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50 Years of Mediocrity, 15 Years to Reflect

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Gosh, did I write that? What was I so mad about? Is it because I owed School of Visual Arts money? Was it because I was in my twenties? I’m looking back fifteen years later at “50 Years of Mediocrity”, an article I wrote for The Comics Journal in 1998. It’s fairly well-written, and there are some valid points made, but it also seems to show a bitterness towards my alma mater that I felt for no good reason at all. If I had gone to a “real” college, my life would be completely different and I’d probably have written a negative article about that school instead.

Part of the blame for what I now regret has to do with the context in which the article was placed. It was initially something I wrote for myself and passed along by e-mail, commenting on an issue of SVA’s alumni magazine. I gave someone permission to post it on the Comics Journal message board on my behalf (I did not have internet access yet at the time), the editors saw it, and they asked if they could use it for the magazine. I guess it was because Burne Hogarth was the co-founder of the school, he had a difference of opinion on how the direction of it should go, he was an ally of Fantagraphics, the editors took his side, and– maybe I’m just being paranoid.

I heard secondhand how pissed off some people were about the piece. One faculty member (whom I didn’t know) apparently told his students not to read it. I trashed one artist who supposedly told someone at the comic store he worked at that he’d kill me if he ever met me. I knew a couple teachers socially who thought I was throwing them under a bus.

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But was the piece that bad? Looking at it now, I’d say no, not completely. But I did write things like: “…on [the] course descriptions page they boast a faculty of Sal Amendola, Kevin Brownie, and Klaus Janson. Who says giants no longer walk among us?”

That’s kind of mean. I never took those artists’ classes—one of them I’d never even heard of—and who’s to say they were bad teachers? Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, two of the faces on the Mount Rushmore of comics, also taught there and were closer to babysitters than teachers. People my age work there now, and they aren’t exactly household names either, but I’ve heard nothing but good words about them as teachers. They had a similar education to mine and some of the same problems fitting in, and now they run classes the way they wish they had been run when they were students.

sva-tcj-2Then there’s my complaint that the alumni journal’s history of the comics medium concentrated only on heroic fantasy comics as the ones that made and reflected social changes, while ignoring underground and independent comics. This gripe was also true, but if a school is aimed towards that kind of thing, it only makes sense to pander to that aesthetic.

We didn’t know how much more credible the comics medium would become in the decades after the ’90s. When I went there, the male/female gender ratio was something like 20:1. Most of the students wanted to be the next John Byrne (how’s that for dating myself?) so it figures they’d slant the education accordingly. I tried to switch my major to illustration and they said my work was too cartoony. The cartooning department said it was too “stylized.” There wasn’t a whole lot at the school then for people who yearned to do non-superhero comics.

Like I said there were some valid points in the article. But the school I was railing against doesn’t exist anymore. Let me try to explain. I liken the whole thing to film. Many years ago the idea of applying critical thinking to it was laughable. The idea of having a degree in film was a joke. Now there’s a program in most major universities. When I was at the School of Visual Arts, the only articles in magazines about comics were the “Zap! Pow! Comics Aren’t for Kids Anymore!” kind. It isn’t like that now. While comics still isn’t a completely valid medium, there’s much more diversity. The euphemism “graphic novel” allows the general public to realize that not all comics are about testosterone-fueled superheroes—and that not all adult comics are about testosterone-fueled superheroes who say bad words. The type of action most people associate with comic books is better suited to movies. Many more women have broken the comics-cooties barrier to help legitimize the medium as something not limited to a particular kind of content. Comics is part of the curriculum at colleges that aren’t just art schools now. There are even schools like the Center for Cartoon Studies and the Sequential Artists Workshop.

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My stance in 1998 was essentially a rant about how you don’t enter the doors knowing nothing and suddenly find that “*POOF* You’re a genius!” It is a fact that only a few students ever go on to do anything noteworthy; not everyone is talented, the big names are few and far between, and everyone else is just a sucker for basically paying money for four more years of high school. You could say that for any kind of higher learning though. How many 18th century Swiss literature majors are actually working in something related to their sturdies? I no longer say going to art school is a waste of time. Instead I say what I wrote above, but more concisely: Just know what you’re getting into. There is still a downside to SVA, but I no longer have a “thanks for nothing” attitude. For better or worse, the person I am exists because I went to School of Visual Arts.

Maybe now that anonymous artist who may or may not still be a working cartoonist won’t want to kill me anymore.

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5 Responses to 50 Years of Mediocrity, 15 Years to Reflect

  1. I feel like a bit of a loser to be the only commenter on this so far. What the fuck, people? Summer that nice?

    Your note: “For better or worse, the person I am exists because I went to School of Visual Arts.” was pretty much the same comment I got out of the mostly SVA alumni Meathaus crew that was gathered at a panel at Stumptown a few months ago. I guess I could say the same about myself up to a point.

    SVA suffered under many limitations when me and Sam went there, in not just cartooning, but in many other departments. The lack of vision or possibly empathy or foresight, even, in regards to developments that would soon overtake the various disciplines allegedly being taught there caused no end of problems for the students trapped in that hellish institution. Cartooning was shit on. Animation even more so. What was basically a vocational school having such a contemptuous view on what was to become one of the most employable fields for its graduates in the years following certainly showed a lack of any foresight.

    The illustration faculty – at least at the senior and graduate levels – was exceptional at that time. Little good that did us in cartooning. I fled that department after a semester and was even more miserable in fine arts, a department that had a hopelessly narrow view.

    The SVA experience was best summed up but a certain Fantagraphics-published artist who I’m surprised you didn’t mention the same quote from… SVA was a day care center for 20 year olds… When we went there, at least.

    • steven samuels says:

      “The SVA experience was best summed up but a certain Fantagraphics-published artist who I’m surprised you didn’t mention the same quote from…”

      Let me guess…. Scott Russo? All this explains what’s so bewildering about reading his deranged “Der Fuhrer der S.V.A.” stories from Graphic Story Monthly #7. Especially for those of us who don’t know SVA’s back story.

  2. Not him. Much higher profile, ten years older, and wrote a comic about meeting Harvey Kurtzman. At the risk of re-opening wounds from half my life ago, I’ll only say Scott Russo was very much against SVA while we were there and did even more anti-SVA cartoons for school-based magazines.

  3. Lawrence R. Ronan says:

    Bagge

  4. Jude Killory says:

    I enjoyed this Sam, I like the idea of writers going back and writing about essays they wrote when they were younger. I’m glad you acknowledged the meanness of your “giants walk among us” comment. Klaus Janson is not only an amazing artist but one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.

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