‘Sometimes it felt like babysitting,’ comic book author Cody Pickrodt says of his days teaching in the California public school system. ‘There’s not enough money and not enough choice, when we need something more like a university, which caters to what the kids want to do.’
Cody is speaking to me in Café Grumpy, ‘a perfect café for comic book artists: big tables and not too loud.’ It’s located on a snowy streetcorner in Greenpoint, a world away from the West Coast schools where Cody first became involved in education. As an art teacher within the state, he would drive from school to school delivering sessions which increasingly came to focus on his first love, comic books. Returning to his native New York, Cody turned his passion into a profession as the leader of comic book workshops first for 3rd Ward, and then for Uproar Art.
Cody’s passion for comics in fact began in the city – specifically, in Chinatown. The young Cody’s Chinese-American mother took him on shopping trips where he developed a taste for Asian comic book imports.
‘I went from Disney comics straight to manga,’ Cody tells me. ‘I couldn’t read what they were saying at first, but the pictures told the story nonetheless. After a while, I even learned how to read Chinese, which after all is just another set of pictures. This was twenty years ago, well before the current popularity of manga today. And I actually learned something then, which I can’t say for the quality of manga that kids read today.’
Cody feels it’s vital to encourage a new generation even as Hollywood promotes comic adaptations from Spider-Man to Superman and Tamara Drewe to Scott Pilgrim. ‘It’s easy to forget that comics are actually on the wane. Graphic novel sales have dropped significantly in the last year. The boom in comics became a glut, and it’s only now that the industry is shrinking that there’s room to take creative chances. It’s a great time for young, original creators to jump on board.’
Cody has done his part to foster this new generation of talent among both students and teachers, having trained a new generation of instructors at 3rd Ward, including comics teacher Joanne Sherrow.
Now Cody’s workshops are available for all ages from Kindergarten to 12th Grade, via Max Goodman’s non-profit organization Uproar Art, featured last time on Books and Adventures.
Working around a simple 6-panel page format, Cody uses a variety of techniques and tricks to get creativity flowing among his classes. In one activity, students may pass their comic book to a partner between panels, creating a collaborative work.
‘These classes work with all ages from infant to adult,’ says Cody, although he’s particularly impressed by Kindergarteners, who he says ‘focus and really get into it’.
In common with Uproar’s director Max Goodman, Cody believes that many subjects can be taught via creative, practical art activities. The comic book form lends itself to almost any subject on the curriculum. And, taught in small groups – 6 students is the optimum number – Cody’s classes enable students to find their own creative impulses and express them through the comics medium.
Cody’s own journey from those Chinatown manga to his current output has been a painstaking one. Cody’s first comic book, Night Swim, boasting a 200 copy print run, was drawn, printed and individually assembled entirely by hand, prior to his experience using computers. Today his work, largely aimed at an adult audience, includes two concurrent narrative comics alongside countless cartoons, illustrations and the art project Men with Whom I Share the Same Height.
Cody works from a movie-style script, writing up to twelve issues in advance and creating thumbnails before moving on to a Zen-like drawing process. ‘It sounds odd, but I try not to think about drawing while I’m drawing. I’ll put on a movie or a listen to the news in the background, or just think about something else entirely, daydream even–anything to occupy that analytical part of my brain while I work. You achieve a purer line that way.’
Cody’s current series Francine Way, born during his studies for an BFA in Sequential Art, follows a teenage girl, interested in survivalism, who leaves her home for the nearby woods. Her illusions about a life of solitary freedom are shattered when she meets a feral boy, living rough in the wild, who may be linked to a series of violent and disturbing events in the town.
‘It’s a kind of Nancy Drew story with a twist,’ says Cody, ‘about an outsider girl who wants to find out who’s behind this mystery, but who also doesn’t want to jeopardize her friendship with this fellow outsider.’
More about Francine Way and Cody’s other work – some only suitable for adult readers – is available at http://codypickrodt.com/shop
In March, Cody will run a one-day parent and child workshop for Uproar Arts, sharing his expertise and giving families a taste of comic book creation. To find out more and get in touch with the Uproar team, visit http://www.uproarart.org/