Creators React to Thomas Woodruff's Eisner-Nominated "Graphic Opera"

Thomas Woodruff taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York City for 39 years, and has just grabbed four Eisner nominations.

Thomas Woodruff is a New York-based artist who taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York City for 39 years, and was Chair of the BFA Illustration and Cartooning Department for 20 years, stepping down as Chair Emeritus in 2021. And he was nominated four times in the Eisner Awards 2023 this year, for Best Graphic Album, Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (interior art), Best Lettering and Best Publication Design. And may have caused the greatest reaction online.

Comic Creators React to Thomas Woodruff's Eisner-Nominated Graphic Opera

Francis Rothbart! The Tale of a Fastidious Feral published by Fantagraphics is described as "A stunning, head-turning, "graphic opera" masterpiece from an acclaimed painter and illustrator." The term 'graphic opera' , a phrase created by Woodruff for this publication, has received plenty of mocking criticism, more seriously are some people's trouhles with the whole Mowgli-ness of "Francis Rothbart! follows a feral child who is raised by magpies and other creatures and is repeatedly struck by lightning. Because of the phenomena, the child develops eccentric talents, which he then abuses, leading to his ultimate destruction by the same natural world that once nurtured him."

There are also those who ask if this is even comics in the first place, given that it is more "combining both paintings and drawings". Fantagraphics stated that this "tour de force of words and images in harmony that will be one of the most talked-about books of the decade." Well, no one had been talking about it until now. But given social media's reaction to Thomas Woodruff's time as a professor in illustration and cartooning, his attitude to comic books and students in that time, they may have a point., Here is a selection, starting with the tweet that really kicked things off.

Kendra "Kenny" The Kid: Wild to see my old college department chair who vocally and obviously despised comics, considered them "low art" and made comics student's lives complete hell for decades get Eisner nominated four times over for his first graphic novel. Oh, sorry, "graphic opera". A "graphic opera" about a "feral child" getting hit by lightning over and over. It costs $75. Glad to see he's finally decided what kind of comics are "real" art! Every student who had the misfortune of dealing with him has a million horrible stories, but my personal one is he called the thesis idea about Macbeth that I was excited about "an insult to Shakespeare" in front of the entire class. This all is so on the nose it feels fake. Four Eisner noms. Lmao… it feels bad that a dude who singlehandedly chased a lot of people OUT of a comics career is being handed awards

Kaitlyn Q: when I was a freshman, I was shocked to discover I never got the emails for the MANDATORY comics dept. meetings. I was told that Woodruff deliberately made sure honors program students got none of those emails because "he didn't like us." Nothing was done about it til he left.

Jonathan Rivera: Randomly saw this tweet, it's been over 20 years since I graduated art school, and I knew exactly who this person was describing. Imagine being that much of a legendary asshole. During my final portfolio review, it was him and the amazing Carmine Infantino (my instructor). During a tirade of backhanded "compliments" about my work, I felt a leg kick me under the table. It was Carmine, who winked at me as if to say "Don't listen to this idiot, Kid."

Lily: god when he called it a graphic opera in my class i thought i was going to puke

 Kai: Holy sh- this guy's the worst. Junior thesis, my prof enjoyed my idea of chara designs based on Faust. Woodruff would only accept the opera version and hated mine. Senior review, my profs love my work but he can tell me he hates all my digital work. My profs ended up……being too chicken sh-t to say anything so they just nodded with him. Afterwards they were like, aw you never took his class? He would've understood you better… WHAT? He also obviously has favorites and they can do no wrong. Absolutely abusive and unhelpful at SVA

Pug Lord: told my classmate she will never look good in a formal evening gown because she has a lot of tattoos. If you know this man you know that he himself is COVERED in tattoos and is almost always in formal attire.

Emil: OMGGGG yes he made me redo my junior thesis which was being done in gouache and was already partially finished!!!!!! So I had to cut the paintings up and paste them together!!! Just bc he didn't like my character designs! It was genuinely so bad one of my worst college experiences ever I didn't think I was gonna make it

K Stanzi: for what it's worth, us illustration majors saw him behave like a rude, sneering, dismissive knuckledragger too. he was actively known for making students cry and telling them, flat out, "you have no future in art." it was normalized to walk out of his critiques in tears. Some say he's being brutally honest in order to prepare you for the art world. I say he's being a jackass.

Kendra "Kenny" The Kid: I didn't expect this to get the traction it did, but it is wild how I haven't seen any former student have a single nice thing to say about this man, from people ten years older than me AND ten years younger.

Stef: guy who is so out of touch that when it was my job as class rep to bring student suggestions to him, he said he refused to invest more classes in digital art because "it's just a fad" and didn't bring on any other female teachers because "I just don't see any worthy reputations". I was two weeks from graduating so told him to his face he was a failure to his students for not preparing them for the future better. unsurprising that over the last 7+?? years? that he's been working on this he never once tried to read the room

Kerin Cunningham: same man who spent my final crit telling me i couldn't draw and berating how i drew women— he told me if i didn't draw women "slender with big tits" that i'd never have a career, and then drew a naked girl with huge tits on a chalkboard to demonstrate for me, at that point probably the most humiliating moment of my life. my portfolio teacher apologized for him and said the only reason he didn't speak up was because he truly couldn't believe what he was hearing and seeing from his own boss to his young female student. lmao f-ck you SVA

Becki Ros: I had a class with him. One time I spent three days straight working on an assignment, and because I was a few minutes late to class the day it was due he refused to look at it. I dropped out of his class after one semester because even though I was working harder than I ever did in my life it was always somehow never enough.

Bea: Hm… I remember him telling me that maybe I shouldn't make comics. And asked if I was getting upset while I was trying to concentrate on his critique of my work.

Daisy FM: Ugh. Once I directly asked Thomas Woodruff why SVA didn't have a business classes for the Comics major. Illustration had a business class! Animation had two! Why not Comics? He told me he didn't want the students to become too "business savvy" and "lose their artistic soul." Once Thomas Woodruff came to my class & told us, "the theme for the thesis is Greek myths, but don't be too literal!" Then he came again after we'd all made these beautiful metaphorical comics said, "What are you guys DOING? These don't seem very GREEK." When I had my senior year portfolio review with Thomas Woodruff, do you know what he critiqued? You'll never guess. MY OUTFIT! HE MADE FUN OF MY HAT!

Stevie Wilson: Shout out to everyone who had to sit through a final crit with him where he'd look at your portfolio studio teacher and ask "is this a good comic?" because he wasn't sure what makes a comic because he only respected hyper realistic painting and everything else was trash. e loved making students cry, my fave painting teacher I was close with complained he had to comfort crying students almost every week. Before he could set up his painting studio because he had a class after him in the same room. I made deans list one time and it only happened because I fueled by hate because he didn't want to let me transfer from illustration to cartooning I use my BFA to layout other people's comic books and my CPTSD from said BFA to design my petty little merch.

Lisa: In addition to loathing comics, he was an absolute menace who enjoyed making students cry—even attacking their person, appearance or gender presentation when the whim struck him. Why am I not surprised at the hypocrisy? There was also no assurance anyone he hired to teach could do so. Profs were successful, usually in his friend group. Teaching is a different skill. One year so many students complained in reviews about (new) bad prof, he laughed & mocked the students at a (mandatory) assembly. I never got the sense he even liked students, or teaching. I had friends who tried to make formal complaints about his bullying or barely-disguised racism. Admins heavily dissuaded them from doing so, warned he would retaliate, and nothing would change anyway.

 Jonathan H. Gray: The way I am sitting at my desk casually side-eyeing all of this and unable to say anything lol

Jonathan earned his master's degree in Computer Art from the School of Visual Arts, and returned in 2016 in the Cartooning Department as a teacher, where he still works…

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Rich JohnstonAbout Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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