Talking Comics with Tim | Christy Blanch on Retailing, Education & ‘Charlie Wormwood’
You may know Christy Blanch from her recent investment, along with her partner Mark Waid, in Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Indiana, her comics education work, or her collaboration with Chris Carr, Chee and Troy Peteri on the Thrillbent series The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood.
While the comic about a college professor in a dangerous partnership for the sake of his family is on hiatus, that’s about to end. Blanch and I discussed all three aspects of her busy career in this interview.
Tim O’Shea: Judging from the store’s Facebook page, it’s pursuing a great deal of community outreach. Are you seeing new faces shopping in the store as a result?
Christy Blanch: Mark, Jason [Pierce, the initial owner] and I are all about creating community. We want to give people a reason to come here to shop. We want them to feel like this is their clubhouse to come in and hang out, talk comics, and just be themselves. We are seeing lots of new faces. The old location was a nice store, but we really were hidden. Downtown we are very visible and we see new people every day which is a great feeling. I love it when I sell someone their first comic book especially if it is a series that I love. I always tell them I envy them because I would love to ‘forget’ the book and be able to read it for the first time again.
Speaking of community outreach, do you have a timeline for launching SuperMOOC² — a Massively Open Online Course through Comics?
The SuperMOOC² should start around January. We will at least have everything in motion by then. It’s a super-massive open online comics community, a bit different than the regular MOOCs that are taught. It’s not a course as much as an online comic book club with an academic approach. We are taking all the good things we learned from the original MOOC and incorporating them into a bigger, better project. There is no affiliation with any university. We are hoping to have a lot of comic book stores around the country participate by carrying the three monthly books and giving those involved in the class one night a month to get together and have a roundtable discussion about the topic of the month.
What lessons did you learn from your first comics online course offering and what improvements/additional content will you be incorporating into SuperMOOC²?
First and foremost that this type of learning works and communities can be developed. It was an amazing experience. Like I said earlier, this is a totally different experience, yet it will be similar. There is no university affiliation, which means we aren’t tied to any one subject so we can explore more than gender. We can look at race, diversity, politics, representation of animals, and pretty much anything we want to. We also have Devin Grayson doing a column each month, which is pretty incredible. And since it’s just us, we can change and add things as we go. This is a big experiment. A big exciting experiment! I’m sure we’ll make some mistakes along the way, but I hope everyone will be patient. I think this will be just an amazing adventure for all that participate. Jason and I are really excited to do it.
How hard is it to juggle your store responsibilities, development of SuperMOOC² and your dissertation?
Very hard, but fun. I also have to carve out time to write my comic, The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood, that I am doing with Chris Carr and Chee. I think if I still had coursework it would be much tougher, but as I’m in the dissertation stage, it’s a little better. But, I have great support from my family and from my store partners, Mark and Jason. They are all so supportive of everything.
To what extent does your masters in anthropology inform your educational approach toward teaching about comics?
The great thing about anthropology is that it prepares you for everything. It’s holistic. We had to study everything about human culture so it gives a really broad yet detailed view. It is also about connections, like how this led to this. I think that has helped tremendously because I love how comics reflect culture and vise verse.
As the mother of at least one teenager, does that help you understand better the kind of material you need to offer at your store to pull in teenagers? In your experience, do teenagers connect more with comics in the digital platform or traditional platform (or is it not as simple as an either or scenario)?
My kids are a little different. They have never really experienced a world with no comics around so they probably aren’t typical. I think every reader is different. I think just having books isn’t enough, but being able to explain the material and show customers what you think they would be interested in is important. We always say there is a comic for everyone.
As for the digital aspect, I think it’s more of a comfort thing rather than age. I know older readers who love digital and younger readers who prefer hard copies. So, it’s really personal on many levels.
You recently took part in a speaker series at Ball State University, sharing your knowledge of comics. How did that go?
It was great! I followed Scott McCloud in the series so there was absolutely no pressure. Seriously though, it was wonderful. It was such an honor to be included in the series. And it was a packed house and almost everyone stayed for the Q&A so I was quite pleased. I love talking about how comics reflect culture and vise verse so I had a lot of fun.
You and co-writer Chris Carr have developed The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood based partially on your respective experience teaching in a prison. While the story is partially set in a prison, much of the story plays outside of the prison. But I am curious, is Wormwood trapped in a metaphorical prison outside his teaching job (unable to free his son from chronic illness, seemingly unable to overcome his various debts, etc)?
Charlie is an unhappy man even though he has a job and a family. He is frustrated because his son is sick and he can’t help him, he can’t pay the bills, when he tries to get more money by working more then his wife gets mad. He just can’t seem to catch a break. He’s not a bad guy, he just is desperate to have something work out in his favor. He convinces himself what he is doing is okay because it’s for a good reason. It’s for his son. He feels as if his whole life is a prison. I think we all feel that way sometimes until we put things in perspective.
How do you and Carr divide the duties for writing a typical chapter?
It varies. Most of the time Chris and I talk and decide what will happen in the next few issues. Then we alternate writing duties for the script, sometimes one of us doing more than the other as we both have other jobs.
How did the artist Chee come to be involved with The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood?
By having really, really good luck! Charlie wouldn’t be the same without Chee, and every time we get something back from him, I am just astounded. He is such a great artist and an absolutely wonderful storyteller which is a perfect combination. We email back and forth and he instantly gets what we are saying when we send the script. It’s just brilliant and I email him every week making sure he’s not going to leave. The comic would not be what it is without him. It’s really a collaboration between all of us. And Troy Peteri then comes along and does the lettering and we are so lucky to have him, too. Such talent on this book. Chris and I are thankful every day as new kids on the block to work with such awesome talents.
Who came up with the idea to ink the flashbacks of the story in a different manner than the story’s present-day narrative?
That was kind of a group thing. We had talked about having different borders aka Scott Pilgrim but that just didn’t look right. Since we were doing it in black and white and Chee has the amazing shadows and shading that he does, we thought about him having do just line art for the flashbacks. I think it really works. We also had originally planned to have some splashes of color, but after seeing installment one, we decided to not do that as Chee’s art was simply perfect.
How long is The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood on a hiatus?
Just a short while, maybe a month. No longer. In fact, I was just asked by the editor yesterday if we were ready to get Wormwood back up there sooner than later. My response was that we will absolutely try!
Can we talk your involvement with Reading with Pictures?
I am on the board. Jeff Barbanell and I started a conference, Comics Association of Professionals and Educators (CAPE), that involved giving presentations on how to use comics in the classroom with practical examples. I have since passed the leadership to Jeff as I have too many other pressing matters, but it’s in good hands. Plus, I’m always there for consultation. Anyway, CAPE joined with RWP last year as we are both doing similar things but lacked what the other group can do. It’s a really good fit. RWP is really doing some great things right now and I’m proud to be associated with them.