Autumn is upon the Upper Valley and I’ve finally tied the last bow on projects that were started this summer. As such, I feel it’s an appropriate time for some kind of reflection.
At the heart of this summer were coffee, kids and comics.
In the months of July and August I got to work with Paula Levin, the head experimentalist and founder of the LAB, the Literary Arts Boom program.
Paula had me hopping across the city of Pittsburgh teaching comics workshops. At the end of my stint in Pittsburgh teaching comics to kids ages 6-12, was the Comics Club Camp, a weeklong intensive cartooning camp that provided kids with 6 hours chocabloc with writing, drawing, reading and play.
If you don’t know anything about Paula Levin’s Literary Arts Boom [The LAB] here in Pittsburgh, I suggest you read this nice little write up by Marty Levine on Pop City Media. It’s an amazing educational program in Pittsburgh.
The LAB offers free out-of-school programming to Pittsburgh youth, ages 6-18. Students practice and improve their inquiry and writing skills in a safe and unique space by participating in project-based workshops that incorporate art, technology, and communication. Mentorship and creativity inspire students to pursue their interests, find their voices, and tell their stories.
Paula, The LAB’s “head experimentalist” is focused building a culture of reading, writing, and creativity in Pittsburgh, giving youth the tools, support and resources necessary to bloom into critical minded and inspired thinkers. Given the great divides that exist across the American public education system, it’s a real honor to be involved with a program as vibrant and ambitious as the LAB.
It was a joy to work with this bunch of inkstuds. I couldn’t have done it without the assistance of Jena Tegeler and Jenn Lisa.
I love comics. You know that, reader. So you know that the opportunity to give back to the world through the teaching of comics is one I treasure being given. This was without a doubt the highlight of my summer.
I believe comics have an extremely significant impact on children (I can pull up some research and studies if you like, but I’d rather talk from my heart for a moment!). They allow children to gain a visual literacy, something crucial as they progress towards becoming a prose reader. Cartoons offer a less-structured view of literature and a creative way of learning. They make the act of holding a book feel more natural, without overwhelming young readers. (And once they have bridged that gap to traditional reading, comics present an even more nuanced kind of literacy that, at its height is the marriage between graphic design and poetry!)
Children, especially at an early age, often struggle with reading and writing, especially with the given obstacles in their schooling system and communities. Comics, however, enable them to read and tell stories at an early age. They allow for kids to communicate in their own personal way. That means so much.
Reading has always been a struggle for me, so I can relate to reluctant readers. I struggled to learn English when I moved to the United States from Venezuela. Nevertheless, I know how much reading opens up the world and I feel a responsibility to help kids develop the skills they need to experience the deeper, richer world that reading provides.
I see my role as a teacher of comics as above all a facilitator of visual communication. In that spirit, I’d like to share with you some photos from the camp!
If you’d like to see the comics that came out of the camp, check out this publication I put together! The collection contains work that each student selected from his or her portfolio. Some students were churning out so many pages during the week that the book only reflects a sliver of their output!
One of my favorite activities during the Comics Club Camp was to have kids fill in the word balloons for comics whose word balloons had been emptied. Comics mad libs if you will. I chose some pages by Tove Jansson, Lewis Trondheim and Iris Yan. The commonality was that all the characters were animals. I found that kids could relate to those comics the most easily. The results were a riot to read out loud as a group.
After reading our pages we read what the original strips said and talked about all the different ways in which we had interpreted the body language and scene changes.
If you’d like to know more about this part of my summer and would like to chat about teaching comics, send me a message or leave a comment! I’m really passionate about this and could talk your ear off about how to fold comics making into the lives of future generations.
Helping me out during the Comics Club Camp was Jenn Lisa, a talented cartoonist who I had the pleasure of meeting this summer. She found out about the camp through the fliers that’d been posted around Pittsburgh and mentioned she was interested in helping out.
Outside of the camp we met up and drew. It was really nice to talk comics and drawing with someone as seriously as I did with Jenn, especially out of White River Junction. In White River Junction I’ve felt like a minority given that my default drawing state is doodling, so meeting someone for who doodles are equally important was great.
Talking comics was fun, but the real joy was drawing with Jenn. Jamming off of her energy. She creates the coolest textures with pen and pencil and has an awesome eye for color. The following drawing was made between Jenn, Jena and me.
Cartooning-wise, Jenn focuses her comics energies in daily comics that she occasionally posts online. I really admire the her ability to capture fleeting moments in pencil. It’s a real skill. I highly suggest you check out her work. (See below!)
While in Vermont I finished off this drawing that collages several of our jam drawings. It’s really neat to collaborate this way.
Before the Comics Club Camp was in full swing, I organized an independent press show in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It was called the Little Book Fair. I scheduled it to coincide with the the monthly Unblurred Gallery Crawl on Penn Avenue in Garfield. Admission was free and it was free for artists, writers, publishers and bookstores to exhibit. (This event was an attempt to take the lessons I’d learned a year ago when I put together the ToonSeum Minicon in the Spring of 2012 and apply them first hand.)
My main motivation with this little show was to give back to the community that has given me so much in these early stages of my development as a cartoonist. I know for certain that I wouldn’t be on the path that I’m on right now if it hadn’t been for the tireless spirit of Bill Boichel, owner of Copacetic Comics. He opened my eyes to the world of independent press through the first iteration of the Pittsburgh Independent Expo (PIX).
I thought it’d be nice to put together a small, intimate show that could make this kind of publishing activity visible to a public that doesn’t necessarily self-identify as readers of comics, ‘zines and independent press books.
As a result, the Little Book Fair aimed to be a one-day celebration of the vibrant small-press and self-publishing community in Pittsburgh. Dedicated to fostering community and dialogue amongst independent artists, small publishers, bookstores and readers, the fair was a success in bringing readers and writers face to face in a welcoming space.
You might remember me posting the flier for it a while back. Here’s a photo from when I was making the fliers!
I printed the posters one evening, quick and dirty at the Artist’s Image Resource in Pittsburgh. Having access to a place like AIR made a print job like this a breeze. It’s an awesome place.
Pictured above are Pittsburgh residents Wayne Wise, Rachel Masilamani and Tom Scioli. What do they have in common? They’re all winners of the Xeric Grant! I believe that this might be the first photo of them all together holding the books that they published through the Xeric Grant. If it is, boy what an honor to have taken it!
This picture makes my eyes tear up. Jena and Jess were the best housemates I’ve ever had in Pittsburgh. I miss ’em.
As you can see, there was a great turn out!
Early in the summer I submitted several comics to the Yellow Fox Quarterly. The Yellow Fox Quarterly is a new journal of words and pictures, edited and managed by Sara Keats, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University.
They decided to include several of the comics that I submitted, which was a real honor. They printed my nine page comic ode to the poet, Basho! The Quarterly is filled with lots of great fiction and poetry. It’s really nice to see my comics in the company of all those words! Sara did a bang up job putting this first issue together. I’m enthused for future issues.
While in Pittsburgh, I got in touch with my fellow classmates and the new class of students at the Center for Cartoon Studies to organize a little anthology of comics called Quick and Dirty Summer. I organized a book like this last August, and it was a great start to the academic year at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Just about everyone contributed 4 pages that explored the topic of “Summer”, which brought the total page count to a whopping 72 pages! It features broken hearts, anal probes and lemonade, among other things. What more could you ask for?
Let me know if you’d like a copy of this baby! I’ve been selling them for $5.
After I returned to White River Junction to resume my studies at the Center For Cartoon Studies, I buckled down with my pals, Simon Reinhardt and Luke Healy to assemble the second issue of Dog City, the box anthology that we curate together.
As I’ve mentioned previous posts, Dog City is a small press comics magazine dedicated to publishing quality minicomics. Each issue of Dog City consists of a curated selection of minicomics packaged in an artfully designed cardboard box. I drew the cover for this issue!
In this issue, I contributed a selection of the daily comics that I’ve been making since January. I packaged the comics as individual pages, two comics on one page, eight pages total. I like it when these comics can float around and be rearranged. It feels like a print equivalent of how many people experience them out of order on the internet.
The sleeves themselves have a screen printed design that wraps around. They’re really simple and I really like them for that. I like to imagine that folks pick out their favorite of the dailies and tape it up on their bedroom walls or on their refrigerators.
Production on this box was sped up significantly by the tireless help of friends. They helped during several production assembly sessions that we organized. We couldn’t have done this run of 100 boxes without their help.
Here’s a little peek at the making of the posters. For this box, cartoonist and designer Christina Lee designed the poster. We printed them in the lab in the Colodny building at the Center for Cartoon Studies.
We donated a copy to the Schulz Library. Pictured above is Dan Rinylo, creator of Mangy Mutt. It was a treat to see the smile on his face as he poured through the contents of this issue. That’s the moment I live for when making a book like this!
Then we took the boxes to the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. We showed off our babies to the world. That place was choc-a-bloc with great cartoonists. We had the opportunity to chat with many friends old and new.
I’m really proud of the work that Luke, Simon and I have been doing on the Dog City Project. It’s an honor to be able work with cartoonists I respect and admire in this editorial capacity.
Besides working on Dog City, I got in contact with several friends to coordinate the screen printing of illustrations and post cards. A highlight of this printing work for me was Caitlin Boyle’s illustration of Tima from the film Metropolis.
In this past year I’ve been honing my printing in skills and helping print things for friends has been one of the primary avenues for that growth to happen. I hope to incorporate a lot more printing into my thesis year here at the Center for Cartoon Studies.
Right now, I’m continuing forwards with my daily comics, writing weekly about new arrivals and archive highlights at the Schulz blog, and slowly teasing out some long form comics all while doing the other things that a guy’s gotta do to keep his head on straight. This is going to be a really interesting coming 8 months of my thesis in cartooning!
A couple of weeks ago, Carl Antonowicz who writes for the Schulz Library Blog sat down with me and the Dog City boys to chat about what we’ve published in the past year as Dog City Press. The interview is now up on the blog. We talk about the editorial process, our philosophies and our aims for the future.
If you want to learn more about what we’ve been up to, this is as good a time as any!
Big ups to Carl for taking the time to interview us about this. It means so much!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the past couple of months, while not cranking out my daily comics here at the Center for Cartoon Studies, I’ve been working hard alongside my buds, Luke Healy and Simon Reinhardt to put together a comics publication that brings together all the things that I love about comics and independent publishing.
Dog City is a small press comics magazine dedicated to publishing quality minicomics. Each issue of Dog City consists of a curated selection of minicomics packaged in an artfully designed cardboard box.
Issue 1 of Dog City contains over 120 pages of comics in the form of 8 mini-comics by 11 creators from around the world. The box also includes stickers, screen-printed art cards, a poster and a printed magazine about comics and comics culture.
One of the books I’m most excited to be publishing is Pigs Incorporated by Iris Yan. Have a look.As you can imagine, putting something of this scale has been a bonafide labor of love. It’s been an honor to be able to service the work of my fellow cartoonists in this production capacity and to present it to the world with the respect it deserves. We’re selling this first issue for $15(+$3 for shipping). You can pre-order copies today.
If you’d like to learn more about this project, hop on over to the Dog City site. There’ll be loads of posts in the coming weeks, focusing on the production process, artist spotlights and contemporary comics criticism.