Artist Interview: Ryan Alexander-Tanner

For the second of our series of interviews with artists we met at MoCCa Festival, we’ve got Ryan Alexander-Tanner, a comics artist living in New York. He recently collaborated on a book with educator Bill Ayers, and was at the Festival promoting it.

Ryan Alexander-Tanner

  • At MoCCA you were promoting your new book, To Teach: The Journey, in Comics. Can you tell me a little bit about that project?
  • Oh my goodness, what a question! Ever since we started working on it, I’ve struggled to find a brief description. In a nutshell, it’s a comics adaptation of Bill Ayers’ book on teaching from the 90′s. He wrote a book that’s pretty much a humanist guide to teaching and the publisher, Teachers College Press, decided to do a new edition in comics. So it’s a guide to teaching for people who are going in to teaching and need a little benevolent guidance on their journey.
  • And how did you get involved?
  • Well, Bill wanted to do the comic but he didn’t really know who to approach to get it done. His brother Rick was a teacher of mine in high school and Rick’s daughter Sonia has been a good friend of mine since then, too. Bill is really into reaching out to his network of people to get projects off the ground and when he asked his brother for suggestions, I came up. I’d recently gotten a Xeric Grant and I had a website and all that so I guess I looked ok on paper. The folks at Teachers College Press had a shortlist of artists they wanted to approach but I got a chance to audition for the project anyway and it just sort of worked out.
  • As far as content goes, is progressive education something that you’d had an interest in before getting picked to do this project, or were you more or less learning as you went?
  • I’ve been interested in teaching for some time. My perspective is a little odd because I feel like my education was a pretty lousy experience, so I’m interested in progressive education as a means of providing young people with all the stuff I wish I’d had. I definitely learned a lot as I went, though. How could I not? That was a big bonus of this project: being interested in education and then getting to sit down for months with someone who really knew their shit. How often do you get to read a book full of interesting ideas and then sit down with the author for months to discuss those ideas? What an opportunity!

    Another point I’d like to add is that, as a comics artist, I’m always interested in new subjects. I really advocate for comics as a means of telling any story or expressing any idea, and in that pursuit I’ve learned some pretty amazing stuff. So this time it was education, but before that I’d teamed up for projects about microcircuitry or the Donner Party or Women’s Roller Derby, etc, etc. I’ve always loved that aspect of the work I do: getting to approach subjects through this medium and learning all these amazing new things in the process.

  • That’s really interesting, thinking of comics as a way of presenting all sorts of information/stories/et cetera in a new way.

    Now, you don’t have to answer this one, since it’s not really about your art, and you’re probably tired of talking about it by now, but: You were living with Bill Ayers during the 2008 presidential campaign season, and were present for a lot of his rather infamous celebrity. Can you tell me about being present at such a strange locus of history?

  • Yeah, this question got old pretty fast. More than anything, I see it as a distraction. It was a big annoying distraction when we were working on the book, and now it’s a big annoying distraction when we’re trying to talk about the book. I have to acknowledge it, though, especially since it has definitely drawn a lot of attention to the book.

    I’d just say that it was a pretty creepy experience. Imagine if someone hired you for your dream job and showed you genuine kindness and then every time you turned on the tv you saw a bunch of stuff on the news about what a shitty guy they were. For me, it was like living in bizarro world.

    I guess I’d just like to say that I really got to know Bill while we worked on this book together and in my opinion he couldn’t have been less deserving of such a demonizing representation.

    It’s interesting because a significant portion of our book is about getting to know people wholly and not reducing them to a label or an association, which is too much to ask from politics and the media, I’ll tell you that much. So although this book is really about education and helping people to approach their work with the right spirit and the right attitude, since Bill is the narrator I did take it as an opportunity to present the guy I met and got to know. I think that the little cartoon character of Bill in our comic book is a much more accurate representation of “the real Bill Ayers” than that mugshot on Fox news.

  • Yeah, that sounds pretty wild. Alright, backing up a bit…

    How much freedom did you have with formatting the text to a more visual language? How did that process work?

  • Oh, much better question!

    Well, going into it, Bill thought that his work on this project was finished because he’s already written the book. No such luck! If he’d written a straight-up story I think I could have adapted it unassisted, but since To Teach is essentially a book of theory with no central narrative, I didn’t really see it as my place to freely interpret what he’d written. I always told Bill that it was going to be just like turning a book into a movie. We were adapting from one medium into another, and with that comes a whole new set of challenges and necessity of invention. I always say that the best part about working with Bill is that he gave me total freedom, and the worst part about working with Bill is that he gave me total freedom. So it was quite a process.

    The best thing about it, I think, is that the process of creating the comic became very much in synch with the philosophy of the text. Bill and I were each other’s teacher and student at the same time, which is really, to me, the central theme of To Teach.

    So the process itself was pretty darn complicted.

    To put is as briefly as possible, I read To Teach about three times and made a list of what I thought the central concepts and themes were. We discussed those notes and made revisions and then I made these sort of rough outlines for each chapter while also developing key images to build around.

    A lot of the storytelling was based around these sort of built-in constraints because of how many pages we had and things like that. So a lot of the struggle was, “ok, we’ve got three pages to represent this idea… what’s the most effective way to do that?” We went through a ton of drafts and revisions, that’s for sure.

    So basically we would consult the original book and Bill would also do these lengthy free-writes about whatever idea we were dealing with and then we’d try to make it fit. Over time these sort of narrative frameworks developed for each chapter and then we’d continue to push it and revise it as well as we could while trying to cram these huge ideas into these little tiny spaces. My priority was making it a compelling narrative with engaging visuals that fit well together, and Bill’s was providing text that was concise but still got the points across. We also gave each other a lot of feedback throughout, so often times I’d suggest a certain phrase or he’d invent a certain image. It was a pretty intense back and forth process.

  • How did this process compare to how you’d worked in the past?
  • Well, it’s hard to say, because every project is different. Sometimes I make a whole comic by myself, so that pretty much just involves me sitting in my room and trying to concentrate and power through. I’ve worked with writers who are familiar with comics who provide complete scripts, so in those instances you usually just have a few quick discussions and notes and then you get to work. I’ve also worked with writers who aren’t familiar with comics who try to provide full scripts, and that’s always a logistical nightmare. So I don’t know, man, it’s like snowflakes. But I will say that this was easily one of the most rewarding collaborations I’ve had.
  • At MoCCa, did people come to your table having already heard of the project, or were there just teachers in the crowd that were lured in by your signage and the flow of the show?
  • That’s interesting, because we got a fair amount of press leading up to the show, but the majority of the people who bought the book did seem to be teachers who’d stumbled onto us while perusing the floor. I do think that there are elements of the book that lend it a wider appeal, but it’s still a bit of a niche project. Personally, I’m fine with that. What a great audience to target for a comic book! Can you think of any other comics that specifically appeal to teachers?
  • Yeah, definitely outside the proverbial box in terms of comics audience.
  • Well, thats a big thing for me. I always say, “Why should comics have such a specific audience?” Imagine if movies were thought of as something for teenage boys. Not action movies, but movies as a whole. That would be crazy! So i really saw this project as a great opportunity to make a comic book that had a specific audience, but one that you wouldn’t necessarily expect for comics. To me, that’s a progressive move for comics.
  • Are you aware of other artists working to expand comics’ domain like this? Anybody you take influence or inspiration from?
  • Oh, you bet. That’s the thing: for a long time, I think that the associations comics had were sort of self-imposed. I love all sorts of comics and I agree that the most high-end superhero comics can be seen as a literary form of art, but they’re still genre comics. Over the last decade, I think all that shit’s gone out the window. I think comics have finally created enough challenging and highly literate work that this whole “comics aren’t for kids” discussion can finally be put to rest. Any journalist writing that story nowadays needs to get with the times, man.

    I think the problem now isn’t as much creating the work that brings comics out of the gutter, but getting people to read it. So, for me, one of my loftiest ambitions for this project was to try to create a comic that could be used as an example. Ideally, some young teacher-in-training who’s never read a comic in her life will be assigned To Teach in a grad school class and big lightbulb would go off over her head.

    As far as progressive cartoonist I take inspiration from, there are a ton. My favorite guy is David Mazzucchelli. I read the adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel, City of Glass, that Mazzucchelli did with Paul Karasik while adapting To Teach, and I made Bill read it, too. We had a lot of good conversations about the relationship between the two versions of that story.

    There are a ton of other go-to artists when you’re trying to speak in defense of comics. Chris Ware is an easy choice, as are Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, Seth, Los Bros Hernandez, Lynda Barry, Chester Brown, Thomas Herpich, Dan Clowes, James Sturm, Alex Robsinson, Bill Watterson, and about a zillion others.

    But just to put a little cap on this discussion, I always think that there’s this pretentious desire to denounce superhero comics when you’re speaking out in defense of the medium, and that really bugs me. I’m gonna freely admit right now that I like superhero comics. I think that the only real problem with the superhero genre is that it’s so associatively synonymous with comics as a whole. Hopefully the scales will balance out a little more in the years to come. But, having said that, i think superhero comics are a lot of fun, and I’ve gotten as much out of reading the first 100 issues of Amazing Spider-man as I did reading all those ‘sophisticated comics narratives’ I just listed.

  • One more thing: when you look at the Duckrabbit logo, which do you see first? Duck or rabbit?
  • Definitely a duck! I actually looked at it quite a few times before I even saw the rabbit. One thing that strikes me as odd is their expressions. The Rabbit looks sort of hopeful, but the duck is melancholy. What’s up with that?
  • It might be unintentional. Maybe we’ve got an inkblot situation going here.
  • Yeah, its like a Rorsach test.
  • Yeah, I just didn’t know how to spell that.
  • I think I spelled it wrong. I learned how to spell it from reading superhero comics!
  • Cool man, well thanks a bunch for taking time out for us.
  • Sure!

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