Andrew White is a cartoonist based in Washington, D.C. He was one of Frank Santoro’s first students, served as an editor of the Comics Workbook Magazine, and has continued to be a cornerstone of the Comics Workbook community for years. He joined us in Pittsburgh for a Rowhouse Residency in July 2017. Here are his thoughts about visiting the city and his Rowhouse Residency experience.
I visited Pittsburgh for just under two weeks in July. It was the first time in years my schedule allowed me to focus on comics full-time, and I was anthropologically curious to see if I was disciplined enough to work on comics for 8+ hours each day. I was also interested to get a sense of how the Residency is functioning and evolving just around a year after its creation. While I was there I worked on the following projects:
- All There Is – A set of critical essays and drawings on Kevin Huizenga’s Ganges: The River at Night
- The Life You Save May Be Your Own – An adaptation of a Flannery O’Connor short story by the same name.
- Drowned River – A long work completed before arriving in Pittsburgh, for which Frank offered comprehensive and incisive feedback.
- An untitled series of large format drawings. Maybe these will be incorporated into a comic eventually. I’m not sure.
- Two untitled stories, both still at early stages. I drew pages for one and took notes for the other.
I think other reports do a good job of describing what it’s like to participate in the Residency. So instead I’ll indulge myself with a less linear list of thoughts that occurred to me while visiting Pittsburgh.
Building Institutions – I took the second iteration of Frank’s comics correspondence course in the spring of 2012. I know Connor Willumsen also took the course at that time, but I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember who else was in the Class of 2012. Frank, you should publish a list of who has taken the class when! It would be interesting to see.
Anyways, I mention the course because it was nice to see where Frank has landed as an educator, a community organizer, an institution-builder, and a creator almost exactly five years after I first got to know him and perhaps ten years after I started following his work. Having watched Frank move from occasional lectures and teaching positions, to his correspondence course, and now to the residency led me to think about the way institutions are built up and broken down in comics. It’s an interesting and regularly discussed topic, particularly when a publisher or store or school is shut down.
Many publishers in comics exist largely through the willpower and dedication of a single person. This can be sad – Picturebox, Highwater, Buenaventura, and many others did not last beyond their founder’s involvement in the company. Of course, the flipside of this flimsy infrastructure is that barriers to entry are relatively low. Even if those publishers are gone, they had a real and significant impact. The books they printed still exist, even if they might be hard to find. Many of the artists they supported are still working. The same is true for schools – if CCS or SAW or Frank stopped teaching tomorrow, students would still retain the impact of their education.
All this is just to say that while I certainly lament the occasional deaths of publisher or other institutions, I think we’re sometimes more eager to wring our hands about finances or distribution (important things!) than to celebrate the impact of these institutions and think about how that impact will carry forward after they’re gone.
[A quick tangent: Frank and I talked about departed publishers a bit. He made the interesting point that some of the work published by a place like Sparkplug isn’t necessarily that good, because Dylan Williams was so committed to supporting cartoonists early in their careers. But do we remember these early projects for their flaws, or for being a significant step in the career of important creators? What are the benefits and drawbacks, artistically and financially, of publishers waiting until a cartoonist is completely ‘ready’ before publishing their work?]
But it is also important to build something that might last beyond your personal involvement. I would say Frank has started to do this. People like Sally Ingraham and Juan Fernandez now have significant involvement in the Comics Workbook project, the Comics Workbook site offers a venue for many writers, and the yearly Comics Workbook composition contest continues to offer a platform to recognize new voices.
What lessons do the evolution of Comics Workbook and the Residency offer? Build slowly, accumulate staying power over time, stay flexible so you can respond organically to a changing world. Frank can be impulsive in his decision-making sometimes, but this allows him to react organically and shift his plans if needed. He can change course based on feedback or on his own sense of what has become important.
Another lesson: Don’t grow too quickly, and stay accessible. Frank’s correspondence course is still the same price it was in 2011. Obviously the course won’t be for everyone but I think Frank does a good job of being transparent about what he’s offering.
So where exactly does the residency stand now? It’s been running for just over a year and has accepted nearly 20 residents. Some residents aren’t very familiar with Frank and his approach, so they essentially get to take his correspondence course in person as a significant part of their residency. Others come with projects in progress and are seeking feedback on these specific works. Frank aims to check in with residents for a few hours each day at least, but also makes clear that he needs to spend time on his own work.
On that note, Frank has maintained his productivity as a cartoonist – I’d even say the past year has been especially productive – which helps residents see what the life of a working cartoonist is like. This also makes me happy as a fan of his work. Sally Ingraham manages the logistics of the residency (schedules, etc.) and also instructs residents at times, given her experience as an educator. Frank and Sally both say the residency is going well, though they’ll be taking several weeks off from hosting residents this fall as convention season begins.
In terms of the wider Comics Workbook project, Frank plans to continue working with graduates of his course and other cartoonists to offer Comics Workbook workshops at conventions like SPX and CXC, as he did for the first time in 2016. Comics Workbook isn’t producing any regular publications at the moment (though copies of Comics Workbook Magazine and Zona are still available from Copacetic Comics). I don’t think it’s my place to speak for him in depth, but like many of us Frank is reassessing his plans and his priorities after the US election last November. One of his conclusions is to try consolidating his efforts, focusing on doing a few things well and maybe stepping back from others. These plans are still very much in progress, so I’m curious to see how things develop.
I’m jumping around a bit, but I think it’s important that these detials exist in writing rather than just in people’s heads. I want some record of where the Comics Workbook Rowhouse Residency stood in summer 2017 to exist.
That’s another downside of comics’ flimsy institutions – they can be difficult to document. I think about Gary Groth’s efforts to secure one comprehensive interview with important creators in their twilight years; an admirable project but one that should at this point be extended to younger generations and beyond cartoonists. Did anyone conduct a comprehensive, career-spanning interview with Dylan Williams or Alvin Buenaventura before their untimely deaths, for instance? I could be wrong but I don’t think I’ve seen one. Let’s try to get this stuff recorded before it becomes an urgent need. That’s an effort we can all contribute to.
Format Fever – I came to Pittsburgh with a few comics recently completed. I was proud of this work but unsure when/if/how to have it published. Sometimes I don’t want to make the decision of whether something is good enough to publish; I’ve thought before that I’d just like someone to just tell me what to do with a comic once I’ve finished making it. This is of course unrealistic, and an easy way out besides.
Frank has always been interested in formats, and talking about format with him led me to two insights. On one hand, there are no easy solutions to these questions. Each of Frank’s past comics has been presented in a different format, and he’s at a moment with his current project where he isn’t sure exactly what publishing approach will serve it best. Since each project is different, answering that question doesn’t get easier. On the other hand, there are solutions to be found. Some formats or publishing venues really do suit a project better than others, and in ways that might not be immediately self-evident. Thinking critically about this can yield results – I left the Residency with more concrete plans about how to publish and present my future work.
Studying and Experimenting – As a cartoonist I’m often focused on Getting Things Done; I’m usually drawing for a project rather than drawing just to draw. This is useful, but it also leads to unnecessary frustration when I’m not productive. It also leads important activities like reading, planning, and experimenting with new approaches to feel less ‘valuable’ than they actually are. With so many more hours to fill than normal in Pittsburgh, I allowed myself time to read books and comics, copy images from comics or art books, and do some journaling to reflect on my progress. I do these things from time to time on my own, but they’re not a consistent part of my practice. It was nice to be reminded how valuable and pleasant these activities can be. I’ll try to do them more often going forward.
Frank also led me through a few exercises that he’s developed in the time since I took his correspondence course. Part of what I appreciate about Frank’s perspective on comics is that he’s willing to stake out territory confidently. This is provocative in the best sense of the word. By this I mean that I don’t have to imitate Frank’s approach for him to be a helpful influence – doing the opposite of what he recommends, subverting his techniques, or ignoring his advice entirely all lead me to do different things and think about my work differently.
Yearly Cycles – In my eagerness to get work done, I also sometimes jump from one project to the next without enough consideration. I don’t think I’m alone in this and I don’t think it’s always the wrong approach. But sometimes it is. Frank has talked in interviews about how the painter Francesco Clemente would sit around for days, smoking and doing nothing – but then produce huge amounts of work in sudden bursts of activity. I don’t smoke and I don’t necessarily have entire days to devote to the difficult work of thinking, but the general principle still applies.
It was interesting to listen to Frank talk about past stages of his career, current projects, and future plans. He likes to reflect on what he has done before – especially, I’m sure, for the benefit of residents – and apply this perspective to upcoming decisions. In conversations along these lines, Frank encouraged me to make key choices about my work in three months or six months rather than today or tomorrow.
We talked about planning projects in terms of yearly cycles. Frank argued that a year is the minimum amount of time needed to complete a longform work, in part due to the time needed to build momentum and uncover a fruitful approach. He talked about throwing out roughly a third of the pages completed for his current project, a ratio that happens to hold true for my most recent long comic as well.
I also spent part of my residency working alongside Ian Densford, who takes another approach to planning very different from my own. Ian is working on a long project for which he has made several key decisions – format, length, approach, etc. – in advance. He’s doing careful research and I don’t believe he throws out many completed pages. None of this is uncommon, I think, and Ian seems to also have left himself space to make many decisions about individual pages and sequences over the course of his project. It’s just interesting to think about the different ways people construct their creative lives.
Copacetic Comics, Longboxes, and Legacies – Bill Boichel of Copacetic Comics was the first retailer to buy my comics and has been among the greatest and most consistent supporters of my work. I’m far from the only person for whom this is true. Bill’s longevity also speaks to his abilities as a retailer; he has kept his doors open for more than double the length of other stores without ever sacrificing his support for great work. He has also made compelling abstract comics for decades. Plus Bill has an excellent critical eye; just the descriptions of my comics on his site are among the most insightful reviews I’ve ever received.
This was my first time visiting Pittsburgh and therefore my first visiting Copacetic. If you’ve never been, it’s worth a visit. At first you’ll see just a careful selection of newer releases, but hidden treasures abound. In just a few hours, I found several Ignatz books I hadn’t seen in years; one of Raina Telgemeier’s original Smile minicomics (left with Sally Ingraham, given her interest in the underdocumented, undervalued history of female cartoonists); nearly all issues of Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte; a huge stack of Kramers Ergot 1; and much more that I’m forgetting.
Perhaps most exciting for me, however, was discovering a copy of Kevin Huizenga’s Supermonster 11 (1999). I’ve been a fan of Huizenga’s for a while, and it seemed precipitous that I’d see an issue of Supermonster in person for the first time while writing about his work. A nice moment.
This was also another reminder that Bill has been supporting good cartoonists for years and years (he says that, given its appearance in multiple formats, the Gloriana story in Supermonster/Or Else/a Gloriana hardcover is among Copacetic’s best selling comics). Plus it’s just fun to see a skilled cartoonist’s early works. However, this was also a resonant moment because I found Supermonster not long after pulling a copy of Black Pillars 2, one of my own earliest works, out of a nearby longbox.
There was something very compelling about this for me – the idea that in Bill’s dusty longboxes, comics by you and me and Kevin Huizenga and someone who only made one comic ever are equally valued and equally likely to be discovered. Many of the Xeroxed minis in Bill’s catalogue are bagged and boarded, treated with just as much care as any other comic. It was rewarding to see the work treated with the respect it deserves. It was encouraging to imagine that someone might discover my comics at Copacetic almost 20 years in the future. It somehow made my goal of continuing to made good work in 20 years (and 30 years, and 40) more tangible. More achievable.
That seems like a good note on which to conclude. I had a good time in Pittsburgh and I did my best to work hard. The Residency is an interesting project at an interesting stage in its development. I look forward to watching it grow.
Check out Andrew White‘s work HERE. His most recent comic is N, available for preorder and debuting at SPX 2017. The anthology he edited with Madeleine Witt – Warmer – will also be available at SPX 2017. Be sure to check out Andrew’s writing on comics – some of his essays and reviews are listed HERE. Follow Andrew on Instagram.