- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

Michael DiMotta, a senior at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, tells stories through pictures and words. From a young age, he has loved comic books and superheroes. Now he creates his own adventures and characters. Last summer, he interned at DC Comics, creator of comics such as Superman and Batman, in New York City.
Mr. DiMotta, 21, who has a major in illustration, would like one day to work as a professional sequential artist or author of children's books. He has been developing a comic featuring two children with overactive imaginations who view the world as a superhero movie. Although he hasn't decided on a name for his project, he plans to present the finished product as his senior thesis.
"I learned how to draw from comic books," Mr. DiMotta says. "It's the easiest way to put down in pictures the way I see the world."
Creating comics is a popular form of expression. It allows people to communicate a narrative without the expensive resources needed to produce movies or television. The skills acquired through sequential art can transfer to other types of graphic design, such as advertising and magazine or newspaper layout.
Although many professional cartoonists are self-taught, an art education enhances developing skills, says Jose Villarrubia, a professor in the illustration department at the Maryland Institute. He teaches sequential art, which involves comic strips, comic books and storyboards.
Because Mr. Villarrubia expects his students to enter his class with strong drawing abilities, he starts by teaching them how to tell a story. Every comic should clearly explain the type of action taking place in the scene, to whom it's happening, and when and where it takes place, he says. He emphasizes to his students how every narrative is told from a particular point of view, which is reflected in the progress from panel to panel in the comic.
One way to make a transition between scenes is to establish an opening shot and zoom in closer and closer to the subject, Mr. Villarrubia says. Another way is showing the same scene from many characters' points of view.
"It's important to do appropriate storytelling for the story being told," he says. "You don't tell all stories the same way. I want them to dazzle me with originality."
Jonathan Watkins, 22, a Maryland Institute senior majoring in illustration, says he is working on concepts for many comics, including one about a woman who makes a living as a barmaid. He also is developing a narrative about a fisherman on the shores of Long Island, N.Y., who catches a creature no one can identify.
Mr. Watkins, who has a major in illustration, wants to become a professional artist. He had an internship at Marvel Comics in New York City from August to December.
"Comics have a larger-than-life feel," Mr. Watkins says. "What sometimes you can't say through mere words, you can say through images. It brings a chance for someone to express a personal reference in their world."
Many parents may wonder how students can use cartooning skills outside the world of comics, says Joe Kubert, founder of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover, N.J. He says trained cartoonists can incorporate their talents in any publication that features words and graphics. However, Mr. Kubert requires that students attending his school aim to do sequential art for a living. During their three years at the institution, students draw comics for eight to 10 hours a day, five or six days a week.
For students who want to improve their abilities but don't desire to work in the comics industry, Mr. Kubert suggests taking his correspondence courses. More than 3,000 people are enrolled in the six programs he offers (www.joekubert.com). His programs cost $325 per course, which includes a kit with a lesson book, five assignments and professional critiquing sessions.
"I've been a cartoonist for more than 60 years," Mr. Kubert says. "When I first started, I was fortunate enough to get information from people already in the business. The only way someone can be a practitioner in this profession is through people who are already in it. I tell people how to do what I do, and if they persevere, they can be just as lucky as I am."
Beginning comic artists should start simple, says Matt Madden, an instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He starts with the basics when instructing his pupils. He teaches storytelling for sophomores. He also works as an illustrator.
Mr. Madden bases his course around the textbook "Understand Comics" by Scott McCloud. One of the students' earliest assignments is to draw a comic of how to tie shoelaces. The students are supposed to present the information in visual form, assuming that the viewers lack the ability to tie their shoes. The graphic should be pleasing to the eye and in a clear and legible form.
"One of the goals of that lesson is to teach the kids to think about their drawings as a language," he says. "The primary function of comics is that they need to be a graphic language anyone can read or decipher."
Duane Bruton, 23, a junior at the School of Visual Arts who is majoring in cartooning, says he is working on a comic about the problems in his relationship with his girlfriend. He says she also is creating her own cartoon, which expresses her version of the situation.
"It allows you expressive freedom," he says. "I normally have ideas floating around in my head. Now I have a way of putting them down on paper and having it make sense to someone else."
Comic books can express many themes of human behavior, says Jonathan DeLoca, 20, a sophomore at the School of Visual Arts who is majoring in cartooning.
He has created a narrative called "Heaven or Sin," which tells the story of a man who is unfaithful to his wife. At the end of the comic, she kills him for revenge. While developing the piece, Mr. DeLoca says, he drew on biblical themes from the stories of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel.
"I thought comics were the best way for me to tell a story visually," he says. "I knew it was the best media that I could incorporate everything I wanted to do in terms of text and language."
Apart from teaching how to make cartoons, Derek Mainhart, vice president of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City, says comics should be used to teach history. For instance, "King," by Ho Che Anderson, chronicles the life of civil rights activist Martin Luther King.
In 1992, Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for his comic books "Maus I: A Survivor's Tale" and "Maus II," which present an unusual narrative on the Holocaust by portraying Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.
"A lot of people would say comics isn't worth studying, but it's a worthy form of study for its content and aesthetic beauty," he says. "They tell us a lot about the society in which they were created. Comic books are not just for kids."
Although wonderful works of sequential art exist, James Sturm, director of the National Association of Comics Arts Educators in White River Junction, Vt., says the field's potential has not been fully developed. He says the possible topics of comics extend far beyond superheroes.
"People think of comics as catering to children," he says. "We see it as an art form first and a commodity second."

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