The School of Visual Arts Department of Illustration and Cartooning hosted their annual Portfolio Review in conjunction with the Office of Career Development at the Art Directors Club in midtown in New York on Wednesday, an event designed to bring comic professionals in to provide feedback on students' creative work and advice for publication for 2014 graduates of SVA. Those invited to attend and critique students' work included editors and creators from a variety of comics and graphic novels publishers as well as some comics media folks like myself.
Little did I realize that these hopeful students were graduating in less than 24 hours! It brought quite an upbeat buzz to the event, which was held in an airy glass-fronted room looking out on the city in bright May weather. The room was packed with neat rows of orange-bedecked tables and plenty of chairs for the circulating pros to pull up a seat and dive in to portfolios and mini comics and have real conversations with the students braced to seek professional work in comics and illustration themselves. Upon reflection, I realize that the room boasted a surprisingly large number of trained illustrators and cartoonists–a very good sign for the future of the arts.
I recognized a few familiar faces and discovered some new talent, all of whom were connected with the MoCCA Fest 2014 debut anthology, The Rookery, a collection of stories loosely themed on urban myths and legends. The Rookery had impressed me at MoCCA Fest for its eclectic, stylish design and contents, and the number of unique voices included who seemed to find their way to convey some of the dynamism of comics as a team effort.
I spoke with Rookery-contributors and graduating seniors Jess Hurley, Steph Bailey, Molly Ostertag, and Hazel Newlevant about their work in comics, their senior projects, and their plans for the future.
Jess Hurley has already completed a few forays into self-published comic, including Ice Pack, an Inuit-based tale with writer Christian Marsh, a Native American adapted myth of the origin of the stars and constellations for The Rookery anthology entitled "How the Coyote Placed the Stars", and is currently finishing up an adaptation of a turn of the century story about the morality of seizing buried treasure.
Ice Pack is an impressive work, set in a world of snow and ice, the starkness of which sets off her accomplished inking and visually appealing rounded style chosen for the tale. It tracks the lives of a young boy and girl who, belittled for their ambition to take on the role of grown ups in the tribe, set off on a series of misadventures and weigh the merits of enjoying their childhood versus growing up too quickly.
Hurley's work on the "buried treasure" story took her into new territory stylistically as she designed characters, grappled with architectural rendering, and decided on how much detail she included. Her instructor, cartoonist Nick Bertozzi, she said, helped her discover ways in which to tell the story in her own style without feeling bound to including heavy historical detail if it wasn't suited to the narrative.
Steph Bailey has been spending a great deal of time completing her senior project, an original story featuring a Conquistador's arrival in the Americas, his interaction with the native population, and his heavily immersive religious perspectives, entitled La Caida de Adan, translated as "The Fall of Adam".
Her greatest challenges were conducting extensive research for the dominant Biblical quotes necessary to offset the Conquistador's experiences in the jungle, and the unraveling of his mind as he faces the challenges of an unknown world he cannot understand as well as coming up with panel layouts she felt comfortable with, often rejecting the standard square grid of traditional comics composition.
Scripture, both heavily messianic and apocalyptic snakes through the organic flow of panels and her emotive inking style draws the reader into the altered psyche of the Conquistador. Bailey and I talked about how comics like Alan Moore, Rick Veitch and Stephen Bissette's Swamp Thing also experimented with organic panel designs like these.
Bailey seems to take quite a shine toward visual experimentation, and I saw several different styles at work in her portfolio, including early work for a webcomic she's about to launch at dropdeadtwicecomic.com, a story set in the 1950's with both comedy and horror elements depicting teens as "monsters" that should start appearing episodically in June. Here her work will be quite stylized, capturing some of the glamor of the 50's. It's a web comic to keep an eye on as one of the "comics of tomorrow" springing out of the SVA program.
Molly Ostertag quietly revealed that she's actually her class Valedictorian and will have delivered her speech already in their graduation ceremony today, the 15h. She's already made a name for herself in self-publication by developing the longrunning webcomic series Strong Female Protagonist with writer Brennan Lee Mulligan, which features a female superhero facing many a daily kerfuffle peppered with slice of life struggles. She's also completed a senior projects entitled Bacchanalia, which rejuvenates the Greek myth of Bacchus in highly modern terms featuring young students, a mysteries boy who's a bit of a "hippie" and spends a lot of time in the woods, and feats of visual transformation that really show off Ostertag's versatility. I hoped she wouldn't be offended when I described her solid, graceful linework as "highly marketable". She wasn't. On the eve of graduation, that must have sounded like good news.
Osterag, in her final year at SVA has also been exploring illustration work and poster-like designs, like this one that helps express her feelings about the role of digital technology in the art, here showing an amorphous synergy between human and machine to create still prevailingly organic art styles:
In these pages from Bacchanalia, we can see Ostertag's choice of a honeycomb-like design in keeping with one of the mythological symbols of Bacchus with scrolling speech ribbons snaking in and out of the chambers. Very creative choices there.
Below is one of Ostertag's compositions for an illustration assignment, also with instructor Nick Bertozzi where she attempted to create the elements of a song she chose visually through a series of symbolic objects surrounding a portrait. She liked the experiment and has since pursued more portraits in this vein.
Hazel Newlevant has also been moving in the field of self-publication even before graduating from SVA. She's the PRISM grant award winner to develop her book If This Be Sin featuring gay, lesbian, and transgender themes about a blues singer in the 1920's. Following that she completed another music-themed work in Dance the Blues, set in modern day, and her senior project bridges the gaps between the time-periods of these other stories by taking on a story from true life: No It U Lover (Revolution spelled backward).
No It U Lover explores the lives and events around the collaboration between the musician Prince and Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. Melvoin and Coleman are some of the unsung participants in creating some of Prince's greatest hits, and were also a lesbian couple who were "not as known or credited because he was so controlling" at the time.
Newlevant chose the story as her senior project because she felt that her two other music-themed projects were true to life but nevertheless "downers for queer women", showing their struggles and suffering, whereas this story at least portrays a successful and loving couple who achieved great things even though they don't receive enough recognition in music history.
Newlevant composed the comic through inking layers first and then carefully applying watercolor once the inked panels were applied to watercolor paper. You can actually read the entire comic, No It U Lover, on Newlevant's website currently.
And these other offerings attracted my attention at the freebie table, showing the scope and diversity of the graduating students this year: