Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An Interview With Cartoonist Mark Justice

I've known Mark Justice since 1988 and I have enjoyed discussing cartoons and comics, among other things, with him over the years. In the past few years, Mark has started creating his own comics, at first employing his writing skills to create Grammar Man and Fanboy, and now expanding to drawing with his mini-comic Fun With Diabetes! from Eureka Comics!. I interviewed him recently about his cartooning.

1) What inspired you to make a comic about diabetes (besides the obvious catalyst of discovering you had the condition)? Why a comic though?

To answer, Fun With Diabetes first started as an idea I had for a stand-up routine. I was doing the Advanced Placement College Board reading last year, and the essays I read were about humorists, their roles, and how they were valued. I began thinking about what I would do if I were to make a stand-up routine. I thought, "begin with what you know," and since I became diabetic two years ago, I thought, "this might be fun."

What made the idea truly fun was that it was taboo, as most diseases are, but as SO many comics do politics and sex and gender roles, blah, blah, blah, I simply wanted to talk about having diabetes in a fun, biting way.

How it turned into a comic book started with my trip to SPACE (Small Press And Comics Expo) last year. I was amazed by the sheer amount of mini-comics out there, the creativity, the fun, at all levels of ability, from simple shapes to fully-painted pages. I can't draw to save my life, but I was inspired from SPACE that even I could draw simple shapes and tell a story. I can write. That's my ability. I knew that if I made a comic, the words would have to carry the brunt of the load, so I thought, "maybe it would be fun to do part of my stand-up routine about diabetes," and the idea was born.

I had a few really good punchlines, so I created the panels around a strong visual to go with those punchlines. "Strong" is a relative term, artistically, but when you see a panel of my pancreas in a wheelchair along with the line "I prefer pancreatic cripple," well, the reaction that I was shooting for is generally what I get.

This is my first mini-comic, and I'm happy with it. I'm working on more now, which is fun. I hope that my artwork improves with time, but I think I'll just have to be content to draw simple shapes and let my humor come through my writing. 

2) You've written comics before though, right?

Yes, I've written comics before. I've created a whole comics universe that I would love to see actualized some day. It's an homage to the Golden and Silver Age eras called The Golden Agers. I've got a large cast of characters and would really love to flesh them out into full stories.

I'm probably most proud of a comic I did that was published in 2005, called The Adventures of Grammar Man and Fanboy. It's really a grammar-teaching tool in the form of a comic book. I wrote the scripts, and an artists named Linda Ayala did the art. It covers four big issues with grammar with a lot of humor. It was inspired by the Adam West Batman series. When I wrote the dialogue for Grammar Man, I kept hearing it as if Adam West were saying it, which made it easy to capture that era and style. Fanboy was a smart-alecky me but sounded a lot more like Joe Pesci, haha!

Grammar Man has been very successful in helping kids learn grammar. Kids take a set of quizzes before reading Grammar Man and take the same set after reading. In an assessment of over 1000 quiz sets, scores went up 22% after reading Grammar Man. That's over 2 letter grades' worth of improvement, which is fantastic. I'd get notes from the kids, saying things like "I wish all my books were like this!" and "Grammar Man makes learning fun!" That makes me feel very proud.

3) Did comics interest you in reading when you were a kid?

Oh, yeah, I've loved comics for as long as I can remember. I've had them literally all my life. On the day I was born, my dad bought me issues of The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and Flash Gordon. I still have those very issues!

I've always been a reader, and I cannot separate my childhood from comics. I used to go every week and buy whatever I could with my allowance. I can't know for sure how many comics I've read, but it's got to be in the thousands, for sure.

Comics are wonderful in that they transport me to being a kid all over again. I can't help but feel like I'm 8 or 10 or 12 when I'm reading stuff from the 70s and early 80s. They're inextricably a part of my childhood and my life. I fantasize about not having to do anything but read comics all day. If I could read 15 comics a day, that be about 450 a month, almost 6000 a year. I can SO see myself doing just that for the rest of my life, hahaha!

4) Today's comics seem to be less accessible to kids.  Most of them are sold in comic book stores and to enter one of those one usually has to be into reading comics already.  Indeed, the average comic shop patron seems to be a middle-aged man.  One of the fears of the comic book industry is that their customers are getting older and older and they don't look likely to be replaced.  Perhaps online comics or graphic novels might change that, but I know that you're involved in an organization that connects kids with comics.  Can you tell us a little about the organization?

Before I answer your question, I'd like to chime in on your first point. I agree that comics are slowly getting to the point of "elite" culture in that you have only a few special places to get access to them. When I was a kid, every drug and convenience store had a spinning rack or two of comics. I'd go to two or three stores every week to buy my allowance's worth of comics. The way comics are distributed now, with only one or two major distributors--is it one, Diamond?-- well, that stranglehold is destroying readership. If comics are to see a resurgence in young readership, kids have to have easy access. Bring the comics back to the local stores. I bet sales would go up 15% in the first year.
Now, on to the ECBI. The Elyria Comic Book Initiative is a non-profit organization whose mission is threefold: get comics into kids' hands, promote literacy and creativity by teaching kids how to make their own comics, and create opportunities for writers and artists to be able to take their talent further--sort of a "comic book academy."

We do programs for after-school, during-school, library, and other settings. The ECBI will be two years old this Free Comic Book Day. We've done dozens of programs in grade, middle, and high schools; in libraries; and in alternative educational centers. Hundreds of kids have gone through our program.

Our program is designed to teach both story telling and art. We cover the whole story arc, beginning-middle-end, setting, character, plot, rising action, climax, conclusion, etc. We help them understand why they need to have all of these elements to tell a good story, and we also help them as they create their characters, as well, so we give them the tools to develop their characters' background, motivation, their powers and abilities, their weaknesses, and personality traits that make the characters seem like real people.

The art lessons help them understand that all comics are drawn from simple shapes and that no matter what level of their drawing ability, they can create a great comic. It's all very hands on.

Our first pilot programs were at a local middle school. We did three programs there. We had 20 kids start the first program. About 12 of those kids stayed for the second and third programs, all wanting to do more on their books, tell more stories, all of them becoming better artists and storytellers. It was wonderful to see how they grew not only in ability but in confidence.
One of the coolest things about all of this is that kids get excited about comics. We always bring a few long boxes of comics into whatever program we're doing so that the kids can look at and read them while they work on their comics. Most of the kids we've worked with have never read comic books, so a whole new world is opened to them. What is the greatest joy is in letting the kids take a few comics for themselves, to keep. They are so excited, and we are thrilled to share our love of comics with them. I'd like to think that we are helping create the next generation of comic readers, writers, and artists. Hello, Marvel, DC, Image? We'd love to work with you.

We are really excited with a few projects we have going on now. I'm not sure how much I can tell you, so all I'll say is that we're working with some local comic book industry professionals and will be creating a project together. It's all very cool, and I'm really thrilled to see where this goes over the next few years.

I have to conclude with letting everyone know that as the ECBI is a non-profit organization, any donations they make are tax-deductible. We gladly take comic books, art supplies, financial donations, and donations of time. If you'd like more information, please contact me at mark AT elyriacomicbookinitiative.org.

5) Any last words of wisdom?

I don't know about words of wisdom, but I did want to thank you for the opportunity to talk about Eureka!, the ECBI, and about comics, in general. I LOVE comic books. What I'd really like to see is for comics to come down in price, for them to be distributed in more places, for more and more kids to get into comics and fall in love with the medium. The love of comics can last a lifetime. Life wouldn't be as sweet without comics.

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