For Future Cartoonists: Adventures in Cartooning

Inside Adventures in Cartooning

Adventures in Cartooning

Adventures in Cartooning grew out of a class assignment where students were asked to create a comic using only the visual vocabulary from Ed Emberley’s amazing book, Make a World,” explained cartoonist and teacher James Sturm. The resulting book, which arrives in stores in April from First Second books, strives to entertain young readers while teaching them the fundamentals of how to create their own comics.

Sturm is most recognized for his sophisticated, adult comics dealing with the evolution of American society – from the religious revivals of Kentucky in 1801 (“The Arrival”) to the persecution of minorities during the 20th century (The Golem’s Mighty Swing, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow). However, Sturm is also the founder and head of the Center for Cartoon Studies, one the few schools dedicated to teaching the subtle art of cartooning.

“By using Emberley’s simple shapes students are liberated from having to ‘draw well’ and as a class we can dive right the mechanics of making comics without having anyone feeling over self-conscious about their drawing,” Sturm continued, describing the origins of his latest book, a collaboration with two of his former students, Alexis Frederick-Frost and Andrew Arnold. Adventures in Cartooning tells a delightful, fast-moving adventure story of a knight’s pursuit of a dragon. Only this knight is accompanied by the Magic Cartooning Elf, who is going to teach the knight and all of Adventures in Cartooning’s young readers how to use comics to tell stories.

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“I also have two young daughters (6 and 8) and this is the first book I worked on that they could fully enjoy. When looking through how-to cartoon books, almost all of them focus on character design and the aesthetics of cartooning, not the actual mechanics of cartooning. AIC is intended to introduce young readers to the pleasures of cartooning. I’d like to think it’s the next instructional step from Emberley but not quite old enough to dive into Understanding Comics.”

Co-author Alex Frederick-Frost explained how the book not only teaches children, but also taught him some lessons as well: “It seems that part of teaching, especially to children, is distilling the essence of a subject and communicating it clearly and directly. I learned a lot about sequential storytelling while attempting to break down the mechanics of comics for a younger audience. For example, everyone who reads comics is familiar with panel layouts but communicating why or how to use panels is surprisingly difficult. It's amazing that we can create meaning with a bunch of pictures in boxes and working on Adventures in Cartooning gave me a greater understanding and appreciation of this magical process.”

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Although it’s designed to instruct, the creators were sure to keep AIC’s target audience in mind during the creation process. Sturm said of the plot-driven book, “Doing a straight forward how-to has little appeal for me. It certainly is trickier to embed the lessons in the narratives—we went through several drafts of the book—but if readers are going to emotionally connect with the material this was the only way to go. 18th-century bookseller John Newbery motto was, ‘Instruction through delight.’ That’s what we were shooting for.”

“I loved watching this instructional/how-to story evolve,” said Andrew Arnold, the third partner in this venture. “To think where this whole thing started and where it wound up is really wonderful and I couldn't be happier with the end result. It was also great working with James and Alexis… I have tremendous respect for them as cartoonists (and friends!) and I consider myself very lucky to be a part of this.”

Throughout AIC, the Elf provides plenty of lessons to the knight and the reader about how to use comics most effectively. However, the book’s authors didn’t want to spell out every technique. Allowing readers to learn by experience, several ideas about how to use comics are embedded directly into the narrative – such as ascending and descending panels across the page when the knight climbs a mountain. “Absolutely,” Sturm said of his intention to teach without spelling everything out. “We introduce things visually and then address it again in the dialogue. Kids learn through repetition.”

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Even with three creative egos on board, Sturm, Frederick-Frost and Arnold seem to have meshed effectively as a team. “This was a true collaboration. There is no way any of us could have pulled this off without the others. There was some obvious delineation of work: Alexis’s inking, Andrew’s lettering. But as far as the writing, coloring, layout, concepts, character designs, format—all of us were playing creative leapfrog with one another. The process was a lot of fun and we all enjoyed working with one another and I think that comes across in the book,” Sturm explained.

Frederick-Frost added, “I really didn't know what to expect when I started this project. I was excited about working with James and Andrew. I have a huge amount of respect for them as artists and consider them good friends, but I didn't know how our individual methods of creating comics would mesh. I didn't need to worry, the experience was awesome. We really worked well together and built off of each others’ strengths. All three of us are perfectionists and have a strong work ethic. It was rare when one of us thought a change or a revision needed to be made and others disagreed. I think each of our commitment to the book and to the medium of comics enabled the three headed cartooning monster to come into being.

“It was really great. James and Andrew are fantastic artists and fun guys to hang out with. I think working with them has made my comics better and has definitely improved my skill with the ol' ping-pong paddle.”

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“One day after class, (or maybe it was after a few games of ping pong!) James approached me and asked, ‘Would you be interested in working on a book with me? It's going to be like Ed Embereley's Make a World, except with comics,’” Arnold said in relating the book’s origins. “It sounded like a great idea so Alexis and I said yes. He then asked us to draft the first 10 pages, which we would then use to ‘pitch’ the book. Alexis and I drafted those pages, James edited and refined them, and there you have it.”

Working with his former professor seemed to agree with Arnold, who brought many of his mentor’s lessons to AIC: “If I could use one word to describe James' teaching method it would be ‘editing.’ Edit, edit, edit! We went through several drafts of this book and I think it really shows. Before attending CCS, I never realized how much editing can go into creating a comic.”

Sturm, for his part, enjoyed the collaboration with his former students, as I jokingly asked about using more students to draw his books. “What a cynical question! I didn’t start a school to exploit students!” he replied. “Alexis, Andrew, and I are even-steven partners in this. We chose to work with one another based on mutual respect and admiration for one another’s talents. In my mind this book has already paid off— we had a blast making it (and my girls really, really liked it— and Eva drew two pages!).”

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Publisher First Second gets the enviable job of making sure that AIC reaches its target audience. Addressing the notion that “comics aren’t for kids anymore,” Sturm only said, “The capable crew at First Second take care of that one. My job was to help create the book and do some promotion (like this here interview).”

In addition to Adventures in Cartooning, James Sturm offered the following for his fans: “I’m just about finished with my next solo graphic novel, Market Day, a ‘sophisticated adult work.’ I am also editing a book about the cartoonist Denys Wortman. Both of these are coming out next year from D&Q. An AIC activity book is just getting underway which should be a neat follow-up.”

Adventures in Cartooning ships in April from First Second books. More information about James Sturm and the Center for Cartoon Studies is available online.

Related:

Jeff Smith: From Bone to Little Mouse  

James Sturm on Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow

Enterting James Sturm's America  

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