Toland Goes To College

From time to time I receive email from college teachers who are using my graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby as a classroom text. Sometimes their students write me, too.

This sort of attention is hugely gratifying, naturally, as it would be for any author who hasn’t become jaded by levels of acclaim that for sure have yet to flow my way. I was once even asked to interact live with a roomful of students in Iowa by way of a group Internet linkup, which was great fun. And periodically some school or other will pay for me to travel to their campus so I can chat with their students face-to-face about my work. I get a kick out of such jaunts and my bank account is always pleased to be plied with campus speaking fees.

Mostly, though, I don’t get to tag along when my graphic novel travels to college campuses and my secret desire to listen in on classroom discussions go unfulfilled. So the detailed online account of how SRB fared recently in an academic setting that was pointed out to me last month by the pedagogical perpetrator himself (that would be Stephen Frug, a graduate student at Cornell University who writes science fiction in his down time) was fascinating to read. It’s not quite like being a fly on the wall, but it beats being on the wrong side of window glass wishing fruitlessly that you could hear what’s happening inside.

If you’ve read Stuck Rubber Baby or think you might do so sometime, you may enjoy experiencing Stephen’s individual take on the novel and his account of how his students reacted to it.

Stephen’s heads-up about his blog entry arrived in my inbox a month ago and I immediately asked if I might invite readers of my own blog (that would be you) to look in on it as well. Stephen said yes, for which I thank him.

It’s taken me four weeks to follow through because my mid-December crush of deadlines temporarily knocked my blogging habit out of the saddle and into the ditch by the horse trail. But as you may have noticed, with Christmas merriment now completed and holiday relief from my college teaching underway, I’ve begun climbing back from my blogside paralysis and, in the course of remounting this tortured equine metaphor that I find myself tentatively astride (at least until I’m finished with this ill-advised-but-too-weird-a-train-wreck-to-delete paragraph), I have begun catching up on old business.

Which includes pointing you toward Stephen’s very interesting essay.

When you’re a comic book creator who is lost over a span of years in the solitary processes of crosshatching, refining dialogue, and fretting about narrative transitions and character nuances, there is always the fantasy that at some vague point in the future someone will be moved to give your brainchild an attentive enough reading to discern and (hopefully) admire the thousands of tiny artistic decisions you are making in isolation along the way.

In your heart you know, of course, that not every reaction will be flattering. You can’t even count on thumbs-up from an impressive minority. As frustrated artist Headrack observes resignedly in an old Barefootz comic strip, "A cult following is better than no following at all!"

I mean, you’ve gotta at least aim for your own cult!

Sure, some readers will invariably look askance at the flaws you never manage to eradicate. Heedless of your noble intentions, they will snicker impertinently at the instances where your skills are inadequate for the challenge you’ve set yourself. They will ridicule you in conversation with their friends. You may even end up being pummeled publicly by sarcastic reviewers. That’s never fun, but the prospect of such town-square floggings rarely outweigh the hope that your work will inspire close readings by a few perceptive strangers. If you’re going to soldier through the bouts of uncertainty that benight marathon projects, it pays to stay in denial about the possibility of hostile reactions once you’re finished. Otherwise you’ll be paralyzed.

In your heart, you have to believe that readers exist out there who will get what you’re trying to do, who will find it rewarding to hover over your work’s tiniest details and applaud your minute decisions for their intelligence, if not always for their success.

Thank god for academia, collective mother ship for all the world’s obsessives. There the impulse to consider things in detail is rewarded rather than viewed as a sign that psychotherapy is urgently indicated.

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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