Kids love to make comics. As an art teacher, I see them drawing their favorite characters or creating their own almost every day (even if it’s not the assignment!).
Confession: sometimes us teachers like to make comics too. I first learned to draw by copying Batman. Now I’m working on my own graphic novels! Another fellow teacher/author/cartoonist, Aron Nels Steinke, has created a wonderful series called Mr. Wolf’s Class. I talked to Aron about what it’s like to both teach and ‘toon.
JR: When did you start creating comics?
ANS: Like you, I was really into superhero comics as a kid and really loved to copy the artwork. But the work I was copying seemed so complex and intimidating (muscles and shading) that I really could figure out how to manipulate the characters, so I rarely drew characters with my own poses. Even when I made up my own characters I would basically copy the poses from the books I was studying and change the uniform or hair style, etc. I didn’t draw and write my own stories until I was an adult, after I had training as an animator, an experience that gave me lots of practice drawing and not being precious with my artwork. The first real story I wrote and drew in comic form was done with tiny simple drawings. I had adopted this style because I wanted to focus on telling the story, rather than letting myself get bogged-down by the details of drawing, as I had in the past.
I see kids making their own comics today totally free from the drawing hangups I had as a kid. They just blaze ahead and create stories. I really think it’s the influence of today’s middle grade graphic novels like Mr. Wolf’s Class. Get a kid who has read through all the Dog Man or Raina Telgemeier books and they’ll be off creating their own comics in no time.
I love that you feature a teacher who is caring but real, nerves and all. How much of Mr. Wolf is you?
Mr. Wolf is a fictional version of myself, so he’s maybe ninety-percent me. Yes, he makes mistakes, but he is learning and growing and wants to do his best. Unlike Mr. Wolf, I do not wear ties and nicely-pressed and tucked-in shirts to work each day, and I certainly don’t have pointy ears, sharp teeth, and a snout.
The students of Hazelwood School seem very real too (despite being animals). How did you create the class?
I started working with children over ten years ago, and over time I’ve come to know lots of great kid personalities and voices. Mr. Wolf’s Class truly began as an autobiographical comic strip called MR. WOLF. As a way to protect the identity of my students, I drew them as animals and then, born out of those comic strips, was the desire to make a full-length graphic novel for kids. I wanted to make a book that my students would love and appreciate. The characters in Mr. Wolf’s Class may have all started out with a personality germ, inspired by real kids, but over time, they have evolved and claimed a unique life of their own.
Not to boast, but I get recognized all the time at the mall. Not for being a famous author, but as a teacher! (“Mr. Roth, what are you doing here?”) Do you have brushes with educator or author fame?
I did a comic strip about this once. Yes, when you’re a teacher you get noticed and recognized by the people in your school community all the time. It is a lot like being a mini-celebrity. It’s fun to run into students at the grocery store, or out and about, and it can be quite a shock for the student. Once when I was teaching preschool, I ran into a family of a two-and-a-half-year-old I was teaching. When the boy saw me, he must have had quite as shock as he reacted by quickly sinking his teeth into his father’s arms. The fourth and fifth grade students I teach today are usually quick to share and start up a conversation if I see them out and about. It’s a little different now with the pandemic, obviously. We’re all starved for real human contact, so it’s even more exciting to see people and connect when we do, even at six feet distance and with a mask on.
The outdoor world, particularly the woods, plays a big role in your series. What role do you hope the great outdoors plays in our students’ lives?
I grew up on eleven acres in rural Washington State, where I spent my childhood roaming the woods and fields, picking huckleberries and hazelnuts, and falling asleep to the howls of coyotes. When I’m in nature I feel an immediate and spiritual connection to the universe. For me, there’s nothing better than being in the middle of an old-growth stand of cedar, hemlock, and douglas fir, surrounded by giant ferns, salal, and big leaf maples dripping with moss. In my latest Mr. Wolf’s Class book: FIELD TRIP, students spend the night in an old-growth forest and experience that beauty first hand. I hope the reader is inspired to get out to appreciate and protect the natural world.
Any advice for kids who are working on comics of their own?
Make real, physical copies of your comics with a photocopy machine or a scanner and printer if you can. Fold and staple your books and give them away to friends and family. Share your work with other people. You’ll only get better at making comics by making lots of comics. Try making a comic about yourself. Try to avoid writing and drawing a really long story until you’ve done lots of short-story comics first. Practice, practice, practice, and keep at it. If you need to start with stick figures, that is just fine. Don’t overthink your work. Just begin.
Great advice, Aron! Thank you so much for the awesome interview.
Mr. Wolf’s Class can be found wherever you get your books. I got Field Trip at Politics and Prose (DC) after Aron’s (virtual) event there: https://www.politics-prose.com/book/9781338617634
Check out Aron’s site at https://www.mrwolfsclass.com/