Learning and Teaching

For once I had the presence of mind to come away from one of my forays into academia with an informal class shapshot. Seen above from left to right: there’s Toby; Aaron; Kim; Amber; Zac (standing behind Amber); Tabatha; Alyssa (standing behind Tabatha); me; the two Joshes (one seated, the other standing next to me); Justin; and Andy.

Last Wednesday I bade a holiday farewell to the creative MCLA students who have gamely endured my cartooning tutelage for the last three months. They’ve been a good-humored, hard-working bunch and I will miss their weekly company.

Time will tell whether they’ll look back on my Art 207 class as having been a worthwhile expenditure of their tuition money. I hope so. The fact that MCLA’s Fine and Performing Arts Department invited me to teach the course at all is in stark contrast to the situation I confronted when I began my college years.

By now I’ve gotten used to the enlightened attitudes about cartooning fostered by specialized schools like Vermont’s Center for Cartoon Studies, not to mention the School of Visual Arts in New York where I first taught at the college level, or the Ringling School of Art and Design in Florida, where I spent several days as a guest artist a couple of years ago. If dedicated art schools aren’t hip to changing times, who will be? But a cartooning course at a small state college in rural Massachusetts? It’s downright refreshing!

And to be fair, in all likelihood the art department of today’s Birmingham-Southern College, my own alma mater, has moved beyond rigidity by now. But the suspicion with which cartooning as an academic discipline was viewed back in 1962 was daunting. In fact, a claim that cartooning could be viewed as any kind of "discipline" at all would only draw hoots of derision.

I felt the sting of this prejudice myself while briefly an art major at Birmingham-Southern in the 1960s. A couple of my art teachers were open-minded about my enthusiasm of drawing funny pictures that talked in word balloons, but my relationship with the Art Department Chair was a tense one. The guy was a true believer in the supremacy of abstract expressionism. He had little use for young artists like me who turned to the funny pages for creative inspiration.

Representationalism was dead, he preached. Paint should be seen as mere paint, not a means for communicating pictures. True art was about shapes. Areas of color. Flat patterns. Textures. Cartoons were trivial decorations best suited for disposable cocktail napkins.

I became a Drama/Speech Major.

Fortunately, any desire BSC’s head art honcho may have had to show me the error of my ways was a lost cause from the word go. He arrived in my own universe far too late, since I had become irretrievably infected by the cartooning bug long before entering college.

For the most part during my childhood I was forced to learn by trial and error, on my own. I pored over the newspaper comics pages and copied what I saw. I read comic books constantly and absorbed their lessons about story structure intuitively. Actual instruction by an expert was nowhere available.

True, I found helpful advice of a very basic kind in the few Walter T. Foster booklets that addressed the topic of cartooning, but the scope of these amateur-oriented manuals left me hungry for insights with a more professional perspective. My dad had spilled the beans about drawing pictures being a way that some grown-ups earned their livings. Seized instantly by a determination to join their ranks, I was a very impatient little nine-year-old!

Then, by accident, I learned of the existence of the Famous Artists Cartoon Course.

I recounted the circumstances surrounding that discovery in the inaugural installment of a column I wrote regularly for Comics Scene magazine a quarter-century ago. What follow is a portion of that column that describes how the FA Course found its way first into my consciousness and then into my life. (If you’d like to read the entire column — including its description of my visit to Milton Caniff‘s studio when I was 16 — you can find it elsewhere on this web site.)

…One summer afternoon during those Springville days, Dad said on impulse, "Let’s visit Tom Sims!"

Sims was writer of some of the post-Segar Popeye strips. He lived in Ohatchee, another small Alabama town from which he produced a homespun syndicated column called Ohatchee U.SA. He was the closest thing to a comic strip pro within driving distance.

So we drove to Ohatchee. My older brother wasn’t along; it was just Dad and me. Just us two cartoonists. We didn’t telephone first; we asked directions from the local townsfolk and pulled into Sims’ driveway unannounced.

Sims was generous with his time and with compliments for my drawing samples. But something lay on the worktable of his assistant that I remember more vividly than the day’s conversation. It was the set of textbooks for the Famous Artists Cartooning Course.

This course was prepared with the assistance of a stellar array of cartoonists from the fifties, most of whom are still active and remain stars today. Milton Caniff, Rube Goldberg, AI Capp, Willard Mullin and Virgil Partch were among the luminaries.

The three large volumes comprising the 24 lessons were wondrous treasuries of instruction and lore. I lusted after them instantly.

Dad saw that I would not be satisfied until I had taken the course myself. But the price was out of his reach.

Time passed. At 13 I began to move out of Springville’ s orbit. By virtue of a scholarship, I was able to enroll at a private high school near Birmingham named Indian Springs.

At Indian Springs, great emphasis was placed on the development of a student’s individual potentials. Note was taken of my cartooning bent, and soon I was decorating the pages of the school newspaper, designing posters for everybody-and-his-rival in the campus political campaigns, and rendering comic strips in French for my French class bulletin board.

One day Dr. Armstrong, the school’s director, asked me what I would most wish for, given access to a magic genie or some such agent.

"I’d like to take the Famous Artists Cartooning Course,” I replied.

Nothing more was said then, but a few months later he called me to his office to tell me that a friend of the school, under guarantee of anonymity, had chosen to donate the money for me to take the course.

I still don’t know the identity of my benefactor.

[NOTE: That is to say: I didn’t when I wrote these words back in 1981. I know more now. The giver was Dr. Armstrong himself.]

Many superficial aspects of the FA course are dated by today’s standards, but the basics were solidly there. During the three years that I spent working through the course’s 24 lessons, I had to root out lazy habits accumulated from years of copying the surfaces of other artists’ drawings. I didn’t complete the course a polished cartoonist, but the groundwork for a more professional approach and self-teaching techniques had been provided.

* * *

I still have my dog-eared copies of the three Famous Artists Course textbooks. I turned back to them for inspiration as I embarked on my recent teaching adventure at MCLA.

I can only hope that what I have offered in the classroom these last three months was a tenth as valuable to at least a few of my students as that correspondence course was to me 45 years ago.

After tackling its 24 lessons on top of my regular studies throughout my sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school, I was more than prepared to brush aside any snobbish challenges to my art form’s validity by the time I entered college in 1962.

I still had plenty to learn about cartooning, but I knew without question that the cartoons I was making were art.

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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0 Responses to Learning and Teaching

  1. Howard Cruse says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Martha.

  2. mthomases says:

    I’m sure you’re a fantastic teacher. If only you’d been mine, maybe I would still be painting.