Author Archives: cjstandal

Leaving the Comics Classroom

A few weeks ago I ended my career in teaching. For the last nine years, I’ve taught high school English. For the last three, I taught a graphic novel class I’d created. In both contexts, I’d had times of triumph and feelings of frustration. Ultimately the frustrations won out and I decided to switch careers. Truthfully, the last couple of years of teaching I wanted out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do: I was looking for a career that also felt like a calling. Eventually, I decided that I needed a job that was better than teaching. Already I have my own calling with my writing.

While I have many reflections on teaching in general, I’m not going to cover them here. That would take a whole book. Instead, I’m going to focus on what’s more relevant to this site, my reflections on teaching graphic novels to teens. It’s something I’ve done previously (here and here). I’ve had some great success in the class. Some crushing failures. And, a whole lot of approaches that–like a lot of teaching curriculum–were okay. It pushed students to produce good work that they weren’t generally passionate about. They did well for their abilities.

The biggest success carried across all years teaching this class. Most students didn’t take the class because they were passionate about comics. In fact, most students taking the class hadn’t read comics recreationally at all, unless we count their time reading the Sunday comics. And, even then, most had only done that a few times. Most of these students came into the class thinking that comics weren’t for them. Partly because they equated superheroes with comics. They just took the class because it sounded easier than the other English elective options they had to choose from. 

This attitude was a source of one of my frustrations. Ultimately, it also paved the way for one of the biggest successes. At the end of each semester, every student became more open to comics. Every student saw that superheroes were a genre within the medium and that to equate comics with superheroes was foolish. Even more rewarding, almost every student ended up liking comics. Not everyone we read but comics in general. Almost every student said they preferred reading comics to traditional texts. If my aim was to convert students and help them love comics (and that was part of it, of course), I was certainly more successful at that than helping students love reading books in my other classes.

Maus resized

While they liked reading comics in general, they didn’t always like the comics that I thought were great. Years of teaching traditional books had prepared me in part for that. I was still somewhat shocked that many students didn’t appreciate Maus, one of our whole-class reads. Even more surprising and frustrating, though, was that sometimes students didn’t like a book club graphic novel they’d picked. Granted, they picked it out of a narrow choice of 15 or so graphic novels.

I would’ve thought more students would have liked Blankets or Watchmen, especially since they were texts that needed parent/guardian approval and had the time of edgy material I thought teens would like. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this was when students didn’t even choose to read some graphic novels that are truly great: Linda Medley’s fantastic Castle Waiting only had one student read it in all three years, the other copies lying lonely on the bookshelf; Jessica Abel’s illuminating Out on the Wire also only had one student read it in that same time, making me think less of my students and regret having the school purchase these texts. At the end of the day, though, those two students like them, and most students liked their other selections, so I take heart in that.

When I envisioned this course, I pictured students who wanted to analyze comics on a granular level. Students who spouted comics jargon from academic perspectives like Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s Writing Words and Drawing Pictures. What was I thinking? Students didn’t like using academic language to analyze traditional texts, wanting to stick to their own dialect in crafting responses. And that’s if they were even willing to read and discuss those texts!

Each year of teaching the comics class, I realized this trend held true for discussing comics. I liked thinking and talking about comics with Eisner’s thoughts about framing, McCloud’s panel transition types, and Abel and Madden’s thoughts on pacing. Students generally couldn’t care less whether it was a Moment-to-Moment or Action-to-Action panel. They only cared about if they liked the comic and if it connected with them on a personal level. It took a while for me to let go of my initial utopian vision of this class. Eventually, I started using less of these readings.

I still thought it was important to study some essential concepts. The panel transitions and panel types from McCloud were important to learn. Even if we didn’t use that language most of the time. There were some concepts that got too granular. I decided I could only make students read half of Understanding Comics instead of the whole thing. Eisner and Abel became options. The best creative analysis came from engaging in the process itself rather than abstractly discussing it to death. When we had to discuss graphic novels and the process–students would have better analysis of the creative process by discussing it with graphic novels they liked, with stories that resonated with them.


Seeing these trends, this past year I shifted the order and curriculum of the class, leading to yet another success. Before, we’d start with reading the original version of Metamorphosis and then Peter Kuper’s version to compare and contrast. While the aim of that unit worked–to show students how graphic novels differed from novels and other traditional texts, it never hooked students.

These were consistently students’ least favorite texts. Kafka’s original was definitely disliked much more than the graphic novel version, if only because it was denser and took longer to read. Still seeing some value in studying these two texts, I moved them to the last unit. It was a unit that focused on adaptations (prose to comics, movies to comics, etc…) and decided to only read excerpts from the two, so that we gained the knowledge from our study without losing engagement (too much, at least).  This was also a good move since it aligned with our study of Persepolis. It was a study that had involved comparing and contrasting the graphic novel with the movie adaptation in a Socratic Seminar.

With that move made, the beginning of the year opened up: I decided to open it up to complete choice, giving students options from my classroom library (full of about 75 or more graphic novels) along with the school library. Students were more engaged in their texts than I’d ever seen, in that class or any other. They might not have liked to do activities, about their comics (because, after all, it’s work and most teens don’t like work–plus, analyzing texts isn’t something most people like to do, something that often kills the joy of reading in students and adults alike).

Part of this unit also entailed reading conferences, one-on-one discussions with me about their graphic novels. This is where I truly saw the passion in students for what they were reading, and the most ownership over thinking about their graphic novels. For those in the know, for those who know education theory and edu-babble, I had essentially implemented a Reader’s Workshop approach at the end of the year, something that largely worked (although, I’ll admit, I dropped conferencing after awhile, due to it taking too much time).

The Reader’s Workshop model is also often paired with the Writer’s Workshop model (something I did in my other classes where we read traditional texts and did more writing), but I knew I needed a different structure for the graphic novel class. I needed to create a Cartoonist’s Workshop, to focus on developing students’ abilities to create comics in traditional and digital ways. 

Now, I’d already done this to some degree. In the first two years, I’d had a running series of Behind the Scenes days where we went into a Mac Lab to explore different aspects of creating comics in Adobe Illustrator (after we’d spent a few days in the room thinking about creating plot and writing scripts). The idea was that students would have brainstormed a plot, written a page of its script, and then built off that story and concept in Adobe Illustrator as we learned to pencil, ink, color, and letter. I always gave students the option to start a new story, since that’s sometimes the creative process, but the students who did the best work often followed their initial idea through the whole semester.

Comics Classroom

Part of what made this approach different than the Cartoonist’s Workshop, though, is that we practiced these skills less in general, and we practiced these skills mainly in digital formats instead of letting students go old-school with pencil, pen, and paper. Another difference was simply in its timing and my own comic-creating knowledge. The first year, I’d only released a few issues of Rebirth of the Gangster, so my knowledge of some aspects of Adobe Illustrator and comic-creation was limited. As a result, I linked to a lot of video tutorials and websites to supplement students in their activities, giving them many resources to choose from, but this freedom became a double-edged sword. 

Students that were passionate about the process chose the best, yet most thorough and time-consuming resources, and produced the best final projects-at the end of the semester (a six- page comic about anything, something that also gave students the freedom to fly high or crawl). And these projects were better than the ones my last year when I used the Cartoonist’s Workshop approach. But other students wanted more guidance, or lacked the passion to utilize the best resources, and they produced some of the worst projects I’d seen in my whole time teaching the class.

The more I created comics, though, and the more I helped students problem solve their own digital comics, the better creator I became, one of the best (and most selfish) successes of teaching this class. Truly, if this class had been good for nothing else, I would appreciate teaching it because it made me evaluate my creative process, refining it even more because I wasn’t just thinking about creating comics after class ended. 

Becoming a better creator was the biggest step in preparing me for switching to the Cartoonist’s Workshop in my final year. It was an approach that led to better overall products from the average student if less spectacular ones by outliers. The shorter ceiling was probably because of the shift in the requirements for the last project. Not because I became a worse teacher for those few passionate student creators. Instead of giving students complete freedom to create any six-page comic, I had them create a six-page comic adapting anything. It could be a scene from a TV show, a movie, a song, a chapter, a whole fairy tale. They had a foundation to build off of instead of coming up with their own ideas.

Most students created better comics. They could focus on style, pacing, and other aesthetics since the content was already made for them. However, since the content wasn’t their own, that did stem some students’ creativity and passion; instead of applying solid craft to a personal vision of their own, they only had the craft.

Raising the floor of my students’ creative abilities was due in part because I was a better creator. But (humility aside), it probably had more to do with the fact that I had students keep a Cartoonist’s section in their notebooks. That lead to a lot more old-school comics. Students got more practice in creating comics and became engaged in the class since they were now creating more and discussing reading less. Most students might not have had a personal vision for the final project this year. But they had mastered more of their craft. That lead to a better comic from most students. On some level, this paralleled my journey in this course. I had lost my passion for teaching (teaching in general, and teaching comics to some degree). I had gained a stronger foundation of knowledge and a higher level of craft.

When I closed the door on my comics classroom the last time a few weeks ago, I walked to the staff parking lot with mixed emotions. I would miss the passion from the few students who wanted to create at a high level. I’d miss the evolution of students’ perception of, and enjoyment of, comics. I would miss the ability to refine my own creative process. But I wouldn’t miss the disengaged student taking the class for an easy D. The ones who just wanted to pass and graduate high school; I wouldn’t miss the students casting shade on some of my favorite reads; and I wouldn’t miss having to murder my darlings, to spend less and less time on the analytical texts. 

Comics Classroom

The control freak in me also despaired that the class wouldn’t end with me; another teacher would pick up the reins and steer future students down this trail. In some ways, I felt like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby must’ve felt. We had done our work-for-hire, but now we had to see our creations move on in the hands of others. At the same time, I’m excited for the teacher who’s taking on the course and for the students who will be graced with his different vision. After all, in work-for-hire scenarios and creations, the creator isn’t always the best fit for every audience member. Some might glorify the Lee/Kirby years of the Fantastic Four; some might prefer John Byrne’s; Hickman’s run might resonate with others.

Comics Classroom

Ultimately, any great creation will have its ups and downs and will be received differently by different people. That’s the way life goes, and its only fitting that that’s the way a comics classroom rolls too. 

CJ Standal is a writer and self-publisher.  He is co-creator of Rebirth of the Gangster, which has been featured in Alterna Comics’ 2017 IF Anthology; he has lettered the webcomic Henshin Man; and he has written for online sites like Graphic Policy and the now-defunct Slant.  Follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@cj_standal), Facebook, and visit his website:

Small Fish in a Big Con, Part 2: Swimming With the Big Fish

Read Part 1 if you haven’t yet!


Now that I’d earned a spot at my biggest con yet, MSPSpringCon , I knew I needed to up my game, to shift my normal con plans. Part of this change was pretty obvious. I had to make sure I had enough product for the bigger crowd, so I ordered extra copies of each of my graphic novels. And then, thinking about it some more, I ordered more extra copies. I figured that I’d always be able to sell the extras later–if I had any extras–but that I didn’t want to run out on the first day of the con when I was in a different state.

Some of these changes were still obvious, but ones I’d been putting off. Before this point, I’d used a big piece of paper as my “tablecloth”, a piece of paper that I’d written my name and company on in marker. Talk about professional. I knew I needed something classier (and more durable) than that, so I ordered a table cloth. Weirdly, the first cloth they sent had my logo on it, just printed upside down. Luckily, they comped me a second cloth that was printed correctly. I didn’t know it at the time, but I could use the bad version for covering my table overnight at multiple day cons.

Now that I’d earned a spot at my biggest con yet, I knew I needed to up my game…

I also needed a better display (given that I’d only displayed my books laying down on the table, spread out like a fan). When I was at a comic signing for Free Comic Book Day, someone who was in marketing told me that I should have my comics displayed vertically, displayed in a better way for the customer to see it. This, again, seems obvious, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time as a writer and self-publisher, it’s that sometimes I need to make mistakes and then correct them with a solution that in hindsight seems obvious. Like any new trade, skill, or job, we can be overwhelmed when we start it and miss the fixes staring us right in our faces. At that FCBD, I’d luckily had a plastic shelving unit, one where the shelves pulled out of the frame, so I used those as containers holding my graphic novels then and figured it would be good enough to use at the con.

Finally, I printed out some new signs; at previous Mighty Cons, many creators told me that I was selling my graphic novels at too cheap a price. And they were right–I was selling the first trade for $5 and the second for $10, when the cover prices on both of those were $15. With those discount prices, I needed to sell about 50 copies to barely make a profit at the Mighty Cons, to cover the table cost, printing costs of the graphic novel, transportation, and then still only make a few extra dollars. They also rightly pointed out that I could charge even more than cover price, given that they were getting a signature and personalized message. I still don’t feel comfortable charging more than cover price, but I decided to charge cover price with one exception: the old edition of Act 1 would be $10 instead of $15. I figured that it would help to have a discount option, especially in the face of stiffer competition at the bigger MSPSpringCon.

My table at Mighty Con
msp con table pic-page-001
My table at MSPSpringCon (still needs work but definitely going in the right direction)

Finally, I figured out lodging. I grew up right outside Minneapolis, and my family still lives there, so I was fortunate enough to have a rent-free place to lay my head. And, since the table at MSPSpringCon was free (a rarity at cons, something that happens because they vet the creators they want there instead of just selling the spaces), my whole trip would be pure profit (well, minus the cost of gas for driving). Still, most cons don’t come with that small of overhead.

All that was left was the waiting. And the Tweeting. And the Instagramming. These were things I would do anyway, but MCBA (the Midwest Comic Book Association, the organization sponsoring the con) wanted me to do this too.

The weekend of the con approached, and I drove to Minneapolis that Friday, the day before the con started, to set up. Compared to other tables, I didn’t have much to set up, but I still wanted to do it early and lay that worry to rest. When I was done setting up, there was one comparison to other tables that couldn’t escape my notice: they all used tablecloths to cover their wares overnight. I’d written earlier that I could use the first, misprinted tablecloth in this manner, but I didn’t know that until this moment. And I’d left that tablecloth at home. Still, like everything, I learned how to better myself and what to do next time for a stronger show.

I fitfully slept through the night and woke up so early that I decide to head to the con (at the MN State Fairgronds) about an hour earlier than I’d planned. Once I got there, I didn’t do much other than the last minute setting up that left me with still about an hour before the doors opened. Knowing that I don’t stray from my table much once the con starts, I took that opportunity to buy a few trades and–more importantly–scope out the competition/friendly family of creators. I had a good small conversation with Peter Krause, praising his work on Irredeemable (being a stereotypical rookie gushing praise, of course), meeting Karl Kesel, and seeing the booth for Dan Jurgens empty (the big names did seem to cut it close to opening time, but I suppose that’s the way I’ll eventually be too, once cons become less exciting and new).

Since it was pretty bad weather–overcast and going to rain the rest of the weekend–the con opened early so that customers didn’t have to stand outside and possibly get drenched. And, even with the rain, this con had a bigger crowd than any I’d seen so far as a creator. Of course, this was because the venue was bigger, the location was a denser city than Madison, and (most importantly) there were bigger names from the industry here than at Mighty Con.

Despite the big crowd, though, I wasn’t doing any better than at Mighty Con in terms of sales. I was doing much worse, in fact. It took me about three hours to make my first sale; at Mighty Con, I would’ve probably sold 10 trades in that time, partly because of the limited competition, partly because I was a true local author at those cons, and (possibly) partly because of the reduced prices. By the end of the day, I’d sold four trades, and my spirits had sunk. I had brought 200 trades with me to the con, and it was clear that I only needed a sliver of that amount.

There were still a few good things to say about that day, though. First, MCBA knows how to treat their creators. They gave us a free lunch, one that had a lot of variety and tasted pretty good, especially for mass-produced meals. They also–after the con ended that day–had a free steak dinner social. While the food there was a little lackluster (steak especially suffers from being mass-produced), I got to meet a lot of fellow creators and see that my experience wasn’t too different from other small publishers and independent creators.

They too only sold a handful of trades but were able to look on it in a bright light. They talked about the exposure, something that was true: while only a few attendees purchased Rebirth of the Gangster, I talked to more people about my work that day than probably all of my cons added up to that point. And, you know what they say, sometimes it takes seven exposures to something to remember it, let alone buy something. I even think back to some of my favorite comics and other media, and I realize that it often takes me about a half year from the first time I hear about something to actually buy it, read it, play it, or watch it. So, trying to join the other creators, I focused on that silver lining.


And, speaking of fellow creators, one of the best parts of the con (that Saturday and Sunday too) was meeting and talking to the other creator at my table, Jet Falco. He was friendly, knowledgeable (having been to more cons than I had), relaxed–something I needed, because I was getting more and more anxious as the day went on and my sales sputtered out–and he also had a pretty cool concept for his work, Dreamers Echo. His work is about a world where dreams have somehow disappeared, until the main character starts to be the first to dream in ages. I may even write a short story to contribute to his next volume: a cool way to keep building my writing chops, pay him back for his advice, and widen my audience.

The next day rolled around, and I slept more soundly. I was still nervous in the sense that I wanted to sell more trades, but I think having a quiet Saturday actually calmed my nerves in general. I didn’t have much to worry about, because I didn’t have to think about running out of trades, being so busy I couldn’t eat the free lunch, etc… And, maybe because of that relative relaxation, Sunday was a better day.

I was more personable, I was having more fun, and–from a business standpoint–I was selling more comics. Part of those sales were from attendees I saw the first day. They had to look around and really decide what was worth spending their hard-earned cash on, what fit in their budget and what didn’t. But some of these sales were from attendees who hadn’t heard my pitch before, and their immediate interest relaxed me even more. At the end of the day, while the con hadn’t met my original sales expectations, I was still pretty happy. Yeah, at this point, being a big fish in a big con might be more financially lucrative, but I had learned one thing. I was still a small fish in a big con, but I had proved I can swim with the big fish, even if they had bigger fins…for now.

CJ Standal is a writer and self-publisher.  He is co-creator of Rebirth of the Gangster, which has been featured in Alterna Comics’ 2017 IF Anthology; he has lettered the webcomic Henshin Man; and he has written for online sites like Graphic Policy and the now-defunct Slant.  Follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@cj_standal), Facebook, and visit his website:

Small Fish in a Big Con, Part 1: Journey to the Big Leagues

Last year, after I’d published the first trade of Rebirth of the Gangster, I finally felt like I had a good grip on the two motorcycle handlebars of a self-published creator: writing professionally and fine-tuning my publishing process. But I needed to rev the engine if I was going to go anywhere substantial, if I was going to bring my treasures to the fans. And to do that, I realized it was time to jump into the con scene.  

I signed up for a few local cons that were relatively small. But I had my aims on one bigger con in my geographic neighborhood: the Midwest Comic Book Association‘s MSPSpringCon 2018.

mcba logo

Growing up in Minnesota (near Minneapolis and St. Paul, the MSP of the con), this was the only con I had attended as a fan in my high school years. I had even been interviewed for the local news, the only time I’ve ever had that honor. The question? Who was my favorite superhero? (OK, it wasn’t groundbreaking journalism). My answer? Batman, because he doesn’t have powers and prioritizes intelligence and logic. (OK, it wasn’t an answer worthy of Socrates or The Comics Journal). But I still loved the chance to share my passion (OK, obsession) with other fans and meet creators to see that they weren’t gods or superheroes themselves, my first step in becoming the creator I am today. And, for that reason–plus the con’s size–I knew this was the con for me.

Unlike other cons, though, I didn’t need to purchase a table. No, for MSPSpringCon, I had to submit an application and then pray to the Comic Gods, bending the knee to those figures of pulp royalty (King Kirby, hear my prayers!  Stan Lee, take pity on a lowly writer–excelsior!). So, sweaty fingers typing up my application, I mashed together an application I was sure would get me in, and then I sent it to on its journey through the digital pathways.

Unfortunately, that year they didn’t think I was a good fit. I don’t know why, but I have a few guesses.  

  • I was still a new author and publisher, an unproven commodity with a small social media presence and following.
  • Act 1 had been out for over six months by that point, and I’ve heard that MCBA prioritizes creators with new releases.
  • In the application, I didn’t emphasize enough of my unique experiences, experiences that could put me on a panel at the con. I didn’t write about the Kickstarter I’d successfully run for issue 2 of RotG. I didn’t write about my experiences as a self-publisher.
  • And I didn’t write about the fact that I’d created and teach a graphic novel class at the high school where I hang my hat for a day job (a teaching experience that you can read about here and here).
kickstarter success

Regardless, of the reasons, I was rejected for that spring’s con.  But I didn’t let it faze me (too much–we all suffer sadness at setbacks at first): it wasn’t the end of the story, just the chapter. And all that meant was that I needed to start writing a new one.

Refusing to give in to the rejection, I decided that I merely needed to build my way towards MSPSpringCon: the destination was still attainable, but I’d tried to take a shortcut that didn’t exist. To build that path, I needed to start small. In that time of training, I had the pleasure of meeting fans at many small cons (Mighty Con represent!) and local comic stores.

Before we get any further, I want to make one thing clear: I don’t look down on small cons or local comic stores–just the opposite. They’ve always been very supportive to a newcomer like me and offered me a great chance to dip my toes in the water before swimming against an ocean’s tide. In fact, read my glowing review about my first con as a creator–Mighty Con Madison–in “Big Fish in a Small Pond”.  Below are just a few pictures from my first few cons–clearly my set-up wasn’t incredible, but I did well at the cons because of my passion and practice improving my pitch.

After traveling to a bunch of cons and local comic stores, the applications for MSPSpringCon 2019 rolled around, and I knew that my path lay before me. I just hoped MCBA saw it too.

The first brick I laid in this new path was making sure that the second trade of Rebirth of the Gangster was out in time for me to have a new work to promote, something that con creators said was essential. With that brick as a strong start, I kept laying brick after brick: Hey, I ran a successful Kickstarter for the second issue!  Hey, I created and teach a graphic novel class! Hey, I can talk about any of these things on a panel! Yeah, there are a lot of self-published authors, but not many have this kind of experience. Oh, and I’ve attended your show before, because I’m a local boy (if there’s one thing I learned at local comic shop signings, it’s that the comic community loves to support local talent). Of course I’ll bring donations to the charity you’re running at the con.  I was laying it on so thick that pretty soon I had a strong road all the way to the con. But would MCBA let me cross it?

msp springcon confirmation

The image above shows that I built a strong thoroughfare, one that would impress any comic architect and one that led me to the new territory that is MSPSpringCon.  It’s hard to describe my joy at seeing this email pop up in my inbox, but it ranks close to when I got my first teaching job after 10 interviews and rejections. Yeah, I didn’t have as many rejections for this con, but because the con rejection was more personal–rejecting my lifelong dream–one rejection dug a deeper wound than a small town in Wisconsin saying they couldn’t hire me.

Now all that remained was waiting. And planning. And praying. Was I ready for this jump from the small pond to the big pond? Find out in Part 2!

CJ Standal is a writer and self-publisher.  He is co-creator of Rebirth of the Gangster, which has been featured in Alterna Comics’ 2017 IF Anthology; he has lettered the webcomic Henshin Man; and he has written for online sites like Graphic Policy and the now-defunct Slant.  Follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@cj_standal), Facebook, and visit his website:

Investigating Informational Comics Part 1: The US Government, World War II and Post-War era

For the past nine years I’ve taught high school English.  And–more important to this article and Graphic Policy’s focus in particular–for the last three years I’ve taught a graphic novel class that I created.  (See here and here for past writings on that experience).

Throughout that time, whenever I’ve seen students read graphic novels in either class, (they read Maus in connection with Night in the non-graphic novel classroom), I saw greater student engagement, greater understanding, and greater confidence from all students.  This was true of fictional comics, but I found that it was truer for nonfiction comics, informative comics.

Students don’t like to read textbooks, complex articles, big biographies and the like: but they would gobble up graphic novels about these same topics. 

Some preferred the dark My Friend Dahmer.

my friend dahmer

Others steered towards comics that were more positive and empowering, like Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World;

brazen gn

and others chose some more theoretical work that made it easier to understand abstract ideas like Logicomix.


This interest in informational comics, along with my interest in history, led me to create my own informational comic about the Standard of Ur (found here).  Here’s a short preview of one page.  Yes, it’s not drawn the best–I’m a pro writer and an amateur artist (which shouldn’t be a bad thing, to pursue something for passion, not pay)–but there is some intriguing info here and some innovative designs that make it worth checking out this and the other pages.

standard of ur p 1

The more and more I saw this trend of love for nonfiction comics from my students, and a rising love in myself, the more I wanted to know about this genre within the medium. Sure, I’d read a few bios here, a few memoirs there (something I’m not going to tackle in this series unless there’s a significant amount of information presented). But I hadn’t jumped into informational comics the way I dove and swam through super hero comics, the way I took leaps of faith by following certain creators from project-to-project, from publisher-to-publisher.

I took that plunge, though, and ended up loving informational comics.  More importantly, I came to this realization, the subject of this post: Informational comics have existed for most of comics’ history, and their unique evolution has increased their appeal and audience in a way that other genres of comics haven’t.  

Before we begin our historical journey, though, there are a few important details to note:

  • Even though I am a history major (and English teacher–I try not to limit myself into one field, which might be why I don’t like to limit myself to one genre), I don’t know the whole story.  Even though I’ve done research for this article and paired that with my own background knowledge and historical academics, I am sure I’m missing part of the story.  So–in the comments section–if you note an error, a missing piece that needs to be added, or details that should be downplayed or played up: please let me know.  We’re all learning on this planet and respectful interactions like that help all of us, right?
i read the comments meme
  • Secondly, while political and propaganda comics were around earlier and more frequently (generally speaking) than informational comics, I’m going to start with the rise of informational comics in the US and only touch on propaganda comics of that time period for proper context. This isn’t too downplay any works focusing on the earlier, political and propaganda pieces: it’s just to have a clear boundary to avoid my tendency to digress. These are some examples of what you’re missing out on given those self-imposed guidelines:

Instead, I am going to focus on the first big surge of informational comics in the US, a surge that coincided with World War II and government-backed comics. Seeing the previous use of comics for propaganda–especially in World War I, comics which were partially collected in the above Cartoon Book by the US government–the US government decided to pursue that path again.

But this time they didn’t just use comics for propaganda: they used them to inform their citizens–at home, in basic training, and abroad.  And this time, they brought some of the most popular comics artists of the time to help them create these comics.

Primarily, they were used to inform military members proper procedure, smart tactics, health prevention, and equipment maintenance.   This could cover the simple message–like this comic by Al Avison, co-creator of the Whizzer and noted Captain America artist, from Military Courtesy on how to salute:

gov comics how to salute

It could cover more complex scenarios of life and death–like this comic about bomb safety procedures from Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon creator Milton Caniff:

gov comics bomb control Milton Caniff

Dealing with explosives was a common thread among military comics, and this next example shows a similar content–

gov comics a dud bomb comic

–with a very different artistic style, opting for a more cartoonish and humorous approach (artist credit not found on site I obtained this image):

Others could cover strategic insights that would need to be acted on by instinct when in combat–

gov comics how to spot a jap milton caniff yeah its racist

–like this other piece by Milton Caniff, that has some dated, loaded language. Comics and other media of course were subject to prejudices of the time, reflected in language and stereotypical images.  This was true for all comics, not just military and government funded ones: Walt and Skeezix, great in many other ways, had the stereotypical large lips and noses that artists used to portray African Americans.

Some supported health education, especially new health concerns inherent in that new environment or inherent in activities soldiers commonly do overseas–

–like this cartoon by Arthur Szyk about the dangers of venereal disease and prevention options:

gov comics vd prevention

Even Dr. Seuss jumped on this health bandwagon, although the “comics” he created are more similar to the formats of children books made by him and others like him:

seus gov comics malaria
seus gov comics mosquito

Most of these above comics are pretty boring and straightforward, but many comics of the time created salacious narratives out of their informational agendas.  Some added sexy images (that have since been limited and removed from contemporary military comics) and some added action and humor to engage the soldiers reading the piece, thinking that more excitement would lead to better education.

As a teacher, I’ve found this to be generally true, but–honestly–sometimes work ethic matters more.  That being said, this approach was successful, as seen by characters like Tex Lane–a comic only circulated on the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska it was created, offering more of a unique and personable approach to its readers:

gov comics tex lane aircraft accidents

And, yes, sometimes these comics mixed the information with some patriotic propaganda–like Charles Biro, creator of Airboy did with this comic about a payroll savings plan, making citizens save smarter for the long haul of the war.  The left two panels push the patriotic agenda heavily and the last panel offers some informational guidance to balance it:

gov comics propaganda mixed with informative Charles Biro creator of Airboy

Sometimes, due to the patriotic appeal taken precedence (and a desire for stronger images), comics would inform in a less direct, more implied way, instead of explicitly offering information like the above ones do.  One such example of this type of comic is from Robert Osborn, showing (without telling) the proper technique to save a fellow soldier from drowning:

gov comics robert osborn propaganda informative mix

And, of course there were comics that were purely for propaganda, like this one by industry great Harvey Kurtzman:

gov comics pure propaganda Harvey Kurtzman

The government even reached out to Marvel and DC comics for help pushing this patriotism, because–after all–who’s more patriotic than Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Superman? And who can so no to that appeal, especially when the creators of these icons were involved, like Siegel and Shuster were in the image below?

gov comics air force enlists comic aid
gov comics superman propaganda

I briefly touch on this propaganda for a few reasons:

  1. To remind us that it still existed and was probably the biggest type of government-funded comics during this era.  While it’s not my focus for this piece, it would be less than honest to give this proper context.
  2. To show that sometimes  propaganda and informational purposes mix.
  3. And to transition into this last example, a piece of propaganda by an artist that would go on to have a drastic impact on military informational comics.

Private Will Eisner, famed creator of The Spirit and, later, A Contract with God arrived at his boot camp in 1942, where he was enlisted to create comics.

gov comics joe dope part propaganda precursor to PS
gov comics joe dope sand in tank PS precursor

Some of his earliest military comics work was for Army Motorsoften starring Joe Dope, a soldier who suffers for not following proper procedure (thus showing the procedure that should be followed and the reasons for following it).

After World War II, Eisner would be responsible for one of the military’s biggest pushes into informational comics.  This time he wasn’t enlisted, though, having left the military to start American Visuals Corporation. AVC was soon contacted to produce PS, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, the comic that rose from Army Motors’ ashes in 1951.

ps 1

PS–a postscript of sorts for other technical manuals and preventative maintenance guides published by the military–used comics to once again inform the everyman in the military.  Comics showed soldiers how to properly take care of equipment and prevent equipment failures that would be costly, both in bucks and bodies.  And Joe Dope was back to help instruct as the, well, Dope who did everything wrong.

ps infographic

PS often used infographics (infographics being one of the most widely used ways that comics can deliver information clearly and concisely) like the one above.  As many comics and other media of the time period, women were portrayed in a sexualized way to grip the interest of the males reading the comic. Of course that still applies to media today, but PS has moved away from portraying women in this way.

comic burning newspaper

Part of what makes this move so surprising, is that PS was gaining steam just as comics in America were blazing out: Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and Congressional Committees were portraying comics as corrupters of youth, leading to laws against comics, comic burnings, and the Comics Code Authority.  (All that’s a story for another time, though). Simply put, as many times in the past, the government fought against a media at the same time it was co-opting it for its own purposes.

more comic burnings
PS promo

Not only did PS stick around through the Comic Scare, it has stuck around to today.  Like many paper periodicals, though, it has gone digital. The 771st issue (November, 2017) was the last print copy.  But soldiers can still read comics that inform and entertain them on the PS magazine app, available on smartphones.  The evolution of PS is a story for another article, though.

Before we leave our first foray into informational comics, specifically government-backed informational comics, there is one more topic to cover: government comics that were created outside of the military, available and intended for all citizens.  Seeing the success of the military comics, the US government decided to distribute comics on a bunch of other issues of national concern: health, education, safety, and more.

Smokey Bear (not Smokey the Bear, as he is commonly misidentified) was one of the first public-funded comic characters created, helping spread a message against forest fires that still resonates with today’s citizens, albeit in a different way and for different reasons.  The above slogan–the most familiar to Americans–was created in 1947, but Smokey Bear was created in 1944 by artist Albert Staehle and writer Harold Rosenberg. He was created for a U.S. Forest Service ad campaign and became the longest running PSA character and campaign.

smokey bear ad
youth you supervise comic

Like military comics, the government continued these educational comics even in the midst of the comic scare amplified by Wertham. Trying to help anyone working with adolescents and children–educators, coaches, and parents for instance–the government created a manual that offered comic advice. “The Youth You Supervise” was released in 1954, and, like many military comics, it drew on established comic creators and figures, featuring Al Capp’s Li’l Abner.

blondie mental health comic cover
blondie mental helath comic strip

Most of our focus in this article has been on comics from the federal government, but states jumped on this bandwagon too.  The New York State Department of Health, under the Department of Mental Hygiene, published a comic that focused on tips to maintain positive mental health.  Like with Li’l Abner, they decided to use a popular comic strip character: Blondie and Dagwood.

johnny gets the word splash intro page

The Health Services Administration in the Department of Health in New York also made comics about sexual health a priority, as seen in the Health Department’s comic “Johnny Gets the Word”, published in 1957.  The “word”, in this case, is syphilis. And STDs in general were tackled in infographics like the one below:

johnny gets the word infographic

The sexual nature of this comic–including discussing that teenagers might have mutliple sexual partners–marks a controversial topic that Wertham might have campaigned against; maybe Wertham was more concerned with superhero comics and EC comics, comics that were marketed towards children and made a profit.

PS may 2004 harry potteresque cover

After an onslaught of military comics, the government had decided to use comics for other purposes, a use that would only continue to expand.  And it would expand outside of government: Marvel and DC would join the game, using superheroes to educate their readers; traditional book publishers would also get on the board, giving rise to biographies and other traditional nonfiction graphic novels.  But those are stories for future installments.

A preview of some of those comics that will be studied in future installments.  Note: they don’t represent my views (I was never a fan of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for instance).

CJ Standal is a writer and self-publisher.  He is co-creator of Rebirth of the Gangster, which has been featured in Alterna Comics’ 2017 IF Anthology; he has lettered the webcomic Henshin Man; and he has written for online sites like Graphic Policy and the now-defunct Slant.  Follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@cj_standal), Facebook, and visit his website:


Campbell, Colin. “World War II-Era U.S. Army Comics on Display at Baltimore Museum.”, The Baltimore Sun, 2019, world-war-ii-era-us-army-comics-display-baltimore-museum.html.

“Don’t Be a Dope! Training Comics from World War II to the Korean War.” Pritzker

Military Museum & Library Chicago, Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 2019, training-comics-world-war-ii-and-korea/.

“PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Feb. 2019,,_The_Preventive_Maintenance_Monthly.

Sergi, Joe. “Tales From the Code: Welcome to Government Comics.” Comic Book Legal

 Defense Fund, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, 12 December 2012, 2019, welcome-to-government-comics/.

Sergi, Joe. “1948: The Year Comics Met Their Match.” Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, 12 June 2012, 2019, 1948-the-year-comics-met-their-match/.

“Smokey Bear.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Apr. 2019, Smokey_Bear.

Big Fish in a Small Con: Reflections on My First con as a Creator

In anticipation of my next con as a creator–the Madison Mighty Con, this Sunday from 10-5 (come say Hi!)–I started reflecting on my first con as a creator which took place earlier this year.

I had attended plenty of cons years ago, but this past spring was the first time I’d be attending a con as a creator.   Needless to say, this prospect was filling me with more anxiety than usual, so I decided to funnel that energy into something useful by preparing for the convention, starting about a month before the convention date.

mighty con logo

I started by ordering some extra copies of my graphic novels; I took my next step by cobbling together some bootleg signs that detailed my pretty low price points (especially for the first edition which sold at a lower rate due to a blander cover/spine); I continued these preparations with some more bootleg banners that proclaimed my business, my name, and my comic’s name: all scribbled in Crayola marker in my own chicken scratch.

I then prepared for the financial side.  First, I went to the bank to get cash (mainly small bills for change).  Next, I ordered a free chip reader from Square and downloaded their app, liking Square’s user-friendly system and relatively cheap cut.  After a few weeks, I still didn’t have the chip reader, so I ordered a new one, and it arrived a few days later–the same day as my first-ordered chip reader.

square chip reader

Image: Square chip reader

With about a week left, I decided to relax and stop most of my preparations.  Now, this wasn’t because I thought I was completely prepared.  No, I even knew of things I wanted to bring to a con but didn’t feel like I had time to prepare properly, like business cards.  Instead, I made this choice due to my social anxiety and introverted nature: I needed time to relax, charge up, and get the convention out of my mind.  Because, before I knew it, I’d be lost in a deafening crowd, sights overstimulating my eyes; even talking to fans filled me with fear.

This might seem a little odd, an author and publisher who dreads social interaction, but it’s just who I am as an introvert.  I have a love/hate relationship with people, especially since I work in crowded rooms with teenagers during the school year when I teach and since I’m starved for human interaction in the summer, sitting home binge-watching TV and writing.  I love people in the summer when my social batteries charged; I hate them in the school year when my social batteries running on empty.

Tweet about introvert comic

Image: a tweet from me regarding introversion (follow me @cj_standal on Twitter!)

The day of the con shortly arrived, and my girlfriend dropped me off at the Monona Convention Center loading dock, my plastic storage containers and cardboard boxes in scattered around me.  I found a flatbed cart, placed my stuff on it, and wheeled it into the convention center.  And, even though I’d been preparing for this event for so long, I still felt overwhelmed stepping into that center.  I felt like a small fish in a very big con.

While I’d been to Wizard World Con’s about five years ago and big Minneapolis cons as a high school student growing up in Minnesota, I wasn’t prepared for the way this smaller con would intimidate me.  Most other vendors and creators had already arrived and set up their booths, and I dreaded setting mine up in comparison.

Fancy, thick banners with bright images and eye-grabbing font draped over nearby tables; my banner was a white sheet of paper slung over the table, black marker staining its face.  Professionally printed signs hung from metal stands; my signs were manila folders sitting crookedly on the table, prices hastily written in marker.  A rainbow of comics, graphic novels, toys, art and more covered every other booth; I placed my three graphic novels on the table and fanned them out, hoping to compete.

first mighty con bigger pic

Image: my table at the convention

I shook myself, narrowed my field of vision, and stooped down to grab my materials.  I had resolved not to overreact to anything, and I was determined to keep that promise to myself.  My table might need braces, but it would still have one heck of a winning smile.  I set up my table in a haze.  Widening my vision again, I looked at my watch and realized that I had about 10 minutes until the on started, until those doors opened.

Trying to expend some energy, I decided to walk around a little.  I certainly wouldn’t have time to explore too much when the con started, so I wanted to see a little more details about my friendly competition.  A few tables into my impromptu tour and I knew I’d made the right decision: two people I knew were there selling some of their comics to clear out their collection (I knew them from local Madison comic store Westfield Comics, where I’d done some signings).  Not only did seeing some friendly faces and quickly chatting help boost my spirits, but the sight of their booth did too–they had no banners or signs, simply long boxes of comics hauled onto the table, comics loosely organized.  My own crooked smile didn’t see so bad in comparison.

Continuing my tour, I met some other friendly faces, new ones this time.  I stopped because an homage to Hopper’s Nighthawks caught my eye; this painting had Death Note characters sitting at that lonely diner, though).  After chatting awhile, I found out they forgot their chip reader, so I offered them my extra (waiting so long for two to arrive on the same day was a blessing in disguise, I guess).  I also talked to them about the upcoming cons they were attending, and planned some of mine accordingly.  It’s certainly no accident I saw them at my next convention in Dupage, but the story of my second convention is a story for another time…


Image: the actual Nighthawks painting (I couldn’t get an electronic version of the Death Note spun one)

I strolled back to my table, and sat down.  Only a few more minutes to go.

Before I knew it, the doors opened and a crowd of people streamed in.  The first few waves passed me by with a quick hello and a half-hearted smile but without slowing steps.  I wanted to hang my head.  I told myself to hold my head high and redouble my efforts, so I plastered on a smile and continued to cast my line.

Soon enough, people stopped in front of my table, smiling a little more freely, and asking questions.  Some bought my comic, some left only to come back later and buy them, and some left without buying it then or later, but all loosened me up, making me remember why I went to conventions in the first place.  I got to hear about their favorite comics, their convention history (or lack thereof, if they were a first-timer), their interests, and even family dynamics.  This helped me enormously as I signed copies of my comics, writing personal messages in addition to my quick signature, messages that became more fun and unique as the day and my conversations went on.

tommy w me at conImage: Me (on the left) with a fan (the one holding Rebirth of the Gangster Act 1: Meet the Family and Alterna Comics’ 2017 IF Anthology which featured an excerpt from Rebirth of the Gangster)

Payment went as smoothly as could be, although I was surprised by how much cash I was getting and how little need I had for my chip reader.  In fact, I had so much cash given to me that I briefly ran out of ones for change, causing me to break out in sweat in the air-conditioned convention center; shortly after that, a fan paid all in ones, drying my sweat.

The waves trickled to splashes, and eventually the day was over.  The con doors slid closed, and I was left to pack up my things.  Folding my banners and signs and placing my graphic novels in boxes, I let out a sigh.  I set my containers on the flatbed cart and wheeled myself once more to the loading docks, taking one last look at the convention center.

And I thought to myself: “I came here feeling like a small fish in a big con, but I’m leaving it as a big fish in a small con.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

**Note: If you’re in the Midwest/Madison, WI area, join me this Sunday, August 12 from 10-5 at the Monona Convention Center!

And if you want to keep up with me, visit for news on latest publications, new blogs, free comics, and more!

Creator’s Corner: Exercises in Cartooning Weeks 10-12

I’m a writer, not an artist. But for one more week, I’m going to be a cartoonist with assignments from the great Ivan Brunetti’s cartooning class.

And you can join me on this journey–not only by seeing what I do, but by completing the exercises I do along with me.

*Note* To see Week 1’s adventures, click here, to see Week 2’s adventures, click here,  to see Week 3’s adventures, click here, to see Week 4’s adventures, click here, to see Week 5’s adventures, click here,  to see Week 6’s adventures, click here, to see Week 7’s adventures, click here, to see Week 8’s adventures, click here, and to see Week 9’s adventures, click here.

The great cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, also a teacher of comics/cartooning, has a book that publishes his course; it is a 10 week “class” that has a few exercises for each week, some of which I might even use in my own graphic novel class.  I thought it’d be fun–especially since I’m a writer and need to challenge my skills as an artist–to run myself through his course and post each of my exercise on here.  So without further ado…

Exercise 10

This is a culmination of all the assignments done so far: Brunetti wants his “students” to draw a 4-6 page comic (or around there–I think if you went longer, he’d be fine with that; he wants something extended, though, so going shorter doesn’t really work).
He has no rules other than that page count, to use black-and-white (other colors allowed if wanted), and to add lettering.

Here’s what I came up with (5 pages but it’s not the whole story; the one I’m creating–“Standard of Ur”, the first installment in a series titled Obej D’Art: A History of the World’s Greatest Treasures–got away from me).

I didn’t outline this piece ahead of time (just a page at a time) so that lack of strict structure has let me explore more, and in the process, create a longer, more complex piece.

To see the whole comic (and other free comics) check out my website at

Without further ado, here are the pages.


Page 1: Woolley’s Journey

standard of ur p 01


Looting the Royal Cemetery

standard of ur p 02


Pieces of History

standard of ur p 03


A Puzzle Box

standard of ur p 04


The Art of the Deal

standard of ur p 05


A few notes of reflection:

  1. I decided on doing this non-fiction, relic-based work for a few reasons.  First, I love history (I teach English, but I also have a history major).  Secondly, I know my anatomy and character work is rough to say the least, so I wanted to draw something that played to my strengths–objects, setting, and parts of people–and downplayed my weaknesses–drawing whole people.
  2. On reflection, I think the scratchy, unpolished nature of this piece works for the subject matter (Form follows function here).  Given that it’s about an ancient relic that itself didn’t have the fanciest artwork, especially after it experienced degradation, my scratchy line-work seems like it could’ve been done at the same time the Standard was created.
  3. Finally, although I love going old school, the number of mistakes and the cost in time due to those mistakes inspired me to buy a Wacom tablet and go digital–I’m not doing that until after finish the Standard short piece.  After all, I don’t want the rest of this piece to look suddenly better when that doesn’t fit the substance and style of the whole piece.
  4. I also like the ease of digitally lettering, but I might go old-school for that one piece of my next entries: hand-lettering can add more nuance, personality, and a better fit for hand-drawn panels.
  5. I like the chapter/page title “The Art of the Deal” because it offers a concise, contemporary connection to a piece of history–I’m always trying to find those present, human touches that can make history come alive.  That being said, it’s not an endorsement of President Trump or that book (I’ve never read it).  So Never Trumps and Trump suppoters, don’t read too much into it.


That’s about it.  Thanks for joining me on this long journey–it certainly turned into about a year instead of just 3 months, but I hope you understand that teaching, writing Rebirth of the Gangster, self-publishing, and having a life got in the way.  I appreciate your patience, and I hope to hear some feedback from some of you and see you at future conventions.

As always, to contact me or just see what I’m up to visit me at

And if you’d like to continue reading about the Standard of Ur and other great objects in world history, check out

Thanks for tuning in, and I hope I inspired you to be the cartoonist you are!

Creator’s Corner: Exercises in Cartooning Week 9

I’m a writer, not an artist. But for the next 2 weeks, I’m going to be a cartoonist.

And you can join me on this journey–not only by seeing what I do, but by completing the exercises I do along with me.

*Note* To see Week 1’s adventures, click here, to see Week 2’s adventures, click here,  to see Week 3’s adventures, click here, to see Week 4’s adventures, click here, to see Week 5’s adventures, click here,  to see Week 6’s adventures, click here, to see Week 7’s adventures, click here and to see Week 8’s adventures, click here.

The great cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, also a teacher of comics/cartooning, has a book that publishes his course; it is a 10 week “class” that has a few exercises for each week, some of which I might even use in my own graphic novel class.  I thought it’d be fun–especially since I’m a writer and need to challenge my skills as an artist–to run myself through his course and post each of my exercise on here.  So without further ado…

Exercise 9

The requirements for this exercise are pretty wide open:

A) draw a one-page story, using any layout and any number of panels you want to

B) the final size should be 11 x 17 inches, even if reduced (good thing I did mine on Bristol board!)

C) use at least one color, not counting black, white, or gray (you can use those, but they don’t count as “one color”)

D) have a title in the comic itself, in its composition

E) consider adding a sub-narrative, something that contrasts with the main narrative, sees it from a different perspective, etc…

With those as my guiding suggestions, I created this:

Some reflection on my comic and insight into my choices:

This comic was heavily inspired by my childhood: partially through characters and events, but mainly through the type of comics, books, etc… I was reading at the time.

Jack is loosely modeled after me; he’s a geek and a loner who loves comic books.   I wasn’t physically bullied like he is in this piece, but I experienced some verbal bullying and teasing.  Because of this–like Jack–I often read comics, books, and other media as a form of escapism/wish-fulfillment.  I sometimes pictured myself being like Wolverine, slicing through my enemies (I wouldn’t really do it of course, but imagining it released stress temporarily–it might be worse for stress in the long run, but I didn’t always use the best coping skills as a kid [still don’t!]).

Sergeant Starbird is based on Spaceman Spiff, Calvin’s alter-ego in the comic masterpiece Calvin and Hobbes.  I loved reading this strip as a kid, partly because I heavily related to Calvin’s overactive imagination and stronger desire to live in a fantasy world than deal with the schmucks in the real world.

Now, to focus on the focus of this assignment: color.  I colored the comic and Sergeant Starbird scene (one of those sub-narratives Brunetti talks about) with Copic markers; the rest of the scene was colored with colored pencils.  This was supposed to show that Jack’s fantasy life was more dynamic and more entertaining than the real world, which is certainly how I often feel about fiction vs. reality.  I had also just purchased those Copic markers, so I was also looking for a chance to use them.  But–as any good creator knows–balance and purpose matter, so hopefully you can see I didn’t overdo my use of those Copics.

The end result: a cross between Calvin and Hobbes and my own life.  Ideas for next installments: “Jill in Jeopardy”, which would focus on her similar situation (not very popular, uses books as escapism); “Jack and Jill in Jeopardy”, which finds them bonding over their shared plight and entertainment preferences.  See–it might start out a little sad, but it’ll get happy eventually.


That’s it for this week.  Stay tuned for my next entry: the last one (Whew!  I like these exercises, but I’m ready to move on and create my own stuff without the guidelines).

As always, check out my other work and my latest news at or follow me on Twitter @cj_standal.

Creator’s Corner: Exercises In Cartooning Week 8

I’m a writer, not an artist. But for the next 3 weeks, I’m going to be a cartoonist.

And you can join me on this journey–not only by seeing what I do, but by completing the exercises I do along with me.

*Note* To see Week 1’s adventures, click here, to see Week 2’s adventures, click here,  to see Week 3’s adventures, click here, to see Week 4’s adventures, click here, to see Week 5’s adventures, click here,  to see Week 6’s adventures, click here and to see Week 7’s adventures, click here.

The great cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, also a teacher of comics/cartooning, has a book that publishes his course; it is a 10 week “class” that has a few exercises for each week, some of which I might even use in my own graphic novel class.  I thought it’d be fun–especially since I’m a writer and need to challenge my skills as an artist–to run myself through his course and post each of my exercise on here.  So without further ado…

Exercise 8

Prep Work

Think of two artists: one “good” artist and one “bad” artist.  Find a favorite page of the “good” artist and a least favorite page of the “bad” artist.

Lately, I’ve been digging Chaboute’s work, and I especially was enthralled by the style and storytelling in Alone.  I picked this page from Alone for my “good” artist.

As a kid, I loved Rob Liefield, but I’ve since come to dislike his style.  I chose a page from his “Heroes Reborn” Captain America title, a title I read and loved as a kid (and I think I even drew this page in my early childhood attempts at drawing, which involved mimicking artists I liked).

Time to Draw!

Now that you have those pages, you will redraw a panel from each page.

First, redraw a panel from the “good” artist in the style of the “bad” artist.

The “good” artist via a “bad” artist

Here’s my version of Alone by way of Rob Liefield with my apologies to him (I didn’t draw an exact panel from the page I showed, more like a step in between panels):

I tried to mimic Liefield’s obsession with cross hatching, shading, and bulging muscles.  I also tried to add a trademark “Liefield grimace”, but I didn’t draw that as well as he can.  As far as the pose, this owes more to the Captain America pose–Liefield has a lot of dynamic poses where characters explode in all sorts of directions, even if it’s not anatomically possible.

Even though I’m partially making fun of Liefield in this post, Brunetti wants you to think of something valuable that the “bad” artist can offer and when you might use that style.  Here’s what I have:

–Compared to Chaboute, Liefield does have more dynamism and movement in a single image than most of Chaboute’s images, especially what you see above (I’d argue that Chaboute has more movement and dynamism across panels, because Chaboute has a great sense of cinematic storytelling).

–No surprise, but this dynamic movement is mainly suited to superheroes or other over-the-top action stories.  I probably wouldn’t use it seriously in a story, unless the Liefield style was being used to show something other than “reality” (a TV show the character is watching for instance); I also might use it if I wanted to vary art styles across a piece to show different “eras” (like Rob Veitch and Joe Bennett did superbly in Alan Moore’s Supreme, itself a comic that Liefield created).

The “bad” artist via a “good” artist

Then, redraw a panel from the “bad” artist in the style of the “good” artist.  Here’s my take on Captain America leaping, via Chaboute with my apologies to him too:

I don’t think I actually did a good job imitating Chaboute, but here’s what I was trying to do–I wanted to use shading more like Chaboute (something I did with the gloves, boots and stripes on his torso).  I also wanted to rein in the extreme proportions that Liefield is famous for, so this version of Captain America is a little more realistic-looking and relatable to an average reader than Liefield’s is.  However, I think that Chaboute is more detailed than I was; in trying not to add unnecessary details and cross-hatching, something I think Liefield often does, I might have simplified too much.  It actually reminds me more of Paul Grist and his work, which can be seen below.

Similar to Brunetti’s requirement to find the good in a “bad” artist, Brunetti now wanted me to find the bad in a “good” artist and to brainstorm when I’d use some of those traits.  Although I love Chaboute, here’s what I came up with:

–Chaboute doesn’t have too much movement in a single image, whereas by copying Liefield’s jumping Captain America in a faux-Chaboute-style I was able to bring more movement in that single image.  I already alluded to this point earlier, but it bears repeating.

–Chaboute doesn’t have a lot of gray in his drawing; he relies more on stark contrasts between black and white.

–With this in mind, I would use more of the dynamic poses (properly proportioned of course) in action scenes, but I’d also add more dynamic poses to small scenes that have a key action that might seem subtle compared to punching someone and jumping.  I also would use a little more gray in setting objects like buildings.  I don’t think it’s needed for the actual background or characters–I’d leave those using an interplay of black and white, but I think gray could add more depth to some background objects.

While I’d still take Chaboute over Liefield any day of the week, this was a good activity to reinforce a key idea I have about creating anything artistic, an idea I drill into my students’ heads so much they get sick of me repeating it:

There are no bad tools or bad approaches; there are only bad moments for those tools or bad balances of those approaches.

That’s it for this week: stay tuned for the last few entries! As always, check out my other work and my latest news at or follow me on Twitter @cj_standal.

Creators Corner: Creating Rebirth of the Gangster, Part 9– Self-Publishing and Distribution

Over the summer, I wrote a few parts in a series detailing the creation of my comic Rebirth of the Gangster (on sale now!)

In case you missed it, check out these links to the first three parts-

Part 1: The Birth of the Idea

Part 2: Brainstorming and Outlining the Plot

Part 3: Outline, Synopsis and Chapter Breakdown

Part 4: Scripting the Action

Part 5: Finding the Right Artist

Part 6: Pages in Progress and the Artist/Writer Collaboration

Part 7: Submitting the Comic and Cover Letters

Part 8: Filtering through Publisher Feedback

And now, for Part 9: The final installment in my series about creating and publishing Rebirth of the Gangster!

After being rejected by all the publishers I sent my comic too (it wasn’t completely worthless, though, since I received some good advice, as I covered in Part 8), I decided to self-publish Rebirth of the Gangster.  Self-publishing does come with a taboo, of course, but the revenue and respect given to self-publishers has been growing in recent years (The Martian was a self-published book at first, for one example of self-publishing being worth money and industry cred).

the martian

While much of self-publishing deals with the details of print and distribution, I decided to release individual issues digitally and distribute graphic novel collections of each six-issue story arc.  After I made that choice, the next step for any self publisher is to figure out how to get your comic in the hands and hearts of fans. While I would like to get printed copies to fans, frankly Diamond Distributor isn’t very friendly to independent comics–they will only guarantee payments if enough copies have been sold to stores in their ordering phase.  And I wasn’t–and still am not–in a financial position to take on that kind of risk. So, I started exploring the largely uncharted waters of digital sales.

I did some research–looking online and then sending questions to companies to get some answers about their reach, their payout structure, their editorial requirements and more.  Not only did this help me understand my options better, I was able to distill these findings into a Slant article for others: giving them a map and compass to navigate digital terrain.   That article is no longer available, since Slant went under and the domain was lost, but here’s what I wrote:

In recent years, the comic industry has been adapting to new demand for digital versions of their comics (although print is still a viable option), which has led to companies creating numerous platforms with some key differences in pricing for customer, payout to creators, editing and submission process, philosophy, and degree of involvement.  

Platforms like Selz, Pulp Free Publishing, Gumroad, and Sellfy all responded to interview requests; other platforms of note (Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, Comixology, Scribd, and Tapastic) didn’t respond to interview requests but were researched for the following information.  A huge thanks to Zeno Telos Press and Publishers Weekly for some of the research that supplements the interviews.


The Basics for Each Site

Platform Customer Cost Creator Payout and Platform Cut of Profits Editing and Submitting Process
Comixology Varies by comic–there is a section titled “Free Comics” though 50% (after credit card fees and cost from Apple, Google, Kindle) Can submit once an account has been created with company information and payment information. Get started here.
Amazon Kindle Varies by comic, but you can also join Kindle Unlimited, their Netflix-esque program.  It costs $9.99 a month and gives access to as many books as the customer wants. If the sale price  is less than $2.99, the creator gets 35%
If the sale price is greater than $2.99 and less than $9.99, the creator gets 70%*
If the sale price is more than this, the creator gets 35%
Submission information here.
Barnes and Noble Nook Varies by comic Barnes and Noble didn’t have this easily available, but a source says that as of Oct-2013, this is the payout structure:

Prices from $ 0.99 to $ 2.98 = 40%

Prices from $ 2.99 to $ 9.99 = 65%

Prices from $ 10.00 to $ 199.99 = 40%

Submit here.
iBookstore Varies by comic. 70% They didn’t list any specific requirements, but they posted this set of steps here.
Pulp Free Publishing Kevin Bricklin, founder of Pulp Free Publishing states:

“After Apple’s 30% fee, we share 70/30 with creators.  70% for the Creator and 30% for PFP (that equates to 49% of the sales price to the creator)”
There is a Premium Package–a one-time payment of $99 lets creators keep 100% of sales.

Although they don’t have editorial requirements, they do say they have the standard “ page specifications (which are required so that the comics can look good on retina devices)”, according to Bricklin.
Comics Fix
(website is offline while they relaunch their service)
8.99 a month, Netflix style–this was their pricing plan before they took their site down to reboot and relaunch it 50%

This was also what was listed before.

No information available.
Selz Varies by comic Melissa Whidjay, Selz community manager says, “All we keep is a small transaction fee on each sale, which is usually under 5% of your sale price. You get to keep the rest!” They don’t have editing requirements, but Whidjay did give this advice for file format:

It’s totally up to you! We let you sell pretty much all file types, but your best bet is to publish in PDF as it’s the most widely accepted file type for reading comics. “

Sellfy Varies by comic 95% No editing process–they’re only interested in running “ a third party [that]  manage[s] the sales and download link delivery”, according to customer service manager Matthew.
Gumroad Varies by comic 95%. The only requirement Sahil Lavingia, founder and CEO of Gumroad, gave was “the standard NSFW stuff (though since we’re not a marketplace, we can sway more freely).”

Details on how to submit here.

Scribd Netlix style subscription for unlimited comics, books, audiobooks and sheet music: $8.99 a month; there are individual texts for sale too, with varying prices There are a few different creator payout guidelines:
For an individual sale: 80% after $0.25 processing fee.
There are a few different payout options for subscription readers, depending on publishing service used by creator:
Smashwords:If books are read past the 30% mark: 60% of sales. 10 reads between 15-30% will also count as an individual sale.

If books are read past the 30% mark: 60% of sales.


55% of sales
INscribe Digital:

This is another option but the royalty structure wasn’t outlined.

Submission information here (broken down by categories like publishers, self-publishers, etc…).
Tapastic Some are free, but some have varying costs Monthly Support: 85%

Ad Revenue: 70%

Storefront: 50%

Submission information here.


More Detailed Descriptions of Each Site

Comixology You Tube Channel

While Comixology didn’t respond to interview requests, there is some further information available about their platform. Comixology was acquired by Amazon in April of 2014.

Most people buy individual titles and issues, but Comixology does have a subscription option, although there isn’t any discount for subscribing to an issue.  They currently have thousands of titles available (7500 individual issues, 700 of which are free) and thousands of individual submit titles available (creator-owned and self published titles, not ones published by big companies like Marvel and DC).

John D. Roberts, cofounder of ComiXology and director of Submit, describes their submit program this way: “Submit has the broadest range of comics and graphic novels possible, and that’s what customers really enjoy about it.  From superhero to queer comics, slice-of-life graphic novels, all-ages manga, and beyond, the readership of Submit titles is as varied as the books submitted.”

If you’re a creator looking to submit your comic to Comixology, it has to meet their quality standards (not outlined on their website).  They say the process should take 3 months minimum, but it can sometimes be longer (6 months or longer) depending on whether the creator meets Comixology’s specifications right away, needs to make changes, or other issues.

The big specifications problem, according to Roberts, is creators producing poor digital quality when converting their files to PDF.  He says that these PDF files often “suffer from artifacting and pixilation, primarily due to excessive compression. Some of the more popular PDF tools have compression defaults that are hard to find and change, and thus we get a ton of files that we can’t use”.  He also reminds creators that they’ll be competing–on Comixology and in general–with big companies that have strong formatting for their digital content.


Kindle You Tube Channel

Amazon Kindle also did not respond to interview requests.  

Similar to Comixology, Amazon has content requirements, mainly formatting, that a comic needs to reach to be accepted.

Creators make less for individual issues on Amazon than they do on Comixology, so some people suggest releasing individual issues elsewhere, and then submitting graphic novels to Amazon.  They do admit that submitting individual issues to Amazon is good exposure and increases marketability.


Nook You Tube Channel

Barnes and Noble also did not return requests for an interview.  The most current information available is already described above.


iBooks Video

iBooks also did not return requests for an interview.

When submitting to iBooks consider this following information about file format, given in the Q and A here: You can submit your work for publication in the iBooks Store as an .ibooks file, where you can sell it or offer it as a free download. You can also export your book from iBooks Author as a PDF, text file, or .ibooks file which you can distribute outside the iBooks Store or through iTunes U.


Pulp Free Publishing You Tube Video


Tapastic You Tube Video


Sellfy Vimeo Video


About Scribd Video–interview with CEO and CTO


Intro to Gumroad on Vimeo


Video Tutorials for Selz



That’s it!  After 9 detailed parts, my behind-the-scenes look at the making of Rebirth of the Gangster is over!

I hope you enjoyed them all (and if you missed any, click on the links at the beginning of this article): for future news and behind-the-scenes looks, check my website out:

Creator’s Corner: Exercises in Cartooning Week 7

I’m a writer, not an artist. But for the next 4 weeks, I’m going to be a cartoonist.

And you can join me on this journey–not only by seeing what I do, but by completing the exercises I do along with me.

*Note* To see Week 1’s adventures, click here, to see Week 2’s adventures, click here,  to see Week 3’s adventures, click here, to see Week 4’s adventures, click here, to see Week 5’s adventures, click here, and to see Week 6’s adventures, click here

The great cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, also a teacher of comics/cartooning, has a book that publishes his course; it is a 10 week “class” that has a few exercises for each week, some of which I might even use in my own graphic novel class. I thought it’d be fun–especially since I’m a writer and need to challenge my skills as an artist–to run myself through his course and post each of my exercise on here. So without further ado…

Exercise 7

This exercise focuses on tools (use either a brush, a dip pen, or a technical pen–a fountain pen or marker also work) and the lines/shapes/textures each tool naturally makes or resists drawing.

Once you have two-three of these tools, you need a 11 x 17 board. To set up this board for your exercise create a grid of 10 x 16 squares (about 1 inch each); leave a 1/2 inch as margin all the way around the board.

Fill each square with one type of mark, pattern, or texture made by one tool. Feel free to get as abstract as you want, making any types of hatches, blotches, use of pointillism, etc… Use all three tools on this page.

At times, duplicate the same mark in a nearby box, but use a different tool. This helps you see which tools are better suited to make specific types of marks. In my example, I used only two tools–a technical pen and a marker–and I used one tool per row, duplicating the image beneath it with the next tool.

Here’s what I came up with–I didn’t quite have the 10 x 16 grid, but you should know by now that I adjust the exercises to work for me:

While it might seem obvious, the marker was better suited for marks that were largely shaded or filled in; the technical pen was better suited for detail work and didn’t shade very well (plus using it to shade wasted some valuable ink).

The only step left in this exercise has to do with duplication and resizing: most comics aren’t published in a 11 x 17 format, so it helps to know what your images would look like in a more traditional, printed format.

To accomplish this, Brunetti recommends copying and resizing your work to 65%, 50%, and 35%. I did this, but I used 25% instead of 35% and 64% instead of 65%, just because those were the default resizing settings in my copier, and I didn’t know how to change it.

Here are each of my examples, with the resized percent written in for clarity:

I like the 64% or 50% the best (even more than the full sized one). I think 25% is too small, and I don’t think making it 35% would change my opinion on that.

The reason I like the 64% and 50% better than the full sized version might have something to do with my confidence in my drafting skills. Yes, these are more abstract, so there aren’t really many ways to mess up the drafting, but in the full sized version I noticed a few stray marks/marks that got away from me. The 64% or 50% versions are small enough to minimize those errors, so I can’t see them, but they’re not so small that I can’t see the other, necessary details.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you for Week 8!

In the meantime, keep updated on these adventures, my other works–including #free comics!–and my blog at

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