a deep dive into how stories can change across media.
Neufeld started the class by asking the students if they could name a few movies that were adapted from comic book source material. Ghost World, V for Vendetta and, of course, the blockbuster Marvel Studios films were all mentioned. This led to the class’s first in-depth exercise involving a story from the American Splendor comic series.
Copies of “The Harvey Pekar Name Story,” written by Pekar and illustrated by R. Crumb, were passed around the room. Based on a quick look at the photo copies, a comic book novice might assume it’s pretty uninspired work – 12 nearly identical panels of a nondescript man in a suit talking to the reader, repeated across multiple pages.
But we had to go deeper.
The class broke down what seemed like every aspect of the strip, from the impact of Pekar and Crumb’s wordless panels to the slight changes in Pekar’s gestures under the artist’s pen. One student even mentioned becoming obsessed with the illustrated Pekar’s shoulders.
When was the last time you became obsessed with Spider-Man’s shoulders?
Next, Neufeld went to YouTube and showed us a radio play that directly adapted the story. In this particular video, a YouTube user had taken the radio play’s audio and added in each panel from the comic. Students were asked how hearing an actor read for Pekar changed the way they perceived the strip. And which did they prefer?
We weren’t done yet. Finally, Neufeld screened a scene from the 2003 American Splendor film, which integrated this story into the almost two-hour flick.
This level of analysis is something you can do with several classic stories that originated in a comic book and went on to be told across media (the origins of Superman, Batman and other costumed heroes come to mind). But how often does anybody actually have the time to sit down and do this – and then discuss with likeminded individuals? It was an interesting exercise that, ultimately, showed how effective comic writers and artists need to be to clearly get a story across to readers.
In a comic book, there are no voice actors with radio experience, no Hollywood studios backing the production – just a story, some drawings and a reader’s imagination to pull it all together.
For a two-hour class – something I would have dreaded back in my school days – it really flew by. And honestly, we probably could have run out the clock discussing that one Pekar story. But Neufeld managed to keep us on track, briefly providing an overview of comic terminology, examples of literature adapted into comics, and comic book appropriation (such as pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963 painting “Drowning Girl,” which was lifted from a 1962 DC romance comic).
In the final 15 minutes of the class, Neufeld shared a pretty straightforward comic strip involving three diverse creatures’ efforts to reach “the photon illuminator” (or, a tower with a glowing orb at the top). Students were asked to adapt it into a prose story. There were no restrictions.
While there wasn’t enough time to read each story out loud, the results were just as diverse as the creatures’ appearances. One writer, for instance, took the time to develop the creatures’ backstories. Who were they? And how did the armless, rotund creature climb the tower? He must use his teeth!
Does this level of preparation and detail go into every issue of a monthly comic book or a one-off graphic novel? It really depends on the creative team, but with those monthly superhero stories that have set release dates – probably not. Still, it’s helpful for aspiring creators to engage in these types of exercises at the outset of their careers.
It’s important for creators to approach their graphic narratives from different perspectives, as comic readers certainly don’t fit in one specific box. Everyone goes into that first page with different preferences and personal experiences. The story being told may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at the very least, it should be well-thought-out and as close to what the creators intended as possible.
Programs like Solstice MFA do their best to help students achieve this goal.
When asked why Pine Manor felt now was the right time to launch this concentration, Kearney said that as this is something that was considered for many years now, it was really more a matter of “about time” than the “right time.”And while the program is still developing, Kearney noted they’ve received wonderful feedback from their industry guests, including Joel Christian Gill, Paul Karasik and Bianca Stone.
“We’re doing our best to spread the word, believing that many comic artist/writers out there will welcome the chance to master their craft in a program that offers academic rigor within a supportive, diverse community,” Kearney said.
So if you can see yourself pursuing a career in comics, but would prefer more training before breaking into the industry, you may want to spend some time researching what Pine Manor College has to offer. And if any literary snobs ever question your decision to further your education in the realm of comics, or still doubt the cultural impact and importance of this art form, Kearney has some advice:
“Anyone who doesn’t see that comics deserve a seat at the literary table just haven’t read the remarkable work that’s out there.”
Visit Pine Manor College’s website for more information about the Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program and the Comics and Graphic Narratives Concentration.