Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Another Brick in the Wall

I had a fantastic time yesterday as the guest of Professor James Housefield and the Design students of the University of California, Davis. No camera so no pictures, unfortunately. UCD is my alma mater, as well as my wife Karen's and my two girls'. (In the past I've been coy about identifying the school, but since the girls have graduated and aren't there anymore I don't mind spilling. Go Aggies.) In fact, I was invited to speak to the Design students because my daughter Laura had Dr. Housefield's class last year and showed him World of Tomorrow.

My first thought when invited: What have I got to say to Design students? My second through fifth thoughts: maybe a lot. Dr. Housefield talks about comics in his curriculum. His students have read Scott McCloud and thought a lot about expressing concepts visually in a variety of media. I've got some practical experience and a perspective they haven't heard before. This idea's just crazy enough to work!

The morning class was Design 1, with about 170 mostly freshmen who Dr. Housefield explained had just survived their first round of university midterms and were a bit shell-shocked. The lecture hall was a great old-school "Paper Chase"-style auditorium with seats that soared steeply to the back of the room. Dr. Housefield opens every class asking the students to do a five-minute sketch, which I expect generates some loose creative energy. Yesterday, in my honor, he asked them to sketch that famous "Learn to Draw" pitchman as seen in millions of matchbooks and comic books, Patchy the Pirate.

Draw Patchy, become a famous cartoonist. It's just that simple.

Since we already had the AV for my PowerPoint slides set up and I had some nervous energy of my own to dissipate, I also took the opportunity to Draw Patchy on the big blackboard behind the lectern. After that, Dr. Housefield had the students break into small groups to brainstorm questions they'd like to ask a working (heh) cartoonist. That terrified me; they'd come prepared.

Then for about an hour and half I used examples from both Mom's Cancer and WHTTWOT to talk about why I think comics are a particularly powerful medium of communication--their economy of expression, use of symbolism, metaphor, and manipulation of space and time--my approach to designing characters, the different roles color played in my two books. I described the huge amount of research I did on WHTTWOT, and how that manifested itself in details that I didn't expect readers to notice but I hoped might make the story feel authentic and "right" just the same. I talked about the nuts and bolts of how I physically turn blank sheets of paper into published work, CMYK versus RGB, and the process of collaborating with editors and designers on projects like designing a book cover. I tried to be honest about what I thought worked and what maybe hadn't worked so well. I've given a lot of different types of talks to different groups, but this was definitely the most exhaustive (and exhausting) explanation of process I'd ever attempted.

And I think it went well! Here's one student's review. The students had good questions, none of which stumped me. Some of them had read my books in preparation for the lecture, so I got to do some signing and sketching out in the hall afterward. Dr. Housefield then treated me and a small group of his class mentors--students who'd already had the class and come back to lead discussions and such--to lunch. I appreciated the chance to meet them one-on-one. Nice, smart people.

In the afternoon I basically repeated my talk in a much smaller room with a few of Dr. Housefield's graduate students. He'd also extended an invitation universitywide so we had maybe seven or eight people altogether, and a nice opportunity for a more casual, intimate discussion.

So I got to spend a beautiful sunny day back on my college campus, which always makes me feel like I'm 20 again. I think I added some value to some students' educations without wasting anybody's time. Four hours of speechifying and another four hours on the road made for a long day but, as I told Dr. Housefield, I'd be happy to go back and do it anytime. Thanks to him and his students for making me so welcome.


sligo said...

love the "draw Patchy, become a famous artist, it's that simple". gonna have to make a t-shirt out of that, it's just so Zen -- "It's that simple!"

and there's the Zen question to you (and it might be time to do a post about this relative to the last few years): what did you learn from them?

Brian said...

Sligo, you're blowing my mind, man. I like the question, don't have a coherent answer in either the short- or long-term versions. Limiting myself to yesterday, I'd say I came away with a better appreciation for how broad the discipline of "design" is. In a different life, I could've done that. I also have a general warm fuzzy feeling that the Yoots of America ("did you say 'yoots'?") are all right: nice, smart, interested and interesting people. I already kinda knew that from hanging around my girls and their friends, but it was nice to see it bigger scale. "What I've Learned the Past Few Years" is too much to put in a blog comment.

Jim O'Kane said...

Okay, Prof. Fies - now you've got me thinking - is there an "anti-Scott McCloud" faction of comic artists? I've read McCloud's stuff, and it never struck me that there might be a contrary position to his opinions on why comics work to convey meaning. McCloud's ideas about Jungian urges inside our brains to make sense out of scribbled lines seems okay to me, but is there another school of thought on all this?

Sherwood Harrington said...

Sounds like a really great day -- for you, of course, but even more so for the students you interacted with. As I've told you before, you have all the makings of a very fine teacher, as far as I can tell. Maybe you're destined for that sort of gig as a living, not as a guest. It wouldn't surprise me.

And as for the title of this post: heh! sez I to Mr. Waters.

Brian Fies said...

Jim, I consider myself a McCloud Contrarian. Nothing against Scott, whom I've briefly met and is by all reports one of the nicest people in the business. I think some of his insights are interesting, some so blindingly obvious I wonder why he'd spend 10 pages belaboring them, and some simply wrong. But my real beef is more with people who use "Understanding Comics" like a Bible that's meant to end arguments rather than one guy's opinion that leaves room for discussion. Appeals to authority that begin "Well, McCloud says" carry very little weight with me, and in my opinion rarely amount to much. Just draw the damn things and let the librarians sort out which shelf to put them on.

Sherwood, thanks. Means a lot coming from you. I think I would be a good teacher. What little I've done (going back to when I worked as an Astronomy TA at UCD) has always been very satisfying.

Jim O'Kane said...

Brian, this is fascinating. I must know more about the argumentative aspects of McCloud. Is it mostly about his thoughts on storytelling, or art detail, or something else that I as a non-drawing-type person have overlooked?

As a film theory major, I agreed with his thoughts on the brain abhorring lack of detail, causing it to "fill in the blanks." In my as-yet-unpublished work about TV Dads (now in second-place storage behind my Capra tome), I wrote about how much of the brain is simply devoted to visual processing: if you take both hands and lace them behind your head like you're laying in a hammock, the area under your fingers roughly covers the size and location of your visual cortex. We are giant, walking image processors, and much of our waking and sleeping is devoted to making sense out of nonsense.

shweinman said...

As one of the design students who had the honor of being at your guest lecture yesterday, you were great! It was so interesting to know the story behind both of your comics. I have to admit, i have never really thought there were comics out there that were pulled from real life. It was so interesting, especially when you took individual strips and described the story behind them. Thanks so much for your lecture and i hope you return in other quarters so that future design students can learn from you.

Brian Fies said...

shweinman, that's really nice of you to say. Thanks a lot.

Brian Fies said...

Jim, I don't have Scott's books on hand and haven't looked at them in years, so I'm not really armed for an argument. Nor do I want to start an Internet dust-up with a smart, swell, well-intentioned guy (as unlikely as it is that more than eight people will read this). But my basic beef with McCloud is that when he draws a nifty graph proving that there are only four kinds of This or eight ways to do That, I immediately think of two other kinds of This and three different ways to do That. And I get all fired up to argue until I realize it's an uninteresting and unproductive thing to argue about and a much less useful application of my energy than, you know, actually making comics. Which may or may not fit someone's definition of comics but I don't care.

I do agree that comics work because their lack of detail encourages the reader to fill in their own. That's one reason my editor and I didn't put an author's photo (or family photo) on "Mom's Cancer": when the characters are generalized humans, they become you the reader; when you can flip to the back and compare them to actual people, they become someone else. It's what causes readers to tell me, "it's as if you were in my family's living room watching us." As I mentioned in both classes yesterday, whenever I redraw something in a comic, it is always for the purpose of removing detail, never adding. Or as Alex Toth said, He spent the first half of his career learning what to put into his art and the last half learning what to leave out. "Leaving out" is hard.

James Housefield, Ph.D. said...

Brian, on behalf of all my students (and especially from me), THANK YOU for your generous and thoughtful lectures yesterday. I'm here to give a glowing recommendation for anyone who wants to hire you as a speaker OR a teacher! (Sherwood's comments above are spot on!) Your good company and the great conversations we all shared made this a day that my students and I will long remember. Thank you!

ronnie said...

Sounds like a wonderful experience all around, Brian. I particularly like the student's review you linked to. Seems like you re-energized her after the "shell shock" of midterms :)

Mike said...

You really should think about doing more of this sort of thing.

When I was putting together "Stories in the Stars," I expected Prof. Harrington to provide good, understandable suggestions and explanations, since that's what he does for a living, but I was pleasantly surprised, not at what you knew, but at your ability to frame complex things in good mentorish language that not only helped me understand the astronomical concepts but anticipated what the kids reading the series would need if they were going to understand them.

Being able to do something is great, but not everyone who can do something can explain it to somebody else. In my experience, most can't. It is a gift.

andreamu said...

I am a design student in Dr. Housefield's Design 1 class. I am definitely not a freshman, I have just taken a long time to get to where I am now. I am so impressed by your work. My mother survived cancer, but should not have. I just am amazed at the honesty and clarity of the book Mom's cancer. In fact I just ordered a couple of copies. I actually cried during your lecture. It was so easy for me to relate. This is what design is about. It is important to tell these tales. To relate them to people. To teach not only to design students about processes you used, but to teach life lessons. To help prepare others, and use your story to make a difference. I wish I had spent more time with you and Dr. Housefield. What a treat that would have been. Thank you for being so inspirational, and for sharing your knowledge with us. I have so much respect for you and your work.

Brian Fies said...

Andrea, that's very kind of you to say and means a lot, especially given your experience with your mother. Thanks. As for spending more time with Dr. Housefield and me . . . I was there, and you didn't miss much. ;-) I think you're right about Design--it can make a difference even if it doesn't always. I know you'll do good work.

Alice said...

As another student from Dr. Housefield's class, I'd just like to thank you, Brian, for sharing your books and the process involved. It was definitely really helpful to hear firsthand from someone who put so much of himself into his work.
Also, what you said at the end of class about standing on your own island and truly being yourself in that aspect really made an impact on me: I've heard those kinds of speeches before, but never in such an empowering way.
Thank you again, and I look forward to reading your next project.

Sherwood Harrington said...

As a completely neutral observer, without a dog in this race, your endorsements from Dr. Housefield's students are every bit as valuable as any awards Mom's Cancer earned from professionals. Maybe even more so.

Strike that. Definitely more so.

Brian Fies said...

Alice, thanks a lot. I appreciate hearing that.

Sherwood, since when are you neutral? But when you're right, you're right.

luna said...

Hi Mr. Fies! I went to you lecture at UCD (although I wasn't one of the students in the design class; as an artist, I thought the lecture sounded interesting, so I just sat in). It was really enjoyable and there were a lot of really valuable things that you mentioned that had never occurred to me before. For example, the part where you explained that the speech bubbles lead the reader's eyes around the page, so you should draw them first before doing the actual art - this had never occurred to me before, and as a person who draws her own comics for fun, learning that was important. I also liked learning about the publishing process, and I liked your stories; overall, the lecture was really fun and informative :)

I had a question though. You said that you started Mom's Cancer as a web comic, right? What website did you post it on? I've been wanting to write my own web comic for a little while, but I can't find any good places that host them. Can you help me out, please?

Brian Fies said...

Luna, thanks for sitting in, I'm glad it was worth your time. I posted the "Mom's Cancer" webcomic on a site that I ran at I still maintain the site but the strip isn't there anymore; when we decided to publish it as a book, my publisher asked me to take it down (didn't want a free version competing against one that cost $12.95!), which seemed reasonable to me.

I know of a few sites that host webcomics (and got a ton of hits just googling "webcomics hosting") but don't have enough experience or knowledge to recommend one. I'd hate to send you somewhere that sucked. I guess my best advice would be to seek out a bunch of webcomics, see which appear to be hosted by someone else (many are like mine, started and maintained by the strip's creators), and test how easy they are to read and navigate. Just the attempt to find such strips will be a test in itself: you don't want your strip hosted by someone who's hard to find! Then before signing up with one, I'd e-mail a couple of cartoonists who use it and ask them if they'd recommend it. They'll usually be honest, particularly if they're unhappy. And best of luck with your work!