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Dan Berry:

Teaching Comics

Another sign of the growing acceptance of graphic novels in Britain is the profusion of courses teaching the skills of creating comics in British art colleges and educational institutions. They may go under a variety of guises, from ‘Authorial Illustration’ taught by Steve Braund in Falmouth to the ‘Visual Editor’ and ‘New Narratives’ projects at London’s Royal College of Art, led by Andrzej Klimowksi, David Blamey and others and on display later this April.

Some may be intensive, and a bit more expensive, like the Arvon Foundation‘s week-long writing module this November with tutors Peter Blegvad, Bryan Talbot and Simone Lia. Others are in regular universities and more affordable, such as the University of London’s two new 11-week courses at Birkbeck, in partnership with The Cartoon Museum, one on ‘Drawing for the Graphic Novel’, the other on ‘Writing for the Graphic Novel’, taught by Steve Marchant, starting this October, and Steve Marchant’s two evening classes at the City University in London, Comic Strip And Cartoon Art and Cartoonists Workshop.

So when I heard about  the North Wales School of Art & Design (NWSAD), based in Wrexham, Wales, starting a three-year course offering the first Bachelor of Arts degree in graphic novels, titled ‘Illustration for Graphic Novels’, I had to find out more. Dan Berry is a Lecturer at NWSAD in Visual Communication on the new course and told me all about it. 

Paul Gravett:
Can you tell me first a bit about yourself and your interests and involvement with comics?

Dan Berry:
I was brought up reading the Dandy and the Beano, but lost interest in comics during my teenage years. I rediscovered comics in my early twenties during my Degree in Multimedia Design. During the final year of my degree, I explored the concept of interactive comics, and developed an interactive piece that Scott McCloud called ‘the coolest thing I’ve seen all year’. That project developed into an ongoing fascination with comics and narrative that I explored further during my MA, looking into archetype, interaction and narrative. When the opportunity to teach on the Graphic Novels course at NWSAD came up, it was too good an opportunity to miss!

Who are the other main tutors and lecturers behind this unique course? What experience do they bring?

The main lecturers are myself, Sue Thornton and Yadzia Williams. Sue is programme leader for the Illustration for Children’s Publishing degree we run, and Yadzia is programme leader for the General Illustration degree. They have recently been involved with conferences and exhibitions in Poland and Britain, and have recently completed work on the book How To Write And Illustrate For Children’s Books.

What factors have motivated NWSAD to develop it?

Sue had began to see how graphic novels had begun to become more widely accepted as a literary form, from articles in newspapers to shelves in bookstores, and felt that there was a gap in the academic market for a course specialising in Graphic Novels.

Has there been a demand for this from students and/or within the school already?

Many of our illustration students past and present have produced comics as part of their study, but an overwhelming response from students has been of regret that we haven’t started the degree sooner!

Drawing Words, Writing Pictures
by Jessica Abel & Matt Madden

How has the process of academic accreditation been? Has it been a challenge to get comics accepted and validated as something deserving of study?

The Illustration for Graphic Novels degree falls as a pathway under our BA (Hons) Design degree, and shares a great deal of overlap with our Illustration, Illustration for Children’s publishing and Graphic Design Courses, and it has been a relatively straightforward process to add it as a pathway through our Design degree. That isn’t to say it hasn’t been a great deal of work, but all staff are all pulling in the same direction, and we have received an incredible amount of support from everyone we have approached and spoken to, yourself included. I’m sure that the idea of a ‘comics degree’ will be criticised at some point, but we received the same kind of criticism when we started the one of first Animation Degrees back in the late 1990s, which has since gone from strength to strength.

I think the tide is starting to turn, and that people are now more willing to accept comics as a medium worthy of study. We have also found out (literally an hour ago!) that the North East Wales Institute Of Higher Education (NEWI) has been awarded full degree awarding powers and is going to be the UK’s newest fully independent university, previously being an institute of Higher Education.

Is it a one-year course? How have you structured it? What special assignments or projects are expected of each student?

The course is a full three year full-time BA (Hons) Programme, with the option for completing it over five years as a part time option, although students can elect to only take specific modules. The first year year is focused on a introducing to the students as great a breadth of disciplines and areas of study as possible, the second year is given to studying some of these themes in greater depth, and the third year is entirely negotiated by the student with staff members.

Drawing Words, Writing Pictures
by Jessica Abel & Matt Madden

Can you tell me about your visits to comics schools abroad, for example to Angoulême? What did you learn which you hope to apply yourselves?

The visit to the Ecole Superieure de l’Image in Angoulême was a fantastic opportunity for us, and we were made to feel very welcome. It was a real thrill to be shown around the archives at the Centre National de la Bande Dessinee et L’Image by Jean-Pierre Mercier. We had the opportunity to discuss our plans for the course with Thierry Smoulderen, Gerald Gorridge and Dominique Herody, and were delighted to find that our proposals roughly matched the way that they have been teaching. One area in which we differed was our plans for a creative writing for graphic novels module. They explained that in France, creative writing is not something that is taught, as it is seen as  a form of artistic expression, not an academic subject. They expressed an interest in our findings from teaching such a module.

What other connections do you hope to build with school specialising in comics, for example the American Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, or through the Erasmus programme with Beijing?

I have been in touch the American Center for Cartoon Studies, and we have strong academic links with Renmin University in Beijing. We have discussed staff and student exchanges, and the possibility of summer schools through the Erasmus Intensive Program. I’ll give you more details as I know them!

What forms of co-operation and collaboration do you envisage with these international schools of comics?

As before, staff and student exchanges have already been discussed with the Ecole Superieure de l’Image in Angoulême, and we are excited by the prospect of collaborative projects or joint publishing ventures. We had a great response from students in Angoulême when they were asked if they’d like to come and study with us.

Interactive Chris Ware
by Dan Berry

How will you involve professional writers, artists, editors, letterers and others in the comics field? Will you have guest lecturers and residences?

We will run a series of one-day workshops and keynote lectures. This is something we have run with great success within the Digital Media sector in the past, and is a great opportunity for the students.

Your emphasis, from the course’s name, is on illustration, though you do mention “exploring narrative through drawing, layout and typography”. How will you address the writing aspect of comics, scripts, dialogue, words, etc? Is the course mainly aimed as illustrators intending to work from other people’s scripts, or can it accommodate and serve students who want to do both the writing and the illustration of their comics?

Although the name does suggest that it is primarily interested in the illustrative aspects of the form, we are planning a far broader course. Although we will be exploring different media, styles and techniques, we are also developing a creative writing module specifically for comics and graphic novels. Because comics as a medium occupies ground somewhere between the textual and the visual, we feel that a creative writing for graphic novels module should occupy similar ground, and not be purely textual of purely visual. We feel that this is particularly important as the narrative has to be the strongest foundation on which to develop a graphic novel.

As well as Will Eisner‘s and Scott McCloud‘s essential books, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden have compiled a 15-week course book on creating comics for First Second Books, ‘Drawing Words, Writing Pictures’. What role will instructional and reference books play in the course? Will you develop you own set textbook?

These are fantastic books, and they are on our reading list as essential texts, and serve as a great introduction to the practicalities of creating comics. That said, I do feel that following instructional texts to the letter can be a little prescriptive, and that artists need to develop their own unique visual language and style. Often, the most interesting and innovative work is that that has deviated from tradition. Putting together a catalogue of innovation would be an interesting project.

Comics by Dan Berry with artist Adam Paxman

How will you inform students about the history of the medium, and how international and historical will this be?

The history of the medium is very important, nearly all of the greatest leaps forward would be overlooked if this was not studied. These sessions would be given by keynote lecture and reading list examples. Studying the entire global history of comics would be an immense task, so for the sake of practicality, we would have to study key ‘snapshot moments’.

What links to publishers and commissioners do you have? Can you play a role in connecting students with prospective clients? What other “related creative industries” do you see this course serving?

We have links with publishers and agents from the Illustration for Children’s Publishing course, and have a research fellowship at the moment researching the provision of the Welsh language in children’s publishing, which is yielding productive partnerships. We will also encourage students to self-publish and to showcase work online. With regard to related industries, we have former illustration students working within the games industry, animation companies and design agencies. Students also go on to form their own companies through our business incubator unit next
door to the art school.

Comics by Dan Berry with artist Adam Paxman

What specific resources related to comics does NWSAD have already, in its library and archives for example, and what does it hope to provide in the future?

We have all of the resources that have served the illustration degrees, and we are currently building upon this to have a greater specific resource for the course.

How many places are being offered on the course, how do prospective students apply and what does it cost?

We currently have space and resources for between 25-30 students per year group, and prospective students can either apply through UCAS, or for entry in September 2008, we do take direct applications. Details of fees, scholarships and bursaries can be found here.

Having met some of the tutors and heads of comics schools and course across Europe, such as Hubertus von Amelunxen and Thierry Smolderen at the Ecole Superieure de l’Image in Angoulême or Enrico Fornaroli in Bologna’s Fine Art Academy, I do hope more communications will be possible between them. There has been the suggestion of establishing a pan-European, if not an international, association of these institutions, to share and co-operate more closely. What do you think of this idea?

Absolutely essential! This is something we are very keen on developing, and feel that an association of comics educators would provide a very exciting platform on which to base collaborations, share research and explore cultural difference.

What are your hopes for the future? How would you like to see this course develop? Do you expect other colleges to take up this subject?

In the short term, we hope to develop the BA into an Masters course in Graphic Novels, which should be starting next september, but in the long term, we are hoping to build a center for illustration which would act as a resource for artists, students and academics.

Posted: April 6, 2008


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