Collaborating on Comics: VA Commonwealth University Course Makes Big Debut

Instructors Alder & De Haven; illustrations by Art Student Hillary Lewis based on ideas by English Student Hannah Dodge
Instructors Alder & De Haven
illustrations by Art Student Hillary Lewis based on ideas by English Student Hannah Dodge
photograph By David J Bromley, courtesy of Alder & De Haven.

Art-Mageddon: When Pictures and Words Collide
Comics Collaborations by Virginia Commonwealth University students (writers & artists)

The idea of an inter-disciplinary, collaborative course on the story telling art of comics had been discussed for years by various faculty members of VCUs Communication Arts faculty, but had never come to pass. Until the conversation was rejuvenated by VCU English Department writer Tom De Haven and VCU artist Kelly Alder; both creators worked together on a co-planned curricula that left no room for the dilettante, mesmerized by what looks like an easy form of graphic communication: not only was "Collaborating on Comics" offered as part of the Honors Curriculum, but prospective students were interviewed by each faculty member. Ten students from each of the two departments were finally selected to participate in an exclusive and intensive study that boasted its own dedicated studio with 24 hour access and ten prominent guest speakers such as Steve Bissette and James Sturm.

The students learned how to collaborate “ in pairs, they created three page stories, and then were re-matched with different partners in order to write and draw a project up to twelve pages long. The discipline and hard work paid off: "the class was highlighted in the Frable and Smallspace Galleries at Artspace Gallery in the historic Manchester District of Richmond, Virginia for the popular Fourth Friday social event; the busy art gallery also had fabric art and drawings by professional artists, as well as a live dance presentation, and this student art was able to successfully withstand the scrutiny expected at such a venue. Their storytelling and art, simply put, were above the student level.

Upon first entering the crowded gallery on opening night (Jan. 24, 2014) it was difficult to see through the large numbers of visitors. Most viewers lingered in front of various cartoon drawings, devoting time to understanding the stories and appreciating the art. Concepts ranged from Detective to Fantasy genre, and ample preliminary sketches were also displayed in order to demonstrate the visual progress of the thought process. Uniquely, the pairs of writers and artists also had color placards displaying their caricatures or avatars; the various bodies of work represented genuine dedication and most of the students interviewed seemed to want to make this their profession. Likely, some of them will soon be professionals in the comics field: they are all upper classmen or graduate students very close to entering the competitive marketplace.

College syllabi are usually tightly constructed, and this was no exception, “ but there had to be some flexibility, given the course had never been offered before. Meeting twice a week and comprised about equally of lecture and studio time, many of the collaborations that resulted are now available in a full color book by the students entitled "Alloy". This book and three other student publications were (and are!) offered for sale at the gallery. It is wonderful to see that the business side of this profession has not been ignored by the students or their teachers.

The collaborative aspect of this work is perhaps most gratifying for this reviewer - a chance to see students from different disciplines get a sample of the real world “making things work on a deadline with people who will challenge you, disagree with you" and improve your final product.

A slideshow of the students, their craft and the gallery scene on opening night will soon be forthcoming in this column. In the meantime, for readers near Richmond, Va., a visit to Artspace Gallery is recommended: "Art-Mageddon: When Pictures and Words Collide" will be on display until February 23, 2014.

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Richmond, VA 23224

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