All too often in comics, one reads a potent cultural critique served up in the most conventional, commercially slick style imaginable. Comic shelves are cluttered with “political’” manifestos that employ garish computer type for text, unimaginative drawing and treacly writing. A feeling of crushing distance between the realm of imaginative art and imaginative political thought happens here–the authors of works that take the road less traveled on social issues have, we hope, put in considerable mental work to come to their hard won stances. Yet they haven’t done the same work to see art as anything more than a slick delivery system for their ideas.
This is not the case with John Mejias’ Paping: The Teacher’s Edition. Mejias comics are wild — here is a face rendered with the strength of a rubber stamp (the signature style of Mejias’ art collective Partyka), crude and powerful. And now the same face in the next panel, simple and sparse. It’s not done for effect, not done to challenge you — rather, it’s done with heart and skill. Now, heart and skill can be historically unhappy bedfellows in comics, if you believe the records. George Herriman’s art, for example, embodies the perfect dream version of the heart/skill combination, and that’s what makes his work so important: all that passionately inventive drawing is coming from a place of high craft. But that quality is rarely talked about with Herriman — instead we read articles discussing the beauty of his “internal triangle” motifs, or some similar distraction from the main point. Time goes on, and here we are at the present day of comics polemics, where heart and skill often become separate camps, eyeing each other with contempt. It’s a Grand Illusion, with all that reference implies. Mejias is our Jean Gabin here: his cartooning brings the lie to a false dichotomy. These aren’t refined drawings, nor are they “naive”(whatever the incorrect definition of the day you apply to that word is). The artist knows his way around but is giving you this.
TTE collects all of Mejias stories about his work as a public school art teacher in a rough Bronx neighborhood. The seething undercurrent of the book is Mejias’ respect for students that other educators (not all of them –Mejias thankfully has many caring and thoughtful allies within these pages) treat with hostile disregard. Mejias is an art teacher, but also a practicing artist: he travels miles to school, teaches, and then goes home and draws TTE (or versions of TTE that are refined within this volume). Somewhere within that practice lies the deepness of his respect: Mejias isn’t biding his time as a teacher waiting to be an artist or vice versa. This is his art now with the children and away from them, and you feel the consideration Mejias has for his students’ lives in how he leads his own.
Respect like that involves looking at people as they really are, and Mejias’ lack of romanticism towards his pupils creates a real poetry of human ticks and behavior. His students are irrational, difficult, and even unsettling (in one guest-written episode of the book involving a visit to a students home, a boy is so tightly wound that you can’t anticipate any of his actions — he is deftly written as both receptive and volatile). Of course, it is precisely these qualities that makes giving these students real art education so beautiful. Unruly students, or even shy ones, fall out of favor with the school. But the way Mejias teaches, art isn’t governed by those rules. You don’t fall out of favor with art — it’s there for you in Mr. Mejias’ lunchtime art club.
If you care about the power of art, Mejias’ vocation in TTE reads like an account of a very worthwhile way to spend your life. As other teachers in Mejias’ school advocate for sterile, “please the teacher” art assignments (or simply no art at all), Mejias’ belief that art should be made by students making what they want, and that art needs no justification, might prove to be the one pure (or complex) idea many of these students will be given while at school.
But where does Mejias explicitly say how much he believes in art and creativity? Thankfully, in the text he never spells it out so obviously. The under-under current in TTE is a dignified anger — the book overflows with stark statements about dangerously unengaged administrators; drug-filled apartment buildings where students live; arbitrary sets of rules. Here it all is for you to see, but the text relates it cleanly. No impassioned pleading on the unfairness of it all.
Instead, the passion lies in the drawing, in the art, in the fact that Mejias did this. The difference between the sickening climate of the situation Mejias confronts and the richness of his artistic expression is where the “answer” may lie. Art isn’t bullshit and we shouldn’t teach it as if it were. Mejias follows his own lessons and readers of TTE are challenged, quietly and forcefully, to do the same.