Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Our Day in Olympia

For a while it looked like the Cartooning Class might have to miss the Olympia Comics Festival this year, but fortunately we got there. I will spare you the long and tedious narrative of the budget fight we went through to get the school to sign off on us getting the use of a bus for the day. I keep thinking we’ve won that battle, but they keep finding new ways to make it an obstacle.

This time it was the fear that we might not make the minimum number of students to justify going at all. Normally this is a non-issue because we take both the Young Authors kids and the Cartooning kids from whatever schools I’m working at and do a combined table. But this year, the festival landed on the same weekend as the big Madison band trip, and Young Authors has a large overlap with the band geeks. Willoweve, in particular, was devastated. “It’s my last ever Olympia,” she said. “I’m in high school next year, but I can’t miss the band trip… Why does it have to be the same weekend?”

I just snorted. “Rest your mind, youngster. There is no ‘last,’ not with our kids. You remember Tiffany, right? She started with us in the sixth grade and worked shows with us all the way through college. She’d probably still be doing it if she wasn’t teaching in Japan now. Relax. You’re always welcome. Come TA for us next year if you like; if you are willing to wrestle boxes of books on and off the bus we’re happy to have you.”

This cheered her considerably. And her younger brother Quinn was in Cartooning this year, so the family still represented.

My worry was that we would not make the minimum five kids the Y requires to sign out a bus; we only had three up until the Friday before, though I kept reminding myself that kids are always bad about returning permission slips. We would have gone in any case– Julie and I paid for the table, not the Y– but it’s not the same.

Fortunately, Cartooning came through. We had four on the day of, and since grads Dimpal and Lindon wanted to come along and TA for us, that was enough “young people” going besides Julie and me to get us through on a technicality.

Even at that I was concerned it might be a dud, because the Cartooning kids were just not that impressed with the show at first. Nui and Taylor, especially, wanted to leave and go explore the city, and I laid down such a firm flat NO they got sulky and refused to sit at the table, since I have an equally firm no-playing-with-your-phone rule about our table as well. At least Quinn and Katie seemed to be having fun, though Katie looked a little disappointed once we were set up. “So… we just sit here?”

“Well, yeah, but you should take to the people who come by. Offer them one of our books. Tell them who we are. We’re part of the show, you guys. Trust me when I tell you that people coming will really enjoy seeing your work.”

I tried to keep desperation out of my tone but I think it still showed. Katie just looked a little nauseated at the thought of talking to anyone. I began to feel that maybe the Y was right and it wasn’t worth the trouble. First sale, first autograph, it’ll turn around, I told myself, but I was having doubts.

Here’s our table just after we set up. That’s Katie in the blonde hair, already sketching.

And you can see Roberta Gregory there, a few tables down. She’s been a great friend to the students over the years, but when I tried to encourage the kids to go see her table, all I got was a bunch of maybe-later mumbling.

It quickly became apparent that this was not really a creator’s outing for them so much as a shopping expedition and a way to hang out with each other. Which is okay with me, most of the time, but it irked me that their response was so lukewarm when we had fought so hard just to GET there. Taylor, especially, would much rather rules-lawyer whatever I say than actually make comics; Cartooning is strictly social for him, he only does the bare minimum required and gossips with his classmates the rest of the time. Here’s Taylor and Quinn out on the floor, doubtless hatching some sort of plot to get past Mr. Hatcher and out of the building. (Taylor’s in the red jacket.)

One of the guests of honor was Peter Kuper, and though Taylor and Nui lit up when I mentioned Spy Vs. Spy, they immediately got bored and dismissive again when I suggested we go to his panel. Julie and the girls told me to go anyway, so I did.

Kuper’s on the left there, with Casey Bruce from Danger Room Comics interviewing him. Of course Kuper had many wonderful stories to tell, especially some funny anecdotes about hanging out with Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar in Cleveland. I enjoyed it very much, though I was disappointed that none of the students got to see it.

When I got back to the table, though, it was a completely different scene. The kids were all energized.

“Katherine sold a sketch,” Julie explained. “That got them all going.”

And it was true. Katie is really good. And the fact that people liked what she did had brought her out of her funk, as I had hoped it might. I should have trusted my experience: Katie was doing custom commissions as fast as she could, and with color, even.

This nice dad above asked for a portrait of his little girl, and Katie was happy to oblige.

Probably my favorite of the day was the man who wanted a cartoon of his dog.

Katie was doing originals along with the commissions and I even fell for one of those myself.

“It’s exactly how I feel about Christmas,” I told her. “Honest. You can ask Julie.”

Julie was laughing too hard to comment but she managed a nod.

Soon it became apparent that the others were also just selling Katie’s sketches and I finally had to step in. “Be fair,” I told them. “Take turns, her hand’s going to fall off. She’s not a machine.”

Katie looked grateful and Quinn said, somewhat abashed, “I’ll take the next one.”

And they all dug in, even Taylor.

I shook my head at Julie and the girls. “I will never doubt the magic of tabling again.”

“They are doing okay now they’re warmed up,” Dimpal said. She looked a little wistful. She is enjoying WSU, but she misses the class, I think.

So, with the class production machine firmly in hand, I told Katie if she wanted to take a break she should come do a walk around the floor with me. “And bring some books,” I told her. “Some of the folks will trade.”

As it happens, I had a few leftover Sinbad zines of my own from the Barnes and Noble talk last year and I did a little swapping too.

The cover for this one got me. Doctor Dracula by Kalen Knowles.

Mostly I just liked the linework on the cover, and the title sounded interesting. It’s kind of a goofball mashup of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Dracula, and Frankenstein, done with what struck me as a 1970s underground sensibility, so it was right in my wheelhouse.

The Evergreen College student comics co-op, Graphic Novel Union, were right next to us so of course I checked out their books, just to be neighborly. They had an anthology, Stampede, that I thought was pretty good, if a little raw.

Uneven, let’s say, but solid student work. Pity I won’t be able to use it in class because of the language, but it was still nice to see someone else doing the same kind of anthology we do.

One of the Evergreen guys, Marcus Ross, had this one, as well, which piqued my curiosity.

Mostly because the kids woulds ink everything with a Sharpie if I let them– you can see how much Katie loves them, above. (One of the hardest things to get across to the kids is how much better a page looks when you take your time inking and vary the line weights; in middle school, it’s all about speed and getting DONE.) STUG! was a nice little wordless story but let’s say the art did not change my mind on the matter.

I also made it a point to drop by Chelsea Baker’s table and pick up both issues of her True Stories of a Fictional Girl and it is as hilariously disturbing as I had expected. Hugely recommended.

But the best score of the day was a gift.

Joamette Gil has always been a good friend to the class, and the students like her work because she is very much working in the manga style of illustration. She stopped by the table and said, “I want you to have this because you are in a position to influence young minds, and young minds should see this.” With that, she handed me a brand-new copy of this. Power & Magic, the Queer Witch Comics Anthology.

I confess I raised an eyebrow. “Okay for kids? I don’t care, myself, and they won’t either, but parents get knotted up, even if they have Cinemax at home already.”

Jo considered it. “PG, I think. Nothing too scary.”

I flipped through it and saw that the art style was exactly what my students love. Taylor had been watching all this avidly and asked if he could look at it. So I gave it to him and he was buried in it for the next half hour. At one point he looked up at me, a little awed. “This is good.”

“Of course it is.”

“You know her?”

“I know lots of cool people,” I told him, loftily. “You should believe me when I tell you something is cool. I’m old, but I get around.”

So it was a slow start, but I think we can call it a successful day. I only regret that I wasn’t able to spend more time catching up with our older girls, Dimpal and Lindon. But Julie was able to get the skinny on the current situation with school and boyfriends and life, and she assured me all was well.

The nice thing was that we ended the day with four converts to the fun of tabling. I call that a worthwhile student trip, and never mind what the YMCA says.

Back next week with something cool.


  1. Edo Bosnar

    Loved the report, as usual. Especially love everything about the photograph with the dog sketch: the sketch, the guy, his awesome shirt and the sweet-looking dog.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Always enjoy these and glad you were able to demonstrate to the whippersnappers that us old folks are way cooler than they know. They have to earn admittance to our land of cool.

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