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Drawing Comment

A few words with cartoonist and teacher Joel Priddy.

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On February 8th, Publishers Weekly carried a column by Memphian Ada Price. Her subject was cartooning programs in five American art colleges, and it was good to see — right in there with the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and the School of Visual Arts in New York — our own Memphis College of Art, which Price described as a "fledgling" program. And that's true: The school will graduate its first group of students whose concentration is cartooning in May. As Priddy explained to Price in the article, at MCA at this point, "It's a matter of making more classes and enough students to fill them."

Priddy, an award-winning cartoonist himself who attended graduate school at the School of Visual Arts, has been at MCA for nine years, and in that time, he's been instrumental in establishing a set of courses for the rising numbers of students expressing interest in a career in cartooning — whether it be traditional comic books, graphic novels, or web cartoons. The school has in place courses on the "grammar" of putting pictures together, on developing characters, and on the technical specifications of print comics and the making of a physical book. The school also offers instruction in digital serialization, but as Priddy admitted to the Flyer recently, when it comes to careers after students graduate, the wide world of the Internet remains "frontier" territory:

"We've had web comics now for 10 years, but we're still figuring out how that world works. How does it work economically? What kind of storytelling works in the web environment?

"Here at MCA, the program is oriented toward the artist who wants to be a comic auteur — creating your own properties, being a one-person show," Priddy said. "With the Internet, on the one hand, you're in competition with every artist alive, every artist who ever lived. On the other hand, you can find your own audience — those 100,000 people in the world who are interested in what you are."

And what of the big question: How to not only make art but a living, with or without print media?

"There are so many venues out there without engaging with a publisher," according to Priddy.

"We're all trying to figure out how to make money off the Internet. No one knows how it's going to shake out. But there are people who are making it work. You have to think about the market. You have to create a core of fans. Merchandising. Ads. That requires a lot of work."

Advanced classes in illustration at MCA address those concerns — professional and ethical practices, copyright law, how to contact potential clients, how to run your own business. "That's all vitally important," Priddy said. Equally important: the quality of students that MCA is attracting.

"We're getting great students and different kinds of students. When I started teaching, the students were mostly male, and they wanted to draw superheroes. Then the trend shifted to more female students who'd been influenced by Japanese manga. It's more diverse now. The subjects that students are interested in are more diverse."

MCA and art programs across the country are responding. And according to Priddy, MCA has been especially responsive. He called the school "very supportive" when it comes to introducing additional comics classes. He's talked with writer Chris Baer, who teaches in the school's liberal studies department, about the possibility of offering a course that specifically addresses the graphic novel. He's also brought in visiting artists. And he'd like to hire another cartooning professor. The goal: a BFA program that would "umbrella" illustration and comics.

Priddy had a book out last year, and though he's taking "deep breaths between large expanses of fatherhood," he's got a web comic debuting in May: "The Mummy's Sabbatical." But he's officially done with arguing.

"When I was at Virginia Commonwealth University," Priddy said, "I had to argue that classes in cartooning were worthwhile — until I offered a class and it filled up instantly."

The Memphis College of Art will host a panel of noted illustrators — Steve Brodner, Anita Kunz, and Luba Lukova — on February 24th at 7 p.m. The event is in conjunction with the exhibit featuring the panelists' work, "Drawing Comment: Illustration & Social Commentary."

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