How the Minds Behind Adventures in Cartooning Are Cultivating the Next Generation of Comics Creators

Comics Features Adventures in Cartooning
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How the Minds Behind <I>Adventures in Cartooning</I> Are Cultivating the Next Generation of Comics Creators

As comics for kids undergo a renaissance, or maybe a flowering—Cartoon Network is providing steady jobs for independent cartoonists, BOOM! continues to push out licensed comics gold and Francoise Mouly’s Toon Books imprint grows —the Adventures in Cartooning book series is doing its part to shape the next several generations of comics creators. Published by First Second since 2009, the line started with a graphic novel, also called Adventures in Cartooning with the subtitle How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics, and has more recently branched out into less instructional, purely entertaining books designed in a square format. Ogres Awake!, which released in mid-July, is the latest offering, and another, Hocus Focus, is due in January. A collaboration among James Sturm (co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies) and his former students Alexis Frederick-Frost and Andrew Arnold, the books capture the same inspirational attitude promoted by picture book pioneer Ed Emberley in his drawing books.

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As Emberley taught kids how to draw with a handful of simple shapes (even thumbprints!), Sturm, Frederick-Frost and Arnold accomplish a similar feat, while also teaching the basic building blocks of the comics visual vocabulary, including panels and motion lines. The result straddles a broad joy of line and color and the medium-specific focus of work like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, albeit geared to younger audiences. The educational aspects are conveyed in a sweet-spirited, goofy narrative, completed with a magical cartooning elf, a brave knight, an extremely hungry horse with a sweet tooth and an array of other delightful characters. The graphic novels are all unapologetically fun, even for grown-ups, and their creators gave Paste insight into their genesis, their goals and how the three cartoonists collaborate on their books together.
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Paste: I know you all met at The Center for Cartoon Studies, which James founded, and where Andrew and Alexis were students, but tell me in more detail. How’d Andrew and Alexis end up there? What was the class? Were they well-behaved students?

Alexis Frederick-Frost: I was living in the area with my wife, who was getting her Ph.D. at Dartmouth, before The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) was established in White River Junction, Vermont. At the time, I was working for an artist and puppeteer named Gabriel Quirk making Venetian papier-maché masks in an old cracker factory that had been converted into artist studios. He shared his studio space with the guy who was responsible for revitalizing the building, and one day I heard them talking about this cartoonist who was thinking about starting a cartooning school in town. I ended up meeting James in a cramped office full of shelves overflowing with graphic novels and comic books. I think his pitch was basically: “I don’t know what the school is going to be like and I can’t promise anything, but it’ll be interesting.” We also may have talked about Gertrude Stein, too. For whatever reason, I applied and became part of the inaugural class of CCS. James will have to vouch for my behavior.

James Sturm: Andrew ran an illegal operation out of the basement of the Colony, the details I can not disclose. Alexis was unruly and demanding.

Frederick-Frost: Ha, ha…I do remember opening thousands of letters containing McDonald’s monopoly dollars for Andrew. That was 100% legit, though.

Andrew Arnold: I always refer to that operation as a “bonding experience” between us pioneers. We all grew a little closer those few days… But to answer your question: one of my teachers from undergraduate school knew that I wanted to go to grad school, and also knew that I loved comics and animation. (My undergrad studies focused on traditional drawing and painting.) She sent me a list of schools to check out, CCS being one of them. I began to research the schools online when I came across a weeklong interview James had with Slate. He seemed passionate and honest about the school’s goals and mission, so I went to check it out in person to see for myself. We met for (maybe) 30 minutes, but when I left, I knew it was the school for me.

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Ogres Awake! Interior Art by James Sturm, Alexis Frederick-Frost & Andrew Arnold

Paste:It’s an unusual situation, to collaborate with your former students. Can you think of any other examples, comics or not?

Sturm: Can’t think of any offhand.

Arnold: Me neither!

Frederick-Frost: I think this type of collaboration is rarely acknowledged in writing in general. The “byline” is king and the whole field still clings to the mythology of the author working in isolation, but student/teacher collaborations aren’t that strange in other fields. For example, post-doc work in the sciences often culminates in a publication that is the result of collaboration between former students and instructors. In some ways, what Andrew and I did isn’t so different; after getting our degrees we worked with James on a concept he developed and created a publication from it.

Paste: Did all three of you grow up with Ed Emberley? He never made comics, did he? Why do you think he didn’t, and should he have?

Sturm: He may have made comics in some of his books? Whatever you call what he did I’m glad he did it. I wouldn’t second-guess Ed.

Frederick-Frost: I owned his Drawing Book of Animals and also a copy of the Caldecott-winning Drummer Hoff, which his wife wrote and he illustrated.

Arnold: I feel bad saying this, but I didn’t! The first time I was introduced to Ed was my first year at CCS.

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Ogres Awake! Interior Art by James Sturm, Alexis Frederick-Frost & Andrew Arnold

Paste: So who does what? Is that an insensitive question? Describe the making of a typical Adventures in Cartooning book.

Frederick-Frost: Our process is very collaborative and sometimes it’s hard to delineate where the contribution of one ends and the other begins. We often begin by pitching a few rough ideas to one another over email or on the phone. When we agree on the best one, James usually starts thumbnailing out the book. After he’s done with the first pass, Andrew and I take a turn working on it. Sometimes the whole thing is redrawn multiple times and sometimes we hardly touch James’s original concept. After the story is finalized, I create the illustrations and Andrew adds color and hand letters text.

Paste: I assume you all get a lot of fan art. What’s your favorite piece you’ve received?

Sturm: Picking favorites from the drawings we get in the mail from elementary-school children seems contrary to the spirit of the books. I love it all.

Frederick-Frost: Wow, where’s that generous spirit when you’re looking at my drawings?!!!

Arnold: I could never pick just one!

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Ogres Awake! Interior Art by James Sturm, Alexis Frederick-Frost & Andrew Arnold

Paste: Have you had any CCS students who were inspired by the first Adventures in Cartooning book yet? Do you look forward to that?

Sturm: Not graduate students. Plenty of kids who come to our summer camps and Saturday Morning Cartoon Club.

Paste: Thanks for making the knight a girl. Whose idea was that?

Frederick-Frost: We knew from the beginning that the core goal of Adventures in Cartooning was to empower readers to create their own stories so, it seemed like a natural step to have the princess be empowered within the narrative. We intentionally designed the knight without facial features to demonstrate that you can create an expressive and emotive character using simple shapes, but her helmet also gave us the opportunity to subvert the standard narrative associated with a knight rescuing the princess. I’m not sure who articulated the idea first, but it’s been important to me to try and push back against stereotypes in whatever small way I can in my work.

Sturm: I was a newish dad with two daughters, so I’m sure that played a factor as well.

Arnold: I just remember one of our last brainstorming sessions at the Schulz Library. Maybe in the summer of 2007, or so…? We were sitting at a table going over the story and when the revelation of the knight being the princess happened, we were all like, “Yep. That’s it.”

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Gryphons Aren’t So Great Cover Art by James Sturm, Alexis Frederick-Frost & Andrew Arnold

Paste: I always feel like the lines of these books look thick. Do you draw them that way, or are the panels enlarged from their original size? What’s the drawing process: analog or digital?

Frederick-Frost: My illustration process has evolved throughout the series of Adventures in Cartooning books. The drawings for the first graphic novel were huge and reduced significantly for the book. I used a brush and bottled India ink for the line art which was digitized so Andrew could apply color using Photoshop. The drawings in the Adventure in Cartooning picture books are 100% digitally drawn. I use a drawing tablet and a customized digital brush, which approximates the feel of a brush, to create the line art. Cutting out the extra step of scanning drawings really streamlines the process and makes sharing files through email much easier.

I’ve always enjoyed the calligraphic quality of drawings made with a brush and its characteristic variation from thick to thin. So, I really played up the brushiness of the line art in Adventures in Cartooning. Also, the character design is pretty simple and I think the dynamic brush strokes help add a little life and interest to the art without diminishing its clarity. Our goal was to create interesting iconographic images that are legible to early readers.

Sturm: I’m not sure any of these books work without Alexis’ line. It’s so alive on the page.

Frederick-Frost: Yeah, Alexis’ linework is 100% key. Without it, who knows how these books would have been received!

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Hocus Focus Cover Art by James Sturm, Alexis Frederick-Frost & Andrew Arnold

Paste: What have you talked each other out of doing?

Sturm: Two words. Naked. Santa.

Frederick-Frost: James, we agreed that we’d never talk about that!

Arnold: I can’t talk James out of doing anything he wants to do.

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