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Cartooning and Comic Book Art in the AP Studio Art Environment

by Peter Illig
Chair of Art and AP Instructor
Rangeview High School
Aurora, Colorado

An Entrance Into the World of Drawing
The encroachment of cartoon or comic book images into the art classroom is often a point of contention. Most art teachers don't condemn cartooning per se, but it becomes problematic when such genres are offered as solutions to a teacher's assignment. Whether this is perceived as a problem often depends on the teacher's attitude toward cartooning and his or her experience with it. Art teachers, at best, tend to not take it seriously, or, at worst, will not consider it a valid artistic form.

For young people interested in art -- though their view of art is narrow at the age of 16 or 17 -- cartooning is an entrance into the world of drawing and image making. This has been true for at least a century. It may surprise art teachers to know that, as a teenager, Claude Monet made a name for himself by drawing humorous caricatures of local dignitaries. Pablo Picasso, at the age of 12, drew superheroes (namely, Hercules). And ever since Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, it's hard to argue that cartoons have no place in a fine-art context. As a teacher, examining your own attitude toward cartooning is a good place to start. Many art teachers say, "Do that on your own time," making a separation between what students like and what the teacher is teaching. If you have a good relationship with your students, they will understand your explanation that cartooning is not a replacement for fine art and that fine art methods must be learned in order to cultivate their skills.

Anime and Manga
If an art teacher categorically rejects student work that takes on the appearance of anime (or Japanimation, as it is sometimes called) or manga (Japanese illustrated novels with animated characters), that teacher probably has not studied those forms of art and may have a bias that bears examination. My purpose here is not to convince teachers that this sort of popular art has merit, but simply to increase knowledge of cartooning in terms of history, culture, and the developmental stages of young artists.

Certain characteristics of anime and manga, in particular, bother the sensibilities of art teachers. First, these styles appear unoriginal -- in other words, copied from other artists' work. Second, the drawing style seems formulaic -- the same facial features, clothing, gestures, and compositions are repeated. To be sure, some comics are better drawn than others, but the relative quality of anime, or cartooning in general, is not the subject of this article.

A Separate Skill?
There is a general view that cartooning is a separate drawing skill, distinct from the observational drawing so prized in the contemporary art classroom. There is also the related perception that cartooning is much too specialized, that the skills of the cartoonist don't carry over to "regular" classroom art assignments. In an important sense, this is true. I use this analogy: Cartooning is like a car mechanic who is teaching himself or herself to only work on a certain type of car, say 1982 Toyota Celicas. The mechanic may be good at it, but that's the only kind of car he or she can work on. Wouldn't it make more sense to learn the general principles of automotive theory so the mechanic could apply that to all car repairs and maintenance? In art education, we teach those principles and methods, with the belief that a young person will then be able to apply them to any sort of artwork or design.

Nevertheless, it's worth considering that art education is currently enjoying an upsurge of popularity in Japanese public schools, precisely because students there like to draw in the popular anime styles. In fact, this popularity approaches mania. People of all ages read manga novels. What's more, while students from around the globe tend to lose interest in drawing once they turn 11 or 12 years old, young people in Japan continue to enroll in art courses or draw on their own for many years past high school.

Emulation vs. Originality
An understanding of anime and manga art cannot be expanded without looking at its origin. Anyone who has studied traditional Japanese art knows that the historical styles are dominated by a few "masters." In the tradition of Japan (and other Asian cultures), emulating the style of the master, termed rinsho, is the goal of the art student. Any deviance is considered incorrect. Originality is a uniquely Western ideal. But even in Western culture, art students copy, or attempt to emulate, the style of an admired master. High school and college art students might copy a Cezanne, for instance, as a perfectly acceptable step toward finding their own signature style and form. At the same time, one of the worst criticisms leveled at a student's work is that it is "derivative." Our Western aversion to a lack of creativity is ingrained in us from the modernist tradition of twentieth century avant-garde art.

As adults, we typically forget how we identified with heroes in stories and comic books. Manga books keep those feelings alive -- the stories are emotional and personal. Beautiful heroines and muscle-bound warriors spring from maturing adolescent psyches, even if only as doodles in the margins. But not all manga stories are about superheroes; most are about average kids performing magical or heroic acts. It appears that the enjoyment and desire to draw cartoons is natural.

A Future in Animation?
The question remains: Does a student's love of drawing cartoons translate to later, more serious art study? It depends. Is it the drawing that attracts the student, or is it the stories and their meanings? Students who create their own characters (though modeled on existing "types") and really try to improve their skills will be likely to carry that interest into serious art study. On the other hand, some never rise above the copying level. While there are careers in cartooning, a convincing point to make to students who want to become animators is that animation studios want to see solid, sophisticated, observational drawing skills, especially of the figure, in applicants' portfolios.

What does all of that mean to an AP Studio Art instructor? Based on many conversations I've had with AP Readers, most agree that cartooning will not score well in the Breadth section of the portfolio. This is where traditional observational drawing skills must be shown. However, a concentration based on high-quality, well-drawn cartoon images is acceptable and will score high if it meets the rubric. The Readers are experienced, know quality, and will use good judgment. In the 2-D portfolio, it qualifies as "illustration" and is perfectly fine. In the Breadth and Concentration sections of the AP Studio Art Poster, there is nothing that defines cartooning as unacceptable. It could prove counterproductive to keep students from exploring a theme they are passionate about. The key is to help students evolve beyond superficial, formulaic drawing methods by requiring them to use complex, dynamic compositions along with personal meanings and styles.

Peter Illig has taught high school art in Colorado for 23 years: first at Heritage High School in Littleton, then at Chaparral High School in Parker, and now at Rangeview High School in Aurora, where he is an AP Studio Art instructor and chair of the Art Department. He also taught drawing at Metropolitan State College in Denver. He is a newly-appointed member of the board of the Colorado Art Education Association. An active oil painter, his work is exhibited around the state of Colorado.

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