Sunday, December 15, 2013

GO, Mighty Atom!

And then there came the day, way back in November, when we were done with Batman Year One. I put aside my stack of Batman books and got out The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga.

Astro Boy could totally beat Batman in a fight.
I got the Tezuka book on sale a few years ago, for super cheap. It's a nice book, with a full-color overview of Tezuka's work, but I mainly got it because of the DVD that came with it. The DVD is a documentary about Tezuka that was made for Japanese television.

Since it's Japanese, the documentary takes for granted that the viewer has some idea who Tezuka is. If you're not Japanese, I think it's hard to grasp how influential he was. He redefined the very nature of comics in Japan (AKA manga), inspiring generations of artists who came after him. I can't really get into much more detail than that, because I don't know a whole lot about manga, but I do know that Tezuka is a top-notch, grade-A, world-class, all-time-master cartoonist, up there with Moebius and Barks and Kirby. And, like Kirby, he was absurdly prolific, so any attempt to sum up his life's work in a few paragraphs is doomed to fail. I won't even try; I'll just mention that Osamu Tezuka's most famous character is Astro Boy (AKA Tetsuwan Atom), the kid with spiky hair shown on the cover up there. He's a lovable robot boy. The Astro Boy comics are all-ages fun science fiction adventures, drawn in a slick cartoony style, with an underlying anti-war message.

The TV documentary was made in the last year of Tezuka's life, though you wouldn't know it by watching him--in the movie, Tezuka is constantly moving, constantly working. It's shocking how much he works. Even though he has a huge, beautiful house, we learn that he spends about five days a week at his studio, a small, mostly-empty apartment. He sits at a desk and he draws for hours, stares into space, naps on the floor for awhile, eats some noodles, and draws some more.

This is where I show movies.
There's a scene where Tezuka is planning on going to France for an awards ceremony. He has a deadline to make, and has to draw a ridiculous number of pages before he can leave. He pushes back his flight, until it's the last minute, and he has to get in a cab to the airport. The cab stops; he asks when the plane is scheduled to take off, stays in the cab, and draws until he absolutely has to leave. He hands the pages over to someone, an assistant or an editor, and promises to fax the remaining pages once he gets to France.

When you think about a top-notch, grade-A, world-class artist at the end of his or her life, you normally imagine them relaxing, reflecting on the work they have done, and enjoying their success. You don't imagine this sort of manic pace. It's both an inspiration that he works so hard, even at the end of his life, and a reminder that even the most legendary cartoonist still has deadlines to make and bills to pay.

Even though Tezuka is always struggling to keep up with an endless series of deadlines--and even though he has to leave a party at an animation convention to go back to his hotel room to draw a few more pages, and he tells an interview "I'm in hell"--at the very end, he says that he has been drawing comics for 40 years and he hopes to keep doing it for another 40. When you realize that he died later that year, it's heartbreaking.

After we watched the documentary, I passed out Tezuka comics for the students to look at. I have a friend who went crazy buying Osamu Tezuka graphic novels, buying multiple copies of each one as it came out, who later gave me a massive pile of Tezuka books. It was a generous gift, and because of it I was able to assign each student their own book to look at, which is something I can't do for any other artist. Thanks, Matt!

And that's what we did for two days in November. I sure did get behind on this blog. Which would be okay if I wasn't doing anything different from what I blogged about the first time I taught this class, two years ago. But I did do something new this year, and it was very exciting. Just wait, and I will tell you all about it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I Don't Want to Get Fired

Dear Parent, 
In Creative Reading class your child will be assigned a graphic novel for independent reading. Your child will need to finish reading this book by Monday, December 2nd.

As you may or may not know, “graphic novel” means a long story told in comics form. While in America we often think of comics as being for children, in fact there are comics for all ages, from the very young to more mature readers.

Your child has chosen to read the book ___________________________ for class. This book is not for children and is written for older readers. The book may contain strong language, mature themes, and other elements that you would find in an R-rated movie. Rest assured, I believe that this is a worthwhile book with serious artistic merit, and it is being read as part of our overall course of study.

If you have objections to your child reading this book, we will find another, more suitable book for your child. If, however, you are comfortable with this book, we will proceed with this selection. Whichever way you decide, please fill out the form at the bottom of this letter and send it back with your child.

Thank you for your time.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Shameless Self-Promotion!

Enough about comics class, let's talk about me.

Summer is an exciting time for a teacher. What to do with two and a half months off work? Go on a vacation? Learn a foreign language? Sit on the couch and watch TV? What I ended up doing was drawing Bible-based cartoons. That's not how I normally spend the summer months, but after my friend Jana read the story "Sedgwick" that I drew for my comic series Laser Brigade, she asked me if I would draw cartoons to accompany her upcoming book The Twible. And I said yes.

The Twible
is a project that Jana started on Twitter, where she wrote a tweet for every chapter of the Bible. It turns out that the Bible is 1,189 chapters long, so this took her awhile. Now she's written extra material, including sidebars and summaries and a glossary, and published it as a book. Which is on sale now! That's the cover right there.   

Jana originally asked me to draw 20 cartoons for the book, which sounded like a lot, but she ended up hiring me to do 51. Fifty-one! I'd never drawn 51 of anything before.
My biggest obstacle was crippling self-doubt. I am painfully aware of my artistic limitations. There are certain things I feel comfortable drawing, like robots, and things that I feel less comfortable drawing, like things that are not robots. When I first looked at Jana's list of dozens and dozens of scenes and characters she wanted to see illustrated--there is a lot of different stuff in the Bible--it seemed like the job would be impossible. I debated about whether I had an ethical duty to tell Jana that she had made a terrible mistake and needed to hire someone else. My loving wife insisted that I could do it, though, so I soldiered on. 

The great thing about a deadline is that you have only a limited amount of time to doubt yourself. And the great thing about a contract is that you have a legal obligation to follow through. So I drew some cartoons. For those early ones, I did a bunch of sketches, and each one went through multiple drafts. Jana seemed to like those, so I continued on, and slowly but surely started to feel like I knew what I was doing. By the end, it was much less of a struggle, and I no longer agonized over every line. The process felt much more natural. 

And now I'm proud of the work I did, especially Jael hammering the tent peg into the guy's head and Salome squealing with delight at John the Baptist's severed head. 

She's just so happy. 

Friday, November 1, 2013


In my previous blog post, which I made over a week ago, I mentioned that I was coming down with a cold. Then I said, "I don't have a lot of strength for blogging right now. But would Batman give up, just because he was under the weather? Absolutely not."

What I forgot is that even Batman is sometimes overwhelmed by circumstances beyond his control. 

Art by the great Jim Aparo, from Batman #497

Sometimes, as much as you want to go about your everyday life, beating up criminals and solving mysteries, a chemically enhanced terrorist is going to come along and break your back. And all you can do is wait until a convenient plot device comes along to magically fix you up again. 

I didn't so much have a magical plot device--in Batman's case, his love interest turned out to have previously-unmentioned psychic healing powers, conveniently enough--but I did take a day off work and sleep a lot. I'm still not feeling great, but I'm better than I was. Class went on, and we finished reading Batman Year One. Today we started watching the animated movie adaptation, which is pretty faithful to the book, and next week we'll take a test. 

If you think about it, it's necessary that Batman gets beaten every now and then. If no one ever beat him, then he would never end up in a death trap, and then he could never escape from death traps. And so it is with life. If we don't get tied up, handcuffed, and then thrown into a tank filled with sharks, how can we really prove ourselves? 

Batman #207 cover art by Carmine Infantino

Thursday, October 24, 2013

You Can't Stop the Batman

This is my sixth year as a teacher, so you'd think I would have developed some kind of immunity by now, but it seems like I am constantly getting sick. In fact my whole family keeps getting sick, and I blame the one-year-old. He continues to bring new and interesting sicknesses home with him.

So my wife and two children are getting over a cold, as I am slowly succumbing to it. Which means I don't have a lot of strength for blogging right now. But would Batman give up, just because he was under the weather? Absolutely not.

Today in class was Batman Year One, Chapter Two. Because we are now reading Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman Year One, for reasons I attempted to explain yesterday. Even though I've read it dozens of times I continue to be impressed by how fast-paced the book is. You have to move quickly to fit a whole year into four chapters. Many of the scenes are just two or three panels, throwing characters and concepts at you and moving on, yet they imply so much more than they show that the world of the story feels rich and alive.

This is not Frank Miller's Batman.
As I previously mentioned, my current favorite version of Batman is the one from the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon. The extremely competent super-hero who teams up with other super-heroes to fight aliens, robots, and monsters in a crazy colorful world. The old-fashioned, pre-Frank Miller Batman. I want big action and excitement; I don't really want an emotionally dead Batman who lives in a dirty, street-level world of pimps and cocaine and corrupt cops, where Catwoman is a prostitute and the only villains are guys in suits.

So why do I like Batman Year One so much? Because it's soooo good, it transcends my personal biases. In general I would rather read an over-the-top super-hero story than a grounded crime story, but I'd rather have a great crime story than a mediocre super-hero story any day.

Quality, son. It's all about quality.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Try Not to Judge

Two years ago I promised never to mention Batman Year One on this blog again. That was back when I was teaching the book, and blogging about it every day, and I got sick of it. I believe a man's word is his bond, so if he promises to never mention a book again, he should stick to his word, no matter what. And yet I'm going to go back on that promise. Try not to judge me too harshly. 

I bring it up because we started Batman Year One on Monday. Tuesday we didn't have class, and today, Wednesday, we wrapped up the first chapter. 

Will Eisner
Remember how, a couple of weeks ago, we looked at the history of comic books? In class we talked about how people used to think comics were just for kids, until creators like Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman worked to advance the medium, and then the undergrounds came along, and eventually there was much more to comics than just super-heroes. And we read Understanding Comics, which teaches us that comics is a limitless medium and that no genres are out of bounds. So after all that it might seem counter-intuitive that, for our first graphic novel, we're reading a Batman story. 

What can I say? The students respond well to Batman, and it's a really good comic. And, as much as I support Eisner and Kurtzman and comics for grownups, I may not be the best ambassador for that cause.

David Mazzucchelli, artist of Batman Year One
Two years ago I was at SPACE, the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo in Columbus, and I got into a conversation about my comics class. I told a small press and alternative comics creator that we were reading Batman Year One. He said, "I read part of that, but I never finished it." 

I think about that, from time to time, and puzzle over it. I originally read Batman Year One when my mom got me a copy from her book club. It was 1989, and Batman was big, so they had some crazy deals. If that had not happened, though, I know I would have read it eventually. I can't think of any way you could change the variables, or create an alternate set of circumstances, in which I would have read part of Batman Year One and not read the rest of it. You would have to fundamentally change who I am, possibly on a genetic level. I can read Will Eisner and Chris Ware and any number of cartoonists who write and draw stories about real life, and I can enjoy them, but I guess I can never be a pure alternative comics guy deep down in my heart. I just enjoy seeing Batman beat people up too much. 

Also, and I can't stress this enough, the drawings by David Mazzucchelli, and the colors by Richmond Lewis, are absolutely gorgeous.  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Battle of the Superheroes

Today is the end of first quarter. Hurray, end of first quarter! Which also means we're halfway through Creative Reading class, which also means we're behind schedule, but that's a problem for another day.

The students finished up their test on the second half of Understanding Comics, and I collected their books. We've finished the theoretical portion of our reading; now it's time to read some good ol' fashioned fiction. Soon we'll be starting Batman Year One. And since we recently spent some time reading Superman stories, wouldn't it be an effective transition to watch something that includes both Superman and Batman? Yes. Yes it would.

So after we finished the test, I showed the class "Battle of the Superheroes," an episode of the cartoon series Batman: The Brave and the Bold from the Season 2, Part 2 DVD.

Brave and the Bold is a lighthearted series aimed at young viewers that ran from 2008 to 2011. Every episode features Batman teaming up with another super-hero, like Green Arrow or Aquaman or Blue Beetle. It's over-the-top, with extensive fantasy and science fiction elements, basically the opposite of the Dark Knight style Batman.

I don't know that I would have hated Brave and the Bold when I was a teenager, but I definitely would have disapproved of it. There is a time in a young man's life when he wants a grim, serious Batman who deals out brutal vigilante justice and then goes home and cries over his dead parents. And then there comes a day when that young man must put his adolescent angst behind him, and admit that maybe, just maybe, fun is not such a bad thing. I used to think that Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns was the definitive version of Batman. Now I think that Batman was invented to entertain children, and while there may be a certain dark edge to the character, he shouldn't necessarily be a brutal sadist. Now that I'm old and wise, the Brave and the Bold Batman is my favorite Batman.

(I guess I should mention that there is no one definitive Batman; I'll talk about that more in the days to come.)

Anyway, there were legal issues that kept Superman from appearing on the show, until this episode. And the creators went all-out to cram in as much Silver Age Superman lore as possible. If you watch this episode, you get all the essential elements of Superman circa 1964, including:
  • Lois Lane trying to get Superman to marry her
  • Jimmy Olsen's signal watch
  • Jimmy Olsen undergoing strange transformations
  • Superman doing random, seemingly evil things
  • Krypto the super dog
  • The Fortress of Solitude
  • The Bottle City of Kandor
  • Green kryptonite
  • Red kryptonite
  • Toyman
  • Lex Luthor
  • Mr. Mxyzptlk
  • Brainiac
Superman inside the Fortress of Solitude, holding the Bottle City of Kandor. 

It's also funny. After Superman seemingly turns evil, there's a scene that goes like this:

Jimmy: "Superman's acting like a di-"
Lois: "-fferent person!"

My students found that wildly amusing. They were engaged throughout, and laughed in the right places, so I guess they're not as snobby about Batman as I was when I was their age.

That said, we'll be starting Batman Year One next week, which my teenage self would totally approve of.