Springtime Atlanta is heyday for comics, with Momocon just last month, Free Comic Book Day next month. At Tech, local artists and students met at the first Annual Atlanta Comics Symposium to host panels on comics from their nature and creation to the industry’s ambivalent future.
Programs from Georgia Tech and University of Florida collaborated to initiate the symposium series starting this year, attracting about 30 by noon. The theme of this symposium was multimodality and asking how changes in technology, especially digital media, affect comics’ identities and industries.
Kicking off the event in the morning, faculty from participating universities led a series of talks and a roundtable dedicated to these topics. After noon, students from Professor Roger Whitson’s English 1101 class presented their work over the semester: the complete fabrication of an original comic book.
The students lay out the comic, write the story, and then produce the comic over the semester, while the entire class critiques each others work during update presentations. Initially, these presentations could be blazing at the worst, but students say that they gained confidence along the way as the comics changed significantly.
At the symposium, three teams of writers, marketers and illustrators presented their work and what a different learning experience that an entirely comics-based class can offer instead of a traditional literature deconstruction approach.
“The goal of [traditional English classes] is to read novels and analyze, deconstruct and find motifs in them. Instead, this class was a case of construction rather than deconstruction,” said Alex Kessler, first-year IE and team member that produced the “Fighting Fate” book.
Tkeyah Anderson and Erin McPherson, first-years EE and PSY respectively, presented their book “Adventures of Captain Victorious Across Time and Space,” that covered the stereotypical superhero-villain idea in a self-discovery context.
Anderson, the marketing researcher, polled students and discovered what the audience expects and how to appeal to everyone. If they were to publish the book and market to a large group, the biggest question was how to get everyone’s interest into the particular type of comic they produced.
The final presentation was by Heather Yutko, first-year IAML, who worked on the book “The Little Siren” that takes a Disney-style Little Mermaid story and then has the titular character tear out and eat the romantic prince’s heart. The story saturates the Prince Handsome character with the classic Disney feel, while bloodthirsty sirens who have no positive character development completely reduce the romanticism and “naivete of Disney’s perspective of love,” according to their group blog.
“I did not realize how much time goes into creation of a comic, but it was really rewarding in the end and I like comics a lot more than I did when I was going into the class and seeing what goes into the process,” Yutko said.
Entering the class, students largely had little exposure to comics of different styles – like classic Superman-type comics, gritty graphic novels, and highly emotional or allegorical books – though through this experience, these students shared their interest and even excitement in their presentations about both comics as a medium of learning how to communicate in different ways and how it compares to traditional English classes.
“You’re writing all the time, but then when you present someone with the final comic book, the writing is actually embedded in the way you describe the story and illustrations [posted on their blogs] and getting people together,” Whitson said. “I feel like ultimately the students produced really great comics.”
Following these students were two Atlanta-area comic creators Van Jensen and Andy Runton, who talked about making a living as a comic creator and how the audience and market work with or against writers and illustrators. Runton bridged the student presentations with how comic creation works.
“Comics are difficult to teach, because there are so many skills involved. A lot of it comes down to a certain level of storytelling, if you think about the way human history was passed down,” Runton said, “It’s an art form, and there’s a certain amount of the ‘uncanny valley,’ where people look a certain way but not quite real… and so the same thing is true with stories where you can look at the story and say, ‘I don’t understand.’”
Runton graduated from Tech in 2000 with his masters degree in industrial design, and he now works on projects based on his creation Owly – a cute little owl who just wants to make friends. Owly comics, which have sold both as comics and children’s books, are completely pictorial with no dialogue or textual components.
“When I was young, one of the things that I did was stay up late and watch TV without sound, like movies, and there were some movies that were very easy to follow, and if you can take all the words away and still follow it, it means something,” Runton said.
This form of storytelling is atypical, but it supports principles of flow and linearity that Runton prizes. In fact, the dialogue and script are more for the author anyway, according to writer Van Jensen who recently finished his graphic novel “Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer.”
“One realization that I’ve had was the script is not written for the audience; it’s for the artist. A comic script is somewhere between a screenplay and an instruction manual that includes the information that illustrators can take and turn it into art,” Jensen said. “The book From Hell by Alan Moore is insanely descriptive and very detailed, and there’s one panel that is a full page of script, written in a very intricate flowery script. Eddie Campbell, the illustrator, took the page and crossed out everything except prostitute, night and street [to get the information to illustrate the page].”
The two also covered the risky future of comics, including comics’ transition from print to digital, waxing and waning of audiences, and how the majority of writers and illustrators can find huge success and failure in the span of only a few years while working on a single project.
Capping off the panels were presentations by doctorate students relating to comics. Anthony Coman from the University of Florida analyzed the technical and meta aspects of the graphic novel “WAR FIX” by David Axe and Steve Olexa. Brittain Fellows Kellie Meyer and Nirmal Trivedi covered their research on vikings’ representation in modern comics and Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza,” respectively.
Finally illustrator Tony Harris – artist of “Starman,” “Ex Machina,” “War Heroes,” and “Spiderman: With Great Power” – talked about reinventing Superman in the comics industry. Rather than discarding the declining superhero-based industry, he argues that the excitement and visual hook should be reinvented to save it.
“We need a major overhaul in our industry – superheroes are just not cutting it anymore. There’s nothing wrong with them, but you can only tell the same handful of stories so many times… before people can tell who the man behind the curtain is,” Harris said.
Comics now compete mostly with the video game and film industry for the same target audience. Harris cited video games’ graphic realism and hard edge, where gamers are expecting the same out of comics and don’t find it. He also said it’s a joke among comics professionals that Hollywood producers spend their weekends in comic shops looking for new ideas and can almost use them as a farm.
Harris supports a personal, grassroots approach to reigniting interest in comics, which he hopes to shift focus to an audience that continues to move away from their traditional, declining market. He also intends to produce another “Starman” comic soon.