Comic artist Ben Bishop and IRW Director of School Programs, Alison Johnson, recently went on a three-island tour to Islesboro, Vinalhaven, and North Haven schools where kids and teachers had read, “Lost Trail,” the graphic novel version of Donn Fendler’s story of survival on Mount Katahdin. Alison and Ben joined the 30 or so students and a handful of teachers for the 20-minute ferry ride to Islesboro on day one. The ride to an island school is a bit different from a bus ride, but the views can’t be beat. We even saw some porpoises! Icy roads made for a one-hour delay and a broken down ferry the following day caused a nearly two-hour delay to Vinalhaven. But islanders are used to hiccups in plans so adapting was a piece of cake.
To kick things off, Ben shared his passion for writing and illustrating that began at the very young age of four, and was heavily influenced by the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Displaying his earliest work, a story about all the pets he had and how they died, he showed kids how he wrote his bio in pencil on the back of this early, hand-made edition.
Ben’s career path was long and full of obstacles. Pointing out each obstacle along the way he’d ask the students, “Do you think I quit drawing?” They caught on pretty quickly that he is one determined character. Whatever your passion is, “you are born with an interest in it,” Ben told them. “But it is up to you to do it every single day.”
During workshops, grades 4-8 learned how to turn a narrative into comic book action. Ben stressed that the quick sketch is the “thinking” stage and is really important. Gestural drawing (or as Ben calls it, “sketchy and ugly,” helps you process to a better version.
One young man on Islesboro wanted to illustrate the story of a kid getting hit by a paintball and falling over a half wall. It seems like a simple action but it takes some rough sketching to get it just right in your comic frame. Ben helped kids create a “cheat sheet” for their stories. He showed them how zooming in and panning out, just like a movie camera, can really highlight the important elements of a story. Drawing Donn on his knees back to, he asked kids if this was the best angle. “Seeing him from the front would be better because you could see his expressions and show emotions,” piped in one young man. Agreeing, Ben shared how panels can “squish down the action.”
Visiting Vinalhaven and North Haven back to back means an overnight on Vinalhaven. Our host, Pat Lundholm, opens her home to IRW and the teachers host a potluck supper. We were loaned a truck by our Site Coordinator, demonstrating the generosity and easy nature of islanders. It’s a treat to share time together outside of school and hear tales of island living.
At Vinalhaven, we settled into the library for a presentation followed by workshops. Upon entering the room one teacher shared that the book was one of the best he’s ever read with his students, and he’s been teaching a long time! In workshops kids were eager with questions: “Are you still trying to get into Marvel?” “How do you publish your books?”
Kids who signed up for an extra workshop session were tasked with creating a list of animals to swap with a pal and then illustrate.
There was a turtle-blobfish-squid-eel-komodo dragon-shark-jellyfish-elephant-cat lobster who lived inside of a yogurt, and a hairless cat-elephant-baboon-chicken-cow-pig-mole-dog-ostrich.
Crossing the thoroughfare to North Haven the next day was not quite as chilly as the Vinalhaven trip as the wind had subsided. We were warmly greeted at the landing dock and whisked to the elementary school by our Site Coordinator. On the islands there is no worry about not being recognized for pick up. Everyone knows when you come from off-island.
We gathered in a middle school classroom for the day and after sharing his story of becoming and illustrator Ben had the kids create their very own “Maine Mountain Monster” just like Pamola in the book.
Students with a serious interest in illustrating were encouraged to sign up for an elective session with Ben to get more into the details of the craft of comic book illustrating. They learned that:
- the comic book term for onomatopoeia is SFX (sound effects)
- a “splash page” is a larger image which makes it more dramatic
- the final rough is what you see in the book
- draw lightly at first so you can erase
- how to place the eyes, nose, and mouth, on a face
- everything starts with shapes
- understanding proportions is important
- after your rough sketch, press harder and commit
Ben was a big hit with these kids who were focused, attentive and interested in his story.