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For UMSL students, comics are serious fun

Picture this:

He’s six-foot-six, with thick-rimmed glasses and a gray ponytail, dressed in dark clothes all the way down to his black Converse tennis shoes, accentuated by a flash of red from his pocket handkerchief.

Dan Younger acknowledges he’s an easy guy to caricature, and that’s pretty fitting because he teaches students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis the undying art of cartooning.

A devotee of comic classics like Fritz the Cat and Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Younger meets with about a dozen students twice a week to guide them in the fine points – sometimes literally – of how to make their hand-drawn creations come to life off the page.

Dan Younger's self caricature
Credit Screen capture
Dan Younger's self caricature

Whether they are matching faces to a variety of emotions, depicting aliens or drawing kitchen appliances with an attitude, Younger trains students to use old-fashioned implements like pen and paper to express themselves in an age where so much information is transmitted electronically.

And he definitely shares their enthusiasm for the art form, a love that began when he was a kid. His explanation for their popularity is as simple as a child’s first picture.

“People love them,” Younger says of comics. “They're great. They're halfway between a drawing and a symbol.”

And they also have a worldwide appeal, as shown by a recent announcement by the Cartoon Museum of Londonthat it would acquire work done by some of Younger’s former students. Younger said he spotted the museum during a trip last summer, down the street from the more august British Museum.

UMSL student cartoons are also part of the collection at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University.

That attention is a pretty good idea of how seriously Younger and his students take an art form that can too often be dismissed as just kid stuff.

Walt Kelly's Pogo in a 1971 Earth Day poster
Credit Wikipedia
Walt Kelly's Pogo in a 1971 Earth Day poster

Exhibit A – Walt Kelly, clearly a favorite of Younger, and his timeless Pogo cartoons.

“I dare anybody to look at Walt Kelly’s black and white illustrations that were reproduced in newspapers,” he said. “They’re just gorgeous drawings. They’re truly gorgeous. Are they of little happy bears and turtles? Yes. But that doesn’t make it less important, and sometimes it’s easier to get across.”

Grade-school valentines

Younger can trace his interest in drawing back to his days at Woerner School in south St. Louis.

“In a very embarrassing moment in grade school,” he recalled in a recent interview in the UMSL Fine Arts and Communications building, “I actually did some cartoons to impress a girl. It was like one of those little valentine cartoons, with a cartoon character. I think now that she must have been horrified, but at the time I handed her these cartoons that said ‘Do you like me? I like you, kind of.’ ”

He continued his devotion to comics and comic books, amassing a collection that met an all too typical end.

“I had a big stack, maybe three feet high, in my closet,” he recalled. “I also wrote Al Capp once. I was going to do a cartoon book for my school, and I wrote to these cartoonists and I said I'm in 7th grade, yada yada yada, would you send me a cartoon to use. And he actually sent me actual artwork, a Marryin' Sam riding a donkey, saying, ‘We have to get these kids married off before they graduate.’

“So I had that, and I put it in my stack of comics, and later, after I had left for college, I came back and the whole stack was gone. I said what happened, and my mom said, ‘Ahh, you don't need those comics. I gave them away.’ Well somewhere in the middle of that was an original Al Capp which I would love to have.”

Younger uses student work to make his points.
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio intern
Younger uses student work to make his points.

Professionally, Younger has worked at several colleges and other places. He turned the orientation booklet at the University of Iowa into a 16-page comic book, and he designed a T-shirt for a public radio station, KAXE, in Grand Rapids, Minn.

“It was frigid air radio,” he said. “I had this little radio in down boots, singing a frozen note in the middle of the northwest.”

Aliens and appliances

For the cartooning class at UMSL, Younger gives his students basic exercises like drawing facial expressions to match a list of emotions, from grumpy to dopey to bored to ecstatic to drunk to obnoxious to constipated. For a recent assignment, the students had to draw a variety of aliens, then appliances with attitude, then finally come up with a comic strip that put the two together.

A key skill is the ability to show emotion.
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio intern
A key skill is the ability to show emotion.

Then they went across the hall and pinned the drawings up on the wall, so members of the class could vote on their favorites and comment what made them so impressed.

Younger said he wants to make sure the students develop not only the skill to draw but the ability to spot what works, and why.

“If I say what's good or bad,” he said. “that's it. That's it. It's finished. It's done. That's the vote. Right. But if I have them say it, they learn how to talk about art. It's the conversion between the mind and the mouth, figuring what to say.

“There's more of an exercise about doing that in a critique. They learn more in that than they learn just me -- OK, that's good. This way, they have to talk about why it's good. And vote on it. So there you go.”

Not that the students were shy about their opinions. They freely chimed in what their likes and dislikes about the strange looking creatures from another planet and appliances from the world of imagination.

Student drawings
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio intern
Student drawings

“Just look at it!” said one, prompting lots of laughter.  “It's so angry! It's so adorable and angry, it like reminds you of a little sibling. It's like UNNNNNNNNHHHHH! I've got a lot of siblings.”

Another pointed out how a drawing had "a cute guilty expression, like oops I just dropped your ring down the drain."

And a third praised a drawing’s attitude like a bad pickup line, a “’Hey, baby, how you doin'’ kind of thing."

After the students gave their opinions, Younger tried to put their views in a broader context, using as his example a cute pair of salt and pepper shakers clearly attracted to one another.

“They were really happy about the pepper and the salt shaker that were holding hands,” he said later. “Well, that's not a real salt shaker. That's a symbol of a salt shaker. The hands didn't look real. They were lines with little fingers. And the eyes were little buggy eyes. But that works. That's all you need to get the idea across.”

No math, please

Younger says the class appeals to far more than just art majors. In fact, in many ways it’s designed to bring out skills in a wide variety of students who may not be at their best in more strictly academic venues.

“I have in the past asked a senior class how many had some problems with dyslexia, mathematics, spelling, that sort of stuff,” he said. “And I got almost three quarters of the class, including the teacher, to raise their hand.

“We're 40, 45-plus buildings at this university. This is one building in which you don't have to do math or language and succeed. In other words, you can be really brilliant here working with visuals and be not so brilliant in other places in the university. So we become like a refuge for those people who can communicate by graphics, by visual stuff.”

Jory Siebenmorgen
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio intern
Jory Siebenmorgen

Some of his students definitely agree. Sophomore Jory Siebenmorgen explains.

“I pretty much chose being a studio art major just because I wouldn’t have to take a lot of math classes. So it’s perfect.”

Not that the class isn’t demanding, she added.

“You have to have a lot of fresh ideas every week,” she said, “and you have your other classes on top of that. It’s fun. It’s probably the most homework-heavy art class I think I’ve taken, but it’s fun homework. It’s not, ah, I have to do my comics now. It’s fun.”

“It’s easier to share ideas with people from around the world in a simpler language,” added Hector Cristancho II, a senior psychology major. “I can make a drawing, and people know what it means globally, as opposed to a story in English.”

Hector Cristancho II
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio intern
Hector Cristancho II

Cristancho also likes Younger’s enthusiasm for his subject, a feeling that he says is contagious.

“Because of his attitude and the way he expresses himself,” he said of Younger, “it’s a joy being here.

“The most fun part is being with other people to express our joy of comics with one another, and learning from one another. There are people who are doing things and exposing me to comic artists and comics I’ve never seen before, which is always great.”

Christina Ranick, a senior majoring in secondary education and mathematics, still thinks of herself as an artist. But, she says, she’s able to compartmentalize her talents.

Christina Ranick
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio intern
Christina Ranick

“I’m a very logical person,” she said, “which makes creativity kind of a weird thing for someone that’s good at math like me. But I think art is definitely a creative outlet, so you can take whatever you’re not using with the logical, and put it toward the art.

“It’s totally a good experience for you, because you can express yourself a little more, break away from the math and the everyday life, the crazy things going on.”

From Pogo to Pickles

Younger is enough of a fan of the classics that he brought a framed original Walt Kelly into class to show to the students – a 1964 strip showing a cartoonish Barry Goldwater running for the “presidensity” as the “back-and-forthright candidate.”

Unlike the Al Capp drawing that got thrown away, Younger has held on to the Kelly – a piece that cost so much he had to pay for it in installments.

“He’s one of my heroes,” he told the class. “He’s one of my drawing heroes.”

When he asked the students how many read daily newspaper comics, only a couple raised their hand. He considers that a bad sign, particularly when other outlets for comics, like what he called “the late, lamented Star Clipper” store in University City is leaving the scene as well.

“I want you to have a history of seeing comics,” he said. “If you don’t get the paper, what are you looking at that makes you want to draw comics, other than to be famous? You have to have some sort of history of reading them and appreciating them to do it.”

He also points to the more serious comics, like Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” books about the Holocaust.

“If you told somebody, I'm gong to write a book about the death camps in Nazi Germany,” he said, “and I'm going to use cats and mice, they'd say you're crazy. But it turned out so well because it really does work. He's a great artist.”

Younger reveres Pogo, but he also likes more modern strips, like “Calvin and Hobbes” and today’s “Zits” and “Pickles.”

From an assignment
Credit Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio intern
From an assignment

Before they created their narrative featuring the aliens and the appliances, Younger talked to the students about the importance of a logical progression of panels – and even the importance of the gutter space in the middle. He demonstrated with a strip that was not funny but violent.

“Here’s a picture,” he said, “and it’s a man with a knife. He saying, ‘AHHHRRRRR!’ And the next one is just an empty panel with a scream in it. Well, the space between those two pictures allows you to use your imagination to figure out what’s going on between those two pictures. And that’s engaging the mind.”

He hopes his students treasure their own work as much, and to help reach that goal, he makes sure the cartoons are published in a comic book each semester – a project funded by a lab fee that lets them see their drawings and their name enshrined on the page for others to enjoy.

The 2013 edition, titled “Incriminating Evidence,” features the works of what it calls “15 new (but soon to be famous) artists. And introducing them is a caricature helpfully labeled “the teacher” that captures Younger and all of his easily caricatured features. To him, using the medium like that is not only fair – it’s fitting.

“I don’t mind it,” he said. “I’m like six-foot-six. When I go around a corner, somebody goes ‘Oh!’ I’d rather they do that because they like the way I look, or they think I’m sort of interesting, rather than I’m just a big freak.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.