Comics Education: Art School Confidential

Art School Confidential by Dan Clowes
Art School Confidential by Dan Clowes

This is a continuation of three previous posts on comics and education: one, two, three. Today, I continue with the ‘comics renaissance’ I started writing about in this post. Rough time period: late 70’s to late 90’s.

Here’s is an appropriate prelude for this post:

[Jack] Kirby enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, at what he said was age 14, leaving after a week. “I wasn’t the kind of student that Pratt was looking for. They wanted people who would work on something forever. I didn’t want to work on any project forever. I intended to get things done” (via)

Up until now I’ve written primarily about schools that focused specifically on comics. But there’s always been another way that aspiring cartoonists got educated: Art School. I want to look at two cartoonists who both went to art school (roughly during the same period) and who exemplified two basic attitudes about art in comics: Gary Panter and Dan Clowes. Art education was traditionally very much craft/technique oriented and focused on the core artistic pursuits: drawing, painting, sculpture. These were largely taught with a focus on representational image making. Life drawing, nature drawing, etc. By the time Panter & Clowes went to art school the focus had shifted dramatically. Most art schools still taught the basics of drawing, painting and sculpture, but these were supplemented (and in some cases supplanted) by non-traditional approaches culled from the countless art movements, avant-gardes and theories developed during the 20th century. By the late 70’s and early 80’s abstract expressionism, conceptual art installations, postmodernism, and others were well entrenched in the system.

Gary Panter studied painting at East Texas State University in the mid 70’s. In many ways his work embodies the comics as Art position. From the beginning his work never shied away from fine-art sensibility. His mind-bending, neo-cubist, cut & paste, future-caveman-punk Jimbo comics made a splash (slash?) in RAW magazine in the early 80’s. I’m not sure what Gary Panter’s school experience was like, but I don’t remember him ever speaking negatively about art school (I’ve read a lot of interviews with Panter, but I’m sure I missed a few, so if anyone knows otherwise let me know). In fact, if anything Gary’s gone out of his way to promote art to cartoonists. A recent example of that took place at the 2009 MoCCA art festival where Gary & Frank Santoro ran through a couple dozen artists that cartoonists should be aware of. In the middle of that Gary encouraged the attending crowd of comics artists and fans to “not be afraid of art.” Still, Panter was no ‘elitist arteest’ which is surely partly due to his embrace of the lowly comic-book. Panter form his 1980 Rozz Tox Manifesto:

Market saturation was reached in sixties – everyone knows that. Fine Elitist Art is of diminishing utility. There is not more reward for maintaining or joining an elite and sterile crew.

For some the artiness of Art Spiegelman’s and Françoise Mouly’s RAW (and Gary Panter’s Jimbo) was a breath of fresh air, but many cartoonists from that era caught a whiff of something else from the magazine. In an interview in Blab! #4 (1989) Dan Clowes was asked if he liked RAW:

Clowes: Not especially… I mean Spiegelman’s a very clever guy. I’m not sure if he planned it all this way or whether he just lucked into it, but he found a good way to package comics–as a magazine the Soho crowd is proud to have laying around at the foot of their loft beds, or whatever. He’s made RAW into a real big success, but I’m not sure whether it’s a great magazine. It’s certainly introduced us to some very good artists, Friedman and Burns specifically…and Muñoz and Sampayo.

Blab: Do you like Weirdo better?

Clowes: Much better. In fact, despite all the counter-culture cartoonist types I know, I can’t think anybody I’ve talked toin the last few years who really likes RAW–even people who’ve been printed in it.

In the same interview, Dan expounds further on art and artists when Blab! asks him what he thinks of Gary Panter:

Ummmm… I don’t care for it. I think he’s full of shit. There are little bits in it that I think are very amusing, but overall I think he’s pulling our collective leg. I really think that people that are into Gary Panter’s comics are, for the most part, pseudo artists or artsy fartsy types who think the’ve developed some real artistic sensibilities and can appreciate something the masses can’t appreciate. I can see what he’s doing but it doesn’t grab me. He’s certainly inventive and has a look all his own, but when it comes to drawing comics–which is what I’m talking about–why do I have to read it? It seems intentionally oblique for no reason. It’s going in a different direction than the stuff I’m interested in.

Now it’s not surprising to see the young Dan Clowes hold these views (I don’t know if he still holds them today). He is after all the author of Art School Confidential (the comic and the film). But he exemplifies the views of many other cartoonists at the time. Clowes attended the Pratt Institute in New York where he earned a BFA. By his account the school was drowning in the worst excesses of postmodernist conceptualism. The goal of the program seems to have been the creation of Art with a capital A, technique and craft were deemed secondary and determined by concept.

I don’t know if either of the cartoonists ever tried to present comics as art in any of their classes, and what the reaction might have been from the faculty or other students. But, having gone to art school myself I can at least speak to my own experience. I attended University of Minnesota in the early to mid-90’s and I graduated with a double major BFA in Art & Architecture. Cartoons and comic-books were generally seen as negatives in the art program. Several of my drawing teachers actively discouraged that kind of drawing. I assumed the print-making department would be more receptive to comics (as an art form where the end result is a printed object), but no. In my experience all printed work was created to be hung on the wall. When I at one point tried to present a comic-book that was done on a litho press, the professor insisted I matte and frame the work or I would not get credit for it. In other cases crazy performative pieces won general approval. In other words Clowes’ Art School Confidential resonated with my own experience… and that of many others:

As it turned out, every single one of my readers was either in art school or had some affiliation with it. They all responded overwhelmingly (and) were all certain I had gone to the same art school they had. The story took on a life of its own for a while.… People would Xerox it and put it up on the bulletin board at school. Somebody else would take it from there and Xerox it again. There were rumors that it had been Xeroxed so many times that nobody could discern the art style anymore. It became a kind of folk art. (via)

What art school lacked in the technique/craft area, was compensated by a kind of confident bravura that came with… well with being an Art School. Much of the art produced may have been bad or amateurish or whatever, but in almost all the cases there was a confidence in the importance of Art and it’s place in society. This was something sorely lacking in the comics world. But during this period the idea of comics as an Art form, with it’s unique qualities and effects was emerging and aggressively asserting itself. Gary Panter imported that attitude into comics from Art. Dan Clowes arrived at a similar place (with very different results) by having to actively resist the condenscending attitutes of the art world. In a weird way they followed a path described by Gary Panter. Again from Rozz Tox Manifesto:

Business 1. To create a pseudo-avant-garde that is cost effective. 2. To create merchandising platforms on popular communications and entertainment media. 3. To extensively mine our recent and ancient past for icons worth remembering and permutating: recombo archaeology.

Both artist mined the past of comic-books, newspaper strips, science-fiction and pulps, detective noir, monster & trash cinema and other detritus of past mass culture. Panter’s archaeology turned his work into a dayglo toxic feast for the eyes while Clowes’ work became a kind of high-pulp literature. Both artists found themselves at the head of a new comic-book avant-guard. The Dan Clowes literary approach to comics would win out over the next three decades, but Gary Panter’s influence is becoming increasingly visible in the new millenium.

Up next: I didn’t get to McCloud so I will try next time. Also, the English Department…

1980. RAW published by Françoise Mouly (edited by Art Spiegelman and Mouly)
Gary Panter writes the Rozz Tox Mainfesto.
1981. Weirdo published
     The Hernandez Brothers publish Love And Rockets
1985. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art published
1986. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
     Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
1989. Dan Clowes’ Eightball published
1992. Art Spiegelman’s Maus awarded the Pulitzer, the Eisner and the Harvey
1993. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics published
1996. Will Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative published

Comics & Education: The Early Days 2

A few additions to my initial post before I forget them.

An anonymous reader pointed out (via comments) a couple of other institutions where cartoonists got training. Both Disney and Fleisher Brothers trained artists for animation. This type training followed the specialization model typical of the other schools I mentioned before. In this case the specialization was even more pronounced. These companies were growing very quickly at one point and had a huge demand for animation talent. The fact that they set up corporate schools to satisfy their own demand for animators, speaks to the fact that there weren’t many other places for this kind of education. Some of this training obviously could translate to comics and cartooning. At least one great comic-book artist, Jesse Marsh, came out of that system.

The other school (named by the same anonymous reader) was The John Buscema School. It was set up in the 1970’s by one of Marvel Comics’ most prolific artists, John Buscema. I know that Stan Lee lectured there, but I don’t know much else about it. The work that went into that school was the source material for the legendary How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way. I confess that I have created hundreds of pages of comics during my high-school days based on the exercises in that book. If the book is indicative of the curriculum of the Buscema School, then the school probably functioned in a way similar to the training done by the animation studios. It was a way to quickly train talent for a fast growing business.

Even though How To Draw Comics… contains a lot of work by Jack Kirby, it’s probably safe to assume he didn’t teach at the Buscema School. By 1971 he had left Marver for DC. Also, I think by then he had already moved to California(?). In an interesting side note, Kirby briefly worked for the Fleischer Studios as an inbetweener. But he hated the work:

From Fleischer I had to get out in a hurry because I couldn’t take that kind of thing,” describing it as “a factory in a sense, like my father’s factory. They were manufacturing pictures. (Via Wikipedia)

This is coming from a famously fast artist who was capable of turning in several issues of a standard comic-book per month. I wonder if this in any way could be a clue as to the conditions & pace present at the animation studio schools.

modern illustrating including cartooning
Modern Illustrating Including Cartooning (1935 edition)
An interesting nugget about the state of comics education before the WWII can be found a the end of volume one the D&Q edition of Gasoline Alley (published as Walt & Skeezix). I just finished reading the volume and I can’t resist mentioning it. The book reprints seven pages from the fifth volume of Modern Illustrating and Cartooning. The book was published by Federal Schools, from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Federal Schools was the original name for the Art Instruction School which I already mentioned. Frank King wrote and illustrated the material reproduced. The piece is called “Lesson 3. Part 1. The Cartoon Page”. Here are a few subheaders to give you an idea of the material King’s writing about:

  • The Cartoon Page a Symposium on Timely Topics
  • Ideas
  • Arrangement
  • Making the Drawings

The content of the piece is a reminder why comics are called ‘comics’. Almost all of the advice is geared to creating humorous pieces on timely topics. King also encourage students to keep sketchbooks and to draw from life; sound advice for any era.

The material dates from 1931, but as Chris Ware notes in the explanatory text that accompanies the reprinted pages, most of the drawings that accompany King’s text dates to 1917 & 1918. Federal Schools was founded in 1914, so it’s certainly possible that earlier editions of the work exist.

Chris Ware also raises the tantalizing possibility “that [Charles] Schulz worked his way through King’s exercises as part of his correspondence training”. Schulz is the star alumni of the Art Instruction School, and had famously taught there as well. Incidentally the school is still around. A few of my friends were instructors there. It’s still a correspondence school, and the instructors still hand-correct (with red ink) sent in student drawings.

Comics & Education: A Comics Renaissance

In my last post I briefly outlined the how comics education worked in the early years of the form. Today I want to start getting into what I think is the next phase of development of the comics medium and comics education.

The initial bursts of energy that created newspaper comic strips (at the turn of the century) and comic-books (in the 1930’s) had dissipated. Since the 1950s newspapers started to systematically reduce the size of comic-strips and sunday sections (as well as more aggressively censor the strips). The formation of the Comics Code Authority after the Senate Subcommittee hearings strangled creativity on the comic-book world. The comics Roy Lichtenstein was appropriating (as mentioned last time) were lowly commercial junk for kids; largely anonymously produced.

Around the same time Lichtenstein was making his comics-based paintings, the art form was rapidly transforming. DC & Marvel were reviving the superhero genre. Marvel’s fresh take on the stale genre was especially instrumental in raising the profile of comics among a young literate college educated audience. A few years later the Undergrounds would emerge and take comics into the taboo breaking territory of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. The undergrounds established a link between comics and counterculture which would prove a fertile ground for future innovation. This was followed by increasingly literate and arty comics anthologies, the invention of the Graphic Novel (the term and format), and the independent comics boom of the 80’s (and the great bust in the 90’s). Throughout this time the status of comic-books (and newspaper strips) as a mass medium was slowly eroding. But as the health of the medium faltered, the the health of the art form was undergoing a creative renaissance.

The whole 20 year period from the late 70’s to the late 90’s saw an aggressive effort by cartoonists, writers and publishers to make the case for comics as an art form. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God popularized a whole new book store category: the graphic novel. Hated or loved, this coinage is largely responsible for opening the door for the medium into a whole new market. In the late 70’s and early 80’s Gary Groth’s Comics Journal transformed itself from a fan publication, into a hard hitting magazine with journalistic standards and a much needed critical voice. RAW dragged comics into the art world, and Weirdo tried to keep it low brow. But, both insisted that comics are an art form that needed to be recognized. To list all the great comics from that period would take too long. I listed some of them in the timeline below.

I don’t know much about the state of comics education during that period. I have more questions than answers. I know that Eisner was teaching and lectured on the art form at SVA during the 70’s and 80’s. Eisner’s two books on the medium Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative were born from his academic career. Eisner coined the term Sequential Art, a broad category of combining images with words in a sequence, that includes not only comics, but storyboards, instructional manuals, and others. Eisner:

In general terms we can divide the functions of Sequential Art into two broad applications; instruction and entertainment. Periodical comics, graphic novels, instructional manuals and storyboards are the most familiar vehicles. in the main, periodical comics and graphic novels are devoted to entertainment while manuals and storyboards are used to instruct or sell. But there is an overlap because art in sequence tends to be expository.

The above passage was recently quoted by Kent Worcester along with a another one:

Another instructional function of this medium is conditioning an attitude toward a task. The relationship or the identification evoked by the acting out or dramatization in a sequence of pictures is in itself instructional. People learn by imitation and the reader in this instance can easily supply the intermediate or connecting action from his or her own experience. Here too there is no pressure of time as as there would be in a live action motion picture or animated film. The amount of time allowed to the reader of a printed comic to examine, digest and imagine the process of acting out or assuming the role or attitude demonstrated is unlimited. There is room for approximation and opportunity for specific performances which the reader can examine without pressure. Unlike the rigidity of photographs, the broad generalizations of artwork permits exaggeration which can more quickly make the point and influence the reader.

Kent pointed out that:

It’s not difficult to imagine Eisner making this same pitch to Proctor and Gamble or Pan Am execs, trying to sell them on instructional comics as the way to reach consumers and employees alike. His long career as a visual propagandist – for a certain conception of comics as well as for specific companies and causes – remains an underappreciated aspect of his life and work as a whole. There is definitely a sense in this chapter that he is trying to seal the deal, both intellectually and commercially.

Kent continued on to gently chide Eisner for his narrow vision for the use of Sequential Art. However, if the book is looked at from the point of view of how comics were taught at the time Eisner’s point of view makes more sense. It reads much like a text book which tries to sell students on the usefulness of the skills whey will learn… which are the very skills being taught at SVA and the Kubert School at the time. I assume the curriculum at these institutions still largely focused on turning out technically proficient workers for the commercial print industry. But I wonder what kind of discussions were going on in the classrooms at the time. All the ferment going on in comics at the time must have kicked up some dust at the schools… Some alumni from that time:

  • SVA: Peter Bagge, Kaz, Mark Newgarden
  • Kubert School: Rick Veitch, Stephen R. Bissette

It’s also no surprise that Eisner himself has built his career by created the very items (periodical comics, graphic novels and instructional manuals) he names as examples of Sequential Art. The book was published in 1985, and already felt like an anachronism… an artifact form an earlier era. Despite some of the commercial trappings of Eisner’s book, there is a sense of respect for comics and a clear attempt to define the art form as such. This formalization and the coinage of term Sequential Art would become an important milestone. It gave artists, academics, and publishers a term they could rally behind. The term ‘freed’ comics from… well the comics, and all the negative connotations that came with it.

Next up: Scott McCloud, Art School Confidential, and more.


1952. Mad Magazine founded

1954. United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings take place
     Comics Code Authority (CCA) founded

1961. “Look Mickey” painted by Roy Lichtenstein
     Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1 published

1968. Zap Comix published

1970. Philip Guston’s cartoon paintings first exhibited

1972. Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary published

1975. Art Spiegelman & Bill Griffith’s Arcade published

1976. Harvey Pekar publishes American Splendor

1977. The Nostalgia Journal becomes The Comics Journal (issue #37)

1978. A Contract With God by Will Eisner published (popularized the ‘Graphic Novel’ nomencalture)
     SCAD founded

1980. RAW published by Françoise Mouly (edited by Art Spiegelman and Mouly)

1981. Weirdo published
     The Hernandez Brothers publish Love And Rockets

1985. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art published

1986. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
     Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

1992. Art Spiegelman’s Maus awarded the Pulitzer, the Eisner and the Harvey

1993. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics published

1996. Will Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative published

Comics & Education: The Early Days

The date of MIX is approaching soon! I’m excited that Minneapolis has the potential to become the site of a regular indie comics convention. I understand that the table space went really fast, which is indicative of the demand for such an event. But, more on MIX in the future. I mention it only in passing because, during MIX, I’m moderating a panel on Comics Education . I’m pretty new to teaching (I taught my first class at MCAD this Spring), but the topic of comics and education is something that I’ve thought about a lot over the years. I’m going to post some notes over the next couple of weeks to in an attempt to clarify my ideas on the subject. Most of this will be US centric. I don’t know much about how/if comics are taught elsewhere. I also realize that some of this may include inaccuracies and generalizations. I hope to correct these over time. Anyone please feel free to chime in.

First, a little history. Comics or cartooning have been taught for a long time. Historically comics and cartooning schools were mostly designed as technical colleges that taught the skills necessary to get work in the fast paced commercial environment of newspapers, pulps, magazines and comic-books. Some key institutions that embodied that approach were:

  • The Art Instruction School was founded in 1914, and is famous for the ubiquitous Tippy the Turtle ads and Charles Schulz. It’s purely a correspondence school and was founded to (in their own words) “train illustrators for the growing printing industry.”
  • Cartoonists and Illustrators School was founded in 1947 by Burne Hogarth to educate returning WWII GI’s. It was originally known as The Manhattan Academy of Newspaper Art and eventually became The School of Visual Arts (in 1956). This is the only school on this list that transformed itself from a primarily technical art school, to a ‘proper’ art school as we understand them today.
  • The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art was founded in 1976 by Joe Kubert. Their mission is stated as: “The school is dedicated to aspiring cartoonists who are dedicated to becoming professionals in cartooning, comic book, and the general field of commercial art.”

In all of these schools comics and illustration went hand in hand and on some level were interchangable. The focus was on representational drawing and painting, perspective, pen and ink, drafting, lettering etc. These were the exact skills a student needed to master to create camera ready artwork for commercial printing and publication. As such these institutions were tied to a cheap mass medium: print. Students were encouraged to specialize. The speed of publication required separate people to write, draw (penciller), ink (inker), letter and color a single story. Artists from that era created countless pages of comics for huge & small corporations (many of them unsigned) under strict deadlines, in an assembly line system. It’s a wonder that any great comics managed to be made despite the brutal, fast-paced system.

The commercial quality of the comics is why ‘real’ artist like Roy Lichtenstein could paint panels from a comic-book in a gesture similar to Andy Warhol’s later Campbell’s Soup Can. Comic-book art was generally seen (with some exceptions of course) as anonymous commercial junk for kids. Lichtenstein’s comic-book based paintings became an important defining moment (myth?) for the future of Comics Art in education and it’s relationship with Art and Art Schools. This is something I’ll tackle in the next post.

A partial timeline. Some of these items will not become significant for comics education until later:

1914. Art Instruction School Founded
1947. Cartoonists and Illustrators School founded
1958. Dynamic Anatomy by Burne Hogarth published
1961. “Look Mickey” painted by Roy Lichtenstein
1970. Dynamic Figure Drawing by Burne Hogarth published
1976. The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art founded
1978. How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and others published