Class began on Wednesday and, I’m happy to say, we had a really great turn out. While we had intended to keep the course limited to fifteen students, eighteen actually showed up hoping to either audit or get a seat during the add/drop period. JC and I did a little checking around at it seems we’ve been able to make room for everyone, but the course is now closed at eighteen students that seem excited to make and learn about comics.
As this is my first time teaching comics at the university I was surprised, and very pleased by the diversity of the group; at first glance it was easy to see more women in the group than men. That was a very unexpected turn from comic-making in previous years and got me thinking about just who this group might be. So while JC began going over the syllabus I put a few quick questions up on the board to better understand just who we’ve got this first semester.
Now I should say here that I’m no statistician; I went to art school, after all. But I do know that mapping how things change on a generational level requires some comparison of numbers when they’re available. Its regrettable that I don’t have solid numbers to compare here. Certainly the number of American colleges and universities offering courses in comic-making has dramatically increased since 1995. But I’m more interested in constructing some kind of look at “who the students are” for this post and, maybe, making some observations as to how they differ from cartoonists that preceded them. Who knows, maybe in 2035, after the impending Zombie Apocalypse, our educated orangutan overlords will be able to use this data stored on my dusty old hard-drive to further their own academic study. There’s a kind of immortality in that for all of us, I guess.
WOMEN TO MEN?
-So let’s start with the obvious difference; in our class of 18 students 10 of them are women. This is a subject and trend of major importance to the future of the comics industry. Engaging women, not just as readers but as creators, means a fundamental change in the content produced and the shape of comics as a business. I cannot say enough about how important I think this is.
If we’re to look at this as any kind of a generational comparison then the best I can offer here is that we go back to the Eisner Award Winners for 1995. Maybe then we can see how dramatic the changes really are. There were 28 named recipients for comics highest award that year. Of those 28 names only one was a woman, Karen Berger, for her work as editor of Sandman and Sandman Mystery Theater.
By way of comparison, last year’s list of Eisner recipients held 43 names, 10 of which were women and they showed strongly in the art and writing categories. To my mind this shows a trend that’s been developing for some time where women are seeing greater opportunities to work within the industry and I’m really happy to see that continue.
WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?
-Our course at UPenn is unique from other universities in that its offered through the English department as a creative writing course. All of the other courses in making comics (that I’m aware of) come through an Art Department. But for this semester only 5 of our 18 students are English majors and only 2 are from Fine Arts. The rest run a gamut of interests from Physics, Economics, Behavioral Studies and Digital Media. To me, this shows something of the broader appeal of comics and their broader usage in media. More on that below.
Also of interest to me is the number of upperclassmen who have signed up for the course. Of the 18 students 8 are seniors while one actually teaches at another local university. I think this shows a level of commitment to the material rather than the idea of comics as an elective, or even as (shudder!) a hobby. Its going to be interesting to see what this diverse pool of genuine interest brings to the open studio environment that we’ve built into the course.
WHO READS AND WHO DRAWS?
-Twenty years ago if you had any kind of genuine interest in comics you were likely a serious fan. Even then comics were somewhat too expensive to remain an idle hobby and this is before the popular advent of bit torrents and other means of free sharing. I don’t have any numbers to compare here, but my suspicion is that if you were serious enough about making comics in 1995 to take a university course in the subject you probably spent a LOT of time reading comics.
Of our 18 students only 5 said they read more than one comic a week. I find that surprising. I think there’s a lot of factors to consider in this. Comics are popularly found in bookstores as “graphic novels” these days and average over one hundred pages rather than the twenty page pamphlets found weekly in comic shops two decades ago. Even I don’t read a hundred pages of comics every week. But another factor is that comics are more popularly accepted and more diverse than they were twenty years ago. Its just a whole lot easier to know about them and be interested in them without being an avid reader.
Drawing comics, however, has not gotten any easier. It still takes a lot of time and a lot of discipline to become a cartoonist. Of the 18 students in our class 10 said that they draw at least once a week and 15 said that they want to draw more. Obviously, drawing once a week is nothing to a cartoonist. We pretty much have to draw every day and often for VERY long hours. But you must remember that this isn’t a course in drawing and I thought that number was interesting for determining how many of our students want to gain a greater comfort with drawing and appreciate that as an integral part of understanding comics.
On a side note, 5 of them said they draw mostly on the computer. As we’ll see over the semester this is a really helpful means of sharing and accelerating the production of comics and, I suspect, a tremendous difference from cartoonists twenty years ago.
SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
-Well, I have no real idea yet as I’ve only just met this group of students. But I do think they’re very unique in their interests and very different from what I might’ve expected. As the course develops and we give them opportunities to focus on making the kind of comics they’d like to see, well, I think we’re quite likely to get some surprises.
And that’s what makes it exciting for me.