Pay Attention to This: Rachel Masilamani

This article orginally appeared in Dog City: Issue 1

There’s things you can’t do with words and there’s things you can’t do with pictures, that’s what’s so exciting about the form.

It’s constantly pressing against your limitations.
– Rachel Masilamani 2013

A veteran self-publisher, Rachel Masilamani has been making comics in the United States since 1997. Her first comics collection, RPM Comics #1, received a grant from the Xeric Foundation and was named “Best Comic Book” by the Baltimore City Paper. Since then, her comics have appeared in Meathaus, Street Runoff, Graphics Classics, The Indiana Review, in other anthologies and in her own publications.

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An accomplished story teller, Masilamani is hard pressed to categorize her work.

Endlessly fascinated with people, Masilamani draws inspiration from her own life and the behaviors of those around her to create stories that burrow themselves deep into the minds of her readers. Her stories elegantly blend naturalistic storytelling with expressionistic visual representation.

In much of her work, Masilamani explores notions of local and universal truth by blurring the line between fact and fiction. In so doing, she makes her inner life palpable. She walks this tightrope in ways similar to the memoir work of Carol Tyler, Mardou and Gabrielle Bell.

Although Masilamani grew up reading newspaper comics, she didn’t start making her own comics until she was a student at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD in the late nineties.

Her first formal forays into the medium were under the guidance of Baltimore based cartoonist and instructor, Tom Chalkley. One of the stories made under Chalkley’s guidance, Pen Bandit, appears in Masilamani’s first collection of comics, RPM #1. Originally planned to be a short film that she wanted to propose to John Hopkin’s film club, Masilamani decided to make Pen Bandit a comic on her own to avoid the inevitable frustrations she foresaw of having to compromise her vision.

After she graduated from John Hopkins University in 1999 with a degree in Anthropology and a minor in Art History, she didn’t go looking for a job or head off to graduate school, rather she attempted to make cartooning a full time job.

For months she dedicated herself to improving her cartooning and honing her ability to translate her observations to paper. It was a bold move as a young cartoonist.

Her efforts paid off when she received the Xeric Foundation Grant. The grant provided her with $5000 to print and distribute her first collection of comics, RPM #1 in 2000. With the help of the grant, she hit the ground running.

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The first issue of RPM featured uniquely original, personal stories, carefully rendered in pencil and pen & ink. Though the work might not have been fully developed, it was a promising collection of stories that offered a fresh perspective.

After continuing freelance work and putting out the occasional minicomic, Masilamani published RPM #2 in Baltimore.

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RPM #2 retained the same ingenious sense of observation and personality that made RPM #1 stand out, but revealed the hand of an artist who had tighter storytelling mechanics and a greater confidence in draftsmanship. Comprised of memoir, folk tales, and urban fantasies, the variety of genres in RPM #2 placed Masilamani’s narrative chops center stage.

After publishing RPM #2, life caught up with Masilamani. Though she’d given the life of a free-lance cartoonist and illustrator a go, it wasn’t meant to be.

Masilamani returned to school to study Library Science and began a series of relocations that wound up taking her to Pittsburgh, PA. During this time, Masilamani slowed down her release of comics.

While it would seem that Masilamani had taken a hiatus from her cartooning, the truth was that she continued to work and re-work new comics privately.

This new period of cartooning saw Masilamani put out two self-contained mini-comics, Singing Contest and Las Cuerpas. While both stories take place in the same physical landscape, the Mexican-American border, Singing Contest and Las Cuerpas explore radically different emotional landscapes.

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Singng Contest tells the story of a young woman who leaves her home to participate in a televised singing contest. The comic is a playful experiment that cleverly uses the iconographic power of the comics medium.

In Singing Contest, Masilamani allows the animals that aid the protagonist on her journey to speak in words, while all of Masilamani’s human characters speak in icons. As a result of this formal decision, Masilamani creates a smooth, but idiosyncratic reading experience that lends the story an air of heartfelt whimsy.

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Las Cuerpas, which Masilamani published in 2010, is much heavier. It deals head on with the femicides of Ciudad Juarez Mexico. A wordless comic inked expressively in pen and ink, Las Cuerpas swiftly moves across the city of Juarez and builds to a feverish crescendo.

Las Cuerpas is the result of Masilamani living in New Mexico and experiencing first hand the constant news about women and girls being murdered in Ciudad Juarez with no discernible follow up.

Though at the time she felt powerless to do anything about the murders, Masilamani couldn’t stop imagining that something could make the femicides unignorable.

Las Cuerpas is her attempt at making the horrors impossible to ignore.

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Since Las Cuerpas, Masilamani has self-published two more collections of stories, Odds Are in 2012 and No Words in 2013. The two collections document a graceful evolution in the poetry of Masilamani’s story telling.

Odds Are contains 9 stories, each of which, in their own way, experiment with the semiotic relationship between words and pictures. Comprised of explorations of sensory experience, feminine identity and gender politics, Odds Are shows Masilamani handle extremely nuanced material.

No Words consists of 3 longer stories, which focus on semiotics and trust, race and ethnicity, and urban disenfranchisement. In these stories Masilamani allows herself more time to slowly create dense, inhabitable yet challenging narrative spaces.

These stories, though rooted in traditional narratives, make one think of the comics poetry of Tom Neely and John Hankiewicz, mainly because of Masilamani’s mature poetic, highly symbolic, dense and at times abstract, language that takes readers out of their comfort zones.

Attentively tuned to the mechanics involved in the co-mixing of abstract languages, Masilamani achieves a certain alchemy with these comics. It’s thrilling to read.

One hopes to see more comics like these from Masilamani because it is a joy to see her revel in the liminal spaces of comics.

You can purchase Rachel Masilamani’s work online from her site, RPM Comics.


Bartkira – Channeling

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About a month and a half ago, artist James Harvey saw some Akira/Simpsons fan art done by Ryan Humphrey.

Inspired by the energy of the energy of the combination, Harvey proposed a group project to folks on the internet that was as silly as it was monumental. Harvey proposed they redraw the entire 6 volume, 2160 page Akira saga, transposing it into the Simpsons universe. The Bartkira project was born.

It’s been really interesting to see the hands of so many creators distort and warp the Akira saga.

I was assigned pages 276-280 of the second volume of  Akira. Last week I finished my 5 pages.

Having just returned to Pittsburgh, PA, I haven’t had access to a scanner nor tablet. Despite that, I wanted to create something exciting, that distilled and slightly abstracted the core elements of Otomo and Groening’s respective universes. I also wanted to make the pages a bit garish.

Here’s what I  worked out. I’d love to hear what you think.

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If you’re interested in seeing more of the work that people have churned out for the Bartkira project, hop on over to the Bartkira Tumblr page.

 


Andromeda Quarterly #3 Release Party


For those of you in or near Pittsburgh, PA next week:

Come join the Andromeda Quarterly this Thursday, the 23rd from 6pm to 8pm at the Copacetic Comics Co. for an evening of celebrating Pittsburgh’s own Rustbelt Comics Anthology. Click here for more event details.

The publication is now on Issue 3 and I’ve got a couple of comics in the issue. Come check it out, talk comics and meet some of the contributors in person. They’d love to have you.

The new issue will be for sale as well as past Quarterly and Monthly issues. If you’re interested in submitting you’ll have a chance to talk to the editors and get advice/feedback on your work.

I’ll be there. Hope you can make it!

(Of course, if you can’t make it, you can order a copy online! )


the Drawing Power Report

This article was co-written with Simon Reinhardt. It originally appeared at Dog City Press.
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This past weekend a couple of us from Dog City trekked down from Vermont to Pittsburgh, PA for the Drawing Power conference at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

The museum setting established a wonderful tone for the conference. It was a breath of fresh air to go to an intimate event with such a clear focus on discussing comics.

A big thanks is due to Jude Vachon, zine librarian at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Vachon was the core organizer of this event and responsible for steering it toward such a success.

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The days events ran from 10 AM until 5 PM. Each panel was a jam packed 45 minutes.

The first panel of the day was moderated by Bill Boichel, owner of the Copacetic Comics Company. It focused on the idiosyncrasies of the local Pittsburgh comics scene. The panel consisted of Lizzee SolomonAndy ScottPaulette Poullet and Nate Mcdonough.

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The panelists spoke about their experiences self-publishing and the role that the Pittsburgh community played in their work practices.

Scott spoke about his anthology, Andromeda and the restructuring of the publication in late 2012 from a monthly to a quarterly format. Solomon spoke about cartooning being at the core of her multi-disciplinary work practices while Nate McDonough retold the beginnings of hisGrixly publication.

McDonough, Solomon and Scott spoke of their times drawing together during the early issues of Andromeda and the competitive one-upmanship that their drawing parties would foster.

The panel explored the inroads that the four cartoonists had made into self-publishing and the external factors in their lives that had driven them to continue to self-publish in Pittsburgh.

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Following the Pittsburgh cartoonists panel, French cartoonist, Boulet (Gilles Roussel) , author of the 24-hour comic Darkness took the stage to give a lecture on the evolution of his cartooning practices.

He spoke about streamlining his creative process and the increased emphasis on improvisation that he had developed in his work. He spoke about working with Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim on the series, Dungeon along with the exquisite corpse comic, Chicou Chicou, that he developed with several French cartoonists.

The aim of Chicou Chicou was to create a fictional “auto-bio” group comics blog. The cartoonists would pass strips back and forth over the internet adding pages until they were complete. Each of the cartoonists involved created a persona and crafted a drawing style that suited their character. Boulet played a small, geeky girl named Ella.

Besides discussing the subtleties of drawing stories from the perspective of a female character, Boulet talked about the harassment he received online when writing under a female pen-name. He reported receiving unsolicited love letters and invitations on dates and noted that when he got into disputes people would ask “are you on your period or something?”

At the end of his talk, Boulet spoke succinctly of his influences and of his current project, a 200 page improvised story in which he is neither pencilling nor scripting. He showed several of the 60 pages that he’d  completed and the audience was in awe.

Freelance writer, illustrator and graphic designer, Joan Reilly then took the stage and talked about her work editing the forthcoming feminist anthology, The Big Feminist But. Joan presented the book’s contents and the genesis of the project.

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The Big Feminist But arose from Reilly and O’Leary’s attempts to learn why so many of us, women and men, couch discussions around feminism with the phrase “I’m not a feminist, but…” or “I am a feminist, but…”. They decided to embark on the journey of making a comics anthology as the first step in starting a conversation about the issue.

The result is a promising book that features “graphic musings on life, love, lust and liberation,” by talents such as Jeffrey Brown, Gabrielle Bell, and Lauren Weinstein.

The book’s list of contributors is especially notable for including a number of couples working together, as well as single men and women. Reilly mentioned that a number of Kickstarter backers expressed their gratitude that men were involved with the book as well– an observation that highlights The Big Feminist But’s drive to create an expansive and inclusive conversation about feminism.

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Subsequently, John Porcellino,  took the stage to talk about the story of his life of zine-making and distribution. He talked about the story of King Cat,  and the Spit and a Half zine and comix distribution service.

Porcellino touched on his artistic development and the early years of King Cat (focusing on the first 50 issues, collected in King Cat Classix). Porcellino has created books, comics, and publications since he was 7 or 8, and was creating zines for years before he discovered Factsheet 5 and learned that other people were doing it too.

He read some highlights from early King Cat issues and talked about his work processes and goals in creating that work. One revelation from this portion of the talk was the influence of Marvel’s monster comics from the 50s and early 60s.

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While the relationship between these fantastic stories and Porcellino’s chronicles of everyday life might not be immediately apparent, Porcellino emphasized the drab, repetitive nature of the monster stories as well as the alienation of their typical mad scientist protagonists. “As an artist I’m very interested in repetition and boredom,” he said.

Porcellino also talked about the sales and distribution history of King Cat, which was instructive for the many self-publishers in the audience. Gesturing to the cover of the first issue of King Cat to be sold in stores, Porcellino noted the 35 cent cover price and remarked “in true zine fashion, I probably charged 35 cents because it cost me 36 cents to print.”

He also talked about his history of working bizarre or menial jobs to support his comics, and pinpointed King Cat issue 42, which he wrote, drew, and edited entirely on company time, as “the point I became a professional cartoonist, because I was being paid to draw comics.”

Porcellino spoke about his interest in the idea of real life and the ineffable experience of being alive. One thing he mentioned—and we think this is a big part of what makes King Cat so special—is that he tried not just to describe the event of his experience, but to communicate the feeling of that experience. Porcellino characterized the subject matter of his comics as “this weird feeling I had… [of] the underlying mystery in every moment,” a description we think King Cat readers will agree is quite fitting.

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Caitlin McGurk, librarian at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum moderated the following panel on self-publishing. Porcellino remained on stage to join Ramsey Beyer, Rachel Masilamani and Bill Boichel to chat about their experiences self-publishing in the United States.

Similar to the first panel of the day, the panelists spoke of how they’d found their way to comics and more generally towards self-publishing.

Masilamani recounted first encountering zines through Christina Kelly’s zine of the month column in Sassy magazine. She spoke about the experience of receiving the Xeric grant and the consequences that it brought along with it. It allowed for her to get her first comics into the world and to hit the ground running with her first collection of RPM, but from the get go she was on her own.

The panelists thoughts on the pricing of mini comics were particularly interesting. Not surprisingly, Boichel as a vendor and Porcellino as a distributor had a lot to bring to the discussion of the relationship between self-expression and the commodification of desire. Boichel mentioned that artists sometimes come to him with $20 minicomics, reporting that they sold a lot of copies in New York, but he knows they won’t sell at that price point in Pittsburgh.

Beyer emphasized the importance she placed on the ethics of the production process and mentioned having worked with 1984 Press in Oakland California.

Boichel, suggested that aspiring cartoonists always pick someone to write to; a friend, an acquaintance, a stranger, someone.  By thinking of their audience’s interests and their budget, they could be more likely to create works that would move through the world more freely.

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Dash Shaw followed the self-publishing panel. He began his talk by showing some recent animation work. One of the most striking animations that he played was the music video,Seraph, which he had made in collaboration with Frank Santoro and other artists for Sigur Ros’ valtari film experiment. 

Shaw took the audience through a brief survey of his cartooning work, starting with his three current publications– the minicomic New Jobs, published by Uncivilized Books, the pamphlet3 New Stories, and the graphic novel New School, both published by Fantagraphics– and working his way backward to the mammoth graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button.

One through-line of Shaw’s talk was his thoughts regarding line and color. “I could talk about color forever,” he said, and it’s hard not to get excited by his original and distinctive ideas.

Many of the pages Shaw showed from New School use color in ways that are entirely divorced from traditional comic book coloring. Shaw rarely uses colors  to simply fill out the drawing, preferring instead to use the collision between the color and the line-art to create meaning and emotion, often in oblique and subtle ways.

This unwillingness to spell things out directly for the reader was evident in Shaw’s discussion of line and drawing as well. He spoke of being inspired by David Mazzucchelli’s idea of the “dumb line,” (which he describes in more detail here) and by trying to push back against the conventions of “good” illustration.

“So much illustration is about telling people what something is and how to feel about it,” Shaw said, adding that he wanted to make drawings that don’t tell their reader how to feel.

He also spoke about his fascination with the house styles found, among other places, in manga and Archie comics, speculating about an ideal, impossible Archie style. In Shaw’s conception, even the best Archie artists fall short of this Platonic style, and their own personal style would be the accumulation of their failings at achieving a true Archie drawing.

All in all, it was a dense, stimulating talk, and we can’t wait to dive into New School and read it with the attention Shaw’s work demands.

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The final panel of the day, “A Career in Comics” was moderated by Caitlin McGurk and featured Jim RuggEd PiskorFrank Santoro and Dash Shaw.

The fluidity of the discussion was really satisfying. Without much effort it hopped from discussions of style (and avoiding “style”) to explorations of narrative collapse. Of course, a highlight of the panel was the discussion of the differences between making money around comics and making money in comics.

Career development and survival were recurring topics, and every member of the panel had a different way of approaching making a living as a cartoonist. The common thread was work ethic and hustle.

Santoro half-jokingly described himself as “basically a used book dealer at this point.” Rugg spoke about doing design work and also discussed the Flight School fellowship , a professional development program for Pittsburgh artists he recently participated in.

To see the comics medium getting the attention of an established institution like the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and for it to occur at the Carnegie Museum was inspiring. Here’s hoping for more small events around the country with this level of intimacy and intensity of dialogue.

all in all, you could say…

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Pittsburgh bound, dreaming of Columbus

I’m Pittsburgh bound, but I have pangs to be in Columbus. At the Billy Ireland Library and Museum, more precisely. Man, what a spiritual place…

Julie Sokolow recently produced a short video that explores that Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University. Watch the Tell Me Something I Don’t Know crew geek out over Nancy panels with librarian, Caitlin Mcgurk.

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Speaking of spiritual places, I’m off to go to Pittsburgh real soon. I have the first edition of my first Dailies collection. I’m damn proud of my babies. I’m looking to give them out to all the good folks that have helped me out  in my cartooning endeavors and then to sell a couple. Hope folks in the ‘burgh like ’em!
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Pittsburgh on my mind

During the last week that I’ve spent back in Pittsburgh, I’ve been repeatedly reminded by how invigorating its community of creators has been for me in my growth as a cartoonist. It’s a great place filled with some truly hard working creators.

One of the things that bums me out the most about not having been in Pittsburgh this past fall was not being able to attend the 2nd Annual Zine Fair. With a roster of exhibitors as juicy as the one that they organized, the event was bound to be a blast. Hopefully, the timing of the 2013 zine fair is conducive to me trekking down to the city.

For now though, I’d like to share a couple of photographs taken by Anna Lee Fields.
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If you’d like to see more photos from this gathering, hop on over to the Zine Fair’s site.

While I missed the Zine Fair, I can assure you that I won’t be missing the upcoming DRAWING POWER event on April 20th.tumblr_mjkc0soOX91s7s0rao1_1280

Drawing Power will be a one day event celebrating and exploring the small press and self-publishing comics and zine community of Pittsburgh and its connection to the larger world. If you’re interested in the nitty gritty details, check ’em out below.

Saturday, April 20th
10am-5pm
Carnegie Museum of Art Theater (lower level)
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Moderators will be Bill Boichel from Copacetic Comics and Caitlin McGurk from the Billy Ireland Collection at OSU.

Schedule
10:00-10:30am: Meet & Greet; tabling
10:30-11:15am: Panel 1
11:30-12:15pm: Boulet presentation
12:15-1:00pm: Big Feminist But presentation
1:15-2:00pm: John Porcellino presentation
2:15-3:00pm: Panel 2
3:15-4:00pm: Dash Shaw presentation
4:15-5:00pm: Panel 3

Panel 1: The Pittsburgh Scene, Bill Boichel moderator
Andy Scott
Nate McDonough
Lizzee Solomon
Paulette Poullet

Panel 2: Self-Publishing, Caitlin McGurk moderator
Ramsey Beyer
John Porcellino
Bill Boichel
Rachel Masilamani

Panel 3: A Career in Comics, Caitlin McGurk moderator
Jim Rugg
Ed Piskor
Frank Santoro
Dash Shaw

There will be tables packed with locally produced zines and books for both perusal and sale, as well as new releases from the out-of-town artist guests and a selection from around the world.
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On a different note, I would like to share a youtube channel that I’ve been watching recently, offtheLeftEye.

Sometimes we get too caught up in our own minds, concerned with how we compare ourselves to others. Those trains of thought often wind up hurting us. If you’ve ever grappled with your ego, you might enjoy the following by offtheLeftEye.


Leading a Cartooning Workshop at Assemble

This past Saturday I travelled to Pittsburgh to lead a 3-hour cartooning workshop with Andy Scott at the community space for arts and technology, Assemble.
Have a look at the goings on. It was a blast.

imageimage-3image-4One of my favorite things to do is to make comics with kids. They know what’s up.

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To get into the nitty gritty about the workshop, Andy and I facilitated three primary activities.

To cover the basics and to make sure that kids didn’t feel much pressure regarding their drawings, we has a station dedicated entirely to covering the step by step construction of cartoons. Andy and I provided materials that would allow them to draw both famous characters and entire simplified worlds a la Ed Emberley. The kids would have the opportunity to copy them by sight or by using tracing paper.

I wanted to make sure that we harped on copying as a positive learning tool and not as something to be ashamed of. I know first hand how empowering it can be to know how to draw a character that you see on tv and on billboards. In my mind, an activity like this one would allow the kids to go home having nailed down Homer Simpson or Sponge Bob, a brag worthy skill that’d be a great boost to their self-esteem.

Besides step by step cartooning, we set up a self-portrait station, where kids were encouraged to draw themselves as animals, robots, bugs, superheroes or their favorite household items. These drawings would then be used to create a poster design for the following week’s Crafternoon.

In addition to that there was a large collaborative megacomic on a massive sheet of butcher paper. For this megacomic, Andy laid down a basic structure of frames, a couple of “meanwhiles” and “BUT”s and a few city skylines. After that, we let the kids go to town, encouraging them to take the stories to the outer limits of believability.

Of course, given that the space is oriented towards drop-ins, kids were welcome to follow their cartooning muses in any way they pleased. Some kids wanted individual attention, so I spent time with many of them making one sheet minicomics. The chief approach to my process was by collaborating with the kids, trading off our comics frame by frame.

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Everyweek, the crafternoons offer a different engaging activity free of cost to kids from around Pittsburgh, but particularly to those from the Bloomfield, Garfield and Friendship communities. Have a look at their varied March offerings:

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If you’re living in Pittsburgh and are interested in the possibility of volunteering your time to lead a crafternoon, please do so. The more we share our talents with kids in spaces like Assemble, the more opportunities for growth we give ourselves and the children in our communities. You can get in touch with assemble via the following email: outreach@assemblepgh.org

Next week’s Crafternoon will be a screen printing session with Steph Tsong and the friendly folks from the Artist’s Image Resource in Pittsburgh. Using the contributions of the workshops attendees, I put together a little poster for the kids to try their hand at printing.

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The goal of the poster was to create something that would work as promotional material for the crafternoons that would playfully capture the high energy environment which typifies the Crafternoons at Assemble and that could also be customizeable by the kids on their own. (Thus the empty word balloons.)

It was a blast to run a workshop like this. I hope to work with Assemble and similar organizations in the future to create spaces for kids to draw and work on comics fundamentals.

If I could do this for a living, well, that’d be a dream come true!