When she’s not toiling over books like La Perdida and the forthcoming Life Sucks, Jessica Abel can be found on the more academic side of sequential art, teaching courses alongside her husband and fellow cartoonist, Matt Madden, at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts.
Abel and Madden have taken their course loads a step further this year, compiling book on the subject. Due out on First Second in June, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures is a 15 lesson text aimed at the increasingly popular world of comics courses.
In this second part, we discuss Abel’s comics instruction history, and some of the goals she and Madden hope to achieve with their new book.
How did you initially become involved with the academic aspect of cartooning?
The very first thing was at the School of Art Institute at Chicago. I ended up working there in an administrative capacity. Through that, I was introduced to many of the faculty. At one point, just as I was about to leave and go to Mexico, the head of painting and drawing asked me to teach a class in comics, which he knew I did. Because I was moving, I couldn’t teach a full class, but I ended up doing a special workshop class, for the winter session.
That was the first time I taught comics, period. I really enjoyed it. When we came back from Mexico, in 2000, Matt and I were both thinking about teaching. He taught for a really long time. He used to teach English as a second language, but hadn’t taught comics before. We both kind of had it on the brain, and knew that we were interested in it, and were playing around with ideas of how we might do that—different schools we might go to find out if they had positions available and so on—and meanwhile, Tom Woodruff, the head of illustration and cartooning at SVA called me up and asked me to teach. I’d been recommended by—I’m not sure who—maybe Tom Hart.
How did you go about setting up your initial lesson plan?
Well, it was very seat-of-my-pants. For the first one, I relied a lot on Understanding Comics. I knew I wanted the students to make mini-comics and print them. So I kind of designed it for that. The class was five days a week, for three weeks, from like 9-4, so we really had time to do that. And in the end, we produced an anthology, with everyone’s stuff in it. It was pretty cool. It was really energetic and inspiring way to start it. But yeah, working on curriculum has been a problem, and even when I got to SVA. They tend to tell you, “you have to teach X class, and here’s what it’s called.” You say, “okay, great I’ll teach it,” and they say, “okay, great. Get going.” And you have to figure out what it’s going to be.
Matt and I have taught three or four different classes at SVA, and each time it’s a new invention, which is part of what we wanted to help in our book. The book is designed to cover a college semester. It doesn’t have to be used that way, but that’s the framework we used—15 chapters for 15 weeks. And we’ll also be providing alternate syllabi on our Website for teachers to use. When you’re teaching this, there’s not a lot of material out there. There’s not a lot of stuff to draw on. Even before I started working on this book, I would get e-mails from teachers who found out I taught, asking how I did things.
Can you give me some examples of the course titles they’re pitching you?
Well, the first course I taught at SVA—and Matt and I still teach—was called Storytelling. We took that to mean story structure and a very concrete understanding of traditional storytelling. It’s also the variety of storytelling, it’s a year-long course and we start off with things like understanding a narrative arch, and the second semester we do autobio, and non-fiction, and genre fiction—a bunch of different things. The other course that I teach regularly is called Pictoral Problems. It’s the Junior thesis course, so all Juniors in the department are required to take it. The idea is that the students have a theme that they have to use to make a 15 page comic. That’s a portion of the year, and the course is designed around that. And then Matt, I, and Tom Hart teach a summer course that’s called Cartooning Hothouse, which is a basic comics course. Actually, people that are not at SVA can register for that as well, but it’s a full college credit course in eight weeks. There are others that we have taught, and Matt has done one called Drawing and he’s starting another next year that’s called Obstacle Course, which uses real world constraints to generate work.
In terms of the book and the supplemental syllabi—can these be utilized by professors who aren’t necessarily teaching comics-specific courses?
Yeah. I think there will be parts of it that are useful in lots of different fields, especially creative writing and film and so on. I mean, they’re not going to want to use the chapter on inking, but there will be a lot of stuff that they do want to use, and we’ll address that as well. And I should also point out that the book is not just designed for courses. It’s also designed for individuals who want to learn on their own. You don’t have to have a teacher to use this.
And also a good supplemental piece for a larger course?
Yeah. It depends on what you want to do. It’s concretely about making stories—making comic stories. If what you do is make stories in your course, there’s stuff in there that’s going to help you. And if you want to write about comics, I’m sure it could come in handy to know this stuff. I haven’t thought through exactly how one might use it, but sure, yeah, there’s other ways to use it.
You didn’t study comics—or even art—when you were in school, initially. You were an English major?
I took some classes in art, but was not art major.
Was coming at comics from an outsider’s perspective beneficial in any way?
Um…no, not really. I think being an educated person who thinks and has a critical mind, that helps always, but that doesn’t require being an English major. I didn’t learn how to write fiction as an English major. If I’d learned how to write fiction, that would have helped me, I suppose. I don’t regret my education. I think I got a lot out of it and it was great, but I don’t think there’s any inherent advantage in it toward what I do.
[Concluded in Part Three.]