Workshops artfully joined words and pictures
By L.L. Angell, The Newsweekly
Everyone loves the comics. But today, they range far beyond "Family Circus" in the morning paper and perennial favorites like Marvel's Iron Man, the Hulk and The Avengers.
The new world of comics is intelligent, provocative and comes in many forms. From one-panel cartoons to serialized comic strips to long graphic novels that combine text with illustrations, the comics are alive and well — and full of surprises.
That's what adults and teens discovered in two separate workshops on Feb. 27, when The Laura (Riding) Jackson Foundation presented a comics writing workshop led by Jarod Rosello, creative writing and comics professor at University of South Florida in Tampa.
There are several reasons for this rising tide of interest in comics.
"We live in an incredibly visual world where it's increasingly common to tell a story with both words and pictures," says Marie Stiefel, the LRJ Foundation's newly appointed chairman of the board.
There is no doubt that a picture is worth a thousand words. But, if you doubt that comics can help high school students become better writers, prepare yourself.
Combining writing and drawing to tell a story is a great way to develop literacy. In fact, it's a natural. Area high school teachers agree.
"This generation of students is the most visual ever. Tech and media infuses every aspect of their lives. Developing skills in visual literacy is critical. Students need to apply the same critical thinking skills they use in traditional literature to the visual world around them," says Louise Kennedy, who teaches AP language and composition at St. Edward's Upper School.
Required, but fun
Kennedy was among a handful of teachers who attended the workshop.
Students are taught to recognize themes, points of view and narration as part of their literature and writing curriculum. Kennedy believes they need to apply the same critical thinking skills to what they see around them.
"Without critical thinking skills developed in visual literacy, they may not detect visual propaganda, specious reasoning and other important things," said Kennedy.
In fact, visual literacy just became a required component of Florida's Common Core. It's part of standardized tests, such as the SAT.
"Graphic novels are a great way to do it," Kennedy says.
Equally important — they're fun to write.
"My students thought the workshop was 'awesome,' and didn't realize how graphic comics have become a college-level course. They were having fun — and writing!" said Susan Lovelace, the international baccalaureate coordinator at Sebastian River High School.
For several years, The Laura (Riding) Jackson Foundation has offered a variety of writing workshops for local students. Topics have included poetry writing and how to write a "winning" college application essay.
The Foundation actually surveys students to find out what workshops they'd like in the future. More and more are responding, "comics."
So when board members Ann Belinkoff and Johanna Jones discovered a comic book and graphic writing workshop, led by University of South Florida professor Jarod Rosello, they immediately invited him here.
In the morning, Rosello taught adults. That afternoon, he taught teens.
Gathering at Vero Beach Magazine's offices at the Village Shops, 18 adults settled in to learn about the world of independent comics.
Ann Belinkoff, a Vero Beach acupuncturist, called the morning "fun."
"I went in with no expectations. Rosello gave us a good overview of the form. He's a great teacher and it was in a great space with terrific people," said Belinkoff.
In fact, she has already asked Marie Stiefel and former president of the board and LRJ founder Charlotte Terry to schedule Comics II. Steifel is even drawing a daily comic.
The workshop's success was due to Jarod Rosello. The professor is also a prolific author who works in a number of forms.
His first book was "The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found."
Rosello calls it, "a graphic novel about a bear-human hybrid that lives in a city of humans."
Next was "Those Bears," a web comic and alternate-reality sequel. Rosello calls this "an ongoing project that I'm writing as it goes."
His most recent work is "How We Endure," an illustrated novel about two children living in a dilapidated old Mediterranean-style house in Miami in the '90s.
"The rising interest in creative nonfiction has given way to the graphic memoir, which has cashed in on the power of the image to tell serious, thoughtful stories," Rosello says. "The desire for images and to read through images has reached a point where comics have become a really profound medium for storytelling and making meaning."
A breakthrough work in graphic fiction was Art Spiegelman's "Maus," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. The Holocaust narrative portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.
So despite being "comics," the form is now used to address troubling or political themes.
But, Rosello's workshop was pure fun. He started by asking students to draw themselves as an animal, a robot, an alien and a baby.
Then he asked them to remember a particular moment in their lives.
Their assignment was to draw panels portraying how things might have gone differently if they had made a different decision in that moment.
Rosello insisted that artistic ability isn't a requirement.
"If you can draw stick figures, you can do this," Rosello told them.
Sure enough, everyone began drawing and minutes later, were sharing their work. Though quickly done, the variety was impressive.
The afternoon's workshop with high school students took place at the Environmental Learning Center and followed the same format.
Afterwards, Kennedy got plenty of feedback from a handful of her St. Edward's students, all of whom are juniors.
Here's a sample of their comments:
"I'm not good at drawing but I like what I did at the workshop. Making comics was different for me and I would not have done anything like it on my own. You could really see what I was trying to say in my story." — Danny Walsh, 17
"I learned a lot about myself through designing my comic strip. I was surprised by how much the images really showed who I am." Isabella Campione, 17
"I doodle and draw a lot more now. I found through the workshop that drawing can capture my emotions better than words." — Anabelle Greene, 17
"It was a great learning experience because it opened up my mind to other kinds of writing." — John Ferro, 18
Many adults echoed those same sentiments. Such positive responses almost guarantee that there will be a second opportunity like this for locals to express themselves in words and pictures.
In the meantime, a Teen Workshop — Spoken Word takes place April 2, at 1:00 pm and LRJ celebrates their sixth annual Poetry and Barbeque on Sunday, April 10, from 3:00 to 5:00 pm at The Laura (Riding) Jackson House, 255 Live Oak Drive in Wabasso, next to the Environmental Learning Center.
To learn more visit www.lauraridingjackson.com or call 772-569-6718.