The Sequential Artists Workshop, or SAW, was founded just over a year ago by Tom Hart. After a long stint at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he struck out on his own to Gainesville in order to start teaching workshops as well as a year-round curriculum. In a small, intimate setting with a teacher as passionate about the art as Hart, his first class of students became akin to a comics tribe. Indeed, many of the artists went out with Hart to get SAW tattoos! As at the Center for Cartoon Studies and many other comics schools that don't focus on mainstream comics, there's an emphasis on self-publishing. Hart sent me a variety of minicomics from four of his students.
Eric Taylor: I don't know if it's a specific part of SAW's curriculum, but it seems clear that Hart expects his students to be able to draw different kinds of comics in terms of tone, genre, and structure. That's not surprising, given Hart's interest in the formal qualities of comics and the sort of experiments and games that can stretch a cartoonist in interesting ways. In Taylor's case, Salsa is a loose collection of stories based on what seem to be his own experiences as a child and young adult in the woods. There's a meditative, John Porcellino vibe to these comics that were drawn loosely and spontaneously. Taylor tries thicker brushy lines in some of the stories and a thinner, more fragile line in others. It's clear he's trying to balance naturalism vs a more expressive line in his work and hasn't quite found the right formula as of yet.
In Rhymes with Me!, Taylor attempts gag work with a talking orange (not unlike the Annoying Orange, really) and various fruit and vegetable friends. The line here is thick but scratchy, and it clashes with the cartoony nature of these gags. I think he also used a computerized font for his lettering, which only served to make the pages even weirder to look at. He plays with formalism and gags in Eek and Meek Go To The Zoo, which gives the reader a nice sight gag at the end but suffers from the same problems as Rhymes With Me! Taylor seemed to be more at home with Untitled, a comic about a couple journeying through the desert, with the female half of the couple having an unexplained illness that's sort of a cross between leprosy and invisibility. There's an air of desperation mixed with an intense feeling of intimacy in the ways in which the characters react to each other and their environment. Taylor doesn't quite nail the simplicity of the character design he was aiming for here, though his understanding of body language and the ways in which people relate to each other in space are both spot-on. The way Taylor used a fantastic conceit in his story to get across the intensity of feelings was clever, and this seems like a path he might continue to follow in future projects.
Adrian Pijoan: Pijoan is an interesting stylist who tends to harp on ecological issues in a matter that's occasionally didactic. In some cases, the level of detail provided makes this work. In Roots, the aimless protagonist suddenly develops literal tree roots and becomes part of an ecosystem as he merges with a fungus that forms a symbiotic relationship with trees. This is a cute comic that is as much about the science of trees as it as a plea to stop using toxins that kill these sorts of fungi; the cartoony character design of the guy meshes nicely with the naturalistic drawings of trees. On the other hand, Alien Archaeologists deploys a ham-fisted series of sci-fi metaphors about the ways in which we despoil our environment, and the drawing is sloppy to boot. Fig depicts the symbiotic relationship between figs and wasps; it's less a comic than a series of illustrated drawings with a computerized font. It's not anywhere near as interesting nor visually successful as Roots was.
Cat Mariner is a 24-hour comic whose titular character looks for love. It's a goofy, trippy comic that looks great printed in blue ink, though like most 24-hour comics it's a light, disposable read. Satchel's Comics is about a beloved van, its journeys and final metamorphosis into seating as a restaurant. While Pijoan's line is on the sloppy side here, there are a lot of interesting formal tricks that hold one's attention. I thought the most interesting of Pijoan's comics was Grafeld, a hilarious, ink-splotched mash-up of Garfield as a sort of Satantic/Messianic figure. It's not even a narrative so much as it is a series of images preceded by an essay about banality and evil. I learned at SPX that he had no formal art training whatsoever before SAW; in fact, his background is in biology. That bit of information made the rationale behind his comics clearer, as his mission now is to blur the lines between science (and ecology in particular) and art. As he evolves as an artist, tapping into his subconscous as he did in Grafeld might yield interesting results with regard to his overall goals.
>Sally Cantirino: The sense I get from Cantirino's comics is that this is someone who has worked incredibly hard to become a good cartoonist. She seems to be someone who has really put in the time at the drawing board, based on the sheer feeling of labor and effort in these minis. Cantirino is not necessarily a naturally gifted storyteller or drawer, but her comics are well-told and have a lively and spontaneous line. You Are Here uses a tried-and-true minicomic approach: the travelogue. Cantirino is not shy about trying to draw everything: cars, ferris wheels, buildings, etc., and she does a nice job of getting the reader absorbed into her narrative. However, her greatest strength is character design, as it's clear that she draws a lot from life and knows how to make figures come alive on the page. The structure of this comic is such that it's as much about her emotional journey from New York to Gainesville as it is the physical act of driving from one place to the other. When things get stressful, Cantirino cleverly lets her line get looser and more grotesque. This is a satisfying chunk of autobio that has definitive beginning and ending points thanks to the nature of the trip, and Cantirino is able to similarly structure the emotional narrative in the same way.
The Magical Medical Mystery Tour is a collection of sketches and short stories about Cantirino's health difficulties, particularly those centered around her menstrual cycle. What makes things worse is that so many of her physicians refused to admit that her experience was in any way abnormal. When she finally learned that she had a bleeding cyst on her ovary, it only made her angrier. That she expressed her rage with such ludicrously funny drawings added a nice bit of tension to the page, both diffusing and highlighting the intensity of her feelings. Other short strips about her difficulties with body image and anxiety are scribbly and powerful, preserving the initial punch of a spontaneous drawing.
Her fictional work and reportage is also of interest. Persephone is a retelling of the myth where all of the characters are in silhouette, as though they were appearing on a Grecian urn. This was a very effective comic that beautifully used negative space to tell its story. The Spirit House is an 11.5 x 15" landscaped comic about the infamous Winchester house whose owner, Sarah Winchester, demanded constant construction on the house to appease the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. It's a well-designed comic that takes the reader through rooms as though they were panels, bringing the eye from left to right from the top of the house to the bottom. Finally, Turnpike Divides is a slice-of-life comic about a young man coming home to New Jersey and the funeral of a friend who may have killed himself in a car wreck. This is a sharply observed, restrained comic that's a bit cluttered at times in terms of the panel-to-panel imagemaking but otherwise quite clear in terms of storytelling. Based on her autobio comics, it was interesting to see Cantirino incorporate real-life elements into a work of fiction. Cantirino has the look of an artist who's gearing up to do an interesting long-form comic in that slice-of-life style. That last mini seemed to be a good warm-up for that sort of story. Her knack for writing dialogue and telling us a lot about characters with a minimum of information will go a long way in creating a compelling entry in that genre.
Anna Mack: Of the four SAW cartoonists whose work I read, I think Mack's was the most intriguing. I Am A Buffalo I Do What I Want is a collection of short, unrelated stories that veer from social satire to political satire to slice-of-life parables to quick punchlines. It has the feel of a student being encouraged to try different approaches and storytelling styles. She seems to really hit on something when her character design is more stylized, with long triangular noses and rubbery bodies drawn with big, thick lines. The most effective story is "Locust", a pointed parable describing the behavior of locusts in North America that's illustrated with images of Americans consuming and being crammed into small spaces. To Mack's credit, she manages to keep the comic entertaining and on point even once her intentions are made obvious, with the image/text dichotomy creating a tension that allows her political point to be made without hammering it home.
Addie is not quite as successful in terms of its visual execution. The character design is a bit plain and the storytelling stiff at times. That said, Mack creates a world where rebels literally live in underground warrens and caves in order to dodge a totalitarian state. Told from the point of view of the teen daughter of a revolutionary, Mack does a fine job in world-building and engaging the audience in the mythos she's creating. In How The Fog Came, Mack once again experiments with mythology, this time working with bright and simply organized colors to tell the tale of fog's origin on a mountain, which involved mountain spirits who ate corpses and a man who buried himself alive to see this happen. Mack uses simple figures and stark colors to give the whole story the feeling of being a cave painting or other primitive form of communication. Overall, Mack has mastered a strong sense of storytelling and rhythm in her comics and has displayed a great deal of sophistication in her use of restraint and emotional tone. As she continues to tighten up her drawing and refines her style, she has the potential to do some great work.
The sense I get from SAW's first year is that Hart's aim was to create a collaboration and dialogue with his students, rather than create a rigid differentiation between the teacher and his pupils. With a tiny faculty and a small class size, SAW seems like a remarkably intimate learning environment. Such a school demands a lot from both students and faculty, creating an environment where everyone is held accountable if they wish to continue to be part of the program. I imagine Hart calls upon his years of teaching in a more rigidly defined environment, but at the same time, I imagine he and the students are making up rules as they go along. I'll be curious to see which of these students decides to sign up for another year and how their work evolves from here.