Every time I speak with Tom Hart, the cartoonist seems to have a million projects on the horizon. And while each requires a varying degree of ambition, none have been nearly so bold as the one he’s currently got in the works—the real reason I wanted to catch up with him in an interview.
The project already has a name—The Sequential Artists Workshop—and a Website. And while its launch is a bit down the road, Hart has already invested a good deal of time into the launch of the Gainesville, Florida-based school.
There are still plenty of details that need hammering out (such as accreditation), which is one of the main reasons that the SVA professor has yet to formally launch a media campaign. That said, he’s still plenty happy to discuss his visions and plans—and get all of the feedback he can in the meantime.
You’ve done a soft announcement about the school? People know at this point, right?
Yeah, I guess it’s a soft announcement. I sort of told some people. I think I mentioned it to some press people, but mostly a bunch of teachers to get some feedback. I get a lot of “good luck,” I get a lot of “are you crazy?” Mark Newgarden wrote me back and said something about trying to keep track of all of the nickels I make.
People know about it, and I would love if more people knew, but there’s not really much to know right now, so I’m not really talking about it. It’s taken a long time to get going, and I talked to [James] Sturm, who was really helpful. He spent two and a half years from notion to actually getting it up and running. That’s what I’m shooting for.
How long have you been teaching for?
Well, this is my tenth year at SVA. And when I started at SVA, I really started aggressively looking for other teaching opportunities in New York. I had honestly been wanting to teach from the day I got out of college. And when I say “got out of college,” I mean dropped out of college. There were a lot of reasons I felt like I didn’t want to stay in college.
I had been daydreaming about teaching a college class for a very long time. When the opportunity came along, I was pretty much ready. When the first opportunity came along, I did my best to turn it into other opportunities, because I really did want to teach, quite a bit.
What did you study?
Cartooning! I had a very one-track mind.
So you studied cartooning, dropped out, and then started teaching cartooning?
Many years later, yeah. Thirteen or 14 years later. After I dropped out of SVA, I ran off to Seattle, which is where there was actually some cartooning that actually made some sense to me.
That was the Peter Bagge-era?
Yeah, exactly, and Peter was very friendly to all of us 20 something upstarts.
I think we’ve spoken about this before. There was an amazing collection of cartoonists that used to meet up regularly.
Yeah, it was really terrific–a great, talented group of people who were really dedicated and were actually very serious. We would get together and critique our work. It was not like, ‘let’s go to the bar and draw funny pictures and dick jokes.’ It was, ‘let’s take off our work boots and put on our slippers and discuss the finer points of our epics in progress.’ It was Meghan Kelso, Dave Lasky, James Sturm, Jason Lutes, Jon Lewis. It ballooned really quickly. There were so many cartoonists in Seattle, but those five or six were at the core.
And several of you went on to teach.
Yeah, isn’t that interesting? I guess I never really thought through that. the majority of them have, though. And I should mention Ed Brubaker. He was maybe three years older than me and Jon, and even older than James Sturm. In a way he was a bit of a mentor to us, even though he was only a few years older than us.
Did having not graduated make you anti-establishment, at all—or at least against the idea that you could actually teach cartooning?
No. Well, at SVA at the time, there were a couple of factors that kept me from continuing. One is that it was very expensive, and our family just didn’t have the money to keep me in it. My mom was working two jobs, and I hated seeing that. Second, the other students around me, except for maybe two or three, were horrendously stupid, and I couldn’t keep myself in that environment anymore.
And on top of that, I didn’t see interesting work coming out of the school. I wasn’t a genius, but I did know that I should be surprised and challenged by this experience called “college.” And the work I saw coming out didn’t seem that way to me at all. It just seemed dumb.
So I left and went to Seattle, where there were a bunch of smart, snobby people who wanted to talk about comics all the time, and you could also be around Fantagraphics and Jim Woodring and Roberta Gregory and Peter Bagge and countless others.
It seems like there’s a lot of good work coming out of SVA now—though I obviously don’t see as much as you. Has it gotten more competitive in recent years?
I don’t know if it’s competition or diversity—comics as a medium has opened up so much. Back then, I was shocked that it was mostly kids wanting to draw superheroes. Completely shocked. I though they would go to action adventure school, that cartooning school would be mostly people who wanted to draw under Harvey Kurtzman or Art Spiegelman and Mark Newgarden—all three were teaching at the time. But mostly it was just kids who really, really, really wanted to draw Wolverine, which never once floated my boat and seemed really dumb. People are going to hate this interview [laughs].
But things have changed greatly. At SVA now, Tom Woodruff [the department head] is really interested in expanding the minds of the students who come in there. I was hired pretty early in his tenure there. I think he saw a certain potential in me and saw that I too wanted to help challenge the students into becoming real artists. I certainly didn’t have the chops to teach them how to draw great perspective city scenes that Spider-man could swing through or whatever.
By the time you left, you must have had a good perspective on what you wanted and what they could deliver. Were there certain things you thought you could bring to the table that weren’t really being taught at the time?
I don’t think I’d been really paying attention to what was coming out of there. I had subbed a couple of times. I’d always paid a lot of attention to my own processes, a lot of attention. And I’ve always felt like everything I learned I had learned very slowly and very difficultly—meaning that I had to slowly earn every ability that I had [laughs]. So it really stayed with me. I felt like I could at least teach that.
If you were a natural cartoonist of any kind, you didn’t need that college experience. You could just do it. but if you did need the college experience, I felt like I would be a good teacher to those kids who feel like they need the college experience and who do need those guideposts, when certain things aren’t happening and they don’t know where to turn.
I feel like I’d been through so much of that so consciously, that I was ready to teach that. There’s no reason to believe that this wasn’t already happening at SVA, it’s just that I felt like I could be someone who could provide it.
Was it that real world experience that made you so gung ho about teaching? What makes someone want to spend half their time teaching others how to create art?
I don’t know. I like the process of giving. It’s just that. I don’t know why. I don’t know why there are other people who can’t do it or don’t want to do it. To me it’s a pretty joyful experience.
It might be partially my background. I always felt like I never really had the right teachers at any one point in my life—you know… well, that’s not really true. I think I just grew up devoid of culture, so I had to make my way very blindly through becoming an artist, enjoying the art world, learning what kinds of art our culture has been making. It’s pretty much been me just scouring books and going into bookstores and working my way alphabetically through the aisles [laughs]. I think there’s a part of me that always lamented this, and I just wanted to offer more guidance to others.
But maybe there aren’t that many people like that. Now with the Internet, there certainly aren’t that many kids like that. Kids come in with that information, but it’s getting to the point now where they can’t sift through it, and huge chunks of information are missing. It makes their brains full of stuff, but it’s chaotic, whereas my brain at 18 was completely empty.
[Continued in Part Two]