The Plan – “Columbo” tells all

And now here’s something we hope you’ll really like:
Frank Santoro doing his best Columbo imitation to tell you all about the plan to build the Comics Workbook Rowhouse Residency in Pittsburgh,PA (read to yourself in your best Columbo voice)

Howzitgoin? Good, good. Me? Good, thanks. I gotta tell ya though I’m sorry to bother you again, but y’see somethin’s been troubling me and I can’t stop thinking about it. Kept me up all night. and the dog too cuz he thought I was getting up to take him to Cincinnati. What’s that? Oh. Sorry. Cincinnati is what I call the park. Cuz if I say “park” or “walk” then he gets crazy. So we say Cincinnati around here. Yeah. So. Where was I? Oh yeah. This thing has been bothering me and it’s this thing about commodity form as community form. What’s that? Oh. “Commodity form as community form.” Yeah, it’s a mouthful. And sort of puzzle. What does it mean? I don’t know. Or I think I know. Either way, I keep thinking about it.

People ask me, “Frank, what’s this I hear you are buying the house next door and turning it into your schoolhouse?” I say, yeah, it’s true. The old man who owned the property passed away. Well, no one’s been living there for twenty years. He was this old guy who lived in Florida most of the year and had a bunch of properties all over the neighborhood. I’ve wanted to buy it forever but the old man wouldn’t budge so we thought maybe someday. Anyways, the day arrived and the nephew who cut the grass, y’know, to keep the place nice over the years—well, the nephew stopped by and asked me if i wanted to buy the place. That they weren’t gonna put it on the market. Was I interested, he says? Was I interested? Of course, I’m interested. I said yes, I’ll buy it.

Trouble is, you see, I don’t have the money. Yeah, I know. Foolish of me, wasn’t it? I had to say yes, though. Otherwise it’s on the market and bang it’s gone. This way I have a chance at least.

So I’m scraping together the money as fast as possible. Boy, I’ll tell ya though, it’s humbling. Passing the hat is a humbling experience. Why should I help this fool is what most of them are thinking, I know. It’s ok, I understand. I am foolish. But foolish choices have gotten me this far—so I gotta ride out the lucky streak. If it’s a complete disaster and I can’t get the house, well, at least I took a shot. A shot not taken is a shot missed, they say. But, it’s gotta be a good shot. You gotta take a good shot to score.

Anyhow, can I get you a coffee or a tea? Sorry, I got alot on my mind and I gotta just talk it out, if you don’t mind. Can’t sleep. Cream and sugar? No, ok. Here ya go. You’re welcome. Let me get one, myself. Hold on.

There we are. Ok. So, about the house. We’re gonna do an IndieGoGo campaign. Yeah, “crowdfunding”. Yeah, I know. It’s an interesting idea which we think we have to try. I mean, we gotta take the shot, right? Take it to the hoop.

What’s that? Oh. Sorry, when I say “we” I mean we, like, the school. I’m gonna make it a school next door. I like having the correspondence course for comics but I think it’s time to try to do more. I’ve been trying to figure out for years how I can expand my school—start having my students teach in some way—but I can never figure it out because the correspondence part of it is so personal. Teaching in a classroom is different. But how do you get a classroom? Do I have to join my school to another school to get their classroom? But most comics are done alone by the person making them in a room. Classrooms are good for teaching some artforms but not so great for teaching others, y’know what I mean? Like how do you teach writing in a classroom? Go around peering over the shoulders to read what they are doing? No, it’s gotta be something different. Like a residency. Like the student can live in the classroom. Work in the classroom of course, but also, sleep in the classroom and eat there too.

Most cartoonists I know work out of their homes. So maybe if I can have a house that is a residency where the student can have classes everyday and then do the hard work in private in the same space—that might just work. Especially if the teacher lives on the same street and his mother makes really awesome spaghetti sauce and the student doesn’t have to worry about what to make for dinner. An airbnb with comic book lessons. Something like that.

The students I have already are pretty psyched about it. Many of them live in far flung backwater comics towns and here in Pittsburgh, well, we are a prime time comics town. Always have been, but things are really hoppin’ here now. So I dunno. I think it could work, cuz the students I already have would be the first wave of residents. We already know each other even if we never met in person. And then they can come here and we can work with the game plan we already know and come up with new strategies for making forward thinking comics. Does that sound hokey? I’m sorry, forgive me, I get carried away. See, I just think that for the artform to grow there need to be different types of interdisciplinary learning institutions that are outside of the traditional academy. Like there needs to be a big ecosystem.

People say, why do we need a comics school? There aren’t many jobs in comics so why churn out these kids with no job prospects? Well, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in churning out ninjas. I don’t see many jobs out there for ninjas. It’s understood that if you want to be a ninja you are doing it for the love of ninjadom–not for personal glory or gold. I mean, what professional ninja goes around telling people they are a ninja? I’ve never seen a “ninja needed” advertisement anywhere.

This is why I’m intrigued by this “commodity form as community form” thing. What’s that? Oh, did I make that up? No, no, Bill Boichel came up with that one. Back in the 80s. His whole thing was that he had this comic book store in an economically depressed steel town back in the 80s. And it was the only place in the neighborhood kids could hangout without an adult. Like you see in store windows “only two kids allowed at a time” or “children must be accompanied by an adult” and all that stuff? Yeah, Bill’s store was never like that. Christ, he had couches. Kids would sit there and read. A kid who was flunking English class probably would be READING at the comic book store without a care in the world. And so, you know, Bill is a thoughtful guy and he’d start putting all this relevant material into these kids’ hands. Like he’d give a kid a Black Panther comic and tell him his theory that that “the Black Panther party” was named soon after the comic came out back in the 60s. Like he didn’t just take their quarters for beat up back issues of comics, he actually fucking cared about these kids. And that really did something to me, cuz I was one of those kids too. There was NO WAY OUT of my post-idustrial wasteland existence, really. Except there was—thru comics. Bill preached the gospel of comics and I signed up for the choir.

He taught me about “commodity form as community form”. Meaning that what we buy and sell creates a community. And how do you engage your community in which you are buying and selling? And what are you buying? And what are you selling?

Bill would make his own comics in the basement of the store and then print them on the xerox machine down there and then go upstairs and put it on the rack for sale. He rearranged my thinking of how a maker of art can get their work into the world. Bill was publishing comics made by the kids who hung out at the store. He had us selling our comics at our high schools. He “published” our work for us and taught us how to make money from our art. They weren’t teaching me that in high school art class. He taught us how to fish essentially. The guy changed my life.

So I want to do the same thing in my own way. I know how hard it is to gain an education in comics. How to learn the craft and how to survive in this godforsaken industry and on the circuit of church basement shows? I can help you. Really. We can help you. I have over 150 students now and I want to bring each student, if they are willing, thru the residency schoolhouse and help them level up so that they can go back into their community and pass on what Bill passed on to me. What Bill passed on to me is really something I can’t even explain except that it is part of the necessary oral tradition of art. Especially comics. Comics is such an insanely difficult thing to study because so much of the art is obscured by the marketplace. How do you balance the two when the form itself is, as they say, the bastard child of art and commerce? I know: you provide a space where the student can LIVE AND WORK. Where there is no separation between art and life or between your school’s awesome classroom and your hovel on the otherside of town. A place where the student can have a total immersion in the private process of making comics while still being tethered to a strong community.

What’s in it for you, you ask? Well, that’s a good question. Maybe if you are, simply, a comics fan— then someday in the future you can read the work by some of the school’s students and you’ll enjoy it. That’s probably all that is in it for you. But if you are a comics snob who is also interested in seeing the form grow then maybe you will consider supporting the school because you know that I am one passionate motherfeyer about comics and I really, really want to push the form itself to grow and to absorb new voices and disciplines to create a Jeet Kune Do-type comics style. A style, an approach to comics making that is firmly rooted in the 21st century. What does it mean it be a comics maker in the 21st century? How does a comics maker navigate the marketplace or navigate a marketplace that doesn’t exist for them? Making comics on the xerox machine and selling them by hand is still the business model. So something has got to give. Help me help my students figure this out so that the next generation won’t have such a hard time of it. That’s what you’ll get out of supporting the school: knowing that you made a difference, potentially, in the direction of the form itself.

More coffee?

So, yeah. I’m selling my collection through a private auction and now this: we’re going to do an IndieGoGo crowdfund to raise money to buy the house and start working on it. The house needs alot of work to get it up to code for inspections. But first we gotta raise the money for the down payment. If you feel like helping out you can buy something or donate here. If you want to check out the private auction then send me an email: santoroschoolATgmail. Everyone is asking why I’m doing a private auction. It’s because some of the famous artists giving me artwork to sell don’t really want to be part of a crowdfund and all that. Plus it is a way of avoiding eBay fees and that kind of thing. It is also a way of keeping the books and art in my collection IN the community because in theory the people buying stuff are comics snobs (haha, that’s a term of respect). So, for me, this plays into the “community form as commodity form thing”. Like I’m selling the collection I amassed for years—a collection that was made thru purchases made within the community—to buy a house to teach comics. So hopefully if you, the comics fan, buy something from the auction then I am selling my commodities to buy a meeting place for the community. See, how pretty that is? It’s like a circle. The end is in the beginning. I want some kid to sit on the couch at our school and read comics and maaaaybe take a workshop and get interested in comics as A WAY OUT in a spiritual sense and possibly in a financial sense. Like it’s a trade. A 21st century skillset. How to arrange words and images. Visual literacy. I mean, that’s the internet, right? Commodity form as community form. Community form as commodity form.

Take awhile, think about it. I’ll be here if you wanna stop by later.

Sally Ingraham

Sally Ingraham

Sally is a cartoonist, educator, and journalist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She makes comics about Pittsburgh and bird watching, and co-writes the "Suzy and Cecil" daily strip (with Gabriella Tito). She facilitates the Comics Workbook Rowhouse Residency, is a managing editor of the CW Daily News, and runs the CW Roller Derby "of the mind" League. She is focused on documenting the current and historic place of women in the comics industry, is working to build the Women's Comics Library, and is developing a comics curriculum by and for girls.
Sally Ingraham

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