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The Art of Visual Storytelling

April 27, 2011

“I am the lone comics professor here at BMCC,” says Robin Enrico. “I teach Art 175, Introduction to the Graphic Narrative.”

“It’s an art class; it’s run with drawing as a primary component,” says Enrico. “The concept is basically, ‘How do you tell a story visually?’ It’s kind of like creative writing, but you have to draw instead of just do prose.”

But what exactly is a “graphic novel”?

Some would say it’s a cross between a comic book and a novel; it’s a story told frame-by-frame, in comics form, and the audience has expanded to include adults. According to the American Library Association, graphic novels are one of the fastest growing categories in publishing and bookselling, and according to Books in Print, sales of graphic novels have doubled since 2002.

Bending the rules

Enrico’s students often start with autobiographical writing, as he did with own first comics, but, “if you stick to the memoir genre,” Enrico says, “it’s kind of limiting because you’re only dealing with what you’ve experienced.”

His new comic book series, Jam in the Band, features an internationally touring women’s rock band, traveling through vivid, stylized settings.

“My comics now are in a way, extremely autobiographical,” he says, “but I really like that I have the option to bend fiction. I have room for creativity; I can invent characters, I can invent scenarios. Even if they’re based on real-life things, couching them in the form of fictional characters gives me such a larger toolbox to work with. I like that.”

Getting started

“I’m sort of a life-long comic fan,” says Enrico’s student, Rob Gizis, who works in BMCC’s Office of Public Affairs, and credits the class for giving him “that extra push” to get started with his project.

His short comic novel, A Bridge to Mummy Island is “sort of a tongue-in-cheek horror story,” and went from a 14-page version—“there were two people building bridges, the mafia was involved, and there was a series of battles throughout”—to a pared-down eight pages.

“I think one of my biggest problems was, I didn’t think I could come up with a plot line,” he says. But once in class, he “actually really liked coming up with a story, as far as going from the ‘a’ to the ‘b’,” and making the story “transition from one page to the next.

"It's a different sort of problem solving," he says. "I really liked that part of it, which I’d never done before.”

Disney’s influence

“I got a lot out of the class,” says student Angela Russo. “Professor Enrico taught us the basics of what we needed; knowledge about how you go about making a cartoon, how much work and effort goes into it.”

Russo’s class project, the comic strip, Road Trip, features characters with peace signs on their T-shirts, and even the cars and other details in her drawings are era-specific.

“I wanted to take a visual storytelling class because when I was younger,” she says, “Walt Disney was my idol, and at that time, I wanted to be a cartoonist.”

Distilling skills

“I took this class because, truth be told, I’m not really interested in superhero comics, anything that’s too action driven or plot driven,” says Nora Whelan, who now attends Brooklyn College, as a creative writing major.

“I know that I love painterly illustration, but I also love narrative,” she says, “And I’m not pithy, and so I needed to figure out a way, with the guidance of an instructor, to tell a story and not just keep beating around the bush until a reader wasn’t interested anymore.”

The class, she says, helped her “distill” what she was already doing.

“Robin taught me some basic methods about easy communication with the reader,” she says. “I needed to get more creative with the visual, while being efficient in the narrative. So I think the class helped me with that.”

The art of feedback

However different the work created by Enrico’s students, they all seem to share an appreciation for the sense of community in his class—an environment of supportive feedback Enrico values from first-hand experience.

“A lot of the reason I’ve stuck with comics for seven or eight years now,” he says, “is that you are surrounded by other people who are making art—that is incredibly inspiring, and that’s kind of the way I try to run my class.”

Presenting their own work and critiquing the work of others involves skills Enrico’s students can apply in other academic settings, as well—once they get past their reluctance to share work, in the first place.

“They don’t think it’s as good as someone else’s,” Enrico says, “but when other people see your work, the response is always positive. And I feel like that kind of positive feedback will really empower you and give you the ability to do art for years and years and years.”

Community: Real and virtual

“It was pretty recent that I started my blog,” says Enrico’s student Nora Whelan, “and I did it because I realized something that I got from this class—that even if I’m not 100% thrilled and I don’t think I’m reaching my complete potential with my one illustration, one comic, I need to put things out there to get feedback.”

Whelan’s WordPress blog, NoraIsDrawing, provides a forum for her works in progress.

“I’m not going to be perfect,” she says, “and if I keep things to myself my entire life, and go nuts over every little line, then I don’t think I’m ever going to progress, and people are going to find thousands of pages in my apartment when I die.”

Enrico understands that not all students will continue, like Whelan, to work on the genre of comics or graphic novels, creating blogs and developing their craft.

“So my hope,” he says, “is that, ‘Okay, you do what you want on this first one and I’ll just kind of monitor you; I’ll help you, I’ll guide you through this process, and if at the end you realize you liked it—then I can say, ‘Okay, this was good, let’s do the next one’.”

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  • Students learn both narrative and visual storytelling techniques
  • By sharing work, they practice presentation and critiquing skills
  • The sense of community in class inspires creativity, and confidence

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