4.12.2011

Show & Tell: A Collection of Comics About Teaching & Learning

Show & Tell (Ninth Art Press): Special thanks to Dan Mazur for sending me this copy of “A Collection of Comics About Teaching & Learning,” which houses some creator names that will be familiar to anyone that’s seen Mazur’s other editorial efforts with the Boston Comics Roundtable. Show & Tell explores a territory that is capable of highlighting the dynamic of the generational gap like nothing else – the classroom. I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking about comics in high schools, and I’m always amazed what I learn about myself and younger generations in the process. This book was coordinated in conjunction with the New England Comic Arts in the Classroom (NECAC) Conference, and includes some shorts that are fact and some that are fiction, from settings around the world. As we dive in, I’ll just say that I love the fact that the editorial crew included a Rodolphe Topffer strip; his quaintly named “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck” is a strip I use in some of my presentations to denote the 1842 demarcation of comics as we know them in the United States. It’s pleasant to see this classroom setting is a fairly universal theme which has already spanned centuries.

The Five Faces of Student Conferences
by Rebecca Viola is an interesting play on itself. All of the faces possess essentially the same blank expression, suggesting in a tongue-in-cheek fashion that adults have absolutely no idea how their messages are being received by their students. It was a strong burst of craft that immediately sets the tone for the whole book. Grade A.

Strays by Lindsay Moore & Ponju is a touching family tribute, with a wide-eyed manga-informed style to the art. Something felt a little distracting to me, and I realized it was the lettering. The caption font was, well, I’m not sure if it’s the much maligned Comic Sans, but it sure looks like it. I tend to prefer the subtle variations of hand lettering and the warmth of the imprecision that human touch conveys. As is, the font here feels a little cold and clinical for a piece that’s otherwise quite personal. Grade B.

Teaching High School by Marty Moyer possessed a great sense of irony, full of clever lines, and the dangers of honesty during interviewing. I enjoyed the quirky attractive art style that depicted common foibles during the first day of teaching. Grade B+.

Wondermark by David Malki is rendered in a retro Victorian style. I liked the second of the four strips very much, about unofficially auditing a large lecture hall course and the influx of corporate speak regarding individual learning needs. Yet, the other strips didn’t quite connect with me, relying on last minute word play that kinda’ fell flat. Grade B.

Yo Miss by Lisa Wilde reveals real life NYC encounters at parent/teacher conferences. It proves that fact remains stranger than fiction, and is a scary view into parenting and the social dynamics of second chance students. It all seems so overwhelming to teachers. I enjoyed the art style quite a lot, but the silhouetted figures on the black background had that haloing affect that sometimes plagues new artists. Otherwise, this is a strong and emotionally triumphant denouement. Grade A.

These F-ing Kids by Box Brown had a couple of small inconsistencies. In the TOC, it’s actually listed as “Those F…ing Kids,” so there’s that. The art itself is a wonderful hybrid of styles, reminiscent of Kevin Huizenga, or blown-up Chris Ware figures. The litany of bad experiences compacted into one story definitely made me chuckle. Grade A.

Substitute by Jess Lonergan tells of the solitary position substitute teachers are saddled with and the abuse they get. It’s got a clean and open style, and I particularly liked the panels of the teacher getting blasted with questions, but there’s no real hook or zinger that will make this super memorable. Grade B.

4 Myths About Teacher’s Unions by Kevin Moore has a weird unopened parenthesis just dangling in the second panel, yet I liked the very direct manner in which some of these myths are addressed. It separates fact from fiction, so don’t go perpetuating falsehoods, no matter how catchy the sound byte! In terms of typos, it’s also got a “thru”’ vs. “through,” but is overall a fairly strong one-pager with a good sense of caricature. Grade B.

George Enjoys Billiards Apparently by Alexander Danner & Dan Mazur is full of terrific art. The style is very accomplished in terms of framing panels and what looks to be ink washes. Mazur’s panel to panel storytelling is always solid, and with that under his belt, the stylistic flourishes commence. Take a look at the sly little things in the background, such as the teacher erasing the credits for the piece on the board behind him. It’s another piece that proves oddities have to be real, some are so off that they just can’t be faked. The ear for dialogue is also spot on, capturing the way students of this age really speak. Grade A.

Iruma by Ben DiMaggio & Len White is a fantastic tale of teaching abroad and the clashing cultures that ensue. The stripped-down art style reminded me in places of Yoshihiro Tatsumi. I enjoyed the inconclusive ending, something that real life is so filled with. At first, this piece seems deceptively straightforward, but it’s one of the group that I thought about the most after putting the book down. Grade A.

Master Class by Alejandro Yegros suggests that teaching is a battle to be waged. The lean lanky figures and soft rounded thick inks of the backgrounds make for a nice contrast. I enjoyed the notion of maintaining mental control of the classroom because people ultimately respect dominance. The art is occasionally simplistic, but it works for a tongue-in-cheek story of this magnitude. Grade B+.

Multiple Intelligences & Comics Education by Marek Bennett does have a rudimentary art style, but is packs an entertaining punch. It’s highly informative regarding the 8 different types of human intelligence and how we use them. Bennett crams as much as possible onto the page, but it flows well. We learn how most schools typically don’t use intelligence clusters, but prefer to rely on single tracks. It was articulate and fun, long enough to develop its ideas and deliver them squarely, and ends with a clever satirical standardized test, which surely counts as extra credit in the opinion of this reviewer. In a book about education, it was the most educational and I really enjoyed it. Grade A+.

A Merry Abecediary by Cherry Ogata is a quick fun alphabetic chart that doesn’t do a whole lot more than the title suggests. Grade B-.

School in the Sea by Lewis Carroll & Doug DeRocher is an interesting collaboration that pits Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with Dan Mazur adapting and lettering, and a new interpretation by DeRocher. It’s the only full color piece in Show & Tell, with a blocky and angular mosaic style, juxtaposing those hard strokes with whimsical content to great success. Grade A.

What is the Answer? by Caitlin Plovnick again addresses the sea of different aptitudes and attitudes present in the classroom. It paints a picture of a pretty uphill battle for our poor underappreciated educators. Grade B.

Good Progress by Line O is a story from a creator I distinctly remember from a previous Boston Comics Roundtable anthology. The style is acute and instantly recognizable. This story is comedic and exaggerated, but based on actual events depicting cultural clash in the school setting. There’s a healthy sense of irony balanced with wonder, but I couldn’t help feeling this art wasn’t as tight and refined as previous attempts I’ve seen. Yet, still one of the most memorable styles present. Grade A-.

Open Structure by Dan Mazur sees the creator employing a smaller scale style, depicting the open structure teaching method. There’s no formal lesson plan, a brush with SDS protests in the Vietnam War Era, and even a failed sit-in. It’s charming and crazy all at once, with a few well-played flashbacks about school age kids reminiscing in the present. There are always clever touches in Mazur’s art, here it’s the free form panels perfectly in sync visually with the theme of story. The piece feels less like a short and more feature length. I enjoyed this as bit of investigative nostalgia, as the grown kids piece together what ended their hippie teacher’s tenure. Grade A+.

El Maestro by Roho illustrates the Varelian Reform in the educational composition of Uruguay. The art style is bulbous, with heavy inks entertaining as they educate. There was something vaguely “Adrian Tominesque” about the style. The running scroll at the bottom of the page provided a historical backdrop, but the main story above was a little dense with text at times. Grade B+.

Hydrochloric Acid by Aya Rothwell utilized a sketchy art style, and played a nice balance between depicting a scary, yet teachable, moment in the classroom. Grade B+.

Robots Kill Vampires by Ron LeBrasseur and Emily LeBrasseur is a story about creating a story. It’s cute, but not terribly informative or poignant. If you've seen the indie comic Axe Cop, you might enjoy the ultimate tale. Even if it’s not terribly strong individually, I do feel it’s placement is wise, a nice way to end the set, by examining the act of creation. It’s also got “cemetery” spelled as “cemetary,” which is a typo I’ve been spotting in a lot of work recently. So, teachers, get on that! Grade B.

Overall, if you average out these grades, the holistic package is right on the border between an A- and a B+. I’m inclined to bump it up because of the difficulty of the task involved. It’s amazing to think you can take 20+ creators and produce an anthology that never dips its toe into the middling Grade C territory that most anthologies are prone to. As was the case with the last Boston Comics Roundtable anthology I reviewed, helmed in part by Dan Mazur, the grades are mostly A’s and B’s, with a couple “+” marks thrown in for good measure. It’s an astounding accomplishment; these guys consistently produce the most consistent anthologies. It’s a segment of the industry that’s widely known for being uneven, yet they beat the odds time and time again. This is how you do anthology comics right. Grade A-.

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