On Saturday morning at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, kids aren't watching cartoons; they're drawing them.
The school is for grown-ups — including MFA-seeking ones — but its Cartoon Club is for kids. Taught by CCS faculty, students or alumni, each once-a-month session has a different theme.
On the first Saturday in March, a group of 18 kid-cartoonists were learning about the Japanese style of drawing called manga.
"The style dates back to 1814," explained Sam Carbaugh, lead instructor of the Cartoon Club, who is also a freelance cartoonist and CCS graduate. "Hokusai, known as the great-grandfather of Japanese cartooning, created wonderfully expressive, not hyperrealistic characters."
Fittingly, the word "manga" translates as "whimsical drawings." The self-portraits that many of the young students produced that morning showed them with star-shaped eyes or elfin ears. One student drew a family portrait depicting a mom with horns poking out from her hair and pointy teeth dripping with blood.
Unlike American comic books, manga narratives start at the back of the book and read right to left. Some panels are shaped like triangles and diamonds, allowing action and emotion to jump off the page. Remember Superman "ka-powing!" his way through the straight panels in old Marvel comic books? All that breakthrough action was manga-inspired.
Manga tends to be fast moving and action packed, though its storytelling structure is similar to what you see in other types of literature. The narrative style Carbaugh teaches ties right in with what kids learn about writing in school: A story has three parts — a beginning, middle and end. He expected to see each in that day's final assignment.
"Create a story with movement," said Carbaugh. "Have any of you played soccer?" Several hands went up. "Draw it!" he enthused. "Show us action."
Eighteen heads bent in concentration and pencils flew across the page as students quickly sketched out a rough idea of their stories. Then they drew them on a three-paneled template, a format manageable for the 9- to 15-year-olds in the class.
During the 30-minute exercise, Carbaugh and other instructors walked around the room; on that particular day, there were eight instructors total, but three to five is the norm. They got down at eye level to examine the kids' art and ask about their stories. When they were funny, the teachers laughed out loud.
"It's a great way for kids to express what they are feeling," Carbaugh said of cartooning, noting how the art form lets children organize their thoughts on the page in a new way.
As if to illustrate his point, first-time cartoonist Anna Kate drew a close-up self-portrait that showed her heading a soccer ball right out of the panels. Score.