Comic Sense and Sensibility Young MICA grads reshape sequential art with lumberjanes, female shapeshifters and punky heroines in fishnet stockings.

By Elisabeth Dahl



For years, my favorite part of opening the City Paper was reading “Lulu Eightball,” the cartoon by Emily Flake. And when the Brooklyn-based artist started appearing in the New Yorker in 2008—alongside another personal favorite, Connecticut-based Roz Chast—I was cheered again. I love the relative simplicity of both Flake’s and Chast’s work, the wry captions and the way these artists elevate everyday subjects.

Flake is just one of many successful female or nonbinary artists to come out of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s illustration department in the past couple of decades. (She graduated in 1999.) Historically, the field of sequential art—think comics and graphic novels—was dominated by men. But these new MICA grads are publishing acclaimed graphic novels, working on top comics series and achieving nationwide recognition. They—and other up-and-coming artists around the world—are helping to broaden the content, vision and culture of comics and graphic novels.

MICA professor José Villarrubia, coordinator of the sequential art concentration and himself a lauded artist, explains, “In what are generally referred as the golden, silver and bronze ages of comics (1938 to 1985), misogyny was well documented as a common phenomenon, and very few female creators were able to make a living in the field. Pioneers like Ramona Fradon and Marie Severin were able to sustain successful careers, in part due to their artistry, versatility (Severin, for example, wore many professional hats as penciller, colorist and cover designer) and complete professionalism.”

But about 20 years ago, when Villarrubia entered the field, he began to encounter a number of groundbreaking female editors, including Alisa Kwitney, who worked under Karen Berger, senior editor for the DC Comics Vertigo imprint. “I think that important editors like Karen Berger paved the way for more diversity in the field, and we can see a further expansion happening now,” Villarrubia says.

Here are some of the youngest MICA grads who are part of this expansion—many of whom Villarrubia taught in his classes.

New York-based Annie Wu ’10 has worked for DC Comics, Marvel Comics and a long list of other clients, from Elle to Coca-Cola Brazil. Majoring in illustration at MICA gave her the latitude and knowledge to pursue this wide variety of different projects, she believes. “I’m very grateful that I get to build a professional life around projects that I’m interested in, regardless of genre or industry.”

Of her time at MICA, she remembers a particularly valuable period: “I remember learning how to color comics in two instructors’ demos within the same week, and something finally clicked in my brain. Almost overnight, I changed the way I work, going from traditional media to digital. … I still work digitally for the most part.”

Recently, she teamed up with writer Brenden Fletcher on DC Comics’ “Black Canary,” revitalizing a classic comic character. Wu’s engaging illustrations feature a female protagonist whose leather jackets and fishnet stockings function equally well for superheroics, martial arts and rock ’n’ roll.

Babs Tarr ’11 and Rebecca Mock ’11 also have had particular success. San Francisco-based Tarr, a freelance illustrator, was nominated for the 2015 Will Eisner Award for Best Penciller/Inker for her work in Batgirl (DC Comics). And Mock, who’s based in Brooklyn, recently brought a 19th-century adventure story to life in the graphic novel Compass South (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), written by Hope Larson, which has received much praise.

In the Boston area is Sonia Liao ’14, who works as a freelance illustrator and comic artist, often on projects created for children or young adults. She was selected by NFL-star-turned-author Trevor Pryce to illustrate the “Kulipari: Heritage” comic series, an offshoot of the “Kulipari: An Army of Frogs” trilogy (Amulet Books), as well as the “Kulipari” Netflix animated series. The retired football player found Liao’s portfolio on a MICA website, and then “randomly, out of the blue, I got an email from Trevor Pryce,” Liao explains.

In working on the Kulipari comics, Liao got to create two new characters, which she enjoyed. The covers she created for the first four issues are dynamic, beckoning readers into this lively imaginary world. In general, Liao writes, “I use narrative illustrations to bring characters and stories to life, from the mundane to the fantastical. No matter what, I want my comics to remind others they’re not alone.”

Noelle Stevenson ’13, a comic artist and illustrator who’s based in Los Angeles, was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in the category Young People’s Literature for the graphic novel
“Nimona” (HarperCollins). At 23, Stevenson was the youngest person ever to be shortlisted for the award. Originally a webcomic, Nimona is a saga about a female shape-shifter who decides she’s going to be a sidekick to the evil villain Ballister Blackheart. Also in 2015, “Lumberjanes” (BOOM! Box), an all-female comics series Stevenson co-created, received two Eisner Awards: Best New Series and Best Publication for Teens.

Another L.A.-based MICA alum is Mickey Quinn ’15, who has worked as a colorist for the Image Comics serial “Snotgirl” and created her own webcomic, “Best Friends Forever.” “I use loose, expressive drawings and bright colors to tell stories that are equal parts high-fashion, high-fantasy and high school drama,” Quinn writes.

Although Quinn majored in illustration, she got drawn into animation after graduation. “If I hadn’t been so interested in comics and sequential art,” that might not have happened, she says. After doing storyboarding for Cartoon Network’s “Ben 10,” she moved to DreamWorks, where she’s now doing storyboarding on an unannounced project. “The crew is mostly women, and the show-runner is a woman,” which she has enjoyed.

Xanthe Bouma ’15 also lives in Southern California, whose coastline and sunsets inform her color sense as an artist. “Aside from beachy inspiration, my parents are gardeners and my family is full of great cooks, so I’m really interested in the way colors that saturate food and flowers just make you want to bite into them—like the satisfaction of eating a peach.”

Recently, she has been working alongside fellow MICA grads Boya Sun ’13 and Matt Rockefeller ’13 on art for the “5 Worlds” series, the first book of which—“The Sand Warrior”—is due out from Random House Children’s Books in May 2017. Their involvement with the project began while they were still MICA students. Bouma is also doing illustrations for a children’s book with Macmillan and has a studio job at Nix Hydra Games.

Of her MICA years, Bouma writes: “Nearly every person I met had so much drive, character and energy. They challenged my thinking about everything—art, other humans, the world—whether they knew it or not.”

Like Bouma and a number of these other up-and-comers, Celia Lowenthal ’16 began receiving attention for her work even before receiving her bachelor’s degree. In 2015, Lowenthal won the prestigious Will Eisner Scholar Award from the Society of Illustrators. (In 2016, the award again went to a MICA student: Joy Ho, who was born and raised in Singapore.) Having now graduated and moved to New York, Lowenthal specializes in narrative illustration and literary comics, often tending toward historical subjects.

“By virtue of my interests in historical fashion, mythology, folklore and epic literature, I’ve somehow wandered my way into adapting all of these for comics and narrative illustration,” Lowenthal explains.

While still at MICA, she created illustrations for the Gísla Saga, a 12th- or 13th-century Icelandic text that relates events from the 900s. The intensity of the saga—the struggle and strain—comes through in her vividly rendered images. Eventually, Lowenthal would like to be doing “comics and graphic novels that are entirely my own writing, entirely my own art.”

Although she misses the opportunities for critiques and honest feedback that MICA’s art classes offered, she still exchanges images with MICA friends. “We’re the same community—we’re just very spread out,” she notes.

 

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