Comics 101

SCAD’s Sequential Arts remains one of the country’s few training grounds for the comics creators of tomorrow

“Who’s read a good comic book lately?” Shawn Crystal asks his students at the outset of class, instantly making him the coolest professor you never had.

For today’s lesson in Visual Storytelling 1 at” rel=”external”>SCAD Atlanta, Crystal spends half the time on the presentation “Words & Pictures: The Language of Comics.” The other half is spent looking over the students’ work. He advises one young woman in particular about the appropriate angle to draw a body at a crime scene.

Founded in 1993, SCAD’s Sequential Arts program was the first and remains one of the country’s few undergraduate and graduate training grounds for the comics creators of tomorrow. While many art schools offer comics-related courses, SCAD, like the Rhode Island School of Design and New Jersey’s Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, provides intense focus on sequential arts. The Atlanta program currently counts 62 undergraduates and grad students enrolled in courses such as Cartooning, Advancing Storyboarding, Fantasy Illustration and Online Comics.

Like all of the program’s professors, Crystal also works as a professional comics artist. He’s spent several years drawing Marvel’s wisecracking mercenary Deadpool (played by Ryan Reynolds in the Wolverine movie). As a teacher, he’s motivated not only by a love of comics, but also by his past experiences as an aspiring comic book creator.

Crystal didn’t read comic books as a kid, but was attracted to visual storytelling after seeing Brian De Palma’s 1987 gangster flick The Untouchables. “I saw for the first time what a storyteller does. I felt something. I saw choices the director had made that affected my response. I realized I could use illustration to do what he did.”

Crystal wanted to pursue comics as a career, but could find no college comics programs at the time. “So I studied illustration and film as the best way to get into it, and started going to conventions after I graduated.”

In 1995, Crystal saw a commercial for San Diego Comic-Con on the Sci Fi Channel. He attended, and quickly learned how much he didn’t know. “I went there thinking I was going to get a great job. Instead, I stood in long lines to show my work to industry professionals, who told me that I really didn’t understand comics academically.” Crystal then discovered that SCAD offered an MFA in sequential arts. He eventually became an instructor while cultivating his career.

When SCAD started its Atlanta campus in 2005, Crystal and Pat Quinn (now the academic director of the school of communication arts) saw room for improvement and took the opportunity to fine-tune the major. “We saw weaknesses in its exposure to the professional world, and faculty having worked in the industry. We wanted to bring a real professional aspect to the program and worked really hard to help students raise the quality of their work. Twelve percent of our undergrads and all of our graduate students are working professionals.

Despite declines in comics sales compared to their peak in the ’90s, Crystal’s upbeat about the job market for his students. “I think the industry is doing great now,” he says.

He points out that 10 years ago, high-profile publishers like ONI would never have hired students. Back then, most comics looked similar. Now, however, there’s a different dynamic. “If people in the industry are stuck in one look, they might be hurting,” Crystal says. “For people with diversity in skill and style, they’re seeing a Wild West happening, where anything goes. Good storytellers will be found.”