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An Interview with Vince Coleman by Emanuella Grinberg

Vince Coleman has a unique perspective when it comes to both education and creating online comics. Here's an artist who majored in studio art and Japanese at the University of Texas in Austin before flying halfway around the world to Sapporo, Japan, for love and to learn Japanese amid the activity of creating his Web site, www.vince-coleman.com.

Two years into his stay, he resumed studies at the Hokkaido University of Education in Sapporo in traditional Japanese Painting materials in modern paintings – techniques he uses in his comics – as well as Japanese art history, art education, and computer design/animation. He finished in March and now works on his site while still teaching English part-time.

As a student who has learned under methods from both corners of the world, Vince has benefited from both traditional and dynamic modes of instruction, the differing extremes of which are reflected in the stratification of themes he gets across in his comics. From a modern-day interpretation of John the Baptist to recollections of his own school days, one can only imagine whether Vince Coleman's mind looks east or west.

Having been on both sides of the desk, he has little sympathy for those mean teachers, but understands kids a little more. As he writes, over a day in the future from us in North Americans, he muses over being a teacher, a student and a Westerner in the East.

Comixpedia: How does the education system in Japan compare to that of the Western world?
Vince Coleman: College has a totally different feel. One class is usually only one day, maybe two, per week. So instead of only taking four or so classes per week, a typical Japanese college student takes maybe up to 10 or more different classes, which all work out to the same amount of time spent in school as an American college student.

The rumor is that Japanese colleges are extremely hard to get into, but easy to graduate from whereas American colleges are just the opposite. Supposedly high school students here put their social lives on hold to study for these grueling college entrance exams, and then they get to party for 4 years before becoming wage slaves. This is a good way to sum things up, but there are some exceptions. First of all, some people either go to easy-to-get-into colleges or just don't go to college at all, which means that they either study moderately or not at all for entrance exams, so they have a fairly easy high school experience, in academic terms at least. Also, another exception to the four-year-constant-party-college-experience is the art department at the school I studied at, where a lot of people were in there all the time painting. People in the arts were pretty serious about working on art… I guess a lot of them really wanted to spend their free time creating. Non-art majors did seem to do a lot of bar-hopping, though.

As far as the difference in art education, I get the feel that the Japanese system focuses less on theory and more on technique. When I was at the University of Texas, a typical way to run class would be to put a student's abstract painting up on the wall and spend the whole class talking about whether it had deep space or shallow space. Students were allowed to present opinions that differed from teachers, and a good teacher would teach the student how to deepen their understanding of their opinions and better present them (not that every teacher was able to do that). At the school I went to here in Japan, you basically just listened to what the teacher said and if you disagreed, you usually just complained to your friends later. Of course there are always exceptions to that, and especially upper level students were encouraged to support their work verbally, but not to the level I experienced in America. But this could just be a difference between the two schools I went to, and not the difference between two countries.

CP: What role would you say your education played in your current endeavours with comics?
VC: Most teachers at the University of Texas art college were pretty much against comics. Typical mainstream comics were out of the question, and no one had really seen any art-comics, and no one really cared. A lot of students were the same, so I pretty much shut up about comics. I can never understand how there are so many young people who are interested in classic painting only, to the point of excluding comics as a possible art form.

Anyhow, there was this one teacher who was really into R. Crumb-type stuff, and he did these wonderful psychedelic alien Mickey Mouse paintings, really intense. He supported me making comics, especially if they were nonsensical surreal comics, which I did, because I was suffering from extreme amounts of sleep loss at that time. I was getting an average of 2-3 hours of sleep per day, and I would come to that drawing class in a half-dream state. I was also constantly hungry at that time, because I was too lazy to cook and fast food was too expensive for my budget. So I made some pretty strange drawings. Anyhow, that teacher really supported that kind of thing.

As far as my experience here in Japan goes, my art teacher gave the gift of caring about line. My Texas experience was always about planes and shapes, since oil painting teachers always seem to get upset about students who focus on lines. But the Japanese painting teacher's job is to get Japanese students, who are raised in western-art focused schools, to focus on line. Line is a major part of Japanese painting. I never spent so much time re-working my approach to drawing lines, looking at other student's lines, looking at lines in historical paintings, talking about line… line, line, line. I can't say that my lines are perfect by any means now, but I can say with confidence that my teacher's stressing of line has at least set me on the correct path to the perfection of line. It's a fun path, so I hope it never ends. Without that experience I don't know if I would enjoy reading and making comics as much as I do now. It really awakened a love for line in me.

Like pretty much every other kid, I was exposed to lots of chances to enter a fantasy world on a regular basis with picture books. My dad also read a lot of books to me as a kid, but that's not really part of formal education, is it? What if he wore a formal suit and tie while reading, though?
Anyhow, the American system really emphasizes both verbal and written self-expression. I guess if you are someone who has a natural interest in narrative forms, the American system can really be a good resource for learning how to express yourself from an early age, since we seem to place the written report over rote memorizing.

A side note: though the Japanese education system is said to be the opposite of this, they still manage to produce plenty of creative geniuses. Anyhow, then there was that teacher who encouraged my love for surreal comics in college, and then of course my Japanese painting teacher, who really opened me up to the beauty of line, which is ironic because he personally dislikes the "lower arts" of comics and design.

CP:Who was your favorite teacher from your entire education career, and why?
VC: I would like to say Peter Saul, the teacher who encouraged me to do surreal comics stuff in Texas, because he really helped me solidify the way I think about comics, and also because it was just so much fun to be in his class. So in terms of a really overall positive experience, he certainly qualifies. I also really have a lot of respect for Richard Jordan, an oil painting teacher who really helped form my ideas about art… which can be summed up by what he once told me: "Sometimes I think that painting is just an excuse to make marks." "Marks" meant strokes with the brush.

But even though I had a lot of negative experiences with Hiroshi Kawai, my Japanese painting teacher, I have to admit that he gave me the best technical-practical resources to become a comic book artist. It's a tough choice, but I suppose he would have to be the teacher I am the most grateful for artistically… does that make him my favorite teacher?

CP: What's it like being a teacher? How did you overcome the language barrier?
VC: There are a lot of techniques for overcoming the language barrier in lessons, including making vocabulary cards with pictures, acting out things, etc. A trained and prepared teacher should be able to teach a class in only English and still have even low-level students walk away with some language that they can use. However, I am not well trained, and only moderately prepared, so I wind up using a little bit of Japanese here and there to get through a lesson.
I only use Japanese when explaining something in English will take so much time that the teaching point for that day will get lost, though, and even then only minimally.

With kids, though, I wind up using a lot of Japanese to explain how to do homework, etc. For kids, as long as I don't have to explain the vocabulary and grammar for the day in Japanese, I am doing okay. Things like telling them not to stand on the table because it's dangerous or explaining that if they are talking when I tell them what page to turn to, they won't be able to do it and this takes time from kids who are listening patiently… things like that get done in Japanese.

CP:Now do you empathize with all those teachers you used to hate?
VC: I don't empathize with teachers I used to hate, because they were really hateful people. There was no excuse for them to treat kids the way they did, and now that I teach kids I understand that even more. One teacher in the second grade called me an airhead because I made a mistake once. Another teacher used to make me cry with her harshness when I was in the first grade. How could I sympathize with people like that? They need to not be around small kids.

As far as teachers who can't understand that it is natural for kids to have to be told the same thing several times, or that it is natural for kids to start talking amongst themselves while the teacher talks, those teachers need a career change. Of course being strict is ok, but the teachers that I hated were more than just strict. But I do empathize with teachers that I used to make fun of in high school and stuff, though I never really hated them at the time. That was the only way I could communicate with them at the time, and I just hope that they understood that. Now I have older kids that never stop telling me how "gross" I am, especially the girls, and I just take it as their way of showing affection.

CP: How would you rate classroom learning in its effectiveness as far as becoming fluent in a foreign language?
VC: I think classroom learning is great if the teacher is good. I had this one teacher, who by the way confided to me that he hated teaching Japanese, who introduced me to a lot of ways to improve my language skills. We did these really cool exercises like define basic words like "rain" in Japanese. Try to define a simple word in a foreign language… it's a real brain stretcher. He also gave us skills like what to do when you are reading and you come up against words you don't know but don't have time to look them up, etc. These are all things that can be taught in the classroom.

But I definitely think that classroom learning needs to be augmented by real life experience. When I first came here, I had an experience I'll never forget. I went to a fast food shop by myself and tried to order something. The clerk said something to me that I couldn't hear because his voice wasn't loud enough. Now, looking at me, he can't tell if I can speak Japanese or not, and a lot of people will just assume you can't speak it if you aren't Asian. I had no idea how to put him at ease while asking him to repeat himself, and his nervousness made me really nervous, which in turn made him more nervous. The situation deteriorated into him just sort of standing there with this look of panic on his face and me with this huge knot in my stomach, wondering how I was going to get him to repeat himself. I finally got him to repeat himself, and communicated to him that if I could hear his voice I could probably understand it, but it was a difficult thing to do at that time, because I never had to speak Japanese under that kind of stress in class, and I was never taught that this kind of situation would come up. In class the teacher always waits politely for you to say what you need to say, and they also know what you can and can't say. There is no nervousness on the part of the teacher.

So after having the same kind of experience that I had in that hamburger shop time and time again for over 4 years now, I have made it a basic skill to put the listener at ease and show them that they can just speak normally to me when I don't catch something they said the first time. I don't succeed 100% of the time, and of course a lot of this depends on the mind-set of the listener, but I have made it a common practice to employ things like a calm tone of voice, a confident but not imposing stance, etc. to communicate the message of, "hey, just go ahead and talk to me like you would to another Japanese person." And of course, the sub-message is, "I'll tell you if I don't understand, so don't worry about it." But these kinds of communication skills are something I think is either overlooked or maybe even impossible to teach in class.

Or how about holding your ground in an argument? The problem is, perhaps, that when you get flustered, angry, nervous, etc., you are using a different part of your brain than you do when you are calm. If you've never used a foreign language in that mode, then it is extremely difficult to do so. I guess another way to say it is being clouded by emotion. You have to have practice using a foreign language while upset, nervous, ecstatic, inspired, excited, depressed, enraged, etc. And a classroom isn't a place where all of those emotions can happen.

Then you get into ethical problems like, is it ok to "use" people for language practice? When are you overstepping your bounds with that? What about when that person can communicate with you in your own language, is it still ok to use their language, or is it an insult to their intelligence? In a situation where both people can speak each other's languages, what is the deciding factor for which language is used? Is it the country they are in? Is it age? Is it skill level? Is it level of pushiness or rudeness? These are problems I faced as a student of Japanese, and now, as an English speaker in a work environment where lots of people, both co-workers and students, want me to speak English outside of the classroom.

All I can say to those people is that I'm not really game for that, but I sincerely hope that they find someone who is because it is crucial to their learning. (Though of course I do speak a lot of English to students waiting in the lobby as a general courtesy… I mean, you have to keep people excited about coming back for more so they part with their cash. But this all stops at the front door of my workplace).

CP: How's the learning curve for someone used to designing comics for a print format to an online format?
VC: Well, for one thing there is a lot of technology to get familiar with, but if you are already used to using Photoshop, etc. to make print comics, then using computers to make online comics shouldn't be that hard. One thing we are learning from people like Scott McCloud and Jim Zubkavich of makeshiftmiracle.com is that there are plenty of unexplored layouts for online comics, and also that traditional print layout just isn't going to work for online comics.

So, in line with that way of thinking, the biggest challenge to print comics' creators is rethinking their layout technique. I like to challenge that by simply putting up 9"x6" comic pages on my site in a style my friend Kenten from kenten.com exposed me to with his own site. Anyone who read Scott McCloud's early online work will be familiar with his "trail" method of layout, which basically consisted of connecting panels with some sort of line and arranging the panels in a layout stretching downwards, so the viewer just sort of scrolls down to read the story. I really loved that style of online comics, but the new trend seems to be to offer images that all fit into a standard browser window, and then the viewer has to click on something or other to get to the next panel or page. With a Flash animation that downloads the whole thing and stores it into your computer, transitions are pretty smooth like in Scott McCloud's newest work offered through BitPass. But with HTML works, you have to wait for the next page to download each time you click on a link, which is not my personal preferred method of reading. So I like this whole scroll down thing.

Since I like the 9x6 print comic format, and I also put stuff up on my site that was originally designed to go to print, I like the idea of just slapping these 9x6 pages in a row extending downward so the viewer can read the whole thing without having to click on anything and wait for a new page to download.

My own personal preferences aside, the fact is online comics are opening doors for new methods of layouts, and also maybe closing some old doors, and that is the area that I think will be the most interesting and also the most difficult for people used to reading and/or drawing in the traditional print comic layout. Other stuff that might be difficult would include stuff like learning about file size and download time. But I think most other stuff with the computer shouldn't be difficult for print comics artists who are already using computers to make print comics. Those who just draw the stuff and never turn on a computer have quite a bit of learning in store.

But I hear a lot of people say with absolute fear, "I can't use computers!!!" Why the heck not? Just get a good book, read it, and practice patiently and you will be able to do stuff all in good time. Of course it takes time. No one learned how to draw well overnight either. Also, if you don't know where to go online to get good help, find out.

Emanuella Grinberg is a staff contributor for Comixpedia. More Details.