Making Comics: Nick Bertozzi as Exemplar

Several weeks ago, I wrote here about the New Media Exemplar Library -- a digital filmmaking project that is being funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of our larger project to develop curricular materials and activities to support the teaching of new media literacies. The Exemplar Library will consist of a series of short films showing media makers discussing the core choices they make -- both craft decisions and ethical dilemmas -- as they create their work. Our goal is to produce films that educators can use in classes and after school programs and that young people who are enthusiastic about media production might seek out on their own via the web. The first one I introduced to my readers centered on blogger, science fiction writer, and digital activist Cory Doctorow. Today, I wanted to share a second exemplar -- this one focused on independent comics creator Nick Bertozzi as he shows us the process by which he created a single page of his forthcoming graphic novel, The Salon The Salon centers around the circle of friends who helped generate the cubist movement and includes vivid portrayals of Gertrude Stein, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Alice B. Toklas, Erik Satie, and Guillaume Apollinaire. The Salon was not created as a kids comic and indeed, much of the content deals with mature themes, but it's melding of fact and fiction makes it a rich text for us to examine in the context of a project on new media literacies.

Having gotten to know Bertozzi through the years, one can't help but wonder if his fascination with this circle might have something to do with the tight circle of comic book artists in Brooklyn with whom he hangs out and sometimes collaborate, a circle which includes Jessica Abel, Paul Pope, Dean Haspiel, and Matt Madden, among others. Several years ago, these friends piled into a car and drove to MIT to visit Nick's sister, Vanessa Bertozzi, a Comparative Media Studies Masters Student, and to talk at our colloquium series. Various combinations of that circle have passed through the program in the years that have followed and this exemplar grew out of those conversations. In the interview, Bertozzi talks about why cartoonists and other artists need to work within creative communities:

You need a community of other artists of other cartoonists who understand, because nobody else will understand the insanity that you go through. And they're people who don't bug you too much because they're doing the same thing you're doing and they want to be left alone a lot of the time. But we do need to come together, because we are human after all believe it or not.

His former roommate Dean Haspiel described what he got out of working side by side with a fellow artist:

What was really good about when Nick lived with me, was we were really able to share that space and maximize the energy of that room. And turn what a lot of what we were doing separately into this combined force of this infectious, vibrant kind of brain trust. It was a really good time. I really miss those days of when I could look over my shoulder and see Nick drawing when I didn't feel like drawing and that would just inspire me to keep trudging on when I was struggling, facing that blank page and not knowing what to do next.

The video was produced and filmed by Vanessa which allowed her to achieve real trust and intimacy with her interview subject. Bertozzi turns out to be extremely good at explaining his creative process in language that is broadly accessible and there's a real fascination in watching this page take shape step by step across the videos. He takes us from the scripted concept, through the research into the historical period that insures the accuracy of his details, through penciling, inking, coloring (which occurs on the computer), and the final proofs. Bertozzi's comfort in explaining the creative process reflects his own experiences teaching and mentoring young would-be comic book artists in Brooklyn. The video also features his fellow comics artist and former roommate Dean Haspiel and one of his former students sharing their impressions of his work and creative process.

Here's how one of Bertozzi's students described the first day of class:

I was sitting in a class with all these kids who were interested in Spiderman comics, and Thor and Green Lantern. and in walks this guy, Nick. He said, the other guy who was supposed to teach this class, he's not teaching it anymore and I'm the replacement. And he comes in with this book On Directing by David Mamet and this other book called Story by Robert McKee. The first things he writes on the board are "ARCHETYPE! STEREOTYPE!" So he was talking about story structure in comics and saying that linear comicbook narrative structure has been done many, many times. And he said that what we're going for is something more, something more experimental. And I remember the first day of class he brought in a pile of superhero comics and he passed one out to everyone. And some of these students were like, "Oh, these are great, I have these in my own collection." And he said, "Now pick up the comic book and TEAR IT TO PIECES!" He said, "We're going to destroy these old idols and we're going to make new!"

One of the themes which will run across the series is an emphasis on how contemporary artists build upon the past, sampling and remixing pre-existing work as a source of inspiration for new expression. We hope to help teachers and students understand the difference between plagiarism and creative appropriation, providing a context for thinking about the ethics of what we do with other people's creative content. Comics fans will be relieved to see Bertozzi has a large library of classic comics to which he returns for inspiration whenever he confronts creative problems . Teachers will probably be gratified by the degree to which Bertozzi stresses throughout the project the importance of doing research. As he explains:

A good cartoonist has to have a lot of reference materials because you're going to be drawing a ton of things. And it's a lot easier to draw it from reference than it is to make it up out of your head.

I was taking an art history class and I was learning about Cubism, which is an art movement that was started by Pablo Picasso and George Braque. And I'll be honest, I paid attention in class but I never really understood what cubism was. So I always wanted to do a story that was about cubism so I could do the research and so I could spend a lot of time figuring out why cubism was so important.

Another fascinating part of the interview has to do with Bertozzi's choices to draw and ink the comics panels by hands but then to scan them and digitize them for the coloring process. As he explains, "You don't have to do the coloring on a computer, but I do because it saves me a lot of time." As a project, we are placing a lot of stress on the ways artists choose which tools to use and are especially interested in the hybrid nature of contemporary production practices, where some things are done physically and others digitally.

Bertozzi is not the only member of that circle who is strongly committed to introducing comics to young readers and artists. We have spent a good deal of time on Project NML discussing Matt Madden's recent book, 99 Ways to Tell A Story: Exercises in Style, which we think would be an outstanding tool for teaching storytelling techniques in any medium. Madden took a very basic situation and restaged it using different narrative devices, reading it through different points of view, accepting different artistic restrictions, and fitting it within a range of different genres. His focus clearly is on how a fairly simple set of building blocks can be used creatively to generate new stories simply by tweaking different variables in their presentation. This book teaches us how to see the choices which storytellers make in producing their work while inspiring us to think of other variations that he has not yet considered.