Ultraman, the Goblin King and the Fire That Never Stops Burning: Kids Bring Comic Energy to Club

Sunday, November 02, 2014
White River Junction — Some of the 11 young students seated around a half-circle of tables at the Center for Cartoon Studies are quiet, using pencils and pads of drawing paper to sketch their own characters while instructors Stephanie Zuppo and Rebecca Roher encourage them to think about the space between the comic panels, known as gutters.

A wider gutter creates more of a distance, Roher said, subconsciously telling the reader to slow down, while a more narrow gutter can signal events happening more quickly. Sometimes, a panel will actually overlap the one preceding it, a technique that pushes the reader along with more of a sense of urgency.

“When we’re making comics,” said Roher, who spends most of her time at the center as a master’s student, “we want to manipulate, or make the reader’s eyes move where we want them to move, so that we can tell our story more clearly.”

Some of the kids, the younger ones, are animated, squirming in their seats, asking and answering questions of the teachers, and chatting with each other excitedly about their projects.

One boy, Phineas Roy-Ollie, is working on a story about a ninja dinosaur who takes on a gang of zombies to stave off the zombie apocalypse.

As engrossing as it sounds, it’s not capturing all of his ample energy. He’s also busily telling a classmate about how he interacts with Minecraft, a wide-open video game that, like a comic book, allows its users to engage in character creation and world-building.

There’s a fire in the world that never stops burning, he said. Never.

When he sees the fire that never stops burning, sometimes he puts chickens on it, and as soon as they touch it, he said, repeating that it is a fire that never stops burning, the chickens make comically pained expressions and noises that he imitates with enthusiasm.

The fire, he adds, watching to make sure his listener understands how cool this truly is, never stops burning.

Phineas, whose mother happens to be Michelle Ollie, president of the center, is just 7. He and other 7-year-olds in the room are some of the youngest students ever to have participated in Cartoon Club, a class the center offers on the first Saturday of every month.

Ollie said the program has been operating for about three years, but only recently began allowing younger kids like Phineas to participate, and only if the individual child that age can handle the classroom environment.

The purpose of the classes, which cost $25 a session, is to introduce the students to drawing techniques so they can advance their own projects, but Ollie said she’s been stunned to see how much the youngsters bring to the table.

Many adult comic book artists are always looking for new ways to push the boundaries of storytelling. The art form’s more popular and critically acclaimed series, often compiled in book form, are based on wildly inventive takes on themes that are historical, personal or spun wholly from the imagination.

For example, Maus is a retelling of the Holocaust in which the Germans are portrayed as cats and their Jewish victims as mice; Johnny Boo tells the tale of a cheerful and spirited ghost; Laika is based on the actual experiences of the first canine cosmonaut; and Bone is a humorous epic fantasy in which three cousins, drawn as cartoonish white bald characters, travel the world before fighting to free a valley from the Lord of the Locusts.

Ollie said child comic book creators can tap into something that most adults have lost.

“They are able to experience the characters in a way that adults can’t,” she said.

Phineas, for example, turned up to his first Cartoon Club wearing a cape, putting himself in the role of a superhero.

Another student, Oscar Reo, of Theftord, is attending the class for the first time. His father, Nick Reo, said he signed Oscar up because he has shown so much enthusiasm for making comics at home, some of which feature Ultraman, a hero who has all of the powers of Superman, but also has a sense of humor.

Under the tutelage of the Cartoon Club instructors, Oscar in engrossed in drawing up a battle between a moose and the Goblin King, who are fighting in a library while a television announcer narrates the action.

“They come up with some crazy ideas,” Zuppo said after the class. “They’re really random, and it’s super inspiring.”

Zuppo said interacting with the children as they engage in creative play has helped to shape her own master’s-level work at the Center.

Roher said she was struck by how many of the students come with a stock of imaginary characters that they will return to over time, fleshing them out and making them real on the page.

That rings true to Susanna French, of Theftord.

This is the first time French has brought her daughter, Caroline Watts, 7, to an art class. Caroline’s home journal is full of pictures rather than words, and she loves to read cartoons herself. “She’s never alone in her imagination,” French said.

French said she doesn’t necessarily see cartooning as a career path for her young daughter, but hopes encouraging her to draw will help her to express herself and develop more fully.

While the primary mission of the school is to help serious cartoonists pursue their passion through advanced study, Ollie said, the Cartoon Club, like some more intense workshops on offer, are a way to allow children and families of the Upper Valley to take advantage of a resource that is unique to the region.

“There are limited options for that age,” she said, “but it’s a great age to foster creativity. We’re eager to serve the community in this way.”

Thanks to the Cartoon Club, Oscar Reo now knows that each picture he’s drawn is called a panel, and that the panels are grouped into tiers stacked on top of each other, terminology the instructors say will be important to his future progress.

It wasn’t clear how big a role the newly learned techniques were playing in his creation.

Oscar’s moose got an early upper hand in the battle, butting the Goblin King so hard that his “blubber” was displaced, bulging comically behind him. Reo said he plans for the Goblin King to bounce back by creating a hole that the moose will fall into, cuing a costumed referee to call an end to the fight.

What was clear was that, by the time the class ended and Oscar headed off with a friend to play in a soccer match, his imagination had gotten a significant workout.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.