Interview: Ryan Alexander-Tanner

Categories:  Interviews

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Set for a May 1st release, To Teach: The Journey, In Comics marks Bill Ayers’s first foray into the world of sequential art. The book is an adaptation of the writer’s seminal 1993 text, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. Ayers, for better or worse, requires little introduction, particularly in the wake of the last presidential election, in which the Weather Underground co-founder became a well-tread talking point in Sarah Palin’s anti-Obama stump speeches.

The name of Ayers’s collaborator on the graphic novel, however, will no doubt prove unfamiliar to most. The 27-year-old artist first collaborated with Ayers as part of a high school history assignment, transforming an interview with the educator into a short strip.

Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner largely fell out of touch after the project. In the meantime, the artist got a bachelor’s degree and moved to Portland. In 2009, he won a Xeric for his book, Television #1. And when the time came to recruit an artist for To Teach, Alexander-Tanner’s name found its way to the top of Ayers’s list.

Are you just starting to do interviews for the book now?

Yeah, well when we announced the book I actually did an online interview.  Some student or something from Columbia came to my house and did an interview maybe three or four months ago. I did a Xeric book maybe two or three years ago and News-a-Rama did an interview, but never published it. So yeah I’m pretty obscure.

What was the Xeric book about?

It was called Television, and it was a one man anthology thing

It was a collection of diverse of works?

Yeah it was kind of under sort of a blanket theme exploring different ideas. I’ve been working on a second issue, but I don’t a publisher for it, so it’s hard to do it knowing that you are going to lose money on it.. I tend to put it aside for more practical works.

When you are approached by Bill Ayers’s people asking to do a graphic novel that tends to take precedence right?

Yeah well, it’s something I wanted to do.

Had you met Bill prior to signing this deal?

Yes, there’s a little bit of history here. It’s kind of fun, it’s kind of a fun anecdote. When I was in high school, Bill’s niece was my best friend and her dad–Bill’s brother–was my English teacher. I had an assignment in a history class, I think, in the tenth grade and I had to do a documentary on somebody and I got my teacher to let me do a comic book documentary. I showed her Maus, and I said, “comics are a valid form for creating documentaries.”

So she let me do that and my friend suggested that I interview Bill. So I interviewed him over the phone and made a six-page comic just about his experience in the Weather Underground and all that. So that was 97 or 98 maybe, and the I met him in person in 2001 when he was in Portland, Oregon where I lived at the time. He was doing a book tour to promote Fugitive Days, which was brand new at the time. So I went and saw him speak at Palace Books and actually my friend Sonia and I were actually college roommates at the time, so he came and stayed with us for like a day or two. That was when I first met him in person.

The Teachers College Press they wanted to do a third edition and Bill didn’t want to do a third edition of To Teach. He was like, “This book is done, its in the past.” He doesn’t really want to work on old shit, you know? That’s a really prevalent characteristic of Bill. He likes to just move on. So he said, “I’ll only do it if its a comic book.” I think it’s pretty fair to say that he only said that so that they would just leave him alone. But they came back maybe three weeks later and they said, “Okay we want do that, we want to do the comic book.”

So, they had a short list of people they thought might do it… they were kicking it around and trying to move forward. And Bill was just asking around and he asked his brother. And [his brother] said, “Why don’t you go with Ryan? Try him out.”  So I got an e-mail one day, saying, ‘Hey we’re going to make this graphic novel, would you be interested?’

And in the interum you guys weren’t really in touch at all?

No, we just met casually. I think we met maybe twice and he didn’t remember who I was or anything. I mean the way I saw him again, we started talking and I reminded him and he said “oh right, right, right.” I just went for it, they sent me the book and I really wanted to do it so he basically gave me an audition with the people with College Press to do this project. So I roughed out some stuff and I started sending stuff in and it was going well. Then he and I got together and sort of did a draft of the first chapter to show them how we would do it and it went through. And, you know, the rest is history.

Was he being dismissive, when he suggested that it be turned into a comic book?

No. I would not say that at all. I would say that Bill has a genuine regard for comics as a medium. Probably more so now, having gone through this process with me. But, no, I think he does approach comics with respect and regard for comics. But I would say now, that he didn’t think that he would have to work on it as much as he did.

He thought he was passing it off to a graphic artist to adapt his work, but that’s a big point that has come up alot. He and I had to work really close together for a really long time because, To Teach its not a narrative, it’s not a story. Its not like this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. It’s anecdotal.

The point wasn’t to tell the story about Aaron in your class in the third grade and the poem he wrote about himself. The point is the ideas behind that, and why are you telling those stories and what are they adding up to. So, that was really struggle, to really boil this story down to the points it’s making, to make a list of bullets of ‘what are we trying to say’ and then running that through this filter, this comics narrative filter. Turning it into a more direct sequential arts narrative to convey the same ideas.

As somebody who was less familiar with the medium, did [Bill] have trouble on that end, or were you creating the narrative structure for him?

I don’t know if you know this, but I lived at his house for like five months while we wrote this thing. When we were doing the proposal pitch together, we knew that e-mails wasn’t really going to cut it in terms of getting the script done, we had to sit down together and work together or it wasn’t going to get done. And the other thing was just a financial thing. I couldn’t really afford to live and do this book without some sort of help. So, you know, he has three sons that have grown up and moved away so he has some extra space in their house. So, I thought it would be weird, but I did move in with him for a while, which actually during the election which is a whole other story…

So we just sat down together and worked which is great because he’s just this genious of education and writing and we really got to be experts at what we were bringing to the [work]. He, again, I always say the best thing about working with Bill is that he gave me total freedom and the worst thing about working with Bill is that he gave me total freedom, because he would’ve never talked to me at all and just gone about his business and made me do everything. But, again, this wasn’t a book of my ideas, they were his ideas. So I felt that it was really important to constantly interact with him and go back and forth with him.

So, in a sense, you were interviewing him to get material?

In a sens,e yes. Basically what I did was built this framework. It was almost Marvel Comics style. So we’re talking about process. I read the book maybe three times and I would make these lists of what I thought were important points. I created an outline for each chapter based on what I was taking from it. Then we would go over those and have discussions and sometimes I would misinterpret, or he would want to add something, or he would disagree with a point I would reach a conclusion about.

So we would discussions about that and then I would do drawings on all these poster sheets. I would create key images based around these concepts we had worked out. So we would do that and then figure out how to plug in these images into this narrative. So we basically just wrote tighter and tighter outlines. Then I would just start laying out pages, really loose layouts and figure out how much space we had. I would say, “Okay we have two pages to make this point and I want to do it this way… ”
The book is Bill in his first year, and then he steps out of that narrative framework and talks more directly to the reader. So we have this past and present framework happening. So we basically just went over the devices together. I would frame out these sequences and then we would just sit down together, and he would generate tons of text. He would just write all these pages of text and we would try to plug them in and they wouldn’t fit so we would just sit down together and shave off text and tear it down and just do that over and again until we got everything where we needed it.

It was hard not to make comparisons to some of Scott McCloud’s books, was that a big inspiration?

Yeah. Bill had read Understanding Comics, and when we were designing the Bill character, he really wanted it to be similar to Scott McCloud. In that it is as simple as possible, alot of his ‘comic schooling’ came from that book, so a lot of the theory that he wanted applied to this narrative came from that book so he wanted that way. For me it was a really good model for how to convey big ideas in an engaging way. That is sort of the struggle of this book, there’s a lot of text, there’s a lot of information. So, that same standpoint of here is your narrator and he is guiding you through this stream of ideas, it did sort of seem like it.

That’s cool to me because my big argument as a comics creator is: comics can cover any genre, you can do anything with comics, so I always feel like as comics makers we need to show that instead of discussing it all the time. So, I saw this as an opportunity to grab this great book Understanding Comics which is comics on comics and so now let’s do comics on teaching instead. Let’s get away from comics as the subject matter and lets use it as the medium instead.

An academic approach to an academic book.

I don’t know what kind of legs this book is going to have, but I like to think that I have masters course on teaching and I have 14 books to read and this book, I’ve decided, is the one that would be most engaging in terms of things I am required to read.

It’s got that immediacy of a comic book.

Yeah, and also one thing I told Bill a million times is: show, don’t tell. We don’t have to describe anything, we can just show it. You know “pictures are worth a thousand words” or whatever, so we can basically pair down or text and use these visuals to convey ideas. Use visual metaphors to get ideas across.

You mentioned that you were living with him in Chicago at the height of the election season. With that recent history in mind, do you think its going to be hard for people to divorce this book from Bill’s perceived past?

I don’t know. I mean, yes, I think of course they will. But at the same time I think that its going to put alot of eyes on us that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,because this is a educational comic book.  It’s a about education, so its not necessarily the most…controversial…general interest publication. And yeah I don’t think the idea in that book are very controversial at all, honestly.

This whole narrative is about getting to know people and not reducing them to a statistic. That’s another joke that came up alot. I was trying to turn Bill into a cartoon character and simplifying him and we’re making this book and its happening on Fox News everyday at the same time. We had this great moment, we were watching TV together and we looking for The Daily Show or something, flipping through channels, and Fox News was showing Bill’s face, and they’re calling him a terrorist and they’re calling him a murderer, and all this shit, and I turn my head and theres this guy eating a watermelon in his pajamas and I’m like, “That’s you” and he says, “I know right. What the fuck?” It was him. But it’s not him at the same time.

And that’s true for the cartoon character that I made. Its this generic representation of him. I think that mine is a little more fair and a little more informed than the Fox News version, but, to me, that was an interesting parallel to me. That the cartoon I made was sort of more rounded out and more based on reality. I feel that that was another opportunity because to me Bill was this benevolent presence in my life. So working with him and representing him as a cartoon character was an opportunity for to show him more as I experienced him hands on.
The cliche for cartoonists and writers is ‘at least you got a good story out of it.’ Do you feel like you’ll eventually explore what happened during that time while you were living with him?

Well, I think that comes down to personal privacy. When I moved in with them, I agreed to be respectful of their personal privacy. It lives in my head what happened, but its on the shelf for me. I’m not trying to ride the Bill Ayers wave forever. To me it was an oppotunity for me to showcase what I can do as a cartoonist and hopefully that will do more for me. But I think in terms of the level of propaganda, and experiencing a presidential scandal–if you want to call it that–first-hand and being there, I think that there were profound things I took away from it. So I can see I think revisiting it in a long time.

I feel like in twenty years, you know, five elections later something similar will happen and it might be a worthwhile narrative to dig up. But I think that for a number of reasons, for not beating a dead horse, and not disregarding someone’s need for privacy I’m not looking to crack that narrative anytime.

But you would consider working with Bill sometime in the future?

Yeah, absolutely. We’ve talked about writing other stuff. I’d be happy to work with him for sure. We talked about doing Fugitive Days, which is a possibility. But I am kind of new in comics. I don’t want to be thought of as Bill Ayers’s cartoonist. I mean, we work together really well- we have a whole system down. Yeah, if they wanted to do more stuff or if wanted to work together, I am definitely open to it. I have other interest, other I would like to pursue. I’m not locked down for another project

–Brian Heater

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