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Eben Burgoon on helping kids make comics at 916 Ink

Eben Burgoon

Eben Burgoon

It’s not unusual for a comics creator to visit a classroom, but the program that Eben Burgoon led for the Sacramento, California, nonprofit 916 Ink was much more than that: a six-week workshop in which elementary school students learned to write comics, then pitched their stories to professional artists who worked with them on the finished product. The workshop included a variety of exercises and techniques, including the “Marvel Method” — Burgoon gave the students pages of finished art and had them fill in the word balloons — and making up the backstory for a random LEGO Minifig.

916 Ink promotes literacy by encouraging young people to write their own stories and poems, and it has published more than 25 books of student work. Its comics program is new and was spurred by demand from both parents and students; the finished work, released this week, will be available in local comics shops, through the 916 Ink website, and eventually through other channels.

We spoke with Burgoon about what he did with the students, how they worked with the artists, and why he thinks comics are a good medium for a literacy program.

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Ben Bova disses graphic novels

Plenty complex: Darwyn Cooke's Hunter adaptation

Plenty complex: Darwyn Cooke's Hunter adaptations

Science fiction novelist Ben Bova wrote a column on literacy for the Naples Daily News, in which he wonders if literacy itself is in danger of becoming a thing of the past. Bova decries dropping literacy rates (without presenting any evidence that such a thing is happening) and discusses the shrinking space that bookstores give to traditional books, as audiobooks and graphic novels take over.

Take the idea of graphic novels. Essentially, these are comic books for adults. Some of the works are quite striking and even powerful. But War and Peace they’re not. They’re not even Valley of the Dolls.

It’s impossible to reproduce a novel’s deep characterizations and nuances of plot development in a comic book format. I’ve had a couple of my short stories done in graphic style and, while I’m pleased with the results, I don’t see how a novel could be done that way — except by boiling down the novel to a few incidents and characters and tossing away almost all of the depth and plot development.

There are two things wrong with this statement. One is that graphic novels must be based on print novels and the other is that they can’t have depth or literary quality of their own. My long list of counterexamples (drawn straight off the top of my head) would include Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Richard Parker’s Hunter novels (which have plenty of depth and characterization and layer onto that a rich visual evocation of urban life in the 1950s); Dash Shaw’s Bodyworld; the complex and fascinating Logicomix; and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the book that really got this category started.

(Hat tip: Von Allan.)

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