Kids Can Cartoon!

Graduate students at the Center for Cartoon Studies share their skills and enthusiasm for comic art with Upper Valley youth.

By Bridgett Taylor

Cartoons and kids are a natural fit; the dominance of superhero costumes every Halloween is proof that comic book characters are popular with children. But the appeal of comics is more than adults who wear bright costumes and fight crime. As maturing readers, children often transition from picture books to comic strips and kids’ comics before jumping to chapter books. Likewise, a youngster’s first attempt at self-expression is drawing their favorite superheroes or simplified versions of the people and things around them.

Not Just for Grad Students

The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) in downtown White River Junction, Vt., provides graduate-level studies in creating comic art. But folks at CCS know that college graduates are not the only ones interested in sharing their creativity with family, friends and the world; for young learners age 9 and older, CCS offers a weekly Cartoon Club, held year-round on Saturdays, and a Summer Cartoon Club Camp held every July.

Many of the young people who participate in Cartoon Club come back month after month and year after year. “We have students who maybe aren’t fitting well in a traditional school environment and it’s so exciting to see them be engaged,” says CCS Operations Manager Dave Lloyd, who has seen students use the skills learned in Cartoon Club to investigate other subjects. “It helps get them motivated for other topics beyond reading and literacy.”

Foundational Skills

Keeping in line with the school’s mission of providing the highest quality education to students interested in creating visual stories, the weekend and summer Cartoon Clubs follow the same principles as the adult programs at the school. The programs share similar structure. “They’re part of the same family,” says Lloyd, “The primary goal of the classes is to get people making comics.”

Students hone skills in storytelling, creating art and visual literacy (how we understand anything from a funny Internet meme to a subway map), so Cartoon Club does more than give kids a fun hobby and storytelling skills — it also provides tools to understand the world and communicate ideas to others.

Workshops take students through the basics of making comics, including the process of creating a visually distinct character and building its personality. Instructors often give students prompts so they can imagine what their characters would do in unusual or unexpected situations.

Leaders of the Club

Graduate students at CCS lead Cartoon Club. “We typically have a lead instructor who has been assisting the previous lead instructor for a bit,” says Lloyd, “So they then take on the lead role and develop the curriculum; it’s been an effective succession plan for us. Our full-time instructors often want to be part of Cartoon Club as well, so it’s not unusual to have drop-in visits from our full-time faculty.”

That faculty includes such well-known artists as CCS co-founder James Sturm, whose work has appeared on the cover of the New Yorker magazine and in many other national publications; Sophie Yanow, a cartoonist, designer, and educator who has worked in the US and Canada; and Stephen R. Bissette, who has worked as a comic creator, publisher and editor (co-creating the character John Constantine for DC Comics) and as a writer and educator.

Graduate student Daryl Seitchik has already published one graphic novel, EXITS, and came to CCS looking for a supportive creative community. Lloyd confesses that he finds the school a great place for both students and staff. “I work at Candyland,” he says.

Fun workshop themes

In a recent monthly workshop at which Seitchik was the lead instructor, the theme was “expression.” “For the first exercise, I drew a worksheet that showed a spectrum of facial expressions and left room for the students to experiment with their own characters’ faces. For the second lesson, I drew different characters with a variety of body types, expressing emotion through body language and left room for students to play around with their own poses and postures,” says Seitchik.

“Dan [Nott, co-instructor] did the third lesson on the comics-specific mark-making magic called emanata, which are the lines emanating from cartoon characters’ heads that show an emotion,” Seitchik continues. “The fourth and final worksheet was a six-panel grid, where the kids take what they learned from the previous lessons and apply them to a full-on comics story!”

Seitchik puts extra focus into making sure each lesson’s theme is framed in a way that will be fresh and engaging to her young students. “Our preparation is what ultimately helps the kids have fun while they learn. I love seeing how every child approaches the lessons, some engrossed in silent, focused work, others gesticulating wildly about their brilliant new ideas,” she says. “It’s inspiring to be around them and, when I return to my own drawing desk, I feel like a kid again.”

Drawing alongside their peers

Even kids who don’t plan on a career in cartooning can learn from Cartoon Club, according to Clementine Lutes, 11, a fifth grader at Upper Valley Waldorf School in Quechee, Vt. Lutes, whose father is a core instructor for the CCS Master’s program, plans to be either a cartoonist or a chef. She participated in the spring and fall sessions of Cartoon Club for two years and continues to write stories and draw pictures.

One of the aspects Lutes liked most about Cartoon Club was working on her storytelling skills with other young people. “It’s kind of a small room,” she says. “So I got to see [other students’] stories. I could compare myself to others — that’s a cool drawing style that girl did or I liked how that boy made his story exciting. I could find ways to make my stories more dramatic or romantic based on their stories.”

Young cartoonists are encouraged to create their own comics outside the classroom environment. Cartooning is “a very accessible medium,” says Lloyd, because they are easy to make and distribute. Most of the materials used in Cartoon Club are items that students already have at home or can obtain easily, such as pencils, pens and paper.

Lutes, whose favorite genres are fantasy and science fiction, still has the collection of cartoons she created at Cartoon Club and is proud of the work she did. “Once I did a comic that was about a big puffball,” she says. “That one was really funny.”

Bridgett Taylor lives in South Royalton, Vt., and works in the Upper Valley. She is a freelance writer, grant writer, and volunteer DJ at Royalton Community Radio (royaltonradio.org), where she can be heard most Friday nights.

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