Every summer, Kyle Warren blocks out a week of vacation time for a trip to Vermont. And while the New Jersey teacher enjoys outdoorsy activities, he doesn’t make this annual pilgrimage to hike the Green Mountains or camp under the stars. Instead, Kyle comes to the Center for Cartoon Studies for a workshop on making comics.
“You’re kind of eating, breathing, living comics for that week,” Warren said, adding that if students are not in class learning about comics, they are in the library reading comics or staying up late talking about comics. “It’s a constant exposure.”
The center began offering a weeklong Create Comics summer workshop in 2005, just before it launched its two-year master’s and certificate programs. The workshop was so popular that it quickly expanded its summer offerings.
Other workshops this summer tackle comics narrative, digital production, and making children’s books, but most people start with Create Comics, the flagship workshop that has no prerequisites. Students must be at least 16 years old, excited about making comics, and willing to work hard.
“It’s like a boot camp for cartoonists,” explained center co-founder Michelle Ollie. Students learn foundational skills, drawing characters one day and dropping them into environments the next. Instructors demonstrate the advantages of inking with brushes and pen nibs, although jars of more-familiar Sharpie markers are never far away.
And all the while, students hunch over work tables, sketching on sheets of white paper divided into tiny boxes. “We’re not too heavy on the lecture, because we want to get students drawing as soon as possible,” Ollie said.
The center makes its home in the former Colodny’s Surprise Department Store. The building is hung with comic art, from the spacious front windows to the lobby’s rotating exhibits to the main classroom itself, where students tuck their work into metal clips lining the walls.
Students taking Create Comics tend to be on the younger side, although there is a mix of ages and artistic experience. Vincent Ferris is a 20-something who took the workshop before becoming a full-time student at the center, and he believes the diversity helped create a richer class experience. “There was nobody too immature to be there,” Ferris said. “Everyone seems to have a real passion for being at the comics workshop.”
The Create Comics week wraps up in the center’s basement, a place artist and instructor Alec Longstreth calls “the coolest place in town.” Besides staying cool when the weather turns muggy, the basement is also the center’s production space, filled with printers and silk-screening equipment, page cutters and copiers, computers and long art tables.
“It’s kind of like having your own Kinko’s right here,” Longstreth said.
In the basement student teams assemble their final projects, a collaborative comic book they make using a scheme the center calls Connect the Plots. Each member of a team works on a page independently, although they have agreed on how to transition from one page to the next. If a character is flying to the moon in the last panel of one page, for example, that character has to arrive at the moon in the first panel of the next page.
It’s a bonding experience, fueled by pizza and work late into the night. And although there’s not much time for teams to check over each others’ shoulders, the separate pages somehow come together into a finished whole, covers and all. “We haven’t had one go astray yet,” Longstreth said.
Students don’t stay in the basement all day. Instructors organize cookouts, movie nights, and kickball games. The center is located in the heart of White River Junction, an old railroad town whose occasional empty storefronts bring to mind better days, but the school has helped revitalize the area as an arts destination. The compact downtown also provides students with no shortage of architecturally interesting buildings to draw, including a stately former post office — complete with marble stairs, tall ceilings, and natural lighting — that the center acquired and is rehabbing.
It might seem odd to spend a summer vacation indoors, but for people with work or school schedules, this may be the only time they are able to pursue their comic dreams. Fortunately for the budding cartoonists’ families, there are plenty of nearby attractions: the Montshire Museum of Science, Mount Ascutney State Park, the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour.
“There’s a lot of people who want to visit Vermont,” said Ollie, “and this is a way to make the family and student happy.”