A Saturday in Olympia
Specifically, the Olympia Comics Festival.
A phenomenon I’ve noticed, reading comics for the last forty-plus years or so, is that if you spend too much time inside the Marvel/DC/mainstream bubble, you can get burned out on the whole thing. (This is especially true if you also spend time on the internet, interacting with other comics people. Look how impassioned folks were getting over Wonder Woman finally putting on some clothes, for crying out loud. A steady diet of that kind of thing would burn out anyone.)
I generally have three sure-fire cures for this Marvel/DC malaise. The first is to spend some time looking at indie comics and talking to indie creators. Their enthusiasm is contagious, they’re so delighted just to be doing comics of their own that it’s impossible not to get swept up in it.
The second is to spend time with my cartooning students, for essentially the same reason.
The third is time with our young godson Phenix, whose sheer joy at finding new comics or cartoons or nerdy adventure films is a refreshing reminder of why I fell in love with the same stuff in the first place. What’s more, it tickles me that all the same stuff that worked on me when I was six still has that kind of power on today’s six-year-olds.
For example, Phenix’s current passion is Jonny Quest. He loves watching the DVDs of the old show when he comes to visit, and since he is trying to practice his reading — Phenix has learned that reading isn’t just for school, it also gives you access to the really good stuff – we gave him a pile of the Comico back issues for his birthday a few weeks ago. This was, his mother assured us, a big hit.
…anyway. The point is that a few Saturdays back, at the Olympia Comics Festival, we were able to combine all three of those malaise-defeating techniques for achieving comics-related good cheer. And it was a great day.
It happened like this. My old friend Kelsey, with whom I had worked many years ago doing the apron-and-nametag thing at a corporate printshop that shall not be named, also has a grown-up job these days — she is a librarian at the Timberland Regional Library, and she had let us know that Olympia was doing this indie comics festival thing and the library was taking part. It was the first Saturday in June, and I thought, hey, that would be a fun way to close out the school year for the Cartooning Class.
My original idea was simply to take a mini-bus with the Aki students to the show, to make up for them not getting to go to the Emerald City Comic-Con, which is our big field trip of the year. Most of my Aki kids had joined second semester this year, which meant they’d missed out.
Everyone loved this idea, and I had an ulterior motive, as well. My boss Katie and I had been discussing the possibility for next year of the students having a booth at another show along with ECCC, and the leading candidate I kept coming back to was Stumptown in Portland. I still like this idea, and it’s not off the table.
But there are real problems with us trying to do Stumptown as a field trip. For one thing, it would be an overnighter, and that is a huge responsibility to take on, trying to keep track of fifteen or twenty sixth and seventh graders, get them fed and safely installed in a hotel, and then back and forth to the festival over the course of a weekend, without losing any of them or having any of them go off on their own to explore the city. (Which, let’s face it, would be a top priority for most of them — at least, getting away from the adults was always the first thing I thought of when I went on this sort of outing as a kid.) I wouldn’t dare even try it without Julie and at least four aides, or double that many parents, along to help supervise. And that’s not even the hard part.
The hard part is transporting the kids.
Moving students from point A to point B, even for local stuff like ECCC, is the bane of my existence, because I am not allowed to use my car. I am okayed to drive kids, but I must use the official YMCA minivan or a school bus. If I can’t get the bus — and it seems like I never can get it, no matter how early I put in for it — then I must persuade parents to carpool and arrange to meet them at our destination.
For Stumptown, which requires getting the kids all the way to Portland, Oregon from Seattle, that is a real problem. But now here was an indie show with a very similar vibe that was smaller, closer, and more accessible. Olympia’s only about an hour’s drive for us.
That, I could do. I put in for the bus and amazingly, it was available. That was all I needed — I sent out permission slips and we had about seven takers. (That’s pretty good for a last-minute scramble like this was.) Plus Rachel, cartooning class grad and my occasional assistant, wanted to come along as well. It was shaping up to be a great field trip.
I should have known it was going too smoothly. Unfortunately, three days before the festival, Katie called with bad news. “There’s a problem with your van certification.”
“You need to be CPR-and-first-aid certified,” Katie said. “Do you have a current CPR card?”
I sagged with relief. “Yes, as a matter of fact. How did this not come up before?” Because we went through the certification process two goddamn years ago, I almost added, but bit it back because this wasn’t Katie’s fault. This was Upstairs. Again.
“Great, no problem, I just need a copy of it.”
Whew. We exchanged a chuckle over the close call and hung up. I emailed Katie a PDF scan of my card and figured I was done.
…Until she replied, explaining that my card was from American Health and I had to have one from the Red Cross for it to count. Strict YMCA policy.
I argued that this was ridiculous, CPR is CPR and the class had been actually designed for youth workers in a classroom environment — Julie and I had both done the course voluntarily, at a local church school a while back, specifically to cover any classroom emergency we might be up against — but there was no wiggle room. Katie immediately scheduled me for the next Red Cross CPR class held at our branch of the Y, and assured me they’d pick up all expenses and I’d be paid for that day… but it was still three weeks after the Olympia Comics Festival.
So suddenly — no van. My record of perfect failure with getting to use the YMCA van was still intact. Sigh.
There was nothing for it but to start calling the parents and explain that we’d lost the use of the van, but we still were going to go if they wanted to perhaps arrange some sort of carpool. Most of them declined, but Stan’s dad was willing to drive that day, and wanted to bring the rest of the family as well.
That meant Stan was the only student going, but we still had Rachel (who, not being a student of mine any more, is out of the YMCA jurisdiction and thus permitted to ride in our car) and it ended up we had Phenix that day too.
So, okay, not much of a field trip. But at least we’d get an outing.
We had decided regretfully that we’d have to miss the evening’s stage show at the Capitol Theater with Peter Bagge, but the various workshops during the day looked like fun.
Here are the ones we made it to:
12:00 – 12:45 – Kid’s Comics Clinic: How to Draw if you Can’t Draw – Don’t know how to draw? Patrick Mapp, owner of Danger Room Comics, will teach you how!
The kids really wanted to DRAW, as did Rachel, so this was where we started out.
That’s Rachel with her back to the camera, and next to her on the left, in the blue, is Phenix. On Phenix’ s left is my student Stan, and then Patrick Mapp, the instructor, there in the black hat.
I’m always interested to see how other folks approach teaching this material. Because there are so few of us teaching comics, period, and because there is so little in the way of formal curriculum, we all have to evolve our own lessons. So I’m always curious to see how other teachers come at it. (Less nobly, I’m always alert for stuff I can steal to use in my own classes.)
I thought Patrick did pretty well — this was clearly geared towards younger kids, so it was mostly old news for Stan and especially for Rachel, who’ve both been doing ‘zine work for a while. But he kept the kids’ interest and walked them through several exercises that were oddly similar to ones I used to do in MY kids’ cartooning classes at the studio. (I was amused to note that both Patrick and myself, quite independently of one another, had hit on the idea of teaching kids about cartooning being simple lines and shapes by having them do drawings based on letters of the alphabet.)
The important thing was that he got them drawing as quickly as possible and didn’t get alarmed or impatient when some kids ignored him and just did it the way they wanted. I mention this simply because it’s a mistake a lot of us make — I made it myself several times my first couple of years — and at first glance it does seem like a teacher should be on the kids to make sure they’re getting the material.
But for a kid’s drawing workshop the most important thing is that the kids all are producing. You have to learn to look at what they’re actually doing and help them get it to where it looks like they want it to go, rather then try to make them do it your way. It’s a fine line and learning to walk it is probably one of the hardest things to figure out, teaching a class. I was impressed by how well Patrick managed it pretty much on the fly, because I don’t think this was a regular thing for him.
He even complimented Phenix, who was happily ignoring the class and just churning out dozens of drawings of Dr. Zin’s robot spider from– you guessed it– Jonny Quest.
Overall it was a lot of fun and the kids all seemed to enjoy it. I always watch the parents at these things and Stan’s dad seemed impressed too, which was good news for us. He’d looked a little skeptical and dubious at first, but he got genuinely interested after a while. It always makes my job easier when parents are on board.
The next session we had a choice of workshops and panels… Stan and Phenix wanted to stay and draw, so we mostly stayed put. Rachel wanted to go look around and so I turned her loose with my blessing. (Truthfully, I’d have liked to look around a bit myself but duty called.) So we stayed for…
1:00 – 1:45 – Kid’s Comics Clinic: Make an 8 Page Mini Comic – Chelsea Baker, cartoonist extraordinaire, teaches how to use one sheet of paper to make an 8 page comic book.
This particular craft session is a time-honored classic at most of the ‘zine workshops and so on that we’ve been to for the last few years, and I even stole it to use in a Sunday School class once. So there were no surprises here.
But it was a new technique for the kids in the room, and they really took to it. Something I’ve noticed over my fifteen years of teaching drawing and art classes is that a lot of kids who are reluctant to pick up a pencil and draw have NO problem picking up scissors and glue and trying to make stuff. Which is why this particular lesson is always a smash at ‘zine workshops for kids, I think…. there’s not even any glue, it’s mostly just folding and a couple of scissor snips. Teachers love doing a session that A) kids like and B) cleans up in seconds.
Chelsea herself was delightful. She had a great rapport with the kids and encouraged them to go all out, and they mostly did.
Phenix certainly was transformed. I think he made another fifteen or so of those little mini-comics — all starring the robot spider — before the weekend was over.
I was so taken with how wonderful Chelsea was with all the kids, and especially with our godson, that I decided I would have to go check out her comics. I picked up both of the print collections of her daily webcomics and found them to be as charming as the lady herself. Julie liked them too.
Meanwhile, Rachel had decided to check out this panel….
1:00 – 1:45 – Comic Book Fight Club – Jon-Mikel Gates leads a fight club. Everyone draws a character and then they fight. In the end, there can be only one!
She assured us it was a lot of fun. I wish I’d been able to see it, because from her description it does sound very cool. Everyone submitted a character and then had to thumbnail out a confrontation between their own character and another from the pool of submissions. Then the winner would be judged on the presentation, how well each character’s abilities had been used and portrayed, and the cleverness of the layout.
Note that it’s not about DRAWING so much as STORYTELLING. This is a principle that we hammer on a lot in class and I am totally going to steal this exercise somehow to use with my own students.
Most of the submissions, Rachel told us, had an indie, parody sensibility — i.e., “Cheese Grater Man,” “Neurotic Lass,” stuff like that. Rachel did pretty well, considering. She used her character “Midnight” and made it to the final four.
Which qualified her for the grand prize, having Midnight square off with the other finalists in an actual online webcomic. One of the reasons I’d been holding off doing this column was because I’d hoped to be able to link you to that, but it’s not up yet.
Rachel rejoined us for this workshop…
2:00 – 2:45 – Kid’s Comics Clinic: Basics of Comics Construction – Patrick Mapp teaches the basics of designing and binding zines that don’t fall apart.
I’d thought this would be worth it for my older kids, who always want to keep going with ‘zines after they leave my class. But it ended up being more of a free-form Q and A about characters and stuff, and Patrick was a little handicapped by having a room full of kids that mostly just wanted to DRAW, not talk about bindery.
As before, though, Patrick handled it well and let the class go where it wanted rather than force it back into the original shape. At one point he was showing the kids how you try to design a cartoon character to visually conform to its personality, and his example was an angry Starbucks customer who was flying into a rage at the order being wrong. Patrick envisioned him as a young, mohawked guy with a lot of piercings who was always going on about The Man holding him down.
Rachel decided to pick up that ball and run with it.
Then she presented it to Patrick as a gift, who laughed a little ruefully and told Rachel that she’d put more thought into the guy than Patrick himself ever had.
There was one more workshop session but the kids were getting restless, and I’d promised everyone lunch. (Frankly, running up my YMCA expense account seemed like a justified vengeance for the van screwup, and certainly we wanted to treat Stan’s dad for being such a driving hero.)
But we did do a quick lap around the floor first. For one thing, I wanted to take a few minutes to get caught up with Kelsey.
We’d corresponded a little via email but I hadn’t actually seen her since I’d been working at The Corporate Printshop a decade and a half ago. I especially wanted to introduce Kelsey to my wife Julie, since they had never met. (Kelsey told me quietly later, “She’s very nice. I approve.”)
And I bought a few more zines… I often find myself spending money on zines just to support the artist and the scene in general. Later when I get home I actually look at the work and decide if I like it.
For example, I bought a bunch of stuff from Greg Fling simply because I enjoyed talking to him.
What tickled me was that his young son was working right there next to him and had his own ‘zine, about a clumsy ninja. So of course I had to give him some of our class comics and introduce him to Stan. And after all that I felt like I should buy stuff, so I did.
As it happens Greg Fling is a really great cartoonist. He had a hilarious autobiographical zine full of all sorts of little vignettes — my favorites were about his experiences as a substitute teacher.
You can see lots more of these strips at his website. Sadly, I wasn’t able to get a scan of the junior Fling’s effort to put up here but I can tell you it’s very promising for someone that young, and features the same sense of humor and fun.
Their book’s manga-influenced fantasy look is what caught my eye, it had that shoujo vibe that I knew would go over big with my students. But Elizabeth, the creator of the book, told me a little sadly that it wasn’t really kid-friendly.
When I explained that I was looking for small-press stuff I could take to class, she and her partner hooked me up with their book Out For Souls and Cookies instead, and truthfully I think I like this better anyway.
The premise is irresistible, at least for me: Tychobraticus and Rosamundian have been enjoying the good life for a few years. They spend most of their day sleeping in a nice condo with servants that happily give them food, toys and whatever else they desire. However Regional Supervisor Lord Fluffcakes is unhappy with them. They are not meeting their soul quotas and his patience is wearing thin.
Which is to say, they’re demons who’ve given up Hell in order to live as pampered dogs, pets of a young couple living in downtown Seattle. It’s got a real Good Omens thing going on.
Among other things, she makes beaded bottlecap necklaces featuring various comic book characters. Julie got Jughead and Rachel, of course, got Kitty Pryde.
And that was our day in Olympia. Saw some friends, met some cool artists, got some nice swag, and some kids learned stuff.
You just can’t be grumpy about comics after a day like that… no matter how much your bosses screw with your transportation plans. I’m going to call it a win.
And I think we’re definitely going to look into the possibility of our students having their own table at next year’s festival. God willing, we’ll have this van crap locked down by then.
See you next week.