Jessica Abel on Comics, Creativity, and Chairing PAFA’s Illustration Program

PAFA recently appointed acclaimed cartoonist, illustrator and writer Jessica Abel as chair of its bourgeoning Illustration program. Abel is the author of the award-winning graphic novel La Perdida, as well as Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars, Artbabe, Life Sucks, Radio: An Illustrated Guide, and Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. She served as the co-series editor of Best American Comics from 2007-2013, and has written extensively on comics and becoming a comics artist. In addition, Abel has taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York, in the master’s program at the European School of Visual Arts in France, in the MFA in Comics program at the California College of Arts, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As the school year begins, Abel shared her artistic and academic experiences, along with her expectations for PAFA’s Illustration program.

What appealed to you about joining PAFA?

Jessica Abel: There are so many things, but the most important is that this is such a wide-open opportunity to work with faculty, and especially with students to develop something brand-new and cool. Anywhere else I might teach, I would enter an existing department with an existing philosophy and structure. Sure, over time, I'd be able to put my mark on it. But this department is newborn, and could go any one of dozens of ways. I have a vision for what I want to do that is not like anything that’s out there, and what actually happens in reality will probably be even better and more interesting. 

Since PAFA’s Illustration program is relatively new, how do you hope to develop it as chair?

JA: The strength of PAFA is the depth and breadth of its technical and critical training in terms of image-making. I want to help students turn that into language. I want to give them the ability to take the technical skills they are already learning here and their personal vision, and use those things as a toolbox to convey their work and ideas and stories out into the world, and then also to give them the preparation and skill set to make a life doing this work.

How do you see the Illustration program as an extension of PAFA’s fine arts traditions?

JA: In order to communicate well using images, artists need a developed critical eye and hand. Even though I didn’t get much of this kind of training as an undergrad (I was an English major!), I believe in the mission of a solid fine arts training as a base for making and understanding how to use images in a really sophisticated way. 

Not to mention the fact that the tradition of illustrators and illustration is a long one at PAFA—there was an Illustration department here until the late 1950s, and many talented illustrators went here. I see us as reviving that tradition, and simply bringing it into the 21st century. 

Which educational experiences were crucial to your own development as an artist?

JA: There are really two major threads here. In a formal context, I had an important visual art teacher in college, Bob Peters, from whom I took 2D foundation, figure drawing, and intaglio. He was all about composition—the relationship of things to other things. He also always wanted to problematize my simplistic 20-year-old thinking about how to tell a story. He was my advisor for my senior thesis, and I would bring him a comics page, and he’d say, OK, why don’t we take out half the panels, and rearrange them symbolically, like this? And then I’d actually follow his advice to some extent, which really helped me to understand that there are so many more ways to tell stories than it at first seems.

The second aspect of my education is my long history of putting myself in situations where I needed a whole raft of skills that I’d never learned, and figuring out how to acquire them on the fly, just in time.

I was the editor of our school comics anthology, and learned layout, artist-wrangling, selling advertising, and specing with printers. I helped run a comics festival and professional conference, where I had to get people to attend, to rent halls and tables and to make deals with restaurants for private rooms. I studied printmaking at the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative, and then assisted my teacher with editioning a huge woodcut. I studied artists’ books, bookbinding, and offset printing, and then self-published mini comics and books, maintaining a mailing list and accounts with bookstores, dealing with printers and distributors, writing invoices and filing taxes. There is nothing like necessity to provide the energy for finding a way! 

In your books, talks, workshops, podcasts, and blog, you offer a lot of important advice for aspiring artists about the creative process. What is some of the most empowering advice that you have received as an artist, and who was it from?

JA: There used to be a group of cartoonists who met at a cafe in Chicago called Earwax. Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti, Gary Lieb, Archer Prewitt, Terry LaBan, and some others. I had become friends with Dan, and he invited me to hang out. I brought my work-in-progress to show around, and Dan and the guys kind of scoffed at my use of speedball nibs for inking (“She’s inking with a lettering nib! Haw!”) I was embarrassed, but it was good-natured. What really made a difference, though, is that the next week, Dan stopped by the restaurant I worked at and brought me some Hunt 22 nibs, explaining that this is what my hero Jaime Hernandez used. It was kind, and private, and took the burn out of the ribbing. 

That same day at the cafe (it must have been—I’m pretty sure I only ever dared to go once), Dan asked me if I intended to become a professional cartoonist. I told him, I want to make comics, but, you know, I don’t expect to make a living at it. He said, "why not? I do?” That reset my brain. 

Now, Dan denies he ever said this, and truthfully, it’s completely inconsistent with his personality. But I remember it so clearly! 

Written by ZP Heller

September 19, 2016

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