Lighting the Fire

In the little town of White River Junction, Vermont, far away from the bustle of the big city, there’s this school. It’s not your usual school. It’s pretty small. Pretty new. But it’s a marvel — a straight up phenomenon among graduate programs, among schools, among communities of any kind, so maybe you’ve heard of…

CCS was founded in 2005 with a commitment to delivering excellent education in the field of comics, cartooning, and graphic novels. They offer certificate and MFA programs as well as summer workshops for youth and adults alike, one of which I attended during the first week of this month. The 5-day course is designed for students who have personal projects they’d like to workshop and push to completion with the support and guidance of professionals.

The experience, alas, doesn’t really fit well into words, but the basic breakdown went like this:

I arrived is a messy haze of uncertainty, unsure of what my project was going to be, worried that my choice to major in studio art was going to turn out to be just one more failure-bound attempt to find my tribe of like-minded people. That my dedication to my own creativity was waning. That I wasn’t any good, or worse, that I was a poser. That I’d be “found out.”

In short, I was a mess. Somewhere, vaguely in the back of my mind, I had thoughts about doing some sort of mythological adaptation series, or a one-off about traveling alone in Europe, but nothing had even been doodled about, let alone planned to the point of being serviceable. But on day one, confronted with the stirring words of our first lecturer, the frighteningly prolific Jason Lutes, in a room full of 36 other aspiring cartoonists of all ages and backgrounds, I found myself thinking about sailing as a potential topic. It’s something I’m passionate about, it would be a blast to draw (if I didn’t go mad from all the rigging), and I doubt there’s very much else on the market at the moment that deals with it from a 21st century sailor’s perspective. Suddenly, my brain seemed to open up to the possibilities of creation again, and thus Baggywrinkles was born.

Of course, I didn’t know it was going to be called Baggywrinkles right then. There’s a whole messy cloud of potential nautical titles on my first page of sketchbook notes, all crawling over one another like ants, the occasional hopeful circled in darker lines. But as soon as I jotted it down, I realized it was perfect. It’s one of those profoundly bizarre sailing terms that makes no sense at all while managing to be vaguely charming and curiosity-piquing. “What’re those fuzzy things?” is also the most frequently-asked question any sailor will come into contact with when people visit the boat — understandably. I mean, look at this thing:

If that’s hanging five feet above my head, I damn well want to know what the blazes it’s doing up there and whether it’s hungry for lunch. (It’s also interesting and vaguely alarming to note that when I Google image searched “baggywrinkle,” the only listed related search was for “weiner mobile.” At least we know I’ll be attracting a classy audience.)

So, with this dubious and titillating title in hand, I dove in. And I mean really dove in. There was nothing in my life aside from comics for every one of those 5 days. No updates for friends and family, no journal writing to take the edge off, no supplemental reading, no sightseeing in the Northeast, nothing. Just me, the drawing table, a mugful of pens, and a superstar lineup of comics professionals telling me to keep pushing pen to paper. There were rabble-rousing pep talks from Alec Longstreth, inking demos with kick-ass comics veteran Steve Bissette, whirlwind screenprinting technique seminars with the effervescent Jon Chad, and kaleidoscopic spreads of minicomics from Robyn Chapman. And what’s more, their enthusiasm was contagious. I caught the bug, or it caught me. However that works.

The upshot was utter, electric dedication. I came out the other end brandishing a fully-inked, 8-page comic — with plans for a second issue already boiling over in the back of my mind. Of course, there were a couple days there where I didn’t really sleep, and definitely a couple meals that I sort of forgot to eat, but it was more than worth it. The satisfaction and astonishment of seeing what I’d managed to create in such a short period of time were enough to have me dancing with glee all the way back to California.

Because really, if you can create something like that in 5 days, there are no more excuses. All the daunting specters of creative work vanish when you’ve pushed yourself to just charge through them at full speed without stopping because you can’t get an angle or a pose or a word balloon right. It’s like the sensation runners call “hitting the wall.” The ones who know what they’re about generally reach that point and just punch their way through it. When I used to hit that spot, I’d back down and find something else to do, but now? I go at is with my fists. Because I know that whatever’s on the other side is worth fighting for.

Why else would they have stuck it back there in first place?

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