It has become a cliché to say that comics aren't just for kids anymore. But at this year's Emerald City Comicon, the kids are reclaiming their own.
In their very own booth at the blockbuster convention March 4-6, you'll find students and alumni of Greg Hatcher's cartooning classes at Madison and Aki Kurose middle schools.
Current students will draw sketches for customers as a fund-raiser for the class and display issues of Doodle, Inc., the class comic that's regularly published and distributed at area shops.
Graduates contributed to a special $5 edition going on sale at the Con. Subtitled "Comics by Kids for Everyone," the special edition is another fund-raiser for the after-school class, which is paid for chiefly through the Families and Education levy. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how to order the special edition online.) In more than one way, it's also a tribute to Hatcher, an artist and writer who has taught cartooning in various middle schools over the past 15 years. The most touching stories in the collection – funny, true, even heroic – are those where the young women and men chronicle how they grew under Hatcher's guidance.
Cartooning class didn't just make her want to be an artist, wrote graduate Brianna Edwards. It made her want to be a teacher.
At the Emerald City show, the students are attending what's grown to be a major-league convention, full of star guests, panel discussions, and new and vintage comics for sale.
Emerald City, now in its ninth year, has been described as one of the best comics conventions in the country for its focus on comics and their creators rather than Hollywood. The Con is expanding to three days this year at the Washington State Convention Center, a big jump from its 2003 beginnings as a one-day event at Qwest Field. That's accompanied a big leap in the mainstream appeal of comic books and graphic novels, now accorded their own sections in bookstores and libraries.
"We have seen continually increasing use and popularity of these collections over the past ten years," said Amy Walter, selection services librarian for the Seattle Public Library system. And the collections have grown to meet the demand. The book category that includes graphic novels (which also includes drawing and handicraft books) represents 85 percent of the teen nonfiction circulation, Walter said. (Yes, oddly, graphic novels are categorized as nonfiction in the library's system.)
Hatcher's students have attended the Emerald City show in one form or another since the beginning. For the past few years, they've staffed a table in "Artist's Alley," where last year they raised more than $400 ($800, once matching funds came in) through on-the-spot sketches and caricatures.
Their interactions with fellow fans, with potential customers, and with published authors are valuable all around, Hatcher says. It means a lot to the students to meet the professionals who inspired them – and the pros seem to feel the same way about the young artists. One pro, Hatcher recalls, held up an autograph line for 20 minutes so he could show a cartooning student how to draw a belt buckle so it would look shiny.
At the class at Madison Middle School on a recent afternoon, banter flew as freely as in an old Stan Lee column, but students still kept their main focus on the page. They divided their storyboards into panels, sketched, inked, and worked through rough spots as they figured out how to tell their stories through words and pictures. "Let's put in a horizon line," Hatcher told one student, who asked him to review her page. Another asked how to make the pine trees in his story look real. Draw the branches haphazardly, Hatcher told him. "That's how they grow."
Gregory Vassiliou, 12, kept his head intently down, adding another installment to the tall pile of pages by his side in his ongoing series, "The Adventures of Noupe." The first Noupe adventure made it into the November issue of Doodle.
For help, students also turned to teaching assistant Katrina Varney, a high school senior and an alumna of the class, which she took for the first time in sixth grade.
Varney thinks the cartooning class helped her with framing and composition, valuable skills for her part-time photography job. It also taught her creativity, fine motor skills and patience.
In her contribution to the Doodle collection, she reprinted the first page she ever drew for the class and, in her polished current style, recounted the harrowing experience of waiting for Hatcher's critique. Now she can see the same event from the other side, watching how current students are so convinced Hatcher won't like what they've done, when she can see how the younger students' accomplishments actually fill him with pride.
Some students focus on humor, some on superheroes, and many are heavily influenced by Japanese manga comics. Hatcher's Madison class is more than half girls, which he says is typical. "It's not that girls don't like comics. Girls don't like superheroes," he says. Telling a story is what matters the most.
Seventh-grader Troy Nelson, who arrived early to work on his project and then stayed late, said he began cartooning on his own when he was 7 or 8. He had been a fan of reading comics, and when he saw a particularly terrible one, he thought, heck, he could do better.
"Tried. Did worse," he said. "Tried. Did worse."
In the years of work since, he's become better, with Hatcher's class giving him a focus.
It's the place "where people come to see if they can be comic book heroes, like their icons and idols," he said.
He doesn't mean the heroes inside the books. He means the ones who bring them to life on the page.
For a peek at the talent of Seattle's young comic writers, check out Varney's cartoon: Draw Draw Revolution
Seattle writer Rebekah Denn spent her formative years working at the Comic Relief comic book store in Berkeley, Calif. She didn’t have a Greg Hatcher, but owes a lot to Rory Root.
IF YOU GO
Emerald City Comicon
Where: Washington State Convention Center, 800 Convention Place, Seattle. Main entrance is at 7th and Pike.
When: Friday, March 4, 2 to 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 5, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, March 6, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: Advance tickets are available online or at local comic shops. Until Feb. 16, tickets are $35 for a 3-day pass, $15 for Friday or Sunday only, $20 for Saturday only. After Feb. 16, tickets are $45 for a 3-day pass, $20 for Friday or Sunday only, $25 for Saturday only. Children 10 and under are free with a paying adult.
Best for Kids: Comics creators at the convention include Andy Kuhn (Firebreather), Mike Mignola (Hellboy) and Sergio Aragones (Mad magazine). The masquerade/costume contest Saturday evening has a kids’ category. Boom! Studios, which publishes comics based on all the Pixar movies, is one of the many exhibitors. Many vendors are kid-friendly; look for face-painting and balloon-making. Kid-friendly panels include an interactive reading of all-ages graphics novels (with actors chosen from the audience) and a look at “How to Break into Comics the Marvel Way.”