CCS Summer Workshops

I’ve been a busy bee (and a bad blogger!)  Last week I was up in Vermont teaching part of their Cartooning Studio Workshop. The summer workshops were always the highlight of my year at CCS. I structured most of the summer programming we use–it was my first really involved curriculum building assignment. It’s bitter-sweet to hand the torch to Jon Chad, and to watch him wield it so expertly. But I have no regrets. New York City is where I MUST be, without a doubt.

One of my favorite subjects to lecture on as the summer workshops is book design for comic self publisher. Jon Chad and I have a few philosophies about book design, and we’re trying to turn our students into true believers. I blogged the following mini lesson at Lerner and CCS, I hope you won’t mind me recycling it again.

Design is Content

Most cartoonists consider their comic pages to be the content of their book, while book design is just the wrapping paper they slap on at the end. I believe design is content. Book design affects how a reader experiences the story. Before your reader ever sets eyes on a panel, they interact with the book as an object. If cartoonists make thoughtful and appropriate design choices, they can use book design as a narrative device.

My go-to example of appropriate book design is Leo Geo and His Miraculous Journey Through the Center of the Earth, a self published comic that was created by Jon Chad when he was a summer workshop intern. Our protagonist, Le Geo, burrows deep into the earth for educational adventures. Because the book is about digging down, Jon Chad made a clever design choice. His book reads vertically, top to bottom like a calendar, rather than left to right. It’s the perfect design for this book, and it significantly contributes to the reading experience.

These photos show the first printing of the comic, as a self-published booklet with a screen printed cover. Next March the book will emerge as a hard cover graphic novel from Roaring Brook Press, a “real” book! It’s a true self publishing success story. And a big part of that success is due to book design.

I find it helpful to break down book design into six categories. Consider each one, and make appropriate choices:

Paper (Cover and Interior Stock)

What color, texture, or weight should your paper be?

Book Size

Letter, legal, and tabloid are the standard paper sizes that can be photocopied. You can trim these to a non-standard size after printing.

Book Shape

Why have a rectangular book? Die cut or hand trimmed for a custom shape.


Most minicomics are photocopied or printed on a laser printer, usually in black and white. Consider using these other printing techniques: screen printing, Gocco, linoleum block, spray paint stencils, stickers, or stamps.


Saddle stitch (a staple down the center of the spine) is standard. Consider using needle and thread, a sewing machine, or a rubber band.


Slip cases, bags, and belly band are popular finishing touches.

Keep these in mind the next time you publish, and remember: design is content!

So Long, Xeric Grant

Last week I heard the news that The Xeric Foundation will no longer give grants to self-publishers.  In case you don’t know, the Xeric Grant is a bi-annual award for comics self publishers.  It was created by Peter Laird, co-creator of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which itself was originally a self-published comic.

While the end of the grant is hardly happy news, I didn’t respond to the news as some of my peers did.  I felt like the general response was negative with a measure of entitlement (“This is lame”, “how could this happen”,  “we should try to change Peter Laird’s mind”, etc.).   My first thought on hearing the news was “the end of a great era – someone should make a big Thank You anthology.”  Peter Laird gave this medium a wonderful and substantial gift for nearly 20 years, and he certainly didn’t have to.  When TMNT made it big and he was showered with money, he did something people in his situation rarely do.  He remembered his roots.  He gave back to disenfranchised group that no one really cared about, who never were and never would be a group of special interest: comic self publishers.  He gave while no one, but this special tribe, was paying attention.

I think we should respect his wishes to call it quits.  I trust it’s something he considered carefully–how could he not?  The Xeric Grant must have meant a lot to him, for him to carry it on so long.  I trust it was not meant to last forever, and he felt this was a good time to end it.

There is still a need for something like the Xeirc Grant, and I hope against hopes something appears to fill its vacuum.  Even with the webcomics, even with Kickstarter, our medium can profit from grants for cartoonists.  The fact that The Xeric Grant was so singular says a lot about comics value in our society.

I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on  how the Xeric Grant effected me, personally.  I won a grant back in 2000 with one of my very first comics, a collection of short stories titled Theater of the Meek.  Please don’t ask to see a copy–I produced that work during my college years, and I’ve grown a lot since then.  I really don’t recognize myself in those pages.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t think the comic is very good.  But, when I was 21, it was the best work I could muster.

I took the award (I believe it was around $1,500) and produced a professional quality offset comic.  It was the first, and last, time I was able to afford offset printing on my own work.  It was also the first, and last, time one of my comics would be distributed by Diamond.  Even though I was an absolute nobody, Diamond considered me (solely, I’m sure) on the prestige the Xeric Grant offered.  The whole experience taught me a lot about production, distribution, and retail.

The most valuable thing the Xeric Grant gave me was a huge dose of esteem and prestige. Right after I got my award I took my new Xeric book to the San Diego Comic Con.   I had been to very few comic conventions in my life, and never as an exhibitor.  I traveled to the convention alone and I knew absolutely no one on arrival.  I was far from home, I was only 21, and was very shy.  It really should have been a disaster.  But instead it was a positive turning point in my life.  Perfect strangers looked at my comic, and some even bought it!  I met many of my cartooning heroes and I was able to give them a comic of my own.  I felt welcomed by the community, and I’m sure a big part of that was due to fact I had “Xeric Powered” printed on the cover of my comic.

The best part of that convention was meeting female cartoonists who shared my love of comics, and my taste in comics.  A favorite memory: sharing beers and a mutual love of Peep Show in my hostel room with three new friends: Ariel Schrag, Gareille Bell and Amanda Padia.  This was how I was introduced to the cartooning community.  If it hadn’t been such a welcoming experience, I’m honestly not sure if comics would be a major part of my life today.

The Xeric Grant started me down a path in life, and I’m pretty happy with where I ended up.   Thank you, Peter Laird!